How "Rogue One" Made Gritty, Old Technology Cool

Thursday, 05 January 2017 - 4:40PM
Science of Star Wars
Technology
Thursday, 05 January 2017 - 4:40PM
How "Rogue One" Made Gritty, Old Technology Cool

With all the recent technology-heavy sci-fi movies like Passengers, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Arrival, Rogue One stands out—but not for the reasons you might think. A lot of people imagine sci-fi as being filled with miraculous, clean, shiny technology, but Rogue One instead invests itself in layers of grime, jury-rigged equipment, and clunky, boxy-looking tech. And there's a good reason for that.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Bryan Alexander details the shocking lack of futuristic technology in Rogue One, and attempts to offer an explanation for the director's decision to model the weapons, vehicles, and machinery after a much more recent era. 

Alexander begins by detailing the simplicity of the technology featured in the film. Interiors feature "switches, thick cables, and heavy doors," the weapons are relatively basic—grenades, blasters (which feature simple mechanics), Imwe's staff, and Baze Malbus's machine gun—but nothing using radiation or gamma rays. Though there are spaceships, they are mostly just glorified fighter or bomber aircraft or naval warships. Space becomes the backdrop of the grand war without becoming an integral part of it. We never really need to worry about the physics or astronomy, and it's not really focused on in any way, just accepted as a pre-requisite for the universe. 

Similarly, the movie's main plot point—the crucial Death Star plans—are physical media. Though they are presented in hologram form, they are stored as giant physical objects, evocative of large VHS tapes, and are passed from hand to hand. Their physical safety is of the utmost importance, and the physical requirements needed to transmit them—hooking up cables, setting up transmitters, moving satellite dishes—seems like they belong to the analogue age rather than the digital.

So why, in the age of rapid technological advancement, does Rogue One choose to take this retro approach? 

Alexander cites two main factors. The first and most obvious reason is the movie's close tie to the original series, specifically A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back—meaning that it needed to match its technology to theirs. Fans were outraged and disappointed when the practical effects of the original trilogy were abandoned in favor of CGI, and Rogue One represented a return to the older films' focus on real props and sets. But there's a deeper layer: this particular brand of retro seems to tap into both ends of the spectrum of Rogue One's primary audience. 

For younger generations, this world is some sort of thrilling parallel universe—kind of like the attractive retro feel of vinyl records and chintzy antique furniture. For older folks, it's simply nostalgia. It reminds them of seeing the first movie back in the '70s, and it also brings back traces of the blissful screen-free age they once inhabited. "The tangible tech, bereft of PowerPoint and sleek touch screens, reminds us of, say, shop class, working on cars, wiring up circuits," explains Alexander.

Yet even without touch screens, sleek chrome, or smooth, futuristic curves, Rogue One is still a smashing success—both critically and commercially. It makes you think: is it fashionable for sci-fi to stop being the vanguard of the future and start being a nostalgia trip in itself? At one point, even the lightsaber was called "an elegant weapon for a more civilized age."

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now.

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