Why Hollywood blockbusters suck now (featuring Rogue One)

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Note: A return to normal blog functions is still a ways off, please enjoy this post I had lying around

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 inevitable turn their noses up at such obvious pandering lowest common denominator film-making and

Image source

Oh.

Well, never mind then.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Why Hollywood blockbusters suck now (featuring Rogue One)

  1. neremworld

    So this is for Wise Man’s Fear since no one reads the old ones…

    How did Kvothe have a high sea’s adventure? There’s no sea between Vintas and Imre. There’s a big lake, but this doesn’t block passage between Imre and Vintas. There’s no way any of that could happen to skip.

    Reply
  2. Cecilia

    For me the problem was that while on paper the characters (or at least Jyn and Cassian, and possibly Bohdi if he’d had more screentime) had interesting characters and arcs, I just didn’t feel like that came across. Not sure if that was a product of the pacing not really allowing them enough time to explore them, or the acting (Discount Emilia Clarke did some valiant nostril-acting, but she reeaally didn’t have the chops to pull off the stoic but hurting thing I think they were trying for Jyn.)

    Reply
  3. Christie Greenwood

    I get the complaints, I do, and a lot of the times, I agree – not here, though. An opinion is an opinion is an opinion; I know that. There’s no arguing about taste, since it’s too subjective. To me, Rogue One felt like a character piece where the plot is secondary – much like The Force Awakens. Jyn, for example, isn’t apolitical until she is not. You could easily interpret her character thusly: as a child, she lost her parents. She grew up in a harsh environment among rebels. She hates the Empire. It destroyed her life. She has strong opinions and a very inflexible, black-and-white moral codex. However, after her parents died and her surrogate father left her by herself at the age of 16, she built a defensive wall around herself and swore to keep out of this conflict that cost her everything. After being forced back into the struggle and being shown her father’s redeeming message, she can’t run and hide anymore. The wall cracks and she decides to honour her family’s sacrifice and do what she can to defeat the Empire.

    There. Complex character.

    I could do the same for Cassian. I could even do the same for the villain.

    The characters’ deaths had an emotional impact for me because I grew to know them and care about them over the course of the film. The soft, beautiful music that plays as the planetary shield around Scarif collapses contrasts nicely with the brutal imagery. It was, to me, one of the more memorable scenes. The paradise-like landscape of Scarif evoked a bit of The Thin Red Line: nature versus war.

    Getting to see different planets in the Galaxy gives the Galaxy more depth. I didn’t perceive it as choppy.

    The thing is, everyone’s got an opinion, and that’s fine. I actually like to learn about opinions that are not my own, because it’s interesting to think about different perspectives. But in the end, this isn’t an objective judgment that serves as ultimate truth (which is not what you’re doing, of course, but RLM did it. They just couldn’t quite comprehend that calling their audience idiots for liking something they didn’t was never going to end well). What didn’t work for you worked for me in this case. That makes it a worthwile movie to me.

    Reply
  4. Elspeth Grey

    It’s easy enough to mess up that I’m usually skeptical of things which do it, but I do feel like spectacle over story can work in film. It’s a visual medium, after all, and if you’re out to accomplish something genuinely spectacular and engrossing it’s not necessarily bad if your justification for it’s a bit thin. Spectacle over story can’t work, though, with the editing problems you mentioned. Hitchcock famously devised the set pieces of North by Northwest and then asked Lehman to write the story. But Hitchcock could sustain a scene or a shot beautifully, and was careful to space set pieces out. And because of that, you really feel each set piece in North by Northwest. They have different tones, and they have clear wide-screen images that linger in the mind. Spectacle should be “watch me do this amazing thing,” not “see how much stuff we can shove on screen as quickly as we can.”

    (Also important: good sound editing. The crop duster scene in North by Northwest isn’t just tense because of the (excellent) framing, it’s tense because you hear what Cary Grant’s character is hearing.)

    A lot of people cite Michael Bay as one of the prime sources for frenetic editing and shots that look “cool” without actually accomplishing anything. (Transformers is the big name, of course, but his influence started back with Bad Boys.)

    Reply
    1. reveen

      Yeah, there are tons of examples of movies that are great on the technical level and well regarded by critics, that are still basically schlocky spectacle with paper thin plots. Titanic was a sappy, black and white love story and was also an ambitious technological marvel. Predator was manly-man action figure nonsense but pulled off a lot of iconic shit that resonates to this day. Independence Day is not one of the best movies, but it told it’s story with a ton of heart.

      The main similarity between all these schlocky spectacles is that they were made by talented filmmakers who had a vision and a clear passion for what they do and were allowed a lot of leeway in realizing that. These kinds of movies don’t come around as much, instead most blockbusters are tightly controlled by corporate and the individual voice and style of the filmmakers is muted in order to keep to a specific branding design calculated to bring in the most profit.

      Only guys who are so iconic that they can do whatever the hell they want like Tarantino and James Cameron can get their ambitious, super-duper badass filmmaker projects to theatres.

      Reply
  5. Signatus

    I actually quiet liked Rogue One for one reason only, and that was that it killed off the main characters at the end. It was a suicide mission and that’s what it ended up being. No deus ex machina, no contrived something to get them out of the planet at the end, nothing. They went, they did their mission, and they died as they knew they would. With so many happy endings in movies or books that were obvious they wouldn’t have a happy, or fully happy ending, this felt refreshing.

    That said… the ending would have had a greater impact if I had cared for any of the characters to begin with. I don’t know what exactly is the problem, but I just didn’t get to empathise with any of the characters, so the scarce emotional bits came out flat. Maybe there was too much going on at once so we never stopped to get to know each character, or maybe it’s the fact that they don’t seem to exist outside the plot of this movie.

    Either way, the movie was fun, entertaining… but that’s about it.

    Reply
  6. reveen

    See, these problems are actually why I liked Force Awakens quite a bit and Rogue One left me cold. So many movies are taking this content packed, quickly edited, video game style approach that feels so sterile to me. Like, the movie version of sci fi food pills.

    As flawed as it was Force Awakens felt at least a little bit like the people behind it wanted to make a movie, and as bad as the pacing and as underwritten as the characters were I never felt like the movie was just coming up with excuses to shunt itself to the next action scene. I felt like the characters were on some level the point of the story.

    If it had a more though put into it’s story progression and more writing put into it’s characters I feel liked TFA could have been pretty great. With Rogue One the movie basically is what it is and was always going to be, a commercialized action adventure sensory experience product.

    Reply

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