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.
Before I get to Krennic himself, two villain-related notes. First of all, I forget which friend/post/review pointed out there’s an easy solution to the Grand Moff Tarkin Uncanny Valley Problem, and it’s right there in canon: have him appear via projection, where the image quality is not very good. A blue and flickering Tarkin could chew out Krennic to his heart’s content without distracting anybody with the shortcomings of his skin texture or anything like that. And second, have Darth Vader’s first appearance in the film be when his lightsaber flares to life in that hallway.
That was a brilliant entrance! Except it wasn’t his entrance. First we had that pointless scene on Mustafar or wherever it was that I’m going to pretend didn’t happen because Darth Vader doesn’t make stupid puns. We didn’t need the scene, and if we needed the scene it didn’t have to be Vader Krennic was talking to. Save him for the end sequence, the moment when we realize the story is going to dovetail precisely with the beginning of A New Hope. In the midst of pyrrhic triumph, here’s Vader cutting apart a hallway full of Rebel soldiers like a black-armored Terminator. Why, for the love of little Yodas, would you undercut that? <sigh>
But those are side notes. I’m here to talk about Krennic, the central antagonist of this whole tale.
Todd Alcott, whose blog I’ve been following for years, has a great post about Krennic that looks at him as the Death Star equivalent of a film producer: the guy who “knows somebody” and can get a project from idea to completion. The way Todd sees it — and I think he’s right — Krennic’s underlying goal in this film is to be recognized for his work, to get a pat on the head from the Emperor for a job well done.
Which is where my problem with Krennic comes in. Okay, he wants recognition for his work. Unfortunately, I don’t give a damn one way or another whether he gets it.
Krennic is not a good guy, so I am not rooting for him to get any sort of imperial reward for building the Death Star. Does that mean I am therefore opposed to his goal and looking forward to seeing him fail? No — because pats on the head or lack thereof are wholly irrelevant to the story I’m invested in. From the outset, Rogue One faced a challenge: when I realized what the first anthology film would be about, my reaction was, “but we already know how it ends.” Steal the plans for the Death Star? We know you’re going to succeed, and the Death Star will be destroyed. Now, the writers of this film understood the answer to that challenge, which is that when the What is already known, you make your story about the Why and the How. (Romance writers understand this better than anybody. The point of a romance novel is not to surprise anybody by the fact that the leads wind up together; it’s to build a story out of how they get there.) Rogue One sets out to explain A New Hope, how Leia got those plans and why something like the Death Star has such a crippling weakness that a single shot can blow the whole thing up. It does a pretty good job of answering those questions. But Krennic’s quest for glory has no bearing on them: he won’t get accolades if the Death Star is destroyed, obviously, but whether he gets accolades will not influence the fate of the Death Star in the slightest.
And that’s why I walked out of the theatre wishing they’d taken a different angle with him. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea, because not only does it clean up his trajectory and create tension, but it provides us with a counterpoint to the themes of the Rebel side.
Quite simply: have Krennic’s goal throughout the movie be to find the leak, put a stop to it, and make sure nobody higher up the chain of command ever knows the leak was there.
There are three major places where Krennic acts: on Jedha, on Eadu, and on Scarif. Line those up so they’re an escalating series of Krennic trying to solve his problem — there’s a leak and it might undermine the Death Star — and coming up short. In his first scene, we see his pride about the Death Star suddenly stumbling when he finds out an imperial pilot has defected with vital information. (This is the one realm in which having that point repeated is justifiable: Krennic, being a bad guy, will have a completely different response to it than any of the heroes.) Krennic then scrambles to find and deal with Bodhi — and because Bodhi’s already vanished into the mess that is Jedha, Krennic decides to kill two birds with one very large stone. By blowing up the holy city, he can a) make sure he takes out the turncoat (nuke the site from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure) and b) conduct a small-scale test, making sure his precious Death Star is working like it should . . . before he has to demonstrate its capabilities for somebody important.
He doesn’t know that Bodhi escaped Jedha, but he’s got bigger problems anyway. The guy is just a cargo pilot: what does he know about the Death Star, anyway? Some underling of Krennic’s tells him, with the cringing behavior of a messenger worried he’ll get killed, that Bodhi seems to have gotten his information from somebody on Eadu. Like, one of the engineers. Off goes Krennic in a rage to find the source of the leak. It is, of course, Galen Erso — and here we get the alternative I mentioned in my previous post, which is that we have Krennic kill Galen instead of the Rebellion doing it. Not only does this avoid the problematic question of “why doesn’t Jyn hate the Rebellion forever and refuse to work with them anymore,” but it fits in with Krennic’s trajectory, which is stop the leak and hide the bodies.
But before he dies, Galen brags to Krennic that he’s been a worm at the heart of the Death Star apple this entire time. Having just whacked Galen/seen him whacked, Krennic is left in a panic: was he lying? He had to be lying. There’s no way the Death Star is vulnerable. Right? It worked just fine on Jedha. (An act that gets Krennic chewed out by Tarkin, because the Empire didn’t approve Krennic’s test and is now scrambling to cover up for it.) Surely everything’s all right.
. . . but what if it isn’t?
The only place with a complete set of schematics is Scarif. So off goes Krennic again, dragging one of Galen’s poor surviving subordinates, to study the plans and reassure him that there’s no problem, or if there is a problem, it is totally fixable and nobody will ever know.
Approaching Krennic this way means his goals are set directly in opposition to those of the heroes. If he succeeds in stopping the leak/fixing the problem before the heroes can take advantage of it, their attempt to destroy the Death Star will fail. Doesn’t matter that we the audience know they will succeed; stories of this kind work by putting us in the heads of the characters, who don’t know. We’ll be on the edges of our seats, watching Krennic try to close off avenues of progress one after another, knowing the heroes are continually working on incomplete information and staying barely half a step ahead of their enemy.
And — this is my favorite part — it creates thematic contrast. See, Krennic works for the kind of outfit where failure is meets with fatal punishment. We can underscore this by having him kill the subordinate who tells him the source of the leak is on Eadu. So even though Krennic could probably stop the Rebellion’s shoestring espionage effort in its tracks simply by admitting there’s a problem and letting his superiors take care of it, he doesn’t. Because going that route will almost certainly mean his own execution. (Do they really need him anymore? The Death Star is basically complete. The producer’s job is over.) So Krennic puts his own self-interest and survival ahead of the bigger picture. Why shouldn’t he? Nobody on the side of the bad guys, with the possible exception of Vader, seems to be a true believer, someone wholeheartedly invested in the idea that the Empire is great and good and must be triumphant even if it means laying down your own life to see it happen.
. . . oh, hey, that rings a bell. While Krennic is undercutting his own salvage efforts in a doomed bid for survival, our heroes are risking and ultimately sacrificing their lives for something bigger than them.
All of this is a relatively small change for Krennic. He still goes the same places and does pretty much the same things; you’re only changing his dialogue (e.g. on Scarif he’s not looking at Galen’s communications but rather going directly for the same goal the heroes have) and cutting some extraneous crap (the Mustafar scene). But by rotating the pieces of his story just a little bit, you can make them click into a stronger whole: one where, instead of ricocheting between “there’s a problem and I have to do something about it” and “I want my pat on the head from the Emperor” he’s focused on a single goal, and that goal is bringing him head-to-head with the protagonists every step of the way. Add the icing of the thematic contrast, and I think it would have worked very well.