The second of what is shaping to be an annual Star Wars movie release under the new Disney regime is in the wild, and from what I’ve seen the fan and critical consensus is mostly positive. Well, I saw the movie Friday morning, and while I didn’t think it was terrible by any means, I do have some comments on what are (to me) some obvious failings.
First, the good: Rogue One is not your typical Star Wars film in terms of tone, which after seven main-line movies feels like a welcome change of pace. Others have said this film emphasizes the “Wars” part of the title more than any of its predecessors, and I certainly agree. For once, the stormtroopers actually seem menacing, marching out in tight formation and crouching on a tank like the Wehrmacht they’re patterned after. I liked the shaky-cam style. I liked that the film was willing to kill all its protagonists at the end. Finally, in terms of its skeleton this movie is a pretty solid action blockbuster, with some genuinely awesome action set-pieces.
That said, there are a number of head-scratchingly dumb decisions on display here. The one that sticks out in my mind is…yes, you guessed it…Tarkin. The viewer goes through an interesting relationship with Tarkin in this movie. At first, you see the back of his head, and think oh there’s yet another throwback cameo, neat. Then he turns around, and instantly you see how ridiculous he looks. Well, you think, this is pretty ghastly and unconvincing, but I guess they felt they could pull this effect off for the one line he’s going to speak in this scene and then they’ll pull him off and hope we forget about this by the end of the movie.
Then he keeps talking. And talking. Then he comes back for another scene. And another.
Sorry, but I don’t get it. This has nothing to do with my feelings vis a vis CGI. If you can use CGI to build a convincing double for a deceased actor, and you have the requisite permission, etc. then have at it. But clearly ILM has thrown everything they had at the problem, and anyone can see within a millisecond that they came up well short of creating anything that isn’t plain distracting. So why do it? If you feel like having another actor take Cushing’s place wouldn’t suffice (which I’m fine with), why write Tarkin into the movie at all, never mind as a full-fledged driver of the plot, unlike the younger rendition of Leia?
And while I thought the Leia effect was mostly saved by its brevity, her presence in this movie does bring up another bothersome issue: information that, while it may not count as “contradicting” canon, forces us to re-interpret the canonical films in ways that are seemingly nonsensical or unsatisfying.
A prime example of this is when Bail Organa takes his leave of the rebel base and states (implicitly) that his next move will be to send for Obi-Wan Kenobi to help, and that he is going to send his (adopted) daughter Leia to deliver the message. This throwaway line (seriously, it seems to add nothing to Rogue One whatsoever) means we are now forced to see the opening to A New Hope in a totally new light; it turns out Leia was already on her way to see Obi-Wan before her ship was attacked, for reasons (mostly) unrelated to delivering the Death Star plans. Why she would be present at the battle at Scarif base when she’s supposed to be headed to Tattooine already is a mystery, as is why she wouldn’t, I don’t know, change ships sometime between when she left the captured rebel flagship and when she was taken prisoner. I mean, now that Vader has seen that ship (or at least the same model) fleeing with the stolen plans aboard, doesn’t that make your whole “Diplomatic mission to Alderaan” line seem a wee bit silly?
Furthermore, it’s been a while since I’ve re-watched ANH, but doesn’t it seem like the rebels should be a bit more aware of the Death Star than they are in that movie, considering that by that time it’s already shown up at the site of a major battle and started fucking shit up (OK fine, they haven’t seen it blow up a whole planet yet, but put two and two together)? Like, when Leia is composing her message to Obi-Wan, why not say, “Oh and by the way the Empire has a giant spherical battlestation, keep an eye out for that”? And further furthermore, what does Bail Organa want from Obi-Wan in the first place? To come out of retirement and lightsaber some troopers on the beach? The whole thing was just better off left alone.
Among the negative opinions on this movie, one I’ve heard a few times is that it feels like a generic action film with a myriad sprinkling of Star Wars fan service thrown on top. The thing is, I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with that–except that where Rogue One falls flat, it’s usually due to some reference to another movie in the franchise which could just as easily have been left out. There’s too much going on here with Tarkin, Vader (OK, yes, the final scene was cool, but Vader is not an interesting villain in the context of this movie alone), and especially the Death Star itself begging for screen time. And this is all layered on a movie which is so heavily stuffed that it can’t resolve its more mundane errors: the male lead feels redundant and uncompelling, too much time is spent on Forest Whitaker’s character for little payoff, Tarkin destroys Scarif for seemingly no reason, the pilot who was supposed to have lost his mind seems totally lucid, etc.
But what prompted me more than any of the above to write this post wasn’t in Rogue One at all, it was another film entirely. This afternoon I went with my wife and kids to see another Disney movie, Moana. Wow. An incredible movie, possibly Disney Animation’s best ever. And while going into full depth on the reasons why will have to wait, the thing that struck me most in comparison to Rogue One was its simplicity. In terms of characters we’re supposed to care about, we have two: Moana and Maui. Two! Not…however many there were in Rogue One. Two characters, ninety minutes, plenty of time to work out a complete arc for them both. Result: the audience cares, the audience goes home happy. It’s not that complicated! Literally!
Now, I’m not saying that the number of characters in a film is necessarily indicative of its complexity, and certainly not of its quality, but all of this does serve as a good reminder to us all (well especially to me) that when it comes to fiction, less is almost always more. You may want to add every cool idea and weird character and awesome setpiece you can think of, but if you’re starving your principle characters of oxygen, all you’re doing is suffocating your work.
Will the new Lucasfilm pick up on this, too? Well, we can Hope…