It feels like the buildup to Star Wars: The Force Awakens was only yesterday, but the marketing geniuses at Lucasfilm and Disney are thinking about the future — and the past. The first look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story dropped earlier today and it sent fans scurrying to find out as much as they can about the highly anticipated first chapter of the Star Wars anthology. Besides Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso being an immediate badass, Donnie Yen’s wannabe Jedi, and Forest Whitaker seeming to take on the wise old Obi-Wan-type role, the most interesting mystery about Rogue One seems to be the unnamed Imperial villain played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn.
Rogue One takes place just as the Empire is building the first Death Star, and tracks Jones’ character banding together with a rag-tag group of Rebels to steal the Imperial plans for their ultimate weapon. Fans speculated that the grey-haired Mendelsohn might be playing a slightly younger version of Grand Moff Tarkin, the sunken-faced villain from the 1977 original first portrayed by veteran British actor Peter Cushing. Until Lucasfilm decides to announce the names and identities of the rest of the characters, the already obsessive Star Wars fans of the world will be more than happy to use the brief hints of Mendelsohn’s white-caped bad guy from the teaser to try and figure out his identity. So the real question is, does Mendelsohn play Tarkin?
In a few words: no, probably not. When former Star Wars mastermind George Lucas and original costume designer John Mollo first envisioned the Nazi-like uniforms for the fascist Galactic Empire in 1977, they didn’t bother to actually be specifically consistent with each Imperial character’s design and ranks. They figured: throw a few multi-colored squares on a few different shades of a totalitarian-looking uniform and voila, you’ve got your bad guys. But the subsequent movies and the Expanded Universe thankfully made the Imperial ranks and uniforms in the rest of the series, well, uniform.
The ranks of Imperial officers can be determined by the insignia plaques worn on the left side of their uniforms, and also by the little things that look like oversized pens they wear in pockets near their shoulders called code cylinders. What they mean exactly should be left up to the Expanded Universe fiends, but if we’re using Tarkin’s duds from A New Hope as a superficial example, his “Grand Moff” rank and grey uniform features six blue squares above three red and three yellow. He also sports four code cylinders.
By contrast, besides the spiffy white cape, Mendelsohn’s character has six red squares above six blue squares with only two cylinders on a white uniform.
In Star Wars parlance, this basically means that Mendelsohn’s character is a Grabd Admiral of the Imperial Navy, as seen in the handy chart via Wookieepedia seen below. It should mark the first time we’ve seen the rank on-screen, as another notable Grand Admiral was Thrawn from author Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of books from the 1990s.
While Grand Moffs like Tarkin also display up to 12 squares, Mendelsohn’s character is most likely a powerful underling who perhaps had something to do with designing the Death Star. If he was Tarkin, it doesn’t seem like he just picked up a promotion or something along the way.
Additionally, Rogue One takes place just before A New Hope and will end with the Rebels seizing the Death Star plans. If he’s a lower-ranked Tarkin embroiled in all this, then why would the Empire give him a promotion to be the highest ranking officer on the fully armed and operational Death Star?
So who is Mendelsohn playing exactly? We’ll just have to wait and see.