You may have noticed this, but I like functional stories.
I'd passionately argue they bring out the best in any movie. Because a functional story makes me get involved with a movie beyond its artifice, beyond my inclinations, and beyond my own prejudices. I think a functional, purposeful story is something that turns a sci-fi chase film like Mad Max: Fury Road into a Best Picture nominee. Just as I think a functional story is what separates a film that gets buzz from a film that goes on to be a classic. I think a functional story is what gets you involved with what's happening on screen no matter what. For all this, I think functional stories are the lifeblood of narrative art. And so it is through this lens that we can constantly hold ourselves to standards that make us better storytellers. And thus, I will always look to them first.
With that, my criticism of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a tale in three parts.
1. WHOA, LIKE WHERE THIS IS GOING!
For the first third/half of the film/however long of the film, I genuinely thought I was a watching a great movie. The opening tease with Lil Jyn was clear and dramatically focused. I understood what this event was about. I understood Daddy Mads' feelings about the Empire and could emote along with his conflict. I liked him calling her Stardust. I liked Moff Mendelsohn's take on the opening scene, polite, genuine, and yet somehow unscrupulous. And I liked Jyn hiding in the bunker and then going to adulthood (though putting the title card there is egregious. How do you ruin the transition of "we have a long journey ahead of us." CUT TO: her as an adult?). Most of all, I liked and understood the person this experience made her. She's young, angry, and deluded by a lifetime of loss and struggle. Everything about her psychology made sense. Through just a few minutes of screen-time, she was a three-dimensional character.
I liked the way the story unfolded too. I liked that Diego Luna's character is someone who would do anything for the Rebellion, even shooting an ally to protect the larger mission (a bold and effective character move from Disney!). I liked the way they all came together and they brought her in. I liked the notion of how they just knew there was this big nebulous weapon out there, and so they were being sent into danger. I like the way Jyn was only in it for this one job and then wanted out (it made total sense for her). I liked the way it all cascades to what I thought was a beautiful story moment where, having spent years disillusioned with her father, Jyn collapses to the ground as she hears the words she's always wanted from him, all as a city is destroyed behind her. It's a great character moment coming together with the nexus of plot. Most of all, I loved the very idea that the critical Death Star flaw was put in by a father, a man forever loyal to the Rebellion. It is the incredibly rare story ret-con that works beautifully, and imbues both the series and a character with deeper meaning.
I was just loving it at this point. I literally thought: This is all working and makes perfect story sense and I am heavily invested in where it's going!
And I loved so many neat things about the overall execution, too. It's not the glaring references, mind you. I don't need to see a purposeless call-back of Pig-nosed Jerk and Ball-Chin to care. No, it's all the use of storytelling in the little details and showing this bigger universe. It's the way the Star Destroyer hangs malevolently above the city. It's the way even Jyn has a little Stormtrooper doll. It's the wonderful, casual introduction of the loyal monks who aren't quite Jedi, but remain committed to a cause gone by. I loved the dangerous feeling of claustrophobia and the unhinged, devil-may care behavior of the militant faction. I loved the way Giacchino's score feels as familiar as it does distinct. And I really liked the way other characters on the team started filling out. I mean, Donnie Yen is freaking great in this and clearly having a blast. I love his pairing with gruff Gun Guy. I love the little Rebel alien with the gun (who I was hoping we'd get more of). And I even liked the idea of a pilot who is losing his mind. I liked that there wasn't really a single white dude. And, of course, there is a SASSY ROBOT!
Sure, there were things that bothered me. I wanted a bit more than texture in the relationship between Jyn and Forest Whitaker, but perhaps juggling two father figures is too much to take on. Whitaker's raspy-voiced performance, while certainly big and noticeable, was still well-aimed to the story purpose. The only thing that gave me real pause was the first bit of CGI Grand Moff Tarkin, but at least that initial scene set up some vague sort of conflict between him and Krennic.
These matters, however, were mere quibbles. As the Jedha city exploded and our rag-tag group escaped, I felt fully confident in the storytelling of this film. We had set up a group of people, all at the end of their respective ropes, looking for a way to commit themselves, to reconcile, to become their whole self... in other words, the kind of people who may be willing to go on a suicide mission for something much larger. Tonally, I understood this first act might have been a little dour for some tastes. But it's all functional. It's all earned. And it all could set up some really great pay-offs. So I felt like we were in good hands.
Now here's the thing... I would argue that set ups in movies are actually the most important part. Because if you set up a group of people the audience can follow and understand then you tend to be able to follow them through the more wonky narrative choices. And so I honestly begrudge no one who was able to emerge from this first act and roll along with the rest of the film. For the most important work was already done...
But there's still a weird feeling you get when a movie slowly and unevenly goes South.
2. WAIT, WHERE ARE WE GOING?
I started to furrow my brow on Rain Mountain Planet.
It just suddenly got a little murky in terms of motivation. I did like that the story was starting to stack the odds in terms of potential obstacles. We got two Swords of Damocles in terms of a possible assassination and the similar threat of an X-Wing attack squadron coming in. But I was getting a little tripped up on Jyn's goal. She had been told the Death Star had weakness and relayed this to the rest of the band, but they had no proof. So now she wants to get her father to prove the same exact information? More information? Because the dramatic assumption is that there's a key piece of new information Daddy Mads would give them to help get the plans or whatever, all of which supplies a new McGuffin that kicks the next part into gear. But instead, it all starts getting fuzzy. There is no such re-jockeying or re-directing. Other than putting him and his daughter together, his death scene has no other reason to exist (except to serve more murky conflict between Jyn and Cassian a scene later). Nothing like that should ever lack purpose. And while I understand Cassian's internal battle of trusting her vs. not following orders, the execution of this dilemma is also fuzzy. Things clash together and delay, but there are no real choices being made. As a complete sequence, we had stacked the odds, but rather than put our characters in a situation where they have to start spinning the plates of their various goals, even getting into conflict with each other, all conflicts were avoided and instead became chaotic and random. You can't lack purpose and evolution in a sequence like this. After all, this was the second beat in a row of: run to place, father figure dies, escape as place gets destroyed. We should be directly building to our climax with purpose and change. Instead, it's all familiar wheel-spinning second act problems. So after this sequence was first time I was like "huh... what are we doing here, guys? Where this going?"
And sadly it was about to get worse.
On the bad guy side, things immediately start resetting. Moff Mendelsohn suddenly shows up at Darth Vader's lava planet, seemingly because it's time to put Darth Vader in the movie. It genuinely makes no sense. Why now, exactly? Why not earlier? Or later? Or anytime as long as it had more reason to exist. Also why the hell is that scene in daylight? To boot, it's a really weird scene where the motives are not only presented as a list, but it also makes the mistake of giving Vader a mouthful of marbles in ongoing exposition. And then, to make it all jaw-dropping, DARTH VADER LITERALLY MAKES A PUN... GUYS... THIS HAPPENS. Now Vader might be demure, even flippantly callous afterward, "apology accepted" etc. But I'm sorry, going to the pun zone is as inconsistent a character behavior as this:
ANYWAY. Then our heroes come back to the Rebel base and they do my favorite thing that signifies a purposeless second act: they sit around a table and have a conversation where they invent the third act.
To make it clear, they have returned and LITERALLY NOTHING HAS CHANGED in terms of overall Rebel circumstance. I cannot overstate this. But the behavior of Mon Mothma and the Rebel leaders has dramatically changed. A little over an hour ago, she sent them on a super secret mission to infiltrate and find out more/how to stop this weapon. Now, she's basically shrugging. It's such a bizarre consistency cheat with no damn right to exist except to turn our band of heroes into plucky young folks who will go AWOL on a high-risk adventure!
And thus, we get a series of ridiculous-feeling character beats where the un-plucky try to show they have pluck. You get Diego Luna's weird speech about going for it and the inclusion of a bunch of faceless Rebel randos we don't care about. There are no dramatic pleas between characters built on trust (think about how Guardians of the Galaxy constructed that debate scene, it was funny, even sad, but it was built off the conflicts between all the characters). Everyone's honest-to-god behavior is just like "oh, well why not!" Which feels totally unearned. You can practically hear the movie forcing them to go "let's have fun and change the tone now!" Again, it's not only a betrayal of what came before, but it actually dramatically undercuts the solemn dignity of the prior sacrifices.
I can't help but think of all the ways to make these sequences more dramatically functional. Mon Mothma could have stacked the impossible odds by asking them to go on this suicide mission. They could have fought more about the goals, purpose, and how to go about doing this. It would have made way more sense for the pilot to hang back from such a mission (by the way, wasn't he supposed to have lost his mind? The second act completely drops this when it could have been played for all sorts of neat conflicts). The characters could have brokered their uneasy peace with each other and come together for a greater cause. It could have been everything the end of the first act promised. Yes, it may have been a more solemn approach, but it would have been appropriate and purposeful.
Instead, our transition to the last act could not be more forced.
3. WHAT? WE'RE GOING HERE!?
But let's talk about the biggest problem of the last act, especially the final: How do you make a man on a mission movie where the mission is never clear?
To be more specific: How do you turn an obvious heist into something so unplanned and off-the-cuff (as in everyone's just going to wing it) to the point where you neuter your finale? THAT'S NOT HOW HEIST STRUCTURE WORKS. You absolutely need to create previously established objectives, so you can maximize the dramatic tension of the moment when that moment arrives. To dramatically care, the audience must be able to anticipate one result or the other. If I don't know what should happen, I can't fear what might happen. And it results in a "heist" with all these randomly shouted-out objectives in the middle of an unwieldy, unfocused battle that just wants to echo the last act of Return of the Jedi. Every action beat is desperate for clarity and works overtime to explain in the moment, but that's why it fails. Like, there's no tension in them getting through the shield because there's established reason it should work. It's just dumb luck, like almost everything that follows. It feels like they're literally fucking their way up through this, stabbing for needles in haystacks and finding them. This is seriously unforgivable for this movie. Because a heist is constructed around quiet build-up and the careful set-up of critical moments. There's a reason every heist film has a careful, visual "going over the plan" sequence and it's all about setting up dramatic expectations. There has to be a plan in order for things to go wrong. It's freaking everything in these kinds of movies.
The thing is it's not going to be "bad," as there's enough cinematic competence to make it feel texturally interesting in some way, but in terms of drama and actually giving a fuck you have just taken everything away from your carefully set-up movie and turned it into limp, wheel-spinning... Instead of a nailbiter, we get noise.
How can I really care about a master switch that was introduced just two seconds prior? It's like trying to learn chemistry on the fly as you take the test. Again, none of it is "offensive" to a casual viewer; it's just so much less effective than it could be. If it had even an ounce of deeper dramatic understanding, the whole sequence could have been amazing. And in the end, this lack of clarity and stakes horrifically betrays the emotion/characterization of all the characters' sacrificing moments. To be clear, I liked the stylization of a lot of them, and even some of the mantras behind them, but because of the larger objective sequencing I can't help but feel like every single one of their sacrifices should have meant more, especially in terms of the dramatic integration of the actual heist.
To get at the heart of this, I'm going to do the super uncouth critical thing and talk about WHAT HULK WOULD HAVE DONE to highlight how much was really fumbled here. The goal is not to prove these ideas are better, the goals are to suggest things that open up the more dramatic line of thinking...
So Donnie Yen's sacrifice, right? Well, first off let's establish that fucking switch way earlier and why it's so damn important (I don't even remember what it did). Let's show a clearer example of soldiers dying to get through the barrage of fire (one guy dies, but it's not as visually clear as it should be to this objective), all as a direct setup to how specifically dangerous and impossible it is to get through the gunfire. So it all comes down to a last chance with Donnie Yen. But let's better tie it together with the character. This is all about his journey of getting in touch with the force, right? Remember the earlier bit of him trying to use the force when they are in jail? Well, imagine the same scene as he's walking along, chanting, hoping to make it all the way to his destination and BAM - he's hit by a blast! OH NO! Donnie falls immediately to his knees. He's so far from the lever in the distance. But before we can even think - he reaches out with a desperate hand and quickly force pulls the lever down... Are you seriously telling me that moment wouldn't have brought down the house? And a smile would splash across his face as he's truly become one with the force in the most complete and meaningful way possible, one that even takes place a second after a dramatic reversal where the audience thought they lost him... To be clear, this isn't some random thinking I thought of, this is what the movie was setting up!
Best of all, you can take that and then turn it into something more meaningful for Gun Guy. In the film as is, he sees Donnie get shot and runs out to his dying friend. They share a moment. No one shoots. And then he takes the mantra of the force and continues shooting people (just like he always does) to no greater momentary objective. He dies talking about the force as a grenade dropped by the enemy kills him, in some sort of poetic last stand. I get it. It's a clear statement about the nature of war... But what if there's something more purposeful to the story? What if, now that Donnie Yen has died, he must instead go on and do some later objective that was actually Donnie's assignment (and dependent on his agility), wouldn't his growth be more about the clarity of the force versus his own gun? Hell, after he pulls something off, you could even do the same exact last stand death beat and reach that dramatic purpose as he's helping save others. Look, I'm not saying a movie HAS to to do these things, but I'm saying these kinds of integrations make character moments feel so much bigger, just by having clearer stakes and dramatic reversals.
Like how about the following: how is our PILOT CHARACTER not piloting a ship in the space battle? How is he not finally fighting for the alliance in that regard? How is he not using some inside knowledge about the Empire against them? Instead, the film puts the culmination of his story into.... being able to run a wire around some machinery? Seriously? How is he not the guy sacrificing himself by flying into a bridge to destroy the shield? Or the one taking down the Star Destroyers that further knock it out? There really should be more specific usefulness to all the things that this movie set-up.
Even Sassy Robot's death, which is executed well tonally, just sort of happens, right? He's closing the door to save them and there's definite meaning to that, but the moment isn't really set up, nor meaningful enough. We just get those sad lights in his eyes going out. I always call this stuff "textural sadness" and it's very much just that, when it could have been so much more.
There are really so many missed opportunities like this. Like, How does the the ending with Jyn not integrate the crystal and trusting the force in some way? After all that set-up?
Why does the fleet show up so damn early in the conflict? It's like Han Solo showing up before even Porkins dies. It doesn't come at an "all is lost" moment in the middle - it just happens, so we're supposed to feel excited about it because the characters are excited, but this is the whole thing about sequencing, you want to throw people into despair before you relieve them, you want to keep throwing them in and out of danger (like Jaws does). Instead, it all just happens in this movie.
The execution of a sacrifice I actually most liked was Cassian's. It's the one where the "haze of battle" idea totally works, as he covers for Jyn and gets taken down by the main bad guy. It's quick and brutal and he falls to the ground below. She looks down quick, clearly sad for him, but she must keep going. There's no time! Everything about the moment plays correctly.
Which makes it all the more shitty when he just shows up again for no reason. It's cheap because his return is not built on a moment of doubt about his character (Han Solo's return is the resurrection of a character conflict and makes us go "It's Han!!! He couldn't leave Luke!!!"). More importantly, his return does nothing for the conclusion of Jyn's story. Here is the guy who killed her mom! And sorta killed her father (actually the Rebels did that. Double actually, how come she's not super way more pissed about that?). How is there not some deeper meaning here that finally connects her to a greater purpose? Instead, Cassian kills him. This would be like Han making the torpedo shot for Luke. And then we get an emotional beat on the beach as the explosion comes their way. It's a beautiful shot, but there's nothing about this relationship that truly makes it earned in the implied way. It's all texture. But this ending is not the big problem, for me. My core issues with this film's dramatic engine are summed up in the ending that follows...
I'm talking about everything surrounding the Darth Vader hallway scene.
Now, when it comes to this intense unleashing of menace and chaos, it's everything we've ever wanted, right? It's filmed in a scary way! With smart execution and real brutality! From Vader!
Too bad it's after our climax has already occurred. It's a sequence where we already know exactly what's going to happen (the plans are going to get to Leia) and involves a bunch of faceless nobodies. This just turns into gore horror movie logic. Let's show the "bad guy" character we indulgently like kicking ass! Which is why people clap and cheer, all as part of the most puerile reversing and misunderstanding of Vader-worship. To me, it's the exact same kind of bastardization as the pun, but this time the betrayal is for indulgent bullshit. You can say this is an extreme opinion, but I am not backing down from this.
You want to make Vader be scary and have menace? Then why didn't the film try the actual dramatic alternative? How do you include this exact scene and not put it at as part of the climax involving your film's actual characters? How fucking scary would it be if in the final defense, Lord Vader shows up and mows down our beloved characters in a way that actually terrifies us? Then the dramatic question is not "will the plans get to Leia?" But "will our heroes die in the process?" It is everything that is obvious about this choice, and a falsification of the intended "menace" the audience wants from the character (because really, they want to cheer). Why is Vader just the dessert? Look, the result is such a complicated thing to parse out, because at once it's a sequence we want, but not in a way that truly services the film's story or drama. Anyone watching this film without knowledge of the next would be confused about what is even happening. But do we ever think about it in these terms? Nope.
Instead we live in an indulgent no man's land, with a textural beat that is both great and misguided, limping to yet another terrible decision - CGI CARRIE FISHER, something that shouldn't even exist.
And it sucks. Because Rogue One starts as a movie that sets everything up and has everything going for it, then derails itself through a series of misguided choices, and then waffles to the finish line. But the effect of a watching a story's coherence slip and slide downhill is not what you'd think. It doesn't feel like sinking. No, it makes for a sense of unevenness, and occasionally a feeling of things landing, but not in the way they should. It makes for some moments that are cool, but meaningless. And some moments that are meaningful, but undone. And it all is because of a lack of clear story function (this is why we are all arguing in a million different directions on this movie, too). And look, we know the movie is probably confused from its production and how much was dropped or shoehorned or the like. But that just makes it sadder to know this movie was probably both made by and yet a victim of its own larger machinations. In the end result, like a character that's still in development, Rogue One knows what it wants...
... But not what it needs.