'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' Is a Superficial and Manipulative Installment

What was originally a creative vision has become a series raking in billions. It’s darkness as decoration, not essence.

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso in 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.'
Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm Ltd. via AP

These lines are more of a confession than a review. As a film critic, I’ve watched the whole “Star Wars” saga since the movies started hitting the screens in 1977. But since films IV to VI – “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back” (the best of the three) and “Return of the Jedi” – I haven’t been drawn to this cinematic extravaganza.

This isn’t just the fault of the tedious films I to III, all of which George Lucas directed, or of the skimpy “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that came out a year ago. Since the first three movies decades ago, the others just haven’t turned me on.

And maybe I’m to blame, not the series. Still, the story isn’t sweeping me up despite its treatment of worthy issues like tyranny and revolt. And despite the renewed encounter with Darth Vader (from whose throat once again comes James Earl Jones, now 85), the current film doesn’t send a shiver down my spine the way it thrills masses of fans.

The sight of a light saber doesn’t make me burst out in cheers, the appearance of a new robot who utters some of this humorless film’s few funny lines isn’t a cinematic event for me, and composer Michael Giacchino’s quotations from John Williams’ music in the original “Star Wars” films don’t bring a nostalgic smile to my lips.

Above all, the feeling is that what was originally a creative vision has become a series raking in billions. The vision is mechanical with the aim of pleasing the many disciples who know every plot detail and character.

It’s inevitable that these geeks will also make “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” a huge moneymaker. They apparently need immense psychological resources to express any reservations about the series.

Do I even have the tools to evaluate “Rogue One”? Watching it, I kept track less of its formulaic plot than of the way director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy made sure the film contains everything “Star Wars” fans expect.

Star Wars fans dressed as stormtroopers descend on the London underground's Canary Wharf station, December 15, 2016.
Matt Alexander / PA via AP

But the directing is heavy-handed and uninspired, the plot with its many turns – lots of action that includes more fight scenes than the saga's other movies – develops predictably, even if it’s not always easy to follow. There are too many new characters without uniqueness or depth.

The fact that the film tries to complete the mythology didn’t stir in me the requisite curiosity and enthusiasm. If anything, this aspiration only underscored the difference between what there was in the first films and what there is now.

A pall of monotony

Still, there is a plot. As in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” a woman is at the center. Supposedly this carries a feminist message, but it has no credible ideological basis of course.

This woman is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a scientist (Mads Mikkelsen). As a child she witnessed her mother’s death and her father’s abduction by the Empire to help them complete the Death Star.

Because of her father, who apparently went over to the dark side but of course didn’t, Jyn is considered a collaborator with the Empire but of course isn’t. And with the help of rebels who gather around her – including a rebel leader (Diego Luna), an amazingly skilled pilot (Riz Ahmed) and a blind master of the martial arts (Donnie Yen) – she goes to war with the Empire to free her father, whom she hasn’t seen for many years.

He, however, has inserted into the Death Star the basis of its destruction (or at least this is what I understood). The way Jyn recruits her partners casts a pall of monotony over the first part of the film. The second part is all action, of which, with the exception of a few moments, we’ve seen done much better in other science fiction films.

Diego Luna as Cassian Andor in 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.'
Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm Ltd. via AP

Will these words keep “Star Wars” fans away from “Rogue One”? Of course not. If a review is superfluous for a movie, it’s for a “Star Wars” movie, especially when the column comes from a critic unexcited by a series’ current incarnations from the start.

The current film also stirred a certain antagonism in me. One stretch, during which the plot moves among many exotic locations, takes place in a geographic area that’s supposed to refer to the battle against the Islamic State and events in Syria.

The crude use of the horror around us for the purposes of capitalist entertainment (especially considering the United States’ role in the crisis) is off-putting manipulation. This aspect underlines the film’s superficiality in treating the fight against evil, a battle that in the current film is represented in part by Forest Whitaker and Ben Mendelsohn (whose performance as a villain is one of the best efforts in “Rogue One”).

But do “Star Wars” fans care about this superficiality? Many, including film critics, will no doubt issue a typical compliment: Darkness pervades the movie. In “Rogue One,” if there’s darkness, it’s darkness as decoration, not essence. Its aim is to give “Star Wars” fans the deceptive feeling they’re watching something with depth.

And speaking of off-putting, the resurrection by technology of British actor Peter Cushing, who appeared in the 1977 debut and died back in 1994, made me feel discomfort and even a kind of alarm at the possibilities this implies. I admit that this isn’t justified, because film actors live forever all the same. Every time I watch an old movie with the stars right there in front me, I’m like the boy in the 1999 film “The Sixth Sense” who declares that he sees dead people.

I don’t usually set much store by the rating I give a film, but this time, because these lines are also a kind of confession, I’ll say I’m giving it three stars out of five.

In this case, the question of whether it’s worthwhile for “Stars Wars” fans to see “Rogue One” is irrelevant. Of course they’ll see it. They’ll cheer the rebels against the Empire, which is Lucas’ life’s work. I still admire his ability to create such a powerful mythology for so many, but he has made them his suckers.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Directed by Gareth Edwards; written by
Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy; with Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits