My review of Rogue One

There are many like it but this is mine

Early on in Rogue One, Diego Luna’s character Andor shoots an informant in the back, killing him. Presumably, we are meant know that this is a “humane” euthanasia, to spare the informant from a worse torturous fate at the hands of the Empire when he is discovered, a choice made regrettably but fully considered. Or it could be that Andor doesn’t trust the informant and wants to eliminate the threat of him giving Andor up to the Empire, in which case the decision to kill him is a more cold-blooded, self-interest calculus.

There may be other interpretations of the choice Andor makes to kill the informant, but in any case, Rogue One disregards this development and never provides any resolution for the complications it introduces. Any other film, after showing a major protagonist killing another person in cold blood, would at least acknowledge the downstream consequences in later scenes for such a momentous moral choice. That Rogue One shrugs it off and can’t be bothered to close out the moral ledger for Andor in some fashion as a direct result of the killing tells us not to expect normal rules of storytelling to apply. But it’s not as if there is an alternate system of rules to understand. In Rogue One, the rules are just broken or lazily applied.

Jyn Erso’s conversion from scrappy self-preserver and insurgent fighter to leader of a Rebel faction is similarly unearned, or at best poorly earned. What we are given to justify her switch from sarcastic dismissal of politics (“what difference does it make if you don’t look up?”) to troop-rallying before the assembled Rebellion at Yavin (“what choice do we have?”) is her viewing of the hologram of her father, and her failing to save his life on Eadu. But we are also given her confrontation of Andor, who was ordered to kill the father. In spite of an earlier speech about trust going both ways, leaving Eadu for the Rebel base, there is no trust between the Jyn and Andor. If Jyn can’t trust Andor, why should she trust the Rebellion which wanted him dead? And yet, moments later, she is exhorting the rebel council to action. In the subsequent scene, Andor and her reconcile and agree to form the group that will become “Rogue One”. What accounts for these shifts in motivation and trust? If there is a satisfying explanation, it isn’t presented on-screen. We are simply meant to get along with it so that our protagonists can get on with fighting the final fight. We leave behind, however, an opportunity to forge closer alliance between ourselves and the heroes we should be rooting for.

But the biggest misstep is the decision to substitute human actors with animations for two main characters. The choice is not merely aesthetic, although the evident fakeness and ghastliness of the rendered Tarkin and Leia would be indictment enough. It’s what the choice says about the movie makers that is particularly disappointing. We can’t know if the producers of Rogue One truly, honestly believe that the animations are convincing enough to fool viewers that they are watching human actors. But the plain fact is they are not nearly convincing enough, and then we can only conclude the makers are either arrogant, in believing they could pass off the forgery, or incompetent and unable to see their own failing.

The choice to digitally puppet Tarkin and Leia further reinforces what has been jarring about the Star Wars film universe for some time, since the special edition meddling, which is the producers foolish desire, not for an internally coherent or interesting story across multiple chapters, but above all a visually seamless diorama of actors and action. The retconning of the Anakin force ghost in Return of the Jedi is a particularly vivid example of this need, to have literally the same things across the arcs of both production and Stars Wars universe time. Even the precise inflection of Tarkin’s “you may fire when ready” soured in my ears, too self-similar to his YouTube-clippable Alderaan order. The deflating feeling is that we’re not so much participating in an exciting and continually-unfolding rich story universe but that we’re watching grown children push the movie equivalent of mint-condition toys around a playboard.

Setting aside Tarkin, Rogue One could have handled the final scene in a way that would have redeemed that poor texture-mapped Cushing choice even if they had left that in, and still delivered a satisfying end. They could have had the soldier deliver the plans to the ship’s captain or other officer, with a white-robed female figure in the background, out of focus, but the meaning clear. Or they could have simply had another actor play Leia! No fidelity would have been lost, other than that of the ludicrous Star Wars Taxidermy Project.

The creepy urge to preserve explains why only Tarkin and Leia get the render farm treatment, but the character of Mon Mothma is portrayed by a human actor. If faithful representation within the Star Wars universe is the name of the game, Mothma is arguably no less a figure in the Rebellion than Tarkin is in the Empire. Tarkin may get more screen time in the original Star Wars than Mothma in Return of the Jedi, but their relative importance to the events that unfold is nearly equal. But the fact is that Caroline Blakiston doesn’t have the fame of Peter Cushing or Carrie Fisher, and so is spared the humiliation that befalls them.

It’s a shame Rogue One has so many considerable flaws, because there are some genuinely affecting moments, hints of interesting characters (of whom I would have loved to learn more about but alas!), and its cinematography of space and land battles should be emulated in the future installments. But ultimately, it fails to earn trust with the audience on so many levels that it can only be considered a massive failure.

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