Ever since the release of Rogue One, and its undeniable box-office success, and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, there’s been much discussion about the future of Star Wars. The Force Awakens re-started the franchise in style, drawing generations of fans together. Rogue One, on the other hand, feels like a different beast entirely. A certain kind of Star Wars fan instantly loved and embraced this film, and since that demographic (rabid fans who consume everything Star Wars-related, including The Clone Wars and Rebels) is a substantial chunk of the filmgoing market, the film has met with enormous success. But box-office success and an appeal to a specific demographic doesn’t necessarily make Rogue One a great film, or even a great Star Wars film. In my original review, I pointed out the film’s strengths and weaknesses, but as the weeks have gone by, I have become more aware of its weaknesses, and they illustrate some weaknesses in fan culture in general.
The conversation about this film seems to have sadly deteriorated in the fan community along familiar lines (we also saw this pattern in the discussion about the new Ghostbusters or DC’s Zack Snyder films). All of the criticism I’ve seen of Rogue One has been specific, and based on logical rhetoric. The defenses of the film, on the other hand, have been almost universally emotional, often taking the form of, “But I loved it! You need to see it again!” As any high school debating team knows, Logos produces more convincing arguments than Pathos. The more I apply logic to the film, the less impressive it seems, and I’m in good company. Probably the most incisive and illuminating response to the film I’ve seen comes from Red Letter Media, the company behind the famous “Mr. Plinkett” movie reviews that expertly critiqued the Star Wars prequel trilogy. On a special episode of “Half in the Bag”, their movie review web series, the Red Letter team savagely rips into Rogue One with more vitriol than I felt, but their criticisms are, on further reflection, quite valid and worth unpacking, and led me to revisit my own views of the problematic film.
For a start, Rogue One was billed as a “standalone” Star Wars film, the first of several Lucasfilm plans to release in the next few years. In my original review, I had to refine the definition of that word, because in any meaningful sense, this film emphatically does not “stand alone” from other Star Wars properties. Indeed — this film depends on knowledge of the wider Star Wars universe in order to function. It’s the opposite of a standalone film, and pure fan service. Red Letter Media makes this point somewhat less diplomatically than I (calling it “porn for 40 year olds with beards”), but it’s difficult to argue with that point. The action sequences at the end are indeed well-made, but if they didn’t involve Star Wars-related situations and technology, they would have attracted no more interest than any other action sequence from a lesser sci-fi/action film. The audience’s love for these sequences, rather than just a passing appreciation of them, derives from the fact that we see the old X-wing pilots from A New Hope, or are treated to the sight of two star destroyers being pushed into each other, or, especially, seeing Darth Vader appear at the end for a flurry of violence. For someone who hasn’t memorized every beat of the ending of A New Hope, who isn’t moved by the phrase “stay on target” or the evocation of other classic moments, this is simply well-constructed video game-inspired action. It’s Star Wars reduced to its lowest, most visceral level. It’s the difference between internet porn and mature erotica.
The fan defense of a character like Saw Gerrera is especially egregious. As I mentioned in my original review, Saw is a completely pointless character in this film, and frankly only serves to clutter up an already overly-cluttered first act. The logical approach for a screenwriter interested first and foremost in telling a good story to take in the first act of Rogue One is to clearly identify the goal (get the hologram of her father to Jyn Erso) and find the most direct way of getting there. In this case, it might be something along the lines of having that rebel pilot sneak the hologram to the Alliance, then the Alliance contacts Jyn, brings her before the Alliance leaders, they all watch the hologram together, form a team and go and steal the plans. Perhaps show, in flashback sequences, how Jyn came to be rescued from her hiding place as a child by a rebel operative, but otherwise leave it at that. The film is about stealing the plans for the Death Star. Anything that doesn’t contribute to that story is extraneous. The fan defense of this terrible character Saw is a familiar one: “He’s in the Clone Wars!” One more example of how this film is only for die-hard fans. As a fan, but not a die-hard fan, my policy is very simple: I need the film to be up there on the screen. There are times when additional material can enhance what’s already there (the comic series Star Trek: Countdown added shades to the 2009 Star Trek re-boot that were very welcome), but it’s simply lazy storytelling to rely so heavily on prior fan knowledge, especially when it’s obvious to anyone that there is a simpler way to get into the main thrust of this story. Disney and Lucasfilm allowed fan service to trump storytelling.
And then there’s the CG characters. The quote that keeps coming back to me regarding Tarkin and Leia in this film is from Jurassic Park: “You were so preoccupied with what you could do, you never stopped to think whether it should be done.” The reason often cited for why Tarkin is in this film is, “The fans would miss him if he wasn’t there.” Once again, fan service beats storytelling. I look at Tarkin and Krennic, played by Ben Mendelsohn, and immediately ask, “Do we really need two of these guys?” Perhaps have Tarkin appear as a hologram in one short sequence, implying that he’ll take over for Krennic unless the younger man prevents the theft of the plans (and have Vader choke Krennic when he fails) and that would take care of it. One less character cluttering up the frame, and we wouldn’t have to deal with the hideous uncanny valley CG. In terms of the CG Leia, she has the advantage of only having one line and only being on screen for a moment, but it’s still far from seamless. The death of Carrie Fisher lends this moment a great deal of fan sympathy, and there is a legitimate story reason for her to be in the scene (even her line serves as a neat button for a theme of Rogue One and literally sets up the next chapter, A New Hope). For short, one-line cameos, perhaps the CG can be excused, but Tarkin is superfluous.
The film still has strengths, but it feels like hollow chocolate. Perhaps that’s all it was ever going to be: pure fan service, and an entertaining video game brought to life. But that’s not what Star Wars is. Star Wars is mythic, dramatic, operatic science fiction/fantasy, and in retrospect it’s somewhat sad to see it reduced to a series of easter eggs (“I have the death sentence!”) and a grim action sequence. Compared to The Force Awakens, which genuinely felt like a Star Wars film, despite some thematic repetition from the earlier trilogies, Rogue One feels like a carefully considered product, aimed at a significant but exclusive market.
Once we accept that definition for Rogue One, as pure fan service and nothing more, there is a certain logic behind it, from an industry perspective. Disney paid an enormous amount of money for what was, at the time, a slightly tarnished brand. Star Wars was having some success with the animated series, but Lucas’s prequel trilogy alienated much of the base audience for Star Wars. Disney’s first goal upon acquiring the property, sensibly, was to win the fans back and rekindle enthusiasm for Star Wars. This The Force Awakens most assuredly did, and with Rogue One they have further solidified the support of a vocal and critical portion of the audience. Perhaps I’m just impatient, but I want Star Wars to take a few risks. Make an entire film without showing a lightsaber, for example. That would be a risk. Don’t have a huge action sequence at the end. Perhaps have a character use non-violence to win the day. Have no cameos from other elements of the franchise — in other words, make a truly “standalone” film, set in what Star Wars fans (including me) keep saying is a vast and endless universe with many stories to be told, rather than simply re-telling the same story in the same way. Otherwise, that unlimited storytelling potential the first films hinted at will have proven to be an illusion.