I watched Rogue One in theaters with my family on Christmas day. I walked away from the experience pretty satisfied, albeit disturbed by the creepy CGI characters. Also, I would’ve been completely hammered if I had made a drinking game out of how many times the word “Hope” is uttered.
Overall it was a fine time. I enjoyed it more than The Force Awakens which is, by all accounts, a perfectly OK film. I think I know why.
All art is derivative. Our best films make no apologies about it (*cough*Tarantino*cough*GuyRitchieRiffingOffTarantino*cough*). Star Wars is notable for ripping the bones straight out of Flash Gordon— and in fact, the entire universe was built around George Lucas not being able to acquire the rights to make that film. What’s more, is the influence from Akira Kurosawa– if Flash Gordon was the bones, The Hidden Fortress provided the meat, fleshing out the style and action sequences of A New Hope. (Lucas also snaked Kurosawa’s infamous side-wipe technique with great effect).
So when The Force Awakens came to theaters, there was one major criticism that pointed out a flaw that couldn’t be ignored. (Hint: it’s the second biggest criticism of Return of The Jedi) The major gripe was that it was essentially A New Hope’s skeleton wearing a Millenial-friendly skin. It makes perfect sense that the screenwriters would do this, to pass the Star Wars brand along from the beloved Original Trilogy to the scrappy newcomers, but after replicating A New Hope beat for beat it still had to introduce a whole new cast of characters creating way too many plot points to give each a decent amount of screen time. As a result, the actual plot of the movie feels almost inconsequential, given that the movie doesn’t even end when the Dea—er, Starkiller Base explodes.
Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad movie. But when the derivative content comes from the same series, it becomes self-referential and when the self references become the primary leg the film stands on, it’s easy for it to teeter towards a redundant, unrewarding viewing experience. (To use a musical corollary, the best hip hop samples outside of its genre, even its own medium).
Narratively, this also cheats the script out of valuable time to accommodate the threads of the story. For all of the various problems that plagued Episode One: The Phantom Menace (shitty kid, poor direction, JJ Binks) perhaps the biggest sin was trying to telegraph too much story in the allotted time of a standard movie. I’ve linked to a lot of videos in this post, but if you watch only one video, make it this one, which shows George Lucas and his team’s reaction to the first screening of Menace. Before he starts to justify it, he looks truly remorseful for shoving too much at once, the same way how I was remorseful last night, shoving both pizza and buffalo wings in my mouth at the same time. (You thought I was going to make a sexual joke right there. Shame on you.) Lucas’s film editor has the best feedback: juggling four scenes at once convolutes the story. Whereas all three films in the Orig’ Trig’ only had to juggle three. (Eg: Empire is cleanly split between Luke’s training, Han and Leia’s shiznoz, and Empire business before it all comes together.)
While Rogue One clearly had references to the other movies, most of these were background easter eggs for nerds to gush about online. (I had a moment myself when I saw a probe droid flutter in the background) Because that’s the Star Wars brand. But the wisest decision this film made is that it sought to derive it’s content from other sources. First, the vibe is more Raiders of The Lost Ark in its first act, with the Arabic architecture, crowded streets, and obligatory show downs. Second, and most notably, Rogue One takes not only a page but an entire iconic character out of Japanese cinema and drops him in the universe. I’m referring to Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman. Zatoichi is basically Japan’s Bond franchise, featured in 26 films between 1962 to 1989, a television series, and a Beat Takeshi revival.
By going back to the Samurai influence, Rogue One succeeded in creating a standout character that the audience could attach to easily, as his predecessor had cleared the way for immediate familiarity– Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior connected to the force, but not quite a Jedi, and probably your favorite character of the film.
It might seem exploitative to take a character that’s essentially been screen tested over seas for years but after exporting Transformers and Marvel blockbusters overseas for the last two decades, to the point that their studios are beginning to mimic our brainless cash cows, it’s nice to see tried and true foreign influence in American cinema again.
Read and watch broadly, folks. Fold variegated influences into your work and resist the urge to hit the same beat for every song, movie or story.