#1 – What Rogue One attempts to do is almost certainly more interesting if you’re a Star Wars fan and there’s no denying that there is a huge amount of fan service going on in this movie.
Having said that…
#2 – I am a massive Star Wars fan so whatever.
#3 – There are a lot of people I’ve spoken to now who are marginal Star Wars fans who loved Rogue One.
#4- I wanted to keep this spoiler-free but I figure enough people have seen the movie now but, either way, here is your warning of SPOILERS.
Rogue One is both non-essential viewing and a necessary corrective to the Star Wars movie canon. How is that possible? Well, it speaks a little to what I discussed in an earlier blog about alternate narratives. The Star Wars story universe is so large that everyone’s understanding of what it is can be totally different. If you’re just here for the Skywalker & Co monomyth, which is after all what most people understand Star Wars to be, Rogue One won’t do anything for you and that’s A-OK.
But if you want to explore a little deeper, if you want to have a new lens to examine not just these films but the nature of history-making and heroic narratives, especially in times of war, look no further.
To begin, here’s a hot take for you:
The protagonist of Rogue One isn’t Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso.
Jyn is the hydroscopic nuclei around which the misfits of Rogue One form and tumble down, down, down into the core of a nascent war, a mission trajectory that’s shared and unstoppable. It couldn’t happen without her. But the mission isn’t really about her.
The real protagonist is the most consistently underserved ‘character’ in the Star Wars universe.
The real protagonist is the Rebellion itself.
There are a few reviews and indeed comments from friends whose opinions I rate that suggest that the characterisation of the Rogue One team is thin. I agree with that.
It also didn’t bother me at all. Not only that, but I think it’s fine. Not only that but I think that this works in a positive way towards what this spin-off film is trying to achieve that the main movies often suggest but never quite land: Being a Rebel fucking sucks.
I realise this might read a lot like a rabid fan’s lengthy defense of undercooked characters but go with me on this because if nothing else I think Rogue One pulls off one hell of a trick in expanding the Star Wars universe in every direction whilst telling a very contained story.
On a practical level for Disney/Lucasarts, Rogue One had to work within a narrow, well defined channel: Tell a satisfying tale in the same story universe without overwhelming the narratives of the Saga movies (as I have learned the Episodes 1-7 are called). This film is built to be entirely subservient to the grander ones around it. Subsequently Rogue One, whizzbangs aside, exists on a smaller level than the main films. The heroes are minor characters in the world, they’re not Jedi and even the main villain – Director Krennick – saunters around with the fury/frustration mix of an insecure middle manager.
Even the emotional space of Rogue One is smaller. The Saga films operate under the sweeping emotional logic of a grand space opera. The music is more soaring, the language heightened, the jokes broader, the characters more vivid, the colours brighter, the contrast between sides sharper. Black. White. The Dark Side and the Light.
Rogue One, on the other hand, operates in the emotional logic of a war movie. It’s still got jokes, its characters are still occasionally fun and whilst some of the morals veer into the grey, the visuals do so less than you’d think – it’s beautiful film to watch. But there’s little romance to all this. There’s no time for it.
That’s because whilst our characters here are a lot less equipped to deal with them, the stakes are still huge, the enemy just as daunting as in the Saga movies. It’s this disparity that gives Rogue One its weight. It’s why a Death Star targeting a city here feels more daunting and terrifying than Starkiller Base wiping out the entire New Republic in The Force Awakens. This movie is all about the scale of the challenge that director Gareth Edwards twins well with his eye for the awesome (in the original sense of the word). In the Saga movies, the main characters observe people getting fucked by super weapons. In Rogue One, the main characters are the ones that get fucked by super weapons. The Death Star here is an absolute titan, in a way that it’s never felt before, and dealing with it feels like the most urgent thing in the whole damn universe, ahead of absolutely anything else. It’s this imperative that makes Rogue One move at the speed of plot, not the speed of character, something which is anti-thetical to wisdom on good writing. The film, without question, suffers a little for this.
Yet, for me, the aforementioned weight-through-scale is why I still found Rogue one satisfying and why I didn’t miss any greater characterisation. I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to my love of Apocalypse Now (a movie, trivia fans, in which Han Solo’s got a cameo and none other than George Lucas was once slated to direct.) Willard not having much about him as a protagonist didn’t bother me and still doesn’t bother me in the slightest. He was a man on a crazy mission with crazy events happening all around him that were out of his control, all in service of taking down a Big Bad. Now of course Apocalypse Now is a totally different style of movie and has a whole different take on warfare. But both movies are about the mission above all else (well, at least, the non-Redux version of Apocalypse Now is and if you’re not a monster that’s what we’re talking about). The relentless drive. It’s in opposition to, say, a Saving Private Ryan, which desperately wants you to care about its characters. The movie isn’t about Private Ryan at all really, it’s an excuse to showcase the valour and humanity of these incredible people. You can tell how important it is to Spielberg. Apocalypse Now and Rogue One have a completely different approach and rarely reach that same level of characterisation.
Having said that, Rogue One’s characters were still clear enough to me to get me through the story. I was never at a loss as to what everyone’s ‘deal’ was. Yes, none of them were particularly special, none of them got a huge amount of space to get to know the others. But each of them had an anchoring point, each of them had a part to play. Rogue One needs more characters to create similar potency to a few in the Saga films. Its wholeness comes from greater numbers, wider skills and greater diversity in a world you already know at least a little about.
This last point matters.
Some have commentated that Rogue One wouldn’t work anywhere near as well if you removed it from its Star Wars context. I believe that’s likely true, but this is to miss the point. The whole raison d’etre of this movie is to reframe that context, and this moves me on to how Rogue One isn’t just fan service but genuinely makes the Star Wars universe richer both in tone and in complexity in a way that the Saga movies cannot without derailing themselves.
There are certainly nods to those in the know. Some made to amuse (too many of these), some made to be a nostalgia nurse, but most fill in tiny gaps of story and lore in a way that is immensely rewarding. There’s the Death Star’s weakness now being a deliberate choice, not a simple flaw. There’s the Jedi being seen in the context of being part of a larger religion. There’s young Jyn having a Stormtrooper doll. I loved this! It’s a little of what I’d hoped for from The Force Awakens. There’s a moment in that movie when Rey talks about Luke Skywalker and the Jedi as a myth. No longer there, but indelible in cultural memory. Yet there’s nothing really in that film that hints at this powerful myth’s place in that world. I remarked at the time “wouldn’t it have been great to have seen something like kids playing as Jedi and getting told off or something so we know what the deal with the wider world is?”. With that one half a second shot of a Stormtrooper doll, you get how deeply rooted the Empire is. It’s not some vague menacing military presence. You feel the Empire’s supposed pervasiveness through this better than almost anything else I’ve seen in the Star Wars movies. It’s beyond great ol’ fleets of Star Destroyers, it’s down to the very toys children play with in that world. As someone who was more delighted than one should be to see a brown human Star Wars figure in a shop (thanks, Riz) there was something in that which seemed to highlight the grip of a dominant force, not just militarily but culturally too.
My favourite nod was a very subtle one, subtle enough to have passed by my co-watcher who is also big on Star Wars. In a section of the fight above Scarif, a hapless Red Squadron X-wing pilot gets it in the neck. They spent a little longer focusing on his demise than others. Why? Because he’s Red Five, the callsign Luke gets given during the Death Star assault in A New Hope.
That’s a funny moment to look back on after watching Rogue One. When Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, the beat is ultimately less about saving the Rebels (with whom he really doesn’t have any real investment), and more about him trusting in the Force and thus preparing him for his journey to become a Jedi in the films to follow. His sigh of relief when the torpedo enters the exhaust port feels like it’s saying “oh thank fuck the Force worked after all and I don’t look like a total dickhead for turning off my targetting computer.” He even gets a medal for this demonstration of Boy-Wonder-greatness.
In contrast, you suspect that the history within the Star Wars universe may not remember Jyn and co so well – indeed, it’s impossible for the future films to do so without some sort of unwelcome Late-Stage Lucas Special Edition kind of insertion. To paraphrase the Hamilton mixtape, the Rogue One crew are Luke Skywalker’s ghost writers. Which is a necessary and sobering thing to see, really. Nearly everyone who dies on Scarif won’t get remembered individually. Such is the fate of most people who do important things for the sake of any war, cause or movement. And you don’t actually have to be that interesting a person to do your part, either, even if movies demand it, entertainment demands it, dramatic writing demands it. Reality doesn’t. Not one bit.
Do I think that’s all by design? No, I’m not quite that generous, and there are plenty of bumpy moments and choices in Rogue One, but perhaps it’s because of the moment we’re living in that I feel more able to give a pass to a film that flags how our mythologies, societies and ideology are ultimately collective even if Great Individuals seem to dominate our narratives. There’s such hope in that if you’re in deep despair at what feels like a lack of agency.
I’m finishing this post not long after hearing of Carrie Fisher’s death at sixty, which is no age. It’s a stark reminder that all our heroes must die, most of them earlier than we or they would wish. That’s the message of Rogue One – life is routinely devastating, our ends will likely be unsatisfying to us and unresolved to others but on we plough in the hope that through our actions it will be a little less so for those who come after that. The movie literally continues after you’ve gone because you yourself don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Rogue One’s final dream-haunting Vader sequence demonstrates this. Having slammed Luke a little earlier, let me give him his due – it’s this horrifying sequence that drills home the need for young Skywalker to appear into this universe. Vader is unstoppable, a merciless, murderous machine gun in an a field of quivering, tightly-gripped bayonets. Yet, perhaps because of what we’ve seen up to this point, those soldiers who get ripped apart by Vader don’t feel like grunts anymore like they do at the start of A New Hope. Their deaths sting. They feel like the most important aspect of the resistance, ones who will die without people knowing much about them but knowing themselves that someone else will carry on the fight once they go. There’s no doubt the comrade behind the blast door will take the crucial message on and on and on. There’s no doubt another fighter will take up a downed pilot’s callsign. There’s no doubt the narrative of the cause is greater than the narrative of the individual.
Of course it is. That’s how it should be.
They’re all Rebels aren’t they?
I talked about this a little on my Facebook, but wanted to just collate it here.
I’m a sucker for romances/rom-coms and the BBC recently aired The 7.39, a two part romance written by David Nicholls of One Day fame that tells the story of two otherwise-attached people who meet on a train that hate each other, love each, then find out it’s all bit more complicated than that. Though I was a bit disappointed with The 7.39, it made me go back to its spiritual predecessor, Brief Encounter, a classic and one of my favourites too. I had the luck of seeing it at the BFI a few years back and was astonished that the melodrama of the film no longer seemed so big. The emotion felt entirely appropriate to the size of the screen.
The last scene gets me every time (you can watch it below). Not so much the movement where Laura and Alec say goodbye, though that has weight too of course, but actually when Laura’s husband holds her hand and tells her: “Thank you for coming back to me.” (5ms 11s into the video). It gives a previously minor character a whole arc of understanding, grief, love and hope in a single line. As an ending to a romantic story it’s not quite happy, not quite super sad, nor is it the clear bittersweetness of something like Casablanca. It’s altogether messier and I love it for it.
I do wonder how the ending would be handled today. The voice over would probably be out (not sure how much you need it is anyway, aside from being a framing device), and the husband’s final line…can’t imagine most directors would let it go by in that two-shot, it would probably get reinforced with a oh-so-emotive close up. Shame. On the plus side, they might lose that final musical sting which feels very archaic and unnecessary and there might be a touch less whimpering.
Today, I typed the first page of a feature screenplay. I don’t just mean of a new one, I mean ever. When I first started scribbling films some…ooh…12 years ago, I never suspected it would take me this long to get around to this.
I suppose it comes down to a story you want to to tell that’s worth two hours of someone’s time. I think Oath is certainly that. It links my family history with my own imaginings. If I pull it off, it should engross, educate and appall in equal measure. It’s not the one I’ll want to (or be able to!) direct myself, but it’s been flinging about my mind and files for too long. Time to get it down.*
*That is, time to get it down whilst procrastinating on other projects. Productive Procrastination ftw.
A classic interview from 1999 with one of my favourite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson. Wouldn’t you like to know how Forrest Gump gets it on? Paul would:
I’ve now seen Before Midnight twice and want to talk it through a little.
As I want to flag up specific plot points, here be SPOILERS for both this and the earlier movies though if you’ve come to these films for the plot you’re in the badlands, son. Here’s a little picture breakpoint for those who want to get out now. Keep your eyes left, not right.
So Before Midnight is a sequel I’ve been waiting for without knowing it. It continues the story of Jesse and Celine – Bright Young Things who first meet on a train in 1993 and spend a night freewheeling around Vienna and falling in love. Nearly a decade later they reunite in Paris – partly by chance, partly by design – and we see the fallout that that one Viennese evening has had on their lives.
I first encountered the earlier movies, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, when I was eighteen. I bought them both on a whim during my Christmas shift return to Virgin Megastore in my first year of uni (in many ways, it was still the best job I’ve ever had). Stressed and exhausted from the day’s work, I dropped onto the sofa as soon as I got home, turned on the DVD player, and found myself drawn into a pair of movies about being lost in time with one other person. I’ve been a fanboy ever since.
Between the pop psychology pondering of our boho leads, the relatively low stakes and lack of a real antagonism (a slight time constraint “ticking bomb” aside – more on this later) I can see how a viewer might get really bored – in a lot of ways, the Before movies shouldn’t work as drama.
However, this viewer provides the perfect chump for movies like this (one of my first scripts was actually called Solipsism – yes, it was terrible so feel free to remind me in person) and what I took from them is that there can be great drama in small moments and if you have two absorbing leads you can draw an audience to the screen in the same way as they might be with a thriller plot. A long take of a coy, silent scene from the first movie where the characters exchange and miss glances in a recording booth still makes me go all fuzzy whenever I think of it.
I got to see those glances on the big screen when I found myself at a Before Sunrise/Before Sunset double bill in my early twenties. I still loved them both but – whisper it – I started to find the musings of the first one slightly grating, whereas the real magic seemed to be in Sunset, the ending of which is one of my favourite moments in cinema, even accounting for Ethan Hawke’s terrible shirt. When that scene came up in the cinema, I took a look at the audience. Stupid grins all around the house. Girl gets Boy who gets Girl, it’s all very chaste. Story over.
So when I heard that a third movie was in the works, I was filled with trepidation. Was this going to be a disappointing sequel, bolted on to superior work, forever tainting what came before? In the same way that you can’t go bigger than God (looking at you, Indiana), how do you trump a hard-won happy ending?
Picking up nine years after that much-loved ending of mine, Before Midnight’s set-up gives us a middle-aged Celine and Jesse on holiday in Greece with some friends. The skies are blue, they have two adorable daughters – twins, no less – and life seems to have more or less worked out for them. So far, so middle-class. As ever though, there’s trouble in paradise. The opening scene alerts us that Jesse’s relationship with his son, Hank, (the product of an youthful marriage gone sour) is stilted and Jesse’s desire to get closer to his son before he grows up provides the catalyst for the disintegration of the cosy partnership that Celine and Jesse have established. Little by little, unaired grievances make their way out, culminating in a vicious argument in a hotel room that serves as the cornerstone of the film.
Two views in, I can say that my fears were unfounded and, whilst it’s not unproblematic, Before Midnight deserves its slot. It references its predecessors both thematically and structurally – the walk to the hotel is a nice touch – without being cute about it, whilst finding its own quirks. It retains the pop philosophy, but quite unpretentiously so – its all armchair (or rather dinner table) stuff.
However, it certainly shifts the sensibility of the Before movies being as it is a messy, deflating corrective to the rising romance indulged in by its forerunners, which put me in mind of Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. The characters’ most charming attributes resurface, but this time they are used for more brutal ends. Jesse’s wit still disarms but it also cuts in equal measure. Celine retains her anger and whilst it remains the endearing source of her playfulness, it becomes unyielding. Making loved characters bitter and cruel is a brave decision and re-watching the trilogy with Midnight’s dour inflection is going to be a fascinating experience.
It’s not unremittingly bleak though and Midnight settles on a view of love as something painful but worth it, in the vein of Annie Hall‘s “we need the eggs” and Eternal Sunshine‘s “Ok? Ok” endings. While it’s not quite in the same league as those classic, I like that it draws greater attention to the mechanics of a relationship. Annie Hall plays it for laugh and gives us the absurd, showreel moments. Eternal Sunshine gives us a good vs. gritty nostalgia tour. Midnight and the other Before films give us the play by play.
With the first two it was a microscopic examination of a courtship and the subsequent rekindling. In this new movie our lovers have been now been together for years, but that narrow focus remains, providing a perspective on relationships that is both altogether more mundane and more insightful. Reality has ferreted its way into Jesse and Celine’s romance and the fear is now not that they’ll never be together but that they’ll always be together. If the first two films are a call to not stick on seventeen, this is a tale about how the winnings from gambling don’t make you happy in of itself forever.
The dramatisation of this dilemma is one of the film’s problem areas. The free flow of the earlier two movies was wonderful but it was always underpinned by an immediate time pressure. Without that, the events seem less dramatically urgent and the Mametian question of “why now?” lingers over the film. There are small things hinted at, like Jesse’s guilt over his son’s life or this being the first time they’ve been alone for ages but you can’t help but shake the feeling that the conflict at the centre of this movie would’ve manifested itself at some point earlier in their relationship. This is not to say that the “stuck forever” dilemma uninteresting or not worthy of consideration, it just throws the familiar pacing off a little bit: Why does anything have to happen Before Midnight?
I also think that Midnight misses a trick by not giving us more time with Jesse and Celine’s twins. What we are shown of them, they are either sleeping darlings or perfectly nice and not at all troublesome. When they head off to an allegedly much needed hotel break, we don’t gain much sense of what it is that the couple need to get away from. This is more problematic for Celine because whilst we are invited to view Jesse and his son’s growing distance, we do not get to see any of Celine’s frustrations with the twins.
Of course you could suggest that because Celine has been so good at silently bearing the burden it’s appropriate that we don’t see her upset – a valid line of thought considering it’s a common situation. Also, it seems odd to criticise a Before movie for telling and not showing, but it mixes both those modes and since show is always more powerful, Jesse gains a sympathetic advance, which is to Celine’s detriment. I know a couple of people (both women) who have thought her character annoying and unreasonable this time around and I would suggest that this is one reason for this.
Another reason might be because of how Celine’s points about the wider world are expressed. In the previous films, whenever a character brought up a broader point about life, power relations etc, it also had a subtext such as “fancy me, I’m smart.” Here it is the point and so it can feel like those views that have been put in her mouths, rather than genuinely coming from inside her. She gets to be a mouthpiece; Jessie gets most the good lines. This is, I suppose, an accurate reflection of the frustration that underpins feminist discourse in a world that remains dominated by men who don’t want to know. Maybe this is another realist corrective to the earlier films where part of the joy was the balance between the protagonists. If so, it attempts to even it up again by making Jesse the one who has to win back Celine at the end. Whether or not you found her annoying and overbearing, his wanting to be with her (hopefully) makes you realise that, for Jesse, she’s worth it despite any temporary disillusionment or permanent human flaws, just as he is a total know-it-all smart-arse but one you can still love.
Phew! After that deluge you might think I didn’t like the movie, but I really did. I only write this much about it because it’s still whirring in me, so here are some Ideas That Intrigued that I gleaned from Before Midnight that have stayed in my head:
– Relationships are built on and sustained by the way you play together. That play is no less real or important than the occasional desk-clearing argument.
– If you’re involved with someone, the idea that you can be two distinct people for the rest of your life sounds affirming but is actually bullshit. (cf. Aristotle: “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.”) Continuing with gambling metaphors, at some point you have to go all in.
– The way your courtship was “framed” has a bigger effect on your subsequent relationship than you think it does. This is something I’ve thought about a lot in relation to my Grand Romance play and will explore in future posts.
– The capacity for people and circumstances to change is a disposition test. Is that idea disturbing or hopeful? Nothing’s permanently great but nothing’s permanently fucked either.
– In the same way that being alive for seventy five years is worth it though you won’t exist for most of eternity, being in love for nine years of your life is still good going, even if it you never find it again.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about Before Midnight is that whilst having another movie after Before Sunset seemed unnatural me, the end of Midnight seems to invite another look. Will the Before movies become a fictional version of the Up Series? We’ll find out in 2022, I guess.
EDIT: A woozy, romantic, summery song to leave you all on:
“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years! And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce…
“And they say there’s no fate, but there is, it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead, or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain wasting years for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right, but it never comes. Or it seems to, but it doesn’t really.
“So you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along, something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel cherished, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is is, I feel so angry! And the truth is, I feel so fucking sad! And the truth is, I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long, I’ve been pretending I’m okay, just to get along!
“I don’t know why. Maybe because…no one wants to hear about my misery…because they have their own.
Fuck everybody. Amen.”