Things are heating up. This is the bloodiest thing I have ever written thus far.
Mild spoiler warnings here. I won’t reveal any deaths. Other than that, I cannot think of much in this film that might be regarded as a twist in the narrative you wouldn’t expect on walking into the theater.
Ever since Return of the Jedi, any subsequent Star Wars™ product has been judged by the fans on whether it got some element right or not. Rogue One certainly gets certain things very right about conveying the feel of the original trilogy. The “lived-in” look of the universe, wherein everything look dented, dirty, and used, was right-on. My inner nit-picking nerd was delighted. As far as sci-fi-based action goes, I would say that the battle scenes were as visually enthralling and competently directed as anyone would have hoped for. The mix of CGI and practical effects has never looked better. The ships and crafts all were seamlessly rendered beautifully. Good work has been done in the past, but this is a triumphant passing of the hat from the model-based stop-motion of the original to CGI.
So, on technical aspects, R1 is definitely a Star Wars™ movie, trademark and all. If you sense I preface the rest of this review with my praise before effecting a deep inhale before announcing my ominous “but…” then the Force is indeed strong with you.
The technical expertise on display could have been put into any space opera setting. What makes me love Star Wars more than the look of any particular special effect are the characters and the rich mythology evident in the story. Rogue One was not a movie that went that route.
Rich Evans of Redlettermedia.com made a brilliant observation in their review of Rogue One. He noted that the Star Wars universe isn’t really all that vast. In fact, it’s actually pretty limited. Fans don’t want new things. They demand variations on the old things: light sabers, Imperial walkers, Tie Fighters, X-Wings, etc.
Let us consider Imperial Walkers.
When the Imperial Walkers first appear for the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, they reinforce the movie’s title and overall theme. Their terrifying size visually relayed the power discrepancy between the Empire and the Rebels.** This establishes right away that the ending of the original Star Wars did not end the war. In the second chapter of the saga, we see the Rebels are back on their heels and are literally in danger of being crushed by the Empire’s wrath.
**This continues the brilliant design details from the first movie. As was similarly observed, the very opening scene of Star Wars juxtaposes the size of the Star Destroyer and the much smaller Rebel ship. The downward angle implies dominance. As Mr. Plinkett taught us, this visual detail tells you everything that you need to know at the beginning of the story: the Empire is dominant, has a long reach, and the Rebels are a precarious disadvantage.
The Rebels find that their snowspeeder aircraft can’t stop the Walkers, and they have very little ability to fight back against them with their standard projectile weapons. Luke, like the classical hero archetype, goes up against the impossible foe armed with his sword, and against all odds, comes away victorious.
The Imperial Walkers were not designed as if they would be practical war machines. To actually contemplate how they might work is besides the point. They are mythical monsters, and that is the purpose they serve in the story for which they were created. They were created as obstacles on the way for the wider journey in the story.
If we really stop to contemplate why Godzilla doesn’t act like more of an actual lizard — asking why he takes the time to punch down buildings and stomp on cars or how he could possibly breath fire — we’re missing the point. Godzilla is not supposed to be a real animal. Godzilla is a monster, and to get all Jungian here, monsters in stories convey palpable fears not literally, but on different levels.
The Walkers are an iconic design of the SW universe. They succeed so well as archetypical monsters by also invoking the mechanized cruelty of World War 2 tank warfare as well as classical motifs of mounted warriors. They accomplished their purpose by evoking something that was a tangible horror within living memory. So, just in terms of design, they’re popular as iconic mementos. The toys were coveted by my generation, and even as I’m going gray like Galen Erso, I can cast a wanting eye to the awesome Lego version.
But when we see them entering into a gritty battle against the Rebels in R1, and we also discover — who knew? — that X-Wing fighters have the firepower to cut them in half, then they become part of the practical landscape, and are no longer monsters.
In this movie, the Walkers become objects added to the background. Each ship or machine seemingly has a set amount of hit points and firepower and armor, and we get to see them set off against one another. To me, this makes the Walkers utterly pointless for being in the movie. Any nostalgic thrill I had in seeing them was quickly dissipated in a series of expected explosions and dogfights.
In the Empire Strikes Back, the chase at the center of the narrative is the structure that frames the plot. Han Solo and company flee across the galaxy, dodging Imperial ships, space slugs, and ending up on the planet Bespin for the denouement of Luke versus Vader. The story structure is enriched by each step of the way by having the characters experience new locations and fantastic elements of the universe while expanding their relationship with one another, (Han and Leia), and with the Force (Luke). The pacing and plotting are virtually perfect, and it’s become the standard to which other sci-fi dramas are often compared.
Plot-wise, R1 suffers from the same problems as Return of the Jedi and every subsequent movie. The story progression only makes sense in that things happen in a way that they have to happen to fit the story.
In R1, the story serves the locations and elements, rather than the other way around. This is a typical progression in something like a modern game. In games, the purpose of the story structure is to get the character to navigate different environments and undergo different challenges. The overall story can be thin because it only serves to deliver the player to the different experiences. This kind of storytelling is familiar to modern viewers. I would argue that it would be better experienced through gameplay storytelling, but is not the same thing when experienced as a movie.
The hologram message from Galen to Jyn solves a plothole from the original movie: the Death Star designer only reluctantly built the station. The vulnerability was thus baked in so the Death Star will self-destruct. Galen’s hologram message with this fact starts the main story in motion, with Jyn desperate to follow up and find the secret, find the plans, and to get them to the Rebels so they can stop the Death Star.
Which left me wondering why Galen doesn’t shout in the hologram: “Exhaust port! Hit it with a torpedo! Toss a grenade down the shaft! It’s the EXHAUST PORT!” This certainly would have saved a lot of trouble for the Rebels having to steal the blueprints of the thing to find out where the vulnerability Galen talked about could be found. This would have cut down the running time of the movie by 80 minutes or so.
Also, is there a reason Krennic has to visit Vader in person? Well, we get to see Vader be intimidating, which is the only point of the scene. It seems like a waste of time and fuel there for a brief meeting that could be done by hologram.
R1 unfortunately spends a lot of time zipping from planet to planet for scenes that seemed rushed and unnecessary to the story.
Stray observation 1:
So much effort was made for intricate details of this movie to mimic the feel of the universe from the original movie, that I am yet the squealing fanboy marveling at the work of the original creators all that much more. So many of the elements of the aliens, planets, costumes, ships, straps, guns, hair, noises, sounds, colors, and lighting, all look fantastic.
It’s still more to Rich Evans’ point that we as fans are our own worst enemies when we don’t want to see too much that is new. It started to grate on me that every familiar element Easter Egg that showed up seemed calculated to get the audience to clap with eager recognition. Luckily, my showing was mostly devoid of that response.
Stray observation 2:
There was a lot that was a bummer about this movie. The war scenes were serious enough that I felt a bit of war fatigue. Did we need to see the Stormtroopers in a situation not unlike, say, American forces fighting insurgents in Iraq? As well as the Saving Private Ryan style bummers of seeing rows of Stormtroopers machine gunned?
Stray observation 3:
Something that I also noticed from The Force Awakens: since when do ships in Star Wars have the ability to jump to/from light-speed from inside the atmosphere of a planet? It was a major plot device in the first few films that there was a degree of difficulty and imprecision in making the jump to and from light speed. Malfunctioning hyperdrives were a major source of tension. The imprecision of where a fleet would land even in the emptiness of space was another element. All that was gone in the new stories.
I am not a fan of seeing wheeled vehicles in Star Wars, either. I’d prefer seeing either floating vehicles or mounted creatures. The pedestrian “in between” of wheels sort of spoils the feeling of immersion in this fantasy universe. For a movie that was so intense about getting things “right,” I think this is an oversight of the world building.
Stray observation 4:
For my taste, far too much attention was paid to make R1 close up any gap of events up until the start of the original movie.
As for the original characters that appeared in this movie, I thought they mostly seemed kind of off. The digital versions of Moff Tarkin and Leia seemed waxy and deep in the uncanny valley. I was immediately distracted. I could have understood their characters being in the shadows or reflections rather than full on, but I’m not sold on the digital puppetry.
They could have recast Moff Tarkin with someone like Charles Dance or David Bowie. (He was still alive at the time.) This would have been distracting, true, but more or less than the digital creations? I’m not sure.
Darth Vader seemed off. The costume just didn’t look quite like it did in the first movie to me. It seemed like the actor was shorter and of less stature than David Prowse, and the helmet didn’t quite look right around the neck. Also, sadly, while James Earl Jones reprises his role, his age is showing (or sounding), and Vader didn’t sound right to me.
Stray observation 5:
One other note about Vader and his last scene of whup-ass on the Rebels: for all the care to make this movie snap seamlessly to the original, there were some things here are very different from the source.
Vader didn’t lead attacks into boarded ships himself and start kicking ass. The opening scene of Star Wars is effective as it is with Vader coming in after the slaughter brought on by the Stormtroopers, stepping so nonchalantly and intimidatingly over the bodies as he does with his hands neatly behind his back.
The first movie is very, very low-key on what exactly the Force is. Mostly, the Force users have meditative, trance-like powers to sense things in their minds’ eye, and this is the transcendental nature of the Force as it’s explained in the story. Most of the use of the Force is very constrained, with Kenobi using it to persuade stormtroopers, throw sounds, and most effectively seeming to disembody himself into it altogether. Telekinesis is only used once with Vader underlining a point by choking an Imperial Officer.
This is all amped up, as it should be, in the Empire Strikes Back, where the stakes are vastly increased, as are the abilities of Luke and Vader to toss objects around with the Force, and even deflect blaster shots.
By the time we get to Vader in Rogue One, Jedi powers in all the subsequent movies, games, cartoons, and movies are less like religion or martial arts, but are full-on super powers. Characters can be tossed around at will, shots deflected, and we already expect Jedi to be invulnerable when the plot requires it.
If I were to make the argument that the prequels damaged Star Wars mythos permanently, I would base it on how they changed the perception of the Jedi and the use of the Force as more super-power and less mystical. (I’m not even going to bring up the “m” word.)
The characters in R1 are fairly flat in this heavily plot-driven story. They’re potentially interesting in their own right, but they just aren’t developed. There isn’t as much of the witty banter as in the first movie that was as important to the feel as the set design. The inherent darkness inevitable in the story of R1 doesn’t make for much uplift. There is nothing as charmingly fun as scenes of the Jawas capturing R2-D2.
The constraint of the running time is my biggest regret with the movie. I had a thought that all of this would have been much more enjoyable if it had been a 10-part series on cable/streaming. Game of Thrones gets a much better 10-hour season from a storyline than they likely would with a 2-hour movie.
As much as the CGI looked good when it was used, the practical sets were also quietly excellent. I could have watched the characters spend more time interacting in the practical environments with more dialogue and intrigue. All the same amount of special effects could easily have been padded out with more story content which would have introduced us more to the characters and their journey. An episodic structure would have given us more room to breathe and ponder the universe in between story beats. This could have given us more of the heart and mythos I felt was lacking.
We could have actually seen a proper love story, perhaps. The tragedies would have had greater weight than seeing the death of a character we only met an hour earlier. Saw Gererra’s character might have made sense. I definitely could sit through hours more scenes with K2-SO, who was the single part of the movie I enjoyed the most.
Maybe the makers of the movie might even agree with me, and would have enjoyed having more room to play in this wonderful sandbox and flesh out the stories. I’m sure the expenses involved with that approach meant that this never was a possibility. Even if it would have been a better story this way, Disney™ needed to see this movie return their multi-billion dollar investment. That meant that they aimed for a blockbuster with this over all other considerations. Too bad.
Writing about culture is delicate thing at the end of 2016. Our society is undergoing frantic re-contextualization of what is right or wrong, conservative or liberal, taboo or normalized. Is social media is ultimately a tool for more social democratization or a boon for totalitarians? I suspect the ructions will continue, and we won’t shake this out for some time.
Maybe the received wisdom from cultural curators in the past was just reporting on general trends rather than influencing them. I’d wager that established cultural critics have never been less influential on popular perceptions than they have been in 2016. In the past, I would have thought the influence of internet bloviating twitterati as being over-hyped. This year has proved me wrong. Received wisdom is being overturned with every tick of the news cycle.
I think the pushing aside of the clerisy has been a long time coming. As a Libertarian who is technically an atheist, I don’t exactly stand athwart social change shouting “stop.” But I’m afraid right now we are in the Stalinist stage of the social media revolution. The marketers, both of the commercial and political species, have legions of marketing and psychological methodologies at hand. The trick nowadays for the would-be power brokers is not to actually be an individual going viral with an original point of view. Clever power brokers at the top now seek to use strategically placed social media as an imitation of authenticity.
One of the insights on the state of all things digital and cultural was provided to me by Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying about his work as a PR person deliberately manipulating media blogs. Internet news blogs run on advertising, and advertising runs on clicks. They must get you, the consumer, to click on something, whatever it takes. Thus, the most ridiculously arresting, arousing, or infuriating of headlines will be hyperlinked. The metrics of what works are known by cruel, unfeeling, Darwinian culling. If it harvests a click, it multiplies; if it does not, it withers. It doesn’t matter whether what is being put forward is uplifting, insightful, or important to your actual life. What matters is a boolean consideration: whether or not the user clicks that link.
Media manipulators have used the accumulated knowledge of human nature to figure out what makes us click. Turns out, things that make us angry make us apt to click more than anything else. Yes: puppy videos or celebrity nip-slips are up there, too. But it’s much more profitable, if you are running a web site, to have a headline with a declarative statement that will cause blood pressure to spike one way or the other. This earn clicks. And only clicks matter.
It could be said that advertisers, politicians, and polemical-minded journalists are trolling us. They are much like the fisherman trying out different shiny flies to find which one gets the bass to bite. The troll feeds on its catch, grows larger and smarter, and the cycle continues.
Trolling reverberated throughout the election this year. Electoral anger was made possible by a Democrat Party that sought to suppress democracy in the name of Super Delegates delivering up a candidate neither welcomed nor even widely well-liked by the would-be consumers.
Anger-induced clicks helped with the Bernie backlash against the Clinton product simply being handed to the Democrat constituency by this clerisy. And this anger against the clerisy ultimately helped Trump against everyone else.
American politics are almost light-hearted compared to, say, the Turkish would-be “coup” this summer. This is a story almost completely uncovered in the West. In what’s become a theme this year, the government of Turkey seems to have trolled their own populace. The Islamist President blamed the coup attempt on a bookish Islamist organization his own Islamist party was once allied with. In this way, Erdoğan cemented his hold on the country as a populist Islamist, while also claiming to fight dangerous Islamism. This contradiction is not coincidence. The incoherence is confusing and demoralizing, of course, but that can only help the powers in charge maintain their hold by repressing dissent.
Not so subtly, the Erdoğan regime has claimed that groups of secularist liberal intellectuals are tied in to the “Islamist” coup through links in education. Thus, the current Islamist populist regime has cemented its hold on the country, while claiming to be fighting Islamist terrorists by arresting and removing from positions of power large numbers of non-Islamist secularists. It takes some deliberate concentration for an outsider to follow these events, but the population of Turkey is forced to take it all in stride, and stand compliant in the face of a broadly mendacious official government line. And if the individuals do not like it, they can say goodbye to their jobs, their livelihoods, and in a word repeated quite often: their “honor” in society.
True totalitarianism is not merely living in a society in which official power repeats lies endlessly; that happens often enough everywhere. Under true totalitarianism, one is forced to recite those lies with phony sincerity and a phony smile, which everyone knows is phony, but which is required nonetheless. Totalitarianism demoralizes the individual by humiliating him and emasculating him, forcing him to smile and partake in his own humiliation.
Social Media has proven to be very adept at reinforcing these totalitarian norms by leveraging every pseudo-private space as a vector through which to enforce these pageants of self-negation and submission. In the West, we’re so far only playing games with totalitarianism and hate-clicks; contrarians still have room to mock back. In Turkey, the real thing is playing out for blood and body-counts. It remains to be seen whether the Turkish experience is an anomaly or a prequel for the rest of us.
Of far less importance than matters of Trump or Turkey, is the state of the culture of geekery.
I’m not sure whether it’s purely motivated by money, or part of some social experiment, but the social media hive minds been telling us consumers of geek media that what we really need is for women to kick ass!! in more action/sci-fi/super-hero movies.
I think, for the dollars involved, marketers are determined to fight the fundamental truth that a bunch of action films are power fantasies that boys — testosterone soaked boys — revel in. Female power fantasies — which exist — are often much subtler, personal, and less about punching or using swords. The company line that feminism means we need to see more women kick ass!! is as phony to me as claiming Cinemax soft-core lesbian sex scenes are “empowering” for the gay community. Both seem to me really driven by the consumption habits of a male audience, eager for the visual spectacle of titillating female flesh.
I think the story of 2016 as the year of the Great Gaslighting might best be exemplified in this RedLetterMedia video on the failed Ghostbusters reboot. Consider: a major corporation, worth billions, for the sake of maintaining high-income executive salaries, conducted an ad campaign for Ghostbusters that framed the existing fans of their intellectual property as basement-dwelling misogynists. This is not to defend the small number of misogynists who actually did make their foolishness known, but to point out that Sony marketed their product as a symbol of progressivism and feminism that all well-meaning, right-thinking people should embrace by principle. Whether it’s fraudulent to advertise an awful, unfunny movie as if it were otherwise, is besides my point. It’s about a multi-billion dollar corporation ginning up hatred against a group of people that Sony even explicitly recognizes as powerless and small. The massive corporation played the part of victim for being rejected by its own consumers. This is a level of cynicism really beyond parody.
This is not to claim that there are no legitimate fans of watching women kick ass!! in movies. Geek girls exist, and they are legion, and I love them. I just won’t pretend that these are things that everyone actually wants. I’m in favor of the things that not everyone gets.
I just am aware that geek girls are numerically in a minority, and no sane person goes to, say, ComiCon because it’s a great place to meet girls. I stand for the contrarians, the geeks, the outcasts, and the lovers of insanely nerdy inside references. I fight for the users! There is something to be said for being in the minority, anyway. Who wants to always be in the “most” when the “most” is mostly wrong?
As it is, true nerds have seen their culture appropriated as super-hero, fantasy, and sci-fi movies have taken over movie grosses. As a geek, it’s interesting to watch female starlets play comic book characters. I often think to myself: has she any clue who Emma Frost or the Scarlet Witch are in comic books? And one level further: has she even dated the kind of man who has any idea who those characters are?
Fine enough. Let the nerds and neckbeards have our moment. We geeks suffered through playing right-field in our day, so I am fine with the pretty, chiseled people in movies coming to ComiCon and grovelling at the great otaku temple to win the favor of our dollars and clicks.
Arrival is a science-fiction movie with a female protagonist, and it’s very good science-fiction that satisfies the thinking geek. Nothing felt false to me in the movie, as things so often do in the sci-fi genre these days.
I’ll compare it to the Martian, as far as smart sci-fi goes. I didn’t care much for that movie, even when I wanted to like it. It pulled me out of my suspension of disbelief a little too often with over-acting actors making too many quips and asides that fell flat to me. I liked it for the journey of the protagonist solving problems in a methodical way, providing the base for the rare hard sci-fi big budget movie. I felt I appreciated the Martian more as an idea of a story than the story itself. Which follows, as I heard the book was better.
Arrival, also based on a book I didn’t read, is not quite hard sci-fi, as obviously it involves aliens and fantastical elements. But let the geeks rejoice! This is a movie wherein the two lead characters are scientists. And they act like scientists. And there is honest-to-Xenu drama in watching them figure out the complexity of communicating with aliens. There is no fake-out with people acting like they wouldn’t act in real life, nor needless quips, nor jokes to elicit audience response, nor cheeseball moments. It all felt very true. Even the heart-wrenching sentiments, which are very powerfully evoked by Amy Adams’ character and her very personal loss, are all very pure.
Critics said they hated how the military stymies the scientists when they’re trying to figure out how to communicate with the aliens. But I found it rang true. Forrest Whittaker’s character says “I need to know exactly what you’re going to do before you go in there, because I need to defend it to a room of people trying to protect their jobs.” Sounds like a perfect recitation of the drama of life in a bureaucracy. In my experience, any actual scientist would nod knowingly at that scene. (Yes, that’s how you can recognize the real scientists in the theater: they’re the ones in the lab coats nodding.)
There still is a lot of drama that is milked from characters under danger from other characters pointing weapons at them, but it serves the story progression within context of the plot, not as a plot device to add drama unnecessarily. No jump scares. Sound is used as part of the story, but the alien noises are very deep audio tones, and it worked to hear it in a theater where the room is shaking. No audio is used in lieu of plot. (Take that, JJ Abrams and Lost.)
Yes, the message is a bit hippie-dippie: “we all need to get along!” But if you’re going to criticize human nature and the state of the world along those lines, this is the way to do it.
Arrival is science-fiction at its best. It is transcendent storytelling that bridges the world we know with fantasy, and brings us face to face with things both beautiful and terrible.
I only recently discovered the podcast Story Wonks. It’s excellent.
I am particularly grateful for the discussion of the Force Awakens. There is a lot there that opened my eyes to themes I hadn’t noticed, and I like the insight he has as well. I also agree with his observations on the likely backgrounds of Snoke and Rey, sort of going against the popular speculations. I hope that he is correct.
Luke Skywalker is going to claim the inheritance of his father’s castle. And he wonders what he might find there.
Chapter 1. We meet the garrison on Voss.
A note: I am publishing these via Google Docs. I think that this is the best way to do this, but I am open to other suggestions.