The new Star Wars movie is dark, both figuratively and literally. Positioned by director Gareth Edwards as a corrective to The Force Awakens, the most expensive reunion special of all time, it eschews that movie’s giddy cynicism and big names in favor of obsessive, miscalculated seriousness. It belongs somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Set just before the events of 1977 original, Rogue One opens with a confrontation between an Oppenheimer-type (Mads Mikkelsen) ordered to build the Death Star and his superior, an Imperial Weapons Director (Ben Mendelsohn). From there, the scientist’s daughter (Felicity Jones) escapes. In breathlessly extended, Jason Bourne-like planet-hopping exposition, she’s found by a splinter band of guerrilla rebels led by Forest Whitaker (inexplicably and hilariously channeling Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet), meets with the Rebels proper, and is dispatched along with a Rebel officer (Diego Luna) and his aggressively humorless droid to save her father. (Against Mikkelsen, Mendelsohn is ferocious, pushing his breathy speech impediment through grated teeth. But he doesn’t stand a chance against the uncanny valley of his mo-cap costars—a more solid case for the series’ trademark tactility than Edwards’s entire dusty aesthetic can muster.)
There’s not much point to the coy marketing campaign; everything plays out almost exactly as one would expect: the Rebellion discovers the Empire is building a weapon of mass destruction and sends a rag-tag team to retrieve its plans. Beyond Donnie Yen’s blind samurai (Zatoichi!), whatever surprises it offers are purely superficial; it’s as hermetic as the volumes of “Extended Universe” paperbacks that flooded bookstores after the original series’ ascendance.
The phenomenon was never puzzling. Star Wars was a streamlined memory of a mid-century childhood spent at the movies, distilled into an irresistible confection of Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Buck Rogers, and World War II flicks. On the heels of heady science fiction like 2001, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Solaris, Lucas aimed his movie at a silent majority overwhelmed by civil rights, Vietnam, and Watergate. Star Wars was a retreat from complicated emotions. Assessing the movie’s runaway popularity, Pauline Kael offered a typically spot-on dissent: “It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.”
That same charge can be leveled in equal measure at last year’s The Force Awakens; if pop criticism remained as essential to popular discourse, this year’s political narrative might’ve been less of a shock. Enthusiasts have interpreted Lucas’s vision as a Vietnam analogy—most notably the forest-dwelling freedom fighters of Return of the Jedi—but the movies’ invocation of populist insurgency against tyrannical overreach is so vaguely political that projection, whether left-wing or right, is a matter of one’s own inclination.
Rogue One opens at a similar, wonder-less moment, and the series’ age-old demure from politics crumbles in the face of wingnuts appalled that the movie contains multi-cultural representation and anti-fascist themes. While Rogue One depicts the traditionally infallible Rebels as willing to forsake its own ideas for wartime expediency, that compelling thread unwinds—like so many thematic details—in the indefatigable blur toward the movie’s closing setpiece, an assault on an Imperial beachhead.
The finale, glimpsed in trailers and posters, is as close as the series has come to a straight-up war movie. It should be a blast—the bright payoff to a grimy, overlong setup. But it’s a geographic mess without a sense of space or proximity. Nothing coheres beyond the second-hand rush of an X-wing dogfight. Informed more by Saving Private Ryan than the transgressive whoosh of Apocalypse Now!, it’s a downer that confirms the movie’s worst mixup: reconfiguring Lucas’s frothy cocktail without charisma.
Edwards’s assumption is that Star Wars is still the sum of spare genre parts, knobs on a sound engineer’s mix board. Where Abrams simply amplified those levels, Edwards drowns the whole thing in muddy bass. In its relentless pursuit of the peripheral, Rogue One leads to a final shot that reveals its grim determination: from the beginning, it had nowhere to go but backward. Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without its stars.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Ben Mendelsohn. Opens in Kansas City December 16, 2016.