Rogue One (2016)

Film criticism is generally held in contempt by the broader public despite it’s popularity. Everyone is a critic! The public declare, bemoaning the endless deconstruction of their beloved sentimental pop culture treasures. However, there is much utility to film criticism, not just as pertains to the artistic appraisal of films one has or might see, but also as pertains to films which one might make themselves. Indeed, the critique of a story – any story – given sufficient deftness, can prove most useful in aiding any storyteller, whether novelist, filmmaker, orator, or so on, in improving his or her work by finding out what narrative works for certain kinds of stories, what tropes are unbelievable/believable, what cliches have grown tiresome, the right way to build a coherent world and to make a story-line consistent, ect. One could go on for sometime but you get the idea. With this in mind let us turn our attention to the second newest Star Wars film, Rogue One.

Unlike the previously reviewed Star Wars reboot, The Force Awakens, Rogue One is a relatively compelling film with likable, three-dimensional characters, a (for the most part) interesting story and a depth of gravity and weight that the previous installment lacked. Whilst I had at first assumed Rogue One to be a sequel to The Force Awakens it is actually a prequel to the events of Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the original film in the franchise (though not the “first” chronologically speaking within the canon of the film series itself).

Synopsis.

Rogue One follows the exploits of Jyn Erso, the daughter of a prominent Imperial scientist during the heyday of the Galactic Empire. Erso’s father, Galen Erso, who has left the Empire and taken up a life of idyllic splendor with Jyn and Lyra, his wife, on a lonely but peaceful little planet called Lah’mu. However, their peace is shattered when the sinister Orson Krennic, the Empire’s lead weapon’s developer, lands on the planet with a cortege of armed guards and attempts to court Galen back into service for the development of the Death Star, a weapon that can destroy whole planets. Galen refuses and his wife intervenes, pulling a weapon on Krennic; she is slain by Krennic’s guards and Galen is apprehended. Jyn, however, flees and is able to escape due to the help of the humorously named, Saw Gerrera, a former Rebellion fighter who broke off from the Alliance due to their lack of radicalism.

Many years later Jyn is rescued from a Imperial labor camp by the Rebel Alliance who want her to find her former savior Gerrera who alone is believed to know the location of Galen Erso. Jyn, though hesitant, acquiesces and joins the Rebel Alliance in their quest to find Gerrera, extract Galen and find a way to stop the Empire from deploying Krennic’s planet-killer. What Jyn doesn’t know is that the Rebel’s do not actually want to extract her father, rather, they want to kill him.

Pros.

The plot of the film is slightly more layered than that but such is the essential plot-line. The first thing which struck me was the lack of ham-fisted political messaging throughout the film. The Force Awakens was something of a pulpit for gender politics, with Rey being the primary mouthpiece for their propaganda. Rey, embodied the Superman conundrum: when you have a character that is completely indomitable there can be no real conflict for that character. Furthermore, Rey did not earn her enormous power, neither through special lineage or training, rather she was gifted with invulnerable plot armor wherein any time she was placed in peril “the force” would come to the rescue and she would overcome the obstacle without explanation. Rey is a obvious by-product of third-wave feminism wherein the ideal conception of Womanhood is wholly removed from man  (I’m a strong independent woman, I don’t need no man). She removes herself from nearly all male entanglements because she is believed to have “liberated” herself from “the patriarchy.” Yet this ideal is not liberating, but rather, isolating.

In stark contrast, the central protagonist of Rogue One, Jyn Erso is a rather believable heroine. She is tough, both mentally and physically, yet her skills, unlike Rey’s, are justified given that Jyn was raised as a child soldier by the dissident fanatic Saw Gerrera. Also, unlike Rey, Jyn is not, from the get-go, a moral paragon, she’s a liar, a criminal and is generally uncertain and suspicious about the moral validity of the rebel cause (there is a quite excellent scene where she confronts a Rebel assassin and accuses him of being no different than a Imperial Stormtrooper).

This moral uncertainty is also embodied by Cassian Andor, a pilot and talented intelligence officer for The Rebel Alliance. In a early scene in the film, Andor murders a informant by ruthlessly shooting him in the back after gaining his trust to tie up loose ends which shows that the Alliance was not so squeaky clean as one had been led to believe from the previous films. Then, later on in the film Andor expresses regret for such past actions but remains firm in his convictions, declaring that that he can not turn back from The Cause, for that would have made all the lies, destruction and death meaningless. A very evocative scene.

There is also a very exciting, and quite terrifying, scene featuring Darth Vader hunting down some hapless rebel fighters who he then mercilessly slaughters. Another high point in the film which will certainly stick in your mind after viewing.

Cons.

One of the bigger and more glaring problems in the film is Gran Moff Tarkin. The problem lies not with Guy Henry, upon whom former Tarkin actor, Peter Cushing’s face has been CGI mapped but rather lies with the CGI itself. It is not that the CGI is bad so much that it is very obviously CGI. There is a peculiar fantasy French film called Immortal which features a bevvy of very low-budget, though highly detailed and aesthetically interesting CGI juxtaposed with real-life actors. Yet in Immortal the CGI/real-life juxtaposition never frays the visual nerves due to the fact that the computer created imagery – though obviously CGI – was, from the very beginning of the film, omnipresent. It was everywhere, for extended periods of time and due to this continual integration with the real life landscape that made the viewer accept the CGI as part of the world of the story. In Rogue One there is no shortage of CGI, but it is most prominently utilized as background or in brief flashes (such as laser fire, explosions, ect.) almost too quick to be perceived whereas Tarkin’s appearances take the viewer deep into the uncanny-valley.

Additionally, Saw Gerrera’s bizarre squid monster, which latches on to a living beings and forces the truth out of them at the expense of their sanity is very poorly explained. When Gerrera unleashes his beast on the turn-coat imperial pilot, Bohdi Rook, the creature drives him mad. He stutters and wanders about as if lobotomized; completely out of his wits. Yet a couple of scenes later, Rook is completely sound of mind. This is never at all explained and remains a jarring plot hole despite how trivial it was to the rest of the plot.

Second to last we come to the dialogue which is, on the whole, slick and solid (the robot, K2 has a bevvy of humorous lines) save for one particular scene involving Darth Vader and Director Krennic. Krennic, overjoyed that he is able to maintain control over the deathstar (his crowning achievement for the Empire), despite his past folly states the following:

So I’m still in command? You’ll speak to the emperor about this- [eyes bulge, choking he collapses to the floor]

To which Vader replies.

Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director. [Before releasing Krennic from his force-choke]

It seemed wholly misplaced coming from the stoic and brooding Vader, who, least as far as I can recall, never made a single pun or joke in his entire tenure throughout the series. Very out-of-character.

However, my greatest problem with the film, as with all Star Wars films, is that the motivations of the Empire at large are never explained. The Emperor himself, we know from previous films, is a sadistic, egoistic Machiavellian political string-puller and that Krennic and Vader are similarly corrupt and vile, but what of the rest of them? What indeed of those planets who align, willingly, with the Galactic Empire? What of those normal citizens who view the Rebel Alliance as a terrorist organization (which they, by definition, are)? This seems a rich area to explore in future films but given that Lucas had never delved into it before and Disney now has the reins on the franchise it is unlikely any kind of socio-political meat or real philosophical heft will be injected into the series at any point in the future.

Conclusion.

All in all, the film is worth seeing, if only just.

Riddick, Patriarchy & Modern Masculinity

[Contains spoilers]

From his very first scene in Pitch Black one understands Riddick as a feral, disturbed individual. Animalistic in his lust for both sex and blood. Ruthless in his dispatchment of anyone who would seek to impede him from whatever it is he pleases to do. In the beginning narration of Pitch Black‘s sequel, Chronicles of Riddick, we are explicitly told that Riddick isn’t just bad, but evil; what the character tells us himself through his own inner monologue seems to fall in line with the presupposition that he isn’t exactly fond of humanity.

[upon being forced to return to civilization]

“So now it’s back to the brightness… and everything I hate.” 

Implying of course that he hates civilization. In the third installment of the film series, simply titled, Riddick, our titular protagonist/antagonist says,

Somewhere along the way, I lost a step. I got sloppy. Dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all… I got civilized.

A murderer, a (suggested, though never stated) rapist, a misanthropist and stalwart enemy of all that is orderly and lawful. Clearly, Riddick is not a particularly amiable individual. But even despite these flaws the character is widely beloved, particularly by men – how can this be?

To answer the question we must turn our attention to the way that men are treated in modern day civilization (here we will confine our attention to the primary audience of the films – the Western industrialized nations). With the rise of numerous factors, including feminism and critical theory, a general idea has pervaded the western nations, chiefly that since men are the primary drivers of political conflict (which is true), they should be denatured, that is, stripped of any and all masculine attributes. Not only that, but additionally, men – those damnable patriarchs – must, wholesale, give up their place at the head of the table of civilization and cede all hitherto obtained status and characteristics to women. In this way, the beast that resides within the souls of Man is caged and glorious and caring Woman takes the helm to right the sinking ship. This is bad for two primary reasons (though many more as well), namely: 1. women and men willfully weakening the character and even the very spiritual nature of their male kith and kin will, if successful, leave them horribly vulnerable to those other nations and countries who have maintained their warrior ethos and their, dare I say, patriarch structures. 2. Perhaps even more fundamentally, it is psychologically – and thus, physically – damaging for young men to be, at every turn, denied both accept and outlet for their masculine natures.

Naturally, it should not be assumed that this is problem which all men face – one should not allow one’s self to descend into hysterical hyperbole on these matters like many segments of the MGTOW movement – and doubtless, many young men get along just fine, able to resist the increasingly shrill daggering of the matriarchal pulpit-pounders and genderqueer crusaders. That being said, for those whom it does effect, it imparts a soul-crushing malaise.

The Riddick series, and the character himself, it is my contention, achieved their popularity because they maintain and uphold the tradition of the warrior ethos, that is, the man who, rather than fleeing from his selfsame masculinity embraces it in a attempt to harness its effervescent energy. He is a man who will go to any length to protect both himself and all those whom he holds dear. He is also a conqueror and leader of men who agrees with the ethic of the Necromongers, the theocratic, galaxy conquering, principal antagonists of Chronicles, “You keep what you kill.” At the end of Chronicles Riddick himself ascends to the throne of the Necromongers and becomes their equivalent of Caesar, The Grand Marshal.

Just like other popular characters, such as James Bond, Riddick is also quite popular with the ladies (whether or not they, themselves, admit it – they usually don’t). In the films, his effectiveness with the opposite sex comes – in both friendship and sex – comes from both his domineering, take-charge attitude (which most women find, to some degree extremely appealing; especially given such behaviors increasing rarity) as well as his extremely protective nature (when one of his female compatriots is imprisoned, in the second film in the series, he travels across the galaxy to break her out of a massive underground prison-complex on a planet that is so hot that, even should a prisoner escape the complex, he or she would be evaporated upon reaching the surface – now that’s dedication!). In the third film in the series, Riddick, such a show is made of Riddick’s sexual prowess that he even manages to woo a gruff-yet-beautiful no-nonsense lesbian whose personal creedo is, “I don’t fuck men. I fuck them up occasionally if they need it.” It is a rather silly convention but the lack of heavy-handed sexual politics within the franchise was imminently refreshing, especially since nearly every major film features some kind of Mary Sue.

Riddick’s antisocial nature and odd, glowing eyes (which allow him to see perfectly in the dark) offers wide appeal to those men who feel socially isolated and unable to actuate their own potential. Riddick is a survivalist who is so self-sufficient that he (generally) does not even require the slightest modicum of help to achieve his ends. He braves a frozen world so far-flung that it receives only a numerical designation (you can always tell in sci-fi films whether or not a planet is important to the plot by whether or not it is named – if it just has a bunch of numbers in place of name one knows instantly it isn’t very important), with nothing but a pair of knives, the clothes on his back and his googles, he survives a desert planet teeming with ferocious, venomous monsters; he escapes from every cell into which he is thrown and pays back his captors, two-fold. It would seem that there is no corner of the universe and no threat, he will not fling himself unto with steely abandon. Indeed, such are his virtues that, were Riddick a more sociable and less wrathful and petulant individual, he might well have become a great leader of men (if he were a man – he is member of an ancient, alien species called Furyans).

Such a archetype (similar to, say, the Punisher or, The Man With No Name) allows a outlet for pent-up male frustration – what virile young man, after all, would not wish to be able to sally forth around the galaxy, would not wish to be able to effortlessly live off the land of even the most dead and hostile of plants, would not wish to be able to be so alluring in their patriarchal splendor that even the most ardent of lesbians want to share their bed? Very few. Hence the popularity among men. The characters popularity among women can be found in simply revisiting what I previously wrote; for most women, whatever they might say, are looking for a man who will take charge, take control and who will expend every last ounce of energy and power to look after and protect her (as was the case with the character of Kyra from the first and second films in the franchise).

Despite what the characters in the film series say, Riddick is not evil as he does not seek to cause needless suffering. He is merely a man, ruthless and powerful, who has absolutely no respect for weakness, a man who understands, to perfection, the natural and inescapable laws of human order – that women need men like men need women; that violence is inevitable and best prepared for; that the strong may rule the weak, but that the clever rule the strong.