Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review: I wouldn’t classify Rogue One as a great movie, but it’s certainly a good one. After a strong prologue featuring our protagonist as a young girl who sees her mother die and her father captured and looks toward a future of uncertainty, Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla), turns into a mostly routine war movie with one too many scenes that left me underwhelmed and wondering if the narrative will pick up speed. And yet I still give Rogue One a pass, for a few specific reasons that enter into spoiler territory. Overall it’s a decent entry in the Star Wars universe, a unique companion piece to A New Hope that has enough good in it to warrant a trip to the theater. But it’s not the dazzler I was hoping for in the months leading up to its release.
I was pleasantly surprised by The Force Awakens. After suffering through the three dismal prequels George Lucas vomited out between 1999 and 2005, I was relieved and ultimately thrilled by just how fun The Force Awakens was, with a strong mix of new and old characters, a compelling enough (if somewhat familiar) story that set up the next chapters as best as could be expected. I loved the character of Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, particularly because of the desire on behalf of the writers and director to feature a strong, engaging, complicated female protagonist who turns into the ultimate badass by the end.
And I liked that Rogue One also features a strong female protagonist too, this one named Jyn, a young warrior who can take care of herself and be an effective leader in the face of unthinkable obstacles. But I think the characters of Rey and Jyn show the difference in character development between the two films. Rey is a bit more mysterious at the beginning, her backstory not well known, which makes her more compelling in a way. Jyn on the other hand has a terrible past that we see in great detail, but her present-day character is essentially set up as a committed and dedicated young warrior… and not much else. There could have been more layers to Jyn, more nuance at time, more mystery. Felicity Jones is fine in the role, but there’s nothing about her that makes a big impression.
I felt that way for nearly all of the Rogue One characters. Every few minutes it seems we’re introduced to someone new, all with a specific quality or trait, but nothing significantly compelling. Diego Luna plays Cassian, a character who leaves little impression. Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang are more memorable as Chirrut and Baze, but again, traits seem to make up who their characters are more than anything else. I love Riz Ahmed as an actor, but his character gets almost no screen-time. The two major characters who make the best impressions are the robot K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, which provides the much-needed comic relief throughout the movie, and the villainous Orson, played by the great Ben Mendelsohn. I was also impressed by the return of Peter Cushing (although the implications of this CGI replication gave me some pause, as I’m sure it did to others).
What I loved, not just liked, about Rogue One are two moments at the end. The action of the third act is terrific, with lots of exciting moments and surprising turns that makes up for some of the slowness of the first two acts. But the end has so much to recommend that I found myself gleeful leaving the theater, not disappointed, and I have to point to the two reasons why. The first is the reappearance of Darth Vader, who goes completely berserk in a scene of such visceral intensity and shocking violence that I questioned why we couldn’t have had more of this Vader before. His dialogue scene early on with Orson is fine, but his closing scene is about as awesome a Star Wars scene we’ve had since anything in The Empire Strikes Back. And I love, love, love that all the main characters die at the end. Even though this is a stand-alone entry that was even recently announced by Lucasfilm as getting no produced sequels, I expected at least Jyn and Cassian to make it out alive. When they’re annihilated by the waves on the beach, I was both stunned and pleased. You don’t see this kind of decimation at the end of most blockbuster studio movies, and so I was happily surprised by this turn of events.
Like I said before, I didn’t love Rogue One, and a lot of the movie I found myself more bored than compelled by the narrative. At one point I yearned for the entertainment value found in The Force Awakens, which I know has its detractors, but which I find a more emotionally satisfying and better paced Star Wars film. But there’s enough good in the end of Rogue One to guarantee at least one more viewing on my part, and maybe even a more engaged watch the second time around knowing all that is to come. I’m such a fan of the Star Wars universe that I want these new films to score a bulls-eye each and every time, and while that may not have happened this time around, I still give Rogue One a slight recommendation, mainly for that fantastic third act.
Watching Like a Writer: Rogue One made me think about writing an effective story where all the major characters find themselves fighting in a war at the end. It made me think about how much we need to know about the large ensemble of characters and how much we don’t need to know. Should there be development for each character, even if there are six or more that play large roles in the narrative? Do we need backstory on anyone but the main protagonist, especially if many of them are to die?
Exercise! Look at your work-in-progress and see how much backstory your main characters receive. Does one receive more backstory than another? Is there a character that plays a large role that gets no backstory? Why?