Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Now that the new trailer has triggered the beginning of the hype cycle for the upcoming Star Wars episode, we go back and talk about a film that has been much discussed, and in general highly praised by both fans and non-fans of the saga: “Rogue One: a Star Wars Story”, the second installment in the new anthology of Star Wars, after last year’s Episode VII.

We met one afternoon with two fans of the saga, but especially two enthusiasts of cinema itself, to talk a bit about the movie, knowing that we could expect an interesting discussion.

First of all, thanks Fulvio and Edoardo for your time. To start, an easy question: would you think that this movie can be considered an accomplished example of American blockbuster filmmaking?

Fulvio P — Yes. I would say that we got our money’s worth of oversized American entertainment. Although I think that the movie’s story suffers in the last part, it is fun to watch at all times. Let it be said: I consider Rogue One to be better than Episode VII.

Edoardo B — We start off with the right foot. I totally agree that Rogue One is a neat example of what we might call “Hollywood blockbuster”. This is related, of course, to the budget — which, for this movie, was around two hundred million dollars. Just to give a numeric reference, the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release is “Pirates of Caribbean: At World’s End”, with a production budget of more than three hundred million dollars — but also the onus that this chapter of the new anthology is carrying on its shoulders is not negligible in the universe of large-scale entertainment that Hollywood deals with.
And yes, to me here everything is definitely much better than Episode VII. In few words, much braver and, ultimately, successful from the point of view of what cinema I believe is: storytelling.

And just to give few directions to frame the film for anyone who is not a fan of the saga?

FP — The movie is directed by Gareth Edwards. His first film is called “Monsters” (2010), and is about a monster-controlled area between Mexico and the US, that our heroes must traverse in order to get home. The film is nice, but what’s interesting is that Edwards was also the cinematographer and the special effects designer. He did all by himself, and the acquired expertise was fully on display in his second movie, “Godzilla” (2014), that features some truly unforgettable images. In Rogue One, the collaboration with cinematographer Greig Fraser and with Industrial Lights & Magic for the special effects again leads to some amazing results.
The outstanding visuals, together with the excellent editing, explain why the action in this movie is so good. No more darkly-lit, confusingly edited, chaotic action sequences. Instead, we get clear compositions, clear shot-by-shot transitions, great sense of space. Even in the biggest of the action set pieces, with the editing cutting to multiple different locations, we always know where we are, when we are, where the characters that are not shown right now are, and we seamlessly switch from one location to the other. Indeed, in the last, huge battle in and around Planet Scarif, I think that the action is as clear and enjoyable as the plot is murky and confusing.

Let us now dive into the story a bit more: how engaging did you find the film? Does it have a good beat?

FP — At the beginning I was really into it, but as time passed, I started losing interest in the story, and by the third and last act I was kind of disappointed. Let me start with that. In the third act I don’t understand what’s happening anymore. They go to this planet, Scarif, with no plan whatsoever apart from just figuring out what to do while they’re doing it (I guess they call it “hoping for hope” or something). I was taken aback by how random it all seemed. I suppose this is a storytelling problem. It kills tension and confuses the plot. I very much agree with Film Crit Hulk: what if the assault on Scarif was carefully planned, like in a heist movie? Think Ocean’s Eleven. We know the enemy base. We know the secondary objectives to be achieved beforehand. We know who’s supposed to do what. And then, nothing goes as planned and you get tension. Instead, what happens is that objectives are revealed when the action is already happening (“oh look, there’s a convenient switch to pull, just where some characters are, and in a deadly nobody’s land”). Additionally, such an approach would remove the inherent silliness of some characters’ climactic moments. I mean, they try to build tension out of the fact that the cable the pilot is pulling gets stuck somewhere. Is this “epic”? Isn’t it quite lazy instead? Another example: the death of the heavily armored character Baze Malbus is super stupid, its purpose being merely the killing of another two anonymous enemy soldiers. I’m still following Film Crit Hulk’s take (that I suggest you read) when I say this: why feature Darth Vader in this way? Why having him kill some anonymous rebels, when it would have been so much better in terms of tension, poignancy and general awesomeness if he actually went against (and maybe killed, triggering a truly heroic death) some of the protagonists?

EB — Yes, I quite agree as well on the issue of the internal balance of the three “acts” of the story told by Rogue One: the last, which includes a fairly long battle sequence, I found it somewhat confused from a dramatic-narrative point of view, precisely the level of engagement that the script produced in me as a spectator (and not experienced scriptwriter or whatever). However, before the negative criticism, I must also say that the realism of the setting and some of pure war scenes, I found them worthy of a great war movie. Some video game players, however, have pointed out that the whole sequence was too similar to the map of the video game “Battlefront”, and hence the question: was there some relationship of inverse influence between the video game and the movie? Could this maybe be the source of the perceived confusion of the concluding act, resembling a video game played too fast?
Unfortunately, I felt this last act much more than just “a little unbalanced”; the viewer has to manage three different points of view on the same action – that of the three protagonists who sneak into the Empire’s vault on Scarif to steal the plans, that of the rebels who create the diversion, and lastly that of the two space fleets who fight in the space near Scarif. If compared to the first act of the film, this was more an upward, super fast climax, which managed to confuse all the three points of view and, as a result, unravels itself so quickly that completely misses conveying that empathy to the viewer in a clue moment of the movie. In other words, I was so hastily yanked by the (confused) action that I could not feel the sense of danger and emotional involvement that the whole act was supposed to convey. On a purely personal level, then, I found unnecessarily mawkish, and hence slightly false, the last scene, just before the “nuclear catastrophe” caused by the Empire destroying too late its very basis: the two protagonists, embraced on the beach, looking helplessly at their tragic end (inevitable, as they already knew), which quickly overwhelm them.

“Rogue One” cast

And the characters? Their development through the story? If both of you would like to comment also on the actors…

FP — Actually, I think that the issues I was talking about before tie into a larger problem, which is that the characters we are supposed to care about are very thinly written. This is also why the ending doesn’t work, as Edo mentioned, at the character level. Everyone – except for Jyn and Cassian – is a 2D cardboard cutout with little development. We never really get to know them. Jyn and Cassian are just your standard reluctant-hero-luke-skywalker-type and cynical-guy-who-gets-better-han-solo-type. I mean, I know these are general archetypes used all the time in all the movies, but it feels especially lazy here, like they just went through the motions with no real interest. To give you an example of what I mean, consider the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which also features a ragtag group of heroes coming together to save the world against impossible odds. Those guys are amazing: we get to know their personalities through the way they speak, through the jokes they make, and we see and understand the growing bonds that they develop with each other. I think this is because “Guardians” features excellent writing of dialogues. In Rogue One, instead, I guess our characters totally fall flat because it’s… kind of badly written? With too little time devoted to their interactions with each other? Indeed, I think this is reflected in the performances of the actors: no matter how good they actually are, they’re not given very much to work with. I would say that I liked much more the characters of Episode VII: Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren… I think the only character arc with a proper, clear ending (killed by his own creation or blasted by the recklessness of his own ambition) is actually that of the bad guy, Director Krennic.

EB — I start from the actors; maybe because I consider Felicity Jones an incredibly beautiful woman (not to mention her British accent) and extremely magnetic in looks, the decision to give her the role of one of the main characters has pleased me very much, I have to admit this. I can not say the same thing about the character she impersonates, namely Jyn Erso, especially if you put her side by side with the character of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). In a phrase my judgment would be: after two visions of the film, I definitely thought Cassian was the character (human one, because the droid is perhaps the best of the whole saga, certainly on the level of the best-known R2-D2 and C1P8) better managed and developed in narrative terms; on the contrary, I found Jyn more discontinuous, and the underlying reasons that cause her evolution are indeed guessed by the spectator, but are not shown so effectively as it’s done for Cassian. To clarify: it is obvious that what moves Jyn, the trigger of his irreversible change is clearly being the witness of her father’s death; however, what I felt was a strong discontinuity between Jyn “before the death of her father” and “after”: all she had endured – the killing of the mother, the isolation as a child/girl for an unspecified time, the rebellious education carried out by Saw Guerrera (another character who, in my opinion, is put on the stage in a muddled way, but I get to this later, since it’s less complicated and relevant) – seemed to indicate a single, possible explanation of her behaviour, a position we could sum up as “it is useless to raise your head against the Empire and try to escape its abuse, because inevitably it all ends badly and it always costs the life of beloved ones”. Jyn passes in a flash from the beaches of “I care only survive” to the heroic shores of “I am the only hope for Rebel Alliance to seize the opportunity of destroying the Empire’s greatest weapon”. What is most lacking for the character of Jyn is a more explicit demonstration of her motivations, although they are clear from a global point of view of the narrative – in a nutshell: as a child, she saw her mother die in the attempt to rebel against the Empire’s meddling, and years later the father encounters the same fate. In short, the material is put on the stage, but it is not working as expected for a main character.
One can not say the same about the character impersonated in a very credible way by Diego Luna, Cassian, whose ethical and strategic reasons are introduced from the very first scene (the one in which he is forced to kill the innocent informant to prevent it from falling into the Empire’s hands), and then developed naturally throughout the film — the other two key scenes are that of the fight with Jyn, who accused him of cowardly backing down when she still does not know that Cassian’s mission is to kill her father; and a second one, just before the beginning of the last act, where the handful of soldiers led by Cassian himself volunteer for the suicide mission on Scarif, knowing that all that they have risked their lives for, including committing immoral acts such as killing innocent people, all of it would make no sense without that inconsiderate final attempt. Everything is there, the motivations are not only clear and easily guessed, but they are also shown and told.
About Saw Guerrera, however, my word will be much shorter, also because my opinion is partly invalidated by my ignorance on the saga (which I filled after the first viewing of the film): Saw Guerrera had already starred in “The Clone Wars” chapter ( I do not mean to chapter two of the prequel trilogy, but the animated movie of 2008, pilot episode of the homonymous series), and therefore I was explained that it is as if Disney/Lucasfilm takes for granted everything that has already been treated in some other chapter/book/movie of the “new canon”, which includes not only the six films directed by Lucas. I know that my colleague here will say that in a saga every movie has to stand alone and can not impose rigid prerequisites for the understanding of the plot or the characters, but maybe he did not find so irritating the minor importance dedicated to a character that one can imagine to be fundamental and also complex enough.

There has been a remarkable discussion about the use of CGI in the movie, mainly to recreate performances of actors who could not, unfortunately, be present. What do you think about it? Does it really make sense to discuss it or not?

FP — I know there has been a lot of debate around the ethical issues that concern the resurrection (or digital zombification) of a dead character using CGI. The concerns are centered around (i) our right to “force” a dead person to act again without proper consent, and (ii) around the evaluation of such an actorial performance. About the latter: should such a performance be treated on the same footing as that of a real person, but now we consider the CGI people who created it as the real artists? Or is it something truly different? I don’t have an opinion on this, but the development is intriguing. Especially if you consider that secret, digital “corrections” to an actor’s performance are increasingly becoming the norm: I suggest you read this piece if you’re interested.

EB — I cannot but agree that this is a delicate issue, even if it is not perceived as such. In light of what has sadly happened at the end of 2016 with the demise of Carrie Fisher, I can only comment that Disney/Lucasfilm took quite a long time to decide what to do with the last chapter of the new trilogy (Episode IX), in which Fisher’s character, a legacy one considered a solid pillar of the entire saga, should have featured in. Presumably, for both the compelling reasons my friend cited, they decided to go back to the plot and change it accordingly, to avoid dealing with much more difficult problems — not only on the technical side — of recreating such a central role.

Which key themes have you noticed that have been brought into play and treated (or maybe not) with the right depth?

EB — I know that Fulvio will have a lot to say about this point (we already had some discussions about it before this interview), and for this purpose I leave him more space since now.
I would like to say only one thing: maybe it is a superficial detail, which is set aside when going to look for more body issues, but it has definitely struck me noticing the perennial and contemporary conflict between the eternal interference by a state/coalition/group of fanatics, whose essence is rooted in a ruthless imperialism (though they never want to admit openly), with any other form of life that can be subjugated. And this theme emerges not from a too much intellectual post-vision reflection, but it is placed directly on the scene with some quite dark and tragic sequences; among them, the destruction of the holy city of Jedha, preceded by a discussion of two large pieces of the Empire, who are having to decide which is the best way to show off the power of the new deadly weapon, strike more terror, and root out the rebellious intentions of anyone hoping to overturn the status quo.

FP — I appreciated what it seems to me as the first injection of a really gray moral area in the Star Wars narrative, which has obviously been characterized only by two oppositely polarized sides. Even when characters switch sides, like Darth Vader / Anakin or Finn, they always go from clearly evil to clearly good or vice versa. Characters like Han Solo or Lando start from a selfish, cynical perspective, but they always get to a clearly redeeming ending. In Rogue One, we witness some more nuanced depictions of the activities of the Resistance. They are internally divided between moderates and interventionists. They order and enact ruthless assassinations. There is a rogue faction of “radical” rebels headed by Saw Guerrera, a paranoid, violent, battle-scarred revolutionary who would do anything for the cause.
But no character is more interesting, in this respect, than Galen Erso, played by Mads Mikkelsen. He is a scientist for the empire, and a saboteur for the Resistance. He conceives the death star, and while building it figures out the way to undo it. He dearly loves his daughter, and wants to save her, but ends up being the cause of her death. Actually, he is the cause of the death of billions, and the savior of billions at the same time. Such a morally complex figure can never be ascribed to one of the two sides, not even by the end of the movie. The consequences (good and bad) of his actions are still rippling forth, towards a future that we already know and that ends only (for now) with Episode VII. The Resistance fails to recognize the complexity of this man. By not having all the facts, and by reasoning only via a with-me-or-against-me logic, they make the wrong call. We know that, but only because we share Jyn’s point of view. No one else does. Everyone else — indeed everyone else in the Star Wars universe — sees the world as simplistically divided into two opposing fields, a worldview that inherently denies the complexity of reality. They are us. It’s refreshing to see a Star Wars movie that actually engages with this issue.
The movie tries to do it also in other instances, but with various degrees of effectiveness. In particular, consider the scene on Jedha where Guerrera’s people attack an imperial envoy that’s carrying away a precious raw material (instrumental for the realization of the Empire’s superweapon). This is clearly staged to resemble an attack on U.S. forces by native “insurgents” in an Iraq/Afghanistan setting. This kind of imagery is, I think, too dated to function as political commentary (maybe it would have been huge if this movie was made ten years ago), but it’s a nice reversal to see our guys side with the supposed “terrorists” (as one stormtrooper calls them). What’s right and what’s wrong? In an expanding Star Wars universe, we even established that the stormtroopers should now be seen as people, not dehumanized, helmet-wearing automata. They are even capable of changing sides and deserting the Empire! This is also why the final, spectacular moment when the two star destroyers get, well, destroyed — shot beautifully in an orgy of special effect porn and with sweeping, triumphant victory music — felt a little tone-deaf to me. I mean, with this action the Resistance is killing off the entire crews of the two vessels — likely thousands of people. Are we supposed to celebrate that?  But this is a more general problem related to evolving sensibilities in contemporary society, and what was okay in movies a while ago might be less okay now. This is a huge, delicate theme to discuss. If we did it, we would end up quarreling about the meaning of “politically correct” and stuff like that. Marvel movies avoided these problems altogether by mostly making their disposable bad guys in the form of mindless robots and the like, but of course with Star Wars you have a nostalgia-driven “canon” to respect (uff…) and they played the robot card already. This makes things trickier.

Even if it should be clear at this point, how does this movie fit in the Star Wars canon?

FP — I guess this entire movie is able to nobilitate what many considered a silly plot hole in Episode IV: giving a backstory to the weak point of the Death Star, which now makes perfect sense. It was actually put there for that purpose. Apart from that, I don’t care much for the “canon”: I know every Star Wars movie is supposed to fit into a broader story, but to me, each movie must first be able to stand on its own without needing external stuff to provide contextualization, missing story parts, or actual sense.

EB — I cannot call myself a huge fan of the saga, though I saw all the episodes many times and also the material, like the already cited “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, not considered as part of the original canon (but belonging to the “new one” dated back to 2014). I think the major achievement from the point of view of all the narrative of the whole saga is closing the hole in the plot that really allows you to understand the beginning of the old trilogy, as Fulvio said. Nevertheless, as I said before discussing the characters and actors’ performances, I found a bit annoying to assume that everyone knew exactly which role had the character of Saw Guerrera, who everyone (or almost) felt to be relegated into a tight space, while deserving that of an important role he obviously plays. Apart from this personal (and perhaps stubborn) remark on the character of Forest Whitaker,  all the so-called “fan services” – that is, all those references and citations to details fully explained not here but elsewhere – despite being present as a nod to more prepared fans, they do not compromise a virgin viewer of enjoying the film, even without understanding all those minor details.

We would like to hear both of… your favorite scene! And, of course, why you chose that particular one.

FP — I guess I’m going to go with the scene where Jyn watches her father’s hologram in Saw Guerrera’s stronghold, while at the same time everything outside is getting blasted by the nuclear-like holocaust triggered by the Death Star. The two events — indoor / outdoor, intimate / grand — are intercut with alternate editing. On the one hand, Jyn gets a shocking revelation from her father which also plays as a reassuring moment of recontextualization for the audience: the father is actually good! We knew it! But on the other hand, we are getting an opposite message: the horror of what the father contributed to, unfolding at the same time and threatening to bury his fleeting words of redemption with the heavy burden of deeds done.

EB — Without any doubt, I vote for the entrance scene of Darth Vader. I have probably not a justification as objective as that of Fulvio, but I believe that, in addition to being one of the most “visually powerful scenes” of the movie — although it is not without excessive showmanship and polarity entirely moved towards the unstoppable advance of the Dark Side — is also the scene that plays the “passing of the baton” between two completely different and distant movies, and to me it seemed he did it very well. I also think that the entry so devastating of Darth Vader, before whom there is no one who can hinder him, anyone dies as an insignificant insect, reports on stage one of the themes most suggestive and full of meaning of the whole saga: the philosophy of Force — and here I take this opportunity to mention the very recent trailer of the next episode, as the matter seems to be central — which throughout the film seemed more a superstition or summed up with the hopeful motto “may God helps us”; when Vader appears, we understand that Force, though we are upset by the evil use Vader makes of it, it is really a vital asset that can decide the fate of a global war, the war between the Empire and the Rebels. So the scene lays the narrative foundation to the theme that supports the entire first trilogy, namely the fulfillment of the prophecy of whom will have to restore balance within Force itself.

Since we are at the conclusions, I take the opportunity to thank very much my friend Fulvio, for all the time spent in confronting, doing researches, reading other critics, re-watching the movie carefully, and eventually writing down all that came to the final version of this review. It has been something I would be very glad to repeat for another movie in the future. 🙂

Well, after a discussion so rich, if you have not watched the movie yet, this would be a perfect occasion to do it! 😉

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