Fantastic, Forceful Films: Common elements in Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up(Some Rogue One spoilers below – clearly marked in ALL CAPS. Fantastic Beasts spoilers too, but seriously, people, you’ve had weeks …)

Ever since I learned to speak Star Wars at the Mythgard Institute a year ago, I’ve been eyeing the places where the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises seem to intersect, and these places are many. So the fact that Warner Brothers and Disney Studios have, within a month, released film tie-ins to their beloved epics is no great shock. Neither is the fact that the films employ common elements and themes in seeking to delight long-time fans while enticing new ones. Let’s talk about four elements Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One share.

  1. We already know how the story ends.

In classic tie-in fashion, both films focus on characters whose fate is known, at least to those paying attention. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the story of magizoologist Newt Scamander, a sort of magical third Kratt brother (the one whose personality didn’t sparkle enough for TV). From the book itself, which Rowling published as a Hogwarts text in 2001, we know Newt ends up successfully publishing his classic magical bestiary and lives to a ripe old age with his wife Porpetina and their pet Kneazles. So as the film opens, the audience knows more about the main characters and their fates than they themselves do: a narrative technique that has long lured audiences to invest more deeply in the story at hand, leaving them susceptible to plot twists that defy expectation. (For one persuasive, ancient example, see the Gospel of Mark.)

The same “audience as narrative insider” approach to storytelling lends a bittersweet edge to Rogue One. We know what happens to these guys too. 1977’s original Star Wars film (aka Episode IV: A New Hope) began in media res, in the midst of a much larger story. We’re caught in a fire fight on a Rebel ship as it is boarded by Darth Vader, who ruthlessly seeks to recover stolen Imperial plans, plans that will allow the good guys to destroy the Empire’s (first) super-weapon. But how were these all-important Death Star plans stolen in the first place, and who stole them? Rogue One provides compelling answers to these questions, in a gritty, stand-alone film that highlights the “War” in Star Wars. It fruitfully explores that earlier period in the Rebellion when there was a much finer line between desperation and hope.

BEGIN SPOILERY SECTION FOR ROGUE ONE: That said, as soon as you understand that Rogue One isrogue-one a stand-alone story of the bold cadre of Rebels who stole the first Death Star plans, you can guess that none of the film’s main figures survive the ordeal. If they had, we would know them in Episode IV as leading figures within the Rebel Alliance. But they’re not. We go into the film, presuming we get to say both “hello” and “goodbye” to Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and the rest of the Rogue crew. Which is why you can purchase Kleenex-brand tissues with your favorite images from Rogue One plastered all over them. More than your typically overdone Star Wars product pairings, you’re going to need those tissues.

(I was tempted, as I left the cinema on Thursday, to shout “They all die!” to the folks waiting for the 9:30 showing, not out of any sadistic urge, but in homage to the many Star Wars fans who realized, well before its official release, that Rogue One, like the animated Disney XD series Star Wars: Rebels, will not be about whether the cast perishes, but how. Anyway, I didn’t do it.) THIS CONCLUDES THE SPOILERY SECTION.

And yet, despite the disparity in their ultimate outcomes, Rogue One inspired in me a more profound sense of hope than Fantastic Beasts. Unlike Beasts, Rogue One is satisfyingly complete – seamlessly melting into A New Hope both visually and narratively. A breathtaking CGI recreation of a very young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia magically completes the “full circle” feel of Rogue One, reminding the audience one last time of how the larger story ends.

fb2Of course, Beasts lacks this sense of completion because its story is not all told; it is only part the first, and the film purposefully leaves the audience with more questions than answers as to what Newt is truly up to (besides Erumpent mating dances), in the grand scheme. But Beasts’ connection to the larger Potter plot (especially Grindelwald vs. Dumbledore) is shrouded in mystery and innuendo in the film. Is Newt working for Dumbledore? Or is he really just birthday-gift shopping in the US? Hard-core fans will enjoy toying with the slew of questions the film prompts, but for casual fans, this elusiveness robs Beasts of some of its power.

And we can’t ignore that Rogue One made nearly as much on its opening night as Beasts made on its opening weekend. Despite its clear ability to generate revenue, Star Wars seems to be playing the tie-in film game a bit more conservatively than the Wizarding franchise, leaving us wanting Rogue Two (not gonna happen), as opposed to Warner Bros. approach of committing, from the outset, to four more Newt films. Let’s hope the plot connections become clearer, and, for that matter, the main character’s awkward personality (very brilliantly portrayed by Eddie Redmayne so far) can help the Fantastic Beasts project realize its ambitious goals.

  1. Characters who straddle two worlds create comic relief.

Besides the blind, Force-faithful Temple guardian, Chirrut Imwe (he’s the closest thing we get to a Jedi ink2so-1024x433 this film), my favorite character in Rogue One was K-2SO, an Imperial security droid who has been reprogrammed to serve the Rebellion. Voiced by Alan Tudyk (the pilot in Joss Whedon’s cult-classic Firefly TV series), K-2 provides muscle, Imperial impersonation and much-needed comic relief to an otherwise dark film. K-2 exists, in part, to straddle the seam between Imperial and the Rebel sides of the conflict, and there are several laughable moments to be found in this awkward apposition.

fb52Jacob Kowalski, the Muggle who finds himself along for the ride in Fantastic Beasts, also stands in this seam between two worlds: this time, Magic and Muggle. As a “Mary Sue” character, Jacob is the audience’s way in to the magical setting, and the magic becomes new to us again through his discovery of it, even if we’ve been waiting for our owls from Hogwarts since age eleven. And like K-2, Jacob’s position between two worlds in conflict within the story afford him many opportunities to inject comedy into Beasts’ dark plot.

I suppose when you’re wedged firmly in the middle of opposing forces, it’s either laugh or cry. Audiences will be glad that K-2 and Jacob K. both went for the laughs.

  1. Some causes are worth dying for.

My favorite moment in Fantastic Beasts was when Newt hands his still-incomplete manuscript to Tina for safe-keeping, should he not return from Obscurus-whispering Credence and all of New York city back to safety. The moment characterized Newt perfectly: a man driven by his passion for magical creatures, more than by fear for his own life. And yet he secures the manuscript, not out of hubris for his own accomplishments, but because Newt wants the world to benefit from the work he’s done, even if he’s not around to enjoy the credit for it.

This same self-offering for the cause – an offering that brings profound hope – is the narrative backbone of Rogue One. From the films opening scenes, set in Jyn Erso’s childhood, we see examples of loving self-sacrifice that may bring new life, even in the face of an unbeatable enemy. Jyn’s father Galen, the brilliant scientist forced to serve the Empire by developing the Death Star, finds a way to sow the seeds of the weapon’s destruction, even as he himself is powerless to reap the harvest.

There is a popular prayer, attributed mistakenly to martyred El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero entitled “We are Workers”, that says

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. …

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. …

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Though these words of reflection were actually penned in 1979 by Bishop Ken Untener, they have long been attributed to Archbishop Romero, likely because they so perfectly sum up the martyr’s vision of the world: a vision which lies “beyond our vision”. Necessarily, one who is willing to give his or her life for a cause must understand they will never see the end results of their work, whether it be a published bestiary, the destruction of a super weapon, or justice for the poor of El Salvador. True to the larger stories to which Rogue and Beasts belong, both films incorporate this theme of loving self-sacrifice which brings new life, which Christians call the Paschal Mystery, though Rogue One’s expression of it is far more thorough-going than Beasts’.

  1. Exploring the grittier side of the franchise wins new fans and keeps old ones interested.

fb12Both films explore the grittier side of their respective franchises in many ways. Rogue One was touted, before its release, as the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars. Now, as someone who would never watch a war movie on purpose, I found Rogue quite palatable, and only covered my eyes against excessive violence a few times. (I did find myself marveling a few times over the fact that Rogue One is a product of the same franchise that brought us Jar-Jar Binks, who ONLY appeals to five-year-olds.) And Beasts, although it features Newt’s adorable magical creatures, is grittier than the Potter films in many ways, bringing us new information to flesh out what exactly happened to Ariana Dumbledore: details of which Rowling left murky in the books, presumably to protect young readers from the sexual violence and matricide involved. And speaking of sexual themes, Beasts alludes uncomfortably to the idea of Gellert Grindelwald (in the guise of Graves) as not merely gay but a sexual predator as well: an association that may check some of the LGBTQ celebration of the film’s anti-repression themes. So in both these films, we see a move by their respective franchises, which were originally aimed at children, to age and mature along with their rising fandoms, keep older fans interested, and snare new fans by diversifying the tone of what’s offered.

But when will we see a magical movie fronted by a Witch?

The question that remains for me, as an uberfan of both franchises, is: when will Warner Brothers and rey_star_wars_the_force_awakens-wideJ.K. Rowling take a cue from Star Wars and give us a compelling female lead? The Force Awakens gave us Rey (don’t even try to tell me it was a split bill; Finn is a great character, but not much more than a damsel in distress), and now Rogue One has given us the inimitable Rebel heroine Jyn Erso. Of course, box office pollsters reported that Rogue One opened to audiences that were 66% male versus 34% female, and Bryan Young recently argued in a bold Huffington Post piece that vestiges of 1950s sexism are still felt acutely within Star Wars fandom. So maybe it really doesn’t matter.

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Comments

  1. Brian Basore says:

    The only comment I can think to add is that my wife and I are old Star Wars fans and so knew there would be a Beasts sequel as soon as we saw that particularly solid scrap of Obscurial slip out of the subway and into the street above. (Darth Vader escaping the Death Star…)

  2. Emily Strand says:

    I love this connection, Brian! Well-spotted! I guess I need to re-watch Beasts.

  3. Brian Basore says:

    It appears that the movie Rogue One is a rewrite of Lucas Arts video game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2008), which is set between Star Wars III and Star Wars IV. I thought I’d seen the movie somewhere before, and then I remembered a game my sons had played on the PS2. Bingo! (Galen Kento’s ship, given him by Darth Vader, is called Rogue Shadow.)

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