One of the most derisive things you can say about a fictional woman character was that she doesn’t have agency. What almost no one says is that agency is the least interesting thing a woman can have. We’re in such a rush to have stories about women who do things that we haven’t thought much about what they should be doing. Kicking ass? Leaving bad husbands? Driving cars off cliffs? All of those can be great things, in the right story, but you can’t just sew bravery onto a character like a Girl Scout patch. If it doesn’t come from someplace within, it’s just a gimmick.
In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it’s a gimmick, no matter how well-intentioned. Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a young woman whose father, Galen Erso (a characteristically stately Mads Mikkelsen), was snatched away from her years ago by Empire thug Orson Krennic (a weasely Ben Mendelsohn). We see the family’s disintegration in flashback: Galen, his wife and little Jyn are living, simply, as farmers, more or less. But Galen is in reality a talented weapons engineer, and Krennic needs his skills to build the ultimate weapon, which shall later come to be known as the Death Star. Jyn, essentially orphaned and driven underground, is left to make her way in the world alone.
It’s a dangerous one: Stormtroopers roam the grim landscape, rooting out threats to the Empire. People—like Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, one of Galen’s old compatriots—come and go in Jyn’s life. There’s no such thing as stability in her world. But she finds a purpose when she meets rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed-security-droid sidekick K-2S0 (whose voice belongs to Alan Tudyk, a charming, dry actor with a long, varied career, but who first sparked in Joss Whedon’s late, great Firefly). At first, Jyn doesn’t like Cassian much. Then she likes him a lot. Everyone must earn one another’s trust. And so forth.
If you lose track of the plot, just remember this: A bunch of people have to go to the place to get the thing. Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards (director of the listless, monotone 2014 Godzilla) and written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta), has been designed as a Star Wars stand-alone, a picture that takes place within the Star Wars universe but which introduces new characters and storylines. That’s not a bad idea, but what you do with it counts. The story was inspired, according to Knoll, by World War II adventure films that had energized Lucas, pictures like The Dam Busters (1955) and The Guns of Navarone (1961). Visually, Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser have chosen to go with a studied, naturalistic, semi-gritty palette: They sought out 1970s camera lenses and tweaked the results with digital technology. The resulting look is a kind of intergalactic dishwater fugue.
But even if there’s a lot of gray in Rogue One, that doesn’t make it particularly dark. The Rebel Alliance is fighting for something important, but what was it again? The freedom to wear something other than drab, tattered, sub-Eileen Fisher linen? (Not such a bad thing to fight for.) The story hits every expected beat, right when you expect it to. And it squanders some of its best resources: The actors who show up include Riz Ahmed and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, though the former’s soulfulness has nowhere to land, and the latter, playing a blind rebel warrior, is stuck with a stupefyingly obvious mantra (“I am with the force, the force is with me”) that’s tired the second time we hear it, let alone the fifth.
Jones, as Jyn, comes at the material gamely. Her character gets to run around and discharge firearms, both wonderful things in theory. But they work only as signpost feminism: These may be things we want women to do in movies, but they aren’t necessarily more interesting just because women are doing them. (Charlize Theron’s one-armed renegade Furiosa, from Mad Max: Fury Road, is an example of how to do it right, a character whose tendency toward violence is the fabric of her vitality.) Jones is a capable actress, but the movie asks her to strike a tough-girl pose she can’t sustain, at least not without flaring her nostrils excessively. When she gives a Saint Crispin’s Day-style speech designed to rouse the troops, they perk up their heads with mild interest, but you can tell they’re not buying it.
Still, there are a few bright dots of rouge in Rogue One. At one point Jimmy Smits sweeps by in some primo Flash Gordon wear. Franchise loyalists will recognize him as Bail Organa, from Revenge of the Sith and Attack of the Clones, a reminder of the days when the Star Wars franchise was a bountiful font of drag-queen names. Rogue One made me nostalgic for those movies, a thing I never thought I’d say. They were boring and stupid and Lucas, their mastermind, took them way too seriously. But at least they scooted along, semi-efficiently, on the fumes of their own ridiculousness.
Their freak-flag-flying zaniness almost looks progressive next to Rogue One, which is almost pedantic in its inoffensiveness. There’s nothing in Rogue One that would damage or scare most little children, as long as they’re prepared for an on-screen onslaught of the Pantone colors known as Oatmeal and Soot. (Toward the movie’s end, a light saber appears, and the picture levitates, if only for a moment.) And while some Donald Trump supporters have vowed to boycott the film—believing, for some tinfoil-helmet reason known only to themselves, that the ending was reshot post-election to incorporate some subliminal, anti-Trump sentiment—looking to Rogue One for any subversive political statement is a fool’s errand. Its politics are numbingly multi-purpose. Characters spout slogans like “Rebellions are built on hope,” which may very well be intended to slant left, though you could also put those same words in the mouths of disenchanted white Americans who just want their jobs back. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will not change lives for the worse or for the better, and it will—or ought to—offend no one. Welcome to the Republic of the Just OK.