Comparisons between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story have always been an inevitable result of these two movies releasing just 12 months apart. And though they’re two very different films (one is a franchise opener and the other a prequel standalone), TFA and RO are both representative of the future that is Star Wars, one of the most beloved mythologies in modern history.
Walking out of TFA, I felt a strange urge to lay some cynicism on the engaging and thrilling spectacle I had just witnessed (and I did ultimately grade it positive). And my criticism of the new trilogy’s opening chapter has been admittedly inconsistent, where at one point I heavily lamented the incomplete character design of Rey, and more recently, I praised the interesting set ups for her legacy. Let it not be said that Rey is a “simple” hero.
By comparison, my problems with RO were far more pronounced and have not budged in the slightest. Despite some great production design and third act action scenes that are anthology peaks, we were given blank slated characters I’ve all but forgotten about in just a few short months, and I’m certainly not alone.
The video above by Lessons from the Screenplay expertly lays out how my issues with both Star Wars films resulted from poor decisions via the writing. Jyn Erso is a passive character whose narrative is beholden to contrived circumstances and loose relationships with superficially interesting characters given little to do. Put simply, it’s a mess of a screenplay. And Michael Tucker manages to make better sense out of why TFA did a superior job making its characters so instantly intriguing and why it’s the better film overall, nostalgic remixing aside.
That said, I’m well aware of the many Star Wars fans who prefer RO in all of its perplexity and dark subject matter. It takes bold risks that provide a useful precedent for Star Wars films that can expand the lore in meaningful ways, not just for the sake of box office. But what makes RO unique can also be perceived as a limiting drawback, moving on from the childish wonder of this mythology (for better or worse) so that it can properly make a movie for adults. In my opinion, it overcorrected in some ways and somehow regressed in others, probably through its late reshoots.
Yes, I believe TFA is better than RO, and I’d even propose that history will remember it as the better film, as well. But I don’t believe this is what truly matters for fans of Star Wars. The takeaway is that diverse Star Wars films are being developed for differing tastes. While RO was not a film I particularly enjoyed, it is one that satisfied a group of fans yearning for something different and unusual. I don’t believe they were given the best product possible in that regard, but to be perfectly honest, neither was I with TFA.
Which is Better? Story and Plot
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the clear winner. As supported by Michael Tucker’s visual analysis, TFA has a better structure with far fewer throwaway scenes that don’t advance the plot. Rogue One deserves some credit for its effort to be standalone and for its audacious risks, but it falters far too much when it comes to the narrative of Jyn Erso.
Rogue One wins by a slim margin, here, only because it goes all the way with its willingness to depict new and exciting set pieces (Darth Vader’s infamous hallway scene and the Star Destroyer crash, for example). The Force Awakens also has incredible action sequences, of course, and the final lightsaber fight might have cinched this category if not for the simultaneously forgettable Rogue Squadron battle on Starkiller Base. If Rogue One had missed a step with its space battles, then Poe Dameron would have won this just on his one-shot alone.
The Force Awakens takes this category by a landslide, despite some interesting ideas set forth through characters like K-2SO and Chirrut. Despite seeing Rogue One more recently, I had to search engine those names, which probably speaks volumes.
The Force Awakens also wins this one for a few significant reasons. Yes, Darth Vader gets one great 30 second scene, but it’s countered by a frankly awful scene between him and another character (complete with a Force dad joke), as well as some shoddy CGI for Tarkin and a wildly complacent Krennic who gets almost zero payoff. Kylo Ren is ultimately the fresher and more compelling villain, balanced well with Snoke and Hux for good measure.
This one’s a tie. The Force Awakens is mostly ho-hum save for Rey’s Theme and the Jedi Steps, but it’s about the same for Rogue One. Neither soundtrack truly stands out with their own Imperial March or Duel of the Fates.
Design (Cinematography, Special Effects, Production Design)
Another tie. Both movies had huge tasks ahead of them. Rogue One had to recapture an established aesthetic with the same amount of detail, while also dabbling in its own inventive ideas. It succeeded on all counts. The Force Awakens, by comparison, contributed a fresher take that reasonably jumped forward in time while also setting the standard for practical effects in a new era of Star Wars films. Neither film quite cracked the uncanny valley (Maz, Tarkin, Rathtars, Leia, etc.), but they made comparable strides.
The only category where Rogue One truly shines is in its action, and even then, it’s by a slim margin. Everything else it accomplishes is either in step with The Force Awakens or a bit worse, especially when it comes to its writing. This is why I firmly believe the subject matter is what truly counts for fans who differ on which film is “better.” For fans of darker material, it’s no contest, while others who prefer the campy mythology and operatic lightsaber battles will undoubtedly point to TFA as the better film.