Rogue One vs. The Force Awakens

When I got out of the premiere for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, one of the first questions I got was: how does the first Star Wars standalone film compare to JJ AbramsStar Wars: The Force Awakens? And for me the answer was simple, while both movies are good, The Force Awakens is better because it offers better-written characters and a story in which I became more emotionally invested in.

One of my favorite YouTube channels, Lessons From the Screenplay, has just published a video essay taking on this exact topic and I want to share it with you since it says everything I have felt about the differences between these two stories.

Rogue One vs. The Force Awakens — The Fault in Our Star Wars

The video essay from Michael explains that we never see who Jyn Erso is, but instead we are told through supporting characters. The Force Awakens, on the other hand, spends copious time showing us who Rey is, and thus the audience feels more of an emotional connection with this hero:

The power behind “show don’t tell” isn’t simply about visuals. In his book “Screenplay,” Syd Field writes: “Action is character; a person is what he does, not what he says. Because we’re telling a story in pictures, we must show how the character acts and reacts to the incidents and events that he/she confronts and overcomes (or doesn’t overcome) during the story line.” Spending time with Rey, we get to see her make choices, which is critical to creating an active protagonist.

The problem with Jyn Erso’s story is that she is not an active protagonist, and instead, things just happen to her. What makes it worse is that her choices have very little impactful or interesting change on the story.

A lot of fans seemed to approach Rogue One by pointing out the problems they had with The Force Awakens that didn’t exist in the first Star Wars anthology movie and praising it for sidestepping those problems. But the truth of the matter is that Rogue One had the opposite problems. While Rogue One had a unique heist plot that we haven’t seen before in a Star Wars movie and introduced us to new planets and characters while showing off cool-looking designs and ideas, the film lacked compelling three-dimensional characters that we emotionally connected with.

I don’t know anyone who can argue that Jyn, Cassian or Krennic are better characters than Rey, Finn or Kylo Ren. While The Force Awakens may have intentionally emulated many aspects of A New Hope‘s structure resulting in the common refrain of “Oh, I’ve seen this Death Star climax two times before,” the new active protagonists were both emotionally engaging and compelling.

The video also points out that the first half of Rogue One is unnecessarily complicated and filled with sequences that have little-to-no meaningful consequences for the plot:

For instance, Saw doesn’t trust the Imperial pilot who carries the message from Jyn’s father. He subjects the pilot to a creature that causes its victims to lose their minds as it determines their true intentions. But afterward, Saw Gerrera still doesn’t believe the pilot who regains his mind the next time we see him. This scene doesn’t move the plot forward because it doesn’t change anything. There are no consequences. The following trip to Eadu is similarly inconsequential. Jyn has already seen the message revealing the Death Star’s weakness. She and we know the next step is to convince the Rebellion go to steal the plans. But instead, they travel to Eadu, beginning a thirty-two minute sequence that has no lasting consequences and provides them with no new information. It does function to let Jyn briefly reunite with her father. But while the death of Jyn’s father should be a significant moment for her and the story, it ultimately doesn’t change the trajectory of either. Once Jyn has learned that Cassian had orders to assassinate her father she’s even angrier at him and the Rebellion than before. This kind of revelation might give her cause her to abandon Cassian and forsake the rebellion. But instead, in the following scenes she’s giving a stirring speech to the rebels and teaming up with Cassian.

I would love to hear your thoughts after watching the video.

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