Rogue One: the weird ferocity of nostalgia

We saw Rogue One in a theater yesterday.  “We” includes my son, Owain, who’s a serious Star Wars fan, plus myself, my wife, and our friend Elena, who all loved the first movie when it came out in 1977, when we were younger than Owain is now (harrumph).  I’d like to share some thoughts about it, because the movie is both very important and very strange when it comes to technology and society.

Quick overall review: it’s one of the best Star Wars movies, far ahead of the awful prequel trilogy.  Lovely CGI and filming, with good, hard-working actors.  The first half is a decent, low-scale space opera, while the second a decent war movie.

As the film progressed, I was increasingly distracted by one theme.  In order to discuss it I have to risk spoilers.  So don’t read on if you’d like to avoid being soiled by spoilage.

SPOILER SPACE

SPOILER SPACE

SPOILER SPACE

SPOILER SPACE

Ready?

peter-cushing-sim-in-rogue-oneWe expect certain storytelling forms to pay special attention to setting.  Historical fiction spends a great deal of energy in recreating the past.  Fanfiction does something similar for its source material.  Science fiction and fantasy fans expect world-building. Rogue One, a combination of all of these forms, does this very well on multiple levels.   It is, after all, science fiction, and the Star Wars universe has long had a strong fantasy vibe.  Being a work by other creators in a beloved franchise built by others, the movie is very much like fanfiction.  And given the way the movie’s setting and plot slot into a specific timeline within the Star Wars universe, it’s pretty close to a work of historical fiction.  Accordingly we get meticulous recreations of shots, dialogue, plot points, sound tracks, characters, spacecraft, various other technologies, and, famously or notoriously, two actors, one dead, the other aged nearly a half-century past her original performance.

The technological aspect tugged at my mind.  The presentation of a galactic empire’s tech and infrastructure was staunchly retro, even reactionary.

To explain: David Edelstein notes that the movie “it rehashes the plots of about a thousand World War II and/or Western films in which a brave squadron — a Magnificent Seven, a Dirty Dozen, a Force Five — prepares to sacrifice itself in the name of a greater cause.”  That’s because the technology looks and acts like it’s from WWII.  We see switches, cables, heavy doors, grenades, machine guns (“blasters”), a sword (wielded by a blind samuraiex-Jedi), and sniper rifles, but no radiation weapons or gamma ray bursters.  Stormtroopers drive a truck, rather than enjoying, say, a zero-gravity trawler. Spaceships are there, but act entirely as fighter and bomber aircraft, or as naval warships.  We never worry about the vast distances between stars, time dilation, the enabling technology, artificial gravity, or really anything at all about space travel.

Similarly, computers are basically typewriters and radio receivers.  The movie’s main plot point, the Death Star plans which activate the first movie’s action, are essentially physical, not digital.  They are stored as a physical object in a gigantic file system, then mostly passed from hand to hand.  When they briefly act electronically, it’s as a radio transmission, often with specialized radio operators complete with giant headsets.  There are very few mobile devices, and they don’t matter.

rogue-one-robot

There is a robot companion, yes, K-2SO, but in the style of many robot depictions he is in practice a skilled human being.  In appearance he resembles something from early Soviet technology, hulking and either non-anthropomorphic or actively hostile. He’s dieselpunk, not post-cyperpunk.

Speaking of cyberpunk, in Rogue One there is no sign of the communications world after the internet.  There aren’t any networks. Nobody hacks anything or checks anything online. Coding doesn’t appear to be a thing.  There seem to be few networked sensors, as when attack after attack surprises enemies who only detect them visually (i.e., no radar, no distributed sensor arrays).  Documents are unique, it seems, and hardly copied .  This is true even of military documents – ironic, given that one of the key motivators for creating ARPANET was preserving those very things.  Weirdly, communication satellites don’t seem to exist, or at least matter.

The movie is even more retro than this WWII level when it comes to media.  There are no cameras or microphones.  Nobody records, films, photographs, or surveils anyone else.  When a hologram recording (in all ways a film strip) plays, nobody makes a copy.  The one person who watched it simply remembers the gist, without bothering to shoot someone a copy or even write it down.  In fact, there aren’t any media, either entertainment or news.  You might expect a galaxy-spanning empire fighting an insurgency to have a serious propaganda effort under way.  Instead it’s a semiliterate, nearly text-free realm.

(For comparison’s sake consider the continuous stream of media populating Children of Men, enjoying a ten year anniversary.  Newspapers, radio, television offer an ongoing stream of information about that world.)

Rogue One‘s fierce techno-retro nature expresses itself in what we see of its world’s society and politics.  Previous Star Wars movies described rebooted medieval and early modern socio-political structured lodged in interstellar space.  Hence an emperor rules an empire, and senators work alongside aristocrats and feudal power arrangements.  Unlike, say, Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, where changes in technology made older structures functional again, Star Wars just ignored any technological impact to copy and paste pulpy history onto the future.

Rogue One continues this, unsurprisingly, with some updates towards the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  There’s the empire, of course, with its Lucas-born mix of Nazis and Ming the Merciless.  Under its sway we see criminals, religious fanatics, and leftover warrior knights (Jedis, the Star Wars’ version of our world’s Teutonic Order).  Family relations are also from the early 20th century, a classic nuclear family (only one child) anchoring the protagonist.  Her gender roles are partly retro, too, as her mother matters far less than her father, and she risks her life and mission to save a child from a firefight.

Advanced technology has not extended lifespans or eased health problems.  There are no signs of genetic engineering, medicine beyond 1950 (other than whatever the heck was involved in the heroine’s mentor’s outfit), or starvation alleviated by improved nutrition or even replicators.  Cities are medieval/modern colonial in overcrowding and poor conditions.  It is as if technology has been abstracted away from social life, or is arrogated to a powerful elite who otherwise keeps the populace in relative degradation.  Perhaps the galaxy is run by a group of historical reenactors who insist everyone join their hobby in a kind of vast dystopia.

So why does Rogue One do this?  Obviously it wants to hew to the original movies, mostly the first one and Empire Strikes Back, so the movie matches its technology with theirs.  We get a nice echo of that late 70s/early 80s grungy technology vibe, as seen in, for example, Blade Runner and Alien.  We don’t get screen-based keyboards, smartphone, or time dilation problems because the source material lacks them.

Beyond that formal reason, why would this fiercely retro approach appeal to today’s audience?  And appeal it does, with box office above $64 million as of today, per IMDB.

We could ask them same question about similarly retro steampunk, as others have done.  The answers include a desire to flee what some see as daunting techno-complexity in our present day, responding to feelings akin to Toffler’s famed future shock.  But steampunk is a distinctly different era, anchored on Victorian Britain, not the 1930s, not dieselpunk.  People like steampunk for many other reasons, including the fashions, and, I think, a strong sense of appropriated cultural smugness.

No, Rogue One turns to the second world war because it wants that struggle’s cultural cachet.  Evoking WWII sets the movie up for epochal struggles, a strong good versus evil theme, a seamy resistance plot, and especially massive amounts of sacrifice and death – the very opposite of steampunk.  I wonder how this appeals to an America a decade and a half into the global war on terror.  Was the studio hoping to tap into residual anxieties about distant enemies and the burdens of empire?  Were they counting on war-weariness somehow fading away?

I suspect the pre-internet technology milieu engages two audiences.  For younger people who’ve grown up with some degree of digital immersion this must appear to be an exciting alternate dimension.  Rogue One is in this way akin to vinyl records and postcards.  For older people (generalizing here) it’s nostalgia.  Not only does it remind us of seeing the first movie back during the Carter administration, but is also recalls traces of the world we thought we once inhabited.  The tangible tech, bereft of PowerPoint and sleek touchscreens, reminds us of (say) shop class, working on cars, wiring up circuits. For both audiences Rogue One slyly connects with the maker movement.

Meanwhile, both audiences can enjoy the movie, then write about it on their smartphones as they leave the theater, checking Twitter and Facebook for friends’ opinions, and consulting Rotten Tomatoes for more reviews…

Let’s see how this determined techno-nostalgia plays out in 2017’s popular culture.

*Yes, I’m continuing my infrequent habit of blogging reviews.

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28 Responses to Rogue One: the weird ferocity of nostalgia

  1. Hi Bryan

    “The presentation of a galactic empire’s teh and infrastructure was staunchly retro, even reactionary.” ​

    Peace & Resistance

    Mark Corbett Wilson

    “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” ~ Eric Hoffer

    On Tue, Dec 27, 2016 at 8:58 PM, Bryan Alexander wrote:

    > Bryan Alexander posted: “We saw Rogue One in a theater yesterday. “We” > includes my son, Owain, who’s a serious Star Wars fan, plus myself, my > wife, and our friend Elena, who all loved the first movie when it came out > in 1977, when we were younger than Owain is now (harrumph). I” >

    Like

  2. Steven Kaye says:

    There are times I think the Empire wiped out information professionals along with most of the Jedi. Between the Jedi Archives in Attack of the Clone and the “arcade claw machine” information retrieval mechanism in Rogue One, I really despair some days.

    Like

  3. Cole Camplese says:

    Great and insightful review. While I truly enjoyed the film, I did notice this time around how intensely retro the technology was. Maybe it was because the reviews I read prior to seeing it described it as a “war film” … maybe I was expecting something akin to Saving Private Ryan. Either way it was an enjoyable bridge from the prequels to our beloved original trilogy. Your insights are especially appreciated and will make me look more closely at this film the next time I watch it.

    Like

  4. emdalton says:

    Even when the first movie (Episode 4: A New Hope) first played in theaters, the tech was outdated, something I was aware of at the time as a 12 year old. (One of my parents worked for a computer company, and we had a 300 baud modem and terminal at home!) But again, even in that movie, there was a bit of hacking, accomplished by R2D2 finding the rest of the merry band and shutting down the garbage compactors. By contrast: “Where are the transmissions you intercepted?” What?? Has no one heard of using lasers for tight-beam transmission? Encryption? Redundant channels?

    I’ve always considered the whole Star Wars franchise to be fantasy with space-themed props, not science fiction. Fun to watch, sure, but LOTR has more science in its linguistics (and certainly more solid worldbuilding).

    Noting the WWII nostalgic aspects actually makes all this more understandable, thanks.

    Like

  5. Andrew Showen says:

    Thanks for your fine and thoughtful piece

    Like

  6. Krzys says:

    This is not the world of pre network technology. it’s a world of post network technology. It turns out that you cannot assure absolute security in connected world, so the only solution is to disconnect. Especially, in military and internal security matters. It’s the real future.

    Like

    • Not even in civilian media? Nor personal use?

      You remind me, Krzys, of some discussions about this in the SETI world. How to look for aliens when they send all messages not by radio, but by shielded wires?

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  7. We could also set up an interesting contrast with Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), which also marinated in a dieselpunk vibe: colonial ships that were vast mile-long machines capable of FTL interstellar travel, but which still were run on analog interfaces (phones with cords!), mounted massive flack batteries, and launched piloted fighters who principally engaged in close-in dogfights using kinetic weapons. In fact, the reboot was even more fiercely retro than the original Disco Era series, which at least used plasma weapons.

    But unlike Star Wars, BSG employed a justification that more rationally justified the conceit: Only the ruthlessly Lo-Fi could survive the 21st century hacker threat of the Cylons. The result was a franchise which explored much more interesting moral questions. It also made a heck of a lot less money than Lucas’s franchise. There’s a bigger audience for the archetypal mythology and the moral clarity, it seems.

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    • I was thinking of that, Richard, especially after a conversation with my son. BSG did have a fine, plot-based reason. And it went well with the dark, desperate ethos of the show, especially early on.

      Like

      • This is actually why I consider Battlestar Galactica (the reboot) to be genuine science fiction, and Star Wars to be space fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I enjoyed both! But they’re doing two quite different things with their “World War II-in Space” technological conceit, which is interesting to think about.

        Like

      • That’s long been a view of Star Wars, ever since the first movie. It’s one I’ve shared for a long time, especially when contrasted with other, contemporary science fiction films. Think of, say, Alien, or Blade Runner.

        But the franchise’s persistence and deep appeal have made me revisit this, especially as real world technologies have raced ahead. Star Wars increasingly feels akin to steampunk in its – well, not renunciation of technology so much as deliberate resetting of tech level to an earlier time.

        Dune is a touchstone for me on this. On the surface it looks weirdly anachronistic, with its aristocracy, sword-fighting, and opposition to computers. But if we look at its technology we see two things. First, all of these are driven by post-20th-century forces: beam weapons, new drugs, mechanisms of spaceflight, genetic engineering advances. So they are retro tech driven by advanced tech.
        Second, the world also contains plenty of space opera tech – giant spacecraft, controlled human mutations, time-warping drugs, personal force shields, etc.
        Third, politics enabled by those technologies deliberately construed technologies and other forces to make their deployment uneven and in the service of power.
        Such a rich novel.

        In contrast, Rogue One feels like a weird historical reenactment.

        Like

      • DUNE is without question one of the most amazing efforts at worldbuilding that’s ever been undertaken – in any genre. It’s assuming that technology has not only changed human culture, but even (despite the best efforts of the Butlerian Jihad) human nature itself. It’s doing something profoundly radical. It’s also why (I think) it’s basically been unfilmable. Or, even if it could be made filmable, not likely to find an audience big enough to justify the budget you would need. At least not yet.

        Likewise: I think what sets Star Wars apart from works like Battlestar Galactica or Blade Runner is that the latter (even as they make use of some familiar aesthetics) allow new technology to shape a very new (and unsettling) moral narrative, while Star Wars is telling a very, very familiar tale in what merely happens to be an exotic new setting. All that time Lucas spent reading Joseph Campbell was not for naught. We know and love Star Wars (well, most of us) because it’s a story and archetypes already embedded in our cultural consciousness, and it was well executed. And emphasizing a dieselpunk aesthetic, and blatant shadings of the Empire evocative of the Nazis, gave it extra cultural heft for an Anglo-American public for whom the war was still a living memory (or near enough), in an era where that moral clarity gave a desperately needed uplift.

        So: “historical reenactment” is actually a pretty good description for ROGUE ONE.

        Like

  8. teageegeepea says:

    “appropriated cultural smugness”
    Could you elaborate on that? Or, if you’ve already done so elsewhere, link to it?
    The last time I recall reading anything referred to as steampunk it was the Mrs. Hawking series of plays, which don’t even contain any alternate-history technology.

    Like

    • Oh, there’s a lot of steampunk out there, from books to movies to games to (especially) fashion.
      By “smugness” I’m referring to Victorian arrogance, that sense of global pride and entitlement.

      Like

  9. Steve Sailer says:

    The ending fight looked like the Battles of Midway, Guadalcanal, and Stalingrad simultaneously.

    Like

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  13. Isn’t Star Wars set in a universe “a long time ago”?

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