Movie review: ‘Rogue One’ a rough one

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“Rogue One’s” media buildup was stalked by rumors that almost half of the movie had to be re-made because Disney wasn’t a fan of the original cut. Now that it’s out, that’s painfully obvious that the rumors were true — the onscreen product is a mashup of several different ideas that don’t mix well, and some of which should never, ever have been put to film.

At the start of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” imperial weapons researcher Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to work on the Death Star, the Empire’s iconic planet-destroying space station. Years later, the rebel alliance receives a transmission from Erso on how to destroy it, and his daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), is recruited into the action. She eventually leads a ragtag band of misfits in an assault on the Empire-controlled Scarif, where the plans are stored.

When reshoots were announced in May, the rumor was 40 percent of “Rogue One” needed to be changed to make the tone lighter. Disney walked those rumors back, but this feels exactly like a movie that had 40 percent of it gutted and re-done. The film’s production was clearly a porous ship — almost every rumored plot detail was true. Its jumbled narrative, manic tonal shifts and wildly unpredictable cuts distinctly echo “Suicide Squad” and “Fantastic Four,” two movies made infamous for being re-cut to death over studio concerns.

What sets “Rogue One” apart, though, is how it taunts the audience with frequent, brief glimpses into how good it should have been. Every few minutes, it drops a haunting shot that looks for all the world like it belongs in the grim war story this movie was initially sold as.

A weary stormtrooper slouches in his transport. Continent-sized shadows pass over Imperial vessels as the Death Star is being constructed. The Death Star hovers beautifully and menacingly in low orbit over Scarif. Fireballs of destroyed cities slowly rise so high they break through the atmosphere, reaching up at the weapon that made them. There are so many images in this movie that stick with you, despite the mutilated narrative.

In the characters and their interactions, it’s plain to see much of the character development was cut as well. The lead characters grow incredibly close, but it all happens off-screen — or, just as likely, in scenes left on the editing room floor. At one point before their suicide mission, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) refers to Erso as his sister, despite this being their first moment onscreen together. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) goes from deeply mistrusting Erso to deeply caring for her literally overnight, without so much as a conversation. The power dynamic between Krennic and Galen Erso is clearly a complex one, but seems to have been mostly cut as well. The most glaring character hole is Gerrera, who gets all of a minute of screentime and has his “What will you do” speech, central to the movie’s first trailer, is cut.

Even the small moment-to-moment editing details get thrown off. There are several points in the movie where a character is talking offscreen when he traditionally should be onscreen, an awkwardness probably created by that dialogue being recorded in a sound studio after the fact to be spliced in over coverage shots. The film as a whole, particularly in the climactic battle on Scarif, jumps rapidly from pitch darkness to daylight, carelessly creating an obnoxious strobe light effect.

The editing in this movie is its all-consuming flaw, but given the amount of restrictions that must have been on editors John Gilroy, Colin Goudie and Jabez Olssen, it’s probably a small miracle they were able to string the footage together at all.

Not only is it readily apparent that this movie was watered down by the studio, but it’s readily apparent which scenes they watered it down with, because they’re mostly cartoons. One scene involves miniatures, a set and several practical and digital effects all working in harmony the way they should. The next features Darth Vader’s lair, a lazily rendered volcanic world featuring one solitary stream of lava and a nondescript black tower that looks more like a poor Playstation 2 version of Mordor. When this happens in a movie rumored to be mashed together from essentially two different productions, it’s hard not to jump to conclusions.

Someone thought Death Star governor Grand Moff Tarkin’s presence was necessary in this movie — it wasn’t — and with Peter Cushing 20 years dead, instead of just recasting him, they hired Guy Henry to play the part physically and digitally edited Cushing’s face onto his. It’s an uncanny valley monstrosity, something so off-putting and so ill-advised I can hardly believe my eyes whenever it’s on screen.

Avoiding spoilers, Tarkin isn’t the only classic “Star Wars” character to be defiled with a digital recreation. They seem to recycle some lines from the climactic space battle from the original film, as well.

One of the buzz phrases around the reshoots that hobbled this movie was that the studio wanted to make sure it felt like “Star Wars,” but “Rogue One” doesn’t feel like “Star Wars” at all. The opening crawl and fanfare, warm elements of nostalgia that don’t require you to digitally edit a dead man’s face onto another actor whose own work will go unrecognized, are missing. The strong characters and story arcs the series is known for are edited into weak ones. Darth Vader makes a dad joke, a quippy one-liner while he’s killing someone, something so stupid and out of character I could hardly believe my ears as I was hearing it.

This movie — this collection of scenes slapped together and marketed as a “movie” — isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s an insult. It’s a project that at one point clearly fulfilled all the potential that a “Star Wars” anthology series has, but was then undermined by catastrophically stupid decisions made by marketing executives whose spreadsheets told them there needed to be more jokes, not filmmakers.

You’ll see it eventually. You probably already have. Just be prepared to be deeply disappointed.

For the full review and much, much more, head to Knopp’s blog at reelentropy.com.