“Star Wars” movies have been dazzling, infuriating, heartbreaking, silly, witty, convoluted, gripping and overblown. But until “Rogue One: A Star Wars” story, I don’t think “dull” was the most appropriate adjective.
“Dull” is a vague word, so let’s break it down: hackneyed, repetitive, unsurprising, under-characterized. This tale, placed chronologically between episodes three and four, has no reason to exist. We know the rebels will get plans that let them destroy the Death Star in “A New Hope.” Who cares how they did it, when the storytelling is so pedestrian?
The series cannibalizes its own mythology. A child with incipient Jedi powers (Felicity Jones) loses her parents and gets raised by a surrogate the Empire brands for death. She teams up with a freewheeling fighter pilot (Diego Luna) and a comical droid with an English voice (Alan Tudyk) to go against the Empire; she’s advised by an older Jedi with amazing gifts (Donnie Yen); she learns her father (Mads Mikkelsen) is highly placed in the Empire himself. The main twist is that he built the Death Star against his will and installed a flaw that will blow it up, if his daughter finds the designs after his death.
It’s as if the whole cast had been culled from understudies. Jones, so good in dramatic roles, looks like a last-minute substitute for Daisy Ridley. Luna’s a lightweight Oscar Isaac. Mikkelsen scarcely works up a passion. Yen, star of the “Iron Monkey” and “Ip Man” series, pulls off deft martial arts moves but lacks Alec Guinness’ charisma. The main villain (Ben Mendelsohn) remains whiny and ineffectual.
Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, Oscar-nominated respectively for “About a Boy” and “Michael Clayton,” do the sloppiest work of their recent careers. Yen’s blind man can run at top speed over rocky terrain without stumbling. (That’s not a Jedi skill, or he wouldn’t fumble around for a lever to pull when he reaches his target.)
A defector from the Empire (Riz Ahmed) gets turned over to a creature who reads thoughts, wiping the subjects’ minds in the process, yet is completely unaffected. Cameos by characters from other films (Darth Vader, R2D2, C3PO) don’t so much satisfy nostalgia as make us realize how labored “Rogue” is. The most interesting new character, a crazed rebel played by Forest Whitaker, gets little screen time.
Special effects still mostly work. Technology that let long-dead Peter Cushing “return” as ice-hearted Tarkin makes a terrific impact, though similar recreation of young Carrie Fisher turns Leia into a reject from Madame Tussaud’s. Director Gareth Edwards directs battle sequences competently, though we’ve seen them far too often in this series. The exotic aliens remain visually intriguing.
Ultimately, the film plays out like an episode in a TV series, an opportunity to commercialize a saga that regained luster with “Force Awakens” and can be heavily marketed again. If this is “A Star Wars Story,” other mediocrities wait in the wings. May the Force be against them.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelssohn, Mads Mikkelsen.
Director: Gareth Edwards.
Length: 133 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action).