Star Wars: Rogue One has a peculiar relationship with death

Grand Moff Tarkin - Peter Cushing
Star Wars: Rogue One created a digital Peter Cushing to reprise his role at Grand Moff Tarkin.

Warning: Lots of spoilers.

The movie Star Wars: Rogue One is a fun way to pass a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, especially if you’re a kid without much exposure to the Star Wars franchise. For anyone who has a bit more experience with the series, or who thinks much about storytelling, the movie can leave you scratching your head.

For one thing, viewers who know the characters and the plots starting with the original Star Wars (now called A New Hope) release in 1977 will spend much of their time puzzling out the way in which the plot line of Rogue One fits with the series arc. The screenplay by a multitude of writers does a good job of meshing with the rest of the Star Wars’ canon.

You can also spend a lot of cycles looking for the two dozen or so nuggets from other Star Wars films. In the process, you might lose a line of pithy dialog or miss a well-photographed shot. These “Where’s Waldo?” moments can be fun, or they can take you out of the total immersion that makes good storytelling an almost out-of-body experience.

The appearance of Cushing/Tarkin is nostalgic and eerie in the same moment.

The thing that strikes me about Rogue One is how it treats death, apart from the inevitable demise of characters in an action-adventure. First, director Gareth Edwards has digitally revived the character of Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the moon-like Death Star. Peter Cushing, the beloved British horror actor, played the villain in the original Star Wars film, but he died in 1994. Edwards felt his character was central to Rogue One’s story problem: How to steal the Death Star plans from the Empire.

The appearance of Cushing/Tarkin is nostalgic and eerie in the same moment. Experienced movie-goers will notice slight differences in speech patterns and the obvious, if amazing, animation. Young people who barely know him will probably see a well-drawn character from a video game.

(Princess Leia, played in the original film by a youthful Carrie Fisher, also appears at the end of Rogue One, digitally revived. In a tragic irony, she died on December 28, 2016, days after the film’s release.)

The other strange relationship to death is the demise of the heroine, Jyn Erso, as well as virtually all of her Magnificent Seven-like companions, leaving the villains, Tarkin and Darth Vader, alive, healthy, and prepped to face their next set of enemies, Luke Skywalker and Leia. In order for the series’ logic to make sense, all the “good guys” had to die, but can you name any other major Hollywood action movie where the black hats triumph (or at least don’t lose too badly) and the white hats end six feet under?

At the very least, Rogue One’s actors won’t enjoy a chance to perform in another Star Wars film, at least while alive. If Cushing’s case has a lesson, however, it’s that you might get cast in your old role long after you’re dead.

What’s your take on the digital resurrection of Peter Cushing?

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