Welcome to the first installment of authors Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s movie reviews!
Amal El-Mohtar: So let me start by saying I was intrigued by how mixed people’s reactions were. After all the joy people took from the trailers, the impression I was overall getting from my various feeds was one of disappointment—and then, in the face of that disappointment, counter-reactions of enjoyment and appreciation. But nothing like the overwhelming wave of joy in the wake of The Force Awakens, you know?
Max Gladstone: I suspect some of TFA’s joy came from merely seeing old friends again—the feeling that the saga had been rescued from the Prequels.
Simply seeing something that looks and feels like Star Wars, after all that, was a huge relief—at least to this nerd—even though TFA had its share of oddities. But Rogue One doesn’t get to cash in that check. (Even though I did like seeing a good old pair of macrobinoculars again.)
Amal El-Mohtar: RIGHT. And that’s actually a huge part of where my problems with Rogue One live—but I’ll get to that. I’ve only seen the film once, but here was my initial impression: it’s a beautiful film full of fantastic characters, none of whom are the protagonist, all of whom—can we get spoilery? Let’s get spoilery—die.
Max Gladstone: Yes! And in that regard I think it’s very close to—Amal, have you ever seen The Great Escape?
Amal El-Mohtar: I HAVE! I LOVE IT!
Max Gladstone: OKAY GOOD. I kept thinking about Rogue One in the context of The Great Escape. That same ensemble sense, lots of fantastic characters, chained together delightfully—and (huh, for some reason I’m worried about spoiling The Great Escape more than I am about spoiling Rogue One) all but three of them die.
Amal El-Mohtar: ….Holy shit I never realized that about The Great Escape. ALL BUT THREE?!
That can’t be right!
Max Gladstone: Something like that, yes! Discounting the Nazis.
Amal El-Mohtar: FUCK the Nazis.
Max Gladstone: Yes! FUCK those guys. Charles Bronson and his bro escape to Switzerland. Steve McQueen goes back in the cooler, but he wasn’t real, so he barely counts.
Amal El-Mohtar: Right, ok, to be fair Charles Bronson and his bro were like 90 percent of the film for me.
Max Gladstone: IIRC part of the reason The Great Escape was such a thing, is the Nazis killed almost everyone involved in it—violating the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war.
(Watching the movie realizing that the Camp Kommandant, a member of the officer core and reluctant Nazi, no matter how contemptible he is, is essentially trying to protect his prisoners from the True Believer SS, adds a weird layer.)
But this isn’t a song about The Great Escape, it’s a song about Rogue One.
Amal El-Mohtar: (I NEED TO REWATCH THIS FILM because yes all of this yes ugh goddammit I want to go back to the timeline where plots about Nazis are tired and boring instead of supremely relevant.)
Max Gladstone: (SAME. Though I’m relieved we have them. There’s something in Pratchett, IIRC, about the importance of telling stories about monsters, because the stories also tend to tell you monsters can be beaten.)
Amal El-Mohtar: (Haha I think that’s actually both Pratchett and Neil Gaiman misquoting G. K. Chesterton. )
(But an IMPORTANT SENTIMENT.)
(New title for column: ANYWAY.)
You were saying, about it and The Great Escape.
Max Gladstone: Oh! Just that The Great Escape does the same thing, yet feels like a fluid artistic whole. Anyway!
Amal El-Mohtar: OK so here is my main, entirely emotional problem with the film, which perhaps is not even a problem in a pragmatic march-of-progress sense, but still hurt my heart. Our protagonists are overwhelmingly men of colour with atypical masculinities. They’re so beautiful. I love them so much! Riz Ahmed’s tremulous, terrified pilot, Donnie Yen’s adorably wise-cracking almost-Jedi, Jiang Wen’s machine-gun-toting Rhymes-with-Blaze badass—they’re wonderful, I love them. Diego Luna keeps his accent! Chirrut & Baze are maybe gay? Bodhi Rook is SO SCARED ALL THE TIME but gets the job done over and over and over.
And they all die! No sooner are these characters introduced for me to love than they’re wiped out of future films?
In order to give “Hope” to CGI Carrie Fisher?
So that’s my emotional reaction—one of feeling cheated out of these characters I came to love and admire very quickly. Caveat, too, and I know this is in stark contrast to you Max: Star Wars is not part of my childhood. I never lived in this universe so a lot of the nostalgia-pings didn’t hit home for me. I was FREAKED OUT by CGI Peter Cushing, who reminded me of no one so much as Gollum.
Max Gladstone: Yes. I understand why the CGI representations were in this film, but oh my god did it wear. A great example of just how far the art has left to go.
Would it feel better for you if Leia wasn’t there at the end? (Let’s assume they had a better CGI Leia, for example.)
Amal El-Mohtar: I think it was the blandishment of “Hope” as much as anything else… I mean, the battle in the corridor right before that, with Vader being ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING, was great and intense, and charged full of OH CRAP COULD THEY DIE FOR NOTHING even though obviously they won’t because obviously the Death Star does get destroyed but not before Alderaan but still, ok.
But anyway. Emotionally, it was hard to see all these characters of colour with their unusual action-movie-men configurations just wiped off the board. Intellectually—I want to be on board with a project that shows how messy and costly warfare is, especially when we’re used to it represented in mythic terms as a Battle Between Light and Dark. Largely Bloodless. Planets Destroyed With No Actual People Cost Represented.
Max Gladstone: Right—so much of the working-out of the consequences of Alderaan’s destruction (PTSD for survivors, an Alderanian diaspora, etc) occurred in the old Star Wars EU, totally off screen. That’s one of many reasons I’m sad about the “death” of the EU—even though so much of the handwringing about it is just “It doesn’t exist anymore” when obviously, it does, the books are still there—there was a lot of good work there making the Star Wars films feel like they had consequences, and took place in a real galaxy. Ten years after RotJ, everyone’s still picking up the pieces of the Empire. Planets suffer ecological devastation. Imperial remnants fight guerilla war. It’s messy! Versus, like, on-screen, Leia is comforting Luke about Obi-Wan’s death about forty-five minutes after her homeworld’s blown up.
Amal El-Mohtar: RIGHT
(In what way is the EU “dead”? Are they just not making more of it?)
Max Gladstone: (Oh! Um. This is an ENORMOUS CAN OF STAR WORMS, so bear with me.)
(Basically, there’s the old EU, which covers… all the Dark Horse comics, my true love, most of the games, and all the novels post-Zahn, both from Bantam and Del Ray.)
(I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call that “several Mahabaratas worth of text.”)
(All of which was, within reason, consistent canon. As of Star Wars’s transfer of ownership to Disney, give or take a bit, a circle was drawn around all of that, and it was rechristened “Legends;” any future SW tie-ins would not need to be consistent with Legends continuity.)
(This allows them to make TFA, and tie-in novels to TFA, without worrying they might not be consistent with—just to use a particularly goofy example—Kevin J Anderson’s novel Darksaber from 1995.)
Amal El-Mohtar: Ahhhh! OK.
Max Gladstone: It’s a totally reasonable decision—but a lot of people were upset about the loss of canon. Which has always seemed weird to me. But then, I love Star Trek novels, and I always understood that Q Squared and The Final Reflection weren’t exactly canon in the way the series was.
Amal El-Mohtar: RIGHT, that makes perfect sense. (The THRILL I got when Riker said “Imzadi” to Troi in an episode after I’d read the book of same title! I have no idea what the actual chronology was there, but to me it was the show making manifest the books.)
ANYWAY—so, as a project, making a film about the doomed rebels without whom the Death Star couldn’t have been destroyed sounds awesome. Showing those rebels to be mostly POC hit me in a hard place, but is also I think important? And if it’s cough representative cough of how the casting for future films will go, that’s even better? But it’s still tricky for me to parse the good mourning from the bad, I think.
Max Gladstone: That makes total sense to me.
And the picking off of characters in increasing order of whiteness is not a great look, either.
Amal El-Mohtar: Yeah.
Max Gladstone: Personally, I went in expecting a movie that was self-contained—I hadn’t heard any discussion of multi-film deals for Jones or any of the cast, though I understand there were a few—and I was impressed that anyone greenlit a decision to have an entire cast die in a tentpole megafranchise picture. Remember all the legwork they went through to injure Rhodey in Captain America: Civil War! And I felt like, if the character arcs had started better, those deaths would feel like a well-earned completion of a story—which, again, is something we so rarely see in megafranchises. But I definitely see where you’re coming from.
Amal El-Mohtar: This is true! Man, what was even up with Felicity Jones not having a character until Act 3!
Max Gladstone: Hah! This is basically the subject of that whole big long piece I wrote. “How can we give Felicity Jones a character in the fewest moves possible.” Like a Go problem!
Amal El-Mohtar: I went in expecting the character from the trailers: angry, headstrong, anything but conciliatory. Instead we got… Nothing? A set of circumstances outlined in a few lines of dialogue delivered by other people? Basically up until she starts crying at the hologram of her father, she’s a blank slate.
Max Gladstone: Yes. Part of the reason I keep going to Steve McQueen, really, is that they want her to be the Steve McQueen character in The Great Escape.
This dogged individualist who doesn’t want to be part of the big collective resistance effort.
Amal El-Mohtar: (He was always my least favourite by the way.)
Max Gladstone: (He’s great, though! Not effective, but excellent. And you can’t argue with someone so iconic that he literally becomes the fashion plate for Captain America.)
Amal El-Mohtar: (nose-wrinkling)
Max Gladstone: (Oh shit I didn’t catch they even used the same motorcycle!)
Amal El-Mohtar: MUTTER GRUMP
Max Gladstone: But yes! So you start out with Jyn wanting to go her own way, she gets to Saw’s cave, learns her father’s still alive, throws in with the Rebellion to break him out, fails, but realizes the Death Star plans are important. But the character we get is totally defined by the men in her life. So yeah. Frustrating!
Amal El-Mohtar: Speaking of Saw—what did you think of him? Or of the film’s approach to rebellions/radicals more generally?
Max Gladstone: I like the notion that there is a radical fringe of the Rebellion. That seems like something which would exist in “real life,” and it makes the Rebellion feel more like a lived organization.
Saw’s the guy who saw Palpatine take power, and when everyone else was like, “Let’s wait and see,” he grabbed his gun and headed for the bunker. Hell, maybe he was out there even earlier—like, in the Clone Wars, as soon as the Grand Army of the Republic turned things all fascist. So when the “orthodox” Rebellion starts forming, they learn their methods from him—but they can’t go where he wants to go.
I liked that about the film in general—its attempt to portray ranges of political and personal belief. Saw and Mon Mothma and Cassian and Bail Organa are all rebels, with very different visions of what that means; Baze and Chirrut have a running argument over the Force. Which reminds me a lot of the challenge Cornel West once made to the theology of Reinhold Neibhur: “But is your god real, Niebuhr? Really, really real?”
So that’s me. Where are you?
Amal El-Mohtar: I also really appreciated seeing the different approaches to rebellion, but appreciated less the film’s approach—I felt that Saw’s rebels were faceless goons incapable of communication, which made their visual coding as Middle Eastern kind of annoying, especially in the context of actual Imperial goons literally occupying the area in order to mine it for, you know, war-mongering fuel. Which doesn’t resemble any real-world geopolitics at all.
Max Gladstone: Hah. Yes. Of course.
Amal El-Mohtar: But that aside, seeing a fractured egalitarian Left and a unified authoritarian Right felt very true to life. I was a bit fascinated by Orson Krennic.
Max Gladstone: (I really like that take on it. I found myself going back and forth on the Middle Eastern coding—there’s the issue you raise, obviously, but it’s also interesting to see the audience’s sympathies 100 percent on the side of folks trying to prevent Imperial resource exploitation of their native land.)
(Like, I got the sense that Saw’s team were the ones who had their heads on straight and understood the stakes, while the Yavin rebels are still just kind of screwing around.)
Amal El-Mohtar: (I wanted that to be the case! But instead the first time we see of them, they’re being mean to Riz Ahmed! And being told that Saw is TOO RADICAL and none of the LEGIT rebels can go near him! And they’re also mean to Chirrut and Baze, who presumably are also native?)
(It would’ve been such an easy fix, too—just show their FACES. Let them have FEELINGS as well as guns.)
(Have them recognise these two awesome dudes just took down a squad of storm-troopers.)
(Maybe don’t introduce Saw via tentacle porn?)
Max Gladstone: (Yeah, that was weird.)
(For me, the Yavin Rebels fit into this weird space where they’re visibly not, like, enmeshed citizen rebels—they have access to a lot of capital, military-grade equipment, sovereign wealth etc.)
(They’re more like a Senate-sponsored covert anti-Palpatine organization.)
(Which, I get why Saw wouldn’t like them very much.)
(IIRC they arrest Chirrut and Baze since they’re with Cassian and Jyn, and Cassian just straight up shot one of their dudes?)
Amal El-Mohtar: (Oh, I missed that if so. I thought they were turning up after the action and were just arresting them coz they were not-them with weapons.)
Max Gladstone: (Cassian definitely shoots one of Saw’s rebels—for no reason as far as I can tell!)
Amal El-Mohtar: So that’s the rebels—but what did you think of Krennic? And the baddies in general?
Max Gladstone: Well, you keep asking what I think! Why don’t you go first!
Amal El-Mohtar: Ha! So KRENNIC. He’s a character who could’ve basically walked out of Blake’s 7, which is a British space opera television show from the 1970s and 80s quite keen on showing the woes of middle management in an Evil Galactic Empire. And I LOVED that? All he wants is for the emperor to love him and promote him and give him funding forever!
Max Gladstone: Yes!
Amal El-Mohtar: How DARE anyone try to take credit for HIS WORK (coercing smarter people into making doomsday weapons)!
Max Gladstone: And for his buddy Galen to just draw a salary so they can keep having wine tastings and presumably playing D&D at the local comic shop. “Look, man, you’re doing basic science. It will benefit the entire universe. Can you just, please, take the job?”
Amal El-Mohtar: AHAHA OMG YES!
Max Gladstone: I am here for the obvious backstory of Krennic, who probably was a Grand Army of the Republicfunctionary who joined the Party after the Order 66 Coup and saw no reason why his department couldn’t continue as before. He even has grant approval authority now!
Amal El-Mohtar: Also his CAPE kept making me LAUGH because it looks great from the front but is a MESS from the back, like some kind of hilarious cloth mullet.
Max Gladstone: Hahahaaha!
Amal El-Mohtar: It’s all cheap and see-through when glimpsed from above! Which, this is Star Wars, trust that someone is always glimpsing you from above.
So there was this one moment with Krennic though, which reminded me of—brace yourself Max you will NEVER GUESS what I am about to reference here—
—actually go on, guess,
Max Gladstone: Steven Universe?
Amal El-Mohtar: No the OTHER thing that I’m forever quoting ad nauseum in perhaps startling contexts.
Max Gladstone: Hamilton?
Amal El-Mohtar: …No the OTHER thing.
Max Gladstone: I’m bad at this game, apparently?
Amal El-Mohtar: NO you are EXCELLENT at this game, Max. The correct answer was Walter Benjamin.
Max Gladstone: Ah! Yes!
Amal El-Mohtar: The other two make WAY MORE SENSE PROBABLY.
But there’s a moment—shit, now I’m second-guessing whether it’s Krennic or Tarquin—when a bad dude looks down on the destruction of Jedha City and says “It’s quite beautiful,” or something like that.
Max Gladstone: Yes, I think it’s Krennic, they wouldn’t give that line to Goon!Tarkin
Amal El-Mohtar: And I just thought of the bit from Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” where he quotes Marinetti’s manifesto on Futurism and says of it: “This manifesto has the virtue of clarity,” and how “this is the situation of politics that fascism renders aesthetic.”
Here’s that bit from Marinetti: “War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others.”
Max Gladstone: Yes! I think that’s a good connection. Also, there’s the implied contrast of Krennic’s character with that of Robert Oppenheimer.
Amal El-Mohtar: YES, right.
Max Gladstone: Which gets us off into a tangent about the importance of humanities education, etc.
Amal El-Mohtar: But you know, part of me was watching the film going—fuck, isn’t this beautiful, though? Isn’t everything about this being shot for maximum aesthetic pleasure? The scene with Jyn and Cassian, backlit by the second sun of the city’s destruction, hugging, silhouetted against the brightening light. Characters being scoured into martyrdom.
Max Gladstone: That’s an interesting response! “Beauty” isn’t really the term I’d use, though it’s certainly part of the term. Rudolph Otto’s conception of the holy is basically as the tremendous and fascinating mystery—it awes us and repels us with its scale, and yet we find ourselves drawn to it. And one thing I thought this film did very well, cinematically, is give the weight of that scale—and the insignificance of people next to it.
Amal El-Mohtar: I guess one could ask—is it ever ugly? The parts I see as ugly are where Vader’s butchering people in a corridor, or when Krennic kills the scientists.
Max Gladstone: I mean—yes? The ugliness lies in its clarity, in its purity. The Death Star is just too much of one thing.
Amal El-Mohtar: I guess the fact that it’s powered by the same stuff as Jedi light sabres is relevant here.
Max Gladstone: Yes!
It’s an enormousness that crosses over into enormity—and I think that intersects in really cool ways with the questions the film raises about destiny and god. It appears as a disruption or disorientation—even, and this I especially liked, disorienting with regard to our vivid image of the Death Star itself! Edwards and Greig Fraser did a great job of taking this very familiar brand symbol and constantly disturbing us with respect to it in the frame. The Death Star’s incomplete, its shadow immense. The Death Star rises in place of a sun. My favorite—The Death Star is upside down!
Amal El-Mohtar: Whaaaaaat!
Max Gladstone: Oh yeah! When it’s orbiting Jedah, the Death Star’s dish thing appears on its bottom half.
Amal El-Mohtar: I didn’t even notice!
Is that… A mistake?
Max Gladstone: Nope. It even makes sense! (If you were orbiting the planet, you’d want your dish pointed toward it.) But it’s so not the way we’re taught to see the Death Star. It unsettles, even if you don’t notice it consciously! Apropos of nothing, here’s a picture of Boba Fett in a dress, courtesy of Justin Bolger.
Amal El-Mohtar: AMAZING!
I don’t know how to really continue after this magnificent illustration of your point, so maybe let’s conclude? Any final thoughts?
Max Gladstone: Conclusions are hard!
There were a lot of very interesting instincts here—and for my money, it gets closer to complexity than TFA did, at least. And for once we have a real sense of what religion looks like in the Star Wars universe! But it’s hampered by shoddy story work. Makes me wonder if franchises have hampered our storytelling instincts—we forget the trick of actually starting and finishing a story in two hours.
What about you?
Amal El-Mohtar: I was so delighted by how much loving friendship was on screen at any given moment. The relationship between Cassian and K-2SO, or between Chirrut and Baze (I am super on board for reading them as a romantic couple, but equally on board for reading them as deeply loving friends of long standing, because there’s a dearth of that kind of relationship for men on-screen that isn’t negotiated through access to women), or between Chirrut and Jyn, or between K-2SO and Jyn, eventually—that made me really happy. Even, and you touched on this, between Galen and Orson! Also I have insufficiently sung the praises of K-2SO, because he was perfect, and it’s the nature of these things that we talk less about the things that were perfect.
Max Gladstone: Yes to all of that!
Amal El-Mohtar: Overall, I think I agree with you that it was in many ways a more complex film than TFA, which is punching a lot of fandom’s nostalgia buttons with a view to granting satisfaction—while Rogue One is more messily trying to do something more textured, subtle, and thoughtful with its remit.
Max Gladstone: Yes. I hope this is an indicator of good things to come—of a developing universe with more texture, depth, and adventurous storytelling than we’ve seen from, say, the MCU so far. I also, though, hope the Star Wars team gets its baseline script competence up to MCU levels.
May the Force be with them!
Amal El–Mohtar has received the Locus Award, been a Nebula Award finalist for her short fiction, and won the Rhysling Award for poetry three times. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty–eight different kinds of honey, and contributes criticism to NPR Books and the LA Times. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Uncanny Magazine, and The Starlit Wood anthology from Saga Press. She lives in Ottawa with her spouse and two cats. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com, or on Twitter @tithenai.
Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated (twice!) for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published Last First Snow, the fourth novel in Max’s Craft Sequence (preceded by Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five) in July 2015. Max’s game Choice of the Deathless was nominated for the XYZZY Award, and his short stories have appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine.