Looking back at Rogue One By M.Schinke
Time for a new mission, Opionnerds!
Only…. not that.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a movie I remember delivering a powerful sense of ambivalence on my first viewing but at the time I couldn’t articulate why. I didn’t hate the film; there were, in fact, huge pieces of it that I really enjoyed. But by the end of the film I remember feeling that the whole thing had just fallen flat. My wife and I had a number of discussions of what we each felt had let us down and then we just kind of forgot about it. It didn’t make enough of an impact one way or the other, good or bad, to keep engaging in. So while I decide if I’m going give The Last Jedi a second run through the ol’ four eyes, I figure I’ve had enough distance from Rogue One to give it a another go.
So, let’s get the basic’s out of the way:
A Long Time Ago…
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the 2016 entry in the long running Star Wars franchise. Directed by Garreth Edwards (Godzila ’14) , and starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn and the great Mads Mikkelsen. The first non-Skywalker related Star Wars film to date, it details the plot surrounding the theft of the plans for the original Death Star and leads directly into A New Hope, the very first of the Star Wars films. What I find most amazing after watching the film again is that, as far as I can remember, all of my former issues are still firmly in place with the main one being that the films finale feels like it’s the end to a mostly different movie. I believe this is mostly derived from the under utilized characters and their lack of cohesion to the main story. It has nothing to do with whether or not I think the characters are good or bad and everything to do with how those characters are used in the storytelling and the fact that I’m not really sure what, in the end, the movie is about. I know this film went through a great amount of change with re-writes and re-shoots, mostly in the finale, and honestly; I don’t care about any of that. I can’t do this kind of evaluation based on what I think the movie might have been; I can only do it based on what’s actually there.
Right out of the gate I want to say that I think this is, for the most part, one really goddamn good looking movie. Shooting on the ARRI ALEXA 65 with 70mm lenses, DP Greg Fraser has created some truly remarkable imagery, where the film allows it. The opening scenes on the very Earth like world where Galen Erso (Mikkelson) and his family are in hiding from the Empire are full of depth and textural complexity in the rocky surfaces and dense foliage. Edwards and Fraser take great advantage of the depth of field available to them wherever they can, and use hand held photography to give the movie a sense of immediacy that separates it form the mostly sterile, locked down camera work of other Star Wars films. Colors pop where they need to when the sources are artificial, but skin tones and the colors of the environments look natural and subdued. I am not a fan of the candy coated treatment many, mostly younger, film goers seem to want in their images and very much prefer this more subtle approach with secondary colors to the use of heavily saturated primaries. I’m not a toddler anymore and have grown past the need for bright, blinding primaries to catch my attention. The framing of shots to take advantage of the 2:35 frame size and the fine resolution of the imagery captured at 6.5K combined with the effort and investment to finish the film at 4K means that, for a piece shot digitally, this really feels like a filmic experience. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the work done here because, when it works; good lord does it work. This is a movie that is begging for a full 4K HDR re-release, praise Disney.
The set up is intriguing. We see young Jyn as her family is torn apart by the Empire, her father forced into it’s service as she is taken by a mysterious figure in Forest Whitaker‘s Saw Gerrera. We pick up with the character in prison as an adult, setting up a very different tone and approach to this film from previous Wars entries. Everything about this movie from the start is muted and murky, from the visuals to the characters, we are being presented a much grittier and, “down to Earth” look at the Star Wars universe. The promise of this film was always to give us a look at what really drove the gears of the conflict between the Alliance and the Empire while the heroes and legends were off doing the things people would sing songs about. And here in lies the first inklings that the film is going to have some issues because everything the movie is giving us in our introductions to both Jone’s Jyn Erso and Luna’s Cassian Andor is telling us these are morally compromised people but the film, as a whole, does very little to capitalize on that, offering us almost nothing in these characters that would make us question whether or not they are essentially, “good” people. The closest we get is Cassian’s casual murder of one of his allies to facilitate his own escape early in the film but that approach to the character didn’t seem, to me, to be well supported through the remainder of the film. This is emblematic of the personality conflict the film seems to have even down to the score, which has the usual Star Wars bombast but feels painfully out of place in this film. The movie can’t seem to decide if it wants to be the adventure of the heroic band of players that made the beginning of the end of the Empire possible, or if it want’s to be a gritty drama about the grey side of the Star Wars universe and the hard choices people need to make in war. It tries to be both, but doesn’t feel to me as if it balanced those diverse approaches as well as it wanted to.
I Find Your Lack Of Story Disturbing
I think the majority of the characters in this movie are well drawn; individually. It’s the combination of them and what they mean to the overall story that I get a little iffy about. It’s very clear from the beginning of the movie that this is Jyn’s story. Her emotional journey is going to be the focus of the film, so from a story telling perspective, every character should in some way relate to that story. I love many of the characters in this film. I think they are strong and interesting but I fail to see why they are all necessary, at least in the way they end up being used.
The obvious place to start is by trying to define what Jyn Erso’s story is; what does she need to overcome her situation in the film? What truth does she need to grow, or what is there that is challenging the truth she already holds? The crux of her story revolves around who she believes her father to be as opposed to how everyone else in the Alliance see’s him. I think the proper assumption to make would be that Jyn’s story is about changing people’s perspective on who her father is. So she starts out believing the lie about her father, learns the truth and then wants to share that truth with others. There is nothing wrong with there but I feel following that story gets derailed the moment Jyn starts making speeches, and this is where the end of the movie turns into a completely different film because nothing that she does from that point on seems to have anything to do with sharing that truth that she carries; not in the manner in which she approaches that action, at least. Now she’s fighting for a cause, a cause that she was rightfully called out just minutes ago for picking and choosing when she want’s to care about it. Suddenly she’s a leader with people, “volunteering” to fight under her command. The shift is jarring and sudden and doesn’t feel securely docked to her story up to this point.
I think it’s fair to say that Jyn’s relationship with her father is meant to be the emotional core of the film. From the beginning we’re supposed to feel that the connection that Galen has to Jyn is so powerful it will lead him to do this remarkable thing he has done. And in turn, Jyn’s connection to him is what will leads her to fight so hard for the cause he believed in. Unfortunately, we spend so little time within this emotional space that it, in my opinion, lacks the resonance needed to elevate the film beyond the movements of the plot. All we really get of this relationship is crammed into 4 moments in the film; the prologue, Jyn’s dream, the holo-recording and Galen’s death. These emotional beats feel isolated from the rest of the film; especially given that Galen’s death is barely halfway through the film, their interaction at that moment is painfully empty and her attitude following does not present a character that has just lost such an important piece of herself. Even though Jyn’s story supposedly drives the plot it feels as if the movie is inventing reasons to keep her at the center of the action. The necklace she has and the focus put on it by the film, from her mother giving it to her, to Chirrut (Yen)calling it out when they encounter him on Jedha, along with his statement that, “the strongest stars have hearts of Kaibur” doesn’t have any pay off that I can recall. The usage of Galen’s pet name for Jyn, Stardust, is functional but, due to the lack of any time spent in the emotional space of that relationship, doesn’t become anything more than that. By the time we’ve moved on to the finale this relationship is no longer driving Jyn’s story in any tangible way, and her father becomes a footnote in the movies reasons to keep her at it’s center. She cribs Cassian’s line about rebellions and hope and gets to utter the iconic benediction, “May the force be with you” but these lines do not belong to her. The challenges in her story has had nothing to do with hope or faith in anything more than a general sense, certainly no more so than any other character, so embracing these ideas is meaningless.
For A Movie So Full Of Character….
Once Jyn and Galen’s relationship stops driving the story there is little reason to continue to emotionally engage with the film, and this is where I found myself disconnecting. Moving into the finale I have a character whose emotional journey ended when she accepted the truth about her father. I don’t know if she actually convinces anyone else of this truth as much as they see a chance to further their cause, but the effect is the same either way; Jyn’s emotional journey is complete. But we’ve still got almost an hour of movie left to get through. Now, she’s surrounded by a group of characters who have had no connection to that emotional story, and whom we have spent almost no time getting to know, but we are meant to care about all the same. At this point the question of how these other characters factor into Jyn’s story is more or less moot as she has no story left to tell. All we can do now is follow these characters as they run through the remainder of the plot pieces and watch them fall one by one. None of them have a story of their own, so their inclusion in the goings on seems a choice made out of convenience. The spy, the defector, the man of faith and his faithless companion; I’m sure these characters were created for specific reasons but, within the film as released, I don’t know what those reasons were. Again, the characters are all pretty solid individually but I don’t see what they contribute to the emotional core of the film. I believe I can see the threads of what they were meant to mean, at least in the case of Cassian and Bodhie, but Baze and Chirrut just seem the be along for the ride. Even in the case of the other two only Bodhie can draw a connection to Jyn having been inspired by her father to defect to the Alliance. In that, there was opportunity to discuss the kind of person Galen was and to draw the audience deeper into the emotional ties between he and Jyn. That potential lay wasted as Jyn and Bodhie have no meaningful interactions, and we learn almost nothing about Bodhie beyond the fact that he was an Imperial pilot. He has some business about how Galen told him he could, “get right” by himself but we don’t know why or what for, and we don’t know if he feels he’s done that by the movies end.
Cassian has a bit more of an abstract connection but in him we are supposed to be confronted for the first time with the idea of a member of the Alliance who does observably terrible things for a subjectively, “good” reason. This could easily be seen to mirror Galen’s experience in the embrace of the Empire. The parallels are obvious and, given Cassians monologue when volunteering for Jyn’s command, likely meant to be a much bigger part of the story then it amounts to, in my observation. His decision not to murder Jyns father as ordered keeps he and Jyn from engaging in an uncomfortable interaction for the remainder of the film while the plot still takes Galen out of the equation to provide, theoretically, additional fuel for Jyns story. Had there been a greater discussion in the film about the need for people to do morally questionable things to further a subjectively good cause there would have been room to draw greater parallels between Cassian and Galen that Jyn would have to reconcile. Sadly, this doesn’t happen. Jyn seems to get over her fathers death at the hands of the Alliance very quickly, going as far as to put herself further in harms way to assist them and their cause without any moral qualms. This would have been an excellent opportunity to explore that grey area the movie so seemed to want to present.
Perhaps the most underused character, upon my own reflection, would be Mendelsohn’s Imperial Director Orson Krennic. As the man primarily responsible for spinning the wheel’s for the creation of the Death Star he is, without a doubt, the unquestionable villain of the piece. Much more than that; he is Jyn’s villain. He is the man that tore her family apart and made the galaxy believe her father was a monster. If her story has an antagonist, this man is it. I have no issue with the fact that they don’t confront one another until the very end of the film. Logically, I don’t have an issue with the fact that Cassian takes him out by shooting him in the back. Emotionally, they may as well have left he and Jyn completely separate. To criticize a bit, the exposition dump Jyn has to give him at the end so he even knows who she is slows down the pace of the finale and paints a gigantic X on the lack of connectivity between our hero and her villain. In A New Hope, the enemy was the Empire as a whole so it was fine that Luke didn’t have a specific opponent to focus on (Vader became the focus villain for fans because he was the most interesting, not because he was the most important). This story sets out Krennic as a specific focus from the first scene, so to not capitalize on that feels like another missed opportunity.
Now, I have to address the black, helmet shaped elephant in the green room that is Darth Vader. This character does not belong in this movie; at all. He has no place in Jyn’s story and no reason to be part of the larger plot. His inclusion at the end of the film has no connection to anything that came before and I honestly cannot understand the reasoning behind including him. If the decision was made to include the character and the director had no choice in the matter, then there should have been a greater effort made to find a purpose for him in the story. Unfortunately they didn’t and his inclusion, especially in the final scene, is a distraction from the actual story. Vader’s inclusion in the film can only be described one way, in my opinion; fanwank. The fact that many audience members will contend that this is the best scene in the movie should give everyone at Lucasfilm pause.
Likewise, the decision to have the end of the film dovetail directly into A New Hope was, in my opinion, entirely unnecessary. The lack of any time to reflect on the previous events as one story passes into another turns this movies final three acts into A New Hope’s prologue and renders anything that came before irrelevant. All the emotional content in these acts is centered around waiting for, and watching, each of the characters die in mundane ways. These separate deaths, conveniantly placed after each character performs the sole function for which the plot needs them, do not serve any story and are there just to be there from what I can tell. I mean; if anyone can tell me why the Force can guide Chirrut through a hail of blaster rifle fire to flip a switch but can’t get him clear of a small explosion, I’m all ears.
Bring It Back To Me
I allowed this piece to derail into a more personal narrative to illustrate my frustration with this movie. There is so much potential here, so much that the movie could have done, that ends up being totally glossed over so the movie can, “feel” more like a Star Wars movie. Star Wars isn’t a genre; it’s a subject, at best. If every film that’s released under this banner has to conform to even a semi-rigid structure in order to be considered a, “Star Wars Movie” then we are quickly going to find ourselves……
Nope; already there. We are living in a polarized world with The Last Jedi. The argument being had can be boiled down to whether that movie is too Star Wars or not Star Wars enough. Yes; there are a certain set of rules that govern the universe of Star Wars in how things should look and sound and how the overall pieces of the larger back story should fit together. There shouldn’t be any rules in HOW a story in that universe is told. There is no golden ratio of humor to action to drama that makes a Star Wars movie, “work”. Like any other movie those things should be determined by the characters emotional story. If the story that you’re telling doesn’t support any laugh out loud dialog or situations; DON’T INCLUDE ANY! If the story doesn’t need any huge action set pieces, like almost all the action pieces in Rogue One, then don’t try to shoehorn them in. Like any other film if you keep leaning in to what makes the audience comfortable, if you don’t push them our beyond their boundaries, they are never going to grow; and that means you’ll be stuck essentially making the same movie over and over again. Call up the James Bond franchise if you need to arrange a case study.
I feel like Rogue One really wanted to be that structure busting film that would get under people’s skin and force them to look at this whole grand epic from a different perspective. But with Disney purposely hiring talented, but generally less experienced, directors to helm these projects so the producers can maintain the maximum amount of control with the minimal amount of fuss, the only vision that’s going to end up shaping each piece is going to be the round table of producers and financiers put together to guide them. Rogue One had a ton of really interesting potential that got flattened by the need to conform to a conclusion that was written over 30 years ago as an opening crawl. We will likely never know what story the original production would have led us to. it may not have been substantially different, but someone thought there was enough lacking to make some pretty big changes that may have stolen the life out of what we were handed. It’s too bad too; the story of Jyn and Galen Erso had a lot of dramatic weight built into it. But the need to service the plot left it anemic dull, which ultimatly led to a slow emotional bleed that left the film without the strength to make much of an impact. With very little editing you could probably truncate the film to the last three acts, include all the relevant set up information and make it an hour long TV special. I personally feel this is a waste of the absolutely fantastic production value that went in to building this film. The photography is fantastic, the effects work is all but seemless and there are a couple of very good performances to be seen. But with no core emotional story to really grasp on to for the entire ride the memory of the movie fades quickly, like it happened a long time ago…
Clever endings aren’t my bag