Why the Technology in Rogue One Is So Old-Fashioned

There is a reason the film’s machines seem stuck in the 20th century.

Lucasfilm / ILM

We expect certain storytelling forms to pay special attention to setting. Historical fiction spends a great deal of energy in recreating the past. Fan fiction does something similar for its source material. Science fiction and fantasy fans expect world-building. Rogue One, a combination of all of these forms, does this very well on multiple levels. It is, after all, science fiction, and the Star Wars universe has long had a strong fantasy vibe.

Being a work by other creators in a beloved franchise built by others, the movie is very much like fan fiction. And given the way the movie’s setting and plot slot into a specific timeline within the Star Wars universe, it’s pretty close to a work of historical fiction. Accordingly, we get meticulous recreations of shots, dialogue, plot points, sound tracks, characters, spacecraft and various other technologies, and two actors, one dead, the other aged nearly a half-century past her original performance.

The technological aspect tugged at my mind. The presentation of a galactic empire’s tech and infrastructure was staunchly retro, even reactionary.

To explain: David Edelstein notes that the movie “rehashes the plots of about a thousand World War II and/or Western films in which a brave squadron—a Magnificent Seven, a Dirty Dozen, a Force Five—prepares to sacrifice itself in the name of a greater cause.” That’s because the technology looks and acts like it’s from WWII. We see switches, cables, heavy doors, grenades, machine guns (“blasters”), a staff, and sniper rifles, but no radiation weapons or gamma ray bursters. Stormtroopers drive a truck, rather than enjoying, say, a zero-gravity trawler. Spaceships are there, but act entirely as fighter and bomber aircraft, or as naval warships. We never worry about the vast distances between stars, time dilation, the enabling technology, artificial gravity, or really anything at all about space travel.

Similarly, computers are basically typewriters and radio receivers. The movie’s main plot point, the Death Star plans, are essentially physical, not digital. They are stored as a physical object in a gigantic file system, then mostly passed from hand to hand. When they briefly act electronically, it’s as a radio transmission, often with specialized radio operators complete with giant headsets. There are very few mobile devices, and they don’t matter.

There is a robot companion, yes, K-2SO, but in the style of many robot depictions he is in practice a skilled human being. In appearance he resembles something from early Soviet technology, hulking and either non-anthropomorphic or actively hostile. He’s dieselpunk, not post-cyberpunk.

Speaking of cyberpunk, in Rogue One there is no sign of the communications world after the internet. There aren’t any networks. Nobody hacks anything or checks anything online. Coding doesn’t appear to be a thing. There seem to be few networked sensors, as when attack after attack surprises enemies who only detect them visually (i.e., no radar, no distributed sensor arrays). Documents are unique, it seems, and hardly copied. This is true even of military documents—ironic, given that one of the key motivators for creating ARPANET was preserving those very things. Weirdly, communication satellites don’t seem to exist, or at least matter.

The movie is even more retro than this WWII level when it comes to media.  There are no cameras or microphones. Nobody records, films, photographs, or surveils anyone else. When a hologram recording (in all ways a film strip) plays, nobody makes a copy. The one person who watched it simply remembers the gist, without bothering to shoot someone a copy or even write it down. In fact, there aren’t any media, either entertainment or news. You might expect a galaxy-spanning empire fighting an insurgency to have a serious propaganda effort under way. Instead it’s a semiliterate, nearly text-free realm.

(For comparison’s sake, consider the continuous stream of media populating Children of Men, now enjoying a 10-year anniversary. Newspapers, radio, television offer an ongoing stream of information about that world.)

Rogue One’s fierce techno-retro nature expresses itself in what we see of its world’s society and politics. Previous Star Wars movies described rebooted medieval and early modern sociopolitical structured lodged in interstellar space.  Hence an emperor rules an empire, and senators work alongside aristocrats and feudal power arrangements. Unlike, say, Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, where changes in technology made older structures functional again, Star Wars just ignored any technological impact to copy and paste pulpy history onto the future.

Rogue One continues this, unsurprisingly, with some updates towards the 19th and 20th centuries.  There’s the empire, of course, with its Lucas-born mix of Nazis and Ming the Merciless. Under its sway we see criminals, religious fanatics, and leftover warrior knights (Jedis, the Star Wars version of our world’s Teutonic Order). Family relations are also from the early 20th century, a classic nuclear family (only one child) anchoring the protagonist. Her gender roles are partly retro, too, as her mother matters far less than her father, and she risks her life and mission to save a child from a firefight.

Advanced technology has not extended lifespans or eased health problems.  There are no signs of genetic engineering, medicine beyond 1950 (other than whatever the heck was involved in the heroine’s mentor’s outfit), or starvation alleviated by improved nutrition or even replicators.  Cities are medieval/modern colonial in overcrowding and poor conditions. It is as if technology has been abstracted away from social life, or is arrogated to a powerful elite who otherwise keeps the populace in relative degradation. Perhaps the galaxy is run by a group of historical reenactors who insist everyone join their hobby in a kind of vast dystopia.

So why does Rogue One do this? Obviously it wants to hew to the original movies, mostly the first one and Empire Strikes Back, so the movie matches its technology with theirs. We get a nice echo of that late ’70s/early ’80s grungy technology vibe, as seen in, for example, Blade Runner and Alien. We don’t get screen-based keyboards, smartphone, or time dilation problems because the source material lacks them.

Beyond that formal reason, why would this fiercely retro approach appeal to today’s audience?  And appeal it does, with box office above $64 million as of today, per IMDB.

We could ask them same question about similarly retro steampunk, as others have done. The answers include a desire to flee what some see as daunting techno-complexity in our present day, responding to feelings akin to Toffler’s famed future shock. But steampunk is a distinctly different era, anchored on Victorian Britain, not the 1930s, not dieselpunk. People like steampunk for many other reasons, including the fashions, and, I think, a strong sense of appropriated cultural smugness.

No, Rogue One turns to the Second World War because it wants that struggle’s cultural cachet. Evoking WWII sets the movie up for epochal struggles, a strong good versus evil theme, a seamy resistance plot, and especially massive amounts of sacrifice and death—the very opposite of steampunk. I wonder how this appeals to an America a decade and a half into the global war on terror. Was the studio hoping to tap into residual anxieties about distant enemies and the burdens of empire? Were they counting on war-weariness somehow fading away?

I suspect the pre-internet technology milieu engages two audiences. For younger people who’ve grown up with some degree of digital immersion this must appear to be an exciting alternate dimension. Rogue One is in this way akin to vinyl records and postcards.  For older people (generalizing here) it’s nostalgia. Not only does it remind us of seeing the first movie back during the Carter administration, but is also recalls traces of the world we thought we once inhabited. The tangible tech, bereft of PowerPoint and sleek touch screens, reminds us of, say, shop class, working on cars, wiring up circuits. For both audiences Rogue One slyly connects with the maker movement.

Meanwhile, both audiences can enjoy the movie, then write about it on their smartphones as they leave the theater, checking Twitter and Facebook for friends’ opinions, and consulting Rotten Tomatoes for more reviews. Let’s see how this determined techno-nostalgia plays out in 2017’s popular culture.