A Note on “Rogue One”, Little Movie That Could

By: Daniel Reynolds

There was such a note of pride in his voice as he discussed the actual number of digital shots, of computer-generated inserts, of demonstrably fake things in his movie. This is George Lucas, former owner of the Star Wars IP, circa 1998-99, and while it’s become almost tiresome to rag on the poor billionaire, it’s hard to forget this happened. (Though admittedly, I can’t find a link to the interview I’m semi-remembering.) Lucas really felt he was on the cutting edge, that what he was doing — and where he was taking his beloved creation — would be bold and timeless.

Prior to this, in interviews during the time of the Star Wars Special Edition theatrical and video release, it was hard to shake a different note from Lucas’ voice: one of lament. There was so much in those first movies — Episodes IV to VI — he wished he could do-over. The technology at the time lagged behind his vision, he insisted. This feeling explains so much of why Lucas has since gone back and fiddled with the original trilogy: the look of it just plain bothered him! The irony here, of course, is that the prequel trilogy, the “true” Lucas vision, the one filled with more CGI than actual definable real objects, looks hollow now, and far to slick by half. It’s a paean to a time when “could we?” was asked instead of “should we?”

Fast forward ten years and we arrive at the latest Star Wars movies, the first made entirely free of Lucas’ ideas and touch. So far, they appear to employ a style that feels like both a throwback to the original trilogy and a true leap forward. It’s perhaps no surprise then, Lucas is not their biggest fan.

Rogue One, the latest Star Wars film in what is sure to be an endless stream, is set to be released on December 16th. It centres on the band of rebels, led by Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, who plan to take down the Death Star. It doesn’t need me to get the word out about it — its hugeness and eventual financial success is guaranteed. But boy, let me tell you, in watching the second official trailer for the film, I am gripped by a certain excitement. Have a look at that clip above.

Now, consider the mise en scène of those two minutes. (Yes, we’re talking mise en freakin’ scène in a Star Wars context.) The newest Rogue One trailer reveals a lot of familiar elements of the famous Star Wars iconography — Star Destroyers, various mono-cultured planet surfaces, the Death Star — but look again at how they are portrayed. There’s a palpable grit here, much like in A New Hope, that captures a more workmanlike essence. The film looks more lived in, rather than overly slick and patently fake, a la the prequels. Hell, there are even weather effects — dramatic wind! — that heighten the force of these images. (To say nothing of the quality of the actors standing in these scenes — Ben Mendelsohn confronting Mads Mikkelsen? Yes, please.) Director Gareth Edwards has said his aim was to make Rogue One feel more like a war movie. After a decade of Star Wars movies that looked and felt like a video game cutscene, this is a welcome reprieve. The early returns are quite encouraging.

If that’s the look back, here comes the leap forward. With Star Wars, there are so many familiar, wondrous objects, a director barely has to do anything to stir something in the viewer. Seeing Darth Vader here march down a ramp is oddly comforting. But watch again and look at how these familiar elements are deployed. Through the mere seconds of this trailer, there are remarkable shots — glances up at looming star ships, broad overhead swaths of ruin-filled landscapes, this awesome moment. With a handful of lens flares (thanks J.J!) and the old iconography, there’s a perspective we’ve never quite seen before. The last few seconds in particular fill the screen with a montage of shots that appear epic and intimate in their kinetic frenzy. Sure, Episode II had some of that too, but it stacked the deck, larded its images with so much, that its action became almost comical. This is something different.

If there is to be a lasting knock on Lucas’ skills as a director (to say nothing of his writing ability), it’s simply that he never even considered some of these visual ideas once technology advanced enough to allow it. Now, it could be argued computer-aided special effects have advanced exponentially over the past decade, which changes things once again. But for a man who has long been deemed something of a visionary — and don’t think I don’t notice the prequel reclamation discourse out there saying as much — his skills as an actual filmmaker have almost never stood out. Maybe this has also been self-evident for some time now, but in the face of these new Star Wars images, the effect is powerful.

So as expectations (and concerns) continue to rise for Rogue One, and Episode VIII and beyond, I remain untroubled. The attention paid to the casting decisions (which have all been fantastic) is one part of that equation. Coupled as they are with a fresh creative direction, and technology that can now relay the imagination on which it is based, the Star Wars universe feels like it’s in a good place. So yes, surprise, December 16th can’t get here soon enough.


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