Now that all the hype has settled down, it is time to seriously talk about Rogue One. The first cinematic spin-off in the Star Wars saga has already been subjected to an endless hype cycle of easily excitable fans declaring it an equal to George Lucas’ original 1977 film, as well as a tedious stream of controversy from “alt-right” knuckleheads boycotting the film for being both feminist (their definition of any blockbuster with a strong female character) and anti-Donald Trump, according to some inane conspiracy theories.
As is the case with many blockbusters, early hype cycles deliver nothing but extreme knee jerk reactions from both sides. Unfortunately, the context surrounding the film is infinitely more interesting than the movie itself, which feels inescapably dull in comparison to last year’s utterly joyous The Force Awakens– and indeed the original trilogy, which this neatly ties into, but in a way that makes Rogue One suffer even more by comparison.
Why the far-right man-baby movement have been getting their knickers in a twist about Rogue One seems inexplicable after having witnessed the end product. With cries from men’s rights activists to “dump Star Wars” being thrown around the online echo chamber, you’d at least hope for a strong female character in the lead to silence the morons. Unfortunately, we have Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, an utterly dull screen presence portraying an underwritten hero archetype, with a performance that acts merely to highlight how effortlessly ass-kicking Daisy Ridley was in last year’s J.J Abrams directed reboot.
It isn’t like Rogue One is a feminist film in any other regard; all the central characters outside of Jyn are men and all uniformly dull, despite the charismatic screen presences portraying them. Director Gareth Edwards has a talent for cramming his movies full of well-respected performers, then giving them nothing to do. The Dissolve described his Godzilla reboot as the first “post-human” blockbuster, a slight that clearly extends to his filmmaking here. As a director who has come from a special effects background, he crafted all the visual treats in his no-budget debut Monsters in his bedroom, he naturally cares more about crafting a good shot then coaxing good performances from his actors. With the wafer thin material they’ve been given to chew on, when all characters are personality-free exposition machines, he decides to polish a turd by making it look spectacular.
Make no mistake- as boring a director as Edwards can be when handling story and character, he is effortlessly talented when it comes to visual aesthetics and Rogue One has some of the most spectacular visuals out of any film in the franchise. He even manages to seamlessly mix archive footage from the 1977 original with newly shot footage, in a way so impressive it offsets any unease the uncanny valley visuals would normally create. But when it becomes easier to notice the visual effects than it is to become invested in the characters, there is a vital flaw in the filmmaking. The end result feels devoid of any heart or substance; when people criticise Christopher Nolan for being a soulless blockbuster filmmaker, I imagine they view his films in the same manner I viewed Rogue One. Completely detached from the soul of the storyline and without any sense of joy that makes this franchise so beloved in the first place.
It is possible to be accused of “soulless” filmmaking and still be interesting. Stanley Kubrick is the best director of all time and he always prioritised themes over character- but Edwards equally has a disregard for interesting themes. The supposedly novel idea is more overtly portraying the Empire as an example of intergalactic far-right tyranny. Yet this idea has been embedded into all the films in the franchise and even those with far-right views have recognised this and embraced it. Steve Bannon described Darth Vader as one of his influences, whilst extreme Alt-Right groups have tried to coax new members to join through propaganda asking newbies to “follow Palpatine”. Making Rogue One a more overt war movie doesn’t do anything to refresh tropes that were already there. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from portraying the hopelessness of war- it just doesn’t leave an impact as there are no characters for us to care about in the first place.
As a piece of fan fiction, Rogue One neatly ties into the original movie in an impressive way. But as a piece of cinema, it is entirely inconsequential and no amount of impressive special effects can hide the fact that it is soul crushingly dull- especially after the force triumphantly re-awakened last year.