So, it’s the new year, and I think it’s finally been long enough that I can talk about Rogue One. I like to wait a while, first to give spoilers a chance to clear, but also because my thoughts tend to evolve over time, particularly for movies where I have an emotional attachment to the franchise. The short version goes like this: while Rogue One was by no means a bad movie (one of the strengths of the Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm monster is that its movies, while not always good, are usually competent rather than confusing disasters in the vein of Attack of the Clones or Suicide Squad) it’s also not a great one, and definitely not the movie I hoped it would be.
SPOILERS, obviously, from here on out!
So I have to say I was always excited about this movie. I was generally pleased with The Force Awakens, but left slightly cold by the way that it reused so much of the story of A New Hope. There was the chance that a new, non-sequential Star Wars movie could take chances and be different, give us something new and cool! And the trailers looked promising. I’m trying, therefore, to engage with the movie Rogue One actually is, rather than the movie I would like it to be.
So why didn’t I like it? It’s complicated, but I think it boils down to characters. Rogue One‘s characters are … sketches, I guess, is the way I’d describe them? They suggest character development and things that might be cool, but we don’t actually see any of it on screen, largely because there simply isn’t time. And that’s the first, most basic problem: there are too many main characters, and their complicated introduction and action set-pieces eat up so much running time that we get hardly any understanding of any of them.
Aside: As we go through them, I’m going to say things like “this character isn’t necessary”. It’s important to understand this to mean “not necessary to the story” rather than “not necessary to the plot“. Because this movie is basically competent, characters generally are given something to do, but throwing in an invented obstacle for them to overcome doesn’t actually justify their inclusion in the story.
This is important, so let’s take A New Hope as an example. All of our main characters are needed, not just for the mechanics of the plot (Obi-Wan and Luke have to get to Alderaan somehow) but for the story. They tend not to overlap one another — Luke is the naive farmboy-turned-hero, Obi-Wan the wise mentor, Han the scoundrel who learns friendship, and Leia the object of rescue who refreshingly turns out to be pretty competent. Two droids for comic relief, and on the imperial side we have Vader as the vicious, mysterious side of the Empire and Tarkin as the cold, bureaucratic side. We need these people — you could come up with an alternate route to Alderaan, but the story doesn’t work with Han Solo or someone like him. (He’s the foil for Luke, his arc provides the final closure to the Death Star battle, and so on.) The point is just because Bodhi Rook has to plug a thing into another thing to save the day doesn’t mean he’s necessary in a narrative sense.
So let’s talk about —
K-2SO: I’m actually fine with him, although I know some people objected. Star Wars has a long tradition of comic-relief droids, and K-2 hits the right balance for me — he’s similar to C3PO in that he’s a pessimist, but he’s morbid and his dark humor is different enough to be interesting. He also doesn’t require a ton of backstory or introduction. No problems here.
Bodhi Rook: As you may have gathered from above, the inclusion of this character in the final crew is kind of baffling to me. He starts off as a MacGuffin (the defecting pilot who brings the message) but then kind of tags along, for no obvious reason. He also has a really strange scene with some kind of mind-invading tentacle monster that serves no purpose. (Things that serve no purpose are kind of a theme.) I was pretty sure they were going to kill him off in the escape from Jedda, which would have made sense, but no. Anyway, he consumes some screentime and has to have a heroic moment at the end, with no character arc or payoff. (We never find out why he was willing to make the borderline-suicidal move of betraying the Empire, other then a general good feeling toward Galen and not being in favor of blowing up planets. Why this guy instead of literally millions of other guys?)
Saw Gerrera: In contrast, I thought for sure Saw would join the team. It would make sense — he’s the old, grizzled veteran, to contrast with young Jyn and Cassian, plus he and Jyn have history together, plus he’s in conflict with the rest of the Rebels. (Jyn’s speech scene makes waaaay more sense if the attack plan is suggested by Saw and then the rest of the rebels balk.) Instead he stands around for a while and then chooses death for no reason. (Seriously, you say “I’m done running” when you’re going to make a heroic last stand, not just get blown to bits by a shockwave.) That’s another slightly baffling choice — if he was going to die, the obvious move would be to have him sacrifice himself for Jyn, shove her out of the way of a falling rock and be trapped himself, “Fly you fools!”, etc.
A cynic might say the problem here is stunt casting: Forest Whitaker is in his fifties, a big-name actor, maybe not too enthused about Star Wars. So he comes in, gets into a fancy suit, shoots all his scenes in one location in a couple of days, with no action or anything particularly difficult. I have no idea if this is true or not, to be clear, but that’s what we ended up with.
Chirrut Îmwe & Baze Malbus: This is a tough one for which I am likely to get some pushback. But here’s the thing — I like these characters, they’re fun and potentially interesting (probably moreso than Cassian) but as written, they don’t really have a place in the story. To go back to the idea of narrative necessity, you could remove both of them completely and the movie would work just fine. Chirrut kinda-sorta acts as the mentor/Obi-Wan type, at least he seems like he should, but the movie doesn’t actually give him any of that to do — Jyn doesn’t have a conflict about whether she believes in the Force and doesn’t go to him for advice. He’s a mentor without a mentee. All they really do is shoot/fight stormtroopers, participate in the heroic ending, and die tragically.
In sum, someone please make the Chirrut & Baze movie, comic book, whatever, the story about them adventuring around and bickering about the Force, and I’d happily read/watch/buy it. But as far as Rogue One goes they don’t really add anything, and they take up a lot of running time between their introduction, their show-off fights, and later dialogue.
The need for all these characters to be introduced in random ways make the plot of the first half of the movie kind of a convoluted mess. We’ve got Jyn breaking out of jail, being dragooned to help the rebels, going to Jedda, picking up more characters, going to meet Saw and picking up more characters, so it’s a good 30-45 minutes before we even have our main crew together. Crucially, very little of this time is spent getting to know them, and a lot more on fights and running away from things. The first character beats really come on Edu, when Cassian has to decide whether or not to kill Galen, but we’ve had nothing to that point to let us know why he would go either way.
That brings us to our heroes, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. Jyn is, theoretically, the protagonist, which means that her actions should drive the plot, and her character arc should define the overall story. But it’s just not there — I don’t even know what her character arc is supposed to be! To … become a rebel? Except she was already a rebel before Saw ditched her. To learn something about her father, or alter their relationship, or something? But they never meet. To struggle with Cassian about idealism vs. realpolitik in the Rebellion? She’s already pretty cynical, and in any event that never actually happens. She doesn’t even have much personal hatred for Krennic, since she doesn’t seem to recognize him and vice versa.
As set up, Cassian is in the real protagonist’s spot in the story. He’s the one who gets the mission to get the Death Star plans, and he gets set up with the moral conflict of rescuing vs. killing Galen. We see him casually murder an informant early on, setting up that he’s grown jaded and cynical in the Rebellion. All the ingredients are there for a character arc, but it never actually happens, and the focus stays relentlessly on Jyn.
Jyn, meanwhile, has nothing about her character that doesn’t relate to her being Galen’s daughter. Does she have any particular skills? Hobbies? Relationships? We get almost literally nothing. It’s kind of a shock when Saw reveals that he raised Jyn and trained her as a rebel until she was sixteen — why isn’t that scene in the movie? It might give their reunion and his death a little weight! Instead, she’s Galen’s daughter so Saw will like her, then she’s got to rescue Dad, then she’s got to do what Dad wanted, then she dies.
This is, ultimately, where the movie falls down. You can debate whether it’s okay to end the movie with everyone dying or not, but for me what it comes down to is that a tragic ending, in order to actually have tragedy, needs well-developed characters. I might have cared more about Jyn and Cassian being blown up if we’d gotten to know them a little better; instead I cared more about Chirrut and Baze, possibly because their actors have more charisma. (It’s also a weird choice to give everyone tragic death scenes and then have the superlaser take out half the planet, since it makes all the earlier tragedy meaningless.)
It’s hard for me not to imagine what might have been. One approach would be to just drop everyone except for Jyn, Cassian, and K-2SO. Figure out an arc for Jyn and for their relationship — an obvious candidate would be idealistic Jyn vs. cynical Cassian, with him secretly ordered to kill Galen, and eventually coming to remember his idealistic roots due to her steadfast heroism. But give it some time to breathe, to have some witty dialogue between the two of them, to find out who they are.
Another approach would be to keep the ensemble cast but cut out all the backstory and introductions, leaving more time for character development. Keep the plot very straightforward — a team of Rebels is assigned to get the Death Star plans. Jyn, Galen’s daughter, is put on the team, who are at first distrustful of her as a novice, but she eventually wins them over. They have to sneak around Imperial bunkers, fight guys, etc, and the team members each have some kind of purpose and unique character. I’m thinking of this modeled on Aliens, for example — most of the marines have personalities and character, but we don’t get complex backstory, we just see their camaraderie and how they react to the newcomer. (It’s really strange when Cassian on Yavin says, “Hey I’m going to help and I brought my friends!” And we get a shot of a bunch of rebels we’ve never seen before, who are clearly cannon fodder. Are we supposed to feel something? But if we’d actually seen a crew of guys earlier in the movie, and then they all show up to help, it works!)
There’s other things you can quibble about here — gender issues, for starters. (Main female character is accessory to her father, near-total lack of women extras. There’s a TV Trope called Men Are The Expendable Gender that’s always been a pet peeve for me, where we can have main characters be women and kick ass, because they only get hurt if its plot-appropriate, but the horde of expendable extras have to be men because they die in droves.) But for me personally, it’s these character issues that are at the center of it left me feeling “meh” when I left the theater. As Star Wars movies go, I have to put this one below the originals and Force Awakens. (It’s sure as hell better than Revenge of the Sith, but that’s a low bar.) And it’s a shame, because I really wanted to like it.
(I really wish Disney/Lucasfilm would get away from having everything be tied super-tightly to the original trilogy. Just give us like … the adventures of an imperial pilot escaping after being shot down in a random battle, and the rebels he befriends. Or anything that’s not literally tied to the original trilogy plot. Sadly, since the next stand-alone is Han Solo, this seems unlikely…)