Rogue One the film
As with all films made under the conditions of what we imagine to be a director v studio setup, and particularly with a conglomerate such as Disney whose values noticeably manifest in works facilitated by Disney (selling hollow cultural gestures to parents, nostalgia back to everyone), Rogue One is conflicted, but to the credit of the director and studio, it also seems to be the product of Gareth Edwards doing his thing equipped with a checklist of things to include, rather than having to filter every decision through the suffocating vision of Disney.
Its tension is noticeable in the way that it plays out, and it is hard to deny that from a distance it is basically a “content generator”, but Rogue One contains all sorts of triumphs and weirdnesses that make it work in spite of the fact that it, like its characters, is designed to self-destruct. As plotting goes it is systematically ‘canon’, a series of references and actions which assist Episode 3 in getting to Episode 4 (or something), and Edwards cannot help but make breathless work out of reaching each and every one of these points. The film is never allowed to breathe because it is destined to do the grunt work for non-anthology Star Wars, but the unassuming moments and quiet spaces between And Thens transcend this.
Edwards explores horizontals in a way that is refreshing and far less batshit than those in Attack of the Clones. As a director of monster movies, he understands that grounding the viewer is important before introducing verticals. The traditional sublime is felt when the experiencing subject comes upon something which in its enormity either poses a mortal threat to the subject, or which puts the subject’s mortality into perspective as being basically insignificant. Previous Star Wars films have had their ground-level action, but they have also raced us into verticals e.g. the perspectives of pilots, which bring about ilinx (disorientation, tumult, vertigo). It is perhaps impossible to make a Star Wars film without vertical space, but Edwards never indulges ilinx. Rogue One‘s sublime is in scale disparity and not movement. When the four legged walkers approach on the beach they register as monoliths, spine-tingling monsters, and not just targets for pilots overhead. This also adds consequence to the ground combat which some have compared to a videogame and others to a war film. These lines will continue to be blurred the more war footage enters our collective consciousness and entertainment seeks to mimic it, but for now it is satisfying to see e.g. Donnie Yen gripping his staff, Donnie Yen’s pale eyes as seen by Jiang Wen when the ground is calling to him and there is nothing to whisk him away.
Rogue One is designed to appear as though it is subjecting familiar Star Wars imagery to the elements. This is to ‘ground’ the film (along with those horizontals) and signify that it is more downtrodden and resistance-y than the others in the series (see also the Marxist rags costuming of The Matrix). Shadow is applied heavy around Felicity Jones’ eyes to make them appear sunken and perpetually weary, while Riz Ahmed’s eyes bulge pink through insomniac reds. The opening scenes shot in Iceland are powerfully anti-human although Edwards’ anxiety to conform to this aesthetic is evident when Mads Mikkelsen grips young Jyn’s hand and it looks as though the director has just dumped some soil directly onto her knuckles, believing that they were previously not dirty enough. The trajectory of adhering to this can be followed in the state of Jones’ hair (Diego Luna is p much always the same). In Iceland it is matted with that dry frizz identifiable to anyone with long hair that lives in a country whose non-rainy days are ‘spitting’ and whose sun brings humidity, and variations on the dry-frizz-humid look appear in every scene until the point where Jones speechifies about hope etc. From then on it is brushed because now we are in Star Wars and Jyn is a martyr for episodes 4-6. The degree of humid lankness in the cast’s hair is inversely proportional to the degree of Star Wars in Rogue One.
The detours which suffer as a consequence of Edwards having to check the next box still exist in their hamstrung form and still delight the viewer. The search for Saw Gerrera is a terse one with internal conflicts on all sides- he is an extremist of the same cause as Luna, and he rescued then trained Jones as a child. The fear of his ‘extremism’ is suspenseful, and when he interrogates Ahmed he says “you might just lose your mind.” This is jarringly eerie and brings to mind the druggy horror of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Whitaker’s unpredictable accent and slow-mo facial contortions add to a sense of unease which suggest that Rogue One could get really weird, which it does, but only within this self-contained Heart of Darkness. Planet Eadu is another inspired element in Rogue One– it is mountainous and dark and always raining, and the architecture is uniformly lined with neons. We will never see it again but it is an exciting one-off inspired by Ridley Scott as much as it is 1980s action videogames.
Whether Edwards manages enough with Rogue One to warrant excitement in the age of Disney Star Wars is entirely left to the viewer, but I love the intimacy, detours, and monster movie-ness which shine in spite of this. If the best we can hope for is that the lower-stakes anthology films give directors a way to avoid pursuing the theme park vacuity of The Force Awakens, then at least that is something.
On the beach, the bored sublime, and the Rogue One billboard beside the New North Road Gull petrol station near my house
The Rogue One billboard beside the Gull petrol station on New North Road has Stormtroopers walking small and apprehensive along a beach, approaching a target (not pictured) with a flat horizon neither high nor low enough to add drama or tension to the picture plane, and the water looks cold and slimy (i.e. real) and the sand looks dirty, and Auckland’s damp atmosphere eats the Death Star and turns the Rogue One skies grey. It is the waste of warfare that the wave crests with nobody to dive into or enjoy it.
The Stormtroopers are the flat shiny icons of popular myth, and so seeing them subjected to the dirtiness and mundane indifference of a flat tide on an overcast day is strikingly peculiar. Past Star Wars posters have conformed to fantasy illustrative tropes, promising iconic, mythological escapism in the form of space opera. When we watch the films they show us the Star Wars universe through the eyes of Chosen Ones and politicians and fighters.
Rogue One is anonymous bodies walking on a beach.
From the Gull petrol station on New North Road the surrealism of this hits the passerby in the stomach. New Zealand is a country of coasts. Its art tradition is dominated by horizontal lines because everywhere you look there is a big wall of ocean staring back at you. We were cursed by Sydney Parkinson on Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific as his Enlightened eye flattened the unfamiliar into knowledge. In the following century artists turned the land into quiet spaces to be rationalised, ruled, and sold.
In the mid 20th century a national Pakeha consciousness began developing through the realisation that we were destined to be “strangers everywhere,” camped out on a beach at the end of the world (a consciousness defined by what Francis Pound called “silence, solitude, and suffering”). Pakeha artists found ghosts in the landscape and they howled through the silence, but then they looked at the landscape flattened into farmland and stripped of its old gods and they thought “we have done this.” This resulted in surreal works which found boredom and fear, the mundane and the horrific, in the landscape. Gordon Walters’ Waikanae landscape found alien forms on the beach and Colin McCahon saw Moby Dick on the horizon, only his white whale was a solution to Pound’s dilemma. McCahon conflated Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick with the biblical flight from Egypt, and the New Zealanders’ search for identity. McCahon is the ‘national artist’ of New Zealand precisely because he tried and failed to find meaning (the promised land) for his country.
The image most effectively burned into the New Zealanders’ national consciousness however is likely the ending of Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth. That image does for the anxious New Zealander what the conclusion to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus did for its Protestant audience: confirm all of their fears. Its similarity to the Rogue One billboard beside the New North Road Gull Petrol Station is immediate, only the Rogue One poster strikes wider where it is positioned because of its cold and slime and dirt. It recalls Walters’ ‘beach surrealism’ and the dislocated Victorian hangover of the Antipodean Gothic. Murphy’s image descends from McCahon’s, but it is also a literally apocalyptic closure which the artist never found. McCahon and Murphy both saw Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea, but only the former used housepaint and sand and clay to keep it a part of our world.
The Rogue One poster reminds the passerby that the end will come and she will see it from her shores, but in all likelihood it will be clumsy, on an overcast day, and she will be put-out by the feeling of sand in her clothes, and she will yawn before she’s eaten alive by the hot flames of a fiery hell.