Why Hollywood blockbusters suck now (featuring Rogue One)
A while ago, I finally got around to seeing Disney™ Presents Rogue One™: A Star Wars™ Story. Based on the title of this post, you might assume that I hated it. But I didn’t! I actually liked it better than The Force Awakens, which surprised me since most of the buzz around the movie was pretty downbeat.
However, the movie does have a lot of pretty serious flaws, and they’re pretty much the same flaws that I keep seeing time and time again in big Hollywood blockbusters. Why don’t we go through them in internet-friendly list form?
(Spoilers for Rogue One, obviously)
1. It’s choppier than the Atlantic ocean during a hurricane
Rogue One starts with a flashback to the moment when Jyn Erso was effectively orphaned by the Empire. Then, after the title card, the story jumps between five different planets, each of which gets their own on-screen text introduction. In order, this is what happens (keep in mind, these are all happening in completely different locations):
- We see Jyn Erso in a prison cell
- Cassian Andor gets some information from a rebel guy, then kills him and escapes from storm-troopers
- Rook or whatever his name is gets marched through the desert on Jedha
- Jyn is rescued by the rebellion while en route to a labour camp
- Jyn and the rebels arrive on Yavin IV
That’s literally five different planets within the first fifteen minutes of the movie.
I find this narrative progression completely baffling and unnecessary. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to start with Cassian, letting his scene breathe a bit more, then switch to Jyn and follow her exclusively from her prison cell, through to the rescue and her arrival at the rebel base?
The bit with Rook feels particularly conspicuous because there’s absolutely no reason why we need to be introduced to him here. The movie could easily have saved his introduction until after the scene in the rebel base, when Jyn and Cassian set off for Jedha, since that’s the location that the next chunk of the movie is going to take place in.
Rogue One famously went through heavy re-shoots and seems to have had a tumultuous development overall (take a look at the number of scenes in the trailers that never actually show up in the movie), and it definitely shows early on. Many of these scenes seem noticeably truncated, as though they were meant to be longer before being awkwardly chopped up; in particular, the first bit with Cassian seems like it was meant to culminate in an action scene where he escapes from the storm-troopers and gets off the trading post, but instead it just ends abruptly with a sudden cut to Jedha.
The problem rears its head again at the end, where there’s like seven different story threads all happening at once and the movie can’t sit still and focus on one of them for any length of time. If you’ve watched that famous Mr. Plinkett review of The Phantom Menace, you might remember that a bit where he points out that each Star Wars movie had a more and more complex climax, until you get to the Phantom Menace and the movie is clearly struggling to juggle everything going on at the same time. Rogue One isn’t quite as bad, but it’s not far off, and it highlights a common problem with this sort of cinematic narrative: emotional jumbling.
During its last half hour, Rogue One repeatedly cuts from what are intended to be sombre, emotional scenes of its main cast members sacrificing their lives in battle to exciting space dogfights, with an accompanying swell of fast-paced, triumphant music. We barely have time to process the fact that Blazt Mobius or whoever is dead before we’re watching G-Wings and Space Nazis shooting each other. It causes a severe tonal whiplash (Sad! Exciting! Tense! Sad Again! Exciting again!) and makes it difficult to follow what’s happening in the overall progression of the story. All of this is kind of baffling, since earlier on the movie features an absolutely stellar example of tonal cohesion by laying Galen Erso’s hologram message on top of the Death Star firing on Jedha.
I kind of blame Christopher Nolan for this, since many of his movies suffer from exactly this problem in their climaxes. Both Inception and The Dark Knight feel like they end with 45 minutes of rapid-fire, frenetic cuts between footage of people running around and firing guns randomly, to the point where it becomes hard to tell what any of the characters are actually doing.
Rogue One is one of the worst examples I can think of off the top of my head, but I’ve definitely been noticing a trend of big blockbuster movies having trouble with choppiness and uneven pacing (The Force Awakens also suffers from this problem in its beginning). Weirdly, this seems to have started with The Golden Compass; but where that movie was heavily criticised for jumping around like a grasshopper on speed, it seems to have become the norm during the last ten years.
I’m not sure what’s causing this. Maybe film-makers assume audiences will get bored if the movie spends more than thirty seconds in one location (numerous people have complained that the first half of Rogue One is boring, which I don’t agree with at all).
2. Quick editing
This is a smaller problem, but it’s one that drives me up the wall whenever I see it.
Rogue One opens with several breathtaking shots of Director Hitler’s evil space shuttle flying to the planet (another planet!) where Galen Erso is hiding with his family. Some of the visuals in this sequence are stunning, but we never get any chance to appreciate them because the movie keeps cutting away to the next shot.
If you watch older films in general, and particularly genre movies, you’ll notice that directors and editors tended to go for long, wide shots to show off their fancy special effects. You could argue that they sometimes overdid it, but I personally prefer the slower, more deliberate pacing, and it makes sense for a genre film filled with amazing alien worlds and space vistas. Let us see them!
3. Spectacle Over Story
Rogue One ends with all of the space rebels sacrificing their lives one after another in order to get the Death Star plans to CGI Princess Leia. It seems as if there should be a clear arc to this finale: the plans are transmitted, the Death Star fires on Beach Planet, Jyn and Cassian are engulfed by the explosion as Leia receives the plans and flies off. Poignant, yet hopeful.
What actually happens is that our heroes die, then there’s a brief action scene where Darth Vader slices up a bunch of rebels with his light-saber, and then Princess Leia gets the plans. The Vader scene is violent, dark, even somewhat horrifying, whereas the scenes immediately preceding it are a combination of sad and uplifting; smashing them together like this is akin to baking a layer cake where the middle layer tastes like cigarette butts. It’s complete tonal whiplash, and ruins both the narrative flow and the emotional resonance of the ending are ruined because of it.
Reading about the movie afterwards, I was utterly unsurprised to learn that this scene was a relatively late addition, and that the justification for its addition was “what if Darth Vader cut a bunch of guys up.”
But then, this is par for the course in modern blockbusters, which frequently seem to be constructed by coming up with the big action set-pieces first, then finding a way to string them together with a plot. You can get away with this in a videogame, where the action is inherently fun to play, but in a movie it causes all kinds of problems.
4. Flat characters
Here, in paragraph format, is the entirety of Jyn Erso’s character arc over the course of Rogue One:
Jyn is selfish and not interested in fighting the Empire, then she gets Inspired and decides to fight the Empire. This happens a bit under halfway through the movie, after which her character doesn’t really change or grow at all.
Okay, how about Cassian, here goes:
Cassian is a ruthless rebel operative who does anything he’s ordered to do, then he decides not to do something he’s ordered to do and becomes less ruthless.
What about the monk guy (not the blind one, the other monk guy)?
He starts out not believing in the force anymore, and then he starts believing it again.
And the other monk dude and the pilot…don’t really change at all, actually. They’re pretty much the same at the end of the movie as they were at the start.
Now, does a sci-fi action movie like Rogue One actually need deep characters who go through compelling arcs over the course of the movie? Not necessarily, no. But it becomes a problem when the main emotional heft of the film is meant to be the main characters heroically sacrificing themselves for the greater good.
Again, this is a common occurrence in big movies these days, where the characters will at best aspire toward predictable, cliched archetypes. More often, their journeys and even personalities will be subservient to the needs of the action; I’ve seen more than one movie over the last few years where I had trouble understanding why the characters were doing any of the things they were doing from moment to moment.
When you put all of this together, what you have is an industry that values spectacle and set-pieces over all other considerations, where movies can be neck-deep in expensive special effects work before the script is even finished, where telling a good story is secondary to getting enough cool explosions for the trailers.
I can only hope that audiences inevitably turn their noses up at such obvious, pandering, lowest common denominator film-making and
Well, never mind then.