Rogue One, despite fitting in with the original Star Wars trilogy with ease, will here on out be compared to The Force Awakens. Not just because of the fact that both films were released to feed a starving fan base in back to back years, but because of their dedication to developing strong female leads. And who knows, maybe in 20 years having lead characters in blockbuster franchises be women will be so commonplace (let’s hope) that these two films won’t connect as much as they feel like they do right now. I hope that happens for Rogue One’s sake.
The problem with Rogue One is that we are never given a chance to connect with our main character, Jyn Erso. We simply don’t care. She is an unusually passive main character that never makes her own choices.
Let’s go back and look at how we’re introduced to Rey from TFA real quick. We start TFA seeing Rey as a scavenger. No dialogue; only character introduction through action. We know she’s smart through her working knowledge of scrap and junk and how a ship works. We know she’s brave and physically demanding due to her rappel down the star destroyer and her slide down the sand hill. We know she’s independent through her gear, her speeder, and her living situation. We know she desires something more than the ¼ portion of food she begrudgingly takes despite the amount of work we just saw her do to afford it. We know she’s a dreamer from the way she gazes at ships heading to space with envy, from the way she has idolizes Rebel fighters through a child’s doll and an old pilot’s helmet she casually wears as if she’s done that since a kid. Say what you want about Rey the rest of the film, and about how she doesn’t have any flaws and seems to conveniently be an expert at everything but the reason Rey works is because we care right away. We are rooting for Rey within the first two minutes of seeing her and all with little to no dialogue to supplement her character. This is strong writing. This is how you make an audience grow attached to someone through production design, acting, and direction. Rey’s story throughout the film is murky at best. But she still captures our heart because of this strong introduction.
Now let’s look at how Jyn is introduced. We’re introduced to Jyn as a little girl who observes Imperial forces kill her mother and imprison her father, Galen Erso, which forces her to go into hiding. This first scene of Rogue is not about Jyn. It’s about her father’s backstory as a former Imperial scientist being forced to finish work on the Death Star’s weapon. The stakes of the scene lie with Galen. Jyn is nothing more than a bystander. Things happen around her, but not to her. She goes into her hiding spot like she’s instructed. She’s found like she’s supposed to.
Other people making choices for Jyn ends up being a common theme for the film. The only times she makes her own choices that I can think of are when she takes a blaster for herself before setting off on the mission, and when she leaves the crashed ship and climbs up the cliff toward her father.
We’re properly introduced to Jyn as an Imperial prisoner. When being rescued, she attacks her rescuers. Obviously we now know she’s independent and tough. But this is the extent of Jyn’s rebellion. In the film’s trailer Jyn says “This is a rebellion isn’t it? I rebel.” That scene not only doesn’t make it into the film, but we also don’t see any demonstration of her supposed rebelliousness in any sort of impactful way. Or a way that makes us want to cheer for her. Her father’s story is the only reason the Rebellion is interested in using her, and is also the only reason we care about her. In fact, Galen’s story is the “Star Wars Story” that should have been told in this film. He has stakes, backstory, development, and character traits we care for despite only being in the film for 5 minutes.
Every time Jyn has a chance to adapt and do something, plot gets in the way. When she meets Saw Gerrera for the first time in years we think, “OK, here we go, let’s build a relationship. Let’s go in depth about what it means to rebel.” Again, the initial teaser trailer misleads us into thinking there’s more to Saw and Jyn’s relationship than what actually made it into the final cut. (Were bad screen tests and reshoots to blame?) But instead of giving Saw any real reason to be in the film, he’s just a plot device. If Saw weren’t in the film, and instead, the rebels just searched for the pilot who had been taken capture, the story wouldn’t miss anything. It’s confusing why he’s even in the film.
So, Jyn receives her father’s message. It’s her story now, right? Surely she controls her own destiny now? But Jyn ends up explaining away her father’s instructions the first chance she gets. The crew even outright explains how important she is as the messenger, only to have her undercut her own importance by essentially saying, “But why? You guys know just as much as me now.” Once again, her power is gone.
Jyn climbs to her father. We think this is her chance to try and save her him, to take action. But her opportunity is stolen by the Rebel fighters. She once again becomes reactionary to her father’s bravery.
The crew flies back to homebase and somehow the entire Rebellion leadership listens to Jyn explain what the plan of attack should be. She rises from no one to someone based on what? This scene is entirely unrealistic. And the crew banding around her with 50 new mercenaries is even more unrealistic. How did she earn their trust? How did she inspire them? The choice to go about the Rogue One covert operation is made for her. Yet again, she’s just along for the ride.
By the time the Rogue One mission goes into effect, the film’s minor characters serve a much greater purpose. The older priests/guards of the crystals are given depth and a story arc that’s worth cheering about. The Imperial pilot who defected becomes a proactive character. The weakest link is obviously Jyn and Cassian’s mission. They encounter hardly any pressure themselves, and end up waltzing into the database because of K2’s ingenuity, not their own.
This film does have a lot to like though. The production design is impeccable. the cinematography is top notch. The tie-ins to A New Hope are fun. The last act of the film is, for the most part, entertaining. Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic did a great job despite the character’s absurd and useless rivalry with an awkward CGI Tarkin. Vader was fun despite his first scene’s existence clearly being only to give James Earl Jones more lines to say. But none of its throwbacks or nostalgia were enough to overcome its clunky storytelling.
It’s better to look at Rogue One as if it were an extended The Clone Wars episode rather than a stand alone film. But even then, The Clone Wars treated its side characters during its 3 or 4 episode arcs with more care and consideration than Rogue One ever pretends to. Too many characters, useless subplots, and meaningless planet jumping forced the film to sacrifice any depth, and thus, any stakes to justify its whirlwind action.