As the annual pun-based celebration of Star Wars nostalgia gets under way, maybe we should revisit some of the franchise’s recent past – without rose-tinted glasses this time. Rogue One was a warning of things to come, and its problems continue to plague the ‘space opera’ to this day.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect people to grow out of their security blanket when there is so little else out there for us. For many people, fandom has become the heart in a heartless world. But this has had a lasting impact on the production of movies. The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy used to be the butt of jokes – an unimaginative man-child, burying his present-day misery by living entirely in an imagined past –but his whims dominate modern Hollywood.
The prime example of this is Star Wars. Its initial success came from its ability to pluck other aspects of popular storytelling, and knit them together into a coherent (if not especially original) story. In stark contrast, the two trilogies and various spin-offs since then have stagnated into an embarrassing, self-referential mess. The franchise now exclusively operates in service of a gaggle of fifty-something men that refuse to stop playing with their action figures – to the extent it will jettison an entire film’s plot if they grumble enough. After all, it’s easier to keep milking them than to tell a new story.
In the early stages of Star Wars’ latest phase, many were swept up in a fresh wave of optimism. Episode VII was fun compared to what came before it. But considering what became before was a grey, turgid ‘reimagining’ of Weimar Republic, that was a pretty low bar to clear. At the same time, that clearance did see a lot of people overlook the warning signs of what was actually to come…
The Force Awakens had essentially been a soft-reboot of A New Hope. Once it had played the hits, though, it quickly became apparent the new incarnation of Star Wars was light on ideas, and direction. Rogue One – the hastily released prequel which appeared in cinemas the year after – confirmed all that.
A sad piece of fan-fellatio; its blend of bright colours and loud noises did the barest-minimum in adding to the Star Wars story, while looking to maximise box office performance. And it worked. The film took more than $1 billion at the global box office, while critical reception and audience sentiment was broadly positive. Rather than being based on what actually happened on screen, however, this largely seemed based on notalgia (wanting it to be good because it tied itself to A New Hope, which people loved) buyer’s denial (spending too much on plastic Space Nazi™ gear to admit the film was crushingly dull) and a strange determination to make the plot about resisting the impending Trump administration.
In the cold light of day, six years on, let’s look at the facts. Rogue One: A Disney Cash-Cow was released at Christmas to push aspects of the old films back into public consciousness, and help flog decontextualised merchandise like Stormtrooper plushies and Darth Vader onesies. The cutification of this intentionally fascistic iconography is frankly weird – and the charred corpses of Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle don’t exactly scream “cute pyjama set material” – but I digress. While this cynical process took precedent, bending over backwards to “fill in the gaps” of A New Hope (gaps nobody needed filled), Rogue One was blindsided to its own storytelling.
Not only does it fail to build up any new characters to get us invested in the action, it creates a number of gaping narrative voids of its own – and ones which, unlike “how did the rebels get the plans to the Death Star?” can’t really be overlooked. We have some kind of priest who does not have Jedi force powers, but seems to understand it on some higher level – and never cares to elaborate on that. Would you like to see what the weapon made of “kyber crystal” looks like? Tough luck. Intrigued by why a gurning android seems to have unearthed Peter Cushing’s corpse in order to wear his face as an ill-fitting Halloween mask? Well UP YOURS. Buy some more tat – it’ll fill the gaping holes left by the story.
Returning to the desecration of Peter Cushing for one second, the poor man passed away in 1994 – and is disturbing proof that even in death, Uncle Walt still owns you. His likeness is used in the most asinine and unnecessary capacity, too.
Unless your star pulls an Oliver Reed mid-film, you have no excuse to full-on Weekend at Bernie’s a screen icon. After all, there are actors alive from the originals who they could have asked to cameo instead. Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor himself, is still knocking about, and it’s not like he’s too precious about his roles to do it. After all, he lent his voice to Angry Birds Star Wars II: Join the Pork Side, and even more embarrassingly would revive his character in The Rise of Skywalker. Instead, a CGI cadaver presents itself, apparently puppeteered by someone who never saw how a functioning human face works.
An esteemed horror actor, Cushing was noted for his capacity to blend his evil roles with a very English charm – as Victor Frankenstein he could move from the scene of a murder to asking for the marmalade at breakfast seamlessly. It’s what makes his small role in A New Hope memorable; his destruction of Alderaan is not contemptuous, it is smug – a small grin almost creeps across his face – we can read this as him playing with the helpless Leia. Then suddenly a very clear malice escapes, taking us by surprise, as he interrogates her before flitting effortlessly back to that thin, unnerving smile. His subtle facial changes show these acts are ‘minor’ to him, almost boring to the extent he has to entertain himself with a needless “show of force”. That kind of villain is terrifying – being unable to tell where we stand, to read his true emotions, predict his plan. Well, that mystique went straight out of the air-lock this time, with Tarkin’s perpetually twitching ghost-face stuck firmly in “Bastard Mode” – and the voice-actor delivering a charmless drawl that fails to even amount to a Saturday Night Live impression.
That makes the character appear as the worst thing you can be in the world of horror – a try-hard. And why is such a crass, disrespectful measure in the film? Primarily to appeal to the worst kind of “I remember THAT” fans. The kind of people who point and guffaw when spotting cheap “references” in films like the plagiarised jokes in a Family Guy episode. But even as it services them, it actively damages the film, detracting from the feeling of menace one could glean from a living equivalent of Cushing and replacing it with one of needless spectacle.
And that brings me to the grand, over-arching problem at the heart of it all. Rogue One is completely uncomplicated emotionally. We aren’t invited to invest in anyone we meet on any real level. Perhaps that’s because they are all going to die at the end. SPOILERS…
Rather like the pig farmer who avoids naming pigs they intend to use for pork-chops, the writers made no effort to build the people we spend the full two hours with into three-dimensional characters. Instead, the casting process is left to do that heavy-lifting. A lot has been made of Disney ‘diversifying’ Star Wars – and I should point out I think it’s one of the better things about the franchise’s revival. Unfortunately, it is also used as a crutch for the writers’ room.
Often the assumption seems to be, “If X or Y demographics see people like them on screen, they will transpose all their characteristics onto those characters, so we don’t need to make those characters anything but empty vessels or broad clichés.” All this means the effort to ‘diversify’ comes across as a cynical box-ticking exercise. I mean, is Star Wars really more diverse for featuring a Bulletproof Monk rip-off as an Asian character in a side-role, or is this just moving the franchise’s stereotyping slightly away from CGI-based racial caricaturing?
Meanwhile, the universe is still completely void of any homosexual representation beyond the outdated and catty interactions of robots. Is that because Disney can’t face LGBT+ rights at all when it fears a US culture wars backlash, or censorship in the sought-after Chinese box office? Possibly the committees feel it is still a powder-keg simply best avoided while still cashing in. After all, the LGBT+ community are always something else too – Black, Asian, female – there is always another demographic hook to employ. The problem is the universe seems bereft of sexual impulse entirely – nobody is attracted to anyone.
At the same time, rather than help us really understand what motivates Jyn Erso and her gang, we have a vague injection of post-2016 leftist politicking into the story. In the wake of the Democrats losing an ‘unlosable’ election to a raging bigot, there seems to have been some belief that viewers would further project themselves onto the aimless, empty shells of the characters foisted upon them. After all, they would be about to face four years of having to be the real-life rebels.
It doesn’t work that way though. In the end, it just serves to make the absurdly simple plot seem convoluted. When the fact there is a hole in the Death Star comes to light from the man who put it there on purpose, you would think that might be information worth taking a punt on – regardless of the reliability of the source. Nope. No takers. A meeting discussing the plans shuts down, with the entire Rebel Alliance resigned to defeat, apart from our heroes, who vow to do exactly what they have been doing the entire film – unquestionably (morally and tactically) the right thing.
This has been upheld as inspired, surprisingly, by some members of the real Left. Supposedly it becomes a fable of the internal difficulties of rebellion that can derail the best intentioned of activists – but it really doesn’t deserve that much credit. There is no great internal scandal, no trap of reform laid by the Empire to crush the Rebellion by demobilising it and ultimately co-opting it – nobody suggests they might try to join the Empire to change it incrementally from within for example. Of course, that would be absurd in the story. But why bother try to do ‘grey-area’ debates in a story that cannot facilitate them at all, then?
All these factors were soon to make an appearance in the difficult closing chapters of the new trilogy – not to mention the bloated series’ that have come after (and I’m not just talking about Boba Fett’s waistline). Worse still, they have spilled into other studios, from the corpse-bothering of the latest Ghostbusters: Afterlife, to the liberal non-politics of Marvel, telling the same tired tales with ‘diverse’ casts. They will continue to be part of every bland, nostalgia-driven production to come from Hollywood, as long as there is a paying audience for it. And that is perhaps the saddest thing: so many people remain invested – emotionally and financially – in brands which only care about how they can find fresh ways to exploit warm memories of a happier past, with no intent of building a future worth caring about. May the Fourth be with you… because the executives running the show certainly aren’t.