5 fixes for Rogue One’s Biggest Problems
I did one of these for The Last Jedi a while ago and it was a lot of fun to think about, so what the hell: here’s my fixes for Disney’s first Star Wars spin-off.
A lot of Rogue One works very well, but the fundamental reason it doesn’t stick the landing (and often seems to be pulling itself apart) is because the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether it was a heist movie or a war movie. They never fully committed to either genre; in the end, they just made half of each and squished them together, sort of like a shepherd’s pie-trifle.
Classic heist films tend to be either light, breezy capers (Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair (remake), A Fish Called Wanda) or violent, bloody thrillers (Heat, Reservoir Dogs, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). Surely, a film set in the family friendly Star Wars universe would have to veer firmly toward the former. War movies don’t tend to have quite as much tonal range, but still span everything from Mulan to Lawrence of Arabia to Apocalypse Now.
Therefore, to make either type of story work, it needed to be either a light, funny, frothy ‘Erso’s Eleven’ caper, or a gritty, bloody, all-or-nothing ‘Where Rogues Dare’ thriller. Rogue One was neither. (However, as I’ll go on to say, I don’t think the film itself wants to be any of these things.)
[Aside: by comparison, George Lucas’ original 1977 Star Wars is remarkably single-minded and tight. It’s the first ever big budget action-adventure-space-opera-fantasy, and has no right to be as cohesive as it is. Forty years on, Rogue One really has no excuses.]
1. Plot overload
Challenge: describe the story of Rogue One in one sentence.
Well… as best I can make out, it’s the story of a girl whose family was torn apart by the Empire, who grows up determined to exact revenge.
Except… it’s also sort-of the story of a once innocent girl who becomes a bitter, cynical, hard-bitten loner.
And it’s also about an Imperial Officer who is desperately trying to save his job — and his neck — by completing a crazed dictator’s superweapon on time.
Or, is it the story of how a group of disparate Rebel factions came together in a crisis and united behind a single cause?
And there’s also something about stealing blueprints.
Throw into an already confused script a deserter from the Empire (another one), a scene at Darth Vader’s castle, Saw Gerrera (who?), a prison break, Kyber crystal mines (what?), Jedi monks, a mind-warping squid, an X-wing attack, murdering spies, a ground battle on a beach, infiltrating an Imperial base, a wise-cracking reprogrammed Imperial droid, another space battle and those two guys from the Mos Eisley cantina.
However, it’s not really about any of those things. It’s really about how cool X-wings are, and how awesome the original Death Star looks, not to mention the Rebel base on Yavin and Darth Vader’s lovingly recreated red-hued helmet. Did I mention X-wings look cool?
In which case, why make the plot so excessively complicated? As the film is little more than a lovingly made SFX reel, then just cut straight to the bit where we see all the fancy uniforms and neat spaceships.
Fix 1: Pick one story and tell it well (and lose everything else)
As sometimes happens with films that get away from their directors, Rogue One apparently revealed its true identity in the edit. The standout, indelible moment of the film is in fact a scene that was added in a reshoot, and involves none of the cast. This is telling. Darth Vader’s brutal assault is a breathtaking sequence, in which our favourite bucket-headed dark lord slices his way through the last desperate rebel fighters while the Death Star plans are frantically passed from hand-to-hand, just out of Vader’s gauntleted reach. It is the entire film distilled down to 90 exhilarating seconds.
Despite being conceived as ‘SEAL Team Six in space’ the film really wants to be an edge-of-your-seat chase film, in the mould of The Terminator or Mad Max: Fury Road. So, I would bite the bullet and drop the ‘heist’ angle entirely and make the film something like a feature-length version of the Star Destroyer pursuit of the Millennium Falcon from The Empire Strikes Back:
We open with Director Krennic arriving at the Erso’s isolated farm. He tells Galen he’s been looking for him for a long time, then he and Jyn’s mother Lyra are escorted into Krennic’s shuttle. Lyra slips a gemstone ring off her finger and tries to surreptitiously drop it in the grass. However, Krennic sees her and becomes suspicious, demanding to know who else is there. Lyra refuses to say and is murdered for it. Krennic orders his troopers to burn the farm; Galen leaves believing Jyn dead along with his wife. Jyn watches the scene unfold from her hiding place and is left all alone.
Then, after the opening credits the action picks up again with the attempted defection of the Empire’s Chief Engineer Galen Erso to the Rebel Alliance. An ageing Galen is standing beside Krennic in full military dress in front of a line of engineers and scientists. They are receiving medals for service to the Empire. It is a lavish ceremony in the Emperor’s throne room. The Emperor is looking down on them from a great height, studying their faces. All are trembling with fear, and even Galen is afraid to raise his head as the medal is pinned to his chest.
After the ceremony, as the group are being escorted back through the compound’s vast palatial grounds there is a huge explosion in the palace walls. A firefight breaks out between palace guards and unknown assailants. In the chaos and confusion Galen throws off his cape and sprints toward the hole in the wall, emerging straight into the filth and poverty that surrounds the palace. After a split-second of uncertainty he is spotted by a Rebel agent and bundled into a transport. However, they have underestimated the Empire’s swift response, and the Rebel fighters are swiftly rounded up and killed, while the transport is shot out of the air. As alarms sound across the planet and garrisons of Stormtroopers are deployed to the streets, a mortally wounded Galen staggers alone through Coruscant’s shadowy underworld. In his hand he clutches a precious disk containing the plans to the Death Star.
Meanwhile, Cassian Andor and the second extraction team — which includes Jyn Erso (known to her comrades only as “Jyn”) — are waiting in a seedy bar on the lower levels of the sector. They can hear booming announcements that the planet has gone into lockdown. Cassian suddenly spots Galen alone on the street below. Ignoring warnings that it might be a trap the team rush out to meet him.
Jyn steps toward her dying father, suddenly pale. Cassian looks up sharply as they exchange words. “You know him?”
Jyn demands Galen tell her why he never came back. “Jyn, is it you? I couldn’t get away... Forgive me”. She tearfully berates him, saying he would rather spend his life dreaming up monstrous machines than protect his family. Galen’s eyes widen in shock, “Jyn, the weapon… it is no dream, it’s finished! You are all in danger! Isn’t that why you came for me?”
Cassian shakes Galen by the shoulder, “What’s this? What weapon?”
Galen takes a shuddering breath. “None of you know, do you? Commander, the Rebel Alliance will be finished in a matter of days. Trillions are going to die. There’s only one chance… a flaw… tell the Alliance it is booby-trapped. You must get the plans to them”. He hands them the bloody disk. As he closes his eyes, Cassian sees stormtroopers flood the street. “Jyn, he’s gone. We have to run!”
So begins a first act chase across a dirty, oppressive Coruscant, as the dwindling team narrowly escapes the clutches of the Empire. Bail Organa helps smuggle them onto a departing freighter, but it is attacked by a Star Destroyer and the wreckage crashes onto a planet. The survivors search for a new ship and the pursuit continues across many different worlds and stolen ships until only Cassian and Jyn are left. They eventually end up on Jedha where they seek refuge in one of the few friendly places left in the galaxy — the ancient Jedi temple ruins. Here they meet non-Force-sensitive Jedi monks Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe.
Bail Organa pleads with the Alliance via hologram to send the fleet to rescue Cassian and Jyn and retrieve the Death Star plans, but the fractured Rebel leadership refuses to believe that the Death Star even exists. Mon Mothma is convinced that Organa was fooled into stepping into an elaborate trap set by Orson Krennic and Galen Erso. However, the Mon Calamari leader Admiral Raddus angrily says that the Alliance did nothing while his race was enslaved by the Empire, and if there’s a chance this planet-killing superweapon exists then it’s now or never: they must fight. The Mon Calamari withdraw from the Alliance and dispatch the last of their battle-cruisers to Jedha.
The Death Star appears in orbit over Jedha and prepares to test the weapon on the old Jedi city.
[The rest of the film proceeds along the lines of the film’s third act, swapping the events on Scarif for Jedha. Jyn kills Krennic and just before he dies he asks Jyn who she is, and she presents him with her mother’s gemstone ring.]
2. The Jedi ‘Monks’ are wasted
Rogue One’s best addition to Star Wars lore is the idea of Jedi ‘monks’, i.e. religious zealots who believe in the Force, yet cannot actually feel it themselves. They keep the Jedi religion alive even though the Jedi are extinct in the galaxy.
Sadly, the characters of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus (played by Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, respectively) are entirely wasted, as the film has no idea what to do with them. In fact, by casting a martial arts icon in the role, Edwards clearly succumbed to the temptation of having Yen perform for the camera — dispatching stormtroopers as easily as Neo swatted away agents in the Matrix sequels — despite his character being blind and having no Force powers.
The film wants to explore the idea of the Jedi as a bona-fide religion with all the trappings of dogma, temples, worshippers and priests — but can’t resist the urge to just give everyone superpowers anyway.
Fix 2: Good things come to those who… wait
Chirrut and Baze are barely characterised additional members of the Rogue One ‘team’ who just end up as cannon-fodder. Their inclusion raises tantalising questions about the Force and the Jedi religion which are never answered or even explored. Either get rid of these guys, or do something interesting with them.
Assuming the latter, the movie should’ve given the duo clear arcs: Baze has clearly lost his faith and no longer wears the religious robes, now his only loyalty is to his best friend and companion; Chirrut has also never felt the Force, but longs to do so. His faith is absolute, trusting the Force to guide his movements — even through gunfire.
During the final battle of Jedha, the pair help Jyn and Cassian escape the temple ruins while they are under siege by stormtroopers. Jyn, still in possession of the disk containing the Death Star plans, manages to board a dilapidated ship and prepares to take off. Cassian sees that the ships’ docking clamp is still engaged, and is in the process of deactivating it when he is tragically shot and killed. Imperial forces enter the hangar.
Ignoring Baze’s warnings for him to stop, Chirrut starts to cross the hangar bay heading for the docking clamp panel, somehow evading all the laser blasts. Then, finally, a shot hits him in the chest and he falls to the ground. Shocked, Baze races after him, mowing down stormtroopers with his laser cannon but then he too is killed. A stray blast also ricochets into Jyn in the cockpit, and she slumps in her seat. All seems lost.
Then Chirrut’s eyes flutter open and he gazes up at the sky. In the wide blue expanse he can see a tiny black dot: the Death Star. His face creases in anguish; even now, at the end, the Force remains distant to him. And then… a calm passes over him and his eyes widen. He looks over at the lever on the locking clamp panel…
[Luke Skywalker’s Force theme starts to play, softly at first, then stronger and stronger. The Force has begun to return to the galaxy]
Chirrut raises a trembling hand, his fingers straining to reach through the Force.
Close up of the lever as it wobbles, then suddenly flicks back. Tears roll down Chirrut’s cheeks.
Suddenly free, Jyn’s ship lurches forward and she comes to, grabs the controls and steers the ship skyward…
3. The film doesn’t nail the big moments (or worse, doesn’t know what they are)
Star Wars has long been described as a ‘space opera’, and for good reason. Much like the Rocky series, Star Wars works when the big moments are emphasised and underlined by big scores, iconic visuals and meticulously constructed narratives — all laser guided to deliver the most rousing payoffs cinema has to offer.
With Star Wars, you can’t go too big.
Every great Star Wars episode has at least one grand, iconic moment: we all instinctively know what they are. Consider the score, pacing and editing in each of these key scenes:
A New Hope:
The Empire Strikes Back:
Return of the Jedi:
The Force Awakens:
If these don’t make your hair stand on end then you’re not hooked up right.
Rogue One also has these moments, or rather, it has placeholders where they should be. In playing it cool and going for some kind of ‘realism’, the film only succeeds in fluffing its lines. The result is that none of these moments land with the weight they need to elevate this kind of material:
Fix 3: Less Realistic, More Operatic
i) Death Star Disbelief
In A New Hope George Lucas emphasised the scale of the Death Star by having an experienced pilot (Han Solo) mistake it for a small moon. As the Millennium Falcon is drawn toward it via tractor beam, the previously impressive Falcon becomes increasingly — preposterously — dwarfed in successive exterior shots.
By contrast, in Rogue One the shock of finding out that the Death Star is in fact terrifyingly real is conveyed by the concerned reactions of characters standing around a table.
“If the Empire has this kind of power what chance do we have?”
If the Death Star must be offscreen when this information is conveyed, then those reactions need to be a lot more dramatic and impactful:
[Galen is dying in the street on Coruscant (see Fix 1)]
Galen Erso: “Jyn, the weapon, it’s finished… it’s…”
[Bail Organa leans in and roughly shakes Galen’s shoulder]
Bail Organa: “What? What weapon? Say that again!”
Galen Erso: “Senator Organa? They call it the “Death Star””
[Bail Organa recoils in horror]
Bail Organa: “No! It can’t be true!”
Galen Erso: “You know of it. How?”
Bail Organa: “Rumours. But I never dreamed… it could really exist”
Cassian Andor: “What’s on that disk?”
Galen Erso: “Death. Destruction. The end of all things. The Emperor… he’s quite mad… drunk on death. He demanded a machine with which he could destroy the universe… and I built it for him.”
[Galen coughs and spits blood]
“…my greatest achievement… my legacy. Jyn, you must destroy it.”
[Galen fades. Bail Organa composes himself, now determined. He takes the blood smeared disk]
“This is now the most important object in the galaxy. Cassian, Jyn, I’ll do everything in my power to help you, and get this disk to the Alliance.”
ii) Rebels Unite
[As the (mostly human) members of the Alliance dither about what to do and consider surrendering to the Empire, the Mon Calamari angrily rebuke the assembled leaders.]
“You’re all happy to give the orders for others to risk their necks, but when there’s real fighting to do you want to hold up your hands and surrender.”
[They walk away from the Alliance and decide to act alone. Arriving in orbit around Jedha, the Mon Calamari ships duke it out with Star Destroyers, suffering heavy losses. As Jyn makes her escape from the planet’s surface, Admiral Raddus gives the order to provide cover by ramming the closest Star Destroyer. All appears lost.]
[Then, over his comms channel he hears broken radio chatter:]
“Form up… Red Leader in posi… prepare to drop out of lightspeed in 3,2,…”
[Suddenly dozens of rebel cruisers of all shapes and sizes, plus a hundred fighters — the entire fleet — drop out of hyperspace all around. The score swells…]
Gold Leader: “Sorry we’re late Admiral”
iii) See Fix 2
4. The problem of the Death Star Plans
Rogue One has an inherent storytelling problem that it never really overcomes: Galen Erso needs to tell his daughter/the Rebel Alliance about the weakness he’s planted in the Death Star in order to kick-start the plot and give the rebels a reason to try to steal the plans. Except… if he’s telling her what the weakness is, why not just tell her how to exploit it? But if he does that the Rebels wouldn’t need the plans, and there is no movie.
It’s a gnarly one.
In the end, the film fudges the issue in two ways: first by Galen telling Jyn he planted a weakness inside the Death Star, but that she still needs the plans to figure out a way to get to it (apparently, station architect Galen Erso couldn’t figure out a way to trigger it — even though he put it there and worked on the Death Star project for decades — luckily the Rebel military figured it out in less than twenty minutes in A New Hope); second, his message conveniently cuts off mid-sentence.
It’s one of those unsatisfying plot contrivances (think the Holdo deception, or the Holdo manoeuvre, or how Rey gets back on the Falcon or Luke in The Last Jedi) that the film hurriedly races past so that the audience doesn’t dwell on it.
Fix 4: Hitchcock’s bomb under the table
“The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!””
The characters don’t have to be aware of the ticking bomb (the Death Star) for there to be suspense, so long as the audience does: in fact, it’s moresuspenseful if the audience knows more than the characters.
It would’ve been simpler and more satisfying if Galen Erso’s emotional message to his daughter was allowed to be delivered in full — including the details about targeting the Death Star’s exhaust port — and he should conclude by saying that the rebels can confirm it by looking at the Death Star’s technical schematics. Then the camera pulls back to reveal that Orson Krennic is the only recipient of the message, and he looks worried. (He dare not tell his superiors — or anyone in fact — about the supposed vulnerability, lest he face the wrath of the Emperor, yet he now suspects the superweapon he built is fatally flawed.)
During the medal ceremony at the Emperor’s palace (see Fix 1) Krennic has to suppress his rage as he watches as Erso is presented with the Empire’s highest honour. Later, when he learns of Galen’s escape the panic really begins to set in. In the aftermath he immediately goes to the Imperial Military Archive on Coruscant to analyse the Death Star plans himself, and discover if Galen was telling the truth. When he enters his code to retrieve the schematics from the databank, the readout says that a copy has already been downloaded to disk — by Chief Engineer G. Erso. At all costs — and without anyone finding out — he must recover that disk.
5. Jyn Erso
Star Wars is a franchise blessed with great, indelible characters: Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Yoda, Darth Vader, Rey, Ben Solo… the list goes on and on. Jyn Erso is not on that list.
Felicity Jones is a fine actor, but she’s always fighting the script. Forget timeless and iconic, Jones has to juggle a multitude of character motivations just to make Jyn moderately coherent.
Lucasfilm clearly wanted the character to be a tough, independent, adventurous, slightly spiky young woman — and also one free of any romantic entanglements. Great. But that’s a description that belongs on a casting call-sheet, not that of a fully fleshed out, well-rounded, flawed character. Sadly, the Jyn we end up getting is whatever any particular scene needs her to be:
When she’s broken out of prison she’s a tough, cynical loner.
Next she has to be even more rebellious than the Rebel Alliance can handle.
Then when the script needs her to lead the crucial Death Star mission she gives a rousing motivational speech to her new comrades (the ones she met five minutes ago and now somehow commands).
Even in the original Star Wars in 1977 it was enough for our protagonist Luke to be a pilot in the attack on the Death Star; he didn’t have to come up with the plan and then be squadron leader.
She’s every bit as jaded and world-weary as Han Solo, as noble as Leia, fights like Darth Maul, and is as earnest about the Force as Luke. In fact, this movie doesn’t need any other characters — Jyn can do it all.
Fix 5: Character drives plot
This is a story about stealing the Death Star plans, so why are we following the story of Jyn Erso? What is it about the daughter of Galen Erso that means we can’t tell this story without her?
The film posits that Jyn is driven by two factors (I think): the loss of her parents and the knowledge that her father was forced to build a terrible weapon. That’s a complex motivation for an action adventure fantasy movie character, and would require an exceptional script to sell to an audience.
Gareth Edwards needn’t have made life so hard for himself — it would’ve been far simpler for Jyn to be solely motivated by the murder of her mother by Orson Krennic…
Jyn always wears her mother’s ring, and is driven by a desire for revenge. While she tells the Alliance she wants to enlist because she believes in the cause, she really just wants to get into a position to kill Krennic. She has grown up believing that her father is equally to blame for her mother’s death, and that he is a collaborator to boot. She works hard to keep their familial relationship a secret.
She volunteers for the mission to extract Galen from the Imperial headquarters on Coruscant in the hope that it will give her the opportunity to get close enough to Galen’s boss (Krennic) to assassinate him.
When the mission spirals out of control and her father dies, her impulse is still to go after Krennic. Cassian must convince her that Galen’s smuggled disk, and the Rebel cause is more important than her personal revenge, and this forms the basis of the tension between them throughout the movie.