Rogue One vs The Force Awakens

I wanted to respond to this video comparing Rogue One and The Force Awakens. It’s not a bad analysis in and of itself, but I thought Rogue One was far superior to The Force Awakens, so I have a different perspective on some of the things mentioned in the video. And I thought to myself, you know what? I’m going to blog about this. Yes, I will do it. Good. Yes. OK.

Here’s the video, or “vid” as we cool people say:

Show and tell

1:08 : “A common piece of advice in screenwriting is show, don’t tell.”

First of all, this is stupid advice by itself. The real advice is: know when to show, know when to tell, and know how to do both effectively. “Showing” is not always necessarily better than “telling”, and in any given story it’s impossible to show everything anyway. Sorry, I’m just always a bit wary when people tout this “advice” without any greater context.

1:43 : “She’s [Jyn from Rogue One] an adult now, a prisoner of the Empire, but we don’t know why. We don’t see the crimes she’s committed or any of the context surrounding them. Instead, we’re told a list of her criminal charges. Even as the list of her crimes is being read, she has no reaction. We don’t know if she’s remorseful or has no regrets. … And while hearing an emotional backstory can make us feel sympathy for a character, it doesn’t make us empathize with them.”

This is all true in and of itself, but I don’t think any of this necessarily weakens the film as a whole, or necessarily prevents us from empathizing with Jyn. Of course, whether or not you can empathize with a character is quite a subjective thing. But one of the reasons why Jyn worked for me even while beginning as a more mysterious character was that I could empathize with that mystery, if that makes any sense. That is, the situation she was in was interesting enough to me that the mysterious aspect didn’t matter so much, and perhaps was actually helpful because, like a politician who doesn’t actually say anything, I can better imagine my own personality fitting in that shell. Does that make sense?

This topic reminds me of something Brandon Sanderson said in a writing lecture here about main characters being the most bland of their little group. I’m not sure if his example of Harry Potter quite applies here, though, because I think Jyn is supposed to have a more mysterious and dark past, not really a bland one, but I suppose whether or not it comes across as bland will depend on the viewer. Like I said, for me it worked, or at least it worked well enough for story purposes.

Also, overall, I feel Rogue One is purposefully NOT a character-driven story with a dynamic character arc. Instead, it’s much more of a plot-driven story. Maybe the writers didn’t feel like investing a lot of time and emotion into a character who’s very obviously never going to have any more adventures. How many Jyn action figures did they want to try to sell knowing she’ll never be in any other films? That’s not to say it had to be more plot-driven than character-driven; it may have worked wonderfully as a more character-oriented story precisely because the character-arc would have to be contained in one film. It’s just a creative decision. It’s perhaps the execution that didn’t work for everybody, not necessarily that it was more plot-driven in and of itself, or that Jyn was more mysterious.

For contrast, think Indiana Jones. He also never develops much as a character, nor are we shown any rich past. “He’s shown trying to steal an ancient idol, but why? We’re never shown so there’s never empathy!” Who cares? He still works as a character because the plot is fun, and his responses to situations are fun. He doesn’t need a big emotional arc or some deep emotional motivation for his interest in archaeology.

All that said, the criticism that Jyn could’ve been more interesting and well-rounded is certainly a valid one I would agree with. But that has more to do with the details of how she’s written, rather than the lack of dramatized backstory or emotional motivations. Not that writing her like Indiana Jones would’ve worked; that would’ve been even worse, in my opinion. A needlessly more rebellious attitude would’ve made her more unlikable considering her situation. But she certainly could’ve had more personality.

2:40 : “Compare this with how The Force Awakens dedicates six minutes … to showing us Rey’s life. We watch her scavenging for parts in the hot sun, which she exchanges for small amounts of food. As she cleans the parts, we see her gaze at an old woman performing the same job, suggesting that Rey worries she’ll end up the same way. … We see her watch a shuttle leave the planet and head toward the stars as she puts on a pilot’s helmet. Rey dreams of flying away. Being shown the sequence allows us to experience this with her, which lets us understand her life much better than just being told about it.”

Again, all true, but whether or not this makes you empathize with Rey still comes down to the actual details. For me, it came across as cliche. The writer’s hand was just too obvious for me, the lie too easy to see. There still wasn’t any real character behind all these romantic-loner actions. It was too… constructed? Manufactured? I suppose the idea of being a loner scavenger just didn’t do much for me by itself.

3:41 : “In his book Screenplay, Syd Field writes…”

I just found it annoying how often this guy quotes from books. Any moron can write a book on writing, and indeed many have. Quoting a book is not defense for a subjective interpretation. Not that that’s the guy’s motivation, but these book quotes are simply unneeded.

Proactive characters

4:00 : “By spending time with Rey, we get to see her make choices…”

This is accompanied by a clip of Rey begrudgingly inviting a small droid along with her. This scene actually made me dislike Rey. Her facial expression of irritation and annoyance over a cute little innocent robot… like she’s so put-upon. It makes her look like a jerk to me, not someone I’d want to follow home.

The video goes on to describe various ways in which Rey is proactive in the opening act of The Force Awakens. Again, none of these worked very well for me, because, again, they were pretty cliche and predictable, I could see the writer’s hand too easily. Also, as far as I remember (it’s been a while since I saw the film), she doesn’t suffer greatly for her good deeds. There are no big or risky repercussions for these deeds, so there’s no real price, so they don’t feel like they matter all that much.

I’ll admit, watching these clips, I think one reason The Force Awakens might not work for me, beyond the trouble I have with the cliche writing, is that I think Daisy Ridley may have been a big miscast. I’m not sure if it’s the actress or the writing or the director’s editing choices, but when she speaks and emotes, I just see a performance, I don’t see a character. The timing and emotions just don’t feel genuine. So maybe that’s clouding my judgment of other aspects of the film. Maybe it would’ve worked better for me with another actress. I’m not sure.

Maybe it’s that she comes across as a well-mannered English woman, and the rugged dirty action-packed machine world just doesn’t gel with her body language. For example, look how she holds out her hand at the 4:50 clip. That hand just does not look like the hand of a woman who’s worked with machines and dirt for years upon years. It looks like a polite woman’s hand. It just doesn’t look right to me. I need to find some other clips of people helping each other up to compare, I guess.

(On a side note, Harrison Ford also came across as an old actor and not Han Solo. He lost his rogue-ish smirk and just recited lines. Is that his fault, the script’s fault, the director’s fault? I don’t know, but I thought he was awful in the film.)

4:55 : “Jyn, on the other hand, is a passive protagonist.”

True, but again, whether or not this works is based more on your interest in the overall story. That is, in what she’s experiencing in her passivity. Look at Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for example. Charlie makes perhaps two interesting proactive decisions in the entire film. First to buy the candy bar that gets him the ticket, and then giving Wonka back his everlasting gobstopper near the end. That’s pretty much it. He’s pretty much led along through the rest.

Heck, what proactive decisions does Luke Skywalker himself make in the original Star Wars? He whines about power converters and uses the force near the end, and that’s pretty much it. The delight of that film is in the plot and the world he’s introduced to.

Same with Harry Potter, at least in the opening half of his first film. Everything just happens to him as he’s led into a new wondrous world of wizards and magic.

Same with Emmet of The LEGO Movie.

Same with Little Lord Fauntleroy, a hero for all of us.

In these examples, the protagonist is sort of a proxy or a stand-in for the audience as we are introduced to other eccentric characters and a new amazing world (which is usually at stake itself). Brandon Sanderson also mentioned this sort of thing here.

So a passive protagonist is, in my opinion, not automatically weaker. It depends on execution, which this video didn’t really touch on.

Character flaws

Firstly, I’ll mention that I don’t think characters necessarily need flaws or even a developmental arc. Stories featuring them are generally more popular at the moment, but they’re not a requirement. Look at a lot of mystery or adventure fiction. When the plot is more driven by outside events (typical of a movie like Star Wars), a character “flaw” for the sake of inner development is not always necessary, and you especially don’t want one to feel forced.

And by “flaw” I don’t mean weaknesses or fears. Indiana Jones hating snakes or losing a particular fight is not a character “flaw”. Failures, whether induced by a flaw or by circumstance or both, create interesting conflicts.

Anyway, the video points out that Rey’s flaw wasn’t very meaningful, which is true. In fact, I mostly forgot about it.

Meaningful consequences

8:12 : “I find that when I watch Rogue One, the second half is much more engaging than the first half. In the second half, the characters have a clear objective, and the actions they take move the plot forward.”

This is an astute observation. I’ve actually been meaning to write a blog post about story midpoints, at least for films, because I’ve observed two main features of midpoints. These aren’t necessarily found in every midpoint, but you’ll find them in a lot:

1 – The goal becomes clearly defined, or more concretely defined.
2 – The environment changes. It may be a new environment, or something important about the environment changes (e.g. a character dies, a new character is introduced).

In films, this can happen like clockwork right in the smack-dab center with amazing precision. Look at when the T-Rex escapes and thrusts the heroes of Jurassic Park into the wilderness. Look at when the genie shows up in Aladdin. And… lots of other examples, do your homework.

8:27 : “But the first half of Rogue One is unnecessarily complicated…”

Meh… I didn’t find it that complicated. It was more focused on exposition and setting up the second act, so I can see why some might find it less engaging, and it’s true, the conflicts could’ve been more meaningful. It just didn’t ruin it for me. Like I mentioned, there are a lot of films that feature more… “introductory” openings which by their nature feature less meaningful conflicts and less proactive protagonists in the first half because they’re focused on setting up the world. I think Rogue One was just this sort of film. So I think its effectiveness really depends more on how interesting the exposition and world-building are for you, not how consequential the conflicts are in and of themselves. Though, again, it’s certainly a valid criticism, no argument there.

The End

OK, I’ve now somehow spent like three hours writing this post, and I need to go eat dinner. Whether or not I finish commenting on this video will depend on whether or not I feel like it later, and whether or not anybody’s interested.

Thanks for reading!

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