some thoughts on Rogue One: Director Krennic
Before we discuss Director Krennic, let’s take a look back at the previous “bad guys” from the Star Wars universe:
First and foremost there is Darth Vader. Darth Vader starts off as “evil” in Episode IV, develops into “evil, but subservient to a greater evil” in Episode V, and, finally, “evil, but conflicted, and eventually redeemed” in Episode VI. Vader’s Terminator-like consistency was part of his appeal, it was what made him terrifying. He wore a mask, you couldn’t know what he was thinking, he destroyed anything that got in his way.
Then there is Emperor Palpatine. Emperor Palpatine is an uncomplicated climber, a man whose pursuit of power didn’t corrupt him at all, because he was evil to begin with. He started out a villainous creep and ended up as, apparently, all Sith Lords end up: killed by his own apprentice.
Then there are garden-variety bad guys like Grand Moff Tarkin, Jabba the Hutt, General Grievous and Nute Gunray, who range from sniveling pawns to grotesque monsters.
What all of them have in common is “they are bad.” In story meetings, when the producer asks “What is the antagonist’s motive?” the poor screenwriter says “He does bad things because he is bad.” That, of course, is how you know you’re writing a melodrama.
(The word “melodrama,” for non-theater-nerds, comes from the theater of early America, where people of many different linguistic backgrounds would all go to the theater to enjoy a play. Because not everyone spoke the language being used on stage, the band in the pit would cue the audience as to how to feel about different characters. A “sweet” character would be given a sweet melody, a “sinister” character would be given a sinister melody, a hero would be given a heroic melody, and so forth. Hence, “melodrama,” a dramatic form where the audience is heavily cued as to the “good and bad” of the narrative. John Williams’s music for the earlier movies used all these tricks to good effect: Luke got a yearning theme, Leia got a gentle theme, Darth Vader got an imperial march.)
The problem with this approach, of course, is that no bad guy ever thinks of himself as “the bad guy.” As Jean Renoir said, “everyone has their reasons.”
Things have improved with the re-launch of the brand and Episode VII. Kylo Ren is a genuine freak, a perverse, warped individual who is compelled to do bad things even when he doesn’t want to, who wears a mask when he doesn’t need to, who reacts with fear and confusion when his worldview is challenged.
And now we have Director Krennic, the most finely-drawn, complex villain we’ve seen yet.
Who is Director Krennic? Krennic is kind of the “project leader,” or director, of the Death Star project. The Death Star, as an idea, has been around for fifteen years or so in the Rogue One timeline, but Krennic is the person who has been put in charge of bringing it online, of building it, of making it work.
Krennic, fifteen years ago, was Galen Erso’s boss at the weapons company, which was, at the time, making weapons for the Republic to use against the Separatists. That is to say, he’s not an army guy, like Tarkin, or an engineer like Galen, but more of a shepherd, or, as we call them in Hollywood, a “producer.” Fifteen, twenty years ago, Tarkin proposed a superweapon to the emperor, but Tarkin isn’t an engineer or a scientist or a mathematician, he’s an army guy, he needs a producer, someone who “knows everybody” and get get the project made, to make an idea a real physical thing.
That’s what makes Krennic unique in the Star Wars constellation of bad guys. He didn’t start off “bad,” he started off being a producer, the guy to whom the military turned to get large-scale weapons made. When Krennic said “Sure, I can make a gigantic gun that destroys planets,” he was, most likely, talking through his hat, because a gun that destroys planets is an insane idea. But a producer does not need to know how to make a movie, he only needs to know everyone who can work together to make a movie, people who otherwise wouldn’t be working together or even know each other.
So that’s who Krennic was, fifteen years before Rogue One begins. We glimpse that Krennic mid-way through the movie, laughing and drinking with Galen and his wife at a cocktail party on Coruscant. That Krennic isn’t a snarling, evil man bent on galactic domination, he’s a producer who has been doing good work for the Republic.
Now then: the filmmakers have cast Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian, who is known for playing low-bred scalawags. That’s important, because it shows that Krennic is not of the same world as the Imperial Officer Corps, who are all upper-class Brits. Krennic’s whole problem in the movie is not so much “will the Death Star work?” but “Will I ever be accepted by these upper-class Brits?” Even his costume is important — it’s white, not Imperial Gray or Evil Black (his elite squad of an honor guard are called “Deathtroopers”), and the material isn’t anywhere near as plush as the Imperial officers’ is. You can see that Krennic, while he wishes very much to carry himself with authority and strength, has been forced, for years prior to the movie beginning, to eat shit from the higher Imperial class officers. If I had to guess, his uniform and military commission was probably granted to him as a special case, at his own insistence, to “keep him happy,” the way a foreign investor will be made an “associate producer” on a movie to keep him happy and make him think he’s a filmmaker.
Now then, the Death Star is not only a huge project, it’s also a top-secret one. Remember, the Emperor doesn’t want anyone, even in his own government, to know about this weapon. The secrecy surrounding the project is tightly held. So the Emperor, or someone, maybe Tarkin, has granted Krennic this quasi-military title of “Director,” and given him his own honor guard, and given him his own sleek black shuttle craft, probably to keep him happy, to keep him from selling the plans to the Death Star to other interested parties.
That said, Krennic pulls some really crappy details in this man’s imperial fleet. Twice he’s forced to stand in the rain and talk to the recalcitrant Galen, and then once he’s force to go to Mustaphar and chat with Darth Vader.
(I feel sorry for Vader, who has to get out of his Imperial-guarded bacta tank, get dressed, put on all his breathing apparatus and don his cape and helmet, just for a two-minute conversation with Krennic. He doesn’t even have a sink, or towels, in his bacta-tank chamber.)
Krennic’s status as a social climber is the key to his character. Even though he was already a high-status member of society as a weapons-company project manager, he wasn’t upper-class enough to hobnob with the likes of Tarkin, and, most of all, he’s never even met the Emperor, whose acknowledgement he desperately craves. Krennic’s key moments are when he asks Vader “And you’ll tell the Emperor?” and when Tarkin tells him that he, Tarkin, plans to take credit for Krennic’s achievements himself.
(And, just like a movie producer, Krennic’s achievement isn’t his at all, he’s just a facilitator. He didn’t design the weapon, he didn’t develop the technology to make it work, he didn’t sweat the millions of details to iron out all the kinks, but he thinks of the achievement as his, as his life’s work, really, and no one is going to take it away from him.)
So, in the world of Rogue One‘s narrative, Krennic’s goal is “to get a pat on the head from the Emperor.” He never says anything about a promotion or a raise or an office or a military command, only that he wants the Emperor to know his name, to know that it was he, Krennic, who built the Death Star. Everything that Krennic does in the movie — track down Galen, kill Galen’s wife, track down Galen’s daughter, take guff from Tarkin, destroy a city, talk to Vader, and, finally, chase Galen’s daughter and her rebel pals all over Scarif, is in pursuit of his one goal, “to get a pat on the head from the Emperor.”
Of course, he never gets that pat on the head, never meets the Emperor, never gets the rise in social recognition he craves. Instead — and this is a brilliant narrative stroke — he gets shot in the face with his own weapon. The last thing Krennic sees in his life is the Death Star appearing on the horizon of Scarif, it’s single deadly eye turning its gaze directly upon him.