Imagine you're watching a fairly typical TV movie — say, a war film about American soldiers in Vietnam.
It's not a great movie. But it's no disaster, either. The plot is derivative. The cast is stocked with second-tier stars, but they're used effectively, and the picture has good production values.
Now imagine this flick carpeted wall to wall with a blaring, blasting, ear-bursting score transplanted from Apocalypse Now. Here comes a second-rate scene about a helicopter attack, accompanied by Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."
That pretty much sums up Lucasfilm's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a tepid if fairly competent prequel of sorts to the first film in the series, 1977's Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
Rogue One, opening Thursday with showtimes starting at 7 p.m., is a minor little story with a likable cast and familiar Star Wars themes. But it tries so hard to be an epic masterpiece — with self-important speeches and an insanely outsize orchestral score — that it ends up a laughable parody of itself.
Rogue One is designed to work both as a stand-alone movie and a piece in the larger Star Wars series. In terms of story, it fits somewhere between Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, and it serves to set up several narrative threads that are followed in the latter film. (We find out, for example, how Princess Leia came to record the hologram message that R2-D2 plays in the beginning of A New Hope at Ben Kenobi's house.)
The new film was directed by Gareth Edwards, a fine sci-fi craftsman whose films include Godzilla (2014) and Monsters. His direction is good, though it falters in the many battle scenes, which tend to be confusing, badly edited, and fragmentary.
The script — by a pair of otherwise good scribblers, Chris Weitz (American Pie) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne series) — is an equally slapdash affair that simply recycles chunks of the 1977 film.
The earlier piece was a coming-of-age story about Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a boy who dreams of adventure and ends up becoming a man with a mission.
Rogue One has the same dynamic, though its hero is a woman.
The marvelous British actor Felicity Jones, whose talents were wasted in the Dan Brown snoozer Inferno, stars as rebel youngster Jyn Erso. (Is it just me, or does that sound an awful lot like Jane Eyre?) She's on a quest to save her scientist dad, Galen (Casino Royale villain Mads Mikkelsen), from an officer of the evil Empire named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who is forcing the mild-mannered brainiac to build the planet-destroying Death Star.
"It will be a weapon of mass destruction," Random Rebel Officer says in earnest shock.
Jones and her costars aren't given much of a chance to do actual acting. This is, after all, a Star Wars film, with actors as action figures.
It's a shame, though, given the quality of the cast, which includes Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, and Forest Whitaker. Only Whitaker (Arrival, Ghost Dog), who plays a radical rebel faction leader who has lost his legs, is given any space to emote, though he comes off like a weepy, narcissistic operatic divo.
Despite it all, Rogue One would have made for a good movie if it didn't take itself so awfully and relentlessly seriously.
Firefly star Alan Tudyk offers comic relief as a fretful, sarcastic droid, and Hong Kong action star Yen (Ip Man, Special ID) adds a touch of charm as a blind guru. But every other character is weighed down by king-size gravitas.
The film's self-importance and absurd pretentions to epic status are most apparent in its insufferably bombastic – and very, very loud – John Williamsesque score.
Drafted by experienced composer Michael Giacchino (Doctor Strange, Star Trek Beyond), the music uses famous passages from Williams' sweeping Star Wars score. Here again, Rogue One overdoes it, cramming the grand orchestral score into every inch of the movie. The Zarathustra- and Valkyrie-size racket swells up during the most innocuous, uneventful transitional sequences. A simple shot of a ship taking off becomes an occasion for over-the-top crescendos.
It's an utterly mad and desperate misuse of music, as though the filmmakers felt they had to bully viewers into believing they were watching a masterpiece.
Not every film that bears the Star Wars name needs to be a world-historical event. In fact, that was one of the reasons behind smaller stand-alone spin-offs like Rogue One. Why not be content to give us just that?