(Spoiler warning – this review discusses the ending and other aspects of the film in detail.)
Paul Greengrass once wrote, in his treatment for United 93, that “any film can only ever be its own justification.” “If the film I make has power and truthfulness,” he said, “it will justify itself to its audiences. If not, I will have failed.” Long before this film had been released, when I first heard it was in development and I found out what it was going to be about – that, essentially, it’s a feature length film based on a single sentence from the opening crawl of the original Star Wars film – I wondered: Why? Why make this film? Why this story? What purpose could it possibly serve? What justification does it have for its existence (I mean, apart from the obvious) ? Having finally seen the film now, I can say that the answers it provides for many of these questions are actually pretty damning – not just for the film itself, but for the state of mainstream cinema at present as a whole.
Let’s begin with Gareth Edwards. Now, there was a lot of stuff going around before the film’s release about how the studio wasn’t happy with the film and that they had ordered reshoots (and even hired another director to do it). Gareth Edwards has said in interviews since that this was all fairly routine stuff, that it wasn’t the studio, it was he who decided to do pickups, etc., and you know what, I’d really like to believe him. I really do, but unfortunately the film itself doesn’t offer me much in the way of, erm, hope (I’ll get to that in a moment). Thing is, I don’t think Godzilla was a particularly great film, heck it might not even be a particularly good film, but whatever flaws it had I always felt were script related. Gareth Edwards’ direction, I felt, was always solid and actually in some ways unique compared to other mainstream/blockbuster films (which, to be fair, is a low bar to clear but he cleared it). There were lots of interesting bits of purely visual storytelling, not insulting the audience’s intelligence, and making them work to connect the dots rather than holding their hands and spoon-feeding them like so many other films do – so, aesthetically, at least, if not from a narrative perspective, I found it to be solid and enjoyable. Unfortunately, I found literally no similarity between Edwards’ direction there and here in this film. It’s a completely perfunctory, workmanlike ethic that’s on display here. Like most blockbuster films, nothing is ever given enough time. The editing is quick, shots aren’t allowed to linger lest people get bored, and we’re constantly hopping from one plot location to another to another as quickly as possible, barely giving the characters, the film, or the audience any time to breathe. The opening scenes, which are pretty poorly structured, are the most guilty of this. There was no shot or composition that stood out for me in this film, it’s all pretty generic, and a lot of the film is already a big giant blur to me.
The unfortunate effect this kind of storytelling has is that its characters are never fully realized or developed. It’s actually quite damning in a way that the one character that stood out to me was the freaking robot with the voice-over acting. K-2, I thought, was genuinely hilarious and his levity was always welcome, especially when most of the other characters, particularly the two leads, are always so morose and gloomy. Here’s another film that mistakes sullenness for depth, as if somehow this simple personality trait gives you insight into these characters. Both Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are okay-ish, I guess, as far as their acting goes, but there’s really not much they can do given that their characters are almost non-entities. It’s too bad because the ending, where pretty much all of these characters die in a heroic effort, could have been far more effective and affecting had they actually been given the time and space to develop organically, but unfortunately the only stories these characters are given to make the audience connect with them are purely artificial – like the deal with Jyn’s father (a completely wasted Mads Mikkelsen) being the reason why she figures into the whole plot in the first place (which of course also leads to one of the cheapest and easiest ways of generating pathos – a long death scene where father and daughter finally meet). Donnie Yen, who is actually a charismatic and always enjoyable actor to watch on screen, was the only other character that stood out to me, more because of him than the writing, to be frankly honest.
By the way, can we please now stop praising Star Wars/Disney for their attempts at “diversity”? AD Jameson mentioned in his excellent review of The Force Awakens how he felt that the diversity aspect of the film was not very honest and patronizing; I think Rogue One makes it pretty transparent that this whole “diversity” deal is a PR move from a corporation looking to maintain a certain image. I mean, just look at the casting here – you have the one female lead, and then the next 50 something characters all men. What? I would laugh if it weren’t for the fact that these films, The Force Awakens especially, are praised and became the center of a big “fight” between the MRAs/alt right/whatever going on about how they want to boycott these films and feminists/etc. championing the films in response. I mean, hell, of course the MRAs made a lot noise, as empty vessels are wont to do, but I feel like, as a feminist myself, these films would absolutely be the wrong hill for me to choose to die on. I mean, yes, I know they also feature characters of different ethnicities (if not gender) in somewhat prominent roles, but really, at the end of the day, what’s the point of having diversity if you’re going to give these people such terrible characters? I have to also say, the CGI recreations of Tarkin and Leia were, quite frankly, horrifying. Tarkin especially just looked completely unnatural, uncanny, and I pray that these studios don’t do this again – not that I have much hope.
Speaking of hope, remember what I said about hand-holding and spoon-feeding? Boy did they ever beat you into submission with all of that “hope” stuff, building up to that eventual, cringe-worthy scene with Leia that should then lead us into A New Hope. I know people hate on the prequels a lot (although Revenge of the Sith is somewhat well liked), but goddamn, George freaking Lucas managed to get his point across of there being a new hope for his characters at the end of Episode III in a series of mostly dialogue-less scenes, simply using his visuals to speak for themselves and not trying to overwhelm you or beat you over the head.
That brings me to the ending – and the questions I posed in the opening paragraph of this review. I remember when I complained about The Force Awakens having a bit too much fan service in it, I was told, no, it had to do that. After the terrible prequels (and I’m suddenly wondering if maybe I should reevaluate those prequels myself after watching these new films… although, na, fuck Jar Jar and the Gungans), people told me, the filmmakers had to reassure the audiences that they were in safe hands, in comfortable territory, that this is the Star Wars they love and remember and not the one they hate and wish they could forget. I was planning on going on a rant against the studios because of whom this film consistently and constantly undermines itself, but as I type this, the film sits at 90% or something on Rotten Tomatoes, 8.0/10 on IMDb, $1 billion in worldwide box office, and I realize – this is exactly what the people want. I mean, I guess I should have realized this long ago after the continual success of the assembly line products masquerading as cinema that is the Marvel franchise, but this is really what mainstream cinema has come to at present. Studios churn out calculated, machine generated products and people gobble them up because that is exactly what they want and the studios will continue to give it to them so long as they keep wanting it. Yeah, there are some slight changes here and there, but by and large, it’s a comfortable, reassuring product that people will continue to buy so long as it “works” for them.
Sadly, this is a film that I think could have worked had it not been so at odds with itself all the time. Every time it does (or tries to do) something interesting, it almost immediately negates that by resorting to some sort of fan service (like the random cameos by R2D2 and C-3PO). The first half is fairly boring, perfunctory setup for the second half which features a big battle – which, again, is almost exactly like all of the space battles we’ve seen in the original trilogy (in fact in some shots I thought they were trying to replicate shots from the ending of A New Hope as closely as possible). The ending with Princess Leia is the most egregious and offensive example I can think of – because here’s the thing: I actually found the deaths of all of the main characters, to a small extent, moving (except Donnie Yen’s death scene, which is shot in a manner that’s completely incomprehensible). I especially liked Jyn and Cassian hugging each other on the beach as the explosion engulfs them. Yet after making such a big deal out of the heroic sacrifices made by these characters, which actually almost got me to care for them when the rest of the film hadn’t, the film then rushes past them very quickly as it segues into Darth Vader killing a bunch of dudes with a lightsaber, Princess Leia uttering the word “hope,” and then we jump into hyperspace and cue end credits. It was absolutely cheap fan service, probably the cheapest of them all, and it actually made me actively dislike the film when up until that point I was merely indifferent towards it. When the film itself doesn’t care about any of its characters, why should I?