It could be said that Rogue One was one of the most disappointing releases of 2016. I won’t be saying that though, because I wasn’t stupid enough to be roped in by the hype – it was never going to be anything but a sad piece of fan-fellatio; a blend of bright colours and loud noises that did the barest-fucking-minimum in adding to the Star Wars story, while maximising box office performance. To be honest, I wasn’t going to even bother with this – I missed most of 2016 doing my film festival, and was going to do a catch-up post – but it turns out in my absence most of you have developed the most repulsive of diseases; brand loyalty. It’s like you spent too much on plastic Stormtrooper gear to admit to yourselves this was a bad mis-step.
There are a number of reasons why I don’t understand why you are so enthralled with this movie, but let’s start with this. Rogue One: A Disney Cash-Cow is a film for the skin-deep fans. It was released at Christmas to push aspects of the old films back into public consciousness to flog decontextualised merchandise – to sell Stormtrooper plushies and Darth Vader onesies. This cutification of the franchise is itself bemusing considering Stormtroopers are Space-Nazis, and the charred corpses of Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle don’t exactly scream “cute pyjama set material” – but I digress. During this cynical process, Rogue One literally ignores the most basic of storytelling practice, completely avoiding exposition of any kind. Curious about what the Force actually does? Want to see what the weapon made of “kyber crystal” looks like? Intrigued by why a gurning android seems to have unearthed Peter Cushing’s corpse in order to wear his face as an ill-fitting Halloween mask? Well FUCK YOU. Buy some more tat – it’ll fill the void in meaning that our story failed to.
And let’s return to that for a second. Peter Cushing, who passed away in 1994, is disturbing proof that even in death, Uncle Walt owns you. This is a film that was not in the works when he was alive, his role in it is superfluous, and there are actors alive from the originals who they could have asked to cameo instead. Ian McDiarmid, the EMPEROR HIMSELF, is still knocking about, it’s not like he’s too precious about his roles to do it, either – he lent his voice to Angry Birds Star Wars II: Join the Pork Side last year! Instead, we have a CGI desecration of one of the most respected actors of British horror, animated apparently by someone who never saw how a human face works. Cushing was noted for his capacity to blend his evil roles with a very English charm – as Victor Frankenstein he could move from the scene of a murder to asking for the marmalade at breakfast seemlessly. It’s what makes his small role in A New Hope memorable; his destruction of Alderaan is not contemptuous, it is smug – a small grin almost creeps across his face – we can read this as him playing with the helpless Leia. Then suddenly a very clear malice escapes, taking us by surprise, as he interrogates her before flitting effortlessly back to that thin, unnerving smile. His subtle facial changes show these acts are ‘minor’ to him, almost boring to the extent he has to entertain himself with a needless “show of force”. That kind of villain is terrifying – being unable to tell where we stand, to read his true emotions, predict his plan. Well, that mystique went straight out of the air-lock this time, with Tarkin’s perpetually twitching ghost-face stuck firmly in “Bastard Mode” – and the voice-actor delivering a charmless drawl that fails to even amount to a Saturday Night Live impression. He is the worst thing in you can be in the world of horror – a try-hard. That’s something only a true Hammer icon can truly nail. Not only is this practice completely unnecessary then (unless your star pulls an Oliver Reed mid-film, you have no excuse to full-on Weekend at Bernie’s a screen icon), not only is it a crass, disrespectful measure that only appeals to the worst kind of fair-weather fans who enjoy spotting cheap “references” in films like the plagiarised jokes in a Family Guy episode – but it actively damages the film, detracting from the feeling of menace one could glean from a living equivalent of Cushing and replacing it with one of needless spectacle.
And that brings me to the grand, over-arching problem at the heart of it all. This film is completely uncomplicated emotionally; we aren’t invited to invest in anyone we meet on any real level. Perhaps that’s because they are all going to die at the end. Sue me – it deserved to be ‘spoiled’ if you can’t work it out from the fact the writers made zero effort to build these people as three dimensional characters – just like you don’t name the pig that you raise to make pork-chops out of for fear of growing attached to it. Sadly some of this seems to be down to the casting process, frankly. Instead of trying to create authentic voices that people can relate to, Disney has diversified their cast. Now, don’t worry, I haven’t gone full Jonathon Pie – I think diversity is great – but you can have diversity of ethnicity in your cast and still write well for them. It is not an either or – and it just smacks of lazy box-ticking exercises to deliver broad audience demographics. I mean, is Star Wars really more diverse for featuring a Bulletproof Monk rip-off as an Asian character in a lead role, or is this just moving the franchise’s stereotyping away from CGI-based racial caricaturing? Meanwhile, the universe is still completely void of any homosexual representation beyond the outdated and catty interactions of robots. Is that because Disney can’t face LGBT+ rights at all? Probably not – but it’s considered a powder-keg they can avoid and still cash in. After all, the LGBT+ community are always something else too – black, Asian, female – there is always another demographic hook to employ. The problem is the universe seems bereft of sexual impulse entirely – nobody is attracted to anyone. Asexuals are thoroughly represented – and were that proportional that’d be fine – but nobody here exhibits one of the most relatable human traits of all here. The most we get is a light hand brushing. Phwoar. Watch out, Han and Leia.
Then of course there is the injection of leftist politicking into the story. If this was designed to make the Rogue One crew more relatable, it doesn’t, it just serves to make the absurdly simple plot seem convoluted. When the fact there is a hole in the Death Star comes to light from the man who put it there on purpose, you would think that might be information taking a punt on – regardless of the reliability of the source. Nope. No takers. The meeting shuts down, the whole Rebel Alliance is resigned to defeat, apart from our heroes, who vow to do exactly what they have been doing the entire film – unquestionably the right thing.
It is not intriguing, it grants us no insight into the complexity of rebellion, and it drags severely. This has been upheld as inspired, surprisingly, by some members of the real Left. Supposedly it becomes a fable of the internal difficulties of rebellion that can derail the best intentioned of activists – but it really doesn’t deserve that much credit. There is no great internal scandal (see Divergent, where the most caring faction’s leader is conflictingly an abusive father), no trap of reform laid by the Empire to crush the Rebellion by demobilising it and ultimately co-opt it (The Wind That Shakes the Barley shows how some Irish rebels willingly become the agents of capitalist oppression for the sake of gaining a compromised nation state). Apart from anything else though, it commits a cardinal sin – which is that in some capacity you should always write what you know. Nobody in Disney creative knows how rebellion works. They haven’t since the McCarthyite era purged the unionists from Hollywood. As a result, the great conundrum faced by the Rebel Alliance is whether to fight a battle they know they will lose – but after which they will be slaughtered anyway. Now beyond the fact the speeches read something like a corporate rewrite of Ken Loach debate scene, they end in a deadlock – which supposedly means nothing can be done. For future reference, when an organisation needs to decide something like this, you call a majority vote. That’s what you do. Then if it goes the wrong way, you despair. Not before. A little research goes a long way.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s nothing to enjoy in Rogue One, I’m just saying that the majority of it is a boring mess. I don’t care about anyone, I don’t care that they are all going to die, I don’t care that Vader shows up to kebob a line of rebels at the end, and I don’t think I was ever invited to care. That’s the hardest pill to swallow out of anything. The original trilogy, and to an extent The Force Awakens wanted me to care. They spent time trying to woo me, to convince me these are people I want to succeed. Rogue One doesn’t really want me to feel anything – it wants me to buy things later, and who wants to feel used?