So when I said last time I’d post Part Two “after Christmas,” I didn’t intend it to be literally after the entire Octave, but that’s how it shook out. Welcome back, and here’s wishing you all a joyous and blessed New Year!
SPOILERS FOR ROGUE ONE AHEAD. (Also The Last Samurai, if you haven’t seen that.)
So, last week in Part One, I talked about some of the cool stuff they did in Rogue One. Mostly it boiled down to genre and tone, and how the movie opens the door for lots of different kinds of stories in the Star Wars milieu. I didn’t talk about all the nerdy Star Wars-y stuff, the Easter eggs for fans, or anything like that, because yeah that stuff is cool but not necessary to the story, and it’s all been pretty thoroughly canvassed elsewhere.
But if Rogue One is cool but not perfect, then: what are the raisins in this delicious Star Wars trail mix?
Let’s start with the biggest raisin of them all:
CGI Tarkin: Let’s leave aside for now the ethical question of, Should dead actors be resurrected as CGI golems to suit the “needs” of a production? or even the creative question of, The actor who originated this iconic role 30 years ago is dead, but the character needs to be in our new film; how do we achieve this end? Both interesting questions and well worth exploring, which the filmmakers answered (in reverse order): “Build a CGI golem, obviously,” and, “Yes, why not?” Let’s not even quibble about whether or not Tarkin actually needed to be in the film at all, and assume for creative and continuity purposes that he totally did. (At the very least, he’s a fan favorite and one of the best villains in the Star Wars universe, and his appearances in Rebels would make his absence in this film rather conspicuous.)
All well and good, we’ve decided to make a digital golem of a deceased actor, and integrate him into a film starring (mostly) live actors. Technology has advanced to the point that this appears a feasible plan.
Taken in isolation, animated Tarkin looks great.
The problem is integration. Admittedly, not everyone is going to have the jarring “What the hell am I even looking at?!” experience that I had in the theatre. A lot of people loved the effect, and I bet a lot more didn’t see anything unusual (the buddy I saw the film with didn’t even notice that Tarkin was animated–but then, she’s not a visual person). For me, whose training is in visual arts and in animation, however, you might as well have drawn Tarkin on notebook paper in crayon and cut that out and pasted it on top of the film plate. He just doesn’t fit in.
Let me repeat, the artists who worked on the effect did an amazing job. If this character appeared in a game or a show or a film surrounded by other characters also created through digital effects, everyone would rave about the amazing graphics, and it would be held up as a standard of what we can do with technology. He is so close to being perfect.
But he’s not perfect, and the differences between the CGI character and the human actors are subtle but profound: the skin texture that’s just not quite, the mouth movements that are a little too. As I say, many viewers probably wouldn’t notice, and many others have praised the effect, but to me it just glaringly doesn’t work.
(And let’s please not talk about the Princess Leia golem at the end of the film. Showing her face was a bad choice, visually and from a storytelling perspective. I get it, you want to make the fanboys squee, but it would have made much more sense to keep her veiled and/or in shadow, keep the audience wondering, “Okay, who is this lady? Guess we’ll have to find out in the sequel!”*)
(For further reading, it looks like the filmmakers have talked a bit about what informed their decision to go with CGI characters. Will we be seeing more digital golems of deceased actors in our big budget, special-effects-laden films in the future? ILM’s John Knoll doesn’t think so, but honestly I think now that the door is open, there is no way other filmmakers won’t go for it, and living actors now will–or ought to–think about including clauses in their contracts or wills* about whether or not it’s okay to use their likenesses once they’ve died. The conversation about the ethics of digital pseudo-resurrection needs to start happening, because technology will continue to advance.)
*Get it? Because the sequel is Episode IV? Right? Right?!
**I am not a lawyer.
Too Many Characters, Not Enough Character: If there is one thing I truly love in my entertainment, it is a rag-tag cast of highly disparate individuals joining together for a common cause, learning to love and trust and rely upon each other, and performing mighty deeds: Firefly did it, and Rebels is doing it. It doesn’t even have to be on a spaceship (although spaceships help). Most of my favorite shows have that “teamwork and overcoming differences for the sake of the greater good” thing going on.
And Rogue One?
Well, I mean, it tries. The problem is, Firefly and Rebels and Agents of SHIELD and The Flash etc etc are all TV shows, so you have hours and hours in which to establish characters, give them arcs, tell their stories, develop their personalities. A two-hour film must be much more concise. The characterization must be masterful.
I’m not even just talking about what the characters say and how they behave, although those are important. Film is a visual medium (if you have the time, treat yourself to greatness and listen to Guillermo del Toro’s commentary on Pacific Rim for more on this subject), and it is a deliberate medium. Not just how a character behaves, but how he or she looks, how she dresses, her movement and expressions when she’s not speaking, how she is framed and lit, what colors are associated with her, all work to display who this person is. For instance, think about Darth Vader’s appearances in Rogue One. Now, this is kind of cheating, since we already know that Vader is Dark Side incarnate, but even still. Every time we see him he’s surrounded by mist, or evil glowing red light (always used to symbolize the Dark Side); he dominates the frame like a monster. All the visuals surrounding Darth Vader tell you, “This guy is BAD. Do NOT mess with him.”
(Side note: I liked his pun. Yes, I did. Take that, haters.)
The Rogue One crew, however, are sketches at best. You can do a lot with a sketch; a sketch can have more life and appeal than a finished portrait, depending on the skill of the artist. And even in an ensemble story, there are always a couple of characters you want to develop more, and a few who are going to remain somewhat rudimentary, and that’s okay. Rogue One‘s problem was that the “main” characters (Jyn and Cassian) were also rudimentary, to the point where supporting cast members like Chirrut and even the twitchy pilot Bodhi had more actual appeal. (I thought Bodhi was great, and would have loved to see more about him.)
One argument I’ve heard is that you don’t want fully-realized characters for this movie, because they all die at the end anyway.
Character is everything. If you’re not telling a story about people, what’s the point? Plus, if you get your audience really invested in your characters, and then kill them all off, the emotional impact is far more devastating. Think about the end of The Last Samurai. Not a great movie, but the final charge of the samurai is heart-breaking because the audience has come to know and love these people over the course of the film. Take that away, and you’re left with a vague sadness and a sense of “dude, that sucks.” The end of Rogue One was good, but it could have been an Epically Awesome Gut-Punch of Feels, with just a bit more attention to character.
A Downer Real-World Thing: I’ve heard a lot of folks saying things like, “Wow, Rogue One was so great, it really puts Force Awakens to shame!”
Despite both being Star Wars films, the two movies have nothing in common. It’s like saying, “Wow, this steak is so delicious, it puts that cinnamon roll to shame!” Yes, they’re both food, and if you like a big chunk of meat you’re probably going to prefer the steak to the pastry, but if you’re in the mood for pastry you’re not going to want a steak. They’re two different things, and we can let them be different and laud the good qualities of each without tearing the other one down.
But was Rogue One a good steak? (Or trail mix? My food metaphors are becoming confused…)
Like I said back in Part One, Rogue One is very not perfect. Is it good? Well, I liked it, and I’d like to get back to the theatre to see it one more time. Its characters are sketchy, but they are evocative, even Jyn Erso, who is the most cardboard-y of them all. I would have liked to see the filmmakers take more time to develop her, I would have liked to see her relationship with Saw Gerrera better displayed, I would have liked to see the developing trust and camaraderie of the Rogue One crew filled in a bit … I would have liked to have seen a lot of things (like about half of the shots and lines that were in the trailers that didn’t make it into the final cut), but as it stands, it’s a cool movie and a cool entry into the Star Wars universe.
Hopefully this movie’s success means even more and more varied kinds of films under the Star Wars umbrella: a Star Wars romance (and we all know Episode II doesn’t count)? A Star Wars detective story? A Star Wars political thriller? I am excited to see what the future holds.