This review contains spoilers.
Rogue One is another disappointment in the Star Wars franchise. It doesn’t have the excruciating moments of the prequels, it’s well made, and there is an assortment of cameos and references to other films, and not just Star Wars film. However, the referenced films include Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now, which are appropriate for this film’s dark tone. It’s not a fun film, and that makes the more humorous references and occasional jokes hard to enjoy.
The story emphasizes a series of battle scenes, and is not so much a glorification of war as a celebration of sacrifice. None of main characters survive: all of them have no regrets about their actions. This is a great propaganda film, showing beings of different species, races, ages, and genders all uniting to fight a common enemy. It might be moving if the sacrifices had any value, but they don’t. The mission of our heroes is to advance a plot to destroy the Death Star. We know the plot works, from Part IV A New Hope. We also know it didn’t work that well, because the Death Star is back again in Part VI, Return of the Jedi. An even bigger Death Star is central to Part VII, The Force Awakens. Perhaps the message is you cannot stop evil?
We also know that our heroes are not necessarily good guys, and they admit as much in this film. Meanwhile, the anonymous and purely evil bad guys of the original film have, by now, been well established as individuals, who are not all bad. We’ve seen Darth Vader as a whiny child, moody adolescent, and redeemed father. We’ve seen a Storm Trooper reject his path in The Force Awakens, and a former Empire pilot and his robot join the rebels in this film. This film also shows us that the architect of the Death Star was coerced into designing the weapon.
Finally, after seeing eight films, I’m starting to wonder just how bad the Empire is. Sure, at the top, they are evil and power hungry, but power is usually a means to an end, and it’s not clear what that end is. The Empire is dedicated to wiping out the rebellion, and the rebellion is dedicated to bringing down the Empire, but apart from that I’m not sure what either side wants. Why do we fight? Given that both sides have vague goals, the individuals on both sides have moral complexity, and we know this is just one meaningless effort in a war lasting generations, it’s hard to find the long battle sequences anything but dreary.
To add to the unease, one sequence takes place in a vaguely middle eastern setting (some of the filming was in Jordan), and another sequence takes place on beaches and among palm trees, referencing both WWII and Vietnam. Thanks to the magic of CGI, the characters played decades ago by Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher appear to be performed by the same actors, as they appeared back then. This is a disturbing use of effects, and not necessary. It’s easier to accept different actors playing the same character (such as James Bond), than it is to accept that an actor has not aged, or, in the case of Cushing, can appear in a film twenty-two years after death. Spaceships and monsters are products of the creative imagination, but re-animated actors are a denial of time and humanity.
Film classification agencies do not care about tone, or possible propaganda aspects of films. During and after World Wars I and II, these were important considerations. During the wars, films that humanized the enemy might be banned, but in the 1950s, war films that dwelt on past hatreds could also be banned. Until the 1960s, censors, for better or worse, tried to ensure films were good for society. That’s no longer part of the job. As per regulations, classification is based on objective measures such as how much violence or sex is shown.
Rogue One has no sex, though Ontario censors spotted a little cuddling. I was grateful the characters had that moment. What it does have is plenty of violence, of the more or less bloodless variety. Several classification agencies note “science fiction violence” because people being killed by lasers is somehow different than people being shot or blown up (which also happens a lot ).
The ratings are consistent across Canada and in most other jurisdictions. The consensus is that this is a film for the 12 and up set, though younger kids can go. In a couple of cases they can only go with their parents. Much of what is in the trailer is not in the film, which lets one wonder how much of that was deliberate misleading and how much was last minute editing. However, it’s a fair portrayal of the action scenes and other imagery.