Rogue One: Hope & Resignation

Posted: December 22, 2016 in Critical Hit, Uncategorized
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Warning: total spoilers for Rogue One.

Here’s the thing about Rogue One: its core emotional scenes all cite the importance of hope in rebellions, but it’s not a hopeful film. Hope is a buck it passes to Episode III in its final moments (via an Uncanny Valley recreation of a young Princess Leia, no less) but everything unique to the prequel itself sits squarely in the Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies category of storytelling. And this annoys me, because it didn’t have to: would rather, I’d contend, have been a stronger film all over if even one core cast member (Bodhi, for my preference) had survived the big finale.

While part of me appreciates the logic of a grittier – ugh. Actually, no: I can’t even bear to type that fucking sentence, a gritter take on the Star Wars universe, without wanting to gouge my own eyes out with a spoon. LBR, I’m fucking sick of grit. But I can, begrudgingly, see the intent behind it in this case.The messy, ugly aspects of the Alliance – Galen Erso dead by friendly fire, the desperate, last-ditch attempt at building bridges with militant extremists like Saul, the things that Cassian has done in service to the Rebellion – is something the Star Wars films haven’t really acknowledged before. As my husband said when we exited the cinema, given that entire planets are destroyed in both The Force Awakens and A New Hope without any real examination of the enormity of those losses, there’s something powerful in showing the more intimate, human tragedy of regular, non-Jedi, non-exceptional people dying in battle, for a cause, without the benefit of an authorial Get Out Of Jail Free Because Protagonist card. And yet it still annoyed me, because as moved as I was by the deaths of K-2 and Bodhi, Baze and Chirrut, Cassian and Jyn, I left the film feeling as though the writers had been so invested in the inevitability of their deaths that they never really focused on their lives.

Rogue One is a fast-paced, action-oriented film, and while that makes it watchable – and while there are some wonderfully choreographed space battles – emotionally, it’s not a good thing. The characters read as distinct by virtue of the skill with which they’re (mostly) portrayed, but there are precious few beats in the narrative that help us flesh out their characterisation, motivation and history beyond the immediate: no quiet moments of introspection, no extra morsels of dialogue. The most thoughtful scene in the whole film is the opening sequence explaining Jyn’s backstory, and while it was beautifully shot, it ultimately feels redundant, partly because the subsequent series of encapsulating flashbacks to her childhood does a much better, tighter job of explaining her history, but mostly because it has no bearing on her adult motivation. When the story then cuts to her present day incarceration, we don’t know what she was doing that lead her to be arrested: we’re read her rap sheet by the Rebellion, but it’s just the cold charges, not the emotional facts of why they mattered. How many aliases has she lived under? Why did she resist arrest? What does she really think about Saul? We’re given just enough information to know these are relevant questions, but never enough to answer them – and that is profoundly frustrating.

Nor does it help that Jyn embodies one of my least favourite narrative archetypes: the ambivalent but apparently special outsider who goes from “this isn’t my fight” to “I will deliver Crucial Motivational Speeches and LEAD THIS ARMY” at the drop of a hat while other, more qualified persons drift quietly into the background. It’s a common expression of Trinity Syndrome, and the fact that it’s a white woman sidelining men of colour in this instance constitutes neither subversion nor improvement. When Cassian points out to Jyn that he’s been in the fight longer than her; that she’s not the only person to lose everything to the Empire, and that her sudden conversion after her father’s death doesn’t mean she understands the stakes better than him, he’s right. (The fact that Galen is killed by Rebellion fire – and that Jyn knows this – is another crucial dropped thread in her characterisation: especially given her prior ambivalence, she should be pissed at this development, not gung-ho to accept the Rebellion as is without any demands for accountability.) The emotional tension that then develops between them feels out of place for lack of such a vital exchange, and while their final scenes together are still moving, the obligatory gesturing at nascent hetero romance is rather ruined by the fact that Jyn has better chemistry – and better narrative callbacks – with K-2 the snarky droid. Their exchanges are punchier, their banter simultaneously more revealing of both characters and more biting for it. Yet when we come to an emotional point, it’s Cassian who comes around to accepting Jyn, and Jyn who’s put in the figurative position of forgiving Cassian’s sins.

And what sins are those, exactly? Apart from his early murder of an informant, we don’t know; nor are we told about his crucial losses. Cassian’s inner struggle as he tries to decide whether to assassinate Galen is evident thanks to the strength of Diego Luna’s acting, but as to the history that actually informs it – nothing. The same goes for Bodhi, whose defection from the Empire is the lynchpin of the plot: without knowing what suddenly tipped him to change sides – without knowing about him – it’s difficult to understand why Galen’s suggestion that he make amends would carry any weight, or why (again) the brutality he experiences at Saul’s hands doesn’t make him doubt the Alliance as allies. It rankles that the consequences of his mental torture are never properly addressed, either: Saul claims it will destroy his mind, but though Bodhi is rattled afterwards, he was equally rattled beforehand. On screen, it reads as though Cassian reminding him of his identity is all it takes to undo Saul’s damage, which neatly handwaves the need for any more in-depth exploration of his character. By the same token, while it’s implied that Chirrut is a former Jedi, or at least force-sensitive, this aspect of his identity is never really evident beyond its applicability on the battlefield. His relationship with Baze is ripe with potential history, but while Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang both do a fantastic job in layering their interactions with warmth and the sense of old depth, this can’t quite compensate for everything the actual narrative fails to invest in them – or in Bodhi, Jyn and Cassian, for that matter.

Emotionally, then, Rogue One has the feel of a film whose gracenotes were removed in post-production by someone who viewed them as superfluous to the many big explosions, and whose protagonist (Jyn) was given a motivation that changed halfway through filming to the point of making her soggy (and whose actress in any case is visibly weaker than her costars). Presumably there are already other Star Wars materials – guidebooks, tie-ins and so on – where interested fans can find the kind of gribbly details that didn’t make it into the script, but that seems to me a poor excuse for leaving out everything entirely.  I also found it striking that all the rebels who volunteer to stand with Jyn and Cassian are men, just as all Galen’s scientists are men, with almost no female faces besides Mon Mothma and a lone female member of the Alliance to balance things out. A couple of female pilots show up late in the game, but they’re barely present, and when you consider that multiple female pilots were cut from A New Hope because the Powers That Be didn’t want to show women dying on screen, the absence felt doubly conspicuous.

(The more I think on it, the more it bothers me that we’re given a greater sense of Krennic’s drives and relationships – and more particulars about Galen’s history and regrets – than we are any of the far more interesting POC characters. Jyn was no Rey, and while I’m on board with more female SFF heroes as a general rule of thumb, we’re not so bereft of young white women in those roles – and especially not in Star Wars – that I feel any need to stan for her despite my criticisms. I don’t know if Felicity Jones could’ve turned in a stronger performance if she was given a more coherent character to work with or if the two things are unrelated, but even if she had done, I don’t think it still would’ve been enough to make me love the film – not on its own, at least, and especially not when the white characters were consistently given more emotional time to far less narrative purpose than everyone else.)

Though I ultimately enjoyed watching Rogue One, it didn’t move or satisfy me the way The Force Awakens did. There were a lot of neat callbacks to the original trilogy and some truly gorgeous landscapes, but overall, it just felt lacking in some fundamental way. I want to be able to point to a specific concrete failing, but I can’t: the real culprit is a rather a more nebulous sort of narrative resignation. Both emotionally and narratively, Rogue One is a closed system: a story that exists more as an interlude between the two acts than as a bridge uniting them. Though the actions of the characters are undeniably congruent with the facts of the original trilogy, nothing of the characters themselves suggests a new interpretation of or appreciation of its content – and that’s something I feel a good prequel ought to do. Rogue One doesn’t shed any new light on the existing narrative, and though it tries to open a few new doors in the form of original characters, their deaths slam each one shut.

Which is a goddamn shame, if only because it would’ve been nice to speculate about who from Rogue One might show up again in the forthcoming Episode VIII. But now we know they won’t, which makes the prequel oddly devoid of a legacy of its own – and as half the point of the story was to reinvigorate the franchise, I’m going to have to count that as a failure of both heart and imagination.

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Comments
  1. As much as I loved Rogue One, that’s a solid breakdown of several of its flaws.

    I think they tried too hard to make it feel like a standalone story, when given the events it covers, it was inseparably linked to the greater Star Wars saga. And that meant wrapping up all loose ends. Totally with you on the lack of women. I’d like to have seen Bodhi as a woman. Remove the squicky tentacle monster (because it was pointless), and you’ve got a chance to insert a conversation between two women about their very different reactions to the Empire. One who hides and lashes out from selfishness, and the other who gave up everything and openly risked their own safety to help fight back.

    Vader was a big issue for me. The actor in the suit was just so huge compared to David Prowse. The neck of his helmet alone looked about twice the size.

    I was chuffed that I’d guessed that the fatal flaw in the Death Star’s design was intentional, though…

  2. Great articulation of the same lack I’d been feeling. I really crave those gribbly bits, and hope there’s going to be a “director’s cut” or “extended edition” release that includes at least some of them.

    The hope thing . . . in a way, it works for me? Because the hope these characters have is more in the vein of religious faith: it isn’t the kind of hope that gets resolved one way or another, not from the perspective of the protagonists. If they’d died knowing for sure the Death Star would be destroyed, that would be one thing, but them dying without knowing that is, for me, more powerful. It hits the same note in my subconscious as medieval Europeans starting construction on a cathedral that won’t be finished in their lifetimes: they have to pass the work on to someone else in the faith that it will, in the end, be worth it.

    Which is not to say that having somebody survive wouldn’t have been nice. But the run on Scarif was plausibly impossible enough that it would have been difficult to have someone survive without it tripping the “yeah, it’s Star Wars, of course we can’t have a suicide mission actually be a suicide mission” switch of unreality in my head. I think they would have needed to structure things there a little differently for it to work for me, without feeling like a sop.

  3. Still have yet to watch Rogue One but I wonder what you would think of the idea that most everything about The Force Awakens was JJ Abrams asking himself, ‘Is this cool?’ Sorry a little off topic, but when you said it didn’t satisfy you like Force Awakens it sent shivers down my spine. I’m so dissatisfied with the current state of marvel-esk movies, including Star Wars, Star Trek, the Hobbit, and so on I have no motivation to go see any new blockbusters. Maybe because I live in Asia and I can so clearly see the pandering to Asian audiences prominently displayed in each movie it saddens me that the blockbuster likes of old Star Wars, True Lies, Jurassic Park etc. are gone. Every moment in these movies is either a call to grit for grit’s sake or action for action’s sake. I watch a lot of 80s movies so it’s not like I don’t appreciate action, but like the spontaneous bursts of song in old Disney movies, these scenes used to take the viewer from point A to point B either in time or place, think Simba growing up over the course of Hakuna Matata or every scene in Die Hard, as compared to Marvel movies (pick any) where any fight before the end begins and ends in the same place and state of affairs. Basically, the only blockbusters that work now are the ones with lots of comedy because we have something to laugh at in the meantime.

  4. Callan says:

    I didn’t know they’d edited out female pilots from a new hope.

  5. I really appreciate this take on the film, since I was surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did. I don’t usually enjoy “gritty” films or ones where everyone dies (I might not have gone to see Rogue One if I’d known everyone died). I think a lot of the reason that I enjoyed it as much as I did was that I viewed it as part of the genre of films memorializing resistance fighters, especially from WWII. The one that came to mind was Female Agents, a French film about a group of women who go back to France for One Last Mission, but the films I’m drawing from also include The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, Sophie Scholl, Casablanca… I haven’t thought much about why it evokes that genre so strongly for me, beyond the plot points, but your post suggests that maybe I was unconsciously seeing other tropes from those films. Weird, lazy characterization is definitely one of them – we get told that “this person is the scrounger” “this person has a Dark Past” – but the story is so encapsulated in this one mission that no time is spent on further character development. I wonder if anyone else saw those parallels?

  6. […] Foz Meadows has done a very good job of pointing out what a bad job Rogue One does of developing its characters. It’s all the more frustrating because we’re given all the signs that the material for it is there; the characters have the outlines of interesting backstories, and the actors imply a lot of depth outside their lines. But the movie never fills in the sketches. Maybe the information I want is off somewhere in a tie-in novel, or maybe it’s left for the fanfic writers to provide, but either way it’s supremely aggravating, because if the movie had brought them to three-dimensional life, the ending would have been the fabulous gut punch I wanted. And I think the writers/director/etc could have done it pretty easily, if they had just had a clearer sense of where their narrative priorities lay. […]

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