In which we try not to choke on our ambition.
Long time readers will know that I am not that big a fan of Star Wars. I appreciate the original’s place in cinematic history, and Empire is 9/10th of a great film and (for better or worse) the standard barer for sequels. But the rest, and I include last year’s Force Awakens in this, are just bad. They are poorly made, poorly written, style-over-substance examples of the dangers of ego. And the Force Awakens is a textbook example of the modern infatuation with nostalgia, letting the need to incessantly call back to the familiar getting in the way of creating something that is able to stand on its own. So, in a numbers game, Star Wars doesn’t rank that high with me. But I can understand the appeal. The level of realization of an entire galaxy’s worth of culture within the three original films alone is worthy of respect. And it is hard not to find space wizards and muppets with laser swords fighting leather clad samurai appealing. So I understand where the devotion to the franchise comes from.
That being said, Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie in 36 years. Easily. Handily. Without hesitation. It isn’t perfect. Far from it. But in comparison with the alternatives, Rogue One feels like it was a movie that was made with conviction and earnestness of purpose. Which is hilarious considering that it was transparently made only to make money and further the brand. In which case, it might be one of the better examples of a successful merging between the business of movie making with the artistry of storytelling. Gareth Edwards and Tony Gillroy (whom it increasingly seems we have to thank for the film’s less indulgent moments) have managed to find a purpose in telling a story that had no reason to be told. They anchored that story with characters that matter and affect you emotionally, all the while delivering a narrative that fills a very slender and precarious gap previously only read between the lines. The tightrope walking the filmmakers pulled off alone deserves applause.
As I sat down to watch the film, the person in the seat next to me leaned over and asked “when does this one happen?” It is perhaps indicative of the power of the Star Wars brand at this point. Somehow, Disney was able to convince the entire public, not just the nerd-core and basement dwellers, that Star Wars was something they wanted to see in droves, and the audience accepted that. Accepted it, and now clamour, “thank you sir, may I have another.” The audience isn’t expected to know that Rogue One takes place within the text scroll of the original film, taking up all of two punctuation marks. It could just as easily take place after the last one, or before the Natalie Portman ones, or really any time at all. They don’t need to know, and perhaps they don’t care enough to know. All they know is that a Star Wars film is out, and even though they probably lobbed a childhood insult at someone for doing a Yoda impersonation, they have a cultural obligation to see it now.
So yes, Rogue One is the story of the Rebel spies which, during the Rebellion’s first major victory against the Empire, stole the plans to the Death Star, which were the macguffin of the original 1977 movie. This isn’t a story that needed to be told. Everything that you need to know from a structural perspective is contained in that previous sentence. There was a battle, the plans were stolen, some time later a whiny farmboy exploded a metal moon using extreme proprioception. But one of the traditional aspects of the Star Wars universe has been its fanatical obsession with detail, and when it came time to make a movie which wasn’t about a Skywalker, this was the logical first choice. Why logical? Well, a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is a moment that is directly connected to the original film, so it fulfills the nostalgia component. It opens up being able to make direct references to characters and events that are happening almost concurrently. It means that they can take refuge in the familiar whenever things start to feel too extreme. Second, the brief description implies a rousing adventure, even if it is only the precipitant to the actual narrative. By its very nature, this story cannot be a complete one. They can only steal the plans, not accomplish anything with them. Third, it gives the opportunity to show the actual War of Stars that has always been suggested by the title but rarely seen.
The first two points become the film’s largest faults. Once again, we have a film that leans so heavily on nostalgia that it risks overtaking the rest of the film. Unlike Force Awakens, these filmmakers manage to reel things back in by benefit of having characters that are more easy to sympathize with, and a narrative that seems less contrived (not completely uncontrived, just less). But it is a significant weakness of Rogue One that they seem unable to go more than a few minutes without rubbing up on the leg of
Anyway, the film manages to keep itself from falling over the edge that the Force Awakens gleefully threw itself into by always bringing things back to the characters. This is a remarkably slim movie. Motivations are clear cut, and intentions are simple. The characters all have room for development, but it is a confined space. There is a push-pull between ownership of the narrative between the characters and the story, and the film works best when the characters are in charge. From a story perspective, the entire second act is unnecessary. It simply does not need to happen. The characters could all go from act one to act three and it would change the story in no way. The second act is entirely devoted to character. In fact, the bulk of the character evolution happens because of the events of the second act. These superfluous events force them to go from who they were at the film’s start to who they need to be in order to complete their mission. Yes, it would be better story telling if these elements worked in tandem, but we can’t ask for the moon, because it’s not a moon, it’s a space station. It helps that none of these characters have pronounced destinies, and most of the best of their development comes with a terse stoicism. There are very few grand speeches. Just personal interactions, which manage to explode with more affection and diversity and humanity than this franchise has ever been capable of.
A lingering issue is that, like Empire, the movie is really only 9/10ths of a movie. The ending that is missing is the whole next film, retroactive sequel baiting. It is completely and detrimentally a movie that can only exist in relation to the next film in the series, and not at all on its own. Unlike Empire though, which doesn’t allow its characters any internal closure, this film does. From a character perspective, the film is a closed book, which is refreshing and bold in an era of endless sequels. The fact that these original characters exist in a narrative vacuum, and have fully realized beginnings, middles and ends seems almost novel because that’s just not the way things are done any more. Not for films that exist within brands. And, while I will avoid spoilers, the ending of this movie made me extremely happen. Yes, it seems like every time they come up against an obstacle, the solution is ten feet away and they have to move a stick. There is a troubling level of “and then next…” going on in the structure. But I applaud the audacity of the film to take these characters to the places they do. And to show them as real. People in this movie don’t get along, and some of them don’t learn to love one another. They do lean to work together, and there is an important distinction to make there. They also love one another without having to get operatic about it. For filmmaking, these characters might seem minimalistic, but really they just behave realistically. And humourously. And selfishly. And tragically. Even the worst defined of the characters was relatable in that they were just doing their job.
My third point, about actually showing the star wars that Star Wars always suggests is part of this movie’s charm. The other movies, so focused on the Grand Mythology of the universe, have a very fairy tale perspective to them. Everyone involved is someone Very Important. This movie is about the unnamed, the unremembered, the undecorated. It is the street level perspective that the Star Wars universe needed. Based on Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, he was the right man for the job, because that movie failed utterly to show us Godzilla at anything other than how a person would see it. Likewise, this movie is told from inside the fight, not above it. These characters are scarred by the rebellion, not pining for it. They are damaged and disillusioned, and literally fighting for their lives, not swooping in like heroes to save the destined savior at the last minute. The action too happens up close, with dirt and rock and girt and blood. There are no fancy powers that let you keep a safe distance from the person you kill; here people get shot in the back. This is a film that truly demonstrates the oppression of the Empire, and the destitution of the galaxy under Imperial rule. It also proved, or should be powerful evidence to Disney, that the Star Wars universe needs to move away from the Skywalkers. They are infinitely the least interesting characters in a galaxy full of potential. If I give more of a shit about any of these rogues after one movie then I do about any of the Skywalkers and their various relations after seven, move on.
There is a moral dilemma though in Rogue One. A very pertinent one. One that Robin Williams’ family successfully sued over, to prevent just this sort of behaviour. You see, and I’ll avoid spoilers here, but there are multiple CGI characters in this movie. To be expected, in the age of Gollum and Caesar and Ultron. But this goes beyond aliens and creating the fantastic. This starts chopping at the fabric of the fourth wall, and where an actor ends and a character begins. Because this film takes place in 1977, and it’s been nearly forty years, the film has turned back time on certain characters, and it creates two problems. One, the effect is horrible and distracting, and pulls away from any sense of realism. And two, it is unethical. Characters like Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) or Dodonna (Ian McElhinney) make a certain sense have been recast, which seems the more appropriate response. And these actors look amazingly like their counterparts. This is also the tact Disney has taken with the upcoming Han Solo film, casting Donald Glover and Alden Ehrenreich to take over form Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford. However, this movie proves that Disney has no compunction over using a computer to recreate a person as they were, timelessly preserving the character for reuse in perpetuity at the sacrifice of the actor’s identity. A huge role in this film is fulfilled by the digital ghost of someone who has been dead for decades. Is this the equivalent of the portraits in Harry Potter, trapping the facade of a person on the screen, with no soul? Will Glover and Ehrenreich be digitally tweaked to look more like Williams and Ford, or rather Lando and Han? I could not help but feel unnerved by these digital characters, not for their unnatural appearance, but for the inhumanity of their presence.
To close, I’ll say that, while watching this movie, I realized there is an inverse relationship between the amount of screen time that Darth Vader gets and the quality of the film in question. Vader is in Rogue One for all of five minutes.