Something’s been gnawing at me since I saw Rogue One. And then it furthered festered over Christmas as I saw a couple of ensemble films like Sing Street (and on TV, the great baseball film A League of Their Own). What’s on my mind exactly? The importance of group character dynamics. Let’s talk it out.
In ensemble films, or when you have a group of characters gathered together to back up the protagonist’s main story objective, it generally works best when they have distinctive personalities, and a specific role in the story. Rogue One has had its fair share of analysis so let me try something different and compare it to the group dynamic of Guardians of the Galaxy. SOME SPOILERS AHEAD IN A GALAXY FAR FAR AWAY, VOLUME 1.
Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot (Guardians) Vs Jyn, Cassian, K-2S0, Baze and Chirrut, oh and Bodhi. Already I can tell you that I had to look up the character names for Rogue One whilst the characters for Guardians came more readily on my fingertips (I’ve seen each film only once so far, and Guardians much less recently than Rogue One).
In Guardians, the characters feel well-drawn and you understand the dynamics; how they feel, how they react to each other, what they say and why. In Rogue One, the characters feel somewhat muddled with their key characterisation and motivation. Jyn’s a rebel rebel, out to save/reunite with daddy, fine. Cassian’s a rebel with issues, who seems to kill an informant (poor Daniel Mays) in the early part of the story. K-2S0 provides dry humour as the robot, ironically establishing himself the most well-drawn character out of the group (and the one with the most clear character dynamic with Jyn). Baze and Chirrut are good mates, one being more dedicated to the Force than the other. And Bodhi’s a pilot, now on the rebel’s side.
As a group, they don’t really form any defining dynamic (unlike Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, 3P0 and R2 in the original). There’s no spark or audience understanding of who they are and what they’re going to do, and the why gets slightly lost amongst the mix too. Does this matter? Box office receipts and glowing reviews tell us no. Your mileage may vary. Fair to say that the central group of characters didn’t entirely work for me (but I did enjoy the film on the whole). Perhaps the comparison to Guardians is a little unfair too as it’s tonally very different to Rogue One; the tongue-in-cheek humour of Guardians going a long way for the audience to engage in the characters/story more. But that kinda begs the question of Rogue One: why so serious?
Let’s look at Sing Street, a charming Irish rites-of-passage tale about a teenager forming a band in Dublin in 1985. At first it does everything so well: it introduces us to an engaging lead character, and then brings in quirky and distinctive characters to make up his band. But then, alas, it proceeds to do nothing with them. Instead it focuses on the arguably dull romantic storyline. Such a shame. There’s so much potential in those band characters. There’s even a black guy (and in Dublin in 1985, that would be such a major talking point or issue for that character to deal with, and yet here it’s totally glossed over). In the end, the band fade into the background as characters – they have no arc, they have no specific role in the story other than to be ‘the band’. The story gets by on its charm and energy (and nostalgia factor, 80s fashion/music), but the lack of character dynamics means it falls short of its full entertainment value, especially when you compare it to The Commitments and their brilliant group specifics. Although, it’s interesting to note that everyone on my social media absolutely loves Sing Street, so maybe its lack of character dynamics doesn’t affect the film at all.
A League of Their Own focuses on a small handful of the baseball team, but as an audience member you understand and appreciate what each character is doing and why. Think of other famous ensemble flicks or have a main group supporting the protagonist’s narrative: Four Weddings, Ocean’s Eleven, Lord of the Rings, Pulp Fiction, Usual Suspects, The Big Chill, Saving Private Ryan. They all have distinctive individual characters amongst their group; you understand their personalities and motives, why they say what they say, and most importantly, they have a purposeful impact on the story.
Character dynamics is something we worked hard on when we were developing Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg? In the film, we follow Billie as the protagonist as she tries to convince her group of friends that Nelson Nutmeg has been killed. There’s cool guy Shiv, military-nut The Colonel, sweet nerd Woody and a deluded teen Swindon. Billie and Shiv have an awkward tween crush. Woody hero worships The Colonel while The Colonel needs to learn to become a team player. Swindon could do with acting his age and appreciate his sister (Billie) a bit more. We tried to set out a specific role for each character and ensure they all had an impact on the outcome of the story. Whether we were fully successful in achieving this is not for me to say but I definitely think it’s preferable to build these kind of clear and identifiable dynamics rather than rely on a fuzzy group sense of character that fills in the background.