‘Rogue One’ Shows Disney Still Doesn’t Really Get ‘Star Wars’ (Commentary)

Two movies in, Disney still hasn’t realized that it’s the characters that make “Star Wars” work

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(This column was originally published on January 16.)

“Rogue One” is the best “Star Wars” film made in my lifetime. “Rogue One” is gorgeous and thrilling.

“Rogue One” is also a mess. And “Rogue One” looks like “Star Wars,” but it really isn’t.

When Disney released “The Force Awakens” back in 2015, I left my 8 p.m. showing feeling angry. Disney had captured the ships and the “pew” sounds and the explosions of “Star Wars,” without any of the heart. The movie breezed past character development and barely bothered to pause long enough to provide anyone in it with motivations. It felt like “A New Hope” on fast-forward, with all the “boring” (read: essential character moments and worldbuilding) cut out.

With “Rogue One,” it seemed Disney might right the ship. A sharper story concerning what might be considered everyday people in the “Star Wars” universe, it was seemingly devoid of magical space warrior monks, instead focusing on desperate Rebel soldiers and spies fighting an Empire wielding overwhelming might. Plus, it sounded like a “Seven Samurai”-type story, where a band of heroes came together to fight odds they cannot hope to surmount. It sounded like the kind of story that would help expand the “Star Wars” franchise to include more humanity and more variety.

“Rogue One” does hit those notes. It tells the story of the theft of the Death Star plans and never once is the name “Skywalker” uttered. It throws in too many callbacks and hews too closely to setting up literally everything in “A New Hope,” perhaps, but it focuses on the war on the ground in a way we’ve never quite gotten out of “Star Wars”.

But it also doesn’t really get “Star Wars.” It thinks it does — “Rogue One” is incredibly comfortable with its lived-in galaxy far, far away in a way nothing has been since Luke’s days on Owen and Beru Lars’ moisture farm — but like its prequel predecessors and The Force Awakens, it’s still hung up on the what of “Star Wars,” forgetting the who.

We need a family of friends, desperately

It’s easy to get bogged down in the ships, the planets, the weapons and the religion of “Star Wars” and miss the forest moon for its massive trees. The thing that really makes “A New Hope” timeless and endearing, the thing that has propelled the franchise to a rank of essential pop culture unmatched by just about anything else, isn’t the stuff that you see in “Star Wars,” but the people to whom that stuff happens.

“Star Wars” is ultimately a powerful story about friendship, and it’s that aspect that gives its fantastic world the humanity that draws us in. “A New Hope” never wastes a second that could be used developing the personalities on screen. Every line of dialogue builds the people and the world. Every action sequence tells you a little more about Luke, Leia and Han, Chewie and Threepio and even R2-D2, who never needs to even speak a word to be endearing

“Rogue One,” on the other hand, is far more concerned with what people are doing than why they are doing it, or who those actions make them. There’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), driven mostly by a desire to not be a prisoner and to maybe find her dad and to occasionally complain about being orphaned time and again. Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has a great speech about midway through the movie about why he does things like murder informants and assassinate people under orders, but mostly his greatest motivations for doing anything amount to “Empire bad” and, later, “Jyn good.”

Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), maybe the character most overlooked by “Rogue One” itself, hints at volumes of backstory, specifically time spent with Jyn’s father and Death Star inventor Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), that turned him from an Imperial freighter pilot into a defector willing to risk everything to help a friend. Jyn and Bodhi have a common connection — her heroic father — and I’m not sure the pair even speak to each other throughout the film.

The rest of the cast has similarly anemic development. We never learn a thing about Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus, except that he’s bros with Danny Yen’s Chirrut Imwe for some reason. K-2SO, the standoffish android with all the good lines played by Alan Tudyk, is programmed to fight for the Rebellion, so not a lot of arc there. And Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a disgraced insurgent even the Rebels don’t really like, gets kicked out of the movie by way of the Death Star laser right as he’s getting interesting.

More than ships and magic

The point is, “Rogue One” doesn’t bother to build its characters, and so the relationships between them don’t land. Without those relationships, “Star Wars” feels empty — a big, flashy, spectacular distraction.

Compare “Rogue One” or “The Force Awakens” to “A New Hope” and the difference is stark. “A New Hope” spends gobs of time fleshing out Luke Skywalker, before bouncing him off Han, and then letting Leia play off both. The original “Star Wars” film doesn’t require a giant action sequence every 10 minutes to keep the audience interested, so why does Disney think that’s the case with its new films?

The greatest moments of “Star Wars” aren’t when Ship 1 destroyed Ship 2. They’re not the absolutely ridiculous but amazing lightsaber battles of the Prequel Trilogy. The moments that resonate with people are the human ones. It’s Leia taking charge on the Death Star and Han showing up at the last second because he can’t abandon his friends.

It’s Luke’s reaction to learning his father’s identity and unwavering dedication to redeeming him. It’s these characters showing up for one another again and again. We care about all of them because the “Star Wars” films want us to care about them, and they invest the time necessary to convince us to do so. “Star Wars” isn’t lightsabers and Force powers. “Star Wars” is friendship.

But that’s the underlying problem with the new take on “Star Wars”: it’s so afraid to be boring, probably in response to the much-maligned prequel films, that it forgets what people love about “Star Wars” in the first place. The setting of “Star Wars” is important but not nearly as important as the people who find themselves living in that world, fighting to make it better.

So far, Disney hasn’t given those characters the commitment they need or the focus they deserve. The result is two movies that feel disjointed and, ultimately, unmemorable.