While I still consider these to be missteps, I'm starting to realize they may not really matter in the end, because the movie is still in fact, quite good. Not only are there pretty valid counterpoints to my critique, but there are simply a lot of other great qualities that carry the film, and I believe will cement it as a fan-favoriite.
UPDATE: I saw it in Imax 3D for a third viewing and I liked it even more! Keep reading to see why...
Counter-Point on Theme
The theme isn't rebellion, it's trust.
As much as I would've loved a theme of indulgent rebelliousness, the movie went a different route with the notion of trust. It may be a little subtler, but no less personal to the characters struggling with it. On a second pass, I was actually quite impressed with the way they underplayed this theme, and snuck it into almost every character's dynamic, without shoehorning it or drawing attention.
When Jyn' Erso's mother gives her the kyber necklace early on before sending her off to hide with the revolutionary extremists, she says, "Trust the Force." Later, when Jyn goes on her first mission with Cassian Andor and K-2SO, they don't trust her with a gun (even though she brings one anyway). "Trust works both ways," Jyn reminds them. K-2SO is jealous because he wasn't allowed one either, "How come I don't get a gun?" After all, he is a reprogrammed imperial droid and I wonder if that's why they keep telling him to wait by the ship. Nobody trusts Bodhi, either, the Imperial pilot who defects with a message from Jyn's father. Saw Gerrera doesn't, but he doesn't even trust Jyn herself. He seems almost mortally wounded to see her again because he assumes she is part of a trap to capture him. The lowest point in the film is when Jyn confronts Cassian about attempting to assassinate her father after he lied about "just taking a look" with his rifle in the "sniper configuration". You can sense the lack of trust that is dividing them. When she tries to share her father's all-important message, he won't believe her testimony. "Tell me you still have the message," he begs. "It was a hologram," she answers somberly, realizing it was destroyed. "I believe her," Chirrut answers proudly. But the point remains, no one else will. And no one else at the Rebellion did, at least not at first.
But someone does believe her. Chirrut, the blind swordsman, truly the heart and soul of the team and the film. His mantra, "I am one with the Force and the Force is with me," is a declaration of blind trust (pun intended). And it's his faith that begins to turn the tide in the film. Despite being a secondary character, the Hong King martial arts superstar is the cornerstone of this theme of trust/faith which inevitably infects the cast.
When Jyn stands up to the Rebellion high command, no one trusts her that this can work, that it isn't a trap, and that the Rebellion is strong enough to pull it off in the first place. They barely trust each other. This is a formative time for the Rebellion and it's neat to see them fractured and disorganized, and also scared.
It's only after Jyn's speach about hope that Cassian has a change of heart and rallies the troops to join her on the risky mission. Realizing hope is the product of trust, he is finally willing to give her that trust, along with the others, to complete the mission. There's a throwaway line he uses to justify his change of heart. He and his compatriots have all made morally questionable decisions in the hope of a greater good, and this came to the surface after Jyn accused him trying to assassinate her father. He had to face his poor decisions and realize that if they don't help her succeed in stopping the Death Star, then the Rebellion will fail and all his unethical choices will not be justified. The ends can't justify the means if they don't ever come to fruition. I feel like this must've been a remnant of the earlier theme of rebellion I was so keen on in my first post. That rebellion is in their nature and they have to simultaneously atone for it and embrace it in order to find moral redemption. At the very least, it still functions as character motivation, even if it is shoehorned in pretty briefly to justify the sudden change of heart.
It's at this point when Mon Mothma, a glimmer of hope in her eyes as well, tells Senator Organa (in a great return cameo from Jimmy Smitts) to call on their "Jedi friend" (Obi-Wan Kenobi) from the Clone Wars. Does he have anyone he can trust to go fetch him? Yes, he has someone he "trusts with my life," who ends up being his adopted daughter, Princess Leia. As a result, we can see how this through-line of trust connects directly and inevitably to the ultimate payoff, hope. Hope (represented by the CGI magic of a young Princess Leia) functions not only as an Easter Egg and a reminder of which film comes after this one, but it's a symbol. Hope represents what comes out of trust. And it's the fitting last line of the film. We only get to see Hope (Leia) after everyone learns to trust each other, even taking that trust to the point of death.
It was only on a second viewing that I appreciated how understated these themes were, and yet how successfully interwoven. It was only on the third showing that I had to admit, this is Empire Strikes Back level of quality filmmaking.
If Empire Strikes Back's defining qualities are about tearing your family of characters apart and ending the plot with tragic loose ends in a gritty and world-weary universe of moral complexity, then Rogue One is a proud successor. It took me a few viewings to accept it, but the fans aren't wrong who were saying it from the start.
My UPDATED movie order:
Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi
The Force Awakens
Attack of the Clones
A New Hope
Revenge of the Sith
The Phantom Menace
BONUS: If you want to read more, click here to read a rundown of each character, commentary on their acting, and how this theme of trust is depicted in their portrayal.