What Went Wrong
Almost everything. From casting, to story, to editing, this movie is a step backwards for the Star Wars franchise.
Let’s start with the protagonist. Throughout the movie, she is almost completely passive. I don’t know if the actress is any good or not, because most of her screen time consists of her gazing gratefully at the men that are doing things for her.
Compare this with Rey, who we see surviving just on her wits and her skills in her first few minutes of screen time.
An example of how blatant her passivity is: in one scene, there’s a glorified claw game that needs to be manipulated. Not difficult, certainly something that anyone with any manual dexterity at all could use. But rather than grab the controls herself, and execute the mission we’re supposed to believe she passionately wants to succeed, she hangs back and let’s the nameless guy next to her take over.
Her actions are just one piece of the story that’s problematic. At several junctions, characters make decisions that are out of step with what we know about them, and don’t make sense within the world as a whole. Why assassinate an enemy scientist, when you could capture them? Why send a signal to a fleet that you’re on the planet surface, when the reason they’re there is because they know you’re on the surface?
Why film a 2-minute scene with one of the classic villains of cinema, just for him to throw puns?
Perhaps the film as shot would have better explained all of these inconsistencies. But the edited film is so choppy, so eager to hop from place to place and set of characters to set of characters, that it becomes a confusing mess. We never spend enough time with the protagonist to care about her, or any of her companions (save for two, which I’ll get to later).
Again, I can’t help but contrast it with Episode VII, which used long takes and wide establishing shots to give us a sense of mood and place. And for the protagonist, it takes its time letting us know who she is, following her for a day before the main storyline gets going.
We get no such chance to learn about the protagonist of Rogue One. Only 2 min scene followed by 2 min scene, emotional beats chopped off at the wrist, ad infinitum.
How To Fix It
The real tragedy to me about this movie is that the core story is fantastic: Imperial scientist is working for them against his will, and instead of collaborating, uses his position to undermine them from within. Daughter finds out, and decides to mount a rescue. In doing so, she has to "go rogue," rebelling against the rebels to get what she wants.
That’s a great story. It directly addresses the moral problems in the Star Wars universe, where we’re supposed to celebrate the destruction of a battle station on which hundreds of thousands of people were living and working. Were they all worthy of death?
Unfortunately, that story has been buried underneath disconnected characters, sloppy editing, and a tension-free plot.
We need to make some major plot tweaks, trim several characters, and bring the focus back to the central character.
We open by fleshing out the party scene that was a 10-second fuzzy flashback in the film. It’s a good-bye party for her dad, one last night of drinking and dancing in his Imperial uniform before moving out to farm country. Jyn’s sneaking downstairs to grab some extra dessert after bedtime, mostly oblivious to the dialog between her father and the Director (who is trying to convince him to stay, ribbing him about getting his hands dirty, etc). She gets caught, of course, giving her father a chance to sweep her up in arms and dote on her, calling her by her nickname.
Right away, we establish that we’re going to humanize the Imperials a little, and that our protagonist’s allegiance might be ambiguous.
Next we show the family at work on the farm, years later. Jyn doing chores, eating with her parents.
There’s a knock on the door. It’s their old family friend, the Director.
Her father invites him inside, outwardly friendly but it’s clear there’s tension between them.
They talk. The Director pushes her father to come back to work. Says he can’t do it without him. When her dad refuses, the Director responds with a threat: “You won’t like it when I come back tomorrow. I won’t be alone.”
Her dad again refuses, and the Director leaves. Her parents stay up late, talking about what to do. They decide Jyn and her mom should leave at first light, heading to the shelter.
But when the Director returns the next day, with troops, as promised, they’re ambushed by a rebel squadron. Jyn and her mom flee as her dad is captured, but her mom is killed in the crossfire – by the rebels.
Jyn gets to the shelter, waits as she was told, where she’s found by Saw.
Now we’ve established a lot of backstory in just a few scenes: the ambiguous relationship her father has with the Empire, the dangers of living in a civil war, and why Jyn might hate the rebels as much as she mistrusts Imperials.
Next scene: Jyn a little older, running a scam for Saw. We learn Saw is a scoundrel, one of those living just outside the law that sometimes help the rebels, sometimes the Imperials, as suits them. She returns home, flush with cash, when she sees a rebel leader leaving. She confronts Saw, finds he’s been helping the rebels out, sometimes without pay. Angry that he’s working with those that killed her mother, she strikes out on her own, leaving Saw’s home and his friends.
So now we have more backstory, another layer to Jyn’s personality. And we’ve introduced Saw, and know who he is and what he’s doing in the movie. We care about both, the protagonist and her surrogate father. We can take either side in their argument, and feel justified.
Next we see Jyn, a little older now, committing another theft. She gets caught this time, and sentenced to a labor camp for her crimes. It’d be nice if we could see an example of swift-but-cruel Imperial justice here. It would give the audience a reason to lean toward the rebel side later on.
The rebels attack the prison transport, freeing everyone, including her. Most of her fellow prisoners are rebels, but she curses them. They restrain her, take her back to base – can’t let her go, she’ll run right to the Imperials and give them away – where they find out who she is, and her connection with Saw.
Saw, it turns out, is their only connection with a mole deep inside the Emperor’s Death Star project. The mole’s used Saw to pass intelligence to them for years. Saw’s holding the last message for ransom, though. He says it’s too important to let go without getting properly paid for it.
The rebels make Jyn a deal: if she meets with Saw, and negotiates a fair price, they’ll let her go.
She agrees. They assign her Cassian and the droid as her minders (jailers), and send her off.
She still meets Chirrut and Baze, but not as strangers. She knows them both, because she grew up on their planet. They know where Saw is, and readily take her there (after disposing of the Stormtrooper patrol that tries to grab them).
Notice: we don’t need any backstory on Cassian, or the pilot, or any mysterious goons working for Saw that capture them. Since everyone knows each other, we can spend more time showing what matters. Also, the stakes are higher, because these characters all have relationships with each other.
We also don’t need any scenes showing Director Krennic and his problems. Why do we care? It’s enough to see the Death Star looming over the horizon, and firing on the city. We can find out later they did it just to test-fire it.
So, we have Jyn reunited with Saw. This scene is filled with tension now: will he welcome her back? Will she put aside her antipathy for rebels long enough to get free?
And: what’s the message Saw’s holding on to?
Saw is glad to see her, still feels guilty for letting her go. Won’t stop working with the rebels, though. He’s seen too much of the Imperial yoke to want to wear it forever. Jyn says she doesn’t want to negotiate, that her jailer should do that.
Saw tells her negotiating won’t be necessary. Because the message is for her.
That’s when he takes her back and plays it for her. She hears her father for the first time in years, explaining how he was taken from her, and how he’s been working against the Empire from within.
This scene is the turning point of Act One. The moment when Jyn starts to have something to live for besides herself. And when she starts tilting toward the rebel side.
We still have the Death Star blow up the town, and Saw’s people have to leave. He doesn’t hang back to commit a pointless suicide, though.
Instead, the pilot kills him.
We don’t know anything about the pilot at this point. We’re told he defected, and so Cassian breaks him out of jail when things start collapsing around them. He breaks off from the group, though, and finds Saw gathering some last-minute things to take with him (including the message from Jyn’s dad).
The pilot shoots Saw, then hurries to the transport. Tells everyone Saw died under a pile of rubble. Too bad the message was lost.
Because the pilot’s a double agent. The Emperor’s set one of his classic traps for the rebels: give them what they think they want, but be there to snatch it away at the last minute.
Now we’ve got a reason for the pilot to matter, for the audience to care about him. And to worry about Jyn’s survival.
They get back to the rebel base, where they’re assigned to go fetch Jyn’s dad, now that they know he’s the mole.
Cassian still gets secret orders, but they’re to kill her father only if it looks like he’ll be captured and interrogated by the Imperials. Since he’s been their mole for so long, if they fail to get him out, the Empire can learn exactly how much they know, and change it so their knowledge is useless.
They get there, stage a rescue, but it all goes bad when Imperials bomb the place. The pilot, forced off his vantage point by Cassian (who was readying his sniper rifle), used the opportunity to sneak off and radio them what was going on.
So no Director Krennic, but we still have Cassian make a choice not to kill Jyn’s dad, when it’s clear the mission has failed and the Imperials know about their mole. He and Jyn still have a fight as they take off in a stolen shuttle, but this time it’s him as the only rebel against her crew of rogues, instead of Jyn the captive against a group that Cassian leads.
When they get back, there’s more reasons for Jyn to abandon the rebel cause. She makes her case to the Council – shrunk to just a dozen people, instead of seemingly everyone in the rebellion crowded into one room – but they decide not to go after the Death Star plans. They want to prep for a conventional assault on the station, they don’t want to waste people and resources on a likely suicide mission with dubious benefit.
She’s crushed, wondering what to do, when Mon Mothma takes her aside. She can’t give her any official backing, she tells Jyn, but she can see that she gets off the base safely and has access to enough equipment to pull off her raid to get the Death Star plans.
So there’s hope. Jyn gathers her crew – the defecting pilot, the two temple priests from her childhood – and starts prepping the raid. Cassian comes to her, asking to be part of it, to prove to her that he can be trusted.
She agrees, and her crew is complete. There’s no group of redshirts going with them. They’re going in stealthy and quiet, using the pilot’s knowledge of the facility and her ability to get into places she shouldn’t to pull it off.
One more change: as they’re stealing the shuttle for their mission, and asked for the call sign, she tells the pilot: “Tell them our call sign is Rogue. Rogue One.” It’s a symbol of her independence, her refusal to submit to authority of any kind, no matter how seemingly benign. She’s on the rebel side, for now, but she’s not really a rebel. She’s a rogue.
When they get to the planet, things still go pear-shaped. The pilot betrays them again, radioing Darth Vader that the rebels are there.
His betrayal turns out to be a boon, though: since he’s connected them to the Imperial network, they’re able to get a signal to the rebel fleet that they’ve gotten the tape, and they should send a ship into orbit to receive the transmission.
So we still get our space battle, with the rebels sending in more and more ships to both get the plans and then try to get their people off the surface (which is the real reason they need to drop the planet’s defense shield). We still have Jyn’s squad being picked off one by one, as they race against time to both get the plans and get them transmitted off-world.
But having spent so much more time with them, as a group, we care more. The victory – their victory – comes at a high price.