Roundtable: Rogue One (2016)


The Story: How It Fits with the Skywalker Saga

Anton: The famous opening crawl for A New Hope begins:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

I had my doubts when I learned that Rogue One was to be about stealing the Death Star plans. First, I thought that the filmmakers were handicapping their story by telling a narrative in which the audience already knows the outcome. We know the Rebel spies will get the plans, so how will you generate tension? Second, I didn’t understand why they wanted to create a stand alone Star Wars story, meant to be separate from the Episodes, but then at the same embed it in the events of the Skywalker saga.

Anders: What I find particularly strange about the conceit of the film telling a previously unknown backstory is that Rogue One is essentially a prequel, and suffers from many of the same narrative problems that detractors of Lucas’s Episodes I through III point to, such as the foregone outcome you note. However, I think this was a narratively smart move, allowing them to tell a story about characters and events not previously seen, while remaining within the realm of story that most people who have seen the original films would understand.

Anton: I was pleased to discover that the film is more compelling than I had feared. As with many heist movies, we don’t really doubt that the team will succeed, but the filmmakers certainly build tension and drama in other ways, such as with the sacrificial price that is demanded for the Rebels’ success.

I’m still not pleased with the franchise’s caution though. Why not really cut things lose and tell a new story, a truly new Star Wars story, and not something many fans had inklings of already?   

Aren: Yeah, with these anthology films, they have the option of setting stories hundreds of years in the past. Why not go out on a limb? But I still think Rogue One works nicely as a prequel. It’s essentially Episode III.5.

Were you bothered by the lack of an opening crawl?

Anton: I was. I didn’t think it was a necessary formal change. And it would have been an interesting opportunity to allude to events beyond the film’s scope, in the same way that Lucas originally did.

Anders: I found the lack of a crawl strange at first, and to some extent it probably contributed to the fact that it took me a while to really settle into the film’s groove. But on the other hand, I’m okay with it not having a crawl. It differentiates the “Saga” films from what are essentially filmed versions of the old Expanded Universe stories.

Anton: The last paragraph in A New Hope’s crawl reads:

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….

It’s interesting that this is the point where Rogue One actually leaves off.

And speaking of the ending, I thought that the last scene with Vader foregrounds the delights and perils of this sort of spin-off yet closely-connected story. As badass as Vader’s flurry of death is, to me it highlighted the precariousness of trying to both tie into a beloved film and outdo it.

Aren: I think the Vader scene is perhaps the most obvious example of fan service in a film ever. And yet, I also think it’s amazing. You hear so much about Vader and how terrifying he is to the Rebellion in the original trilogy, but you never really see Vader unleash that terror aside from choking Captain Antilles in A New Hope. Here, you understand why Vader strikes such terror in his friends and enemies alike.

Anton: Yes, friends too, what with the scene where Vader chokes Krennic (with puns)!

Aren: I love that Gareth Edwards shoots Vader’s final scene like a horror scene. The flickering light and sparks in the midst of rampage are more reminiscent of a scene from Alien than other Star Wars films. It foregrounds the horror of Vader.

Anton: The problem with the Vader scene is that I think it undercuts the opening to A New Hope. That entrance in that film becomes less powerful, since it’s an act of restraint in contrast to his attack. Plus, why didn’t Vader just do his thing again and then get the plans?

Edwards even had to sort of redo the original entrance, with the Rebel troopers all waiting in a white corridor.

Anders: I would be lying if I didn’t say that the sequence thrilled me a great deal, but that is the fanboy in me. Yet Anton make some good points in terms of how this film ties into the original trilogy. It’s not as seamless as people make it out to be, and actually changes the fundamental nature of certain plot elements in A New Hope, particularly with regards to the nature of the Death Star’s weakness and Tarkin’s arrogant pride.

As General Dodonna points out in A New Hope: “Well, the Empire doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they’d have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station.”

Anton: So what was, in the original film, an emblem of the Empire’s hubris becomes, in Rogue One, the last revenge of someone the Empire has wronged.

Rogue One’s Success as a Movie

Aren: So, after all that, did you guys still like Rogue One? I think it’s easily the weakest of the entire Star Wars franchise, and yet, I still think it’s several degrees better than most blockbusters of recent years. Compared to recent Marvel movies (excepting Doctor Strange) it actually seems original and does some bold things with its narrative.

Anders: Yes, I enjoyed it a great deal and I’ll happily watch it again. Like you, Aren, I think it’s the weakest of the franchise, particularly in its “inessentialness.” But that’s okay; I’m ready to accept these new Disney Star Wars films as essentially a long and elaborate work of expanded universe fiction. But I agree, it’s a great deal more enjoyable—and more thoughtful—than most blockbusters.

Anton: I did like it overall. It’s the first Star Wars movie, though, that I’m not in love with. This is partly because Disney Star Wars is starting to smack of House Marvel. What I mean by that is that we’re starting to see the influence of not an auteur but a house style and high-level management, who from this point forward will be first and foremost thinking about managing their franchise and brand and not telling stories.

I think this is part of the reason why they altered Jyn’s character from the possibly-uncontrollable rebel that the teasers suggested. They ended up making her more of a run-of-the-mill hero in need of (cheap) redemption, like so many heroes in action flicks these days. Overall, the film just feels a bit too much like a factory product for me. It’s lacks the weirdness that Lucas often brought to the films.

On the other hand, if Abrams’ Star Wars was bizarrely restricted in terms of its vision of the Star Wars Universe (making it thematically fascinating but also narratively diluted), Rogue One is a masterpiece of visual invention and world-building. If the story feels too limited at times to the story we already knew, we still get to see things I never thought I’d see, like a Star Destroyer over a mountaintop city.

Aren: My second viewing smoothed out a lot of my hesitations from the first time around. Mainly, the deliberately off-beat rhythm for a Star Wars movie threw me the first time. On the second viewing, I could make peace with some of its storytelling choices, like foregoing the opening crawl and jumping from planet to planet more rapidly than past installments.

Anders: It is interesting to think about the notion of Star Wars as a house-style, with studio mandated rewrites and brand consciousness, but in a sense Star Wars always was that. It just happened that the House and producer was one man, and it was his vision that powered the franchise.

For me, the biggest way Rogue One changes things is in its aesthetic style, eschewing the template that J.J. Abrams mostly stuck to in terms of aping Lucas’s style. That said, even The Force Awakens felt the influence of contemporary movie-making, with a quicker pace, etc. (A New Hope is a surprisingly patient and low-key film when one revisits it). While this film does shift the aesthetic choices more starkly, this is inevitable.

The Action, Formal Style, Character- and World-Building

Anton: Many critics have been calling this the most gorgeous Star Wars movie, but I think it’s worth unpacking the formal differences between Rogue One and The Force Awakens and Lucas’s films in particular. While Gareth Edwards has an eye for atmospherics, and while I think the use of intensified continuity works for the war movie Rogue One is meant to be, I miss Lucas’s medium-wide clarity.

Anders: Yes, I agree. And while The Force Awakens showed that J.J. is a good imitator, it too was not a perfect fit with the original films. I’m happy to have filmmakers bring their own particular aesthetic interests to Star Wars. I for one would love to see someone like Guillermo del Toro take a shot at a Star Wars film. If we’re going to have Star Wars every year for the foreseeable future, I say release the reins rather than try to slavishly capture the past.

As for Rogue One, I think it’s a good looking film. It takes us to some really lovely new planets, and in terms of framing and setting up iconic shots, Edwards is good at it. I still think about the HALO jump in his Godzilla film from time to time. I can’t say that there are that many other directors of recent mega-blockbusters in the Marvel series or even in Jurassic World that are that memorable in terms of crafting an image.

Aren: I think the greatest visual strength of Rogue One is its focus on scale. As Edwards demonstrated in Godzilla, he understands how to put a small object in front of a large object to lend a sense of grandeur. Here, shots of the Death Star appearing on the horizon of Scarif or the Death Star’s superlaser dish dwarfing a Star Destroyer give a sense of scale that is often absent in other Star Wars films.

As for the intensified continuity, it works better than in most modern action films, even if it’s no Saving Private Ryan or Gladiator. The action scenes actually work best when they’re using parallel editing, as in the climax that cuts between Chirrut and Baze on the beach, Jyn and Cassian infiltrating the spire, and the Rebel fleet in orbit. Lucas is mostly responsible for pioneering parallel editing in Hollywood blockbusters, so it’s fitting that it continues to be the best approach for Star Wars movies, regardless of their genre.

Anton: Another good point I’ve heard some pick up on is how Rogue One doesn’t develop characters through action, as Abrams did so well in Force Awakens. In this sense, it does deserve comparison with Battlefront, where you have your character and see what you can do with the skills and items acquired, rather than discovering new aspects of characters mid-action.

Aren: Yeah, there’s a definite video game feel to a lot of this film.

Anton: Note to all: “video game” is not automatically a value judgement, but merely a descriptor.

Aren: The aforementioned Darth Vader rampage scene plays similar to Star Wars Battlefront, where you can upgrade into a hero for a short time and easily dispatch other players with lightsaber or force abilities.

Anders: Rogue One is not alone in this. I felt Captain America: Civil War was very influenced by video games as well. I also think this is intentional, as the audience for these franchises are very much the same as the audiences for video games. My discomfort with that style, however, has as much to do with my own passage out of that particular demographic as it does with it being narratively uninteresting.

Anton: After the movie, someone in the audience beside me said that they thought the ending was silly, just one goal the Rebels had to complete after another with the final goal of broadcasting the plans.

Level: Imperial Archives. Objective: Steal Death Star plans. First you must set up the bombs. Then you need to sneak around. Then you flick a switch.

For all this, I think they largely make it work though. The film really takes off during the final battle and events.

Aren: Yeah, I think the ending is the definite strong point of the film. As for the development of character through action, Rogue One is definitely not as strong as The Force Awakens. You can criticize J.J. Abrams all you want, but you’re a fool to ignore his genuinely dynamic camera and skill with character. From the Lost pilotto the Star Trek reboot to The Force Awakens, he knows how to introduce characters, their backstory exposition, and their particular quirks without slowing down the narrative. Oftentimes, his characters are meeting each other in the midst of fleeing villains or fighting, and he gets across a lot of information without having them literally stop and process the story changes.

Anders: In a lot of ways I think that this film’s strengths are in areas that J.J.’s aren’t and vice versa. I agree with you that, as much as I enjoyed the team of characters in this film, The Force Awakens simply introduces compelling characters like no other recent blockbuster does. I admit that much of the desire I have to see more of or find out more about characters in Rogue One is based on their casting as it is on anything present in the film (for instance, Mads Mikkelsen's Galen Erso or Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe).

One thing I think that Rogue One does well is provide more variety of locations and new ships and weapons, something that The Force Awakens didn’t do (why only X-wings in the Resistance?). At least here we get U-wings, and Krennic has a sweet shuttle, and Death Troopers, etc.

Aren: Rogue One approaches character more like the team-building movies it’s based on, from Seven Samurai to all manner of “men-on-a-mission” war movies like The Dirty Dozen. As Rogue One boasts strong world building, often it has characters lurking in the backgrounds of scenes, adding texture, before they enter the narrative when needed. Think of how Chirrut and Baze are just hanging out in front of the Kyber Temple on Jedha. Chirrut makes a few comments to Jyn, but we’re not meant to pay much attention to them. It’s only once the city turns violent that they reappear and join with Jyn and Cassian on their mission.

I don’t think this is as strong a way to introduce characters as we get with Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens. Character is one of Abrams’ greatest strengths. But this film’s certainly not deficient.

Anton: I wonder if some Disney exec required them to add in titles stating what planet events are taking place on?

Aren: That was a definite producer add. They wanted to differentiate from the other movies, so like not having the opening crawl or the Star Wars title show up, it also uses title cards to let you know where things are taking place. However, I have to admit to being a little annoyed that this use of title cards wasn’t entirely consistent throughout the film. For instance, why doesn’t Mustafar get a title card when Krennic visits Vader at his castle? It reeks of producers not wanting to reference the prequels more than they absolutely have to here.

Anders: Yeah, that bugs me too.

Anton: It’s worth pointing out that the original Star Wars films, as well as the prequels, do not need title cards. Lucas’s storytelling is that clear. And he always uses establishing shots to remind you where you are.

Anders: I agree, that’s a great point. You never need a title card, because even if you can’t remember the names of the planets, they are all so unique. There are a couple of planets in this film that are a bit unmemorable.

Those Digital Characters

Anton: I’m not fond of the digital recreations of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Carrie Fisher.

Aren: I am convinced a person who is unaware that Peter Cushing is dead would not realize it’s a digital recreation. It’s fairly convincing, and only becomes “uncanny” because we’re approaching it with external knowledge.

Anton: Well, I don’t buy that.

Aren: And as for any moral arguments—I’m talking to you, glass-half-empty Anton—the Cushing estate approved of it so I don’t see how you can make a compelling argument against it if the family is fine with it. I think the film would’ve made little sense if Tarkin was not involved. How can you do a movie primarily about the Death Star and not have its commander be a major presence in the film?

Anton: Maybe he wasn’t around during the building?

And why couldn’t they simply cast a new actor to play Tarkin? I’m afraid this is a case of the fan obsession with continuity. A different actor would remind people this is just a movie.

In any case, the Carrie Fisher/young Leia is far more uncanny, because no one doubts that that is not Carrie Fisher—we just saw her at her proper age in The Force Awakens—but it also takes on a strange quality since her untimely and unfortunate death.

In some strange sense, the digital Leia becomes an onscreen funeral monument, a kind of digital sculpture of Carrie Fisher at her most famous. She even sports an epitaph-like line about “hope.” I’m still working all this out in my head, but I’m curious how I will read the digital Carrie Fisher when I watch the movie a second time.

Anders: Yeah, I’m less convinced that it’s somehow morally a problem, but rather that it’s just unnecessary. Digital recreations are still not perfect. I think that Aren’s right that someone without the knowledge that Cushing is dead might not know. Anecdotally, one person I met at a party shortly after that film came out did not know the character was digital, but did feel something was “off” about the character. For me, that’s the biggest issue. Will this film look dated? Or will Disney pull a Lucas and update the “performances” as the technology is more and more refined?

Anton: And where will we stop?

Anders: In one sense it perfectly encapsulates—as you say, Anton—the fan obsession. It’s a kind of fan service. But it also perfectly fits the film and the notion of people just watching more of the same rather than something new.

As much as I enjoyed the film, and The Force Awakens last Christmas, I’m worried that no one will ever make another film like Star Wars that changes the face of cinema and contemporary mythology, because they’ll just be making new Star Wars films. For all the decrying of a lack of originality among fans today, this is a world of our own making. Fortunately, so far, it’s been a fun world to explore.