Screenwriting

Fixing Rogue One

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.

DeathStarLaserConstruction.jpg

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 ElevenThe Thomas Crown Affair (remake), A Fish Called Wanda) or violent, bloody thrillers (HeatReservoir DogsThe 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 directorsRogue 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:

Binary sunset

Binary sunset

Luke destroys the Death Star

Luke destroys the Death Star

The Empire Strikes Back:

The Millennium Falcon and the asteroid field

The Millennium Falcon and the asteroid field

Yoda raises Luke’s X-wing using the Force

Yoda raises Luke’s X-wing using the Force

“I know”

“I know”

“I am your father”

“I am your father”

Return of the Jedi:

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me”

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me”

Vader saves Luke and kills the Emperor

Vader saves Luke and kills the Emperor

The Force Awakens:

“The garbage will do”

“The garbage will do”

Rey catches the lightsaber

Rey catches the lightsaber

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:

The shock and panic of finding out that the Death Star really exists

The shock and panic of finding out that the Death Star really exists

The Rebels unite when they finally arrive to support Admiral Raddus

The Rebels unite when they finally arrive to support Admiral Raddus

The Jedi monks and the Force

The Jedi monks and the Force

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

Alfred Hitchcock in conversation with François Truffaut:

“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.

Star Wars Eats Itself

The decidedly uneven reaction to The Last Jedi, combined with the dismal box office performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story leads to one inescapable conclusion: Star Wars is in the midst of an existential crisis.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

magic-symbol-of-ouroboros-tattoo-with-snake-vector-6317728.jpg

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, George Lucas agreed to hang up his laser sword and the original trilogy cast signed on to return, the future of the saga looked assured. Under Kathleen Kennedy’s confident stewardship as the most successful movie producer of all time, it seemed an inevitability that the series would once again crush the box office underfoot with the ease of an Imperial Walker trampling Rebel snowspeeders. Indeed, the first film out of the gate — 2015’s The Force Awakens — did just that. Yes, some fans had nitpicks here and there, but overall it did exactly what was expected, i.e. engage wide audiences, smash box-office records and make Star Wars cool again. But, with the benefit of hindsight, were there signs of trouble right from the start?

Burying the Prequels

The Force Awakens is as much a critique of George Lucas’s prequels (the Star Wars films that immediately preceded it) as it is a return to filmmaking values of the original trilogy. In many ways, it’s the exact polar opposite of the prequels, for better — and for worse.

It is lazy (and incorrect) to think of The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) as universally terrible, with no redeeming qualities whatever. Yes the writing is comically wretched, the acting (mostly) wooden, the direction workmanlike at best, and the special effects simultaneously too rich and too cartoon-like — any one of these would be enough to sink a franchise blockbuster, even one aimed at children. And yet I must give Lucas credit for his world-building, and for trying to tell a completely different story than before, with a different aesthetic. For many fans of the 1970’s originals, these just didn’t feel the same — which is because Lucas didn’t intend them to. He took a big risk and it didn’t pay off, but he was still brave enough to try.

When the tide of public opinion turned against him after the much hyped debut of Phantom Menace, Lucas (perhaps understandably) became outwardly defensive:

I see my audience and my audience is me, you know? I make these films for myself more than I make them for anybody else.

— George Lucas

He repeated this mantra so often that I wonder if he began internalising it, to the point that forgot about the audience entirely. The fundamentals of storytelling (the art of which he had once been an absolute master) started to slip, and he became apathetic, to the point of laziness.

His successor J.J. Abrams wanted to show the world that yes, it was possible to make new Star Wars films that felt right, and that the original classics weren’t lightning-in-a-bottle one-offs. In doing so he reacted strongly against the prequels and strove to put as much daylight as possible between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Perhaps too much:

I have a thought about putting Jar Jar Binks’s bones in the desert

— J.J. Abrams

Abrams already had one eye on the previous films, whereas his one and only objective should’ve been to delight an audience. Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens was light, funny, character-driven, engaging, favoured practical effects, and wasn’t overly concerned with franchise baggage. However, it also diverged from the positive aspects of Lucas’s second trilogy: the galactic politics were muddled and confusing; the story was unoriginal and repetitive; the visual aesthetic (particularly the ship design) was unambitious.

The saga was starting to furtively eye its own tail.

Let the Mystery Box Die

The production of Disney’s 2017 sequel to its own The Force Awakens is an account of a franchise starting to self-harm. Rather than the exercise in close collaboration that one would expect from writers Abrams & Kasdan handing the baton on to Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi (2017) feels more like the result of a stuck-up prom queen being handed a love letter by a geeky kid, who relishes the prospect of ripping it to pieces in front of his face.

What I said before about the powerful cannon about to shoot it into the Earth, I’m feeling the reality of that. I guess now it’s just hoping to God that I’ve loaded a decent cannonball into the gun.

— Rian Johnson

Episode VII left us with several questions that needed addressing somewhere down the line. Instead of coming up with interesting answers (or at least deferring them) Johnson contradicts the previous film by insisting they’re not important questions at all. Expectations subverted? Definitely. Contemptuous? Sure looks like it.

Eyebrows considerably raised.

  • Who were Rey’s parents? “Nobody”
  • Why does the lightsaber call to Rey? “No reason”
  • Who is Snoke? “Not important”
  • What are the implications of the Resistance’s victory in destroying Starkiller base? “None”
  • What will we learn of Finn’s origins? “Nothing”
  • How will Finn & Rey’s relationship develop? “It won’t”
  • Who are the Knights of Ren? “Not important”
  • Why was it so important for Luke to return? “It isn’t; he won’t”

The more you look at it, the more Johnson’s effort appears to be a disdainful dismissal of everything Abrams and Kasdan set up in Episode VII, as well as a direct contradiction of what Star Wars meant to those guys. This is a film with very little interest in appealing to a general audience or satisfying longtime fans. Quite the opposite: it was clearly written with the express intention of tearing down everything that came before. The more angry and upset fans became, the more Johnson was satisfied, as is evidenced by his social media posts.

Star Wars has become self-obsessed and navel-gazing, while trying to appeal exclusively to people who don’t like Star Wars. The tail may taste good for now, but this is a franchise in its death throes.

Character Traits, Character Arcs, Throne Rooms and Italian Restaurants

The fallout from The Last Jedi has brought to light a fundamental misapprehension among some fans, critics and even filmmakers themselves. Interestingly, it seems to be a reliable indicator of how a person responds to the movie itself.

Decisions, decisions

Decisions, decisions

In the film we see Luke Skywalker sneaking up to his sleeping nephew—an innocent boy—lightsaber drawn, about to commit murder. Sensing terrible darkness in him, the old Jedi Master momentarily succumbs to the temptations of the dark side.

At that moment, millions of fans cried out in horror, “Luke would never do this!”. But countless others replied, “What? Yes he would, he’s done it before! It’s his character flaw!

So the question is: are Luke’s flirtations with the dark side a character trait or his character arc?

Trait-ers:

Yoda was unable to teach Luke Skywalker how to pay attention to the living Force instead of giving in to fear and doubt.
Then Luke goes to Ben Solo’s hut and sees that future all over again. And, as before, his saber ignites. [...]

I’ve heard it argued that Luke would never consider this again, but facing the Dark side of yourself isn’t a “one time and it’s over thing.” It’s a constant.

Arc-ivists:

And thus the Fan Wars began. But which side is correct? How are we to know the good side from the bad? As Yoda says:

You will know, when you are calm, at peace.

Well, the fandom is pretty far from peace, but I think I know what the issue is here. The confusion arises from the conflation of character traits and character arcs.

As audiences, we love watching arcs play out because we get to see a character struggle with a character flaw, and ultimately either overcome it, or succumb to it. The arc serves to permanently—and fundamentally—change them, and, (unlike in real life), the pivotal moment is usually encapsulated in a single, defining event. In contrast, traits are intrinsic parts of the character and are unaffected by the arc.

Generally speaking, audiences need neither know nor care about this technical distinction—nor should they: well told stories work on an instinctual level. But certainly it is easier to distinguish in some characters more than others. 

The Man-cub

For example, if we look at Mowgli from Disney’s 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book: he is determined to stay in the jungle, despite the jungle animals’ best efforts to return him to the the man-village for his own safety. Like another co-opted Disney character *Peter Pan*, he is trying to preserve his childish innocence forever. This is reflected in Mowgli’s character traits: he values his freedom, independence and the his forest home above all else. He stubbornly rejects human civilisation. Just as the animals have all but given up trying to send him back, he happens upon a girl collecting water and is transfixed, “Just a minute, I’ve never seen one before”, and then happily her into the village. This deftly (and amusingly) resolves his character arc. But we don’t for a second think Mowgli will *always* be reduced to a babbling fool every time he sees a girl. We instinctively understand this moment to be transformative: Mowgli is entering adolescence and it’s time for him to move on. Much to Baloo’s disgust, he *is* a man after all.

The Space Trucker

One of cinema’s all-time great character arcs is the one that transforms Ellen Ripley from deep space cargo haulier to gun-toting heroine. It miraculously spans two films (Alien & Aliens) by different writers and directors, while being entirely cohesive. In Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Ripley battles a terrifying alien creature which wipes out her crew. Her character traits – such as clear thinking, steely determination and an iron will – enables her eventual triumph. While these traits keep her alive, it is also clear that she remains absolutely terrified of the monster. Indeed, in the famous final scene she is literally paralysed with fear.

Likewise, at the start of James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Ripley is still suffering from nightmares and refuses point blank to return to LV-426. However, Cameron’s marvellous script gives her a surrogate daughter to care for and protect, and when that child is threatened, Ripley’s maternal rage is so powerful that it entirely consumes her terror. In a brilliant third act reversal the tables are turned: now it’s the monster that is afraid of her. The creature will never again disturb her dreams. But this still isn’t a character trait: it doesn’t mean that Ripley is now a killing machine who isn’t afraid of anything.

Archaeologists, Writers and Regional Managers

Some more examples picked at random:

David Brent, The Office (UK)

  • Character traits: socially awkward, clumsy, self obsessed, cowardly.
  • Character arc: at his lowest ebb he finally forms a romantic connection with a woman and then finds the courage to stand up for himself.
  • Defining moment: in the final episode of the series he challenges the behaviour of his erstwhile idol, the loathsome bully Chris Finch.

Edward Lewis, Pretty Woman

  • Character traits: afraid of heights, shrewd businessman, socially reserved.
  • Character arc: he finally discovers someone (and something) he loves more than the empty pursuit of money.
  • Defining moment: he defends Vivian from his abusive lawyer and announces that he’s going into the ship-building business.

Amy (Amy Schumer), Trainwreck

  • Character traits: career-focused, ambitious, dismissive of relationships
  • Character arc: she overcomes her fear of commitment
  • Defining moment: she participates in a cheerleading team as a demonstration of her willingness to change and her desire to commit to a relationship with Aaron

Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark

  • Character traits: adventurous, academic, grizzled, worldly
  • Character arc: his secular, scientific worldview is challenged by the presence of a genuinely divine artefact and he discovers his latent faith
  • Defining moment: “Shut your eyes Marion, don’t look at it”

Leave the lightsaber, take the cannoli

In many ways, the closest comparison to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is to be found in another famous – but much more grounded – sequel: Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II (1975). Micheal’s arc, which began in 1972’s The Godfather – as well as its defining moment – exactly mirrors Luke’s, except with the inverse outcome. Both Luke and Michael struggled with the temptation to resolve their crises by doing evil.

After retrieving the gun hidden for him in a restaurant bathroom, Michael returns to his table and wrestles with his conscience as he tunes out of the conversation. It is a battle he is fated to lose. When he looks up he is a changed man: cold and resolute. He calmly stands and guns down his enemies, and so begins his downward spiral into the abyss. By the end of the second film we are left in no doubt that he has fully descended into hell; the internal conflict has long since been resolved.

To demonstrate just how far Michael has fallen, the sequel shows us a replay of his original sin, as he orders the killing of his own brother. This time there is no struggle, no hesitation. The killing of Fredo is horrifying because we are watching evil incarnate at work. The full, terrible consequences of Michael’s actions at Louie’s Restaurant have been realised.

In his turbulent youth Luke Skywalker could’ve gone that way, for sure. Hisexistential crisis played out not in an Italian restaurant but in the Emperor’s throne room on the Death Star II, in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Taunted by the prospect of the final defeat of the Rebel Alliance and the death of his friends he struggles to keep his composure.

Luke is trapped in a devilish paradox: to save the galaxy he knows he must kill the Emperor (and perhaps his own father), but Yoda’s teaching is crystal clear:

A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, NEVER for attack

The Emperor also wants Luke to go for his weapon, to choose the quick and easy path and condemn himself to the dark side.

You’ve failed your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

“So be it, Jedi

Luke had been trying to convince himself he was a Jedi for three movies, and each time Yoda told him, “Not yet”. Now, he no longer needs to ask the question: he is a Jedi.

Luke experiences a spiritual transcendence and achieves a kind of enlightenment, an inner calm (reminiscent of the protagonist’s arc in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha). Luke finally understands what Yoda has been trying to tell him; that the Jedi Order is about attaining inner peace, not magic tricks, levitating rocks or lightsaber skills. Like Michael Corleone, Luke Skywalker’s struggle is definitively resolved – but in the opposite direction.

Luke is still courageous, reckless, and willing to risk everything to save his friends, but his character arc is done. His battle with the dark side is won, and – like Harry Potter’s scar after the vanquishing of Voldemort – it will not trouble him again. All is well.

Sadly, the one person who evidently didn’t understand any of this, is also the one person who really needed to:

It’s that glimpse of… and Luke has never been… it’s not like Luke is a Superman who’s impervious to that. Having just, even the brief moment of temptation of it,” Johnson said, “because that’s what that moment is. He doesn’t give in to the Dark Side, it’s a moment of temptation to the Dark Side.”

Johnson continued, “It reminds me very much of when Vader is tempting Luke, when Luke is underneath the stairs in [Return of the] Jedi, lit with that very beautiful half-and-half, the duality of these two sides of him being pulled. And that’s really what that moment is for me, it’s a moment of temptation to the Dark Side for Luke.
I at one point had to say to Rian, ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character.’

When Star Wars fans say Johnson ‘ruined Luke’s character’, or that this Luke ‘bears no resemblance’ to the character they know and love, it is the literal truth, not sour grapes.

Not only has Luke’s arc been reversed, his traits are also now different: he’s resentful not courageous, reclusive rather than reckless, and won’t risk anything to save his friends. He’s just going to sit on his rock damnit. He has also become an unreliable narrator and a liar. This Luke Skywalker (Luke Skywalker!) is definitely not someone you’d trust around your kids – or Princess Leia’s kid. The only connection to the character we know is that Hamill is playing the role again (which he agreed to on trust, without being given the opportunity to read the script in advance, unlike Fisher and Ford).

Once again, The Godfather: Part II is the touchstone. Michael’s decadent descent is brilliantly contrasted with his father Vito’s scrappy rise to power 40 years earlier. A much younger Robert De Niro takes over the role from Marlon Brando, posing a real danger that audiences would not be able to connect the two performances. However, the writers took pains to ensure that Vito’s character traits were fully present and correct (i.e. he is cunning, loyal, ruthless, honourable and devoted to his family), and so the magic trick was pulled off with aplomb.

For Hamill, the situation was very different: there was nothing left of Luke to hook on to or reconnect with:

I almost had to think of Luke as another character. Maybe he’s Jake Skywalker. He’s not my Luke Skywalker

Denial is running wild at the House of Mouse

I've got a bad feeling about this.

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Speaking with THR, Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis expressed his concerns at Solo: A Star Wars Story’s box-office nose-dive into the Sarlacc Pit:

We have a lot of work to do in trying to understand this. We are all over it and will spend a lot of time digging into why things happened the way they did in various markets… There’s a question of frequency, and how many times people will go to the movies. Is this too much and too soon

While they’re digging, they might want to think about why Disney’s other mega-franchise – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – seems to get bigger, draw more fans, and bank increasingly humongous box-office with each new film.

Why is their immediate presumtion that Star Wars films are – like Tie Fighters around a moon-sized space station – coming in too fast? Frequency doesn’t seem to be an issue with their galaxy of superheroes. Quite the reverse.

Anecdotally, most people I know (who couldn’t have told Iron Man from Doctor Strange ten years ago) can’t wait to see Infinity War Part 2, while die-hard Star Wars fans are apathetic of even catching Episode IX when it’s released on DVD.

Apparently, denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, it’s also the Star Wars executive comfort blanket.

Episode 8 is so slight it feels more like Episode 7.5, and that’s a big problem for the trilogy

Movie trilogies can generally be categorised into two distinct groups. However, The Last Jedi breaks the newest Star Wars trilogy off into uncharted space.

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In the first group are those trilogies that consist of three self-contained stories which are only loosely connected, and (usually) weren’t originally intended to be trilogies at all. Examples include:

  • The Toy Story trilogy
  • The Dark Knight trilogy
  • The Godfather trilogy
  • The Dollars trilogy
  • Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy
  • Star Trek II – IV

The second kind is arguably rarer, in which the films were either conceived as a single story spanning three movies right from the beginning, or were refactored as such immediately after the first film became a hit:

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • The Hobbit trilogy
  • The original Star Wars trilogy
  • The Star Wars prequel trilogy
  • The Matrix trilogy
  • The Back to the Future trilogy

It is inconceivable to imagine that the new Star Wars trilogy (if it is a trilogy – more on that later) wasn’t likewise intended to be the latter. The problem is that Episode 8 achieves the mind-boggling feat of being so slight that hardly anything of any consequence actually happens, while simultaneously wraps up all the loose ends, leaving the last film nowhere to go.

But hey, that’s not Rian Johnson’s problem.

 

A DVD Extra

On the one hand The Last Jedi feels utterly perfunctory – a big budget dvd extra on the The Force Awakens disk – yet it ends on a note conclusive enough to wrap up the entire saga.

We’re forced to ask: did this story really need to be told at all? And, now that it has been, is there still a need for Episode 9? Weird.

It’s the equivalent of Rian Johnson using up a saga movie to show us the story of Han, Luke and Leia running into the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell. It’s a minor adventure that would’ve worked better as a one-liner from Poe, in the midst of our heroes getting on with the real story:

Poe: “I dunno General Leia, this plan is risky. Remember when we were holed up in that base during the Battle of Crait? We were lucky to make it out alive.”

Leia: “You mean, we were lucky Rey rescued us. She’s going to be a fine Jedi someday, I can feel it. She reminds me of my brother.”

It is background colour, not the main event.

While it’s true that the events of The Empire Strikes Back did little to advance the larger-plot of the Rebels fighting the Empire, but it’s crystal clear why we absolutely needed to see them. Empire showed us the critical moments in the lives of the characters that defined their relationships. We see Leia & Han’s spark of attraction blossom into a love affair; the ‘Mary Sue’-esque Luke Skywalker learned the price of failure as he is left beaten and maimed by his father; secrets are revealed and themes of betrayal and loss permeate the story.

By contrast, in Episode 8 we discover absolutely nothing about our protagonists, and the plot barely advances at all. Sad to say, in terms of the saga, Episode 8 is skippable.

It entirely fails as the middle entry in a trilogy even in the most basic terms of setting up the next movie. I would give Johnson credit for being gutsy enough to break all the rules of narrative, if it weren’t for the fact that he knew he wasn’t going to be making the third movie. That shit is someone else’s problem to figure out: specifically, it’s J.J. Abrams’ problem. Again.

Imagine James Cameron leaving Aliens the way he did if he knew Alien 3 was planned to immediately go into production to complete the story. Indeed, part of the reason why Jonathan Mostow’s 2003 Terminator follow-up T3 was so abysmal was because Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day conclusively ended the series, leaving nowhere to go.

 

Breaking the Rules

We only have to look at the famous examples cited above to understand the job any middle film is supposed to accomplish. It boils down to this: put the heroes through the wringer, leaving them at their lowest ebb, but still with the faintest glimmer of hope of achieving their ultimate goal (which should be crystal clear to the audience by now).

Will Frodo reach Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring before he’s caught?

Can Bilbo and his friends slay the mighty dragon and restore the Dwarves to their homeland?

Can Luke defeat Darth Vader and the Emperor? Will Han Solo be rescued from Jabba the Hut? Can the Rebel Alliance finally overthrow the Galactic Empire? Will Han and Leia get together at last? Is Darth Vader really Luke’s father?

Will that boy-band-reject somehow become Darth Vader and kill all those boring monk-guys… or something. Will any of the cast learn how to convey a convincing human emotion?

Can Neo destroy the Matrix and free all the trapped slaves, while also saving Zion?

Can Marty McFly rescue Doc Brown from the Old West and restore the timeline to its proper order?

In each example there are clear problems, clear stakes and clear goals. As audience-members we need to know what happens next, and how the story gets resolved. (Or in the case of the prequels, we just need it to be over.)

Now let’s look at where The Last Jedi leaves us: Rey is strong with the Force and is destined to become a Jedi. But then, we already knew that at the end of Episode 7. Finn’s situation is the same: just like at the end of Episode 7 we understand that he has chosen to fight against the First Order. We have also learned more about Poe - rather too much actually. Inexplicably, it seems he is going to be the new leader of the Resistance... whatever. Meanwhile, his opposite number – the equally unlikeable Ben Solo – has also usurped the evil throne to become leader of the First Order. Boo. Hiss. Yawn.

So, what is there left to be done in the Star Wars universe that necessitates yet another movie? Do we need to check in on the Ewoks? Does a second Starkiller Base need blowing up?

There are no romantic tensions left to be resolved (at least, I dearly hope so for all our sakes. Let’s just pretend the icky romantic ‘tension’ so awkwardly hinted at in Episode 8 never happened). Nor are there any doubts about whether Rey will become a Jedi – she continued to connect with the Force as easily in Episode 8 as she did in Episode 7. Not to mention that – one way or another – our beloved original trilogy heroes are all dead now (or just forgotten).

All that’s left is to get to the big battle where the Resistance (or are they Rebels again?) defeats the First Order forces (or are they the Empire again?). Except, that’s definitely not going to happen folks, because Disney still has a few hundred Star Wars movies in the pipeline.

What is Episode 9 actually going to be about? Beats me. Episode 8 is so flimsy I actually can’t think of any way that a satisfying trilogy can be made out of this mess, just by bolting on another film. There’s just too much heavy lifting required.

Good luck J.J. – but something tells me we’ll all be back again in a couple of years for Episode 10.

Getting in the Weeds with Rian Johnson: 10 Fixes for the The Last Jedi’s Biggest Problems (10/10)

Luke’s character is thrown away

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There are two views on Luke’s nature (and character flaws) in the original trilogy, which can be summarised as:

a) Luke always had darkness in him, like his father. The fact that he almost killed Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi shows how the dark side of him is always there, lurking beneath the surface.

or

b) Luke always had darkness in him, like his father. The fact that he almost killed Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi — under utmost provocation , but then pulled himself back from the brink, turned off & threw away his lightsaberis the defining moment of his life, and indeed of the entire saga. Luke was able to walk the knife-edge that his father never could; in the end he faced his fears, overcame them and in so doing finally became a Jedi. He achieved the inner calm and aura of peace that is the mark of a true Jedi.

[As an aside, and disregarding the prequels nonsense, it has always been my contention that Anakin Skywalker had never actually ‘qualified’ as a Jedi Knight, and only became one in the last minutes of his life after conquering his own personal demons, in the form of the Emperor. For all their physical strength and power in the Force, both father and son were crippled by deep rooted fear and weakness, which they resisted confronting for years—or decades. It is this test—rather than making things float or prowess with a lightsaber—that a padawan must pass to become a Jedi Knight.]

Regarding Luke, clearly Rian Johnson is firmly in the first camp, while I’ve always been in the second. (If I wasn’t, I doubt Star Wars would even mean that much to me.)

But that’s fine, people see things different ways. However, as I’ve said, you can have Luke be a ruin of a man — wracked by shame and failure — without needing to write a clumsy child-murdering flashback scene.

I also have an issue with the veneration given to Yoda, which in turn regresses Luke back to the juvenile kid that couldn’t lift his X-Wing out of the swamp in Empire. Johnson is so intent on remaking The Empire Strikes Back that his Luke must be Luke from Empire, forever fixed at that point. I think it would’ve been far more interesting if the Luke/Yoda dynamic was reversed. If J. K. Rowling was willing to deconstruct Albus Dumbledore—the greatest wizard-mentor character ever created, with more depth than Obi-wan, Gandalf and Merlin put together—why is Yoda untouchable?

 

FIX 10:

The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

-Darth Vader, Star Wars (1977)

Really Darth? That’s a quite a boast. We’ve never seen a Jedi power in any of the films that remotely justifies such a statement. Maybe this is our chance…

 

AHCH-TO: 

After Rey has set the Jedi Tree-Temple on fire and departed, Luke watches it burn, slumped on the ground. Through the flames Yoda finally appears, although he is looking abashed. Luke tells Yoda that he now understands why he went into hiding on Dagobah. He understands the shame and remorse he felt. Yoda replies that yes, Luke now knows that same sickness that infected both Obi-wan and himself.

“But”, says Luke, “the galaxy needed you. I needed you. Out there in the fight, not hiding in your hovel.”

Yoda looks at his feet uncomfortably. “I didn’t know what to do. I had allowed the forces of darkness to spread across the galaxy and I couldn’t defeat them by myself. I didn’t have the answers the galaxy needed Luke. I was old, much too old. You were our hope.”

Luke shakes his head. 

“Yoda, it has taken most of my life, but I finally understand something: you don’t always have to have all the answers, the kids will figure it out for themselves. Sometimes, you just need to be there: to make the struggle a little easier; to tip the odds a little in their favour.”

Yoda looks up at Luke contemplatively, and with pride. His student has outgrown him.

Luke gets up.

“I’m done hiding.”

[…]

THE BATTLE OF CRAIT:

The massed armies of the First Order — ground troops, Walkers, Tie Fighters, Tie Bombers, Star Destroyers and more are pummelling the old Rebel base. The great shield is cracking and starting to crumble. Newly instated Resistance leader Holdo is facing total defeat. Poe is blinded and near death in his cockpit, following the explosion that brought down his X-Wing.

Rey tries to talk Ben into fighting by her side [she had managed to pursuade him to escape the First Order with her]. However, he refuses and, terrified, tries to hide inside the base. Rey takes to the battlefield alone, lightsaber raised. She is their last hope.

Rey cuts through a barrage of laser fire, bringing down Walkers, First Order troops and Tie-Fighters in great swathes. Her aggression turns into anger and rage. Suddenly a stray laser bolt slices through the lightsaber and into her chest. She falls back, finally defeated.

Through half-closed eyes she sees thousands of First Order reinforcements march ever onward.

Then, through a gap in the red dust clouds she sees a solitary figure standing before them…

For a moment, her eyes meet those of Luke Skywalker, before he smiles, takes a deep breath and raises his open hand to the night sky.

[cue a John Williams theme to make your hair stand on end]

Every laser blast stops in mid air. The Walkers move as if in slow motion, as do the troops on both sides, First Order and Resistance. Their guns fly out of their hands. Tie Fighters spin slowly, gracefully through the air; high in the sky Star Destroyers tumble out of orbit. Silence.

Rey holds her hands over her eyes as the light emanating from Luke (that only she can see) is unbearably bright and fills the universe. She is able to raise herself up and finds that her wounds are healed. Then Ben emerges from the base, takes a step toward Luke, and stops.

All around, Stormtroopers remove their helmets and stand around with Resistance fighters.

Luke winks at Rey, then glances at Ben just as another dust swirl sweeps over him, and he’s gone.

#ThatsmyfuckingLuke

On Idris Elba as Bond

Actually, I have an issue with his (potential) casting.

But let me start by contradicting myself: I think Mr Elba would make a great Bond, and I would very much look forward to seeing his take on the character.

He’s certainly ticks all the 007 boxes:

  1. He’s a great actor.
  2. He’s got bucketloads of charm.
  3. He exudes an aura of quiet toughness, which is very much James Bond.
  4. He’s English. Although, Englishness is almost irrelevant at this point. Lazenby, Brosnan, Connery – none were English.

He’s also not white, but really, this is a non-issue.

However. I do have one specific reservation, and I’ll be honest, it does involve him being black. Damn, contradicted myself again. To explain what I mean, I’ll have to venture down a Bond-universe rabbit-hole…

 

Like Dr Who, Bond is bad at regenerating

To date, James Bond has been portrayed on screen by six actors; confusingly though, the Walther PPK has been handed on seven times:

  1. Sean Connery
  2. George Lazenby
  3. Sean Connery (again)
  4. Roger Moore
  5. Timothy Dalton
  6. Pierce Brosnan
  7. Daniel Craig

The first transition was the most awkward. Filling Sean Connery’s mighty loafers was a near impossible task, even for a cocky young Australian called George. Lazenby had barely hopped on screen in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before he gazed down the barrel of the camera and spoke the immortal words:

“This never happened to the other fella.”

Clunk.

This was followed immediately by an opening credits montage that served to visually ‘sum up’ the Connery-Bond era. Next, Lazenby-Bond is at MI6 headquarters rifling though keepsakes from his/the-other-fella’s past adventures. I’m confused already – is he the same guy or not?

The audience is supposed to collectively tilt their heads, squint, and buy-in to Connery-Bond and Lazenby-Bond being simultaneously different people, and the same person. They’re both tall, white, square-jawed, muscular, brown eyes, dark hair… close enough.

This ‘squint your eyes… close enough’ trick became a never-spoken-of pillar of the Bond franchise for over half a century. It may be both the oddest, and most successful way to handle a change of actor. (Numerous other properties* have used this approach, for example the "Aunt Viv" switcheroo on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air).

The question of whether or not all subsequent Bond incarnations are actually supposed to be the same character has never been directly addressed since (save for the odd oblique reference, like when Moore-Bond put flowers on the grave of Lazenby-Bond’s wife).

Think The Simpsons; a reset button is pushed at the beginning of every episode and Bart stays a ten year old boy forever. Likewise, James Bond battled Cold War Russians in the 60's, the Star Wars franchise in the 70's, drug dealers in the 80's, media tycoons in the 90's, and the laws of physics in the 00's.

Speaking of Die Another Day, never has a title been so unfortunately chosen. The film managed to out-Moonraker Moonraker for sheer cartoon ridiculousness, and the series finally died the day it was released. The Connery-Lazenby-Connery-Moore-Dalton-Brosnan era was at last slain, not by Blofeld but by buffoonery and terrible puns.

The franchise then lay in wake for a few years before making a triumphant return with the very best film in the series so far, Casino Royale.

Fittingly, this was also Fleming’s first Bond novel, and it had never been filmed as part of the official Bond canon before. It was the perfect way to begin a new Bond adventure. The series entered uncharted territory as it attempted a complete reboot: new, pre double-O status Craig-Bond, followed by a new Q, new Moneypenny, and then a new sort-of brother for 007: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Err… what? Nevertheless, it was finally a complete break from the past and promised a fresh new beginning.

Except not really. Inexplicably, Judi Dench’s M returned as Bond’s mentor/boss. Strangely, the character never commented on the fact that the last 007 she managed also happened to have the name James Bond. What are the chances? The ‘squint… close enough’ thing also sort-of returned, as, like the other Bonds, Daniel Craig is tall, white, square-jawed and muscular. He only lacks the dark hair & eye colour (and you better believe that was controversial at the time!).

If I’ve taken a circuitous route coming to my point, it’s because I know this is a sensitive area, and the potential for a knee-jerk reaction is great. I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for my quibble as clearly as I can, before I proceed to insert foot-in-mouth.

What it boils down to (for me) is this: I don’t think a - potential - transition from Craig-Bond to Elba-Bond passes the ‘squint… close enough’ test. I’m aware some might find this notion offensive – I don’t mean it as such, I’m just being honest.

However, I always like to sense-check things by playing them out in reverse: let’s suppose Bond had always been portrayed by black actors (after all, there’s not much worth repeating in Fleming’s books that makes his race or ethnic background particularly important. Bond would certainly die for England, but a whole load of non-white people have and would do that). Were this the case – and were we meant to believe he was the same person – I equally doubt I’d be able to buy Sean Connery taking over the role.

So please Barbara Broccoli by all means cast Mr Elba as our next great JB incarnation, or John Boyega – or Dev Patel for that matter. Just make the passing of that licence-to-kill clearer this time.

 

*Another example is everyone in the Star Trek reboot. All the new cast members happen to be the same race and gender as the original crew, with the exception of Mr Sulu, who is now played by John Cho, a Korean-American actor (as opposed to Japanese-American). I think Trek could have been much more radical here, especially as the Battlestar Galactica reboot had already recast Starbuck as female without a great fanboy apocalypse.

Much more egregious is the case of Dr Who: an alien being who regularly ‘regenerates’ into new human forms. Notably, this Time Lord has only ever adopted white, male, British/Irish personas.

Now he’s got issues.

Rogue One proves Star Wars Stories don’t need the Force

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a mixed bag, and largely a missed opportunity. However, it conclusively answered the biggest question hovering over this new wave of spin-off movies: Star Wars doesn’t need the Force.

It’s really a question of “what makes Star Wars Star Wars?”. The galaxy far, far away is bursting at the seams with imagination and rich storytelling possibilities – but all the cinematic adventures to date have featured Force-sensitive individuals (Jedi and Sith): does a movie without this element still have that essential Star Wars magic? What does a Force-less Universe look like anyway?

An easy comparison is to the Star Trek universe, which is entirely free of magic; but I think a closer fit is the Guardians of the Galaxy universe – or that of either Battlestar Galactica incarnation. Thankfully the Jedi-free (and until the last few minutes, Sith-free) Rogue One doesn’t feel like any of these properties. It absolutely feels like Star Wars.

This bodes well for the future of the franchise. The flaws of Rogue One (and there are many) are due to muddled storylines and inconsistent character motivations – not a paucity of Jedi action. Vader’s last-minute rampage was a definite highlight, but the film worked well without it.

In fact, I think the right approach for the non-Jedi stories might be to make the audience feel the absence of the Force. This worked particularly well in Rogue One.

Gareth Edwards’ tale of the Rebellion’s darkest hour, and first victory, gives me new hope (yuk yuk) for the upcoming Han Solo flick; indeed, I’d be happy if the spin-offs hold their nerve and leave the light of the Force for the saga films.

Existential mumbo-jumbo and six-foot grasshoppers

Perhaps, while he was breaking the story for Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott thought back to his classic original (and perhaps, fleetingly, its superior sequel), and contemplated just what it was that made the character of Ellen Ripley so memorable, indelible and iconic. He obviously concluded it was because she wore a grey vest and carried a big gun.

That Daniels doesn't get lost completely in the chaos of the script machinations is entirely due to Katherine Waterston's fine performance; the fact that she is the best defined human character in the film is a definite problem.

The crew of the Covenant are, without exception, so mind-numbingly stupid, it's a wonder they didn't all accidentally open airlocks and flush themselves out into space. The film asks us to care about individuals that wander off by themselves (and get eaten), trot down the spooky stairwell (and get eaten) and refrain from shooting the baddie when they have the chance (and then get eaten). Actually, it's worse that that: unlike in Alien, where the crew of the Nostromo are visibly terrified out of their wits, this lot treat the monster as more of an inconvenience. If they aren't scared, why should we be?

Speaking of which: sadly, the xenomorph itself (or protomorph, or whatever) has been diminished to the point that it is now just as boring as its human buffet. Ridley Scott was absolutely right when he said the creature was played out. So why then did he build his third act around a xenomorph-variant that looks and acts like a brainless, slobbering, six-foot grasshopper?

Why? Well because of Prometheus. Alien devotees voiced their displeasure with the lack of xeno-action in Prometheus and clearly Ridley listened. Now it's (xeno)morphin time, all the time. However, the creature (or lack thereof) wasn't the issue: Prometheus floundered because of a bad script in which flat, uninteresting characters made increasingly idiotic decisions, and didn't stop banging on about creators and gods and existential mumbo-jumbo...

What Ridley keeps missing about his own franchise is that the androids have always been as scary (and as alien) as the assorted face-huggers and chest-bursters. Michael Fassbender's deranged Dr Frankenstein-ish 'David' is magnetic on screen. His eyes twinkle with the same cold madness as did Ian Holm's 'Ash'. All the good scenes are with David, and the best of these are when he spars (verbally and physically) with his subservient twin 'Walter'.

In the final reckoning, Covenant  was fatally compromised before the cameras even started rolling. It had the impossible job of trying to make sense of Prometheus, while simultaneously wanting to give the audience everything that was missing from that film.

The change of title from "Paradise" to "Alien: Covenant" says it all.

... 

My dearest wish would be for Sean Connery to grasp Mr Scott warmly by the shoulders and say:

"Ridley... let it go"

Cinema’s Top 10 Female Badasses

To mark the release of Alien: Covenant, featuring Katherine Waterston’s (hopefully) xenomorph-battling female ass-kicker, it seems like a good time to do a run-down of Cinema’s Top 10 Female Badasses (according to me):

 

10: M (Judi Dench)

She says:

“Your name is on a memorial wall of the very building you attacked. I will have it struck off. Soon your past will be as nonexistent as your future. I’ll never see you again.”

Dench’s MI6 chief punctured Brosnan-Bond’s swagger at their first meeting and ordered the shot which almost killed Craig-Bond, despite being his strongest parental figure. Tough, ice-cold and ruthless, Dench owns the role.

 

9: Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale)

She says:

“If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself, and even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water and I’ll be exactly what I was before – with just another filthy memory”

Before Leone, Donati, Bertolucci and Argento teamed up to reinvent the female lead in westerns, female characters had been little more than perfunctory love interests for the male heroes, and generally bland.

In Once Upon A Time In the West Cardinale’s life-hardened ex-prostitute dreams of travelling west to start a new life, “do something, what the hell”. However, her new husband and family are murdered before she gets there, and Mrs McBain finds herself being circled by a number of dangerous men with different motives.

Ever the realist about her position, she treats each with weary disdain, irritation, and barely concealed rage – and tries to kill them whenever she sees an opportunity. The film ends with all the men dead or damaged, and she is left to inherit the new world.

 

8: Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh)

She says:

“Without Green Destiny, you are nothing!”

While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is generally considered an ‘art-house’ martial arts movie, the unspoken, gently simmering love between seasoned warriors Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai makes it equally romantic.

But Shu Lien really comes alive, with fire in her eyes, in the heat of battle – such as when she squares off against the young thief that wields Li Mu Bai’s stolen sword, The Green Destiny. The fight is one of the most dazzling in cinema history, and it happens to be between two women. Shu Lien eventually prevails – despite Green Destiny shattering every weapon she uses.

 

7: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)

She says:

“You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground. But do you see that? Fire is catching… And if we burn… you burn with us!”

What makes her interesting?: the Hunger Games series of books & film adaptations have interesting things to say about reality television, celebrity culture and voyeurism, but their greatest achievement is the central female protagonist herself.

Independent, abrasive and a reluctant icon, Katniss is uncomfortable with her unwanted fame while being a more efficient killer than she would ever want to admit.

Katniss is in some way reminiscent of (the screen portrayal of) Lawrence of Arabia: they are individuals so obviously destined for greatness that they struggle to relate to the rest of humanity, and who ultimately find that the act of killing comes all to easy.

 

6: The Bride (Uma Thurman) 

She says:

“Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.”

The Bride/Beatrice Kiddo is not quite the feminist icon Quentin Tarantino was trying for (and the films are still waay too long), but but he does succeed in moulding Thurman into a kicking, biting, slicing, chopping, crashing, crunching, clawing and stabbing icon for the ages.

I still think Tarantino does not do enough to make The Bride sympathetic, however she is believably tough, mean, charismatic and deadly, and here I do give director and muse (“Q&U”) credit. In the years since there have been a slew of wannabe female action heroes that go around beating up armies of male super-soldiers with nonchalant ease (for example Gina Carano in Haywire) – and you never buy it for a second.

 

5: Rey (Daisy Ridley)

She says:

“You will remove these restraints and leave this cell with the door open.”

Marooned alone on a junkyard planet at an early age, Rey learned to scratch out a living from selling whatever she could salvage. Despite being fiercely independent, resourceful and self assured, she shies away from any suggestion that she is special. Compared to Kylo Ren’s confidence in his great lineage, Rey is hesitant and adrift.

But when she finally overcame her self-doubt in the heat of battle at the end of The Force Awakens, a great heroine for a new generation emerged. The best is yet to come.

The ‘Mary Sue’ (non)issue: there have been complaints that Rey is just too good at everything. Funny how that crap never got thrown at Luke or Anakin isn’t it? Both of those guys were also incredible pilots, engineers and Force users, despite living far less self-reliant lives than Rey. Anakin could win podraces and battles in Naboo fighters when he was just out of nappies, and Luke destroyed the Death Star with his first shot when piloting an X-wing for the first time. Lucky! Baby Annie could build droids out of junk, and had a higher rating on the Force-o-meter than Yoda; Luke was a natural crack shot with both a blaster and as a gunner on the Millennium Falcon. Don’t get cocky, kid.

Yes, Rey defeated a wounded Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel, but who’s to say that she isn’t more powerful with the Force than he is? Maybe she’s more powerful than Luke and Anakin and Yoda too? I guess no-one told Rey that a girl can’t be a badass Jedi.

 

4: Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace)

She says:

“I’ve never done this before. Hold still, or it’ll get messy.”

What makes her interesting? Just about everything. Forget Benedict Cumberbatch, Salander (as inhabited definitively by Rapace) is the Sherlock Holmes for the modern age. A savant-like hacker and programmer, she also displays powers of deduction to rival that of her literary counterpart.

However, there’s much more to her character than that: Salander seems at times like a train barrelling forward, fuelled by pure cold fury. She steamrollers her targets, who are – without exception – sadistic men who hate women, and deserve what’s coming to them.

Add in a compelling backstory that is revealed a piece at a time over three books/films, and you have a fully rounded character that becomes indelibly printed on viewers minds. Her chasm-deep vulnerability also allows for unconventional, yet surprisingly sweet romantic scenes.

 

3: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)

She says:

“You’re terminated, fucker.”

Just as the T2 juggernaut completely overshadowed the original, Linda Hamilton’s remarkable transformation into a hard bitten, gun-toting, muscular warrior eclipses the memory of her as a meek waitress.

However, Hamilton proved what a fine choice she was for the role even in that first movie: she ditches the hairspray and bubble-gum sheen half-way in, learns to shoot and make bombs, and stares down the killing machine chasing her. Arnie didn’t stand a chance.

 

2: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)

She says:

“I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you’ll do as I tell you, okay?”

Before 1977 the role of women in big budget, mainstream adventure movies was pretty well established: look glamorous, don’t be smart and don’t talk too much. Star Wars and Princess Leia changed all that.

Yes, she gets captured by the bad guys and the heroic men come to rescue her, so far, so predictable. But then the audience sits up straight: the moment she’s free she takes charge and starts giving orders, grabs a gun and leads the escape.

In Return of the Jedi she inverts the ‘damsel in distress’ trope by rescuing Han Solo, and then cradles him in her arms. Even when the film missteps and can’t resist putting her in a gold bikini, she reacts in the most Princess Leia-ish way possible, by garrotting her captor with her own slave chains (an act Fisher was always proud of).

In The Force Awakens she is referred to as “General” a change I’m actually not crazy about. Leia always owned the Princess thing, Disney should too. In The Empire Strike Back it doesn’t make much sense for a princess to be giving orders in the military control room on Hoth – unless of course it’s Princess Leia. Forget rank, everybody knows if Princess Leia’s in the room, she’s in charge.

 

Honourable mentions:

  • O-Ren Ishii (Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
  • Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs)
  • Private Vasquez (Aliens)
  • Trinity (The Matrix)
  • Mathilda (Leon)
  • Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Batman Returns, The Dark Knight Rises)
  • Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series)
  • Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter series)
  • Wonder Woman (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
  • Marion Ravenwood (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
  • Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road)
  • Ilsa (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
  • Rita Vrataski (Edge of Tomorrow)
  • Natasha Romanova/Black Widow (The Avengers)
  • Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy)

One gets the sense that (if you so deserved it) all these women could blow your head off with one shot, not feel too bad about it, and look cool doing it.

 

Which leaves us with…

 

1: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)

Duh.

She says:

“How do we kill it, Ash? There’s gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?”

She says:

“Yes. I read you. The answer is negative .”

She says:

“Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away ?”

She says:

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

She says:

[to Newt] “I will never leave you. That’s a promise.”

Ripley obviously wins because she’s not just the ultimate female badass – she’s the biggest, baddest (and by some distance the most interesting) badass-iest hero in all cinema, period.

I’m going to say it: Ripley is what made the Alien franchise truly great, not the xenomorph. Cameron knew it; I wish Ridley Scott still did.

Why the Star Wars one-shots will protect the galaxy far, far away from the flaw in the Marvel Universe

For me, Star Wars is all about the saga. I’ve been ambivalent – at best – about the idea of doing standalone spin-offs. Sure, there will be good ones and bad ones, and I’m sure I’ll go and see them all anyway.

But, I never questioned why Disney didn’t just apply standard Marvel principles to crack the Star Wars nut; now when I think about it, it does seem rather curious.

The patented Marvel Formula consists of a number of tent-pole film events, such as an Avengers movie, that are set-up and supported by any number of ‘smaller’ interconnected stories (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Doctor Strange etc). On the surface this seems pretty similar to their plans for Star Wars, doesn’t it? But actually there are subtle differences.

As the boss of Lucasfilm as a Disney subsidiary, Kathleen Kennedy has 2 primary objectives:

  • Make great movies
  • Build a Star Wars Universe

Disney didn’t pay all that money for one trilogy. However, Kennedy has confirmed that the Saga films will be largely independent of the standalones – the first of which was 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – and even these will not necessarily connect to one another.

Why didn’t Kennedy just copy Marvel? It would’ve been the obvious move (Warner Bros/DC did after-all, and numerous others have attempted it, e.g. Ghostbusters, Terminator).

I think the reason is that Disney has seen a weakness in the MCU, one I now see myself, and more clearly with each new movie.

The flaw is inherent. The Marvel films, like the comic books they are based on, are essentially a giant soap opera: endlessly entertaining, but without ever telling a proper third act. Like soaps, the films don’t get endings, they get arcs. Characters never die, and if they do they invariably come back to life. It is all confectionary – until eventually your stomach tires of sweets and craves a more substantial meal. This is what ultimately turns me off comic books, and what is starting to grate about the movies.

Everything has to build from, connect to and set-up everything else, and because the story can never be allowed to end, you can never feel fully satisfied. This is the reason why Thanos appears for no real reason in Guardians of the Galaxy, why Avengers: Age of Ultron lacked narrative cohesion and why Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was just a complete mess.

However, a true standalone need not connect up with other elements of the IP, and is therefore liberated to tell a story that builds to a proper conclusion.

As a first attempt, Rogue One fumbles the ball, but it was at least brave enough to satisfactorily end the story it is trying to tell. Any film which features massively outnumbered and outgunned rebels trying to steal secret documents, aught to be prepared to sacrifice its heroes. Killing Jyn, Cassian and the rest was the right decision, and was only possible because of the franchise structure Disney/Lucasfilm have put in place.

Of course, characters dont have to die: the heroes are still alive and kicking at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark for example, and we can be certain that Han Solo will make it to the end of this year’s standalone. I’m just hopeful that it’s a good movie which has a proper beginning, middle – and end.

"Luke Skywalker has vanished"

Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams did not get enough credit for their work on constructing the story of The Force Awakens:

  1. As I've said before, the ending of Return of the Jedi left no story wriggle room. That ending was sewn up tighter than an Alderaan senator's hair bun - and left not a single stray thread to pull on. There was only the politics of forming a New Galactic Republic. And I'm certain that "politics" was a banned word in J.J.'s writers room.
  2. New characters; making Star Wars fun again - making it *Star Wars* again - was the only critical objective of the new movie. Thirty years of inherited story baggage is not inherently fun. The Force Awakens desperately needed a new core group of characters.
  3. Old characters. And here's the catch 22: Leia, Han, Chewie & Luke's return was non-negotiable.

That's an awful lot of story furniture for a lighthearted adventure blockbuster to deal with, before you even get to the plot itself.

That's why I'm sort of in love with that first line. The very first thing we see on screen, after the title, is that sentence:

"Luke Skywalker has vanished."

It is brilliant economy. In four words Abrams/Kasdan addressed points 1 and 3, thereby giving themselves thirty minutes of breathing room to introduce all four of our new heroes: Rey, Finn, Poe, BB8, as well as Kylo Ren.

So, what do you do if there is no leftover story to utilise? Make something new - Luke's disappearance. Yes it's a fudge, but it's a fudge that honours a beloved character. It puts Luke at the centre of everything, without him even needing to appear.

Much like Orson Wells' Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), the film revolves around the character's absence. He is spoken of constantly by others, his whereabouts and purpose are speculated upon at length, and by the time he is at last revealed he has been built up to almost mythological status.

The Force Awakens is far from perfect, but the story craft is masterful.