Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rogue One: Chain

There's a lot more to say about Rogue One than The Force Awakens, so this blog will hopefully spend the week scratching the surface of this weird, profound, deviation in the Star Wars franchise.

Let's start with explaining the quote from last week:

“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it."
- Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

So one of the disappointing things when Rogue One was first announced was that "How did Leia get the Death Star plans?" was already one of the most covered stories in Star Wars. You had all these EU characters participate in ferrying this macguffin from one Big Name to another Big Name while various arms of the Imperial Services chased them. Every naive author wanted a piece of this pie (especially once you get into fan fiction.) So to see Disney decide to immediately retread the same ground felt creatively bankrupt.

As SMG explains:

The sad story of the EU is that it killed itself. 
Like, everyone jokes about the Death Star plans, and how seemingly every character has a connection to the plans. To my knowledge, no-one has ever asked why this is the case. It's just treated as a weird coincidence that every single writer is an unimaginative hack, in exactly the same way. 
Forget for a moment that a given book is 'part of the Universe', and treat it as a book, written by a human person. 
If you're a Star Wars writer, you're necessarily writing about Star Wars. That's to say that you are, inherently, providing an interpretation of the films. You've studied literature, and you can pick up on rudimentary themes. So: what are the Death Star plans? 
If the Death Star is understood as a future-world of dehumanization and ecological catastrophe (familiar from countless blockbusters); the Death Star plans fill the same role as the robots in Terminator, the Tesseract in Avengers, the Kaiju brain in Pacific Rim - or the crashed saucer in ID4, experimented upon at Area 51. In each case, it is a piece of the future-world that has somehow 'broken off' and ended up in the present day. It serves as a key to the future system, to be used or misused. 
What you see with the EU is very simple: instead of a hundred different sci-fi stories using a hundred different names for the same thing, you have a hundred different stories using the same name for the same thing. 
So there's absolutely nothing unusual about the EU - except that grouping everything into the hyperlink narrative known as Wookiepedia has revealed a confined, claustrophobic ideological universe centered around the obsessive reenactment of the Death Star battle. It's like when people reminisce about the good ol' days of WWII: the implicit point of this endless re-enactment is that something went wrong - that, despite its onscreen physical destruction, the Death Star continues to haunt Star Wars fans like an ineradicable specter. The EU is Luke's failure given form.

But instead of just inserting their own merchandisable characters into this role, Disney and Gareth Edwards made a paean to that entire idea, of innumerable small characters linking up to provide this symbol of hope for the Rebellion.

What we know prior to seeing Rogue One is: Leia gets the plans, and gives them to R2, who gives them to Obi Wan, who recruits Luke, who gives the plans to Rebel HQ and destroys the Death Star. Plot wise this chain adds: Galen Erso tells his pilot Bohdi Rook about the plans, who gets the information to Saw, who tells Jyn, who works with four other rebels to retrieve the plans to get them to a Rebel Alliance Flagship, who holds off Vader long enough to give them to Leia's guard who escape at the last minute. All of these people die, their sole mark on the world being their willful contribution to this chain of hope. The entire movie is about a hot potato.

But even this plot synopsis fails to describe how the chain motif appears at every level of the movie.

For instance possibly the most moving scene is that last hallway where a dozen Rebel soldiers are trapped in a corridor with Darth Vader. And, we know they're doomed, and there's a lot of power in watching him annhilate them (we'll get to how fitting this fascist display of power is.) They can't hold him off, death itself is coming for them. Their only concept of victory is just continuing to be this chain that is passing the plans along and through a door before implacable force snuffs their life out.

On a more comedic level, we get this from the absurdist details of the battle on Scarif. Star Wars has always had these multi-theater set piece battles at the end of the movie, but usually they are simultaneous. For this battle, it's a linear chain where the rebels have to accomplish each step to feed to the next step, like a bizarre Rube Goldberg Mousetrap. To transmit some information, Bodhi has to connect a cable and then flip a master switch to a short message can be sent to the Rebel Fleet so they know to take down the gate so the main dish can transmit through the shield so the damn plans can actually get to the fleet. It's hard not to laugh at the logic of this, especially when part of this interstellar information protocol involves a literal cable that Bodhi has to pull and it's not long enough. The chain isn't reaching! We're verging on slapstick humor here.

And this all was a great way to avoid Disney's dilemma. By inventing new heroes, you would be begging the question too much of where they were during the original trilogy. But spending all your screen time building up a new character only to kill them would be fairly anti-climactic. Instead the movie paints a portrait of the entire rebellion, with no one person being the "key" or a destined son, but many little guys working together and sacrificing themselves for a distant hope.

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