There’s a good reason that last year’s return to the Star Wars universe, The Force Awakens, was a success at the box office, as well as among critics and fans: In addition to a well-fed nostalgia and a cast of new characters that felt both original and familiar, the movie was overwhelmingly cheerful. Everyone involved could not believe they were getting to make a Star Wars movie: Pure dumb joy leapt off the screen in every scene, and it was infectious. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were the perfect antidotes to the stolid, oppressively self-serious Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman of the George Lucas prequels. This was a Star Wars movie that remembered that Star Wars movies were supposed to be a blast. (Boyega actually says “Droid, please!” at some point.) The Force Awakens was comfortable in its own skin, celebrating both the franchise itself and the audience’s experience watching it over the years. I, for one, can’t wait to hang out with those characters again.
One of the many problems with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is that so much of that joy is gone. The movie is stultifyingly serious, as leaden and dead on its feet as the infamous prequels—both provided us with endless council meetings, charisma-free leads, and distracting technological “innovations.” The movie is so caught up in the mythology of the Star Wars universe that it never establishes itself as its own animal. Its plot is muddled—it’s a heist movie in which the rebels steal the plans to destroy the Death Star—its characterizations are forced and truncated, and its battle sequences are more impressive than thrilling. There is still a visceral excitement of being back in this world—it’s always a gas to hang out with Darth Vader again—but the key to The Force Awakens was how it established new characters that felt both part of the Star Wars universe, as well as our own. In Rogue One, nobody seems to belong to either.
Let’s start with our hero, Jyn Eros (Felicity Jones). Rogue One opens with Jyn as a young girl whose mother is killed by an imperial commander (Ben Mendelsohn) and whose scientist father (Mads Mikkelson) is kidnapped and forced to work on a massive imperial “planet killer.” At the end of the sequence, Jyn escapes and is rescued by a mysterious rebel, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, in a strange performance); the next thing we know, it’s thirteen years later and Jyn is now an adult. What happened in all that time? The movie bizarrely never touches on it. Rogue One is too busy sprinting into the Star Wars mythology to make Jyn worth caring about—despite Jones’s best efforts we are stuck with a placeholder as our lead character. Her reasons to support the rebellion are never fully established and the movie even saddles her with a pseudo-romantic interest, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a character who also doesn’t have much to do and speaks in a flat tone that’s dangerously close to Hayden Christensen’s in the prequel. These two dolts are supposed be our emotional connection to the plot, which means that there’s no emotional connection at all.
There are a few fun new supporting characters, notably a blind warrior with unerring faith in the force, played by Donnie Yen, and a robot that can only be described as “sassy,” voiced by Alan Tudyk. But it’s worth noting that these character feel thrown in for extra-textual reasons (Yen for fanboys, the robot for kids). The robot is funny—he’s like a cool Chappie—but in a way that’s incongruous with the rest of film’s serious tone. (It’s as if someone in the room said, “this thing is short on laughs, let’s give them a wisecracking robot.”) It should not go unnoticed that the two best new characters have nothing to do with the emotional thrust of the film. In fact, the most rousing moments of the Rogue One are when we get to hang out with the old guys: Jimmy Smits’ Bail Organa from the Phantom Menace, and of course Darth Vader, who is re-introduced in a scene that feels a little glib.
(Rogue One does make one extremely questionable decision when it comes to bringing back another old character, Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing, who passed away in 1994. In Rogue One we get a digital version of Cushing, who growls and glowers just like Peter Cushing did. But the technology to digitally recreate actors is still not all the way there, and giving “Cushing” not just one scene, but several key ones, is a brutal mistake, one not even the beep-boop obsessed George Lucas would make. Yet it’s one that Rogue One doubles down on with diminishing results by bringing back yet another character from the first film in a key closing moment that I won’t spoil here.)
Rogue One still offers a lot to enjoy, but most of it comes from our good will towards the previous films. The Force Awakens was an enormous achievement, a movie that got a massive corporate property back on track, while at the same time establishing a natural extension of the narrative. Rogue One, on the other hand, is a movie that doesn’t tell a new story, doesn’t give us new characters to believe in, and can’t even get the nostalgia right. The Star Wars franchise has built up a massive amount of cachet over the last several decades; Rogue One is going to need every bit of it.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site griersonleitch.com.