There is enough room in the world for prequels like Gareth Edwards's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. There is nothing inherently wrong with recounting a smaller-scale story in the epic continuity of the Star Wars universe because the journey is what matters, not the destination. Storytellers often thrive within the unique limitations of the leadup to an incredibly well known story. I, for one, am a pretty big fan of Resident Evil 0, for example, a game that could have been a soulless retread of the original but took the story in a lot of interesting directions, moreso than even the original Resident Evil did.
Another game that comes to mind is Halo: Reach, based on a non-game novel written by Eric Nylund about the events that lead to the tumultuous opening to the 2001 Xbox launch title, Halo: Combat Evolved. To quote Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, that prequel is basically "focused on a small commando unit whose members spend the entire game having a prolonged 'Who can have the noblest death?' competition." Here is the part of the review that I will warn you to leave in case of completely unsurprising spoilers. If you do, it's because you have never seen a movie before (let alone Star Wars) or are yourself an alien from the planet of Jedha. Ready?
Yahtzee's description can be equally applied to Rogue One, glibness and all. And like I said before, that's fine! We all knew what we were going to be getting when we first heard that Disney and Lucasfilm were going to put this film into production. After all, you don't go to your favorite brewery so you can be astounded by the fact that beer is made there. You want to see how the beer gets made.
There is a YouTube video some wonderful individual cut in which we are shown precisely the moment in Star Wars (yes, Star Wars, you pedants) where Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and some other Imperial generals discuss the loss of the plans to the Death Star. (It ends in Vader force-choking someone onscreen for the first time, a moment that would endlessly be rehashed in this series and other media.) It being 1977 and a relatively low-budget film, we are left only to imagine what had happened during that raid. The characters don't seem terribly concerned about it, a fatal mistake that ends in the superweapon being exploded at the end of the film. The point is that the whole affair felt small, covert and deceptively minor.
That apparently was never a studio note from megaproducer (and noted misogynist) Kathleen Kennedy. You can feel the tug of war in tone between the bland, commercial aspects of the film and the more specific, dare I say, authorial touches. Rogue One is 90% overblown spectacle and 10% interesting adventure romp. Edwards himself has experience in both small-scale (Monsters) and large-budget (2014's Godzilla) action pictures, both of which are flawed and compromised in some ways but otherwise feel like someone was holding the reins. Not so here. For every well drawn character (K-2SO, Chirrut Imwe, Baze Malbus), we get two featureless ciphers (Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, Orson Krennic, Saw Gerrera, Bodhi, Galen Erso), a bad ratio to have in an over-two-hour-long film.
Of course, you can't have a big-budget mess without an overqualified cast to collect the paycheck and facilitate the moneymaking. The irony is that the players who are front-and-center have the most impressive resumes but deliver the most underwhelming results. Those people are Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker (one half of the protagonist's motivation pie), Riz Ahmed and Mads Mikkelsen (the other half of the pie). They are uniformly underserved by the screenwriting 101 script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (more on them later). Only the lesser-known Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang (who are famous for their work in Chinese films) emerge unscathed. But even they get swallowed up by the juggernaut of inevitable heroic death, their interesting personalities and solid character relationships subsumed by narrative necessity. One of K-2SO's (Tudyk) final lines--most of which are the best in the film--tears down his contentious relationship with Jyn (Jones) in favor of wildly unearned sentimental pap. A blaster shot to the foot, to be sure.
The other two characters of note, Chirrut (Yen) and Baze (Jiang) are chiefly men of action, which makes sense given the actors' history as stars of Chinese blockbusters. But there is a hint of something more than fraternal codependency in their relationship, a subtle touch that the film has no time to flesh out (or even seem to realize it has). There is an almost audible click in the action scenes when the second unit director wakes up Edwards from playing Candy Crush long enough to direct Yen and Jiang in their fight scenes. Yen is an incredibly accomplished martial artist and Jiang brings a steely, almost Terminator-esque force to his role as a taciturn heavy weapons expert. Their moments together are framed widely and cut infrequently, allowing us to take in the spectacle of these two performers' stardom. Then we go back to CGI and shaky-cam nonsense when the rest of the cast is at work.
I don't expect Jones and Luna to set the screen on fire with their kung fu moves. (The one is famous for playing Stephen Hawking's wife and the other made his bones by jizzing into a pool as a teenager in Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien; Linda Hamilton and Jason Statham, they are not.) But at least when Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher (R.I.P.) and Harrison Ford tottered about with fake plastic guns, you felt some chemistry between them. For the two people who are ostensibly our protagonists, we get two slightly different varieties of Steely Determination. Jyn wants to take down the empire because they stole both her father and father figure from her. Cassian (Luna) is a rebel because... actually, I have no fucking clue what he's doing here. The first thing we see him do is gun down an injured man in cold blood, so I guess he's ruthless and will do anything to get the job done? Do you like him yet?
Another undercooked (but well dressed) character is that of Director Krennic (Mendelsohn), an individual who apparently thought he could cleverly undermine Vader by dressing in all white instead of black. You can almost see cartoon sweat droplets jumping from Mendelsohn's brow as he strains with all his might to make Krennic anything more than another sniveling bureaucrat in a historically long line of them. Of course, this effort is completely undone by Uncanny Valley Peter Cushing, back from the grave as Tarkin (actually impersonated by Guy Henry in the film's second most unconvincing CGI resurrection). Mendelsohn is such a terrific, complicated actor, one who thrives when he's allowed to be greasy and nasty (Bloodline, The Place Beyond the Pines, Animal Kingdom) but keeps getting pushed into conniving functionary roles by Hollywood. There is a scene between Krennic and Vader that proceeds almost identically to the one in The Dark Knight Rises in which Bane chokes Mendelsohn's Daggett and asks him if he "feels in charge." It's as though Mendelsohn's is being highly specifically typecast as a middle manager who gets into hot water with hulking brutes who have respiratory issues.
Back to the script by Weitz and Gilroy, both of whom are also directors who miss (New Moon, The Bourne Legacy) more often than they hit (About a Boy, Michael Clayton). They are not without talent, but they certainly don't have the opportunity to show it here, at least not very often. Beyond K-2SO's brilliant one-liners (which are a tribute as much to Tudyk as to the screenwriters), almost all of the dialogue is functional, moving the plot from one run-run-run-fight-fight-fight bonanza to the next. The little talking that actually needs to be heard is frequently swallowed by score-heavy sound mixing or garbled delivery by the cast (Whitaker never met an accent he couldn't fumble spectacularly), so it's tough to guess where the film is headed next until you're already there, at which point, who cares? We know where the plot is headed, and the filmmakers are quite indifferent about making the journey interesting on the way to the goal. The movie is essentially 90 minutes of pointless, high-ticket faffing about as an excuse to assemble a ragtag group, the demise of which entirely fails to register.
When Edwards cribs from Lars von Trier's Melancholia to give us a terribly beautiful sendoff to the two leads, I kind of wished we had the visceral satisfaction of seeing their smoking, brutally dispatched corpses, like Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. And when you prefer George Lucas's sock puppet theater-characterization of two minor individuals from a nearly forty-year-old film, that's how you know you're in trouble.