“Rogue One’s” special effects prove there’s such a thing as too much Star Wars nostalgia

Never gets old.
Never gets old.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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Warning: This piece contains spoilers

Many people die in Rogue One, but the deadest things on screen are Princess Leia’s eyes. The last image in the film is a digitized, uncanny valley version of Carrie Fisher. This glimpse of Leia is supposed to be exciting; a high-tech acknowledgment of the canonical Star Wars films we all love. Instead, it’s ludicrous and kind of terrifying; a hollow shell come to life, babbling on about hope.

The digital wizardry in Rogue One is supposed to be reverent. By putting a young Fisher onscreen and bringing the late Peter Cushing back to life as the Grand Moff Tarkin, the prequel is asserting its faithfulness to its characters and world of the 1977 Star Wars, in which Fisher as Leia was the heroine and Cushing as Tarkin was a standout diabolical villain. But in fact, the slick, inert visuals of Rogue One suggest that director Gareth Edwards and the suits at Disney either don’t understand—or don’t care—what made the original trilogy great. Instead of using special effects to delight and entertain, Rogue One uses its budget for ill-conceived, rote nostalgia.

The special effects, and the visualization and realization of never before-seen worlds, was what made the original Star Wars trilogy timeless in the first place. George Lucas and his numerous ingenious collaborators used painting, models, and even puppetry to craft a slew of vividly imagined landscapes and images.

The shifting dunes of Tattooine, the tactile, viscous, dank swamp of Dagobah, the bleak frozen waste of Hoth and Lando Calrissian’s cloud city are all instantly recognizable. The Mos Eisley cantina—that “wretched hive of scum and villainy”—was a marvel of gleefully bizarre and depraved puppetry, complete with sinister eyestalks and rubbery, twisting lips. The noxious, slithering Jabba the Hutt, with his loathsome retainers; the belching, fanged Sarlacc pit; the forest moon of Endor, which brilliantly reimagined redwood forests as an alien planet—the original Star Wars trilogy took you to worlds far, far away to see delightfully ugly and strange new sights. Canonically, the films were set in a time “long, long ago,” and the plots were as hoary as Yoda’s ear-hair, but the visuals made the films exhilarating and fresh.

In contrast, the worlds and character designs of Rogue One are almost aggressively generic. Jedha, where much of the action is set, includes a city and some tunnels; it’s vaguely Middle Eastern, perhaps, but it doesn’t have a gripping personality of its own. Neither does the planet where the closing battle occurs, which looks vaguely like Florida.

The same goes for Rogue One’s newly imagined AI. The robot K-2SO is Disney-esque—all clean lines and deadly efficiency. He’s miles away from the dirt-caked, hobbling, rusty droids of the original series, so solidly real they often didn’t work at all. The aliens glimpsed in Rogue One are, like the droids, slick and pro-forma. The fish-faced Admiral Akbar and the looming black-armored Vader stand out from the general drab design. But those are reverent reproductions of characters from the original trilogy—just as Tarkin and Leia are. In the original trilogy, special effects were used to create unimagined critters; in Rogue One, they’re used to create old actors.

Both Tarkin and Leia are initially shown from the back, before a dramatic turn reveals a set of famous faces seemingly pasted onto stand-ins like a pair of terrifying Texas Chainsaw skin masks. The filmmakers are clearly proud of this work; Leia’s face is the emotional payoff of the film—the triumphant moment of victory is supposedly heightened by the triumphant technological resurrection of a beloved property.

But why are the vast resources of film studios and creative personnel being used to create a zombie version of something everyone has already seen?

It would be hard to find a better metaphor for everything wrong with the current Hollywood big budget action status quo, which is currently built around decades-old superheroes, television shows, and toy lines. Rogue One is not a terrible film—especially compared to the Star Wars prequels. But its energy and its imagination are all focused on nostalgic fan service and Easter eggs. The story is not designed to show you new and exciting visions; it’s meant to guide the audience through a safe, well-trodden landscape. Hollywood these days doesn’t look forward, with hope. It looks backwards, with dead eyes.