William Blackford, YinD 128
“That movie sucks and you’re all stupid for liking it.” -Ted, HIMYM
Some kinds of entertainment are stupid. We enjoy them in spite of the fact that they’re stupid, or even sometimes because they’re stupid, often because they’re supposed to be stupid. One of those shows is How I Met Your Mother. It’s often-sappy, predictable, sitcom tripe with pretty stereotypical characters. That didn’t stop me from watching almost every episode of it. I wish I could do that more often with more things.
One of the only useful things that HIMYM has given me is this quote from one of the main characters that so accurately portrays how I feel about so many of the movies I see and precisely encapsulates how I felt after watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. With that said, here’s my arrogant, pretentious, curmudgeonly review of a movie that most folks seemed to really enjoy but I thought was only pretty okay at best.
***SPOILER ALERT! STOP RIGHT HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE(S) YET!***
Rogue One is the story of the plucky, ragtag team of individuals who gave their lives to steal the plans for the Death Star, allowing another plucky, ragtag team of individuals to blow it up in Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977). The movie largely follows the misadventures of Jyn, the daughter of the engineer responsible for designing said Death Star, and Cassian, the Rebel officer who enlists her help to track down said father. The ending — well, we already know the ending. They get the plans out and those same plans are used to destroy said Death Star.
Since we already know how the movie ends, the movie has to take us for an entertaining ride to reach that conclusion in order to be good. So, let’s start with what was good about the movie (and, no, there will be no compliment sandwich — I’m gonna end with what was bad, ‘cuz it’s my review so deal with it).
As I would have expected, the movie looks really good. The environments are rich with interesting detail and feel like real places. In fact, the locations feel more real than most of the characters, but, then again, the Star Wars universe itself is kind of a character. The visual effects are crisp and beautifully rendered, and the uncanny valley is only slightly touched upon with the representation of Grand Moff Tarkin.
I want to expand on the locations because I think there was a lot of important symbolism there. During the first 3rd of the movie, our intrepid heroes attempt to covertly infiltrate the mining town of Jedha. During this incursion, some Rebel forces ambush the Imperials as part of their brutal struggle against the fascist regime. Something about this scene, in this place that felt so real, seemed so familiar to me. It took me a while to really put my finger on it.
It occurred to me as I watched the headscarf-clad Rebels ambush the jack-booted Imperials in the sandy urban setting of Jedha that I was watching a scene from The Hurt Locker, or American Sniper. Later, as the Rebels stormed the heavily-defended, technologically superior Imperial base stamped into the lush tropical forests and beaches of Scarif, I felt as if I were watching a scene from Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket.It is really a credit to the filmmakers that they were able to bring fictional places to life in such a convincing way.
The most interesting thing about it is that our intrepid protagonists are playing the role of guerilla warriors and insurrectionists. The roles are reversed, and we are rooting for the insurgents. The evil Empire uses its technological superiority to wage a lopsided war against the cave-dwelling rebels who resist their influence. I have to think that it’s no accident that the two biggest battles in the movie so closely resemble real places with controversial histories. Even if it was an accident, I still very much appreciate the parallel.
The ending also reminds us that war, especially wars with such massive power differentials, is terrible and ugly. We don’t get a traditionally happy ending. In war, the heroes often die. There is no medal ceremony with a parade where everyone is happy and smiling. There is no party with fuzzy, little, bear-like creatures in a tree house where tongue-kissing your best friend’s sister is your reward. Instead, you die on a beach in the fiery explosion of the galaxy’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction, or with a burning wound in your belly, and a man in black ruthlessly slaughters dozens of your friends in cold blood using super powers and a sword made of light. Rogue One’s ending is a much better one if you ask me.
Now we move on to the less good stuff.
For about half of the movie, I was just bored. After the crew escapes Jedha I kind of lost interest. The movie goes on rails and the ending is already within sight. As I said before, we already know the ending. They get the data out and it gets used to destroy the Death Star in A New Hope. That is not the story that is going to make the movie good. There’s no tension there. That goodness has to come from somewhere else, but it doesn’t. Maybe if I cared about the characters their peril would be more exciting to me, but I haven’t been given any compelling reason to care about them. Most of the fighting and ship-to-ship battles are just boring action that we have seen a million times, and not in a nostalgic way like it was in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). I may as well have been watching Transformers.
Why don’t I care about these characters? Well, in short; the characters in this movie suck. They are poorly written, and almost all of them are one-dimensional and do not change or evolve in any believable way throughout the entire movie. They’re all caricatures. The wise old wizard, the scruffy pilot with a heart of gold, the moody teenager, the sarcastic robot.
The only character in the whole movie who has consistent, believable motivations and a real personality is the villain, Orson Krennic. His lust for power and recognition is not told to us, it is shown. His motivations are clear. He has tangible goals and works to achieve them. The way he reacts to Tarkin’s betrayal makes absolute sense for his character. I know these things because these are traits that are shown to us in a variety of scenes throughout the span of the movie. You know, the way characters are supposed to be written.
The only good thing about the rest of the characters is that they’re just “normal” people. They aren’t Jedi with the power to deflect lasers with a thought or choke people from across the room. They’re just people up against overwhelmingly dire odds. If we can relate to these characters at all, it’s for this reason.
I’ll just go ahead and say it; Jyn is a terrible protagonist. It’s not her fault, really — it’s the writers’ fault. All of the character writing for Rogue One is pretty lazy, but Jyn is especially terrible.
Remember Rey from The Force Awakens? She has depth, a backstory that unfolds over the course of the movie, actual emotions that make sense. Her character traits are shown through her actions, not exposition, and not just in the way she relates to other characters. Rey is a good example of a great Star Wars protagonist.
The profoundly lazy writing of Rogue One is impressively showcased in the scene when Jyn gives her passionate speech about why they should continue in their fight against the Empire. This total and complete reversal, which happens in the span of mere minutes, is out of character for Jyn largely because we have no idea who she is. Who is Jyn? What are her likes and dislikes? Why does she feel the way she feels? What kind of person is she? These are questions that no one who watched the movie can answer.
Our protagonist has no consistent personality. We are just to assume that she is eloquent, passionate, and good-hearted because she is the protagonist, in spite of the fact that she has been nothing but insolent and stubborn up until this point. A scant twenty minutes earlier, Jyn gives us the immature wisdom that flags don’t matter as long as you don’t look up. Now Jyn, a complete stranger to most, is schooling a room full of seasoned veterans on why fighting the Empire is so important. If that isn’t lazy writing, I don’t know what is.
Jyn’s only real character trait is unexplained insolence. So, when her father dies, a character who we also know nothing about, it’s supposed to be dramatic, but the scene has no weight because the characters experiencing the suffering are hollow. This is the same hollow event that is supposed to be the catalyst for Jyn’s complete one-eighty, which plays itself out in the aforementioned speech. Again, this is lazy, hacky writing, plain and simple.
For the most part, Jyn is only a character in relation to the other characters, which is especially terrible because she is supposed to be the heroine. She is Cassian’s prisoner, Gerrera’s ward (how and in what way is anyone’s guess), Galen’s daughter, but she has no personality, no motivations of her own — a problem that, unfortunately, afflicts many female characters written by male writers. All Jyn has is a poorly-explained backstory that is supposed to make her a real person, but having a backstory doesn’t make someone a good character. Even the trope-ridden, blind, ex-Jedi Imwe is more of a character than Jyn is, and all we know about his backstory is merely implied.
At the end of the day, Rogue One is a Hollywood blockbuster. It has the Star Wars stamp of approval, some cool scenes, and all the right sci-fi feels, but it’s terribly written characters, gratuitous, boring action, and too-fast plot all point to the fact that it’s a money-maker in a money-maker’s game.
To put it more bluntly; It’s shallow crap, by and large. Sometimes shallow crap is just fine. I actually appreciate shallow crap when it’s supposed to be shallow crap (like How I Met Your Mother), but Rogue One isn’t. It’s supposed to be the epic tale of the heroes who helped take down the Empire and to fill the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Instead, we get a blockbuster full of crappy, poorly-written characters that fail to save the story we already know the ending of. That disappoints me. I was expecting more, but maybe that was my mistake.
2½ out of 5 stars, because a movie with no characters is only half a movie.