Rogue One: Making Character Death Hurt

I finally saw Star Wars: Rogue One! Yes! Now I get to tear it apart!


No, in all seriousness, I loved many things about this movie. The acting was good, the music was good, the action was good. The set design and cinematography make me sad I didn’t see it in theater. This is the most beautiful Star Wars movie yet, and that’s saying something.


Even the dialogue, characters, and overall plot are fine. Really, I strongly recommend watching Rogue One, if you haven’t already.


If you haven’t yet, I also suggest clicking away from this post, because I’m going to go into full spoilers from here on out. (I’ll also spoil Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy.)


This is a long, dense post. You’ve been warned.


Like many movies, I find one thing captures my attention to the exclusion of all others. Like Doctor Strange, which I loved despite its many flaws because I could only think about how well it executed its magic, or Ant Man, which I couldn’t enjoy despite it being a fun movie solely because it broke its own rules.


In the case of Rogue One, it’s this: I didn’t feel anything when the characters died.


This isn’t to say that I didn’t like the characters, didn’t enjoy my time with them. With only a couple of exceptions, the large ensemble cast all stood out and offered memorable moments. For the most part, they had solid motivations, and I believed that they were in this to the end.


However, when the dying starts, you need more than that. You need it to hurt.


Rogue One had a couple of serious disadvantages on this front. First, it is a large cast. There’s not all that much time to introduce characters and get the audience attached. And second, let’s be honest: most of us went into the movie assuming everyone was going to die by the end.


The main failure to counteract the first problem is that our characters only talk about the war. That’s it. There is nothing else, for any of them. There’s only the struggle. Where are the hopes and fears that they have completely separate from the immediate plot?


Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy get this right.


In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller talks about his wife, and we learn that he used to be a schoolteacher. Matt Damon’s Ryan talks about his brothers. We get a sense of where they’ve come from. They want to go home. See their families again. They mourn the losses of people we never see on screen, and try to make peace with the very real possibility that they are just going to end up as names on a wall.


In Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax and Gamora talk about the ways that Thanos has caused them pain. Sure, that’s great. It works for motivation, and gets us to understand and even like the characters. But the scenes that affect me most, particularly on rewatches, are the opening scene in which Peter loses his mom, and when Rocket breaks down crying after the bar fight, tired of others viewing him as a freak (and tired, too, of fearing that they’re right). These moments have little to do with the immediate plot. And yet they make our hearts ache for these characters.


One spot where I feel Rogue One succeeded at this was right after the council, when Cassian reveals that he’s haunted by the things he’s done, that it’s become a Sunk Cost Fallacy: “If I quit, I can’t live with myself. The evil I’ve done won’t have been for any greater good.” It’s a moment of vulnerability and pain that, yes, is still centered around the war. But it’s intensely personal. It means something.


But every character needs these scenes in order for the movie to work as intended.


The Jedi Temple Guardians (Played in half by Donnie Yen! Yes!) have lost their entire purpose in being, their home, and any family and friends they might have had. Obliterated in an instant. And we get a single reaction shot from them. Where’s the scene talking about the food stall on a corner that made their favorite dish? The child that they’d taught to kick a ball properly?


K-2SO was built and programmed to serve the Empire. He’s been reprogrammed and repurposed. Where is his worry that his free will means so little, that his very personality is a whim of anyone with the skills to change it? He has a sense of self, so is he afraid of losing that self again?


Bodhi Rook, the pilot, defected from the Empire, risking his life and likely the lives of anyone he cared about in order to do what was right. And for that, he got tortured, driven to brink of madness. Is he resentful? Does he doubt that the Alliance is really any better than the Empire?


Even Jyn Erso, our star, doesn’t talk too much about her father. Certainly not enough for us to develop an emotional link and sympathize when he’s killed. We’re left to rely on their acting alone to sell the relationship.


It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as some of these examples. But step one to making a character feel real to the reader is to give us glimpses of their life outside of the plot.  


These things go partially into solving problem two: The savvy viewer goes into Rogue One having written everyone off as dead already. Even without realizing it, this means we have our defenses up. “You won’t get me!” we (or at least I) think, holding back from truly caring about any of these characters so I can save myself the pain of losing them.


Making the characters feel real to the viewer is the most essential step. The urge to connect is stronger than the urge to avoid pain in most people. If you can make them real, you can get the viewer to let down their guard, just a little. But that won’t get a story all the way there by itself.


The other part to this, which I feel Rogue One completely fails at, is to make the deaths surprising, make them emotionally meaningful.


In Rogue One, once the dying starts–too late and too close-together in the story, but we’ll get to that–a pattern is set and never deviated from. Character A accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character B accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character C…


I understand why they did it. They wanted to make the characters’ deaths feel like they meant something. But here’s where I feel they made a mistake: We don’t need the character’s death to mean something to the plot. We need these deaths to mean something to us.


For instance, back to Saving Private Ryan. Out of all the deaths in the movie, the one that really sticks to me is that of Vin Diesel’s character, Private Caparzo. Tom Hanks’s character undoubtedly has the most meaningful death, from a plot perspective. But it’s poor Caparzo, bleeding out in the rain, that makes me feel like I’ve just been punched in the stomach. It feels like a betrayal. Caparzo shows a little compassion, and he dies for it. He fumbles for his weapon, too late for it to help him. His death isn’t heroic. As he’s dying in the rain, it’s other characters who are competent, who are heroic. All that Caparzo has is his heart. But even as he’s dying, he has a lot of it.


In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Groot. Groot’s death should be silly, right? He’s a giant, talking tree, he can only say one phrase. The most meaningful reaction comes from a raccoon with a Brooklyn accent. And yet, “We are Groot” has become a meaningful and enduring line, and the scene itself hardly ever fails to make a viewer tear up. (Marvel ruins it by bringing Groot back immediately, but what are you going to do?)


Why do these deaths affect us? What makes them different than any of the half-dozen main character deaths in Rogue One?


These deaths work because they surprise us. Sure, we might call that the kindhearted Caparzo, who has no place in this war, might not make it to the end. And certainly, we might figure that Groot would be able to use his regenerative ability to shield the rest of the Guardians. But could we guess that Caparzo would complain about the blood that was now on the letter to his father? Could we guess that Groot would face death with joy, speaking words that cement the family that the Guardians have become?


Maybe that’s why the death of K-2SO is the only one that completely works for me. It was surprising that a droid who had to this point been cynical and blase at the prospect of the crew’s deaths chooses to lock the humans away and hold the door. It was surprising and gratifying to see him finally get to wield his blaster. And it was definitely surprising–and a little scary–to see him carry on under a dozen wounds that should have stopped him, in a way that brought the T-800 to mind.


And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the rest of the main character deaths. The cycle of success and death, self-sacrifice that never really means much to me as I watch it because it’s utterly impersonal. This cycle actually grew boring, which is something you should never be able to say about main character deaths.


They should never have stuffed all of these main character deaths into the last fifteen minutes. Character death has diminishing returns. You can’t rely on sheer volume to make the viewer feel something.


Instead, they should have paced the character deaths. When they’re killing characters who have one or two scenes of screen time, they should be killing main characters. Make it feel like anyone can die, not just the wizened mentor and the father-who’s-served-his-purpose. Make us fear for the main characters, and mourn with them.


Another mistake they made was copy/pasting the way the characters died. No, I’m not talking about the means with which the Empire killed them (although grenades OP, please nerf). I’m talking about the emotional content of each death.


Why are all the deaths in Rogue One bittersweet heroes’ deaths? No one dies a coward, a failure, a victim. Imagine if, instead of having five separate objectives, there were only two. Jyn and Cassian and K-2SO are off accomplishing one, and the rest of the crew are working on the other.


Imagine the first character, say Donnie Yen’s Temple Guardian Chirrut, starting toward the switch. He’s repeating the mantra, just as he does in the movie as is. But he gets blasted. Right in front of his comrades.


Rook, the pilot, folds in on himself, too traumatized to go on. Perhaps as a call-back to his ongoing fragility after the horrors of war that had led him to defect, and the torture that had driven him to the brink of madness. And yes. Weak, whimpering in the corner of a bunker, Rook dies.


Baze, the other Guardian, steps up. He’s clearly terrified of the overwhelming power raised against him. But he walks out into the open, closes his eyes, and repeats his friend’s mantra: I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.


This is a call-back to an earlier scene that should have been, where the friends mourned their home, and Baze confesses to doubting the powers he’s been loyal to for his entire life. In this moment, he’s decided to put his faith in his fallen friend, and walks into danger with nothing but the Force to protect him. He takes glancing hits, but forges on, mantra on his lips. He activates the switch, and he dies.


Chirrut’s death is a shock. Rook’s death is sad and kind of pathetic. And Baze’s death has earned the heroism of the moment. Each of those deaths elicits an emotion from the audience. And it makes the sequence dynamic, rather than a loop.


The movie has some other flaws kind of related to character death. Wasting characters, and great actors, in particular. Neither Forest Whitaker or Mads Mikkelsen were allowed to do everything they might have and their characters might have, unfortunately.


Mostly unrelated to the rest of the post, I was disappointed by Vader’s limited role. They respected the character and didn’t embarrass him, as some other movies might have. But I always had a very different vision for his use in this movie than the one to which they eventually put him.


See, in my mind, Vader would have a handful of scenes. And each time he showed up, a main character would die. Each time he was on screen, the movie turned into a slasher flick, essentially. I wanted to have dread in the pit of my stomach at the first notes of his music.


Instead, we get a guy who’s just never quite there when he’s needed (through no fault of his own), until the end. The equally glorious and spectacularly stupid ending, where the plans for the Death Star are passed around like the basketball at the end of Space Jam. Vader amazingly keeps up with it by annihilating anyone in his way, but never quite snatches it out of the air using the Force.


He is just the right amount of sassy for my liking, though.  


I really liked Rogue One. I think I’ll like it even more on future viewings. However, they wanted to be a war movie set in the Star Wars universe, but still wanted it to be upbeat and kinda sappy. I’m not sure you can have both, in this day and age.




Tie for best moment in the movie:


Using the Star Destroyers to shatter the shield. So good. So beautiful.




“Are you kidding? I’m blind!”


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