Even in this age of the mega-franchise, one sad truth remains – a franchise must die. Actors might become too expensive, popularity might wane, and a story must come to an end – no matter how many movies you split a single book into. So what’s a movie studio to do? Let a billion-dollar earner just go away? Of course not!
That’s where the spin-off franchise comes in – we get to stay in the beloved universe while casually switching out costly performers. Prequels have become especially popular – even after we all collectively decided to forget that The Hobbit trilogy happened. Last year, we got the Harry Potter offshoot Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and, of course, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (And they are not alone, there’s been long-standing rumors of a 1970’s-set Die Hard prequel.) Yet despite the widespread critical and commercial acclaim of the two 2016 entries, these successes are a bad omen for things to come. (Full spoilers for both movies within.)
Now that every Internet commentator has offered their thoughts on Rogue One, it’s time for me to finally offer my two galactic credits. (Star Wars callback! Star Wars points!) Rogue One is probably the best example of what these new spin-off franchises (regardless of where they come from) will try to do/try to be, which also means that it’s also the worst example. Yes, in the Great Internet Commentator Rogue One divide, I am firmly in the ‘anti’ camp not just for the flaws in the movie (namely characters and story…but who cares about those minor elements with that space battle at the end!), but what these issues represent going forward.
Sure, Rogue One got a lot of the look of Star Wars right in costuming, ship design, and grittiness, but it’s biggest failure was one of the original trilogy’s biggest strength: the characters. Star Wars became STAR WARS because the characters in the original series were able to rise above their archetypes. By combining memorable performances and a vague-yet-intricate mythology, Han Solo became the definitive rogue and Leia was more than just a princess in distress. Alternatively, none of the characters in Rogue One were able to be more than their (arguably more interesting) archetypes. Chirrut Imwe wasn’t an interesting Blind Swordsman, he was interesting because he was a Blind Swordsman. Cassian Andor wasn’t an interesting Burnt Out Spy, it was just interesting to see a Burnt Out Spy in a Star Wars movie. All of the edge and rebelliousness we were expecting from Jyn Erso simply wasn’t there; she was just a good soldier. Actors such as Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen provided a much needed weight to their characters (particularly when compared to the rest of the squad), but they still suffered from the same underwritten quality as everyone else. Now, I’m sure most of these characters probably had a great deal more complexity before the reshoot controversy – but I can’t give a movie points for things I assume didn’t make the final cut.
The lack of character in these characters adversely affected the entire film, especially at the end. When everyone dies (and everyone dies), there’s no power to their sacrifice. It feels like they meet their respective ends because it was decided early on in the writing stage that everyone must die to really hammer home themes of sacrifice and tragedy, rather than it feeling as a natural outgrowth of the story. Sure, some might argue that is the point of the movie as a whole – the Rogue One team essentially consists of average nobodies, so their deaths don’t really “matter,” like the faceless grunts in any war movie, but that doesn’t have to be true. Just because characters are insignificant in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean that they’re insignificant in their own movie. Rogue One has been compared to Saving Private Ryan for obvious reasons (except that the WW2 movie begins strong and peters out, while Rogue One ends strong after petering throughout), but when Captain Miller tells Private Ryan “Earn It” it means something; we remember that moment 20 years later. When Jyn and Cassian die watching the city explode, it’s emotionally hollow. Dana and Marty dying together at the end of The Cabin in the Woods had more emotional significance than anyone’s ultimate fate in Rogue One. Of course, our emotion at the end of Rogue One wasn’t supposed to be tied into anything that happened to the characters in Rogue One, was it? It was seeing CGI Leia saying the word “Hope.” It’s not Rogue One we leave ‘feeling’, but A New Hope. Sure it’s a cheap trick, but the rest of the movie was just as dependent on our associations with the earlier film to elicit some sort of reaction.
Plot-wise, the movie fared no better. Any movie, including mindless action movies, should pay off what it sets up. Naturally, most movies will have storylines that are unexplored or even abandoned, but when you spend the first 2/3 of the movie talking about Kyber crystals and Jyn’s necklace, they should come into play somehow at some point, but they don’t. This isn’t clever misdirection, it’s sloppiness at its most apparent. This would be a minor issue if the characters rose above their material, but they didn’t. And likewise, the lack of decent characters would be a minor issue if the plot or dialogue rose above what is to be expected in a generic war movie, but they didn’t either.
Yet here’s the rub – who cares? Rogue One‘s amazing box office shows that the audience doesn’t care. Its mostly positive reviews show that the critics don’t care either. DID YOU SEE THAT AMAZING SPACE BATTLE AT THE END? That’s all that matters. And yes, the final space battle was great, but it doesn’t make up for the lack-of-movie that came before it. Or more accurately, it shouldn’t. The original Star Wars knew how to tie in story elements from the beginning to the end and how to give us characters and character arcs; it didn’t rely exclusively on the trench run for all its good will. With Rogue One, the trench run was essentially all it had … and callbacks. We got AT-STs and X-Wings and other ships and 3PO and those two guys from the Mos Eisley cantina – why would anyone want anything else?
I’d say Rogue One was cheap fan service at its most cynical, but it raises a more significant question: is it cynical if the majority of people enjoy it? Put another way, if the purpose of this movie, of any movie, is to produce fun, escapist entertainment, and most people find it fun, escapist entertainment, does the lack of quality story or characters matter? You want Star Destroyers, you got Star Destroyers. You want Darth Vader, you got Darth Vader. It doesn’t matter how irrelevant the new stuff is because we don’t need new stuff. It doesn’t matter how poorly structured the screenplay is because an exciting space battle and Darth Vader’s castle apparently trumps that. But if everyone else is having a good time, who am I to say anything otherwise? (And yes, I know how pretentious this all sounds.)
Between Star Wars and Harry Potter, my history lies with Star Wars. I really don’t have a history with Potter, so maybe I came in with less baggage, or maybe I came in with more; I want to like Star Wars, I don’t care about liking Potter. And admittedly, I didn’t think Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was all that remarkable. I thought the stuff with the beasts felt too disconnected from the stuff with Grindlewald and MCUSA, and vice versa, and neither had enough substance to carry a movie on their own. Plus Beasts had its own share of dropped storylines and subplots (e.g. the Senator’s murder, William Randolph Voight), but at least I can acknowledge it tried harder at building its own mythology and characters than Rogue One did. (Assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that Rogue One cared about doing that in the first place…) I got the sense there was more to explore in the Beastsiverse, whereas most of what Rogue One had was already taken care of to great effect in the original trilogy. Jacob’s smile at the end and Queenie breaking the human/wizard segregation had more emotional resonance than everyone dying in Rogue One because it felt like something the characters had decided on their own, instead of the plot deciding it for them.
But once again – who cares? We’ve been told that the sequels will focus more on Dumbledore and Grindlewald because we know those names more than we know Newt Scamander and Tina Goldstein, and their histories tie closer into the more popular elements of Harry Potter and is thus a safer bet for future films. Even the casting of Johnny Depp as Grindlewald is evidence of this – if there’s any actor who has spent the past several years coasting on his “greatest hits,” it’s the increasingly hammy Depp. (I would have much rather seen Colin Farrell continue as the villain in some capacity.)
Is the lesson that even when you can do something new, and do it quasi-successfully, you’re still prone to fall back into what’s familiar and comfortable? Why not? The audience has shown (or at least indicated) they don’t want better or different – or, more accurately, don’t care if they get better or different. For as flawed as the Alien-prequel Prometheus was, at least it tried to explore different ideas and concepts; its sequel, Alien: Covenant (coming May 2017) just looks like a conventional Alien movie, complete with the classic Xenomorph design as its main selling point. If people worldwide are billions of dollars worth of happy just to see an AT-AT Walker again or hear the name Hogwarts, why should the studios second guess the “member berry” phenomenon? The studio gets what they want, and the audience gets what they want. Beyond that, there’s cantankerous online critics who’ll complain but end up seeing these movies anyway. So, once again, who cares?
Many of us (myself included) were willing to overlook the flaws of The Force Awaken because we understood it as a soft reboot that had to ease us into the new universe, with the hopes that Star Wars Episode VIII would provide more originality. (How else to explain so many people being okay with the sudden third act appearance of Ginormous Epic Ultra Death Star?) And maybe it will. But after that, why bother? Disney knows that it’s not essential to reinvent the wheel, because we love the wheel we already have and a new wheel is an unproven commodity and a risk they don’t need to take. So while I still think the Han Solo movie is a terrible concept (are all these Star Wars Stories going to be about long-dead people?), I again fully recognize – who cares? As long as it has a cameo by Boba Fett, its flaws will fade into the background. After all, you’re not going to get a tear-strewn Trailer Reaction Video by showing things people don’t know.