Episode 3.5: An Old Hope

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Spoilers in this one — don’t read it if you’re ever planning to see ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.

THE FORCE AWAKENS had some kind of vestigial appeal for me because I was ten when STAR WARS came out. But it was also frustrating because, like most JJ Abrams joints, it was just a remake and remix of its original. Another, even bigger Death Star? Again? Are ideas so scarce?

This new one didn’t awaken the same sentimental warmth in me because there were fewer of the original actors and less of the original John Williams leitmotifs. I enjoyed all the design and the environments (though two rocky planets in the first act was a mistake: should’ve differentiated them more). They picked up the best designs elements of the Lucas-Kirschner-Marquand trilogy, ditched the dodgy bits, added a bunch more that were stylistically in keeping and of a high standard. But the characters and plot and dialogue — ugh. OK, dialogue was never the series’ strong suit, but one does remember a few lines. There’s basically one good line in this, from the blind guy.

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Just one of the many exciting action sequences in ROGUE ONE.

I think it’s maybe a good thing that this one was less good vs. evil, black-and-white. There’s more conflict within the Rebel Alliance. But the story is very fragmented. After the first sequence we flash forward fifteen years or so. Then we start following several plotlines at once — quite different from the neat, WIZARD OF OZ like linearity of Lucas’ first effort. We meet the hero quite late in that one, because Lucas realized he had to use the robots to guide us through the story — as memory serves: when the droids meet Princess Fisher, we can then follow her and meet Grand Moff Cushing, and from then on we can intercut between droids, Fisher and Cushing. Then the droids meet Luke Hammillwalker, and we can intercut between his POV and the others (but sparingly). Luke meets Alec Kenobi, and then they meet Harrison Solo and Mayhewbacca. We don’t meet anyone before the droids meet them, except the baddies, who we meet via a kind of relay with the Princess.

Here, we just meet people all the time, whenever the committee in charge of the film feel like it, so it’s a jumble. And though the threads do intertwine more tightly to bring us to a climax on one planet, it still results in one of those horrible intercutty all-at-once climaxes that became a problem around RETURN OF THE JEDI. (STAR WARS has one climax, EMPIRE has two, JEDI has three). And it features the most ludicrous data retrieval system ever conceived, basically based on that arcade game with the claw where you try to pick up gifts.

(I think the awful inefficiency of the filing system must be why the cloned Cushing blows up the Empire’s entire records office at the end, along with the planet it’s on. There is no other possible explanation. I mean, it can’t have been in order to get the two surviving rebels, can it?)

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WARS and TREK both tend to deal in a mixture of one-dimensional and two-dimensional characters. Monsters and robots are mostly one-dimensional. C-3PO has one characteristic, he’s prissy. Chewbacca is large. Yoda is wise. The flesh-and-blood actors who show their own face-skin have slightly more facets, partly because Lucas realized they needed more, but also just because human beings tend to bring additional messiness to anything they play. Harrison Ford tends to sound bored, so his character becomes cynical and also crooked but also bored. Luke is noble and naive but also shrill and whiny.

In ROGUE ONE, the blind guy believes in the force and his pal is defined entirely by his faithfulness to the blind guy. The actors bring a little more to the table with individual line readings, but really that’s all they get to work with. It’s hard to say what makes the nice English girl in this different from the nice English girl in FORCE AWAKENS, other than backstory. The robot sounds like C-3PO only an octave lower, to which is added Chewie’s signature character trait of largeness. I can’t put any names to any characteristics of Diego Luna except he’s brave and a little ruthless. Riz Ahmed gives the best performance but it’s a miracle, since he has almost nothing to work with. Fairly early on, his brain gets tentacle-raped by Forrest Whitaker’s fat squid, and he’s a bit traumatized for the duration of a scene. Letting his combat shock last throughout the movie would have actually given him a part to play. What we get in the end is a pretty magnificent example of an actor bringing an empty outline to life by sheer force of commitment to inhabiting it with his humanity.

And then there’s Forrest Whitaker’s cyborg guy — a one-dimensional character with a two-dimensional head.

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Elsewhere we have the CGI Carrie Fisher about which all one can say is it doesn’t work, and the CGI Peter Cushing which doesn’t work and is an insult to a fine actor’s memory. I don’t care that his secretary gave permission. The idea that a bunch of nerds at computers are going to turn another thin actor into Cushing is preposterous and offensive and the results bear that out. Martin Scorsese said that as a kid seeing Hammer movies, he admired Cushing and “the precision of his movements within the frame.” The clone version certainly moves precisely — but the result is just “cut scenes” from vidgames only with a more detailed complexion.

So, my question is — given the movie’s commendably bold decision to basically kill all its characters, did someone say, “Better not make them too appealing, or people will be upset?” That doesn’t seem likely, but it’s what it felt like when I watched the film.

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Toallow a positive note — when Brian DePalma saw a rough cut of STAR WARS, the ever-obnoxious auteur sneered, “THAT’S your bad guy’s entrance?” as Dave Prowse in a plastic hat stepped into view at the end of a long corridor. This movie does give Darth Vader a much better entrance. First there’s a teaser of some guy living in a glass of milk in a big lava tower — Who lives in a house like this? The lava tower is actually an early Lucas idea for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and the partially-glimpsed, helmetless figure is actually a swipe from EMPIRE. A couple more bits. And then he gets a great action sequence at the end which sadly involves to actual characters but is very well staged, although not as good as the comparable fight in OLDBOY. But if you graft this one onto STAR WARS, Darth finally has a really strong, hissable entrance.

Did that make it worth twenty quid of our money? Hell no.

 

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22 Responses to “Episode 3.5: An Old Hope”

  1. They kind of left the tentacle mind-rape dangling, after that big build-up to it.

    I wondered if Donnie Yen and his friend were meant to be gay. (I certainly think Ethan Hawke and Lee Byung-hun were supposed to be gay in The Magnificent Seven remake. Suspect this covert gayness might be a thing now. Or maybe I’m overimagining it.)

    Once again (after Arrival) Forrest Whitaker brings a lot to the party while being shamefully underused. I wanted to see a) how he brought up the ‘orphan’ girl and trained her to be a terrorist and b) a more interesting death for him. He was supposed to be this thorn-in-the-side rebel, but then he just gives up.

    All the bits in Rogue One that I liked have been done better in other films. I reckon they should have studied Seven Samurai more closely; most of the seven don’t get much screen time or character development, but your heart still breaks when they die.

  2. And oh yeah, that data retrieval system! Reminded me of the scroll library in Zhang Yimou’s Hero. What if you wanted a scroll from the bottom of the pile?

  3. “It Started With Dumbledore” might be the essay title for this unstated gayness thing. Characters who are gay just because the author says so, outside of the actual piece of writing.

    Yen and pal may be gay. Gus Fring in Breaking Bad is almost certainly gay. But it’s coded, as if we were in the 1940s or 50s. It’s a kind of character-based Easter Egg. Subtlety is nice, breaking of stereotypes is nice, but this sort of squeamishness is not so positive, I feel.

  4. Gus Fring being on the down-low is understandable given his milieu. But I agree that it’s sad to assume the Star Wars universe would be so repressive. Unless… they’re saving up the gay fireworks for Finn and Poe Dameron. In my mind, of course, those two have already moved in together and adopted a couple of shelter dogs.

  5. I give Star Wars: The Star Wars lots of points for the guy not getting the girl because the girl is not a thing to be got, yet it’s still a happy ending. We need more of those stories. And if your journey is as externalised as Luke’s (“You’re a man now, so here’s your family burnt to death and a bar full of demons who don’t like your face”) is it fair to talk about two-dimensionality? Is anyone in Singin’ In The Rain three-dimensional? Could we enjoy either film as much – really fell like we are those people – if the characters had an inner life *as well*?

    As for the villain’s entrance: surely it’s the opening shot, and it’s a beaut.

  6. Apparently the data retrieval system is an homage to a bit in Lucas’ THX 1138. Not that that helps anyone.

    As for the rest, I agree. Which makes the 10 year old in me a bit sad.

  7. Simon, it’s a good point about the opening shot: I think when DePalma saw the rough cut, the FX weren’t in, so God knows what he saw. A version of the opening crawl that was three times longer, and some WWII dogfights, by all accounts.

    Justifying a ten minute suspense sequence as a homage to another film isn’t going to convince us, no.

    I wasn’t really knocking the original Star Wars characters — I do think that kind of space opera benefits from simplicity. But these new characters aren’t simple, they’re largely BLANK. See Anne’s point about Seven Samurai.

    Just a bit more of a nudge on Yen and pal, something homophobes could blink and miss if they chose, would have made that quite progressive for a big film. In big films there are basically no gay characters, it seems.

  8. Matthew Davis Says:

    Oh, there are vast tumblr worlds devoting to “shipping” the gay couple in Rogue One. Within hours of the film being released it had already started.

    The consensus as to why they’re there but not there, the oblique allusive (deniable?) nature of their relationship as depicted in the film itself is required because of sales to other countries: Russia, China, etc.

    Of course I’m amused that just about the only character/actor in everyone of these bloody films is the “faggy” robot (so described in numerous contemporary skits and parodies). Perseverance pays off. Much like Roddy Mcdowall ties together all the original Planet of the Apes films. Homosexuals only permitted in these sf films in very fancy dress – and only ever one at a time.

  9. I hated this robot. The idea of him being tactless and unfiltered was amusing in principle, but he never said anything funny. The one in Interstellar was much better, and he was a walking chocolate biscuit.

    One day after seeing it, I have forgotten everybody’s names. I forgot most of them while it was on.

  10. Matthew Davis Says:

    I thought the name Jyn Erso was wonderfully ill-suited to its performer. Felicity Jones says her character’s name in a rather prep school fashion making it sound almost exactly like Gin Arsehole, a likely counterpart to Ken Tynan’s unforgettably horrible Vodka Enema. Throw in some random punctuation to break up the typography and V’Od-Ka! eNeMa could just as easily be the baddy in the next Stars Wars film.

  11. I was 30 when “Star Wars” came out. I know Mark Hammill slightly as he was good friend of a very good friend of mine, now deceased. Mark’s a nice guy. Never met Carrie Fisher (alas) though we had mutual fiends and she proved a great source of information during the FIRST Michael Jackson child molestation scandal as they had the same dentist. I interviewed Harrison Ford when “The Empire Strikes Back” came out and found him charming in a surly seen-it-all-way that’s only achievable to someone who has won stardom right when they were thinking of giving up acting altogether. On seeing “Star Wars” Sally Kellerman famously quipped of Harrison “Hey — he just finished refurbishing my kitchen!” As for the film itself it’s only interest for me is the fact that it’s a remake of Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” with the droids playing the roles the peasants played in that great Japanese entertainment. As for “Teh Ghey” it should be THERE or not. Characters that “might be read as gay” don’t make it for me, thank-you-very-much.

  12. I’m not sure any of the characters are well-developed enough to be gay or even have a sexuality. JJ and Kasdan may have used the original film’s story beats as a guidepost, but they actually, in their very professional Hollywood way, quickly created characters that felt lived-in. The introductory sequence of Rey, which doesn’t even have English dialogue spoken by her, tells us much more about her personality and circumstances than the material we get about Jyn Erso here.

    What Gareth Edwards has over JJ as a director is a real sense of scale, and the three-setting climax really worked for me here, whereas in The Force Awakens the climactic dogfights seemed like an afterthought — which it really was, as the actual character dramas were going on on the ground.

  13. Edwards can do scale but that’s ALL. He did it in Monsters and Godzilla, while failing with plot, characters, performances. The action is OK I guess but the script lets that down by not providing interesting goals and problems. I thought for a minute Riz was going to have to repark his spaceship closer to the master switch, which would have been the most exciting development in the film.

    Agree that the era when coded gay characters were subversive and impressive is over, and we should now be looking at honest and unapologetic depictions.

  14. I haven’t actually seen Rogue One yet, chiefly because it looks exactly as you describe it. And because G Edwards appears on the evidence of Godzilla to be some kind of infuriating anti-genius. (Not to be confused with the Gareth Edwards who produced this – plug plug – who is great http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b087p3mn). Redlettermedia, who were so great about keeping the Star Wars flame burning through the hell of the prequels, put it perfectly when Force Awakens came out: it’s “fun space adventures with likeable characters”. It was that simple. The other thing Force Awakens got right was showing scenes that could be recreated with furniture and figures about six inches tall. Those toys were the best toys. They were a huge part of the original allure for those of us born in 1974, and that world – filled with unimaginably huge, bannister-less architecture – was where we went to play. I have no idea how I’ll feel see Rogue One, but I’m not a big fan of fan films.

  15. Randy Cook Says:

    I agree that the STAR WARS universe, or galaxy, or whatever it is, is fundamentally epicene, as evidenced by the romantic leads in film #1 turning out to be siblings in film #2, with no effect whatever upon the narrative.

  16. Did it cause them to re-edit the first one to take the kiss out? Or did they just leave that there? It’s surprising in a way but also in a way a relief, given Lucas’ out-and-out insistence that Indiana Jones ought to be a pedophile… just keep George away from the sexy stuff.

  17. Except the romantic leads in #1 are Leia and Han, aren’t they? And it’s really rubbed in Luke’s face.
    Was there a kiss that I missed? Is it in #2 – sorry, ug #5?
    Oh yeah, that Indiana Smith meeting… “I was a child!” ” You knew what you were doing.” Oh, them forties.

  18. There is a fleeting kiss in the original film right before they swing over the chasm; it’s not really romantic and you might even miss it if you blink. Empire has the lingering kiss.

  19. I may have built up the kiss slightly — it got its own mention in the novelisation and comic book, which made it harder to brush aside. There’s basically no other romance in the film — the idea of Han and Leia as a sparring Hawksian couple is invented in the second film and sort of gaslights you into thinking that’s what they were before.

  20. The only gaslighting is from Leia. It’s there in the medals, it’s there the moment they meet. Leia doesn’t give Luke a second look “you’re not very tall for a storm trooper”, but Han gets “you’re flying in that thing? You’re braver than I thought!” She really tries to get under his skin. It’s not Hawks (it’s never Hawks) but it’s not far from Chekhov: “Maybe your friend’s not so dumb after all” – that’s not what Luke wants to hear, surely. Luke wants the attention. Luke’s expecting to rescue the princess and live happily ever after. Han’s expecting to do a job and leave. Leia doesn’t let either of those things happen. Bad news for Luke, good news for Han.

  21. The end of the novelization of the original film is retroactively hilariously wistful as Luke gazes upon Leia longingly during the medal ceremony …

  22. Ha! The many perils of venturing inside those pasteboard characters’ heads…

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