There will not be blood
Harley Filben reviews: Gareth Edwards (director), Rogue one: a Star Wars story, general release
There is nothing more nostalgic than Star wars and, sitting down to write a review of this latest spin-off movie, I remembered a couple of things.
The first - a debate in these pages about James Cameron’s Avatar, during the course of which I took a comrade to task for simply using the film as a jumping-off point for a diatribe about the ‘noble savage’ cliché, without actually saying very much about the film beyond pointing at said savages and saying, ‘Look! There they are’ (Letters Weekly Worker September 23 2010). I bring this up only because I am now rather hoist on my own petard - if ever there was a film that demanded critics focus on literally everything else in preference to the screen in front of them, this is it.
The second follows from the first. Any Star wars film is impossible to understand apart from Star wars, the vast pop-cultural phenomenon. There is a whole generation of people, it seems, whose formative experience in the cinema was seeing the first film, or else some part of the opening trilogy, and being forever changed by the sheer spectacle of the thing. I am a little younger than that and I hit adolescence around the time of The phantom menace - the first of the prequel trilogy retrospectively considered a disaster by fandom. Unlike the fanboys, I hated it at the time as well, but my opinion of the franchise was softened by the fact that several very good computer games were set in it in the 1990s.
One in particular, Tie fighter, put the player in the role of the pilot of one of the eponymous Imperial attack ships, defending order and peace in the galaxy, hunting down rebel spies and so on. Quite apart from the enjoyable narrative reversal, you get to play your part in the main narrative; when Mon Mothma declares that “many Bothans died to give us this information” in Return of the Jedi, you get to kill the Bothans; you even get to set Admiral Akbar’s famous trap. But I always resented what you don’t get to do - spring the trap, blow the Millennium Falcon to smithereens, destroy the last best hope for the rebels. Why not? Because that would interfere with ‘the canon’.
Star wars is a very important film. It is, first of all, a turning point in Hollywood cinema, coming at the end of a period when the last great generation of auteurs were essentially given free rein to spend studio money. The runaway success of Star wars, coupled with the tanking of films like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s gate, put paid to that era, and brought into being a new age of ruthless commercialism, whose ultimate issue is the present-day tyranny of the comic book franchises over the box office. Star wars, in retrospect, is just as much a “sprawling, meaningless but still reassuringly finite universe” as the Marvel or DC Comics alternatives (to use Alan Moore’s excellent description of the latter).
William Goldman, the screenwriter and novelist, famously said that “in Hollywood, no-one knows anything”. He was wrong: one thing that everyone in Hollywood (and, frankly, also in remote peasant villages in Sierra Leone) knows is that it is prima facie unimaginable that a Star wars film will tank. The justly reviled Phantom menace, as noted, was not so reviled at the time, and indeed made a billion dollars. (Now the spell is broken, it is quite striking to watch it again and see quite how bad it actually is; even that thing pulled in a $900 million profit.)
Secondly, it was the first franchise to introduce fandom to the mainstream, and was so successful in doing so that activities which would in any other context be derided as the height of the kind of frightful, sad nerdiness that ought to condemn one to a life of unblemished virginity pass muster as ordinary behaviour. Many people dress up as Star wars characters who would not even be able to spell ‘cosplay’. The result is the aforementioned obsession with canonicity, which extends beyond the usual small ranks of angry nerds. It is striking that Quentin Tarantino, in Inglourious basterds, can rewrite the history of World War II so Brad Pitt can kill Hitler in a Paris cinema, but nobody would dare retcon the Star wars mythos (except George Lucas himself, who constantly tampers with the material in DVD re-releases and so on, to dubious ends).
Thus the problem of Rogue one - an immediate prequel to the first film (or episode 4, or whatever you like). The latter begins with Princess Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher, trying to get the Death Star schamatics to the rebellion; Rogue one sends a plucky band off on a suicide mission to retrieve the damn things for her in the first place. I would give a more thorough plot summary, but frankly none is necessary, or indeed possible. We know how the thing ends, because we have seen the other films. Can we really imagine that surprises will be permitted along the way? In the very early days of cinema, films were sold by the yard; Rogue one may be a digital production, but it is basically half a mile of Star wars, as regular and predictable as bank holiday rain.
I have seen a lot of comparisons between Rogue one and The empire strikes back, which, being as it is a perfectly competent and tightly plotted space-opera, is far and away the best of the films so far. Unfortunately, the more appropriate comparison is The phantom menace. Rogue one is a preposterous dumpster fire of a film: it is wildly uneven in tone, and weighed down with tedious fan service (most egregiously in the form of a computer-generated young Carrie Fisher in a cameo as Princess Leia, and a computer-reanimated Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, by far the most disturbing cinematic spectacle of the year).
The big problem, however, is the script, which is unutterably awful. Dialogue in this movie consists, with very few exceptions, of people hammily hurling clichés at each other like a Christmas dinner food-fight between squabbling relatives. Motives are unsophisticated. Minor characters are restricted to the laziest stereotypes (Donnie Yen as a blind Oriental martial arts expert in particular makes Jar-Jar Binks look like a Spike Lee protagonist). You know who the evil ones are, because they all look and sound a bit like Alan Rickman.
There is a truly remarkable aspect to all this, which is the squandered talent. The men responsible for this atrocious screenplay are Tony Gilroy, whose Bourne films revitalised action cinema at its nadir, and Chris Weitz, who has turned in competent genre pieces like Antz, American pie and About a boy. Neither are ever going to win comparisons to David Mamet, but not even the most superfluous American pie sequel can compare to Rogue one for dunderheaded unsubtlety. Director Gareth Edwards debuted with the excellent Monsters, an indie sci-fi road-trip film with a hint of Tarkovsky about it. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the lead character here, with a voice always on the edge of a fake theatrical tear, like somebody whose idea of acting was based entirely on parodic portrayals of over-excited thesps in stage-door musicals; but she has done fine work in the past.
The same could be said of most of the rest of the cast, with the exception of Forest Whitaker, who does an enjoyable bit of scenery-chewing as a mentally cracked, mutilated rebel guerrilla, and Alan Tudyk, who voices the sarcastic android sidekick. People just love the sarcastic android sidekick, but the overall effect is disorienting: after 10 minutes of everyone else humourlessly mewling clichés at each other, or shooting each other to death, Tudyk will step up and all but clear his throat and tell everyone to listen because there is a funny joke imminent.
Leaving the script aside for a moment - for nobody ever went to see a Star wars film for the script - there is the matter of the spectacle. It should be said that the aforementioned Empire comparisons are ultimately down to the darker tone of this film, and in some respects Rogue one is shockingly violent. There are a couple of action sequences that are very well-choreographed (a guerrilla ambush early on in particular); and a great horror movie moment with Darth Vader. The action sequences, however, are blighted paradoxically by not being violent enough; hundreds or even thousands die in the course of this merry band’s little trek through the heart of enemy territory. They are shot, sometimes while wounded and prone (let the Force sort ’em out!); they are beaten to death; they are blown up by grenades and airstrikes.
Yet throughout all this absurd carnage, nobody bleeds.
There is an odd feature of film censorship orthodoxy, which leads the British Board of Film Classification, Motion Picture Association of America and so on (especially the former) to come down heavily on scenes of violence that linger on pain and otherwise focus on its traumatic consequences. This always struck me as morally perverse, for it has as its corollary the idea that it is just fine for kids to watch scenes of spectacular brutality, so long as it is presented as basically all so much good fun. Such is the absurdity of the bourgeois cult of childhood innocence.
Rogue one is an especially acute case; watching yet another massacre of Imperial stormtroopers, in their glossy, plasticky uniforms, one almost feels one is watching a small child smashing his action figures together. Everything looks stupid, fake, plasticky. Old gimmicks, like the distinctive trebly voices of the stormtroopers, feel more affected than ever. Edwards’ Monsters, on a budget of $500,000, had far more convincing special effects sequences than Rogue one manages to screw out of $200 million.
I want to emphasise that, while many of Rogue one’s deficiencies are typical of big-ticket Hollywood fare, on this particular point it is certainly possible within the confines of the system to do better. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, though hardly perfect, have some moral complexity to them; the same might be said of the better X-men films. In particular, The hunger games did as good a job as could be expected at a 12A certificate of adapting a book where - in the BBFC’s formula - “strong bloody violence” is both frequent and utterly unromantic. It was not a risky film to make - the books were already mega-sellers, and unsurprisingly the film made its money back eight times over, with the franchise as a whole worth close to $3 billion. Only in the Star wars franchise, apparently, is narrative complexity unimaginable.
What do we learn from all this? Merely that with sufficient bureaucratic power, and a sufficiently overawed cast and crew, any number of creative sparks can be extinguished in the pursuit of a zero-risk billion-dollar movie. Yet it need not be so. Audiences expect more than off-the-peg Manichean idiocy in their popcorn-munching movies nowadays. The risk-averse character of modern Hollywood consists in only doing things that have already been successful (as books, as comics, as earlier films ... ); in many cases, those things are successful because they dare not treat people like mouthbreathing five-year-olds.
Unfortunately, in the case of Star wars, things are different; films in this franchise alone exist exclusively to indulge those parts of middle-aged men which are mere survivals of the most sociopathic tendencies of their childhood selves. The Star wars fanboy, whatever his age, is forever a seven-year-old; he is only entertained by being pandered to. Anything with more depth would violate the canon.
All culture in class society is contradictory, even in its most mechanised forms (Hollywood films, triple-A video games); Rogue one stands out as an atypically pure representative of one pole of the contradiction, and stands as a demonstration of that which is degraded and degrading in mass popular culture today.