Little things that would have improved ‘Rogue One’

So I finally got around to watching the new Star Wars spinoff: Rogue One. My thoughts? Eh. It was competent but unmemorable. And while I could easily write a whole essay on my issues with it and the often poor arguments put up by those who are attempting to defend it, I decided instead that since those are already being covered by countless numbers of clickbait writers and critics of both the amateur and professional variety, I figure that similar to The Force Awakens, I’d just offer a few points of improvement that could have been made with the benefit of hindsight. Beware of spoilers!

1. Less Vader
I never thought I would ever argue such a thing given that he’s one of my all-time favorite fictional characters (I only bothered to read the comics featuring him despite being lukewarm on the whole new expanded universe I’ll have to keep some track of now). However, the fact is that I could have done with a little less Darth Vader in the movie. His meeting with Krennic doesn’t really add much to the movie (I didn’t even mind his one-liner), but given the positive reception a certain later scene of his has gotten among various viewers, I would make the serious argument that something along those lines should have been his only scene in the movie.

The problem with Vader’s usage in the actual film was that his prior appearances kind of take the wonder out of that final sequence. By limiting his presence before then to brief mentions, anticipation can be built before he finally makes a memorable cameo.

Just have Tarkin tell his subordinates to contact Vader before we see his star destroyer enter the field of battle and wreck the remaining Rebel fleet. Afterward, maybe have the crew of the Rebel ship inform their comrades that an Imperial boarding party has arrived. Throughout this entire time, Vader has been absent from the movie, as if to emphasize that this spinoff is less about the usual gang than it is the supporting players that made things possible for the good guys to come out on top. Then, as they gather at the likely entry point, the lights go out and there is a silence. This is suddenly interrupted by a soft sound that grows progressively louder and louder. It’s a familiar one: the iconic breathing of a certain Sith Lord. The characters on the screen freak out. So does the audience. And then the lightsaber ignites.

2. Do something with Krennic
Krennic was completely forgettable. Of course, one could say that about pretty much any character in the movie. This was a huge shame given that there was material there for a character I wouldn’t forget about as soon as I left the theater.

For one, there was his friendship with Galen. Perhaps they could have given this more emphasis, maybe even have it so that as a friend of her father, Krennic could have represented how the Empire twisted talented people into monsters and tore bonds, be they personal or communal, apart, just like how civil wars can rip apart families and communities. Maybe make him a guy who Jyn may have once referred to as an honorary uncle before everything went wrong to contrast with her two father figures. At least give him something.

Also, all that traveling that Krennic did felt kind of silly. I could understand him going to check on the facility to figure out who leaked the info, but what about Scarif and Mustafar? I guess with the latter you could say that he was trying to play politics against Tarkin, but this went nowhere and added little to the film. As for the former, I guess the script needed him to be on Scarif for whatever reason (I’ve already forgotten why).

3. Trim the cast
Quite a few critics have argued that one of the film’s prominent weaknesses is a rather weak cast of characters. They’re poorly fleshed out and by the time of the movie’s end, you just don’t care all that much about what happens to them. I suggest then that the cast be slightly trimmed so that more can be done with fewer characters.

To be more specific, I’d have merged the characters of Jyn and Cassian. Perhaps have it so that instead of just being tortured and apathetic lead number 1138, Jyn could have been a Rebel agent trained by Saw who fought the Empire less out of ideals than out of a desire for vengeance. Maybe even this motivation is starting to fizzle as she finds herself more and more burnt out from carrying out dirty work like Saw’s or having to kill informants lest they leak information after being captured like Cassian does in the movie. However, this all changes once she discovers that her father leaked a message.

In this way, the focus could be on her rediscovering her desire to fight the Empire, except out of a desire to serve a higher cause rather than a darker one like revenge, paralleling how the series itself is about fighting for the right reasons rather than falling into dark paths and methods. Furthermore, this way she would have the standing needed among the Rebels to make her speech and gather like-minded volunteers before the climax.

This trimming should also allow for more time with developing relationships, be they the ones Jyn has with her two father figures or the camaraderie that develops among the Rebel group the movie follows.

Bonus: The stuff that bugged me
First of all, I couldn’t help but notice how the movie’s opening seemed to be based less on what the characters would do rather than ticking a few boxes. In this case, leaving the lead character alone because her mom was dead and dad taken away by the Empire. Her mom dies a pointless death after being told to run when it is clear that her acting as she did was stupid due to the fact that she was heavily outnumbered. Maybe just go for the cliche of having her mom killed in a surprise attack on the homestead and her dad taken while Jyn hides in a bunker.

Second, what was up with the inclusion of the two bar thugs that harass Luke in A New Hope? Why did those characters have to be there given that they were on Tatooine not long afterward? Apparently they left Jedha just in time to avoid getting roasted by the Death Star.


On Giving Villains a Backstory

A back story, when well done, can add depth to a character. If the author so wishes, a well written back story can even create sympathy for an antagonist by humanizing them. Warning: spoilers ahead.

By fleshing these characters out, the reader is forced to see them as more than antagonists, just like how in real life you’re more likely to sympathize with someone you know well than with a total stranger. You see the latter, despite all your best attempts, as less than a person, as more of an idea of a person. You still think of the people you know well as a collection of ideas, somewhat, but even then, because you know them well, you are able to see them as more than something to categorize (e.g. asshole clerk, anal retarded supervisor, maniacal driver who cut me off).

Even if a character is not made sympathetic, a back story can add to that character by emphasizing something important within the context of the story. The character of Voldemort in Harry Potter is revealed to be the result of a magical date rape drug. It is also implied that the lack of love that went into his creation, along with some bad genetics, gave rise to a child that never was capable of love, empathy, or trust. It works to further J.K. Rowling’s emphasis on the importance of those things, as the villain’s inability to experience them positions him in direct opposition to the values being espoused by the work.

All this is of course assuming that said back stories are written well.

A poorly written back story can detract from an antagonist, as it not only reflects poorly on the rest of the plot, but also makes the character less interesting.

This is especially true when giving back stories to antagonistic figures whose mystique lies in their enigmatic nature. Two particularly infamous cases are Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.

The former was fucking terrifying in Silence of the Lambs because he managed to get into peoples’ heads, and yet we barely knew anything about him. The following books and films ruined this by giving him a back story in an attempt to give him an excuse for why he is what he is. However, this was so poorly done that fans try to pretend they never happened.

In the case of Darth Vader, we actually had an idea of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall, but simply having a general idea and watching Darth Vader redeem himself at the end was enough. The prequels tried to show his tragic downfall, but the clumsy execution only made me wish I’d never seen them (although I do like Revenge of the Sith, for all its flaws).

Other villains who benefit from a lack of back story include Anton Chigurh and Heath Ledger’s Joker, as the lack of detail given to their histories makes them appear less as people and more as malevolent entities who may be better described as terrifying forces of nature.

In such cases, less really is more.

Freudian excuses can sometimes be one of the laziest ways an author can characterize a villain. Oftentimes, a single childhood trauma is supposed to be enough to justify why a character grew up to be a mass murderer.

Alan Moore, genius that he is, mocked the idea in his seminal Batman story The Killing Joke as well as within this rather sarcastic passage:

“I was just standing there, looking at my stamp album and the priceless collection that it had taken me years to build, when all of a sudden I realized that since I had foolishly pasted all of them directly into the album using an industrial-strength adhesive, they were completely worthless. I understood then that the universe was just a cruel joke upon mankind, and that life was pointless. I became completely cynical about human existence and saw the essential stupidity of all effort and human striving. At this point I decided to join the police force.”

The point is that a character should not be defined by a single issue, but should instead be a rich tapestry consisting of how innate characteristics interacted with their environment. A back story that relies on a single trauma to justify a character becoming evil is often a waste of ink and time.

The case of Johan Liebert from Monster is a spectacular subversion. While the series does explore what goes into the creation of a “monster”, as well as the true face of human nature, in the end it is clear that while Johan went through some serious trauma, other factors suggest that perhaps there was already something rotten within him from the beginning.

The point I’m making is this: back stories can add depth to a character when done right. However, they are not always necessary when attempting to craft a great antagonist. A back story is in the end a trope, and as a certain website puts it: tropes are tools. Tools that can be used wisely or poorly whether in their usage or absence.