This post has spoilers for Rogue One.
I don’t want to make a habit of this, because half of the premise behind “One Thing I Like” posts was to spend more time praising things I love instead of criticizing things I don’t. But recently I was reminded of just how brilliant Rogue One‘s production design is — possibly the best of the entire Star Wars series — and I started to write a post praising it.
When I began re-watching the movie for the first time since 2016, I didn’t even make it past the first scene before I was reminded of how much the story annoys me.
Rogue One opens with a flashback to our protagonist as a child, spotting Imperial ships arriving in the distance. She desperately runs back to her family farm to warn her parents. She breathlessly reaches the door and runs inside… only to be immediately shut down by her mother, who says “We know.” This movie refuses to let its protagonist have even a single moment’s worth of agency in her own life’s story.
The whole Star Wars franchise is built on a story about a guy whose dad was famous, so the problem isn’t that Jyn Erso’s story is driven by her father’s work on the Death Star. The problem is that her father works on the Death Star, decides to betray the Empire by sabotaging it with a hidden weakness, leaves a message for Jyn telling her what the weakness is and how to exploit it and even how to find the plans, and then tells her in person that she has to get the plans. She’s a character who’s robbed of any personality and not allowed to have any story arc.
The only thing she does of her own volition is in a scene that shouldn’t even exist. The movie presents the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars as a bunch of bickering politicians who, when presented with a way to defeat a weapon that could destroy entire planets, choose instead to just give up. And Jyn’s one attempt at heroics is to deliver a couple of lines with vapid observations about having hope. And she still fails.
I understand that it’s ridiculously complicated to navigate the too-many-cooks nature of Hollywood blockbusters and deliver something that feels like an organic story, and that’s even without billions of dollars and tons of stakeholders involved. And I know Rogue One in particular is notorious for having been extensively re-written and re-shot. It’s easy to play armchair screenwriter and pick apart a movie without being aware of all the parts that were in motion that led to certain decisions.
But that would be an excuse for my other problems with the Rogue One story. Like how it’s bafflingly, stupefyingly off tone in the final act. When I heard the premise of the movie — a bunch of Rebel spies getting the plans for the Death Star — I was imagining a cool James Bond or Mission: Impossible style spy movie set in the Star Wars universe.
Instead, they decided to make a movie that’s literally about a bunch of people stumbling across a beach to get an eight-track tape from one place to another. There are space battles raging overhead, and the movie expects us to thrill as our main characters retrieve a file from a database! Elsewhere, a man bravely struggles to untangle a cord!
But really, fine. I may disagree completely, but I can at least understand someone wanting to make a WWII- or Vietnam-style rag-tag-band-of-misfits war story instead of a spy story. It feels harder to give a pass to what feels like the movie wanting to be about literally any other character than its dumb old girl protagonist.
It feels like when a bunch of boys would start playing with their Star Wars toys and resent having to include the Princess Leia figure, so they just made a token gesture of including her in all the scenes with their rad new Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen figures, until they can get to the last part where Darth Vader totally flips out and slices up a bunch of dudes like a total bad-ass. Or as if the last draft of the script were vetted by the men on the internet throwing tantrums over the character of Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. Or Neil LaBute.
Why does the character of Galen Erso formulate and deliver the entire plan from start to finish, leaving Jyn nothing to decide or figure out? Why couldn’t he have been just a bad guy, and Jyn chooses to exploit her knowledge of his work to find the weakness that saves the Rebellion? If they’re dead set on keeping him a good guy, why couldn’t they have kept his reveal hidden until the last act, so Jyn’s forced to try and help rescue him while believing he was evil and betrayed her and her mother?
Why does the character of Cassian Andor even exist? I get that they’re trying (for some reason) to introduce some kind of moral ambiguity to the Rebellion, but there’s no real conflict between him and Jyn apart from the stupid “you tried to kill my dad!” It just seems as if the filmmakers couldn’t trust Jyn to lead the mission by herself.
There’s even a moment where the Rebels have to fake their ship’s call sign to the Imperials, which gives the movie its title. And they don’t even let her do that much; she just glares at the pilot until he does it. They gave it to the one character who should’ve been a macguffin who was instantly forgotten.
Rogue One‘s script is a mess. But the movie made a ton of money and has Darth Vader flipping out and slicing up a bunch of dudes, so nobody complains about anything except for the uncanny valley that Tarkin and Leia fell into. I think what frustrates me so much about it is that the rest of the movie looks so good, and it just nails the look and feel of 1977 Star Wars silently and seemingly effortlessly.
As fantastic as Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are, there are still definitely props and effects shots that feel like they were the best the filmmakers could do with the available tech and budget. The prequels and special editions all feel like a billionaire’s over-reaction to those limitations. Things don’t look better, necessarily, just busier, shinier, heavily green-screened, and computer-generated.
What’s so great about the production design of Rogue One is that it went all-in on the aesthetic of 1977 with the technology of 2015. Somehow, even more than the new trilogy, they nailed the look of all the weapons, goggles, control terminals, and displays. It makes it feel like a true expansion of the original movies. Almost nothing in the prequels ever felt solid or substantial; characters always felt as if they were floating inside a computer, like the full-motion video sequences from early CD-ROM games. The look of Rogue One actually seemed like there was a real galaxy of fantastic stuff just outside of frame in the original movies.
I’ve only seen the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, so it’s probably too early to declare it the savior of the Star Wars universe. But things were looking pretty dire for a while there. You could get the look right or the tone right, but not both at the same time, and not both in something not intended for children. Now maybe things are looking up, and we can see more of this galaxy explored, new stories, new locations, and maybe even women can do things too.