This article contains minor spoilers and one big spoiler from TFA.
I just finished seeing Rogue One again in the theater. I needed a second viewing to better understand what it was that I liked about it. While The Force Awakens was the first revival of the classic Star Wars look with today’s cinematic abilities, Rogue One represents the introduction to that type of classical style in terms of Star Wars chronology. It fits into the narrow little window between the vast scope of the two trilogies released before it, and it does an excellent job of handling itself with its out of order placement.
In terms of visual production or art direction, it has the original plastic and scrappy aesthetic, which now has a more polished veneer to it. But seeing this analog design again today in such high fidelity makes me realize that despite the original look fitting in well with a time when the retro style is once again popular, from a canonical standpoint, the continuity and trending in innovation of the Star Wars universe was upended by the inverted release of the two trilogies. Back in the 1970’s, our first glimpse inside a Corellian class cruiser as seen in the beginning of A New Hope must’ve been somewhat new to audiences. That was cutting edge at the time for science fiction. So while the prequels chronologically precede the original trilogy, by the time they were released, we were able to do so much more than what we could have back in the 1970’s. Because of this, new VFX and CGI capabilities ultimately drove the spectacle, and perhaps were even overdone in the design of original universe’s architecture and technology. But the prequels reflect how we as a society (by Hollywood’s standards) had developed in that digital and technological standard by the time of the early 2000’s, and what audiences had come to expect at that point in terms of effects.
Fast-forward to now, and we once again have to jump backwards (though not as far) in relation to the original trilogy to experience Rogue One. While our abilities to create cooler stuff on screen have only broadened, we must respect the continuity of when Rogue One takes place. But I found myself questioning if upholding the original look could seem outdated now. Do AT-AT’s really make sense tactically? Seeing them in this modern day movie made me think this style was simply cool back then and we had to just continue with that as best we could now out of respect. I got the sense that if we reconceived and redesigned Star Wars today, it would look a lot different. So Rogue One is faced with the responsibility of reconciling certain technology that might now seem impractical, considering the more advanced look and feel of the prequels which preceded its events. But it does a great job doing so and making me fall in love with the original production design, certainly more so than the prequels, which, lest we forget, are remembered primarily as style over substance. I cannot sit through Attack of the Clones.
Rogue One could have perhaps fallen victim to a jarring transition between an older point in its universe (which was produced more recently and therefore looked better) and the upcoming series of events from A New Hope on, which were created long, long ago to us, the audience, but haven’t happened yet in the chronology of the canon. I’m happy to say it falls victim to nothing. It can even fit in a canonical sense, as if the rebellion really was built from the ground up in a scrappy upstart, now conveniently parallel to the design capabilities of Lucas and ILM back in the 70’s. It creates a sense of modern sophistication in its simplicity, a concept ever present and sought after today in our own world, but in an analog fashion as oppose to digital.
Speaking of technology, the group that I saw my second screening with is significant because it actually contained the man who introduced me to the concept of the uncanny valley – something that plays a very important role in the production of this film. Rogue One does an exquisite job of reproducing the likeness of specifically Grand Moff Tarkin/Peter Cushing, as well as a few of the pilot leaders from Rogue Squadron and a particularly beloved female lead for just a brief moment. At no point did I find this amazing effect jarring, which is important, because Tarkin was on screen a lot. If it hadn’t felt right or looked as good as it did, it would’ve really thrown me out of the sense of universe.
The movieâ’s take on the galactic conflict is a much more stark and chaotic approach to what begins as guerilla warfare and scales out to the epic space battles we’ve come to expect. Edwards has almost completely done away with the cheesy grandiosity that made The Force Awakens feel so familiar. I’ve seen enough Vietnam movies to watch those soldiers about to hit the beach on Scarif and think “This looks familiar”. I shit you not one of those soldiers had death sticks snapped in to the elastic band of his helmet, a la Marlboros at Khe Sanh. Sound like modern war, anyone? Lasers aren’t just flashy and space battles don’t just feel like staged set pieces anymore. Y-Wings arbitrarily burst like heavy steel confetti and kids are screaming in the street. Main characters die. When Han died in The Force Awakens (I said spoilers at the top of the article), did it not feel a little inconsequential? Really, what were the ramifications of that despite the filmmakers essentially saying “We see you legacy fans, we know what something like this will do to you, so we’re gonna do it.” Rogue One’s battles have a certain unforgiving quality to them which simply has not existed in prior installments, and when that seriousness was attempted before, like in Revenge of the Sith, it was too dramatic, too staged. Here, the movie is just conveying how senseless it can be at times.
The core protagonists check all of the adventure archetypes: we have Jyn Erso, the rogue – excuse the pun, played anxiously by Felicity Jones. While Jyn is colder and not as lively as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Jones still seems more believable in her part than Ridley is as her own. Diego Luna plays the space cowboy/smuggler and does the job, and while the script maybe doesn’t have enough time to expand on the dark experiences Cassian Andor has endured, he steps up in the moments that are meant for his character’s ruminations believably. Then we have the warrior-monk-&-heavy polar-opposite-buddy-brigade, Donnie Yen playing a blind staff-wielding zen force acolyte and Jiang Wen, who plays a laser cannon-toting brute, and the dichotomy between them is one main source of comic relief, but not compared to Alan Tudyk’s K2S-O, who is an apathetic version of C3PO and is the real example of the script understanding comic sensibilities of today, more underhanded and nuanced than the corny humor of pretty much every other Star Wars prior to this one.
Ben Mendohlson is the most fitting choice for an Imperial antagonist I’ve ever seen cast. I’ve grown to really look forward to his performances as I’ve come to see him on screen more and more, and sure, this isn’t his most nuanced – it is Star Wars after all, but I’m so happy someone else realized that he’d make the perfect Imperial villain because I totally agree as well – he absolutely does.
The only thing I caught the second time around was Forest Whitaker’s presence being cut short. The trailers implied he was much more important. My guess is that a lot of his character had to be left on the cutting room floor, but the end result is that it feels like the movie doesn’t know what to do with him. I have just come to expect big actors like that to play a role at least in the final act. But this isn’t the first time Gareth Edwards has done this – remember Godzilla? Bryan Cranston white knuckling, teeth bared in a voiceover during the trailers – boom, dies at the end of the first act, despite a much bigger role implied. He just sorta fell off some scaffolding out of view and then passed away in his sleep on a helicopter ride, as if Edwards is trying to subdue main characters who aren’t even developed to begin with and assumes that just because they’re played by really famous actors, minimal screen time only at the beginning of the movie won’t leave something to be desired. It just feels like a clunky mistreatment of the audience’s expectations when a big face is in and out of the story like that.
On a similar note, I was much more excited realizing Riz Ahmed was in the Rogue One when I watched the trailer than I was actually witnessing his character in the whole film itself. That excitement from realizing he was in this one was the same as seeing Domnhall Gleeson in the last one – I’ve been getting so used to seeing them more and more in other excellent yet very different works, so seeing both of them in their respective Star Wars films just made me have the same thought for both of them “Damn, those guys had a great year.” They just seem to be in everything I like now, and on top of that they get cast in Star Wars, of course.
Another inclusion I liked was what I’m going to call the ambient locations. It was a joy to see the new take on certain environments and planets. It’s been a while, but in the initial three, places like HOTH and ENDOR were the main areas as far as setting went, so it was great to see all these interstitial locales and be absolutely fascinated by them, they felt so fresh. Being able to see the already known Star Wars universe from all these new angles was just great too, it totally satisfies the imagination.
In those final moments when I was watching the rebel soldiers flee down the hallway from Vader, I realized that is the story. It becomes very singular in the sense that everything that matters to the Star Wars universe in that moment are right there in that dark red hallway that we’re following those poor soldiers through. That is the story. That is the moment where it all converges. It’s almost spooky. The following camera shots in that scene are literally carrying us to the very beginning of the movie that started all of this, the most iconic science fiction pop culture phenomenon, over 40 years ago.
The Force Awakens was great for nostalgic purposes. It was great to see the direction of Star Wars modernized and brought back in a very sentimental way. But it was Rogue One that got me interested in the details of the Star Wars universe again. That was the one that had me buying the Visual Guide at Barnes and Noble right after to examine the detail of all the environment cutaways and the diagrams of equipment, like I did religiously as a young kid, and Wikipedia-ing certain concepts and watching YouTube videos about the lore of certain characters and events. It treated the subject matter with significance and has reinvigorated my excitement for the series to the degree that my youth had for it.