Geeks are usually well attuned to villain matters, which is one reason why I tend to indulge my geeky side when I need cheering up (and not only then, to tell the truth). After watching Rogue One in the local cinema, I watched two Youtube reviews of it where the reviewers (two per piece) went into a happy trance over a scene where Darth Vader kicked serious rebel ass without even breaking into a sweat. These are moments in life when I feel like saying: "Chewie, we're home." Classic 19th-century fiction and costume dramas are full of great villains, but you'll be hard pressed to meet soulmates among your fellow readers/viewers who feel like you do about them. Youtube isn't exactly awash with videos of people enthusing: "Wow, didn't Carker completely own Dombey in Chapter 45 of Dombey and Son? He must be one of the greatest villains ever." But geeks get the whole bad guy thing. Which makes it strange that so far, there hasn't been more talk about how underwhelming the main antagonist of Rogue One is.
It's a pity, because the actor playing Orson Krennic, the imperial Death Star project leader (or something), looks the part, and I don't think he's really bad either. Maybe the directing is at fault? Or should we blame that style-cramping white cape? I thought a white outfit for an imperial officer (matching the stormtrooper theme) was a neat idea in theory: it could be used as a signal that all the Empire's stooges may not see themselves as bad guys, and thus may not feel the need to don a black villain ensemble. But sadly, in practice, that white cape looked like a sheet and was really distracting. Krennic's biggest problem, though, is that he's bested and outsmarted at every turn. Governor Tarkin, heavily CGId to look like the late Peter Cushing who played him in the original, walks all over him. Losing out to the original Tarkin wouldn't have been any great shame, and losing out to a new version of Tarkin played by villain pro Guy Henry shouldn't be shaming either, but the eerie CGI which tries to recreate Cushing's handsome, vulturish features (no, that's not a contradiction in terms) makes the Tarkin-Krennic scenes feel like Krennic is fighting with a hologram - and losing.
But that's not the end of his humiliations. He sees Vader in order to complain about being usurped by Tarkin, and is basically told to stop whining. He is completely taken in by the basic distraction strategy of the Rogue One crew, which makes it possible for a select few of them to break into a high-security archive full of important strategic Empire stuff and transmit the Death Star plans out into space, while the stormtroopers are fighting the rest of the rebels on the beaches (!). Even his one apparent triumph - kidnapping the scientific genius Galen Erso and forcing him to work on developing the imperial Death Star - turns out to be a mistake as Galen secretly builds in a weakness in the Death Star which the rebels can then exploit. Does Krennic notice? Does he heck.
The few scenes where Krennic could have been allowed to shine don't work either. The very first, where he banters with Galen and his wife who are both in full goodness-will-prevail mode, should be the perfect starting point for a villain, but it falls flat. Here, I think the directing must be to blame, or the actor was having an off day. The exchange "You confuse peace with tyranny" "You have to start somewhere" is a quite passable villain quip and should have zinged or generated some kind of this-man-has-no-conscience-menace, but it doesn't. In a later scene, Krennic extracts a confession from Galen about being in touch with the rebels by threatening to gun down his whole scientific team as a group punishment. I wish I could say that you can't guess what happens next, but you can. Yes, it's the old villain-shoots-them-all-anyway cliché, and it's not even clever: where is the Empire going to dig up a new top scientific team at such short notice?
It's hard to define a villain's job description, but what he must do at least 99% of the time is pose some kind of threat to one or several of the main characters - because he has a grievance against them, or because they're simply in his way and the easiest way from A to B is to crush them underfoot. (There are some villains like Bulstrode in Middlemarch who don't quite fit this template - but that's a discussion for another day.) But Krennic, I'm sorry to say, is too stupid to be threatening. He also suffers from the same problem as the rest of the characters in this film: there's no back-story or explanation of his motivation. The thing about Rogue One is we are never going to see any of the protagonists again, and because they don't have a future somewhere the decision was made not to give them much of a past either. The ragtag rebels-within-the-rebellion group led by the disillusioned seasoned killer Cassian and Galen's daughter Jyn Erso are likeable, but with the exception of Jyn we have no idea where they're coming from. Why did the imperial pilot defect? Why is he so devoted to Galen? We don't know, nor will we ever know: the man's cannon-fodder.
Still, Rogue One is a good adventure flick, though definitely not one for the kids - the death toll is astronomic. One thing it succeeded in was to throw some mud on the supposedly heroic rebellion, which I found interesting. Cassian tells Jyn that he has committed no end of atrocities in the name of the rebellion, and the suicide mission to get the Death Star plans is a way for him to redeem himself. We can see that the rebel leaders are trigger-happy: the original plan (not known to Jyn) is to kill Galen rather than extract him from the Empire's grasp. We also have Jyn's old mentor who is an "extremist", which leaves us wondering what he's done (apart from torturing innocent pilots by means of a squid alien) which would make even the not-too-squeamish-seeming rebel leaders balk at having anything to do with him. One scene takes place in an Empire-occupied city, and we see a few stormtroopers kicking about in a goofy-cocky way. Later the city is used for Death Star target practice, which sort of answers the question why a rebellion is needed, but at the time the scene takes place I remember thinking: "What, that's the only way the Empire makes its tyrannous presence felt? I'd rather have some goofy stormtroopers trudging about the streets than put my faith in informant-killers and torturers-by-squid obsessed with a Cause." In this general way, rather than in the characterisation, the black-and-white Star Wars universe does get a tiny bit more nuanced. You can see why someone would actually go for the imperial peace and tyranny option rather than join the unreliable rebels.
Oh, and the droid's really funny.