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ROGUE ONE and What the Monsters in STAR WARS Movies Say About Our Times

ROGUE ONE and What the Monsters in STAR WARS Movies Say About Our Times

Warning: The following contains minor spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

For a franchise so jam-packed with alien monsters of inimitable design and unknowable peril, Star Wars keeps its major conflict exclusively human-to-human. That said, just about every Star Wars movie sets aside a little time in its first or second act to force one of its main characters—usually Luke—into the sights of a new, strange creature out for blood. Or, in the case of Rogue One, thoughts.

While every set piece-driving monster in the Star Wars movies differs tremendously from the one that preceded it, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s feels most like the odd bantha in the patch. The creature in question is an amorphous tentacled ganglion that lives under the order of mentally unsound anti-Empire extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), extracting the memories from and robbing the sanity of anyone who deigns to cross his path—in this case, reformed Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed).

There’s a reason the above description may sound odd to you. Although Obi Wan Kenobi was hardly above tampering in the manipulation of the weak-willed, thought-eating octopuses don’t exactly ring as consistent with the franchise’s sci-fi psychology, reading more akin to the sort of threat you’d find in a Star Trek episode about festering secrets, or a Philip K. Dick adaptation about the ubiquity of government surveillance. Though barely onscreen for more than a few seconds, the bubbling mollusk feels wholly distinct from any of its fellow monstrosities of the Star Wars canon. This rings as curious, as Rogue One, though the first of the films to deviate from the mainline series of the Skywalker-and-friends show, is otherwise didactically beholden to the Star Wars aesthetic. (No shortage of A New Hope references hammer this point home and then some.)

So why, in a movie that seems wholly devoted to reminding us that it is indeed a Star Wars picture, does Rogue One’s most prominent set piece monster feel like the least Star Warsy thing we’ve seen in any of these films?

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Truth be told, it may have more to do with the changes outside the realm of Star Wars than with those therein. Though 1977’s A New Hope no doubt revolutionized the outer space adventure, trading in futuristic silvers for the lived-in beiges and browns, it was in many ways part of a generation of sci-fi pictures likewise fascinated and haunted by the otherworldly. The film was released around the same time as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, AlienDuneThe Man Who Fell to Earth, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and any number of pulpy B movies hellbent on exploring the vast cosmos or visitors therefrom. Born from the heat of this craze, Star Wars’ first installment delivered some of the most “alien-y” creatures it has given us to date, including the dianoga.

Better known as the trash compactor monster, the dianoga made its mark on the Star Wars canon with an unsettling set of tendrils and one singular bulbous eyeball. Even among the varied assortments of little green men who occupied the Mos Eisley Cantina, the dianoga’s design represented the most vivid manifestation of 1970s American cinema’s masochistic extraterrestrial phobia.

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In the 1980s, when Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi hit theaters, fear had no reason to exceed the margins of our stratosphere. Horrors, thrillers, and slasher pictures traded in the mystifying of the great beyond for the gruesome and guttural of the right-here-at-home. Standing out among the decade’s most memorable feats of horror were John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, two very imaginative takes on the monster movie (responsible in their own right for reinventing the man-as-monster movie, in fact), each claiming historic feats in creature design.

While nothing in Star Wars comes close to the nauseating nature of Rob Bottin’s eponymous Thing and Chris Walas’ Brundlefly, Jedi‘s rancor—the tortured beast living beneath Jabba’s palace—certainly seems born from the same ideology that spawned the masterful pair’s inclination toward the earthy, viscous, and gross. The rancor’s drooling, jagged mouth, first seen onscreen in 1983, one year after The Thing, could almost be denoted as a “lite” take on the R-rated nightmare fuel of the wintry horror picture.

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Also of note is the increase in creature size from the dianoga to the Yeti-like wampa of Empire Strikes Back and further still to Jedi‘s rancor, a thread evocative of the ubiquitous equation of size and volume to power and value, a mentality that ran rampant throughout the materialistic ’80s.

Closing out the Original Trilogy, and marking the beginning of a 16-year hiatus on Star Wars features, Jedi also capped the natural evolution of the franchise’s practical monsters. When Star Wars returned with the Prequel Trilogy, its aliens were sleek (a betrayal of the aesthetic that made Star Wars “different” from other sci-fi in the first place) and computer generated. Take, for instance, the acklay that Obi Wan battles in the Petranaki Arena in Attack of the Clones:

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Appearing onscreen almost two decades after we first met the rancor, the mantis-like fiend is an undeniable product of the post-Jurassic Park era. While the Original Trilogy’s latter two big monsters could be identified as more or less mammalian, Attack of the Clones‘ colosseum denizen is Star Wars‘ answer to two other classes of animal quickly gaining traction in the realm of horror: First, the reptiles that enjoyed the silver screen spotlight back in Godzilla‘s heyday and once again after Steven Spielberg reminded us of their majesty.

Second, and perhaps more menacingly, the all-but-immortal insects springing to the forefront of everyone’s minds as the threat of nuclear terror attack abounded in the first years of the 21st century. As the Prequel Trilogy has been identified by many as an allegory for the rise and fall of the Bush Administration, it stands to reason that its creatures should be tethered to the psychology surrounding the corresponding war.

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After The Force Awakens‘ brief glimpse of the manic rathtar, which stands in and of itself, via form you’d most likely associate with early Cold War B-movies, as the kind of ostensible embrace of nostalgia representative of not only The Force Awakens (or even director J.J. Abrams’ filmography), but of the 2010s on the whole, we land on Rogue One‘s gargantuan mind-reading octopod. So what does this kind of monster say about sci-fi, our fears, and our society today? Are we most afraid of hackers and espionage? Is the bubbling blob wrapping its tentacles around a screaming Riz Ahmed a comment on personal intrusion? Or maybe it is the very act of introspection, revealing our own truths, that we find most terrifying? While Rogue One may want very much to be the same kind of Star Wars movie we saw in 1977, instances like Whitaker’s mortifying right-hand man betray its true form. We can’t have a ’77 Star Wars movie because we no longer live in a ’77 world. Things look different. They feel different. And they scare us in much different ways.

Images: Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, Disney


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