For almost 40 years, George Lucas’s Star Wars movies have, in one form or other, permeated western pop culture. In the late 1970s, Star Wars: A New Hope was a revelation for a generation of film fans – a new kind of highly entertaining blockbuster, which combined cutting edge spectacle with largely forgotten genre thrills derived from the low budget movie serials of the 1930s.
The movie set the template for the family friendly blockbusters that gradually came to dominate American movie production over the 1980s. It also spoke to a generation of young people, providing them with seemingly fully-formed universe populated by iconic characters and easily quotable moments: “I have a bad feeling about this,” “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” “I am your father,” “I love you,” “I know!” Even the sounds and images of Star Wars have resonated through our culture to an astounding degree. The shapes of the Death Star, or an X-Wing or a Stormtrooper’s helmet are iconic images, and the sound of a lightsaber igniting is as familiar to most of us as a car starting.
Few films have ever had this kind of impact, but what’s most remarkable about Star Wars is the extent to which it has remained a living, active and on-going part of popular culture ever since. After the original trilogy ended in 1983, the franchise was kept alive for a dedicated cadre of fans by comic books, novels and videogames. When George Lucas revisited Star Wars with his prequel trilogy in the 1990s and 2000s, the franchise’s cultural impact was renewed. While the prequels were not as critically well regarded as the earlier movies, they nonetheless repositioned Star Wars as a current and on-going cultural touchstone for a new generation of younger fans. It’s easy to see why the Walt Disney Company was so keen to acquire Lucasfilm, and Star Wars, when George Lucas announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2012. As I have argued elsewhere, Star Wars had always addressed a similar audience, in a similar fashion, and inspired similar levels of devotion and nostalgia to Disney’s most iconic movies. (See https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2012/oct/31/star-wars-disney-destined-lucasfilm)
Last years’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens and this year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, demonstrate Disney’s commitment to maintaining Star Wars as a brand, but they also demonstrate that the franchise is more important to western culture than ever before. Both films drip with nostalgia for the original trilogy of Star Wars films, and offer fans the opportunity to reconnect with Star Wars in its purest, original form (which is to say, they largely ignore the prequel trilogy). While The Force Awakens revisited the iconography and story structure of A New Hope, Rogue One has an even more direct relationship to that film, a prequel which carefully recreates the sets and characters of Lucas’s 1977 original, bolting on a slightly grittier, more adult-oriented story of guerrilla warfare and espionage than we usually associate with the franchise. If the prequels largely courted child viewers to the annoyance of older fans, what’s interesting about Disney’s films is the extent to which they cater to the preferences of those older fans.
While its built from very familiar materials, then, Rogue One nonetheless offers an interesting new insight into a story we all think we know. In part that’s because we are meeting new characters and visiting a corner of the universe we have not seen before. One of Star Wars’ great accomplishments has been the extent to which its universe feels real, populated, as if it sprawls of the screen and contains multitudes of stories. Rogue One drops us into one of those stories, and we experience that world through the eyes of Gareth Edwards, a filmmaker with roots in the East Midlands (he grew up in Nuneaton), who has already made a name for himself as a visual stylist. His first movie, Monsters, was a low budget science fiction drama which combined a burgeoning romance with an alien invasion story to phenomenal effect. His second, Godzilla, was a more prosaic Hollywood blockbuster, but it benefitted hugely from Edward’s concern with character and his eye for a beautifully constructed shot. Edwards’ directorial style is defined by a focus on the human drama in epic stories, and by a uniquely naturalistic visual depiction of spectacular scenes and moments. You can see what he does with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this Christmas at the Phoenix.
Dr James Russell, Principal Lecturer in Film Studies, De Montfort University