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Rogue One: in the Valley of the Uncanny

Possible spoilers ahead.

It has been observed that when humans are confronted by things that are progressively more human in their appearance and function they tend to like those things better. There comes a point close to the fully human, however, at which the nearly-human-but-not-quite-right causes a strong revulsion. If we graph the response, this deep dip in the graph is called the uncanny valley, and helps explain why things like cadavers and zombies play so well to our sense of horror.

Rogue One seems to me to dwell in the uncanny valley. As an adolescent of the 1970s, I have a preconceived idea of what a Star Wars movie ought to look like: as much as possible like the original (1977) or The Empire Strikes Back (1980). That’s just how this one looks, because it has been assembled out of a very large number of callbacks, visual, sonic, and textual references to the original films, name checks, and other devices to apply a stone wash to the fabric of the film to let nostalgia help sell it. Except that references to Obi Wan and Wedge Antilles, and the many visual allusions to the originals are also like makeup applied by a modern Mr. Joyboy to a dead, or at least uninteresting story about the stealing of the plans to the Death Star.

Star Wars asked us to accept as an axiom a simplistic distinction between good and evil; as a timeless and satisfying coming of age story drawn from myth it rightly did not attempt to hang a morally complex story on its lightweight genre framework. The galactic and imperial backdrop darkened the story and lent it grandeur while the sf elements enlivened it and made it more intriguing. Rogue One flicks in a few throwaway scenes and lines of dialogue raising but going nowhere with questions of moral ambiguity and the ethical shortcuts people may feel compelled to take in pursuit of a good but difficult cause. If one wishes to, one can make a movie, like Patriot Games (1992) that does this in a serious and systematic way. But the Star Wars universe was not created to bear this weight, and one need only consider how the prequels collapsed under (among much else) their pretentious examination of the fate of Anakin Skywalker. If you’re going to try to tell a morally serious story, go ahead, but you're going to have to do it in a morally serious way; The moral construction of the Star Wars universe will need a lot of retconning to build an armature solid enough to bear the weight of such a story.

There are, of course, good things to be said about the film. Do you remember Yoda's light-saber duel with Christopher Lee in one of the prequels? I remember laughing out loud in the theater at the hilarious disjuncture between the whizzing, flitting, whirling figures and their ostensible age and gravitas. One imagines Lucas was trying to upstage The Matrix (1999). Likewise, in the excellent The Force Awakens (2015), for every beautiful shot of TIE fighters silhouetted against the sunset we had to endure three more shots putting heavy craft through vertiginously whirling flights and fights--proving, perhaps, what CGI could then do, but at the price of breaking the cinematic illusion of momentum and gravity—and gravitas.

The thick appliqué of the style of the originals has saved Rogue One, from some, at least, of the sins of other descendents of Star Wars. It deftly retains an awesome ponderousness in the weight of its craft; the originals' tedious shooting of film frame by frame with models did not lend itself to the distracting and overpowering complexities enabled by computer rendering. We can profit and learn from repeated viewings of intellectually complex visuals: think of the sophisticated design in the street set of Blade Runner (1982); we actually learn more about the story through repeated viewings. We learn a lot more about Roger Thornhill by listening to his witty remarks in North by Northwest (1959), dialogue we may not have focused on in our distraction by the story the first time through. But a space battle with dozens of moving ships, complexity for the sake of complexity? Impressive, of course, and who doesn't like a good space battle? Still, it doesn't give us much beyond itself. It is wonderful, therefore, that the pivotal moment in the space battle involves a disabled Star Destroyer being slowly and inexorably pushed into another, and thence into a space station generating an obstructing shield.

This principle is observed with great success at the end of the film. Darth Vader makes a solo combat appearance taking out perhaps six or seven armed opponents. Unlike the whizzing Yoda of yore, he moves slowly, a powerful, evil man, relentless, competent, and terrifyingly in control.

Still, the applied elements are sometimes ghoulishly off kilter. On paper, it might have seemed a good idea to bring back Peter Cushing, as Grand Moff Tarkin, with CGI and another actor speaking his dialogue. Continuity with Star Wars is thus served, and Cushing, who was a good actor, gave many memorable and well loved lines (“Charming to the end”) and could hold his own on screen even against Darth Vader. But the CGI looks flat and places Cushing right into the uncanny valley as an animated corpse, and the voice is flat, too. Worse, the corpse's range of emotion seems limited to variants of a supercilious cat-like smirk. Even more uncanny and unpleasant is the resurrected visage of the teen-aged Princess Leia at the very end.

As an armature upon which to hang special effects, the story is of secondary (and no very great) interest. Its greatest flaw is being long where it should be shorter: Jyn's backstory should have been cut entirely and given as a line or two of dialogue by another character. Forest Whitaker's character should have been fleshed out or omitted. The amount of him we have falls between two stools in an overlong film. As it is, he is a cipher serving only to raise, in a facile way, the idea of extremism in a good cause. The seemingly untutored (except perhaps in combat) Jyn breaks out into an unexpectedly eloquent St. Crispin's Day speech to give motivation at a flagging moment in the plot; her character seems to morph as needed to serve the plot and does not organically develop.

The composer, Michael Giacchino, is quite good and has proven that he does not lack for ideas even when obliged to work in and around legacy themes (Star Trek, 2009), but here his marching orders appear to have been: channel Williams. What could he do but quote the Imperial March during Darth Vader’s appearances? Wonderfully, Giacchino briefly quotes more obscure passages most viewers would not recognize. Spotting those are fun, yet like the resurrected Peter Cushing, the quotations are a device to manipulate us through nostalgia. More to Giacchino’s credit is his clever assimilation and frequent display of signature Williams mannerisms in (for example) the winds and tympani cadences to patinate his own original material. The downside is that when we encounter perfectly serviceable passages of pure Giacchino, they seem uncannily wrong and lifeless, which is not a bad description of what is wrong with this whole movie.

This is, of course, an idiosyncratic view that flies in the face of most reviews I've read. Nor indeed do I seek to persuade anyone not to like the film or not to see it. In fact, it is well worth seeing. But I did suffer a visceral reaction in watching the movie, and it seemed best to try to work it out in print.

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