I used to go to a lot of movies, mostly because I really like movie theatre popcorn. Since kids, I get to two or three movies each year, at least in the theatre. I’m not sure what the last movie I saw in the theatre was, but it might have been Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Though I loved that movie, I also felt like they spread on the just-for-nostalgia pieces a little too thick, and that there were entire scenes, and characters, and even aspects of the narrative that seemed to serve no larger purpose other than to evoke fond memories of a time when Star Wars existed but Jar Jar Binks did not.
And in that case, I didn’t mind the nostalgia that much for three reasons: First, it had been awhile since we had seen the Millenium Falcon, Han, Leia, Chewy, and Luke. We wanted to see them and feel reassured that the franchise was back on track after the disaster of eps. 1–3. Second, The Force Awakens was the first of a trilogy, and as such I’m ok that it gave in to that nostalgic indulgence because it felt like it was establishing itself — a new trilogy from a new director telling a new story — laying the groundwork so that the next films don’t have to be so overtly referential/deferential. Third, the Star Wars films (by which I mean, eps. 4–6) were never particularly subtle or mysterious in their allusions to each other, references to classical motifs, and willingness to use cheese and even camp. So I felt like Abrams’ over-indulgence in nostalgia was forgivable from a film that was so much about establishing the connection to the earlier series.
I almost felt the same way about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In fact, I felt even better about it — that the narrative and the filmmaking were referential and deferential while at the same time making much of the opportunity presented by being just a little outside of the main, (dare-I-say) sacred core storyline.
And then the last shot happened.
(If you haven’t seen it and you don’t want me to ruin the worst, most craptacular surprise ever… stop reading now.)
My problem is the cartoonish CGI/live-action mashup of a certain beloved character, and the fact it was visually dissonant (not to mention creepy-looking).
But my problem is also that it ruined the tone of an otherwise solid third act. The narrative arc had done its job: having sat on the edge of their seats for the entirety of the final battle, the audience watches in delight and horror as a cavalcade of heroes overcome an almost-impossible series of circumstances in order to set in motion the well-established heroism of Episode 4 (and beyond), only to face the inevitably of death with the certainty that the sacrifice was worth it. That final act — right up to and including the anonymous heroism of Vader’s light saber victims passing the thumb drive (that’s what it was, right?) along to its obvious eventual recipient — draws on the operatic essence of Lucas’ originals, while at the same time inhabiting a darker, more realist sensibility in which even honorable death is horrible and sad. The film was succeeding. We were there. I hadn’t closed my mouth or sat back in my chair in 20 or 30 or however many minutes it was.
And here’s the thing: we all know what’s going to happen with those Death Star plans. We don’t need reminding. And in case we do (even though we don’t), Jimmy Smits announces that he’ll send someone he trusts on a mission to find a certain desert-dwelling Jedi in hiding — a female someone based on his pronoun choice — and since pretty much the only thing (relevant) we know about his character is that he’s Leia’s adopted father, we know exactly who someone is.
At that point, with the Death Star plans on a ship that we’ve seen before, about to be in the hands of the person we know will put them into a certain short and beepy droid, the film could have ended. We’d seen what we needed to see. Of course, overstating the obvious is a hallmark of this franchise, so the story had to go one scene further.
They still could have pulled this off without ruining the movie. They could have shown the back of a female character garbed in white, and we could have even heard her voice. The camera didn’t need to show her face. We didn’t even need entirely original dialogue — our about-to-be heroine could have been preparing (or even beginning to record) her message to Obi Wan, taking us right up to the scene where we met her in 1977 (or whenever we were old enough to meet her for the first time).
But the scene we got instead was troubling on multiple levels.
Most obviously, the visual effect didn’t work. No matter how well Disney’s digital artists can pull off their CGI magic — and they deserve credit for all the ways they succeeded in this movie — there was no way we were going to feel good about an animated version of a character who we first meet moments later (timeline-wise) as a flesh-and-blood actress rendered on actual film. I won’t belabor this point as it has been well-trodden by reviewers, and because I suppose the degree to which the (semi-)animated character was (not) effective could be a matter of opinion. I mean, I supposed someone could have felt like it didn’t look horrendous.1
Second, I take issue with Leia being played by anyone other than Carrie Fisher. Sure… if they ever want to show her at an earlier stage in life then I’m ok with a young actress playing the part — people change over time and I could live with the idea that a well-cast young Leia grows up to become Carrie Fisher’s portrayal. But Rogue One’s Leia is not a younger Leia. This is the Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan we know, traveling on the very ship and wearing the very dress she was wearing when we first met her, and on the very mission where she hides the Death Star plans on R2 and stands up to (our first encounter with) Darth Vader. That Leia will always be played by Carrie Fisher, and I cannot accept any other portrayal of her, even one animated to bear an uncanny resemblance to Her Highness, daughter of Anakin Skywalker and future general of the Resistance (and future wearer of metallic swimwear).
Third, cartoon Leia’s dialogue is unforgivable. The film is, up to that point, about sacrifice. And in forcing us to watch its protagonists’ deaths one after another, it puts a fine point on it. Truly tyrannical evil cannot be defeated by self-interested individuals (like the cowardly rebel leaders who initially balk at the idea of going after the Death Star plans). Rather, the Dark Side’s vulnerability is only exposed — literally in this case — when people come together, setting aside their individual needs (up to and including their individial need for survival) in the interest of the greater good. Those heroes, we come to understand, may die as martyrs, but despite their demise as individuals, they collectively live forever in the legacy they share. This film, then, justifies its own existence as a documentation of that heroism, bearing witness to the actions of the previously-nameless souls who perished so that Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewy can save the day and get the credit.
So when cartoon Leia shows up and announces that the point of the whole thing is “hope,” it does a disservice to the immediately preceding narrative. I suppose one could say that hope is the point, and that Jyn’s pre-battle pep talk on that topic is a statement of the movie’s central message. But other than those two mentions, this film isn’t hopeful — though they successfully get the Death Star blueprints to the Rebels, our heroes all die — because this is the story of Rogue One’s ill-fated martyrs, not the story of Princess Leia, her secret twin, and their estranged biological father.
Indeed, Leia’s story (or, the one in which she is a principle character) is very much about “a new hope.” And its fine to connect the final moments of Rogue One to the opening scenes of Episode 4. But we didn’t need her pithy line (or her cartoon face) to draw the connection — it had been drawn already when we saw the guys in the familiar helmets on the familiar ship, and again when we saw her dress from behind.
Leia’s face and her stupid line ruin an otherwise great Star Wars film. It’s fun to watch, well-paced, well-enough acted. It is composed in virtually every way as worthy of the Star Wars franchise. That’s most evident in the attention paid to the operatic score, the artistry of the sets and establishing shots of planetart landscapes, the sound effects of the battle scenes, and all those tiny details George Lucas trained us to notice (blue milk, pilot call signs, particulars of Rebel and Imperial ships, etc.). I even didn’t mind the CGI version of a character previously played by a now-deceased actor, or the unnecessary (and maybe poorly-timed) comic-relief cameo from a certain pair of familiar droids. Neither diverted from the narrative’s established direction, and the former example was less visually problematic than cartoon Leia because that character always had a certain dark cartoonish quality to him.2 So his now-computerized presence felt less arresting in comparison to Leia, whose familiar softness and “realness” felt missing from the abomination we found in her place.
Point is: great movie until the last 10 seconds. And maybe a great movie despite them. I continue to be excited for what’s in store next, both from the films that will open with scrolling text and from this series of tangential “stories.”
Also published on Medium.
Of course, no one sane would think that. But I imagine it’s possible that some aesthetically misguided and/or very mentally-ill person could. (back to footnote in text)
The “uncanny valley” hypothesis — pointed out in Kelly Lawler’s critique in USA Today and Noah Berlatsky’s on qz.com — is right on with its suggestion that “human replicas that appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion.” It works for the Grand Moff Tarkin character because he is eery and revolting. (back to footnote in text)