Eggy. Rogue One (2016; directed Gareth Edwards)
[Warning: this review contains traces of eggs. Also many spoilers]
Plenty of movies nowadays contain easter eggs, something particularly true of movies that are part of a larger franchise or sequence. These nods and winks to the knowing audience members are, at root, a reflection of the way DVD, TV and digital copies of movies have changed the viewing experience. To see the original 1977 Star Wars seven times would require schlepping out to your local cinema every night for a week. A fan can watch 2015’s Force Awakens seven times over the weekend without ever leaving her couch. Naturally, this has resulted in a change in the logic of movie-making. Directors, designers and SFX teams now craft their visual texts full aware that fans will watch them over and over, sifting the image for every little nugget.
And, to be clear, I have no problem with easter eggs in movies. Easter eggs can be fun. But Rogue One doesn’t have easter eggs. Easter eggs have this movie. The film is one long string of easter eggs, some delightful, some clunking, some positively disconcerting. It’s all ‘oh look, there’s that melty-face bad guy from the cantina scene in Episode 4! Oh look, that robot is saying the line about having a bad feeling about this! Oh look, there’s a young Carrie Fisher! Oh look, it’s the holographic monster-pieces chess set! Hey, I recognise something from somewhere else in the franchise! Go me!’ This movie contains more than a standard allotment of easter eggs. Rogue One is a single, enormous easter omelette, an omelette big enough to be lowered into position on the northern hemisphere of the Death Star in order to focus its planet-smashing ray.
I loved it.
This egginess certainly worked for the audience amongst whom I happened to be. They whooped when Princess Leia appeared. They pointed and laughed and made approving noises of recognition when the film cut to the lava planet from Revenge of the Sith, or when C-3PO popped up for three seconds of his ‘gay English butler complains about stuff’ act. Easter eggs are what the fans want, even, apparently, at Christmas. Nor is this just a question of character cameos and specific visual quotation (look! There’s the spaceship from the very beginning of New Hope!). It’s the whole logic of the movie. The story is an expansion of a few throwaway lines from Episode 4. The design of the movie is a careful recreation of that original 1970s/1980s vibe. It’s all referencing familiar and much-loved elements from earlier texts, all the time.
The result, as you might expect, is sometimes uneven. Take Leia’s cameo. There is something frankly Carrie Fishy about the young Princess Leia, played as she is not by a lookie-likey actor but by a CGI rendering of the actual young Carrie Fisher. It means she falls so deep into the uncanny valley she might as well be Wile E Coyote.
CGI actual Peter Cushing is also in the movie, playing Grand Moff Tarkin (brother of Jyv Tarkin, about whom the Bee Gees recorded their celebrated song). Peter Cushing’s 1977 face was pretty craggy and mask-like to begin with, so his CGI double doesn’t descend quite so far into the uncanny valley as the unlikely Leia. But he’s still recognisably not a human being, and it’s still a little disconcerting when he interacts with other actors who are. What’s odd is that it didn’t have to be this way. For rebel general Mon Mothma—half Scottish greeting, half Kaijū monster—the casting directors decided to go down the lookie-likey path rather than try to concoct a CGI version of the original trilogy’s Caroline Blakiston: Australian actor Genevieve O'Reilly, born in the year the original movie was released, does a solid job as a stand-in, and her scenes are all very un-uncanny valley.
Naturally Darth Vader pops up, wearing some kind of black plastic neck-brace add-on to his costume, perhaps because he’s been in an accident that was not his fault and is pondering whether to hire one of our expert No Win, No Fee policy lawyers. The character is voiced by the mighty James Earl Jones, which must have looked like an excellent idea on paper. But the sad fact is that 85-year-old James Earl Jones just doesn’t have the voice 45-year-old James Earl Jones had. Back then he was resonant, strong, forceful. Now he’s all wobbly and weak, and not a little phlegmy. Conceivably Rogue One Darth has a cold. If so, then he gets over it pretty quickly, because the end of Rogue One segues immediately into the start of A New Hope, and croak voice Vader strides directly out of the last shot here and into the booming ‘Don't act so surprised, Your Highness’ Vader of the opening shots of the other film. Star Strepsils, maybe. Jedi Knight Nurse. I suppose we’ll never know.
What lifts the movie from being a mere succession of cameos from the original trilogy is the larger ambition of its Intertextuality. The easter-egginess of Rogue One operates on the level of form as well as content, and most particularly on the level of narrative and design. As far as the story goes, this is a movie that reworks the narrative of Force Awakens which reworked the narrative of Return of the Jedi which reworked the narrative of New Hope. The same set-pieces, and the story-beats all in the right places. There’s a desert planet with a huge star destroyer spaceship hanging over it; there’s a bar (sort of) in which various desperadoes and strange-looking aliens hang out; there’s an ‘escape from imperial custody scene’, and a ‘running along imperial facility corridors shooting stormtroopers’ scene. There’s a just-before-the-narrative-mid-point death of a father figure scene—indeed Rogue One follows this up with a just-after-the-narrative-mid-point death of an actual father scene, just to make assurance doubly sure. There’s the military-tactical confab, the impending destruction of everything good and decent by a Death Star, and finally there’s the big climactic dogfight between X-wings and imperial fighters, with added ground battles, laser rifles pyew-pyewing, explosions and what-not. Imagine what would happen to a director if s/he failed to follow this much-loved formula! The fans would vent their outrage in such a way as to make the studio executives howl like Wookies getting a full body wax.
As far as that goes, Gareth Edwards does something rather clever with the givens he has to wrangle into his finished product. Partly this is a matter of design, where his team lovingly recreate all the frankly crap little details with which the cash-strapped original team adorned the imperial uniforms. For a film with a $200 million budget not just to put clunky coloured plastic squares on the chest of Moff Tarkin’s Imperial Military uniform, but to make sure the camera really lingers on them to show off their crapness, is quite a thing. Not to digress, but I’m put in mind of a Star Wars fan-site I once came across that insisted the reason the Jawa in New Hope had eyes under their desert cowls that were patently little light bulbs was that the peculiar pressures of Tatooine life had resulted in a parallel evolutionary path towards the light-bulbic eye, and had nothing to do with the exigencies of tight-budgeted film production and set dressing. Rogue One uses a very large budget precisely to reproduce all the lineaments of a relatively small budget movie. It’s like a concept artist carving a reproduction of a potato out of a rare potato-sized $5000 Normandy truffle.
And that’s fair enough. A good chunk of the pleasure of Rogue One lies in its scrupulous recreation of original trilogy design. We are repeatedly reminded just how fond Imperial architects are of those neon-strips and grills shaped like Ice Lolly Sticks, or of implausibly vertiginous shafts, or narrow walkways and platforms under-supplied with safety rails. It dawns on us that Edwards is doing that loving sort of trolling only true fans can be permitted. Take, for example, the iconic white stormtrooper armour. We know it’s worse than useless where laser blasts are concerned, but we might have assumed it at least does the Medieval 101 task of protecting the wearer from blunt force trauma. Nope. Not so, declares Rogue One, not at all nohow: for we’re treated to the spectacle of Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen) a blind warrior who believes in, but isn’t strong with, the Force, attacking an entire platoon of Stormtroopers armed with nothing more than a long stick. A stick! I mean, surely the stormtrooper helmets must offer more efficient battlefield prophylaxis than my Halford’s cycle-helmet? Why else are these geezers wearing the kit in the first place? But no: look—Îmwe clonks one on the bonce and he slumps to the ground unconscious. It’s as if the helmet, rather than warding off such blows, somehow actually focuses and magnifies them! But who would equip foot soldiers with suchwise armour? Who but a troll?
The pièce de résistance of this fannish- trolling-from-a-place-of-love comes at movie’s climax. The whole conceit of Rogue One, as you already know, is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) leading a ragtag group of rebels to steal the plans to the imperial Death Star, thus setting-up New Hope. She does this because her father, Haniba Lect Erso (Mads Mikkelson) happens to be the imperial scientist who designed the Death Star. We learn that, in a fit of secret conscience, he has hidden a flaw deep inside the design. The flaw is: ‘shoot the central reactor and the whole thing will explode like a firecracker dangling from a string in a dark room (1977 version), or else like an actual moon exploding and throwing off an expanding ring of incandescence as it does so (1997 version)’. So, in sum: explode the central reactor of the Death Star and you will explode the Death Star. It’s—if you’ll pardon the use of this phrase in a science-fiction-movie review—not rocket science. Ah, but this is our whole movie! This datum is our whole rationale for two and quarter hours of screen time. Ergo, it must be dramatized. And this means that there must be a physical artefact for our heroine to track down and steal and pass on to the rebel alliance.
To its credit, Edwards’ Rogue One wholeheartedly owns the absurdity of this premise, and does so by way of a kind of chronological meta-easter-egg. Remember the 1980s, when most of the original trilogy appeared? Hey, remember what data storage was like, back then? Big clunky CD-ROMS in cases the size of a paperback book? Well that’s the mode of data storage the otherwise-impeccably-futuristic Rogue One goes with. Jyn Erso and her various rogue troopers have to fly to the Maldives (sorry, I mean the imperial planet Scarif, surrounded by a world-circling force-field. Yes, exactly like in Mel Brook’s Spaceballs. Thank you for noticing!) where the empire has constructed a huge base around an absolutely enormous skyscraper, all for the purpose of storing imperial data. The data itself is kept on CD-Roms in the huge central tower—plucky Jen literally clambers up the inside of this, like a monkey, to retrieve the disk. On top of the mega-tower is a huge radio dish, and this is the device that absolutely must be used to upload the relevant files to the rebel fleet waiting in orbit, because the data-load for that vital information—basically the sentence I wrote above, the one beginning ‘shoot the central reactor…’is, more than one character assures us, so huge. Finally, when this feat is eventually accomplished, having cost thousands of lives in its diversionary military assault, Edwards cuts to a screen on a ship of the orbiting fleet, showing parallel bars of upload-completion slowly filling out followed by this:
Top eggy trolling, I say. Tip top. The empire then decides to blow up their own data facility, using the Death Star itself—kaboom, all the technical data, all the files on everything, presumably including along with the Death Star schematics, I don’t know, imperial cruiser maintenance handbooks, the pension plans of all imperial employees, the records of the voting machines in those rust-belt planets that recorded a surprise electoral college victory for Palpatine: all of it evaporated in a fireball hotter than a thousand suns. Why? Who knows! What happens when something malfunctions on the Death Star? When a junior technician says, ‘can we just check the blueprints for …?’ or ‘what does the manual say about …?’ and a cackling Moff Tarkin yells ‘OUT OF LUCK, SUCKER! WE BLEW ALL THAT DATA UP! TAKE THAT, CROOKED MON MOTHMA!’…? What then?
Rhetorical question. Obviously.
Calling this trolling is a little unfair, I know. It’s homage. It’s a clever way of situating a new work in a familiar matrix. We might prefer to ta talk about the resonances of a deeply retro aesthetic. But retro has problems as well as joys. So this Star Wars instalment has a female lead—yay, 21st-century gender progressiveness! But, wait a mo: apart from Jyn Erso, and the aforementioned Mon Mothma, I don’t believe there is a single other named female character in the entire movie. Those two aside it’s wall-to-wall men—manly men, hairy men, gruff physical fighty men, dozens and dozens of them. There’s (unless I miscounted) one token female X-wing pilot, and another token female warrior, but otherwise: it’s men, all the way down. I was more struck by the literally half-a-second appearance of Simon Farnaby, of Mighty Boosh and Horrible Histories fame, piloting a rebel fighter (seriously? They gave Yonderland’s Negatus a spaceship?) than by the female contingent of the alliance. And why did Jyn get to lead the Rogue One crew? Was it because of her talents? No, it was because of her Dad. Yay, 1970s/80s gender contingency and occlusion!
A different mode of easter egg are the references not to the original or prequel trilogy, but to the other textual paraphernalia of the Star Wars Universe: TV spin offs, canonical tie-in novels that sort of thing. The well-regarded Clone Wars cartoons, for instance, get their nods, with the ‘kyber crystals’ that supposedly power lightsabres. The rebel character ‘Saw Gerrera’ from the same cartoon also appears in Rogue One (he previously appeared, you’ll remember lifting some krystals to orbit in the Clone Wars episode ‘Carry On Up The Kyber’, voiced by Charles Hawtrey). Rogue One fleshes out the ‘kyber crystals’ idea by having the Empire strip mining them for their Death Star from the Jedi holy moon of ‘Jedha’. That the ‘Jedi’ come from ‘Jedha’ suggests to me that the Star Wars galaxy operates according to a quasi-Latin set of word inflections. But not to get distracted: Jedha has the dubious Hiroshima-like honour of being the first place the Death Star destroys, and the special effects of this whole sequence are little short of breathtaking, as Jyn Erso and her friends flee the world-killing eruption in the nick of time. For once the intertextuality is not to other Star Wars texts, but to John Martin’s apocalyptic painting The Great Day of His Wrath, and it makes for a visually stunning tableau.
I want to say a little more about Saw Gerrera. He is a ‘bad’ rebel, disowned by the ‘good’ rebels because his tactics are too extreme. You can tell he is a rebel because his surname sounds like the word ‘guerilla’ spoken by an angry dog; and Whitaker plays the role with a lavish supply of eccentric thespian weirdness—gurning, emote-y, bug-eyed facial expressions, delivering the lines by throwing the accents onto unlikely syllables and so on. Now, Gerrera is a club-footed cyborg. Its that old chestnut of Star Wars representational logic whereby moral dubiety is externalised into the miscegenation of organic and machine—organic life is good, and machine life is fine, but a combination of the two is dodgy. Here’s my issue: since both of Gerrera’s legs are part of the robot portion of his body I am genuinely puzzled as to why one of his feet is so much bigger and clunkier than the other. I mean, look: I don’t want to obsess about Saw Gerrera’s feet. But the question won’t quit me. Couldn’t he just file the fatter foot down or something? Couldn’t he, I don’t know, bolt some extra mass to the thinner foot? That way he wouldn’t have to stomp about like a space-opera Quasimodo (‘Quasar-modo’; ‘Quasirobo’). The more I think about it, the more puzzled I become. This question has assumed an unhealthy prominence in my thoughts.
There are some other likeable additions to the canon of Star Wars Universe characters: Riz Ahmed plays Bodhi, a former Imperial officer who defects to the Rebels, although without his C15 brother-in-arms, Doyle. Diego Luna smoulders on screen as a rebel warrior with the rather Kierkegaardian name Cassian Andor. Look: I know. It’s a cheap shot, making fun of the names in the Star Wars universe. They are what they are, and we love them for their cack-handedness. That said, there’s simply no way an English actor can say the name ‘Erso’ without it sounding like ‘arsehole’; so giving the main character that surname and then casting an English actor in the role just looks like more top trolling from the script-team and director.
Any franchise film is a pudding, to one degree or another. And of course it is possible to over-egg a pudding. Rogue One hovers on the edge of over-egging. Two and a quarter hours probably is too long; the middle bits probably do sag a little; randy lovestruck teenage me probably won’t forgive the casting of Uncanny Plastic Leia. But all in all this is a fun movie, a visually striking movie, a likeable and exciting movie. All it all it is a good egg.
Adam Roberts is Adam Roberts. He has also seen The Force Awakens. You can find him on Twitter at @arrroberts and on the bookshelf in a number of places (including, but not limited to, The Thing Itself, Bethany, The Palgrave History of Science Fiction and Jack Glass).