“Rebellions are built on hope.”
I often don’t feel inclined to share my thoughts on new releases on this blog, typically because I feel like I’m not adding much to the conversation. My opinions fall in line with the critical consensus fairly often, but even if they don’t, it seems that a movie is getting enough buzz at the time of its release and my humble words won’t cover much new ground. Today I felt inclined, however, after seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to get down some thoughts. The reason is that I didn’t much care for this movie. I had heard almost nothing but praises, some even calling it their new favorite Star Wars movie, and I felt it my humble duty to point out what I feel are serious flaws with a film that severely tested my patience. As always, feel free to share your thoughts below. I’ll be back with my sporadically scheduled film journey very soon.
Rogue One takes place right before the original Star Wars trilogy. It follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young woman who has been captured for crimes against the Empire but is freed by the Rebel cause. It turns out that Jyn’s father is Galen Erso, a scientist who has been taken by the Empire to help them construct the Death Star, a super weapon that has the capability of destroying planets. Jyn teams up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel intelligence officer to help extract Galen and eventually find the Death Star plans that will aid the Rebels in their ultimate elimination of the Death Star. The film is of course intended as a one-off story, a setup for the famous trilogy that follows.
While watching Rogue One, I was reminded of a concept that Tarantino discussed in this interview with Elvis Mitchell. He claimed that he is excited about that moment when the audience is invested in the film, when they cross that threshold into immersion. It’s something that’s always stuck with me: When do you stop trying to find your way in and simply enjoy the film? At what point do you care about the characters? When do you understand and appreciate what this movie is about? I can say with confidence that for most great movies, this happens sooner rather than later. Tarantino understands this, and his movies seem to get you there almost instantly. (Take Inglorious Basterds as an example.) Rogue One‘s biggest problem is how terribly long it takes to get you there.
I’ll get into spoiler territory now. The film begins with a flashback, the scene where a young Jyn Erso watches her mother die and must flee from the Empire, eventually arriving at safety with the Rebels. We then cut to Jyn grown up, but she’s now in prison on a different planet. Then we continue to planet-hop from scene to scene for a large chunk of the movie in short bursts, back and forth from the different heroes to the different villains. Not only is the first 30 minutes confusing – it just never lets you understand its places or its characters. Think about Episode 4 or Episode 7, two fantastic movies, and one major reason they succeed is that we get to spend a lot of time in one place with one character at the beginning. We get to understand the protagonist. I’d estimate maybe a fourth of these movies take place in the hero’s starting point (Tatooine and Jakku respectively). We get to learn what these characters are like, what matters to them and how they live their lives. We learn almost nothing about Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, or really anyone else in the movie that isn’t somehow necessary for the plot.
This is perhaps what bored me the most with Rogue One: the characters. I’ve never seen such lifeless, uninteresting people in a Star Wars movie. I was pleased to see such diversity in the film with another female protagonist along with racial minorities and women in positions of authority, but these characters have nothing unique about them. I walked out of the theater having a hard time remembering anyone’s name. I first thought that Felicity Jones gave a standard, uninspired performance, but it dawned on me that she has no lines of dialogue to make her stand out. You could drop in the lead character from any young adult franchise with a female protagonist, and they would have the same traits. She’s also incredibly passive, with deus ex machina all over the place to help her on her journey, especially at the end, which I’ll use as an example.
In the final scene, so many things are working against the protagonist: the barrier blocking the transmission, the loss of her friends, and being held at gunpoint by the antagonist – it’s an exciting scene that actually feels like a Star Wars movie again. The score is fun and the set pieces are beautiful. All hope seems lost and you’re wondering how this new protagonist is going to use her wit or strength and get herself out of this situation. However, the side character comes in and saves her at the last minute, and the Rebel fleet solves the issue with the barrier as well. When your hero takes no active steps to solve the problem in the film’s climax, that’s bad screenwriting. An ending where every single main character dies is also the laziest, most lackluster finish to a Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen. Every single one of them gets a dramatic “last words” as well, which is exploitative to begin with but completely tedious seeing as we never got time to get to know any of these people. There’s nothing more exhausting than a dramatic death scene for a character you know nothing about, let alone five of them in a row.
Another issue that might not be worth mentioning, though I’ll take a stab anyway, is the pandering. These new Star Wars movies might be taking the wrong lessons from both the original trilogy and the unsuccessful prequel films. The Force Awakens was a delightful film, so I can excuse its endless salivating over the original trilogy. Rogue One, however, has such hollow characters that it clings to its moments of pandering to save it. I think fans of this movie may have been much more excited at the idea of seeing Vader again than seeing the original characters that the film had to offer. My question to fans of this film would be: If this weren’t a Star Wars movie, and all the names were changed and the references and likeness of Star Wars characters removed, is this still a fun movie? I think the answer is a resounding no. Every shot of Darth Vader or that horribly unsettling CGI nostalgia-bait gets so much space in the frame, so much attention from the film’s composition, that you can’t help but wonder what kind of reception this movie would have without this much pandering. (As a side note, is anyone else tired of movies about a Death Star? I’ve lost count of how many times this thing has shown up in a movie.)
To the film’s credit, of course, there are some things that I enjoyed. I think the final battle was exciting and indicative of the Star Wars spirit. All the film’s elements build nicely into a fun finale, however lazy the ultimate resolution was. I also think there were some really funny moments and a few good bits of characterization. K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) was a fun android companion, and I thought he was distinct enough from similar characters in the franchise to stand alone as a unique addition. Donnie Yen’s character was also interesting, and I wish we could have seen more of his strange zealotry and devotion to the Force. These two characters seemed to bring the only effective moments of humor to the film, and their jokes landed well, bringing smiles to my face despite the film’s faults.
On the whole, I would predict that viewers of Rogue One enjoyed the nostalgia elements far more than its original ideas, perhaps still riding the coattails of The Force Awakens. There are definitely things to like in this movie, but I can’t point to a single piece of the film and say “Wow. That blew me away.” However, maybe that’s the positive aspect of doing the standalone movies in this way. If a film isn’t any good, we don’t have to slog through more movies with the characters (especially if they all died). Regardless, I still think these standalone movies are cash grabs without much artistic inspiration, but I hope to be proven wrong with the Han Solo film in a couple of years. Leave your thoughts below if you’ve seen the movie; I’d love to have a discussion about it.