Rogue One: The Heroes

I wanted to make this post weeks ago, but I was in a cast and not typing much. So instead you get it now — which might be better, since at this point I imagine that most people who intended to see Rogue One in theatres have already done so. This post and its sequel will be spoileriffic, so don’t click through unless you’ve either watched the movie or don’t care if I talk about what happens.

Outside the cut, I will say that I enjoyed Rogue One . . . but it also frustrated me immensely, because I felt like it had so much excellent narrative potential that it just left on the table. In the comments on several friends’ posts, I said that it could have really punched me in the gut, but instead it just kind of socked me in the shoulder. I wound up seeing it twice, because we went again with my parents, and on the second pass Writer Brain kept niggling at things and going aw man, if only you’d . . . I know there were extensive reshoots, and I’m pretty sure I can see the fingerprints all over the film, though I can’t be sure which underdeveloped bits were shoehorned in by the revisions, and which ones are the leftover fragments of material that got cut. (The trailers offer only tantalizing clues: apparently none of the footage from the first two wound up in the actual film. You can definitely see different characterization for Jyn, but the rest is mere guesswork.) I just know there are all these loose ends sticking out throughout the film, and since story is not only my job but my favorite pastime, I can’t help but think about what I would have done to clean it up.

There will be two posts because my thoughts are extensive enough that I think they’ll go better if split up. First I’m going to talk about the good guys — what worked for me, what didn’t, and how the latter could have become the former — and then I’ll talk about the villains.

Part of what undercut Rogue One is how inefficiently it starts. The prologue is fine, but after that it goes all over the place and does very little in any of it. Having seen ickle!Jyn be rescued, we cut to her in prison. All this accomplishes is to tell us that a) time has passed and b) Jyn is in prison, because after a few seconds we move onward. Now we’re watching Cassian on some other planet meeting a guy we know nothing about and will learn nothing about because he dies a moment later. This tells us that a) Cassian sometimes does ruthless things for the Rebellion and b) there’s an imperial pilot who’s defecting. Zip, on we go to Jedha, where Bodhi meets some of Saw Gerrera’s men and gets black-bagged. From this we learn that . . . there’s an imperial pilot who’s defecting. Back to Jyn! She’s just been rescued by some guys, who if memory serves do not include Cassian in their number. Back to Bodhi! He meets Saw and declares that he’s an imperial pilot who’s defecting. Back to Jyn, now meeting Cassian in a context where they basically don’t interact; we find out that there’s an imperial pilot who’s defecting OKAY THANK YOU WE GOT IT THE FIRST THREE TIMES.

This is one of the places where I suspect we can see the reshoot messing things up. We seriously did not need to be told four times about the imperial pilot. Once was plenty, thank you.

Foz Meadows has done a very good job of pointing out what a bad job Rogue One does of developing its characters. It’s all the more frustrating because we’re given all the signs that the material for it is there; the characters have the outlines of interesting backstories, and the actors imply a lot of depth outside their lines. But the movie never fills in the sketches. Maybe the information I want is off somewhere in a tie-in novel, or maybe it’s left for the fanfic writers to provide, but either way it’s supremely aggravating, because if the movie had brought them to three-dimensional life, the ending would have been the fabulous gut punch I wanted. And I think the writers/director/etc could have done it pretty easily, if they had just had a clearer sense of where their narrative priorities lay.

Start with the fact that Jyn is our central character (though not the only driver of the plot). Like Luke, she’s the thread tying the story together. Instead of leaping from character to character without context, introduce things as they come up along her path. Cut to Jyn in prison, that’s great — but then stay with her. Show us how she interacts with her cellmate, the guards, etc, because then we’ll get a sense of what adult!Jyn is like. (Is she patient? Short-tempered? Working on a longer-term plan?) Put her on that transport, send her out into the deserts of Jedha — and then we see the ambush lying in wait. Who are these people? Good guys? More trouble? We don’t know. They swoop down on the truck, and oh look, here’s Cassian! He’s here to . . . rescue Jyn? But he doesn’t give a damn about anybody else on that transport, prisoner or otherwise, so we’re not quite sure whether he goes in the “good guy” column or not. Jyn isn’t sure either, so she tries to bail, gets taken down by HK-47 K-2SO. Right, okay, this rescue is not optional.

Cassian takes Jyn to the Rebellion, where Mon Mothma explains that they really really need Jyn’s help, uh, sorry/not sorry for the way we went about asking for it. Here is where we introduce the reason for all this effort: there’s an imperial pilot! Who’s defecting! He has information on the super-weapon the Rebellion knows the Empire has been building in secret. But Saw Gerrera has gotten hold of him, and the Rebellion needs Jyn to get Saw to let them anywhere near the guy.

Saw is, to me, one of the most frustrating parts of the film, and if I had to place bets, I’d say the entire no doubt fascinating story of him and Jyn and the Rebellion is one of the cutting-room casualties. Because seriously, he and Jyn have all this history, but the dribs and drabs we get tell us pretty much nothing. I wanted there to be emotional weight in their interactions; instead we got what sounded more like a collection of random lines without much connective tissue. And then he dies, with a line of dialogue that makes no bloody sense — one of the most common complaints I’ve gotten is that people don’t understand why he didn’t try to get out of there. How could we understand? All we know about him is that he’s too much of a rebel for the rebels, wears Darth-Vader-levels of life support, and uses alien mind-rape to question people.

Let’s go back to the thread of the story. Do more with General Draven: establish him as the head of Rebel intelligence, i.e. Cassian’s specific boss. He’s the poster boy for the ruthlessness of the Rebellion, the pragmatism to counterbalance the idealism. He’s what Cassian will turn his back on when he decides to side with Jyn later on. Because one of the other core problems with the movie is that it didn’t construct a strong enough arc of transformation for Cassian’s relationship with Jyn: for the “I believe you” moment to have any impact, we need lack of belief first. We need Draven and Cassian talking about how they require Jyn to get in the door, but beyond that she can’t be trusted; she ran with Saw Gerrera for years and her father is an imperial collaborator, so nobody knows where her loyalties actually lie. Cassian is under orders to get the intel from the imperial pilot and evaluate its worth/whack the pilot if he turns out to not be what he seems to be, and has carte blanche to eliminate Jyn, too, if she — sure, let’s use the phrase — goes rogue on them.

On we go to Jedha, with suitably blunt K-2SO banter along the way. This is another place where I think we can see the reshoot goblins making a mess of things: why these references to the Jedi temple and kyber crystals and all the rest? That stuff’s 100% irrelevant to the story. Yeah, okay, power source, blah blah blah, but since the power source never matters to the plot, that information never goes anywhere. I’m betting its relevance is in the editorial graveyard, along with Saw’s history. Even on a smaller level, we get Cassian saying something about going to talk to Saw’s (?) sister, but then either never meets up with her or their meeting winds up being pointless in light of what happens afterward. The result is that we get an unnecessary amount of aimless wandering around Jedha getting shots of nifty-looking aliens and muttering ominously about how dangerous the place is, and then a fight that would be more interesting if we knew more about Saw’s partisans and their tactics. This needs major cleanup: other than introducing Chirrut and Baze, and then putting the whole group into Saw’s hands, what do we want it to accomplish? I think we want it to develop the tension between Cassian and Jyn, i.e. neither of them trusting the other, and possibly to show us Cassian’s ruthlessness (this time exercised on somebody more narratively relevant than Throwaway Redundant Exposition Guy). Then we can have our fight, and off to Saw we go.

Here is where you introduce Bodhi, because here is where he’s interacting with our other protagonists and therefore has context. The whole mind-raping alien thing is pointless and counterproductive: it makes Saw massively unsympathetic and winds up having no consequences at all, since apparently all Cassian has to do is say “Are you the imperial pilot?” to snap Bodhi out of having his mind “destroyed.” Drop that — drop all three of his early substance-free scenes — and give him a more vivid introduction here, one that will develop both the Rebellion (based on how Cassian interacts with this guy who may or may not be an imperial plant) and Saw (based on how he’s treated a possible but untrustworthy source of information). In the meanwhile, Jyn and Saw have a reunion that tells us more about what Jyn did with his partisans and why she’s no longer with them, before Saw brings out the pilot’s information: a holocron with a message from her father.

Dear god that message dragged on forever. It needed to be way shorter; its emotional weight was so spread out that frankly I was bored by the end. But some clever editing could counterpose Jyn listening to her father’s voice against Krennic preparing to Death Star-nuke the holy city of Jedha, which would have the excellent effect of making us want to yell at the screen ENOUGH TOUCHING PERSONAL NOTES FOR YOUR LONG-LOST DAUGHTER WHEREVER SHE MAY BE GET TO THE ACTUAL SUBSTANCE OF YOUR MESSAGE BEFORE THEY ALL BLOW UP. In fact, triple-layer it with Cassian breaking out, because he’s convinced Jyn has just gone back over to Saw’s side and is no longer (was she ever?) trying to help the Rebellion at all. Then Jedha blows and there’s a massive earthquake, which interrupts the holocron’s playback: Galen’s gotten as far as saying he’s built a vulnerability into the super-weapon, but not as far as explaining what it is. Cassian comes charging in, but everybody kicks over into Let’s Not Dying mode and so the question of loyalties gets put aside while they run for their lives. Saw stays behind for some reason more plausible than “my path ends here” or whatever he says: he can’t move fast enough, or he tries but his mechanical prosthetics break, or he’s dependent for survival on something in his fortress they can’t replace in time. Zoom off into the dust cloud.

Once clear of Certain Death, though, all those tensions come blazing out like whoa. Jyn claims she saw a message from her father saying there’s a weakness in the Death Star, but conveniently she failed to bring the holocron with her and the only way to find out about that weakness is to go rescue her father from Eadu. Dude, if I were in Cassian’s shoes, I wouldn’t believe her either. Bodhi swears blind that no really Galen is a saboteur on the inside, and the man who inspired him to become a turncoat for the Rebellion — but since Bodhi’s own bona fides are still less than 100%, the whole thing reeks to high heaven. When Cassian radios in, though, Draven tells him this is a great chance to eliminate the main engineer behind the Empire’s weapons program. Sure, by all means, use the imperial pilot to sneak into Eadu — to kill Galen Erso. Cassian expresses doubts: if the chance to rescue Galen comes up, wouldn’t that be the best course of action? Then they can question him and learn useful things. Draven says no. Cassian knuckles under, but we can see he’s starting to really chafe at being Draven’s blunt instrument, and the mentality that says eliminating potential threats is always preferable to taking the chance that some of them might actually be friends.

Eadu’s narrative shape is mostly okay, though I found its staging clumsy. Jyn somehow gets into a deep valley and then up the world’s longest ladder while Krennic’s having a very short conversation, Chirrut and Baze wander off the shuttle more or less so they can do five seconds of fighting and that’s it, Jyn goes charging out onto the platform as if she doesn’t have the first notion what she’s going to do once she’s out there — I want this to be the moment when Jyn’s experience with being a guerrilla fighter becomes really apparent. Anyway, Cassian sees Galen trying to defend his subordinates and decides that he’s not going to just drill the guy through the head like Draven wants. He’s on his way back to the ship to formulate a rescue plan with the others when the Rebellion comes swooping in, because Draven heard the doubts in their previous conversation and decided that overkill was the way to go. Kaboom, etc, Galen dies, but he uses his dying breaths to tell his daughter about the exhaust port and to insist that she give this info to the Rebellion so they can take down the Death Star.

Those dying breaths are important, because (again, as Foz pointed out), why the hell should Jyn help a Rebellion she’s not a part of when they just killed her father? The film just leaps over that chasm without comment. I might actually favor a different approach to Galen’s death entirely, but since it hinges on a fairly substantial change in Krennic’s arc, I’ll leave that for the next post.

Back on the shuttle. Confrontation between Cassian and Jyn; he points out that he didn’t shoot Galen as ordered, but this wins him very few brownie points. Jyn stonily insists that he take her back to the Rebel base so she can tell them what she learned . . . but again it’s information only Jyn heard, from an unreliable source, with no evidence to back it. Cassian is not optimistic. He’s right not to be: the leaders of the Rebellion argue (without the only black woman in sight being the one to argue in favor of giving up, kthxbye), Draven casts shade on Jyn every chance he can get, and even Mon Mothma points out that the only way they could make use of the intel was if they had complete schematics for the Death Star, and the only way to get those would be to stage a raid on Scarif. This suggestion gets summarily shot down, and Jyn scathingly condemns the entire Rebellion as a waste of her time.

Now we come to our emotional turning point — and with this kind of buildup, it will feel like an actual sea change. Cassian, having started from a position of “you are untrustworthy and I will shoot you in the head the instant I think you’re not on our side,” has come to believe Jyn. Furthermore, he’s tired of Draven’s lack of hope, his unwillingness to take a chance on people. He gathers a strike crew, Mon Mothma whistles innocently as she makes sure they have a chance to escape, and off they go, because the Rebellion is a many-headed beast and some of the heads are still more than ready to bite the enemy where it hurts.

Scarif? Scarif I would leave basically untouched, at least on the good-guy side. The beginning of the film was very weak for me, but by the time we got to the raid, I was all in, especially as I realized the movie was going to follow through on the fact that this was obviously a suicide mission. Foz Meadows said she would have been happier if somebody survived, but I’m okay with them all dying, because I think it makes a different — and to me, more powerful — statement about hope. The kind of hope where somebody involved gets to find out that yes, the risk was worth it and victory is on its way . . . that’s easy hope. The kind of hope where you give everything without certainty is harder. It makes me think of faith, of medieval Europeans pouring mountains of effort into cathedrals that would never be completed in their lifetimes. Jyn and Cassian and all their assault team die hoping, not knowing, not seeing. The resolution is left for others to enjoy.

. . . WordPress tells me I have written 2900 words on this post, and it’s only one side of the story. I suspect the villain side will be shorter, because I’ll mainly be talking about how I would restructure Krennic’s arc, which is less than half of the material. But yeah, uh: I have Thinky Thoughts about Rogue One. All the foundations are there, but the house built on them had a wall or two in the wrong place and was missing a lot of finishing touches.

One Response to “Rogue One: The Heroes”

  1. Rogue One: The Villains - Swan Tower

    […] As promised, here is part two of my dissection of Rogue One and how, if I were given a magic wand to reshape the story, I would have done it. Spoilers ahoy, mateys! If you missed part one (all three thousand words or so of it), you can find that here. […]

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