I don't think that Disney's writers take Star Wars' universe very seriously. I'm not talking about story or continuity; I'm talking about the actual, physical space in which the stories take place. They've created a major problem. It's the same problem that frustrated me about The Force Awakens: there is no sense of scale to this universe anymore. I was really hoping that it was just J.J. Abrams and his writing crew being lazy in Force Awakens because his Star Trek movies suffered from the same problem. I had hoped that a new writing crew would improve the material (just like Star Trek Beyond fixed another of my biggest complaints about the reboots of that franchise after J.J. left the helm). But that laziness seems to not only be contagious, but has actually gotten worse in Rogue One. This movie takes something that was only a nagging annoyance in Force Awakens, and blows it up to almost movie-breaking proportions.
In the original Star Wars movies, the time-frames for hyperspace travel was always ambiguous. There were cuts between scenes, and the amount of time that it took for ships to travel was left to the individual viewer's imagination. But now, we see interstellar travel and communications happen instantaneously, in real time! It happens when the fighter crashes on Eado, and the rebel base on Yavin immediately loses contact and sends a squad of fighters to assault the base. It happens again when Rogue One infiltrates the Imperial data warehouse on Scarif, a transmission is intercepted, and a rebel fleet immediately gets rerouted to the planet.
This isn't just bad science; it's also bad writing. The hyperdrive has become a narrative crutch. For the entire second half of the movie, I felt no tension at all because I knew that if the heroes ever got in a jam, a rebel fleet (or reinforcements) could just appear out of nowhere to save the day. This is a prequel, so I already knew how it was going to end. This lazy script contrivance (and all-around dull characters) also made the journey to get there completely uninteresting.
But it goes deeper. How far apart are these places? Is the entire galaxy that accessible?
Basic elements of the overarching Star Wars storyline just completely break down when travel and communication is instantaneous. There's no distinction between the tightly-controlled "core", and the supposedly-lawless "outter rim" planets if a whole fleet of Star Destroyers can literally FTL to any planet in a matter of seconds. There's no need for anyone to make a hard-copy of the Death Star plans to physically transport it if they can transmit the data instantly. And there's no point in pursuing or intercepting ships (such as Leia's Blockade Runner) if hyperspace travel takes the ship to its destination in a mere moment. The empire's holdings become completely indefensible if entire rebel fleets can appear out of nowhere with no warning. Their installations are publicly visible, but the rebels are hidden. The rebels know where all the imperial bases are, and there's nothing stopping them from just jumping to random bases and blowing them up with no recourse from the empire. This universe has lost the believable, lived-in quality and sense of breadth and variety that the original trilogy so expertly executed. The Star Wars universe is broken.
Rogue One shows us instantaneous communication and travel between planets in real time.
"Just turn off your brain and enjoy it", people tell me.
No. I won't turn off my brain. There is no reason why our movies can't be both entertaining and smartly-written. Why aren't we holding our movies to that standard anymore? It's not a tall bar. "Not as bad as the prequels" is not good enough, and I'm not going to pretend that it is when dealing with entries of a series that contains - not one - but two - landmark cinematic masterpieces.
Even if every new movie were as likable as The Force Awakens, these little missteps add up. Each new movie that comes out chips away at the integrity of the franchise (and universe) in which all the movies (including the good ones) exist. We can hand-wave away our complaints about the prequels, or we can ignore them entirely, but we're now at the point at which the original Star Wars trilogy is a minority of the Star Wars film franchise, and it's only getting more diluted.
So yea, I didn't like the movie. Rogue One just didn't work tonally for me. A gritty, grounded war movie set in the Star Wars universe sounds like a great idea - I just don't think that this was the right story for that. This story would probably have been more fitting for a spy thriller-type movie, but whatever. The action scenes that are presented in the style of a grounded war movie are the strength of this film, and some of the set pieces that they're built upon are genuinely creative and visually fascinating. These ideas are great. Throwing in a comic-relief robot and a blind Kung Fu master (in order to pander to children and the Chinese market, respectively) were not great ideas. Probing a man's mind with a telepathic tentacle monster that is supposed to leave him insane, and then never following-through on that, was not a great idea. But most importantly, having a bunch of forgettable characters with very little development or charisma was not a great idea, especially since we're supposed to care enough about them to be sad when they all get themselves killed in the name of the rebellion.
So instead, Disney settled for nostalgia bait: Hey, here's that guy who gets his arm chopped off by Obi Wan in the cantina; hey, here's a cut to R2-D2 and C-3PO (on another friggin' planet) for no reason; hey, here's an overweight X-Wing pilot getting blown up, remember that from the original? and an AT walker; and here's Darth Vader living in the Eye of Sauron at Mt. Doom, for some reason...?
The CG recreations of characters was also off-putting. I would much prefer if Tarkin's face had just been left concealed during his scenes. Early in the movie, he's standing with his back turned to the camera, facing out a window. There's a cut to an overhead shot, and we can see his face vaguely reflected in the window. I think the director should have left it at that. Leave him in profile, or in shadow, or in reflection only. But hey, he still managed to be less distracting than Michael Giacchino's utterly disappointing musical score.
Yeah, Disney, you got away with it in Civil War, and everyone thought it was cute. But please, no more.
But how many times can we watch AT Walkers march against rebels holding a base or position? How many times can we watch X-Wings dogfighting with TIE Fighters? How many convoluted ways can writers figure out to destroy / incapacitate / avoid Star Destroyers? Rogue One throws all this stuff at you, and it's only a matter of time until it all gets stale. Remember, we're going to be getting one or two of these things every year.
And just to be clear: I'm not saying that taking a different, darker tone for Star Wars can't work. I think it definitely can work! The worthwhile parts of this movie are a testament to that. But Disney couldn't commit to crossing that line, and so the gritty war stuff is held back by the corny adventure stuff, but the movie takes itself a little bit too seriously to just be a fun adventure movie. There's a tonal conflict, and that's the problem.
Why not add in some scenes of people actually suffering under the hand of the empire, so that the audience can actually feel like the empire is actually a bad thing, instead of just the organization that the villain happens to work for? Or alternatively, why not flip the script entirely and depict the rebels as outright terrorists and make us re-think our preconceived notions about who the actual good guys and bad guys are? Maybe humanize these stormtroopers that we murder in droves? But no. Everything just felt so stale and uninteresting, with the added weight of being a prequel in which we already know how it's going to end.
Rogue One deliberately styles ts aesthetic after the first Star Wars movie - with mixed results.
Tonal conflicts extend to the visuals as well. There's a commendable effort to make the movie look like the first Star Wars film. In some places it works; in other places, it doesn't. Star Destroyers are white instead of gray (and look like they're made of marble instead of metal), which makes them look cleaner to symbolize how new and powerful the Empire is. Darth Vader's costume is also modeled after the first movie instead of the later ones and just doesn't look quite right with modern movie-filming techniques.
I have a feeling that I'm going to be in a minority here, but Rogue One makes The Force Awakens look muuuuuuuch better in retrospect. And that mostly comes from the fact that I actually liked that movie's characters. Even though I complained about shallow arcs and Rey being a Mary Sue, I still think that Rey was a more likable character and Daisy Ridley offered a much better performance. Felicity Jones' performance just felt stale and flat to me. Rogue One also gives me a new appreciation for how well the Marvel movies have held up over the years, because after just one Star Wars spin-off, it feels old and I want to take it behind the barn and put it down before it starts to suffer.
This is only going to be cool so many times.