I, Rebel

Published in
7 min readDec 31, 2016

1. Rogue One is like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla in many ways. One such way: Felicity Jones rescuing some random kid from peril (who then departs) just as Aaron Taylor-Johnson rescued some random kids from peril (who then departed) in order to establish: Compassion. Another way it’s like Godzilla is that it’s visually confusing, and dramatically and narratively confusing, also. Or: ‘bad’.

This and this and this can explain why in detail.

2. Unsurprisingly, Rogue One is another film full of reminders. But considering that, and considering that the Death Star plans were the film’s McGuffin, it was surprising we didn’t have the Emperor recreate this kind of scene:

Prolepsis: the audience knows before the characters what’s going to happen. We know the Death Star will be destroyed but then replaced but then destroyed again. Meaning Episode 3.5 will be equal parts heroic and tragic. Yes? No? Hey look, there’s R2!

To go beyond the more obvious cameos, while simultaneously stooping to the referential level of the film: Where have we seen that Rebel pilot before, the one who looked like a grizzled biker / urban woodsman?

Oh my god! The Orgazoid!

Meanwhile the film’s reprogrammed Imperial Droid is like a jobsworth from a different British comedy:

Unfortunately, though, comic relief K2SO doesn’t just annoy its rebel colleagues. The droid’s joke (and reference) of calculating the ever-stacking odds gets milked for all its worth - which isn’t much. The measly pay-off? The droid telling Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso that she’s consistently ‘unexpected’.

3. The film milks as well and so fumbles its movie title moment. You want me to say it? I want you to say it, yes! You want the word? The word…? I will not flinch. You will not flinch from…? Rogue One. Rogue One!

4. Most indulgent is Vader, who lives on Mount Doom with the fires that once melted and forged him. The upkeep for a house built on lava must be crazy. What does he do there all day, chat with space-Alfred? He comes up with zingers apparently (while in the bath tube). At last, we have our black James Bond. ‘“I’m sorry I had to Force the issue.” Yeah - I’ll use that when I kill Captain Needa.’

This whole sequence was very Ice King.

5. Speaking of violent past traumas, what if it turns out that Pig-nose and Butt-mouth in Mos Eisley were survivors of the massacre at Jedha? Maybe it was out of PTSD that they picked on Luke in A New Hope, you ever think about that? So what does that make arm-lopping Obi-Wan?

6. And just what is the Star Wars universe’s problem with prosthetics? (See Darth Grievous.) Does everyone Dark Sided or Dark Side Adjacent have breathing problems? Does Obi-Wan walk through trauma wards and ICU’s scoffing ‘More machine now than man’?

7. Traditionally the Star Wars opposition has been between the mechanical and the natural (the robot arms of the Skywalkers the first mark of the beast). Nowadays there sure is more and more Sympathy for Robots going around: Wall-E, Big Hero 6, Her, and this film. The kids these days caring less about their loved ones than their iPhones might be the sort of inane idea peddled by a newspaper cartoon or columnist. Nevertheless, it feels like we’re being… prepped for something. That darn robot took my job, but it whimpered so sadly when I made to shoot it with a blaster that I couldn’t go through with it in the end!

8. Maybe it’s actors who’ll be the next to have their jobs taken. CGI Tarkin and CGI Leia are not terrible. Not convincing either — but they are fascinating. We’re still in the uncanny valley, but climbing up a slope.

9. Why, though, do the Rebels bring Princess Leia, and hence their other top secret plan, to a battlefront? Is Scarif en route to Tatooine and they’re being environmentally conscious? If the film really had to end on Leia’s image and her line - ‘Hope’ - (“But what kind your highness, surely not an old hope?” / “Why it’s funny you ask…”) it shouldn’t have been too hard to build towards it more credibly. Working backwards from your desired ending is a standard writing trick. Instead the film is like Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy: always looking forward, anxious to be the connective tissue between later parts of the franchise.

10. Then as the credits rolled, I was very surprised to see Michael Giacchino’s name as the soundtrack composer. Your powers are weak old man.

Now for a musical interlude with one of his better moments:

11. It’s fine if you think that Saw Gerrera and his militants are badass while the Rebel leadership in comparison are prevaricating cowards. But who survives, who makes it to a film’s ending and for what reason, is usually on purpose and so has meaning (look at horror films). A film isn’t a pic’n’mix of signs - it’s a structure; and just as history is key to politics, order is key to narrative. Otherwise it’d be like someone telling you a joke about a high-society countess being traduced in some Marx Brothers fashion, and you nodding at the punchline before saying it’s great to see a woman portrayed in a position of power.

12. Those fanatical militants that get wiped out wear turbans and listen to oud music, and your problem with the film is that it’s too Woke? The female lead is almost entirely passive / reactive, and your problem with the film is that it’s too Woke? Jyn’s plot function is not something she does but someone she is: she’s ‘Stardust’, the nickname (from her dad) that lets her and Diego Luna find the secret file in the data library. (Earlier on, it was who she was - her father’s daughter - that granted the Rebel Alliance an audience with Saw Gerrera.) Other than that? She fixes an aerial and gives some speeches while everyone else does most of the fighting. She’s the protagonist in name only (in nickname only). Call it the Katniss Problem.

I’m saying this is bad, I’m saying that her character is confusingly drawn and in the end cosmetic in a way that’s sexist (all the more damagingly so for being taken as empowering). Which makes the frame of the reception of the film, as pop culture liberals versus alt-crybabies, a sort of phantom conflict. It’s real inasmuch as the rage is real, but it’s a conflict about something that doesn’t exist. It’s like some men on the internet said, ‘Boo Downton Abbey is anarchist’, and instead of saying, ‘No it isn’t (if only it was!)’, people have automatically let their defence of the film be defined for them by their dumb or bad faith opponents.

13. Other Things Rogue One Could Have Done, if you’re asking:

To make Jyn more active, she could’ve, at the start of the film, exposed her identity and whereabouts to both the Empire and the Rebels by prying into her father’s whereabouts. This way she’d have been doing something, and her thwarted reunion might’ve made you feel something.

Speaking of, why wasn’t she the one who had to decide whether to kill her imperial scientist father or save him and reunite at last? Dramatic conflict and so on. And speaking of that, we either should’ve known it was still worth the Rebel Alliance killing him (the Death Star wasn’t finished yet, say) or had it made clearer they were going to kill him when, tragic irony of ironies, he no longer needed to be.

14. Not that any of this matters.

15. Behind which of your rebellious positions – political, artistic, critical - lies the conformist, automatic, even the mechanical?

As with everyone I just happen to have exactly the right ratio of enthusiasm for and ironic distance from the things I like and believe are good. While at the same time believing that people who dislike the very same things only do so out of the pedantry of the wounded nerd. Yes those are the only two possible options!

A lot of people seemed to have liked Rogue One because it’s not ostentatiously bad (“I didn’t hate it”). There’s nothing too dorky or lame. Nothing in it you’d risk ridicule for saying you’d liked. Why give it a hard time? But the reason we won’t remember the film fondly in years to come is because it is dramatically incapable of making you feel anything more than a glazed-over reaction at the canon spectacle, or a murmur here and there about ‘themes’ (“I found it interesting how the film explored factional politics in rebellions”).

It’s two-for-two now for the films of the new era having to be rewritten or reshot out of studio nerves. The result in both cases: an empty chrome chassis, a well-dressed corpse. The odds keep getting stacked against there ever again being a great Star Wars film. Because for that you’d need to imagine Disney saying to filmmakers: We trust you to make another film in the series that is at once successful, populist, artistic and new. Legend says it happened before, once or twice. A flickering hologram of the Big Mouse asks, ‘Can it be done?’ The hotshot young directors all bow their heads. ‘No, my master.’

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Novelist, book and film critic, author of 'The Prick' (Open Pen 2019) and tie-in 'The Pricklet'; more writing at 'Artless' at https://mazinsaleem.substack.com