Thursday, January 12, 2017

Post-Mortem: Rogue One

Diego Luna, Felicity Jones and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I’m a big fan of Star Wars. I say that not to curry favour with fellow dorks, or to couch the following in any sort of falsely protective pretext. I just want to be clear about my inherent bias here before we proceed. As a person for whom Star Wars has been, and will continue to be, a personal touchstone as well as a cultural one, I have to fight my own apologist impulses. I have to examine this media property that has meant so much to me with the same critical eye as anything else – perhaps an even more sober, unflinching one than usual – because the more I love it and want it to succeed, the higher the standard of quality I must hold it to. (The prequels certainly helped in sobering all of us up in this regard – there’s never been a clearer reminder that this can all go horribly, terribly wrong at a moment’s notice.) I’m not going to make the argument for why Star Wars is special; let us accept this as a matter of fact. I’m instead going to direct my efforts, now and in the future, on examining each new Star Wars film as the individual cinematic work it is, and judge it accordingly. There’s a new one coming every year until the rapture, you guys. We’d better get used to it.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is Disney’s first attempt – soon to be followed by the Young Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoff films – at anthologizing the Star Wars cinematic format, adapting the established fiction for different audiences by focusing on smaller-scale storytelling and exploring diverse genres. This prospect was exciting to me for many reasons – not the least of which is that it’s a better way to stretch out Star Wars from here to the end of time (i.e., until it’s no longer profitable) than rehashing the same Campbellian good-versus-evil arcs over and over, but mostly because it’s a core component of why I find Star Wars so exciting in the first place. It’s what I’ve taken to calling the “cantina effect.” For its first 40 minutes or so, the original film was very small in scope, the majority of scenes concentrating on a starry-eyed farm boy yearning to experience the wild and untamed galaxy he knows is just beyond the horizon. But the moment that he steps into the Mos Eisley cantina with Obi-Wan, the movie explodes with possibility. Every bizarre, nonsensical alien creature there, from the thugs at the bar to the musicians playing that now iconic tune, feels real and tactile and alive – and we (along with Luke) are gobsmacked by the breadth of this galaxy. Every alien in the cantina must have a name, and a home planet, and a backstory. And this, in no uncertain terms, is the promise of Star Wars: the hints scattered everywhere you look of all the countless exciting adventures happening just outside the borders of the frame. The films have always been carefully constructed to encourage this kind of extrapolation from their audience, with George Lucas often giving even the lowliest background monster an official canonical name. Those musicians? They’re a bunch of Bith called Figrin D’an and The Modal Nodes. That scarred-up dude at the bar with the death sentence in twelve systems? That’s Dr. Evazan (and his butt-faced friend is an Aqualish named Ponda Baba). And while these names and stories may sometimes have been retroactively grafted by fans and artists onto characters that were originally little more than a bunch of extras wearing cheap Halloween masks, that really only emphasizes the point. Star Wars is a playground for the imagination, which engages us because it’s an almost limitless well from which satisfying space fantasy stories can be drawn.

And there are plenty of examples where the cantina effect has spawned officially licensed material that meets and even exceeds the quality of the films themselves. Never one to turn down a merchandising opportunity, Lucas was happy throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s to put his stamp of approval on countless novels, comic books, art collections, toys, video games . . .  you name it. A good deal of these licensed products were utter shit – but some, like the oft-lauded Heir to the Empire novel trilogy by Timothy Zahn, the Revenge of the Sith screenplay novelization by Matthew Stover, the Legacy comic book arc, or the Knights of the Old Republic computer games, to name but a few – realized the potential of the Star Wars promise in ways that were as enthralling and expertly crafted as anything else in their respective media. Authors like Stover and the many writers on Legacy found new ways to tell the classic heroic tales we came to love, while others like Zahn spun the narrative wheel in fresh and unexpected directions. With the collected works that made up the “Expanded Universe,” as it came to be known, the Star Wars brand did the anthology thing (and in many cases very, very well) for over twenty-five years.

Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Then, of course, the prequels happened, Lucas flamed out on his beloved franchise, and the keys were handed over to Disney. When the sale took place, the Expanded Universe was – to the shock and horror of fans worldwide – wiped totally clean, the company declaring that all its contents were hereby considered “non-canonical” due to Disney’s lack of control over the myriad licenses and properties that made up the EU. The cycle would be reset, starting fresh with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and establishing a new canon of spin-off material for a new era of fans. (Of course, the EU material – now called the “Legacy” canon – is thankfully still widely available, even though Disney will never acknowledge its existence. Until, that is, they decide they want to use something from it for the new canon and adopt it to suit their whims.) Finally, we’ve arrived at Disney’s plans to expand the new canon, starting with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But how does it measure up against the three decades of stuff that came before it? How well does it fulfill the Star Wars promise?

Unfortunately, in my opinion, it just plain doesn’t. Besides its lapses in fundamental cinematic execution, including its weak script, its choppy editing, and its poor characterization, Rogue One’s chief failure is a failure to live up to that all-important promise. There was so much potential within this idea – a film about the blue-collar grunts who band together to steal the plans to the Death Star, which become so integral to the plot of Episode IV – to flesh out the existing material in new and interesting ways. Finally, an official Star Wars movie that wasn’t about the Jedi! No grand destiny, no magical powers, no sacred bloodlines, no mystical mumbo-jumbo. The trailers for Rogue One sold us directly on that idea, of a “boots on the ground” depiction of the Rebellion, and I for one was thrilled at the idea of seeing a more relatable, humanized perspective on the Star Wars galaxy. But we didn’t really get that. We got a tangled plot centering on a thinly sketched heroine wherein every character’s motivation is unclear and no space is given for proper development or depth – i.e., the things that humanize a story

Rogue One was sold as both a war film and a heist film, and while things were stolen and people died, it succeeded at capturing neither of those genres in a satisfying way. We aren't given any new information about how the Rebellion works, how its idealism is stalled by its politics, what daily life is like for foot soldiers, or why they remain stoic against an implacable foe. Ditto for the bad guys: we don’t know anything new about life under Imperial rule, the way an Imperial commander thinks, or their more subtle, insidious, seductive tactics for fighting a scattered band of rebels. Ideally, an anthologized spin-off – especially when it connects directly to a main story line, the way Rogue One does – should offer new insight into the world we already know. Unless there was some other detail that I missed, the only significant thing Rogue One teaches us that we didn’t already know is that the Death Star’s fatal flaw was deliberately designed as a last-ditch effort to aid the Rebellion in destroying it -- which, by the way, comes packaged in a criminally underused Mads Mikkelsen character whose struggle between his conflicting allegiances is probably the most interesting story Rogue One could have told, but pushes it to the background instead. Every other plot beat, character arc, trial, tribulation, and machination in the film leads to the same thing: nothing. We gain no new insight about the world that exists outside the borders of the frame – that is, the story of Luke and Vader and Leia and Han – and narratively we end up right back where we started when the credits roll. We didn’t know any of these characters beforehand, and we won’t ever see them again, since they all die at the end. And I’m not counting that as a spoiler, because it leads directly into the next problem: that Rogue One begins from a fundamentally flawed premise. We know going in that this film full of new characters, new ships, new enemies, and even new types of robot companions must end with all of them dying – or else why wouldn’t we see them cropping up in the films set after this one? But a blockbuster film like this still has to spawn legions of merchandise in the form of new ships and robots and troopers to sell as toys and Lego sets, narrative logic be damned. The opportunity provided by a film full of doomed characters is an exciting one, wherein the filmmakers get the chance to make us fall in love with these scrappy little heroes before tearing their lives away from us in the service of a greater story. But Rogue One is more concerned with selling toys than with telling an internally consistent story. And its failures in both imagination and execution prevent its characters from being likable, and most fatally, from feeling human.

Forest Whitaker in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

Rogue One isn’t a complete disaster – certainly not on the level of the prequels – and does manage to fulfill the Star Wars promise in superficial ways at least. It delivers great effects work, stunning vistas, intriguing character and location designs, and visually breathtaking action set pieces that rival anything the series has yet produced. Director Gareth Edwards infuses the look of the film with the same sense of scale and awe that he brought to his take on Godzilla, and when matched to the grandiose scope of the Star Wars universe it makes for an unforgettable visual flair -- though at the same time it's inappropriate for the “boots on the ground” tone that Rogue One should have had, and is untethered from any kind of emotional engagement from the audience thanks to the lackluster storytelling. With a more focused script and a less schizophrenic final cut, the film could have better capitalized on the anthology format and delivered something unique to the brand. Maybe it could have leaned into the heist angle, emphasizing the infiltration subplot to make better use of the existing scenario? Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), for example, does dress up as an Imperial officer to sneak into the base and steal the plans – but then the heroes just sort of walk in and get them. There’s no attempt at subterfuge. If this were a real heist film, perhaps there would be an elaborate scheme, calling for him to bluff his way past some guards, before he’s confronted by an actual officer. Maybe his disguise could start to break down or slip. Maybe he’d have to stage a distraction to give Jyn (Felicity Jones) the precious seconds she needs to get the plans. These are just random ideas, of course, but they illustrate the fact that Rogue One doesn’t use these seemingly obvious elements.

Or instead, what if the film went for broke on the war-movie approach, introducing us to a small troupe of shattered soldiers who are galvanized by Jyn’s passion and discover why they fight again? Trim the cast, refine the plot, and darken the tone. We should feel that these characters are putting on brave faces with one foot in their graves, when in reality they’re utterly terrified of the Empire (who should be dehumanized and faceless, a monstrous machine). The futility of the fight – and the flicker of hope that Jyn brings to it – would be paramount. Every one of their deaths should be a hammer blow to our hearts, for the loss and the sorrow and the sheer madness of it. The deaths in Rogue One feel pointless, yes, but not in a war-film way – there’s just no meaning to any of them. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) decides out of nowhere that he’s “done running” and allows himself to be killed instead of escaping with Jyn. Galen Erso (Mikkelsen) dies in a stray explosion during an assault, without our ever experiencing his inner conflict. Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) goes down in a blaze of glory after his friend dies, which has no purpose and accomplishes exactly nothing. Why not make us feel the meaninglessness of these deaths, instead of just making them meaningless?

There are countless other examples of the way Rogue One whiffs on its potential as a unique kind of story in a familiar series, but I won’t keep listing them – you get the point. I hope against all hope that the subsequent “Star Wars Story” films can learn from these missed opportunities and make better use of the spin-off format. I hope they offer more robust narratives and deeper characters, with stronger ties to the other films to which they’re connected. In the end, of course, it all comes down to skillful filmmaking and emotional storytelling. But an understanding of where these anthology stories fit into the larger tapestry of Star Wars fiction – and where they must be bold in carving out their own territory – is also key. Star Wars is a galaxy full of promise, and if we push for it, we can encourage these creators to take their cues from the decades of brilliant artists who came before them, who know how to tap into that ineffable mythic strength. Star Wars has only ever been improved by our imaginations. Let’s imagine a future for the brand where only the best kinds of stories are told. 

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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