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.
Okay, there might have been some slight exaggeration.
I loved it because Rogue One scratched an itch I’ve been suffering from since I first watched Star Wars when I was kid. In fact watching it felt like watching my own childhood imagination coming to life on the big screen. That’s why I was so blind to many of its flaws at first. This is also why I wait until subsequent viewings to write a review.
I understand now why so many people had a problem with The Force Awakens; large parts of it just didn’t seem sincere. It had been made, to an almost scientific degree, to appeal to a broad audience. The monster chase, the constant cameos, the almost shot-for-shot recreations of original Star Wars scenes… it added up to an experience that made it seem desperate for us to love it. Like the creators were sitting next to us, whispering “Isn’t this great? Isn’t this so Star Wars? Please like me,” the entire time we were watching. It was Star Wars though, and I was having fun, so I just nodded along.
Rogue One was clearly made with a specific story in mind, and while it’s clear that certain shots were cut in later to force it closer to The Force Awakens, it’s still a story that rings of authenticity rather than sheer commercialism. More than that, this a prequel that actually does what it’s supposed to: make the original movies even more enjoyable. It fixes a flaw that’s long been made fun of in A New Hope and gives it a new sense of dramatic weight that it lacked before.
This isn’t like any Star Wars story that’s come before. If you go in expecting a fun adventure story like A New Hope or The Force Awakens, you will be disappointed. Though it’s tonally closer The Empire Strikes Back, it succeeds in being even darker. This is not a happy story, but it doesn’t make the mistake of being joyless either. There is a lot of fun to be had here, and you’ll burst out laughing at times, but there is sadness and loss here too. This is a new kind of Star Wars story.
Rogue One is Star Wars’ very first war story.
[This concludes the Spoiler Free version of the review, don’t scroll past the picture of Darth Vader if you don’t want spoilers. Just trust me, you’ll want to see this one for yourself. If you’ve already seen it and want to know why it was awesome, or perhaps you didn’t like it and want to know why I did, keep on reading.]
All That Matters is the Ending:
This is going to be a new perspective for my All That Matters is the Ending series. All my previous entries have focused on bad endings that ruined otherwise good stories. This article is going to be about how a great ending saved a story from being terrible.
If my judgement of the movie had to rely solely on the beginning, I would say it was a worse film that Episode 1. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Rogue One‘s ending, and I’m going to cheat a little and include the second act, more than make up for the rocky start. Here’s how Rogue One‘s ending did everything a good ending is supposed to do.
3. The Characters Find Meaning (If Only at the End)
The beginning of Rogue One is a mess, at one point jumping between like 8 different planets in the first ten minutes. The problem here is that Rogue One forgot it was telling a war story, and tried to start the film like a traditional Star Wars film by featuring the tragic story of Jyn Erso. The beginning of Rogue One demanded something more akin to the beginning of The Dirty Dozen or Inglourious Basterds, where all the main characters are given their own unique introduction. To be fair, they tried to provide this, it just… really didn’t work for most of the characters.
Cassian’s introduction is the only one where this works and I love the scene where he’s introduced, meeting a contact on a remote trading outpost. First of all, this scene made the Rebellion seem like an actual rebellion. Rebellions, or any martial conflict, rely on intelligence gathering, and Cassian’s meeting a contact served as the perfect introduction to not only the character, but the movie. Cassian being forced to kill his contact, and most likely friend as well, rather than allow him to be captured clearly marked Rogue One out as being a different kind of Star Wars story. A traditional adventure story in the vein of A New Hope or Return of the Jedi would have featured a gallant rescue.
Unfortunately, the other characters don’t get the same treatment. That’s another article, and if you hated the beginning (or the entire movie), my next article will be your next stop. However the ending quickly does what the beginning failed to do.
I’m going to reach back into the mists of time and bring up my Mass Effect 3 review. When I complained that there was no sense of closure for the characters, some took that to mean that I simply didn’t want them to die, or that death wasn’t a proper resolution for a character. That’s not so, and Rogue One is the perfect example of the kind of resolution I had been hoping for in Mass Effect 3.
Rather than allowing them to die off camera in the horrific holocaust of post-Mass Effect 3 Earth, I wanted to see them go down fighting. Giving their all, even in the face of an unstoppable evil. That’s exactly what Rogue One gives its characters.
Looking at this like a typical Star Wars story you would be completely justified in thinking these characters were all pretty shallow. However, if you look at it as war movie, you’ll see that each character gets about as much attention as they do in any war movie. I regard Saving Private Ryan as one of the finest movies ever made, but thinking back on the characters… I couldn’t name any of them besides the titular role. I sure as hell remember the Sniper though, and the translator, and Tom Hanks and his second in command.
That’s just how war stories are told, you don’t have time to get in depth with most of the characters without ruining the pacing, tone, or atmosphere.
Rogue One, like most great war movies, defines its characters by how they meet their end on the battlefield.
Whether it be K2’s valiant sacrifice at the vault to Donnie Yen’s calm walk across a burning battlefield, Rogue One nailed these characters and their final moments. Each character’s death also serves an important purpose to the battle itself, so rather than being death for its own sake, each character is fulfilling a purpose.
K2-S0 secures the vault to keep the imperials from pursuing Jyn and Cassian. Cassian buys time for Jyn to get to the relay. Donnie Yen’s character connects the landing pad to the communications array. The pilot connects the line to the shuttle and sends out the message to the rebels to bring down the shield. They’re all forging a link in a chain that ends with the Death Star plans being transmitted to the fleet overhead.
It’s that teamwork, that shared sacrifice to obtain their goal, that makes a great war film. Yet no only is Rogue One enjoyable in itself, it also makes the original Star Wars even better.
2. Rogue One makes A New Hope an Even Better Movie
Let’s all talk about that Thermal Exhaust Port shall we?
This has been a running joke since the day Star Wars premiered in 1977, and even though there was a great defense on why the Death Star needs an exhaust port, today it’s held up as the textbook example of lazy writing. Now though, after watching Rogue One, that thermal exhaust port takes on a whole new meaning.
Now it’s no longer the result of the Empire using subcontractors who cut corners, or whatever your favorite joke for the Thermal Exhaust Port is, it’s now a symbol of the Rebellion. It’s one man’s last act of defiance against an overpowering evil that had taken everything from him, even though he knew it would never redeem him of his crime of designing such a horrible weapon. It’s an impossible predicament to imagine, you know how to design a weapon of mass destruction:
Do you refuse to do it and be executed, knowing that they will go on without you?
Or do you agree to do it, and sabotage the weapon from the inside?
One the one hand, if you refuse you die knowing the blood of millions isn’t on your hands. Yet on the other, could you prevent those millions from dying?
This has been a story I’ve been fascinated with since my father introduced me to the Heisenberg Version [warning: a long, sometimes boring, but fascinating historical text in that link]. In short, the Heisenberg Version refers to how Heisenberg characterized his working on the atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. Heisenberg’s claim is that he was like Galen Erso, doing his best to convince Nazi High Command that the Atom Bomb was a physical impossibility. He went so far as to deliberately falsify the mathematical formulas he presented so as to dissuade his crazy boss Hitler from pursuing such a devastating weapon.
I have no idea if this story is true, other historians say that this was simply Heisenberg’s way of covering his ass or saving face for making the mistake that the atomic bomb couldn’t happen. I’m not a historian, I just pilfer history for good stories, and true or not, The Heisenberg Version is one hell of a story.
[I wish my dad had been around to see this film, he would have loved debating this point.]
Though speaking of tragically lost fathers…
Galen’s last words to his daughter, after being reunited only moments earlier, made me choke up.
“There was so much I wanted to tell you.” – Galen Erso, Rogue One
It’s such an old, tired line. Maybe it was because I lost my father not too long ago, but that line hit me right between the lungs. Mostly though, it was Mads Mikkelson’s amazing performance.
In fact all of the emotion that I now attach to that thermal exhaust port, is solely because of his delivering of only a handful of lines. I truly wish he’d been given a larger role because he owned that character, for those few moments he was Galen Erso. Yet, even as great as his performance was, he alone isn’t responsible for adding greatness. It is, as the title suggests, the ending that brings it home and not only brings new meaning to A New Hope but also redeems its atrocious first act.
1. The Ending Hits All the Right Emotional Notes
I’ll let you in on a secret. Even though I loved my perfect Mass Effect 2 ending in which I save all my guys, my absolute favorite ending is the one where everyone dies. Dragon Age: Origins, sacrificing myself so that Alistair could be king (as terrible an idea as that sounded) was one of the high points. I’m a sucker for a good noble sacrifice, and Rogue One delivered them in spades.
I know some people probably rolled their eyes at each character’s heroic death, but I loved it, it’s exactly the kind of heroic death that Star Wars was made for. As dark as Star Wars sometimes gets, it’s still Star Wars and you don’t want to show disemboweled soldiers screaming for their mothers. So when I watched K2-S0 hold off an entire platoon of Stormtroopers, I wasn’t shaking my head about how unrealistic it is, I was smiling.
Repeating the whole staring at the grenade thing twice was a bit of misstep, I admit, but seeing Donnie Yen’s companion finally accept the Force to honor his friend hit me exactly where it should: the feels. And while my friend Hali wanted to see Jyn and Cassian kiss in their final moments, I thought it was fitting that these two simply hug as they faced their final moments together rather than force a romantic scene.
The heroic deaths do more than add resolution to the characters and their story however, it adds a new sense of dramatic weight to the A New Hope, and indeed, Star Wars as a whole.
One thing Star Wars movies have always been missing is a sense of loss. In A New Hope, only three fighters out of thirty make it back to base, but there’s no somber homecoming. Tonally, okay, that fits for A New Hope, but what about Return of the Jedi? Their had to be tens of thousands dead on the Rebellion’s side alone.
Now Return of the Jedi was originally supposed to have a more Pyrrhic victory feel at the end until George Lucas dumped a bunch of Ewoks in there for merchandising. Rogue One has the tone and feel that Return of the Jedi should have had. Yes we won, but look at the price we paid.
Even better, the “rebel spies” spoken of by Darth Vader are no longer a throwaway piece of exposition. They’re now the people who gave everything to make sure the Rebellion would survive, we can place names and faces to those spies.
Speaking of Darth Vader… guess who is back at the top of my favorite villain list!
Rogue One leaves behind the whining and whinging Anakin the prequels forced on us, and shows us why we loved Darth Vader. As groan inducing as the choking pun was earlier in the film, his bloody return to power on the Rebel ship more than made up for it. If you watched Stars Wars straight through from episodes 1-4, the very first time you see Darth Vader is when he impotently screams “NOOOOOO!” and thus it completely neuters his introduction in A New Hope. Now, sticking Rogue One into the lineup, his ominous arrival on the scene has some teeth to it again. Seeing Darth Vader back as the faceless enforcer of the Empire’s will makes this whole movie worth it.
This scene isn’t just useless fan service either, at least in my opinion. Darth Vader has never been one to get his hands dirty unnecessarily, but in this case he’s trying to keep the rebels from escaping with the plans. He doesn’t have time to let his visually challenged Stormtroopers try and slug their way through, this demands an efficiency only he and his lightsaber can provide.
Then later, when the rebel corvette is at the mercy of his Star Destroyer, well then he can take his time and pick it apart as his leisure.
I’ve read some pretty damning reviews of Rogue One, and I can see where they’re all coming from. In fact this review is so late because I was afraid of publishing so glowing of it, but try as I might, I just couldn’t bring myself to not like it. I am who I am, and I enjoy the stories I enjoy.
I loved this movie. If you didn’t, I get it, and I’ll be thoroughly savaging what went wrong with the beginning later for your amusement.
But I loved it, and if nothing else, I hope this explains why I did.