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Tuesday 20 December 2016

The Force Fell Flat, But Now It's Picked Itself Up And Is Whistling Nonchalantly And Hoping No-One Noticed Its Embarrassing Slip-Up

Disclaimer : This post contains extremely minor details which I don't believe will spoil your enjoyment of the film. However, if you're a purist, you shouldn't read this post until after you've seen the movie. You have been warned.

Last year I had the misfortune to see The Force Falls Flat, a film which ensures that I would never again trust Jar Jar Abrahams with a pinhole camera, let alone a multi-million dollar movie franchise. It was shallow, manipulative, unsubtle drivel with all the vital force of a slug with Alzheimers. The whole thing, right down to the opening text, felt forced (pun not intended) and silly - it was less of a story and more a bunch of, "here's some stuff that happened". Every scene felt like it was there "because that's what the script says" and not because the events in the "story" made it inevitable.

The force didn't awaken. At best it fell asleep, at worst it slipped on a banana skin, got its other leg stuck in a bucket, slid on a patch of grease and fell down a well.

Not so with Rogue One. The force has woken up, climbed out of the well, dusted itself off and is now walking along at steady pace, whistling a jaunty tune and hoping no-one notices its previous embarrassment.

Rogue One isn't quite like watching a new episode of Star Wars. It's very much as its subtitle describes : a Star Wars story. For every wicked witch's cauldron there's a perfectly normal blacksmith; for every dark lord there's an army of everyday soldiers who just signed up because the pay was decent and the uniforms looked nice. Rogue One is somewhat the story of those sorts of people : the ordinary rebels whose lives just occasionally intersect the grand storybook adventures of the pivotal cast. They're not Jedi. They're not royalty. They're not the Chosen Ones with some grand destiny to fulfil. They're the other people who have to be there for the main story to happen at all.

This works remarkably well. If you stop to think about it, the film veers between the rather mundane lives of the rebels (albeit "mundane" here including X-wings and Star Destroyers) and the fairy tale narrative of the main cast. The ordinary world is much darker, grittier and more realistic than what we've seen in Star Wars previously - but it still feels like part of the story, just a part that hasn't be told before. Crucially, it's a part that doesn't feel like it needs to have supernatural notions of destiny or good versus evil or the other grand mythological themes. So the more ordinary aspects of the rebellion feel ordinary because they are ordinary, hence this strange mixture of the mundane and the mythological works rather nicely, smoothly flowing from one to the other and back again as necessary.

TFA didn't do that - it felt tacked on, a desperate attempt to keep the story going because that's precisely what it was. Consequently its attempt at grit and menace simply didn't work, because the thing was a bit like looking into a shattered mirror than had been badly repaired with a lot of tape, or like being menaced by a dog that's had a nasty car accident, or better yet like watching a magic trick where you can see the "hidden" trapdoor.  It doesn't work because you know they're just making stuff up, which is not the same as telling a story.

The Force Awakens was grand, impressive.... and totally pointless.
Rogue One, on the other hand, has authenticity - an over-used word these days but applicable in this case. I can readily accept it as canon because everything that happens is entirely consistent with established events. Nothing is forced, everything that happens couldn't really have happened differently. The writing doesn't feel like it's trying to sell you a story like TFA did, it feels like it's telling you a story that actually happened. In the fictional universe, of course. Because it's not a documentary.

But that doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. To be fair, anything that I accept as happening in the Star Wars universe already gets brownie points simply for being Star Wars. But is it actually a worthwhile watch ?

Yeah, it's decent. It's not epic, but then it's not telling an epic tale. It's engrossing. It ties together episodes 3 and 4 very nicely, in a satisfying way. It has its weak points, but none of them are fatal or even very important. What stops it from being epic is, largely, simply that that's not the nature of the story being told.

The weakest part of the film is probably the trailer, which gives a slightly - slightly, mind you - different impression of the movie than the reality.

From this, one might expect quite a complex main character, or at least a bad-ass rebel with a chip on her shoulder - perhaps a rebel too rebellious for the rebellion. We don't really get this - whatserface (can't remember anyone's name) is generally quite nice, and character development all round is superficial at best. The balance of character screen time is not quite right, with too many characters being given minor, unnecessary sub-plots in lieu of actual characters, and others being just dropped in there for no reason at all. You don't need minor functionaries to have their own plots, you can just introduce them with a line or two, but you do need something substantial for the protagonists. Unfortunately we don't get this, just the occasional token backstory.

The narrative improves markedly as the film goes on, but the film's introduction is rather complicated, setting us up in three or four different locations in a few minutes before hurriedly tying them together. This makes the plot feel a little more complicated than it really is. They would have been better off keeping the now-classic scrolling text with the main theme and giving us enough of a synopsis that we could proceed with only one or two narratives initially.

The over-complicated storytelling might be why character development is lacking. Although it's hardly a crazy mess of explosions and lens flares (and the cinematography deserves praise), one has the impression that there's just a bit two much going on. Something needs to be cut, and/or the film needs to be about 30-45 minutes longer. We don't really feel much for any of the characters (except possibly the wisecracking robot, who is rather good though occasionally a bit heavy-handed with the sarcasm), but we might if we knew a bit more about them. As it is, they're all just people doing what the plot demands of them (the difference from The Force Awakens being that that plot is logical and sensible with a clear causal structure). They don't feel like they're doing anything because of their own internal desires much at all.

A weirder part is that (as far as I can remember) some parts of the trailer just don't seem to happen at all. I may be wrong, but the following parts seem to have been cut (possibly allowing a DVD release of the extended version I would prefer) :
  • "I fight the Empire now" - suggests an important character development, which doesn't happen.
  • "The Captain says you are a friend. I will not kill you." - more than enough sarcasm from K2 anyway, but this gives him a slightly more sinister edge.
  • Lots of very loud, cool-sounding alarms that are very much more muted in the final cut. I know this is an odd thing to be disappointed about, but I really liked that sound effect.
  • The bit where whatsherface walks along a gantry to a TIE fighter - a really cool scene that just doesn't happen. Bizarre.
  • "What will you do if they catch you ? What will they do if they break you ? Will you continue to fight ? What will you become ?" Doesn't happen at all.
The oddest thing is Darth Vader's costume. Oh, Vader himself is most satisfactory. But his costume is just a bit weird - too simple, like someone dressing themselves as Vader for Halloween. It's very distracting.

None of these things are particularly damaging individually. Even collectively they're not crippling, but the slight messiness of the film, lack of soul to the characters, and the nature of the story means it will never be in the same league as the first trilogy. Once you accept that, however, it's a thoroughly decent flick which, like Hilary Clinton's speeches sometimes trudges but occasionally - frequently enough, I think, and when it matters most of all - soars.

Where it most definitely soars are where the plot directly intersects the main storyline. Here it feels very much indeed as though we're back in the original trilogy. We have stormtroopers, X-wings, Star Destroyers, the Death Star, Vader, references to the Emperor, Grand Moff Tarkin, and faithful reproductions of the original architecture. There are cameos by C3PO and R2D2 and even that guy Luke met in a bar; references to the original films are, in general, genuinely subtle. The music I like very much - like most good aspects of the film, it's just like the original films but a little bit different. They've experimented, but unlike TFA they haven't pushed the boat out so far it's hit an iceberg and sank with horrific loss of life. So we have a full orchestral soundtrack very much in keeping with the original (which only occasionally goes into the full original themes when necessary, rather than ramming it down our throats) instead of some retarded tinkly piano piece. The whole thing ends in a very satisfying way, leaving me wanting to re-watch all the films with this one tucked in between episodes 3 and 4.

I was going to say that it's remarkable how they found an actor who looks so similar to Peter Cushing to play Grand Moff Tarkin... but then I learned that they didn't. Incredibly, this is a fully CGI recreation and I never once suspected this while watching (oh, you can doubtless find people on the internet saying it looks fake or whatever, but seriously - it doesn't). The uncanny valley has well and truly been crossed, possibly ushering in a new era in cinema.

So Rogue One has got the music, props, special effects, cinematography and basic storytelling ability down pat. It lacks fully developed characters to give it heart, lacks a little focus and the trailer gave me some false expectations. But I left the cinema feeling extremely satisfied : not enthralled as in the original movies, but satisfied that this was indeed a Star Wars movie. Would I watch another ? Well I certainly won't be watching episode 8 under any circumstances. The main storyline is done, absolutely nothing can extend it any more than one could write a sequel to Hansel and Gretel. Hansel and Gretel... do what ? Chop down trees ? Thwart a wicked king ? Take up investment banking ? There's nothing they can do that entirely new characters couldn't do better.

Rogue One takes the right approach, telling us an important part of the main story we hadn't heard before that's only tangentially important to the main characters. I'm not convinced there are (m)any other stories like that lurking in the Star Wars universe, but if there are I would watch them. I'd be less optimistic about trying to invent an entirely new storyline from scratch. Unlike Trek, Star Wars really revolves around the main plot - it was developed for that alone, not more broad-ranging social and morality tales. I suppose more details around the time of Revenge of the Sith, given the current political climate, might be topical (essentially, Emperor Trump persuades everyone to vote for Brexit against their constitution, thereby ushering in an era of tyranny), but are they necessary ? No, not really.

For me, Star Wars is over. And that's not a bad thing, because without endings stories are robbed of meaning. Most likely the only new good things left will be edits of the original six films thanks to the incredible CGI demonstrated with Tarkin. Like the planet Arrakis in the Dune saga, the whole Star Wars universe exists as a plot device, and trying to fit other stories in that aren't part of that original genesis doesn't really work. So stop trying to tell new Star Wars stories - it's a fundamentally bad idea. Just sit back and let the edited versions roll in until eventually there's one for every man, woman and child on the planet so everyone gets a version they're happy enough with. Rogue One certainly isn't the prequel everyone wanted, but for me it's a very solid and respectable 7/10.