Posted on Monday, December 5th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
While no audience outside of Disney and Lucasfilm has actually seen the entirety of director Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story quite yet, we were among those invited to a sneak preview of 28 minutes of footage from the upcoming Star Wars spin-off…and what we saw was often spectacular.
“Often” may be the key word there. How do you judge a 133-minute movie based on 28 minutes? You can’t. That would be silly. To declare Rogue One a success or a failure after a half-hour preview would be a foolhardy endeavor. Without the context of the entire movie, it’s impossible to judge any decision as a good choice or a bad one. All you can do is talk about what you enjoyed in the preview and what concerned you.
And for those worried, this is a spoiler-free reaction to what was shown.
Old Subject, New Look
Rogue One begins shortly before the events of the original 1977 Star Wars: the Rebel Alliance is barely getting by, the Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and a certain top-secret super-weapon is in the final stages of construction. So all of the new design choices seen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are rolled back to match those seen in the original trilogy. It’s impressive how the film nails the aesthetic choices of the first three movies and it’s often a little surreal to see imagery that hasn’t been in theaters since 1983 on the big screen again.
But while the original trilogy was shot in a very classical style (all the better to accommodate extensive pre-CGI visual effects and echo George Lucas’ Akira Kurosawa love), Rogue One is thoroughly modern. Handheld cameras wander through the dense crowds on alien planets. Characters dash toward the screen while the shot moves quickly enough to accommodate them. Everything is shot from specific perspectives to emphasize distance and scale, from spaceships blotting out the sky over cities to AT-AT Walkers looming over combatants during a ferocious urban firefight. While The Force Awakens was accused of being a little too slavish to the first three films in its design and execution, Gareth Edwards is steering the Star Wars universe toward a hard left turn, taking full advantage of this being a spin-off story to film the familiar in wholly unfamiliar ways.
A Lived-In World
In the 28 minutes of footage we saw, Rogue One repeatedly offered used its visuals to explore just how rough and weary the Star Wars universe can be. While the Stormtroopers may look exactly like the cannon fodder you’ve seen before, you’ve never seen one board a prison transport vehicle, hunched over in boredom, his shiny armor covered filthy from a hard day’s work. While the secret Rebel Base on Yavin IV looks like the one seen in the original Star Wars, it’s filled with activity and operated by men and women who look like they haven’t slept in days. And while we didn’t get a big cantina scene where a bunch of weird aliens show up to showcase the wild diversity of this fictional universe, it would feel redundant – with every scene populated by aliens and droids and creatures both practical and digital, every shot is its own little cantina scene. In Rogue One, other species aren’t part of a showcase, they’re part of the background, lingering in the margins, sometimes out of focus, to add a literally alien texture to the world.
The original Star Wars trilogy diverged from science fiction norms by presenting a galaxy where spaceships are hunks of junk and where everything breaks down. Rogue One picks up the baton and runs with it, dropping you into a world where everything feels a little dangerous.
Being a Rebel Kind of Stinks
In the original trilogy, it’s made clear that the Rebel Alliance is a desperate lot, but the arrival of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo change the game and the films quickly become about their heroic personal quests set against the backdrop of a galactic civil war. But in the Rogue One footage we saw, no one emerges as a traditional hero to anchor the entire thing. All we see are desperate men and women making desperate (and often dark) decisions in the name of a desperate cause. One early scene involving Rebel spy Cassian Andor meeting an informant couldn’t help but remind me of the classic French Resistance film Army of Shadows – while it certainly sounds romantic to fight the good fight against an oppressor, it’s actually hard, emotionally brutal work where a collection of small evils must be weaponized against a greater evil.
In the full film, we’ll surely get to learn more about Saw Gerrera’s fringe band of rebels, who work separately from the Rebel Alliance and engage in tactics that are uncomfortable (and familiar to anyone who watches the news) at best. The Rebels simply don’t have their shit together and they’re hanging on by a thread. The relationships created by this dynamic feel fresh. No one quite trusts one another and the thought of a traditional “hero’s journey” seems to be far from anyone’s mind.