Rogue One (with spoilers)

It’s a little known fact in this corner of the blogosphere, but I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies. So even though I hardly ever review movies, I’m going to attempt to now, because in what may be becoming a tradition, we went to see Rogue One this week. But in contrast to last year’s experience with The Force Awakens, which left me unequivocally approving, this movie left me ambivalent.

To its credit, Rogue One depicts war with some degree of realism. The characters suffer and sacrifice to achieve the gain realized in the movie’s closing scene. Characters in the midst of battle experience fear and confusion, and with good reason.

Similarly, the Rebel Alliance is not the unified, unanimous force it appears to be in other movies. It betrays some of the characteristics of political groups in the present day, in a galaxy close at hand: opposing viewpoints, double-speak, and willingness to use an ordinary person like Jyn Erso without telling her the truth.

But though I have a certain appreciation for these realistic elements, mostly the film left me unmoved. For one thing, the Star Wars world is unremittingly bleak and colorless. I was delighted when the closing scenes, which take place in Imperial territory, were going to take place in daylight; all the rest of the movie is dark and claustrophobic. Even the opening scenes, in which a young Jyn watches her parents trying fruitlessly to resist the Empire, take place in a gray industrial landscape. I was surprised to hear that her father was a farmer, as his land bears more resemblance to a modern dump with its tube-like smokestacks protruding from barren earth. It’s an unappealing world that inspires little sympathy or understanding.

The script was equally colorless. In last year’s Force Awakens, the repartee between characters lightened the mood and demonstrated the chemistry among them. But the dialogue in this film was, as critic Robert Mondello notes, “flatfooted.” He writes, “With Stormtroopers lurking ’round every intergalactic corner, director Gareth Edwards hasn’t much time for such other Star Warsian charms as character, grace, whimsy and, most of all, fun.” I agree.

While the Force in previous movies was left vague enough for different faiths to see parallels, in this movie it seemed to me to be linked closely to Tibetan Buddhism through its chief spokesperson, a blind monk at the kyber temple (kyber crystals, used in Jedi lightsabers, are a new preoccupation in this movie). In this sense its depiction was less universal.

Finally, the ending left me wondering how futile the actors felt their roles to be. We won’t see any of them again. What does it matter that we may like some of them? This movie is on the one hand participating in the Star Wars community of characters and conflicts, and on the other hand a totally stand-alone enterprise. Ultimately it leaves me with a sense that it was just okay. I liked The Force Awakens. It left me wanting to see what would happen to the characters, and wanting to know more about them. It revived the nostalgia of the original episodes, made when I was a teen. Rogue One left me neutral.