Science fiction aesthetics have evolved immensely over the past few decades, from the chromium plated ‘50s a la The Jetsons, to the industrial grunge of the ‘80s, all the way to the present day, when Apple’s streamlined design permeates much of how we depict the future. So when a film like Rogue One gets made today, actively recreating the sci-fi aesthetics made popular in the ‘80s, we’re actually looking at a period piece. Rogue One will not only point to a specific time in the Star Wars universe. It’s also a visual callback to a time when science fiction worlds looked a certain, now-antiquated, way.
Disney wields its Star Wars property like a precision weapon, knowing exactly where to hit its collective fandom to reap maximum benefits. Star Wars: Force Awakens bulls-eyed everyone’s sense of nostalgia, perhaps a little too hard. Rogue One’s recent trailer did largely the same, but with an added edge.
One of the pleasures of watching the new trailer was seeing just how much of the old trilogy’s visual and narrative components were still plainly on display. Mon Mothma, stormtroopers classic armor, Box Robot! This is different than seeing Harrison Ford’s Han Solo appear at the end of the first few Force Awakens trailer. This revealed touched on a very different part of the Star Wars nostalgia, one that Disney helped create in concept art. That is, Rogue One stands to recreate the actual “look” of Star Wars, the way it appeared to our parents.
For all the gripes about how similar the story of Force Awakens and Star Wars: A New Hope overlap, the movie did look distinct. The films were shot with a modern sensibility, and the overall visual aesthetics of the film was a marked departure from the original trilogy. Costume designer Michael Kaplan even went on record to say that his designs for the new stormtroopers were based on what Apple might have done.
He’s right, of course. The Force Awakens was, artistically, a decidedly modern Star Wars reboot. For all of its visual callbacks and returning characters, the film looked like a different time in the universe. Rogue One however, doesn’t, and the nostalgia for that classic look only really became apparent after Force Awakens released. So, describing Rogue One as a period piece, as LucasFilm story group head Kiri Hart does, means Disney will recreate a film which looks like a somewhat dated vision of science fiction.
Sci-fi is a genre with an unlimited possibilities for visual language. There’s the neon noir of cyberpunk, the Victorian-era look of steampunk, and the new age futurism of bio-punk. In film, those visual separations are much easier to dissect. There’s the old retro aesthetic seen today in game’s like Fallout 4, to the grungy junkyard look of the 80s, when films like Alien, Bladerunner, and Empire Strikes Back succeeded. Compare those dirty future looks with today’s sci-fi offerings, where both Ex Machina and Star Trek look like they’re set in an Apple store. It’s why watching the Rogue One trailer today hits viewers so powerfully, they are looking at a style of sets, costumes, and robots that just hasn’t really been seen in almost 20 years.
This new market — of fully actualizing the look of genre films from prior decades — could be the creative step films will need to take, if they keep producing sequels, prequels and reboots in today’s film culture. Take 2012’s Prometheus, a weird maybe-prequel to the whole Alien franchise. For a film that decidedly takes place in a time way before the first Alien ever happens, the film sure looked like it was made in 2012. While the dark grey atmosphere of the original films remained intact, the ship designs, uniforms, and creatures all looked like something that would exist way after the original films ended. It was one of the main reasons for the confusion regarding Prometheus place in the Alien timeline, and a jarringly unaware mistake for the filmmakers.
Fast-forward to 2014’s Alien: Isolation, a canon videogame that lets you play as Ripley’s biological daughter, 15 years after the original Alien movie takes place. The game takes place on a large spaceship not unlike the Nostromo, and it is considered one of the best Alien stories out there. Part of its success, was the smart decision to recreate the look of the original Alien film. The clothes, ship design, technology, all of it painstakingly brought to life for a new chapter in the Alien story.
Rogue One is set to follow this example. Instead of imagining a potentially new look for an established time period within the Star Wars universe, the film should simply expand horizontally along the aesthetics already established. The Prometheus sequel, or reboot of the Star Trek series currently being developed should also take note.
If the film industry continues this trend of rebooting classic sci-fi franchises, they would do well to look at Alien: Isolation and Rogue One. Instead of re-imagining iconic aesthetics, they should simply consider bringing the same gorgeous visuals back to life.