A lot of my friends love ROGUE ONE. Bully for them. I don't. I feel sort of bad about it, and maybe an eventual revisit will warm me to it, but I have very specific problems with prequels, and they may explain why this film left me colder than SNOW FALLING ON CEDAR.
Most prequels don't need to exist and probably shouldn't. The problem prequels run into frequently is they tell us information that is irrelevant. For instance, I know Anakin is going to turn bad. Seeing that happen isn't interesting if I'm not emotionally invested. To make me invested I need to care about that character. Lucas spent three films not doing that. OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is charming at times, but what parent or person wouldn't rather watch the 1939 film? The Hobbit films at least had their roots in a book, but it was distended beyond nature - it's the Mr. Creosote of trilogies. But more than that it tries to engage you with spectacle that only works when you have a rooting interest. The problem is often how, and how is so often overlooked in these films.
What are good prequels? My list is thin. The best example currently going is BETTER CALL SAUL. There are a number of reasons for this. But foremost is that the creators from the first frame show that whatever Saul/Jimmy/Cinnabon employee man does, his fate is determined. And so we can wonder if the events, as they unfold, are inevitable. Jimmy McGill isn't loved by his brother. But Jimmy had bad tendencies. Would brotherly love have fixed or enabled him? Is Chuck right, even if he is an asshole? The little things add up, but this show has given those little seismic shifts the weight of earthquakes.
My mind then goes to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. What is so great about this film (and less so, so far, about the sequels) is that it showed something that we never got to see if we take certain time travel theories to be correct (essentially, if we accept that Taylor arrived on timeline A, the time travel of Cornelius creates a timeline B by altering events of the past. This may have been explained in the films proper, though the films suggests that Taylor's craft was not created in 1968, while Cornelius and Zora arrive in 1971 most obviously). But the story of RISE is about enslavement and rebellion and it works by creating a new template for the franchise. It also works because it adapts modern concerns to the franchise, while the first film ended on a note of nuclear panic, this later film is about genetic modifications and superbugs. It also wasn't a story that had been previously told in the franchise, even if it has similarities to CONQUEST.
The thing about THE GODFATHER PART II is that the prequel elements are also not telling us anything we knew before. It works because it acts in parallel with the story of Michael Corleone. Perhaps we thought Don Vito was mostly honorable, but it paints a portrait of immigrant life which feels historically correct. A minority oppressed, with limited opportunities, and one oppressed by its own. Vito built an empire on blood, and the family paid the price, but Vito hoped his legacy would be Michael, but not the Michael Michael became. Seeing the life of Vito is not telling us things that had been explained or inferred by the first film.
You know what's a great prequel? KILL BILL VOLUME ONE CHAPTER FIVE. We know that the bride defeated O-Ren Ishii, it's obvious from the end of the first chapter of that film. What we don't know is the how. And the how is fucking amazing. And I gauge prequels on the how.
So, ROGUE ONE. The information about how the rebels got the missing plans was covered in a crawl, so it was disposed of within, literally, the first three minutes of the original film as a minor detail. But going in to this film, I knew two things: The new characters can't play a part in future films, and the rebels gonna get those plans.
Here's where disappointment set in for me: At no point does anyone have any great special skills to get those plans, nor do the main group of rag tag thieves have that many defining character traits. People will probably point to the new droid (and he's the best thing in the movie), or Donnie Yen, but that's not enough. I kept waiting for something, anything to happen where someone had a special set of skills that were useful. And though that sort of happens a little bit, so much of the third act was for me more impressive spectacle versus engaging craft.
Now, here's where I can play a little bit of devil's advocate and say that this might possibly be the point, that it's not about skilled people doing things they are good at but ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances who have to deal with the cards they're given.
And if the film was that subtle, I would totally forgive it if the film's denouement wasn't as ham fisted as a punch from Porky Pig. I guess some see the ending as the natural conclusion to the narrative about hope. For me It was fan service dialed up to eleven. And maybe I'm not connecting to the thematic resonances therein. But perhaps I'm too turned off by a kung fu Darth Vader and a poorly acted CGI Tarkin to care.
I think you could probably take a character getting coffee and turn it it into a feature film. About how the beans were grown, about how they were cured, about how they made their way to a Starbucks (or wherever) and make it interesting, but if that's the case I have to be engaged on a level more than "Eventually these people get their coffee" and that was how I felt about ROGUE ONE. Eventually, the rebels are going to get their Grande Mocha.