That sums it up for me. After seeing the film for the first time, and even after a second, this is the notion that kept floating to the surface of my mind. A small but very clumsy group of clumsy decisions is what holds the film back from greatness — keeping it merely… decent.
Where to start? Well, the first clue the audience is given that maybe the foundation of this film is a little flimsy comes up straight away: a planet’s name is subtitled. This may seem a trivial point, but as I see it, there’s basically never an excuse to show a location subtitle. Never. If it’s important to know the name of a location, it will come up naturally in dialogue. And the fact that we are seeing text on screen causes us to wonder: who is showing us this text? Are we God and an angel has helpfully labelled a place for our forgetful memory? Or is this story being silently narrated by a character in the future? And why is this placename spelt that way (eg. “Eadu” instead of Iidu, or Eedoo), when it comes from a fictional language that is never displayed in-world in Roman letters? In short, the director has distanced us from any feeling of immersion.
Another aspect of this movie’s lack of grace — probably the main reason for the decision to subtitle placenames — is the way in which the first act sees hurried snippets of disparate storylines following each other in rapid succession. Perhaps this was a conscious decision of pacing, meant to invoke anxiety. But, at least in this viewer’s mind, it didn’t allow the characters or settings time to breathe, and felt clumsy. A better way of doing it might have been to let a few different events transpire in each setting, taking time to establish each scene’s central character and their surroundings more gently, allowing us to get a sense for the setting and sympathy for the character. From there the film could cut away at a natural-feeling “chapter break,” moving to another place and another character—and being mindful to establish them both without text labels! Think of the old Star Wars movies that did this perfectly. Yes, they were in more of a classical, sometimes mythical style; and so it could be argued that this Rogue One was bucking against that mood in an attempt to capture the feel of a different genre; but this is a flawed approach from the outset, because Rogue One is completely reliant on those older films for context and flavour, even borrowing some of their shots. And so it never confidently breaks free of them to become a stand-alone spy or war movie. It tries, continuously, but concedes to references — ”remember these two from the Mos Eisley cantina?” — and to the light fantasy style of its forebears (even while darkening it as much as it can). Furthermore, there are plenty of classic war films that took their sweet time with establishing characters, in a totally unhurried fashion. It’s easy to forget, I suppose, when putting together screenplays, but giving an audience plenty of time to get to know characters – good, interesting, relatable characters – really will make the film more satisfying for them.
Come to think of it — those frenetically chopped up opening scenes — did the audience even need to see them? Perhaps the director ought not have bothered with them at all, as almost the entirety of information they conveyed was soon redelivered by dialogue anyway.
There’s a lot of needless information towards the end of the film, too. The whole set up of the Scarif forcefield that somehow blocks data transmission, the bemusing refusal of the Rebellion to rebel, and the rigmarole of cables and uplink switches on the beach, all smacked of plot contrivance. Quite complicated and somehow fitting together neatly to ensure all the main characters die, yet each element felt unnecessary. You may also have noticed that when an imperial officer and some sort of imperial ground crew technician approach the titular vessel, where Jyn and Cassian are about to steal their uniforms, the technician juuust happens to be short and slight like Jyn. Ooh, perfect fit! Anyway…
I’m all of a sudden aware that this is a dourly critical piece, and that I’m subconsciously keeping levity out of my writing. I guess this comes from my own disappointment in something I was looking forward to for ages; but it’s also because I know that people worked on this movie very sincerely. So I respect that. And now that I think of it, this goes for pretty much all creative endeavours; even if something’s horrible (not Rogue One – other things), I should probably try to remember that its creators didn’t realise they were unleashing a horror upon the world. And at least trying to make art is better than not trying at all.
That said, pretty much nothing in life (or death) needs to be taken a hundred percent seriously. So I’m going to write the rest of this post completely drunk.
Earlier I mentioned placename labels writ across the cinema screen. Now, even though I think it’s appalling – just a dreadful, awful idea – and should never be done for any reason at all, I also think if it is done, it should be applied consistently. And yet, when we are taken to visit Darth Vader’s lava castle, what planet are we on? Who the hell knows!? Bafflingly, the label convention was dropped at that point. I mean, pick a style! Changing it up like that suggests the director lacks self confidence, or maybe just doesn’t care very much about style consistency. I suspect that maybe it was also to indicate the secrecy of the location of Darth Vader’s home; but even if it is secret, I’m sure the audience is allowed to know. We won’t tell the Rebels, we promise!
Speaking of Darth… Man, what a slip-up! In the screenplay, I mean. There is just no justification for having that scene where he talks to Krenig. It gives us nothing that couldn’t have been delivered by other means. And it burdens us with listening to the quite noticeably aged voice of James Earl Jones for a full minute – bringing us out of the fantasy to think Oh yeah… I guess Earl Jones has gotten old… Huh. Wonder what he’s been up to, anyway… I really didn’t need that. I don’t know about you, but I really like feeling absorbed by a film whilst I’m in the cinema. Anything that makes me think about an actor’s life outside of the film, when they’re not really the character I’m believing in, is pretty unwelcome. So, how to fix this? Maybe don’t have Darth speaking for so long. Or at all. This scene really serves as the vehicle for a dorky Force joke. (Questionable use of the air choke, too – doesn’t Darth only use that when someone offends him?) Basically, the best thing you can say for the whole scene is that it shows off some cool concept art. Here we have a castle whose only purpose is to look metal as hell. No practical purpose for being there, no need for it to channel the lava; but most importantly no pretty scenery, either – Darth doesn’t need anything to distract him from his brooding. Yeah, it’s cool concept art. So thanks, Doug Chiang and co! But we didn’t need to go there. The less we know about Vader as a person, the better a character he is. Think about it: wasn’t he much more interesting when we knew basically nothing about him, apart from him somehow – unimaginably – being friends with Obi Wan and having kids with Luke and Leia’s mother? Ahh, that ambiguity… I miss those days! Happier times for all of us. Now we know too much about his homelife. And it’s weird. For all that he appreciates asceticism, he does it rather opulently – making sure to have a fully staffed holiday castle in the least sensible location ever.
And it’s such a shame that we had to see this, because the very end of Rogue One is where Darth Vader really shines! A bunch of rebel soldiers take position in a hallway, before the darkness beyond them is severed by the menacing glow of a red lightsaber. Darth steps forward and effortlessly annihilates everyone before him. There are no words from him. We all know who he is. He does his what he needs to do, with no more mercy than a hammer might show some nails. And if we want to know more about him, well there are three whole solid films set after this point where he doesn”t do anything out of character. His silent presence here at the end of Rogue One is leant weight by his deeds in the films that follow. I imagine a version of the movie where this was the first time Darth appeared. Many in the audience would have been hoping for a potential glimpse of Darth. As the end credits approached, this would have seemed increasingly unlikely. But oh my God he’s here! Right at the end of the film, in the most unabashed evil power fantasy, we get to see Vader in probably the most satisfying sequence we’ve ever had. When I say satisfying, I mean that it fulfils our desire to see him exemplify his own character. It’s very common in good stories, but I have no idea what it’s called. Anyway it’s delightful! For long-time fans, this would have been the shining cherry on top of an okay film.
Should I talk about the CG characters? I don’t wanna talk about the CG characters. They’re a tacky inclusion, basically. Some people won’t notice. My dad didn’t notice (though maybe he was in a bad mood at the time). But others will notice straightaway, even in that first glimpse of Moff Tarkin in the reflection of a window. I remember thinking in that moment, That’s alright. I know it’s some computer trickery, but they’ve classily limited it to a translucent reflection. That’s fairly subtle. And then thwack! The filmmakers assaulted my eyeballs again and again and again with this mock-up of a human being. It’s very clever, and there’s nice voicework, too. But why? Why?! It would have been so much easier for them and so much more pleasing for nitpickers like me if they had simply chosen/come up with another character to handle his plot agency. But no. They obviously thought it was such a good idea that they decided to throw in a fake Carrie Fisher, as well – throw her all the way into the Uncanny Valley. So many different solutions for that one. Because it was such a brief moment, the visual discord of CG Leia’s face could have been lessened or maybe even alleviated purely by choices of how it was framed and lit. That’s if it was important to show her face. Maybe it wasn’t, and we could have just glimpsed her, as portrayed by costume and a body double resembling that of nineteen year-old Fisher. Mind you, I am happy though that Carrie was happy. She quite enjoyed the scene, apparently. Enjoyed the quirkiness, too, I imagine, because I know she had a great sense of humour. And, look, I enjoy quirky things too. I even enjoyed this film, believe it or not! I just think it was totally all over the place. ■