Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rogue One: The Star Wars Movie Where Everyone is Boba Fett

I liked "Rogue One". I have a hard time articulating WHY I like it, but I can't pretend I don't like it.

And I'm not really here to argue why I shouldn't like the movie, or why the movie is really objectively bad. I'm not even all that convinced that it is bad. If it were bad, I imagine a lot more people would have disliked it. This is kind of an argument I've seen literary nerds paint themselves into with "Harry Potter". They'll spend a lot of time arguing why "Harry Potter" isn't good, but then they realize that the problems with "Harry Potter" don't stop anyone from enjoying it for reasons they can't necessarily figure out. And if virtually everybody likes something, how can you argue that it's "bad"? What does "bad" even mean in that context?

So, no, "Rogue One" is probably good, otherwise I doubt so many people would like it. But I feel like it's worth pointing out something about its characters.

They're all Boba Fett.

If you're less well-versed in "Star Wars", allow me to explain.

In "The Empire Strikes Back" (retroactively known as "Star Wars: Episode V"), Darth Vader hires a bunch of bounty hunters to find the Millennium Falcon after his own troops perpetually fail to do so. Among these bounty hunters is a guy named Boba Fett. He is not explicitly named at any point in "Empire", but we know his name for other reasons I'll get into in a moment. In any case, he's the only bounty hunter to successfully track down the Millennium Falcon for Vader, and he leads the Empire to Bespin before the good guys get there, mostly because he wants to collect the pre-established bounty on Han Solo. We see him do one clever thing (anticipate Han Solo's clever trick of hiding in space garbage), he says a few lines ("As you wish", "He's no good to me dead", and "Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold"), it's implied that he has a thing for disintegrating his targets, and he has a really cool outfit.

So if you don't know much about Boba Fett, it probably seems like he's a fairly uninteresting character. And you'd be right, but you'd also be wrong, because Boba Fett is one of the most popular characters in the entire franchise, particularly among old-school "Star Wars" fans.

There are a lot of speculated reasons as to why, but the real reason is pretty simple: Marketing.

The original "Star Wars" was insanely popular. Like, "Avengers" popular. It was a phenomenon, and so the studio was all over marketing the upcoming sequel, and once Lucasfilm had developed the character of Boba Fett based on older designs and concepts for Darth Vader (the character everybody loved), the marketing team decided to lean heavily into the character. They made toys, he made mall appearances, he was on posters, and he was in an animated short that was included in the infamous "Star Wars Holiday Special". Boba Fett was sold as a new villain who would basically be Darth Vader's right hand in the sequel, and fans ate him up. In the time leading up to the new movie, fans speculated wildly about this character, his background, his skills, etc. Then the movie came out and it was AMAZING. Like, seriously, "Empire Strikes Back" is, to this day, regarded as the best "Star Wars" film, and it probably deserves it.

But the thing about Boba Fett is that his role was severely diminished over the course of rewrites and edits for the final film. He doesn't really do all that much and he has no close relationship with anyone, even Vader. He's no one's right hand. He's just kind of there, wearing a helmet. Is he happy? Sad? Mischievous? Bored? Smarmy? The answer to all is yes and no because he's always silent and wearing a helmet. He's Schrodinger's Bounty Hunter.

This turned out to be kind of perfect for Boba Fett. Because of how he was marketed and received by all the fans, his appearance in the film kind of confirmed everybody's speculation about him. If you were a kid and you bought a Boba Fett toy and you imagined a crazy backstory about him, his actions in "Empire" probably fit within the framework that you imagined for the character. It probably didn't directly confirm anything either, but you were able to fill in the blanks.

You know how some movies can sometimes "feel" more violent than they actually are because they leave certain things to the imagination? Like the ear-cutting-off scene in "Reservoir Dogs" for example? Well, Boba Fett is a character that gets more interesting because everything about him is left to the imagination, and everyone in the film acts like he's a more interesting character for unspoken, nonspecific reasons. And so, if you went into the film expecting him to be a cool character, you left the film feeling like he was, indeed, a cool character.

"The Force Awakens" deliberately replayed this tactic with the character Captain Phasma, and it worked gangbusters. Hell, I went into the movie KNOWING that Phasma was basically just an attempt to capture Fett Lightning in a bottle again, and it worked. I went into that movie expecting Phasma to be awesome, and I left that movie hoping that Phasma somehow survived Starkiller Base, despite Phasma never actually doing anything all that important or cool. It just kind of works.

But the joke about Boba Fett is that as they continue to include him in canonical materials, he continues to fail to live up to his own hype. In "Return of the Jedi", he stands around and gets killed in the most embarrassing way possible. In "Attack of the Clones", he's a kid who watches his father get his head cut off. In the "Clone Wars" cartoons, he gets to show off some impressive skills, but he ultimately gets used by a bunch of bounty hunters and fails to kill the Jedi who killed his father.

Boba Fett's subtextual reputation is that he's a cool, badass, world-class bounty hunter, but in actual text, he's a marginally-competent screw-up who almost always works for somebody else and almost always fails.

Boba Fett succeeds as a character because of the magic of "projection". We as an audience go in with the pre-conceived notion that he's a badass, so everything he does or says is taken within that presumed context, reaffirming that previously-held belief, even if there's an equally-valid context that would do the exact opposite.

That brings us to "Rogue One", where, as the title of this post suggests, every character is Boba Fett.

Every character was well-established in marketing and other canonical media produced by Disney so that when we went into the movie, we got the gist of the characters and wanted to like them. Then, when we saw the movie, they behaved in ways that allowed us to project those preconceived character traits onto them, and so our expectations of how we would feel about those characters came through and allowed us to build them up as complex, interesting characters. It also helped that pretty much all of the actors were great in bringing a lot of weight to these characters.

If you watch "Rogue One", it feels like every character has a really cool and interesting personality or backstory. You aren't really sure WHY it feels that way, but it just sort of does.

It's the Wile E. Coyote running over a cliff logic. It's only a problem if you look down. Otherwise, you can just keep running on air.

But if we're being honest, very few characters in the film actually earn the reputations that we project onto them. The film doesn't give any of the characters a real arc, we don't really see them do much to build up the character traits we assume they have, and they act like they know and care about each other even though they don't really have any reason to.

It's a magic trick, is what I'm saying.

Now, like a magic trick, it probably doesn't matter if I tell you it's a magic trick, or even how the magic trick is done. You'll still be entertained, and that's perfectly fine. See, it doesn't really matter WHY you think a character is well-defined or interesting, just THAT you think a character is well-defined and interesting. Most good movies do this by showing us scenes of them developing or establishing themselves in interesting ways, but sometimes movies can get away with doing this in unconventional ways.

"Avengers" did this by making a bunch of other movies that established these characters ahead of time so the movie could focus on action. "Rogue One" did this by applying the Boba Fett formula to virtually all of the characters.

Is that cheap? Maybe, but if your brain is interested in these characters, why should you care whether or not those ideas came from the movie itself or if the movie just tricked your imagination into doing its work for it? Isn't it equally impressive that a movie can do that?

Well... yeah! Kind of! I think "Rogue One" and its cast, crew, and marketing team deserve props for making me care about characters that (let's be honest here) don't really do all that much. Magic tricks aren't easy to pull off, and given the positive reception of the film, I don't think anyone can argue that they didn't successfully pull it off.

Sure, tricking people into believing that you made the Statue of Liberty disappear isn't as impressive as actually making the Statue of Liberty disappear, but it's still impressive, isn't it? I mean, I certainly can't do that. Can you?

The only problem with this method of character establishment is that it doesn't work very well in the long-term. Part of the reason "Attack of the Clones" is considered the worst "Star Wars" movie of all time is because it's the first movie that Boba Fett is in where his presence actively contradicts people's imagined, projected character traits and backstories for him. We see what he's like as a child. We find out where he comes from. We see him without his helmet on. We learn where he got his ship. There's nothing to project onto. I personally don't think he has a BAD backstory (in fact, I actually think it's pretty interesting, particularly in "Clone Wars"), but I didn't go into that movie with decades of baseless, imagined adventures of Boba Fett, bounty hunter extraordinaire. If you did, your reception of the character's portrayal in "Attack of the Clones" probably sounded something like this:

So this is the danger of the Boba Fett Method: It's a really shoddy foundation for a long-term character that you want to build upon. Boba Fett was cool until they started treating him like an actual character.

Luckily, "Rogue One" avoids this by not being a foundational film. If any of these characters will ever be seen again, it will be as side characters. If their backstories are ever told, it will be in books or video games that most people never see. This is a one-shot side-story. So the fact that none of these characters have substantial depth to them isn't really a problem, so long as you believe they do for the duration of the one film that they're all in.

This, in general, is the power of "Star Wars", and a large part of why I love it so much. It's such a massive, broadly-defined universe that it's just a playground for the imagination. "Rogue One" is the first movie in the franchise to make that playground the main attraction, and I think it worked.

Take my personal favorite character of the film, Chirrut Imwe. He's blind and believes in the Force. It's implied that he's at least Force-sensitive because he's able to "see" things, like Jyn's Kyber crystal, and because he defends a Jedi temple. However, it's also implied that he's not a Jedi because he doesn't manipulate the Force or use a lightsaber. He just sort of trusts in the Force and lets it guide him. He's more passive. He also has a dependent relationship on the more cynical and brute-force character, Baze Malbus.

Based on those simple things (as well as Donnie Yen's performance), I was able to imagine an entire character from whole cloth. It's not that I HAD to, I WANTED to. I ENJOYED doing the movie's work for it. The movie never once defines his abilities in any concrete terms, but I did within moments of being introduced to him, so it knew it didn't have to.

That's how basically the entire movie works. It eschews exposition and character development because they know that if they make the characters just intriguing enough, the audience will do that for them and they can just skip to the action sequences.

One could make a compelling argument that that's lazy, and maybe it is, but one man's "lazy" is another man's "efficient". The writers didn't have to expend energy rigidly defining any of these characters, and that allowed them to focus their energy elsewhere. One could argue that they didn't do any of those other things significantly better as a result, but that doesn't really matter since they still did them pretty well.

So, yeah. "Rogue One" tricked most of us into liking a bunch of characters that we really had no specific reasons to like.

I still like them anyway, and you probably do too.

That said, if somebody DOESN'T like the movie, it's probably because they weren't willing to do the movie's homework for it. They EXPECTED more concrete character development and exposition, and when they didn't get it, they rightly didn't enjoy the rest of the movie.

You can't fault the viewer for that anymore than you can fault someone who isn't fooled by a magic trick. The whole point of a magic trick is to fool you, so if it doesn't work, that's the magician's fault.

I've seen a lot of people get up in arms over people who bring up a lot of valid criticism for the film and explain why they didn't like it. When someone says that they thought the characters were poorly-defined and didn't really do anything all that interesting, I see a lot of fans get really offended by this. And it makes sense. In their minds, these characters WERE well-defined and interesting, so hearing somebody suggest otherwise sounds absurd. But these people are always hard-pressed to actually refute those claims, and ultimately they decide to just sneer and dismiss the negative criticism or attack the person making it.

Look, guys, I know we all like to think we're not unintelligent, gullible film-goers, and that we only like movies that are well-crafted and deep, but I've got news for you.

ALL fiction is about tricking you into believing things that aren't real.

Some fiction tries harder at forging a believable illusion than others, but in the end, it's still all just pretend.

It's entirely possible, and in fact, very, very likely that you enjoy at least one movie that is objectively terrible. That doesn't make you a bad person.

This is actually a problem I see with "Star Wars" fans in general, and I think it first bubbled to the the surface during the prequels. "Star Wars" fans don't want to admit that they like the movies for sometimes rather silly reasons. They want to feel mature in their admiration of the franchise, and so they try to build up this mythology around the quality of the original films.

But let's get real here. "Star Wars" was a good movie that used very stock characters and tropes in a very visually-stunning and imaginative way. "The Empire Strikes Back" was an objectively good film that built upon that foundation and made it go deeper and took it in directions nobody expected. "Return of the Jedi" was wall-to-wall fanservice that was inoffensive enough that most people didn't really realize that it wasn't all that good. The prequels are OK movies that didn't live up to decades of hype and nostalgia that over-sold the original films. "The Force Awakens" was a competently made retread of the original "Star Wars" with some really interesting new characters.

"Rogue One" is a magic trick that is very competently-made, but entirely hinges on whether or not you are willing to care about characters for pretty shallow reasons.

This is a franchise about space wizards and laser swords. Can we as a fandom finally learn to be OK with that?