So this is how it feels to get what you want. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had a burden placed on its shoulders before the first trailer had even arrived; it was supposed to be a prequel that the fans could actually enjoy. It was meant to be devoured with the same fervor as the original trilogy by adults and children, old fans and new. Before the movie was shipped to the theaters, it was being compared to The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best Star Wars film, and certainly the darkest. But the film buckles under those expectations, and that’s just the beginning of the problems with Rogue One.
It would be simple to say that Rogue One sucks while moving on to the next tentpole film, but Gareth Edwards and his band of well-funded rebel filmmakers have made a film that’s worth dissecting even if it doesn’t deserve the early praise it has received. Keep in mind that the Rogue One plot will be discussed at length after this sentence, and if you want to spare yourself any spoilers, you can always read about how people were feeling on the opening night of The Force Awakens, or you can take in all the Star Wars references in Rogue One. For those of you brave enough to follow along on the suicide mission of understanding the first of many Star Wars Stories, proceed with caution and may the force be with you.
Why was Saw Gerrera a character in this movie? That character could have been anyone because none of his scenes mattered. None of them. Everything that happens in a scene with Saw Gerrera could have been taken care of with the existing characters in a way that didn't involve Forest Whitaker speaking in his tough guy voice and walking around on robot legs. Either one of the writers loves that character, or they were trying to insert a commercial for The Clone Wars.
Who are these people? Why do we care? Those are two of the main things that a screenwriter has to take care of in the first 20 minutes of a film. Even when we (vaguely) learn who the characters are in Rogue One, we're catching them at the end of their story, so when they mention doing horrible things in the name of the Rebellion, the audience has to take them at face value and it doesn't advance the plot or deepen a character in any way. When Jyn's father dies and she weeps over his corpse, the audience is supposed to feel her pain at losing her father as a child, only to find him just before he was taken from her forever. Speaking of Galen Erso, the audience is not only meant to understand that he was a man who was forced to build a machine of death for the Empire, and even though they crushed him he still managed to live his own rebellion - but you don't feel any of that, you're told that and it doesn't work.
The reason audiences cared about Luke losing his hand or Han being frozen in carbonite (or being killed by his son) is because they had been traveling with them through multiple films and survived close calls with the characters by the time bad things were happening to them. Viewers don't know Jyn or Cassian, so it's impossible for them to have the same connection with the audience. And even the stories that are somewhat fleshed out aren't well-written. No one feels three dimensional. Chewie had more character development than these jokers.
Even if you enjoyed the film, there's no way to pretend that it's a well-structured, cohesive narrative. The beginning of Rogue One jumps around trying to set up backstories at an alarming pace, while tossing in some Star Wars stuff so you don't forget what theater you're sitting in. Without being in the writer's room it's impossible to know exactly what went wrong, but it's likely a combination of too many cooks in the kitchen, and the screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) not trusting the audience with a nuanced film about the casualties of war. Structurally, the films plays like a sped-up version of Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, with the first act even mirroring some of the shots of that much better war film. While many of the scenes would have benefited from being allowed to play out in full, nothing about a three-hour Rogue One sounds fun.
Don't the Rebels spend most of A New Hope and Empire making fun of Luke for wanting to be a Jedi? Did the Rebel Alliance have a sudden change of heart once their force-loving Jyn Erso and Chirrut Îmwe ate it on Scarif? Maybe the screenwriters have only seen Return of the Jedi and that's why they think everyone is constantly running around and saying, "may the force be with you."