Script Doctoring Rogue One
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Rogue One sure was a movie. I don’t mean to call it terrible — or even bad. In fact, there was a lot about it I enjoyed. However, I also felt its story was problematic in a number of ways. As an exercise in narrative structure and story troubleshooting, I’m going to walk through a “script doctor” exercise for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Some Thoughts About Playing Doctor
Before I jump in, grant me a bit of a preamble. I’ve never done “script doctor” exercises on this site, but it’s something I often do after watching movies (or reading books, or playing video games, or whatever else). Mind, it’s not after every movie; sometimes stories are either so bad or so good that I don’t bother. But there are movies that lie somewhere in between: showing potential that they failed to live up to. For those movies, I often work through how I would have changed the story to have made them work.
My girlfriend (an amazing poet who is intrigued by fiction but still struggling to understand the nuances of narrative structure) has had to, for better and worse, get used to this habit of mine. Over the last few months, she’s even started playing along, making the process more of a back and forth. (I love it.)
After watching Rogue One, we spent almost three hours playing doctor with the script, and she said she learned a lot about fiction as a result. I wish I could give that same experience of dissecting the story, coming up with alternatives, and running through for logical consistencies. But since we don’t have the time for that, I’m going to run through the problems that I saw with the film and how I propose to address them. As you go through this entry, challenge my ideas, add or remove problems, and come up with your own solutions. That’s where the learning happens.
Also, since this is my first go at this type of entry, let me know what you think in the comments! If this is useful, I would be happy to do more entries like this. If not … it’d be good to know that, too. Now, let’s begin.
Oh … and of course … ***SPOILER WARNING***.
Many of the problems I saw were at individual points in the plot. However, a few were issues with the broader approach.
First, the sheer amount of pointless fan service. Now, I’m all for well-earned fan service, but just throwing in the guys from the cantina scene, and multiple major rebel alliance leaders, and so much Vader, and Tarkin, and Leia … it felt like it detracted rather than serving the story. So, throughout he story, we’re going to cut out every cameo that doesn’t serve the story.
Second, this story is clearly intended to be watched after you’ve already seen A New Hope. I think that’s a mistake. You can definitely assume that all your initial viewers are in that boat, but you’re undermining the story’s long-term value if you rely fully on that assumption. So we’re going to make it so watching Rogue One prior to A New Hope will make the Star Wars story even better.
Third, on a related note, I think the use of the Death Star undercuts its value later in the series. It’s also illogical (why blow up a city with resources you’re trying to mine just to get rid of a flagging rebel group? why the hell blow up the archives if you’re winning the ground battle?). So, in this version, the Death Star will be an ominous, almost-complete super weapon that builds naturally to its status at the beginning of A New Hope.
And fourth, there aren’t any Bothans. Maybe it’s just because I’m a loyalist, but the line from the original says “Many Bothans died for this information.” But that was totally skipped in Rogue One. We’re going to make Bothans a group of people that contribute meaningfully to the plot and setting.
Rogue One’s Opening
My big complaint with the opening is that it doesn’t set up much of an arc for Jyn. So, let’s give Jyn and her father a more complex relationship to establish an arc that I feel fits far better into this film’s story. In fact, let’s make Jyn hate her father by the end of the opening.
Additionally, because there were far too many locations in this movie, rather than having the family seeking refuge on some random farm planet, we’re going to have the opening sequence take place at the research facility. Galen Urso and family are already there.
The Revised Opening
We open with Jyn overhearing her parents argue about the work Galen is doing. Galen claims he’s doing it to protect the family, his wife says no excuse makes what he’s doing okay and that they have to leave. Jyn’s mother decides to run away with Jyn without telling Galen. She contacts a member of the rebellion.
Galen gives Jyn the kyber crystal necklace and explains some basic properties of these crystals. The tone shows that there is a good relationship here that Jyn will be losing.
Jyn’s mother then wakes her up in the middle of the night while she’s not wearing said necklace. The meeting with the rebels has been arranged, and the two are on the move. Galen realizes this is happening too late and runs to reach them. He encounters them at the edge of the facility, but Krennic arrives at the same time.
Galen tries to calm the situation and thus seems friendly toward Krennic. We also establish that Krennic has a group of elite soldiers that’s constantly by his side. The rebels, who have been waiting nearby, attempt to intervene, and Jyn’s mother tells her to run. Jyn does so, and is aided by a rebel soldier who takes her to a safe distance.
Galen pleads with Krennic as the battle commences. Jyn watches the ensuing battle, and sees as her mother is killed and the rebel soldiers are handily beaten by Krennic’s elite soldiers. Jyn looks on in horror, believing that her father is on the same side as this evil man — and that he stood idly by while his wife was shot.
The major problem cited by critics is that the opening act jumps between far too many characters and locations. That’s certainly the biggest thing to address. First off, we’re going to completely get rid of the weird cyborg guy (Saw Garrera) who is a rebel but not part of the alliance. We’re also going to get rid of the monk’s friend and give all of his roles to the pilot (who is otherwise an empty character). And, for the entire first act, we’re going to stick to a single location: the kyber temple.
That’s about four locations and two characters removed. The first act also needs to accomplish a set of other tasks. We must:
- Introduce all our other main characters (Cassian, Bodhi, Chirrut, and K-2S0)
- Get the message to the rebels
- Set Bodhi and Chirrut up in a relationship with a skeptic vs mystic tension to it
- Set up a rivalry between Jyn and Cassian
Let’s see what we can manage.
The Revised Act One
Jyn is already in a squad of rebels. Cassian is also in her squad. The imperials are trying to get kyber crystals from the temple, but it hasn’t fallen yet: The rebels are there to stop that. As they wage a guerilla war on the imperials, K-2SO is communicating over comm links to give tactical information. We don’t yet know he’s a droid. K-2SO is aboard the squad’s ship.
Bodhi arrives trying to track down rebels so he can pass along his message. He encounters Chirrut, who is being harassed by imperials. Chirrut fights but starts to lose, and Bodhi intervenes. We can also throw in lines here like the “survived because force guided you” vs “survived because I was there with my gun.” Bodhi asks if Chirrut knows where the rebels are, and Chirrut responds with something like “I know where they are going to be.” Bodhi responds with skepticism but goes along because he doesn’t feel he has other options.
While in a major battle with the imperials who have almost breached the temple, Cassian intentionally collapses part of the temple to kill a group of storm troopers. Jyn and Cassian are now trapped in the temple’s catacombs. Jyn is infuriated, saying that they are meant to save the temple, not destroy it. Cassian makes it clear that he’s only in it for beating the imperials. Jyn notices a defining mark — let’s say a tattoo series on his neck — and we see realization dawn on her. She says, “You’re a Bothan, aren’t you?” Cassian says something to the tune of, “One of the five hundred left. After what the imperials did to make an example of us.” Now stuck in the temple (and with their comm links not working), the two try to find their way out.
We show Grand Moff Tarkin berating Krennic for how slowly the kyber crystal retrieval is going. Vader is referenced as a threat, but is not physically present. Krennic makes excuses, but when Tarkin threatens him, Krennic decides to unleash all his forces to bring down the temple.
Cassian and Jyn encounter Bodhi and Chirrut. Cassian wants to kill Bodhi, but Bodhi tries to indicate that he has a message for them. They take Bodhi prisoner, but Cassan insists on searching him. They find the message, and it’s handed off to Jyn. Bodhi freaks out and says the message isn’t for her. The group agrees that they can let the rebel leaders decide what to do once they’re out. Chirrut offers to guide them out of the catacombs. He does so successfully, and only then do Cassian and Jyn realize that Chirrut is blind.
We show that, here on the surface, the war has turned against the rebels. Krennic is making a final push, and the temple is falling. The group has to fight their way out. The previous leader of the rebel squad, as well as the remainder of said squad, are killed. The group makes it back to the ship, and we can have a fun moment where K-2SO and Bodhi see each other, and both panic: “Ah! An Imperial!” We get the full intro to who K-2SO is (and I think the movie’s rendition worked great here). The group flies back to base.
Bodhi is turned over and chucked in prison while they decide what to do with him. Jyn gives the message to Mon Mothma and explains that Bodhi said it was vital to the rebellion. Mothma thanks her and goes to play to the message. As Jyn goes to leave, the message begins and she freezes, hearing the voice of her father. We play a message similar to the one we got in the current film. The only revision is that Galen is asking for rescue and says he has the plans himself. Mothma thinks they have to trust the message (because they’re losing the war and it’s their last hope). Jyn says it’s a terrible idea, saying, “You don’t know my father.”
Despite this tension, Mothma instructs Jyn to go on a rescue mission. The group gathered in Act I will all be part of said mission.
So, as you can see, the plot we’ve set up already diverges pretty strongly, but it keeps the core threat while focusing on fewer locations, fewer characters, fewer plot points, and more opportunities to develop characters and character dynamics. That puts us on good footing for Act II, where the goal will be similar to that of the released version: We have to rescue Galen and get the plans.
To keep our locations down and to add some emotional resonance, our Act II takes place at the same research facility we used in the opening. That puts us nicely in line for a trio of core locations for the film: the research facility, the kyber temple, and the archives.
I didn’t mind Act II in the released version. It just felt a bit scattered. So we’re going to tighten ours up with a pretty narrow focus: Act II is about Jyn’s arc, which revolves around her bitterness toward her father and her mistrust of hope. (Thematically, I felt the strongest elements of Rogue One were the skepticism vs faith / hope, so we’re going to hone in on that.)
The Revised Act Two
Bodhi gets everyone access to the facility, which the group successfully infiltrates. Jyn insists on confronting her father alone. When she enters Galen’s room, she notes all the same family pictures are still on the walls. She still mistrusts him, though, and pulls a gun on him. Based on how it impacts pacing, we’ll want to try a scene where she confronts him about who she believes he is. I like the idea that he takes responsibility for his wife’s death, saying it was because he wasn’t honest about the risks of the facility, because he didn’t want them to be afraid. Galen says that he wants to help, and that if she can get him to the main computers, he can get the plans. (He couldn’t do so before because doing this would raise alarms.)
The rest of the group is discovered and alarms sound. With the alarms sounding, Jyn has to make a choice of whether to trust her father or not. She decides to trust him, and follows him to the main computers.
Jyn and Galen make it to the main computers. Before the plans can be downloaded, though, Krennic and his elite soldiers arrive. Krennic (still in the friendly but evil tone) asks if Galen is trying to escape, and reminds him what happened the last time this was attempted. This clarifies for Jyn that her father really wasn’t lying and isn’ the man she thought he was. Galen acts as though he’s going to surrender, but overloads the main computers instead. The computers explode, and Jyn and Galen escape out to the shuttle while the remaining crew holds encroaching soldiers at bay. Right as they reach the shuttle and seem to be home free, Galen is shot in the stomach. Jyn drags him aboard and the ship takes off.
Galen is quickly dying, but gives Jyn the final message that there is another copy of the plans at the archives. When he dies, Jyn finds that Galen has been wearing the Kyber Crystal necklace he gave her as a child. She puts this necklace on.
I honestly felt the third act was pretty strong, so I’m going to leave a lot of it be. We’re just going to completely get rid of the pseudo-romance between Jyn and Cassian (which felt forced) and tighten up the ending.
Revised Act Three
The group gets back to the rebel base and talk about the plans. The clashing rebel ideologies here works just fine for me, but the main difference is that rather than Cassian having a bunch of random people come with her, we can see that everyone he brings to the final assault has the same neck tattoos: These are some of the last remaining Bothans.
We’re going to completely omit the space battle. It looked neat, but it was unnecessarily convoluted.
On the ground, we see the same series of noble sacrifices from the team members, with a few revisions.
No need for a weirdly complicated claw game for getting the blueprints. We can just make getting this information from the computers the hinge point for K-2SO’s sacrifice.
Cassian takes out all of Krennic’s elite soldiers in the final push, but dies himself. And he actually dies. Not fake dies.
Bodhi doesn’t die in some random explosion: He takes the place of Chirrut’s friend, and does the same “picking up Chirrut’s mantra” after Chirrut goes down. The switch Chirrut flips at the end can be for a similar shield, and the notion can be the same (shield has to be down for the message to go through).
Krennic pursues Jyn to the roof. Jyn is disarmed. Krennic tells her what she’s doing is pointless because the shield is up, there may not even be a ship on the other side. We cut back and forth with Chirrut and Bodhi’s final sacrifices during this dialogue (with the mantra grounding us). Krennic asks why Jyn thinks she can win, and even offers her mercy. We see Jyn make a final choice for hope, and she charges for the final satellite button to transmit the data, and even as Krennic shoots her, repeatedly, she refuses to yield. The message is sent just as the shields go down. Jyn clutches at her father’s kyber crystal necklace as she looks skyward, hoping that someone receives the message she’s just died to send.
And while I think there’s merit in letting her kill Krennic, here’s what I prefer: We show Darth Vader for the first time, and he’s confronting Krennic in the aftermath of the battle (which has completely wiped out the rebel / Bothan force). Krennic makes excuses in the same way he has previously in the film, and Vader kills him. This establishes him as a major threat right before he shows up to the party in A New Hope, and it gives us the satisfaction of seeing Krennic destroyed by the same evil system he was loyal to.
We can conclude with the same basic idea: Leia receives the message, Vader intercepts her ship, and viewers who are interested can move right into A New Hope and treat it like a continuous (and satisfying) six hour romp.
It’s possible this is the longest entry I’ve written, and it may have included more details than were strictly necessary. But I also wanted to say just a few things as far as lessons I learned from this process.
First, that tying things up to both accomplish your character goals and having people in the right place at the right time can be very tricky. Second, that Hollywood seems to have lost the art of simplicity, and that reducing the number of characters and locales seems (at least to me) to greatly increase their potency. And third, that I believe the most compelling arcs are those that raise questions about why characters do what they do rather than what they do.
Tell me what you think. Was this exercise useful for you? Do you ever do this kind of thing on your own? Would you want to see this version of Rogue One? Be sure to let me know in the comments.