my (totally unoriginal) <em>rogue one</em> reaction.

my (totally unoriginal) rogue one reaction.

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  • December 23, 2016

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. ((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.))

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. ((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.)) 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.