When you start writing a story, it’s always important to keep in mind what kind of story you’re trying to tell. Rogue One struggled with this, and as a writer myself, it’s hard not to sympathize. On the one hand they wanted to tell a standard Star Wars adventure story about Jyn Erso and the search for her father, but on the other was a war story about the rebels who stole the plans to the Death Star. They’re both good stories, unfortunately trying to tell both of them at the same time just ended up cluttering up the first act.
Jyn Erso’s story had some serious potential and I’m sad to think of what might have been. Seriously, both Mads Mikkelsen and Forest Whitaker gave some amazing performances, seeing both their characters more fully explored would have been a real treat. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera in particular seemed like a fascinating character, and I wanted to know so much more about him, and his relationship with Jyn.
“Did you come here to kill me? There’s not much of me left.”
You can hear how tired and afraid Saw Gerrera is in that line, and it made me want to know so much more about him. How long had he been fighting the Empire? How many battles had he only just barely survived to result in so many cybernetic prosthetics? How many times had he been betrayed that he saw treachery around every corner and in the eyes of Jyn Erso, who had become as a surrogate daughter to him?
In many ways it would have been easier had anyone other than Forest Whitaker played the role, because then it would just be some random side character I didn’t care about. It was Forest’s performance that sold it. As it is, who knows, maybe Whitaker will get his own spin-off movie.
In the end though, not enough time was spent with either Galen Erso or Saw Gerrera to appreciably deepen Jyn Erso’s character. It’s a shame too, had this beginning been pursued more fully, it could have added a whole new dynamic to the finale. If I had one problem with the ending of Rogue One it was the confrontation between Jyn and Director Krennic.
What should have been a climactic moment in Jyn Erso’s character arc… just ended up feeling flat. Krennic doesn’t even recognize her, and when he does, he doesn’t even have anything interesting to say. Yet had Krennic’s backstory with Jyn been more fully explored, this confrontation could have been the emotional crown to Jyn’s storyline.
Krennic was obviously fond of both Galen, his wife, and his daughter. At one time they must have been friends, until Galen found his conscience and realized what he was doing. In one brief flashback scene we see Jyn watching her father with Krennic, and they seemed like good friends, which got me thinking. What if, instead of being two strangers, Krennic and Jyn knew each other when they faced off on the communications array?
Imagine if Krennic had been like a favorite uncle to Jyn as a child, and her an adopted niece to Krennic? Suddenly that final confrontation would have emotional teeth. Jyn would be filled with hate over her father’s enslavement by Krennic, Krennic would be furious at Jyn dismantling his life’s work… yet that love they once shared would still be there. That would give Krennic a reason to not immediately blast Jyn when he sees her, because he wouldn’t be seeing the fiery leader of the Rebellion’s strike force, but the little girl he adored.
Still, could any of this gotten into the film without completely ruining the war story dynamic of the second and third acts? Yes, I believe any story can be told, but it would have been an incredible challenge and would have required more time to put into place.
As a result of the adventure story beginning, Rogue One ends up missing the first part of a good war story: the introduction to the characters. What was needed here was a beginning not unlike The Dirty Dozen, or even Inglourious Basterds, in which every character and their skillset is introduced. While Cassian’s entry successfully pulls that off, and is one of the best moments of the first act, everyone else is basically overlooked.
Had Rogue One cut the adventure story of Jyn Erso’s family, it would have gone a long way to making the beginning more structured. Yet at the same time, it would also have robbed us of Galen Erso and his sabotaging of the Death Star. As I said in my review, it was Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Jyn’s father that gave the thermal exhaust port a new emotional weight. I can see the conundrum that the makers of Rogue One faced, and in the end I suspect they ran out of time to fix the problem properly and give both stories a chance to shine.
So yes, the beginning is a mess and there’s no getting around it now, but perhaps it did enough to the put the pieces in place for Rogue One‘s ending. Which as I already wrote, was one hell of an ending.