“Physical Media from Long, Long Ago”
The development of digital media from its analog forebears is one of the most important stories of the development of our current, high technology world. My students look at me funny when I pull out a DVD instead of looking up a clip on YouTube. However, in the world of Star Wars, the exact opposite is the case. In George Lucas’ 1977 original film, Episode 4: A New Hope, the shiny high technological metallic world is associated with the evil Empire. On the side of goodness sits the Rebellion, a rag tag cornucopia of threadbare ships.
Most arcane of all is Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, one of the last practitioners of the distinctly non-materialist Jedi order, a religion in which knights channel an unseen natural Force to make things move with the sheer will of their minds. Lucas’ vision fit perfectly with a New Left disillusioned with America’s status as a materialist superpower, stockpiling weapons to defeat its own Evil Empire, the Soviet Union. Instead, Lucas’ new hope was oddly a return to agrarian values, in which the respect for nature would bring balance to our lives, and break our dependence on dirty, industrial technology.
Such was ethos of Lucas’ trilogy of Star Wars films in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Jungian hero Luke Skywalker visits the home world of Yoda, a swamp teeming with the Force. In Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Luke leads the Rebellion to destroy a second Death Star, a moon-sized machine capable of reducing an entire planet to rubble. The destruction of this second planet killer brings an end to the evil Emperor, and his leadership’s attachment to a glossy machinery of death.
In the second set of films, a new trilogy of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lucas reneged on his post-1960s Transcendentalism. Suddenly, the Force became a matter of materialist chemistry. In Episode One: The Phantom Menace, Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn measures young Annakin’s blood for mitichlorians, life forms that give humans the power to channel the Force. Lucas’ grand plan of telling the story in reverse order, first introducing us to the son, Luke Skywalker, before showing us his father, Darth Vader née Annakin Skywalker, carries over to the question of materialism. In the latter part of the story, the downfall of the Empire, materialism comes to an end, defeated by the return of the mysticism of the Force. Yet, this is exactly the opposite of what we experience, waiting over twenty years for a return to a Romantic world, only to be told that the mystical world of spirituality is really the result of a bug infestation.
In the newest Star Wars film, director Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, set in between these two trilogies, indeed at the doorstep of the opening of Episode IV: A New Hope, the question of materiality comes to the fore with a vengeance. And yet, like the jumbled nature of Lucas’ entire nine-film vision, the meaning of these material objects is fraught with indeterminacy.
The plot of the new film revolves around the Rebellion’s acquisition of the plans for the first Death Star, the one that destroys Princess Leia’s home world of Alderaan in the 1977 film. At the beginning of that film, we see Leia upload the plans from a small disk into the memory of R2D2, a cute little droid, who proceeds to deliver the plans to Luke and Obi-Wan on the planet Tatooine. The delivery of this information takes an ephemeral form, as R2D2 projects the image of the princess, turning her into a ghost image. The actual diskette that transferred the plans from Leia to the Rebel Alliance is quickly forgotten, overwritten by the ghost image.
Indeed, Leia’s early appearances in A New Hope prefigure what we will only come to learn in Episode VI, that she is Annakin’s daughter, and thus also gifted with an astronomically high mitichlorian count. In Episode V, we fleetingly learn that Jedi can return from the dead as ghost images to help guide their loved ones from beyond the grave, as Obi-Wan helps Luke travel to Yoda for his Jedi training.
In Rogue One, there are no ghost images, either of dead Jedi or projections of princesses by droids. Instead, the world is fully materialized. In the most violent of all the Star Wars films, the rebels sacrifice mightily to secure the plans that Princess Leia will shortly upload to R2D2. Almost all of the main characters in Rogue One die. Are they sacrificing themselves to aid the return of the Jedi? No, they are sharply focused on the retrieval of a material object, a shockingly large disk drive housed in the Empire’s central archive on the planet Scarif. Here, we witness a full-scale collapse of the spiritual onto the material. This eighth Star Wars film spends its entire second half in a bloody quest for a tangible object with absolutely no mystical powers.
Star Wars is set “long, long ago,” yet its denizens seem perfectly capable of technologies far more advanced than our own: planet-destroying space stations, powerful lasers, and ships capable of traveling at light speed). However, the concept of digital data storage in the cloud, an advancement of the early 21st century here on Earth, does not seem to have found its way to the Empire. In Rogue One’s action climax, heroes Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) retrieve the disk drive from the Imperial archive and beam the data up to the Rebel flagship. When Darth Vader arrives, he cripples and boards the Rebel ship. Our heroes fight in close proximity to Vader, at last struggling to pass a smaller diskette to Princess Leia’s ship, through a tiny crack in a broken door.
The technology to digitally transmit the data exists in the long ago world of Star Wars. There is no reason for the Empire to maintain a centralized data storage facility. Yet the film requires an hour-long bloody fight over the acquisition of the disk drive. The Empire’s archive represents the return to materiality with a vengeance. This, of course, is a cinematic requirement. We need to see things in order for the action in a movie to seem compelling.
However, something more than just the machinations of the cinema is afoot. More than any other Star Wars film, Rogue One demands that we sense the material consequences of the world Lucas built: to retrieve the plans for the Death Star, and to allow the return of the Jedi in the story arc of Luke Skywalker, many people had to spill their blood, as material a sacrifice as can be imagined. While not particularly coherent storytelling within the overall arc of Star Wars, the materialism of the second half of Rogue One makes for compelling cinema.