Prequels can’t help but be sequels.
First, the good bits: director Gareth Edwards (or is it really Tony Gilroy?) has delivered an action flick in the Star Wars universe that tangibly feels like the original, unspoiled, pre-“special edition” Star Wars of the ’70s. The cinematography, physical sets and grimy locations have the “used space” look and feel of the original trilogy – finally, the “scum and villainy” at which the Cantina only hinted. Rogue One also manages to show us that familiar aesthetic with a sense of scale not really seen in any of the other films – and that aspect alone is thrilling. As the film whips between locations, some more familiar-looking than others, we’re given a sense of a larger galaxy than we’ve seen – in particular, the South East Asian-looking Scarif, meant no doubt to evoke the Vietnam war, is a fresh and beautiful new landscape in the Star Wars universe.
Beyond that, however, Rogue One gets a bit messy. In its scramble to be Fan Service: The Movie, as an entire film based on one throwaway line in the original Star Wars film (or was it in Return of the Jedi? Because if so, that’s a completely different mission), there seems to be this need to lend weight to things that hadn’t needed it (it can’t just be random rebels stealing the Death Star plans, it has to be destiny, and be about fathers and sons / daughters) at the expense of things that maybe need more attention: characterisations and performances feel like they’re pulled from different films, from different concepts entirely – at one end: Donnie Yen‘s Force-sensitive Jedi temple guardian is a lovely badass; at the other… what is Forest Whitaker even doing (and why does the score seem only to heighten his absurdity)? While pastiche is very Star Wars, so too are the results of that pastiche being a mixed bag of enjoyable and cringey – and so, in this sense at least, Rogue One is, indeed, a Star Wars story.
The film’s production troubles are well documented – and there may be a parallel universe version of this film that feels more coherent than the one we ultimately received – but most of the problems with Rogue One stem from its core conundrum: that prequels can’t help but be sequels.
Imagine watching the Star Wars films, for the first time, in linear narrative order: you’re deprived of the shocking twist / reveal of Empire, thanks to the, y’know, three whole films which depict Anakin Skywalker’s journey to becoming Darth Vader; the once-thrilling dog fights at the end of both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi have had their thunder stolen by the thrilling space battle (and near-identical objective) at the end of Rogue One; but most importantly, most egregiously, in its pandering, pornographic fan service,
Rogue One completely undermines, and ultimatley contradicts, the entire premise of Darth Vader.
In the original trilogy, the real threat of Darth Vader is latent, not kinetic. His actions are understated: choking via remote-control; merely verbal threats and suggestions; his imposing, blackened form, the negative space swallowing up the light in sometimes purely white surroundings; the sound design of his voice, of his artificial breathing – picture and sound creating a tension in language unique to cinema. Darth Vader was the score of Jaws, the trike sequence shot of The Shining, the tracker ping of Alien.
If the OT’s presentation of Darth Vader was a striptease, Rogue One‘s “epic” hallway scene is straight-up, full-frontal nudity – what we think we want but, once we get it, there’s nowhere left to go. And this is where this prequel can’t help but be a sequel.
Striptease is not about revealing, but concealing.
Full deneoument marks the end – not only of the routine, but of the mystery, the seduction, the power. We’ve seen Darth Vader nude – after the hallway scene, how can we go from watching him in B-movie slasher mode back to watching him merely suggest menace? How do we go from Sharknado to Jaws? From Resident Evil to The Shining? From… well, Alien: Resurrection to Alien?
It’s a cheap move, pandering to the segment of the audience that creates bro-tastic “reimagined scenes” and considers them an improvement over the original:
Would Rogue One have been better served without Darth Vader? Not at all – the hallway scene is thrilling, terrifying, and stunning. But would the Star Wars series work better without the hallway scene in Rogue One? Absolutely. But as long as prequel films (or, perhaps more accurately, their creators) either lack the confidence in, or cave in and pander to, that particular part of their audience, we’ll keep getting self-defeating moves like these – and it’s a real shame, because so much else about the world of Rogue One is full of promise and potential for telling other kinds of stories in the Star Wars universe – but things like this keep shrinking that universe down, and making it seem smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until there’s nowhere left to go.
Nerdwriter breaks down, into component parts, the audiovisual wizardry that is the (original) Darth Vader.