2016 has become a bleak year. It’s a world without Bowie or Prince, and a world where Donald Trump may well be elected president of the United States. It’s also a year where in mass media, the heartache of lost legends has been punctuated with a number of disappointing — but hotly anticipated — releases. Big-budget marketing campaigns and fan anticipation have grown to almost farcical proportions. In the last month alone we’ve seen the not-what-we-promised universe of No Man’s Sky and the Leto-less Avengers-lite, Suicide Squad, divide public opinion.
This makes Gareth Edward’s foray into the Star Wars universe, set for a December release, a difficult prospect. Catalysed by the weight of one of pop-culture’s most beloved franchises and a number of forced re-shoots; the extent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be a success remains naturally unclear. Yet despite its turbulent production — with rumours spanning from an ‘un-Disney like’ first-draft to additional continuity tweaks — Edwards’ vision for ‘WWII in Space’ seems to live on within the material we’ve seen. The initial teaser, released last year, introduced Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Mon Mothma’s Rebel Alliance tasked with securing the fabled Death Star Plans. It alluded to a more traditional — if not inherently better — style of filmmaking, with models and replicas in lieu of ‘dense’ CGI. This approach was cemented by a short ‘Celebration Reel’, which gifted a number of production clips displaying extras to intricate set-design. In such, Edwards also gave something of a mission statement: ‘I’ve been making a film that’s right touching my favourite movie of all time. But then if you’re too respectful of it [and don’t] take a risk, then what are you bringing to the table?’. Which is encouraging, to say the least.
Today a new trailer dropped, a video already screened to Star Wars Celebration Europe attendees under an Imperial-grade data protection act. It expanded upon previous footage and gave us greater insight into Edwards’ creative ‘risk-taking’. But it is a trailer that gives me faith. Both in light of its worrying re-shoots and this terribly disappointing year. Everything from the art direction to the casting suggests Rogue One will not only be a good film — but the film — that Star Wars fans have been craving. And what follows is an evaluation of such.
The trailer, in short, extenuates what we already know about the film. We see a greater focus on the rag-tag team of rebels, namely Felicity Jones and Forest Whitaker’s character: Saw Gerrera from The Clone Wars. We’re given extra time with Donnie Yen’s mystic force sensitive, who up until now remained entirely elusive. This is backdropped with a number of locations, some familiar, others not. Including extended beach footage — with an especially fiery AT-AT sequence — alongside a new rain-laden planet and something apparently more cavernous. There’s an overwhelming sense of urgency flowing throughout: this mission is ‘a chance to make a difference’, as Erso puts it. I feel a similar opportunity exists within this picture. There are, remarkably, a few moments worthy of discussion purely for their artistic flare. But of course, it is the post-title clip that will garner the most attention. It reveals the greatest villain of all. Whilst his role has been widely discussed, I am excited to see how Edwards plays the Vader Card. Largely to see how often he appears. Darth Vader is not the main antagonist –– that role belongs to the enigmatic Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) –– but we want to know why the Rebels aboard Tantive IV feared him. Making him a peculiar character to develop within this timeline.
However, the intention of this analysis is not to deduce plot points: that would be tenuous at best. But rather to discuss how the trailer presents its hints and extrapolate what that says about the overall film.
One such glaring example would be its use scale. From Edwards’ first short, Rogue One clearly strived to bring dimension to the Star Wars universe. Where a bulking Star Destroyer is immediately dwarfed by the construction of the Death Star; it brings an anxious quality to the picture. In fact, it’s something that hasn’t been seen since the opening chase of A New Hope. ‘There’s always a bigger fish’ — yes — but it’s hard to fear the Empire once they fitted self-destruct ports to their galactic super-weapons. In this trailer, however, lighting is used to incite threat, to gradually reveal the size of the Destroyer. It actually builds a palpable sense of danger. We also see the same ship hovering above a planet, again, emphasising its dominance over those who oppose their rule. The Alliance is certainly on the back-foot here. Moreover, the same sense of scale is reiterated when Erso confronts a tie-fighter; where the vessel posses a jarring, formidable height. This fighter is not blasted apart like paper as per the original films — but rather a genuine threat to our new hero. Rogue One is, after all, meant to be a war film. The Empire should assert itself with technological force and the Rebels must be the underdogs. By using such physicality, the use of scale belittles their plight against the Empire. Which is all the more logical given the Rebels faired unfeasibly well in the original trilogy.
Such a wounded feeling is reflected in its visual style, too. Although I would avoid over-intellectualising colour palettes and so on — Edwards’ approach is appealing. There is a heavy emphasis on darker colours, drab greens and greys amongst a grittier set and costume design. This is not a colourful nor shiny space adventure. At times, it looks more akin to a conventional war film, something Edwards has claimed to be aiming for. This compliments its thematic content as it appears to be more about sacrifice than predestined ‘chosen ones’ or Galactic Senates. The sequence of extras running across the beach is especially notable, displaying the nameless troops who bolstered the Alliance’s cause. It also has a timeless quality to in its photography. My immediate thought was nostalgic colour grading, it certainly has an analogue feel. But it appears that some of the footage has been captured in celluloid 70mm, which is curious given Lucas more or less pioneered digital photography in his prequels. [n.b Attack of the Clones (2002) was first feature-length film to be shot entirely on digital video cameras] As a result, Edwards shows an unprecedented devotion to this realistic war aesthetic. But even less consciously, he boasts the extent he is willing to move away, to ‘take risks’, with its source material.
Indeed, the set-pieces seem to be less extravagant, with time dedicated to more intense battles and characters. It’s a well overdue approach. The use of darker, rain covered sequences have undertones of gritty trench warfare: which makes for some dissonance between the brighter, more typical ‘Star Wars’ moments. There is a sense of conflict here that has not been seen before. There is no doubt this is a darker entry to the franchise. Its absent Jedi will compound this, if not to establish the ‘Hokey religion’ cynicism that grew after Order. But all the same, its use of humour seems interesting. This appears to be a film about people in conflict rather than anything spiritual or prophesied. A Band of Brothers in Space, or so to speak. The interaction between K-2S0 and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) was a nice touch. It remedies the fact that the heroes of this film are more than likely to die in battle. What this show, above else, is that Edwards understands the balance required in this picture. Even in his most flagrant departure from Star Wars traits, he grounds it in some familiarity. Recognisable signifiers: uniforms, weapons and vehicles are a plenty. There’s even a small homage to Lucas’ — Kurosawa inspired — screen wipe between sequences. Yet this coupled with a more tasteful approach to film-making. The tracking Death Star sequence which moves into an eclipse is one of the most artistically composed shots in Star Wars history. And it shows precisely the extent Edwards is willing to take a risk, to build on what we know, whilst paying respect.
On the whole, Rogue One remains exciting for a number of reasons. Primarily, its story is a divergence from the usual suspects — exploring the ‘everyman’ who helped the Rebellion rather than tales of lineage or destiny — and it takes some artistic risks in doing so. The use of scale and aged cinematography resonates with a growing apathy towards extravagant digital film-making of late. It also satisfies a desire for something more relatable in this franchise. I’ve always argued that the success of Star Wars lies in finding the familiar in an unfamiliar universe. Lawrence Kasdan did this wonderfully in Empire Strikes Back (1980). And it is for this reason, I’m more excited for Rogue One than The Force Awakens (2015), as it has less of a duty to establish a franchise. It has room to experiment and craft a side we’ve never really seen. With that said, the reshoots have yet to be digested. It’s hard to know what conflicts emerge behind-the-scenes of these films, let alone one of this magnitude. Likewise, I am still, rather stubbornly, upset that Dinsey refused to canonise Kyle Katarn for this picture. But all the same, there is enough material here to satisfy the old-school, the hardcore and frankly more mature fan base. There is also enough potential to acquire new fans with this darker tale. Albeit in its direction or detail; there’s lots to be hopeful about Rogue One. Even if this year has been disappointing. It is, after all, ‘a chance to make a difference’.