I saw Rogue One last night, and came out with mixed feelings at best. I have to say, they were feelings very similar to those I felt after Revenge of the Sith. The difference, though, is that the world as a whole (fans, critics, Bothans...) seems to think this movie is pretty amazing... and I do not.
SPOILERS FOLLOW, SO F OFF TO THE THEATRE IF YOU HAVEN’T GONE YET.
Now, as a Star Wars fan with fairly robust credentials to that effect, there were definitely aspects of the film, and ideas within it, that I loved (Easter Eggs aside). I love that there is now a great in-canon reason for the Death Star to have such a glaring design flaw, and I love that it was not fortuitously discovered after the plans were stolen, but indeed the reason for the plans’ theft. I love that for Chirrut the force is mainly a religion, and how keenly the absence of the Jedi is felt, especially on Jedha. The implication of a grand history here is very well depicted. I love K-2SO, and that he’s like a Chewbacca whose sass we can actually get first hand. Like every critic in our galaxy is saying, the film’s aesthetic and production design are amazing - faithful to the originals without seeming kitschy. And of course it ties in very well with Episode IV.
But it’s far from perfect - which is unfortunately all I’ve been able to think about for the past 24 hours. The more people sing the film’s praises with no caveats, the more bothered I become.
Since this is not the first time this has happened, I’ve decided to start a semi-regular column here where I will attempt to unpack and expound upon the reasons I find a film to be bothersomely flawed in terms of structure and story. In case somebody out there cares, and maybe even agrees with me.
Okay. So leave if you must, but if you stay get ready: here are the problems with Rogue One. In my opinion.
Let’s start with an easy one. I doubt anyone wasn’t immediately pulled out of the movie when uncanny CGI Peter Cushing was dramatically unveiled with a musical stinger like this was some kind of cinematic triumph.
No. No. A thousand times no. There is literally no scene this character appears in that isn’t an immediate disaster of pageantry and pretend. Yes, the animators did an amazing job, but we’ve known how the uncanny valley works for a decade. K-2SO is alive. Tarkin is a superimposed, plastic Real Doll placed next to poor Ben Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn deserves your pity for another reason too. He is cast as the “main villain” in a film where he shares the screen with Tarkin and Darth Vader. Basically, he is the henchman of a henchman, and this drastically lowers the stakes of everything he does in his scenes as the main bad guy. Tarkin has enough disconcerting, CGI screen time that he is almost on a par with Krennic. Darth Vader, meanwhile, has a glorified cameo.
How was this decision made?
I can understand that early on it was likely concluded that you cannot tell a story about the Death Star set days before its destruction without Tarkin. Fair enough. However, then the decision must be made whether to background Tarkin, implying his presence through hologram messages, offscreen voiceover, reflections and clever editing (which would mean he could not serve as the main bad guy), or recast Tarkin.
Despite the fact that this had already been done for Revenge of the Sith, and the actress who played Mon Mothma in that film returns for Rogue One, the guy they cast as Tarkin (who fits the bill pretty damn well), was given the boot in favour of something that I think pulls everyone out of the movie a million times as drastically as recasting would have.
It also seems to have created the logistical problem of needing Tarkin to assume sole control of the Death Star by the time Episode IV starts, but having Krennic hold it for most of Rogue One because tacitly it is accepted that CGI Tarkin will either be too hard to animate throughout the film as a big bad, or ruin the movie with his obvious fakeness, or both.
So now we’re stuck with scenes where uncanny Tarkin backstabs and replaces Krennic, Krennic whines about it, and so on. We basically know nothing about Krennic or Tarkin, so we have no reason to care. Fiona Revill also pointed out that what this subplot and the way he is animated does show us of Tarkin (with his constant scowling and leering) is that he is emotional, and vindictive. This actually breaks continuity with Episode IV where even his destruction of a whole planet was totally passive and mathematical.
To recap: Krennic is a weak, ineffectual villain because he has a superior that we know and care about more, but who doesn’t get very involved in the plot until it’s time to sew him neatly to Episode IV, and every time the superior IS involved, we cannot invest in him because we see him as a weird drawing on top of the film we’re watching.
Of Krennic’s backstory with Galen Erso, we get only 10 seconds of flashback, showing Erso’s whole family hanging out with Krennic back on Imperial property. What is their history? How close were they? Again, from Fiona: if Krennic ONLY SMACKS Erso for being a traitor after murdering his whole scientific team on the off-chance one of them might be...doesn’t that mean he cares about him Deeply As Hell? He doesn’t seem to care about Jyn or Erso’s wife this way. He is unmarried. Does Krennic...love Galen Erso?
Who knows, say the writers. Who cares. LOOK, IT’S TARKIN.
Obviously my suggestion here is F the CGI. Ben Mendelsohn should have literally been cast AS Tarkin. The villain of this film should be Tarkin. And of course we should know and be massively invested in his relationship with Galen Erso, the man with whom he built the Death Star, and who betrayed him and caused its destruction. Wouldn’t it be amazing watching Episode IV after this and knowing that the cold, emotionless Tarkin is that way for a reason? Even if he’s played by a different actor?
No? Well, fine:
Let’s say the top brass were unwilling to recast Tarkin. I find that hard to believe given we’re getting a young Han Solo in a couple of years, but fine. It may well have happened anyway.
The story group for Rogue One were incredibly fortunate in the fact that, even given this eventuality, the best and most popular Star Wars villain is tied directly into their story as well, and can be played by literally anyone of David’s Prowse’s approximate height, as long as James Earl Jones can still be tapped to do voice work.
Episode IV opens with Darth Vader being moments from recapturing the Death Star plans, and so this is also what we get at the very end of Rogue One. But for some reason he is not the film’s main villain, either.
What can Lucasfilm possibly be saving him for? The amazing sequence where Vader super-murders the poor hapless soldiers whose ilk we’ve spent two hours with is exhilarating. It would have been exhilarating for all two hours. Where is that movie? Frankly, we could stand to have a little more footage in the bank of Vader being a terrifying monster, viewed through the eyes of everyday pedestrians. It would help new viewers who came in with Episode VII get on board with why Kylo Ren is so totally into him.
When Krennic goes to Mustafar to visit him, I was certain that this was the moment that Vader was being “tapped in” as the shark who would hunt and eat our intrepid crew of Rogues. Instead, he made a pun about choking, and then nothing happened. A moment straight out of the prequels.
I was also certain that, given this movie’s branding as a gloomy tale of desperation recounting what was always likely to be a suicide mission, Chirrut’s faith and general indestructibility would definitely be tested by confronting him with Darth Vader, the last remaining “Jedi” in front of whom Chirrut is simultaneously nothing, and yet completely superior - due to his faith, compassion, and general goodnessness.
Imagine Vader just physically demolishing Chirrut, seemingly demonstrating that his faith is worthless, but then not being able to hurt him with the Force. Having the trusty force choke fail him, for once.
This would renew Chirrut’s faith in the moments before Vader kills him, as well.
Instead, Chirrut just dies in an explosion. As does Baze. As does Bodhi. As does Galen Erso. I’ll talk more about this phenomenon later, but for now let’s just focus on the fact that Vader crosses paths with no named character other than Krennic, and is in this film for like 10 minutes.
So imagine this instead: we can only imply Tarkin’s presence as the guy running the Death Star, and we can maybe hear his voice a little bit (because we couldn’t recast how he looks and didn’t want to creep people out with CGI), but luckily we have unlimited access to Darth Vader and can easily throw Ian McDiarmid back into heavy Emperor makeup if we want Vader to take orders from someone, or answer to them/be frustrated and embarrassed by his own failures. You know - how he did in the original trilogy.
We thus elevate Darth Vader to be the main villain of Rogue One. I think it would be hard to find an exec at Lucasfilm or Disney who would oppose this from a business perspective, and it makes sense from a story perspective as well.
We lose the villain’s relationship with Galen Erso (since Vader hates people almost as much as he hates sand) but we do get given the wonderful gift of being able to use the Star Wars brand to combine a war movie with a monster movie. Everything here is gritty, realistic, and fairly clear in terms of plotting: we must free Jyn, to get to Saw Gerrera on Jedha, to get to Galen Erso at the Kyber facility, to get to Skarif, to steal the plans, to beam them to the blockade runner, to roll the credits, to start Episode IV.
That’s all written on a bunch of post-its somewhere already, and doesn’t have to change. But now, onto all of it, we drape the spectre of a monstrous, undefeatable Darth Vader, whose counter-post-it to all of these plot points is STOP THIS. KILL EVERYONE.
To Jyn, Vader could be the childhood bogey man who came and abducted her father/killed her mother. To Cassian, Vader represents something he needs to avoid becoming, despite doing a lot of questionable things himself. We’ve already touched on what he would mean to Chirrut, and by extension Baze. To Bhodi, Vader is the punishment for his betrayal of the Empire. Hell, even K-2SO would have a unique connection to Vader, who is “more machine than a man”, you might recall.
In my perfect world, Vader would join the story on Jedha, surprising everyone with his presence at the final Kyber harvests. You know - because secretly Anakin cares about the history of the Jedi. Then, he would still test-fire the Death Star on the city because any leaning toward his old self would cause him to slingshot back toward evil HARD. While on Jedha, Vader would find out about the missing pilot, figure out Galen Erso is involved and go to confront him.
My first instinct here was to have Vader kill Erso in front of Jyn for his betrayal, but then I realized that Vader would be able to look into Erso’s mind and read exactly what the flaw in the Death Star was, so it actually ups the stakes to have him actively doing this, saying aloud (as he likes to do when tucking into people’s choice secrets) that the Death Star has a deliberate flaw that can lead to its destruction, which is located in…
...and then have Cassian actually sniper-assassinate Erso before Vader can find out the crucial missing piece.
Harder for Jyn to forgive, harder for Cassian to redeem himself, but My God The Stakes.
Naturally, Vader would be mad and probably kill one of our heroes then and there, but be forced to leave the fighting and go right to Scarif, in order to scour the plans for the flaw, which he doesn’t even know where to begin looking for, and doesn’t have the scientific knowledge to find easily. His method would be to yell at, and threaten, smarter people. But he’s on Scarif now, between the plans and our heroes. Which is perfect.
Imagine a third of the rebels on Rogue One immediately deserting as soon as they found out Vader was in the area. Imagine the ones that stayed knowing that they were drawing the attention not of Stormtroopers in general, but of Darth Vader specifically.
Vader is unstoppable to these people, but they don’t need to stop him, they just need to delay him long enough for the plans to be broadcast. Trick him, mislead him, misdirect him. To triumph over something much more powerful, you need to be smarter. “Darth Vader is a man,” I can imagine Jyn telling her terrified rebels in her motivational speech, “He is just a man. Let’s remind him of that.”
Cut to Vader practicing to breathe on his own in his little air bubble thing. Or watching some Imperials in a breakroom betting on a hologrammed podrace. Something to remind us Anakin is in there behind the mask. Chills, right? Podrace chills?
Then, it’s the final act and we watch him murder our heroes one by one in a 40-minute version of the 4 minutes we got at the end of the film you saw. In which we got Krennic, who is a mid-level bureaucrat that sort-of knows Jyn, and we got Tarkin who never meets any of our heroes at all. Nor, bafflingly, does Vader.
SAW, LEIA, AND TELEGRAPHED PLOTTING
I spoke earlier about the pretty basic momentum of Rogue One’s post-it by post-it plot. This is not, in my opinion, actually a bad thing. When you’re telling a self-contained story in a larger universe and dealing with wider continuity and stuff for people to remember, I'm of the mind that you want the objectives and the obstacles to be pretty obvious to everyone in the audience.
Get Jyn, go to Jedha, get to Galen, go to Scarif, get the plans.
My problem with Rogue One is that, for the most part, characters set objectives and then they achieve them. They face obstacles mostly by way of action sequences. Every moment when it seems like their established plan for achieving an objective might go off the rails, it then just doesn’t.
A good example is when Saw Gerrera, a hard man to find whom they desperately need information from, turns out to have lost his mind in the meantime. When he saw Jyn, and after a moment of warm reintroduction furled his brow and said “Are you here to kill me?!” I rubbed my hands together in glee thinking that the shit was about to hit the fan. Then, what happened instead was the more verbose equivalent of “No, Saw, of course not.” ... “Oh! Okay!”
Jyn's father’s message is a recording. She doesn’t need Saw to volunteer the information. The base is about to be turned upside down (and whatever anybody in this scene is doing, definitively interrupted) by the Death Star’s destruction of Jedha City. To my mind there is literally no reason for Saw to not say “Of course you’re here to kill me! Guards! Murder her!”
While Cassian et al are busting out of jail and Saw’s crew are reacting to the earthquake, there’s plenty of time for Jyn to watch her father’s message in the turmoil. "But what if she’s caught and killed?" you ask, "This is the exact wrong time to watch a hologram!" Well, sure, unless you’re seeing the face and hearing the voice of your father, whom you haven’t seen since childhood. The image of Jyn’s rapt attention on the message was a powerful one in the finished film. It would only have been strengthened by the room collapsing around her, and probably cut short by the hologram’s destruction. Another goodbye from dad unfinished, right?
Here are some other places where it seems like objectives might need to change (and not simply be achieved and then moved on from), but then don't:
- When they find the Imperial pilot, but he’s been raped by a tentacle monster and can’t remember who he is/might be possessed by the monster. He’s fine soon after. The tentacle monster is never brought up again.
- When Darth Vader is visited and informed of what’s going on, and then does nothing.
- When Tarkin says “Inform Lord Vader and the Emperor, and prepare for the jump to lightspeed”, but neither Vader or the Emperor interfere at all in the battle on Scarif until after the main plot is over.
- When Jyn gets between Cassian and her father on the landing platform, but then isn’t spotted and doesn’t interrupt Krennic from what he’s doing, or Cassian from assassinating anyone.
- When Cassian doesn’t kill Galen Erso, but he dies anyway at the same time.
- When the antenna is misaligned so the plans cannot be sent, but then Jyn just realigns the antenna and the plans can be sent.
To be fair, it’s rumored that the film’s reshoots resulted in the plotting of the ending being notably altered. There is trailer footage of Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO all alive and running down the beach, Death Star plans in hand. Apparently, at some point, the plans and the antenna were not in the same building, or the antenna stayed misaligned/was destroyed by a TIE fighter that appears in the trailers, but not in the finished film.
My feeling is that complications and left turns like this, as the opposing force pushes back on the protagonists and their desires, are imperative. Rogue One ended up talking about this idea a lot, but not showing it much. As I mentioned before, 3 core characters are killed by grenades. Their deaths are almost rote: “And Bodhi dies. And Chirrut dies. And Baze dies also, right away, from the same type of thing.”
Chirrut’s death is sad because we relate to his faith. K-2SO’s is sad because we feel how loyal to Cassian he is programmed to be, and they have a simulated friendship. Notably, though, both Chirrut and K-2SO both die after achieving their objective/making their contribution to the big heist.
You’ll note that not a single character dies before that point, meaning the others are never forced to adapt their plan to serious loss. Cassian comes closest, but SURPRISE - he’s still alive, and shamelessly shoots Krennic in the back, in a classic Han Solo move. Given that we also don’t get to know much about the other characters, their deaths after they’ve made their contributions feel like checkboxes being ticked.
And that brings us to Leia. We know the plans are going to get to Leia. We have Jimmy Smits eyebrow-waggling about her to Mon Mothma earlier in the film, so we know they know we know they’ll get to Leia.
We did not need a plastic, uncanny princess puppet to prove this to us. Certainly not as the closing shot of the film. She opens A New Hope as a mysterious hooded figure. Why in George’s name wouldn't you let her close out Rogue One that way too?
Okay, I’ve written more about this than I did about Gungans, so it’s probably time to wrap things up. I liked Rogue One. It did a lot of things well, and hit a lot of the notes it seemingly wanted to. But there were basic things about the vision that just didn’t make sense to me, and given that I saw it in a Darth Vader Christmas Sweater that said "I Find Your Lack of Cheer Disturbing", I feel like I was ready to love it.
It’s a bummer when you’re ready to love something, and then you can’t. I hope I can reread this later and feel like I came close to articulating why.
Bring on Episode VIII!