Watching Rogue One brings me back to watching War for the Planet of the Apes about a week ago, because both films had some really dumb uses of really good CGI. In Rogue One, the really dumb use is the character of Grand Moff Tarkin, as the actor who originally played him died, and they decided to recreate him out of pixels and voiceovers. In Planet of the Apes, the really dumb use is pretty much the whole movie.
But it begs the question of why exactly are Apes’ and Rogue One’s use of CGI dumb than say The Force Awakens or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets? Simple: CGI will feel stupid and forced if you’re using it to create something onscreen that already exists in real life. Making a CGI blue Avatar alien or a giant Star Wars space fish is ok since those things don’t exist and therefore don’t provide us with a frame of reference of how accurate a CGI version is of them. We can’t just encounter a big blue alien every day on the street and say “oh shit, the CGI versions we saw in Avatar look nothing like you guys! That movie sucks now!” CGI humans and apes though never feel as good as the real thing, and in turn, make the stories in which they’re being used significantly weaker, like in Rogue One.
What’s disappointing about Rogue One in particular is that there’s really no need for Grand Moff Tarkin at all. Yeah, he’s a beloved character from A New Hope and this movie takes place directly before that, but he’s being awkwardly written in the story just to appeal to the fans. There’s no storytelling purpose of him being there except to serve as foil to the villain Krennic. The only thing that happens though is that we end up taking the movie less seriously and Krennic as a villain less seriously, making the stakes and the obstacles in the Rogue One team’s way seem less threatening. Instead of yearning for excitement, we’re left yawning for it to end.
It also doesn’t help that Rogue One’s heroes are kind of boring. Jyn Erso’s only defining character trait is that she’s her father’s daughter, that’s pretty much all we know about her and all we ever find out, a disappointing use of Felicity Jones’ acting potential. Cassian Andor is just spy guy, K-2SO is just sarcastic C-3PO, and the other dudes are Chirrut Imwe, a blind guy with a stick, and Baze Malbus, a guy with a big gun. Chirrut and Galen Erso, the guy who designed the Death Star and really the one around who the story revolves, are the only characters who seem to be interesting and actually have personalities.
But when Rogue One gets to its final act, where blasters are firing in all directions and tie-fighters swarm in from every angle, does the movie actually achieve something close to greatness. It’s a masterful, moving symphony of light and sound, a meticulously-detailed battle scene that would make Steven Spielberg or Stanley Kubrick swoon. Oh, and there’s Darth Vader doing bad ass Darth Vader stuff! This alone makes the movie worthwhile.
A year or a bit longer ago, there was somebody on Twitter who posed the question of trying to name two characters from Avatar, or quote a single line from the movie. It was hard! And it’s because you don’t really remember that movie for the characters or the story, if you even remember it at all. It’s just a pure visual experience. Same thing with Rogue One, you probably came name Jyn Erso and Galen Erso and probably nobody else. Even if you can name another character, you have a tough time describing who that character is as a person and what motivates them. This is sad because Star Wars, while being a special effects extravaganza, has always put incredible, diverse, memorable characters at the forefront. We could care less about lasers and spaceships if it wasn’t for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia flying around in them. But for Jyn Erso, Galen Erso and, uhhh, the other guys, they make Rogue One fun but forgettable.