The Art of Rogue One book sheds light on Jyn Erso’s character arc
There are major spoilers in this article if you haven’t seen Rogue One yet. Avoid spoilers and enjoy Star Wars stories for yourself, as they were intended. The Force is with you and you are one with the Force.
“Other directors stage action, but Gareth [Edwards] stages composition” — Doug Chiang, co-production designer on Rogue One
“You destroy me. You are good for me.” — Elle, Hiroshima Mon Amour
The Art of Rogue One by Josh Kushins is the perfect making of book from a pre-production perspective. Beautiful and inspiring, it is filled with so many incredible images and fascinating insights that it would be impossible for me to discuss them all here. There is of course no substitute to pouring over these pages yourself, so seek out a copy if you haven’t already. What I am going to do is focus on a particular aspect of the book: Jyn Erso’s character arc and how it is represented through the visual language of the settings in Rogue One.
A Visually Dramatic Place
John Knoll’s original seven page pitch — called Destroyer of Worlds — saw the movie as more of an ensemble piece. This started to change when Gareth Edwards came on board. “When I met Gareth for the first time, I remember him saying that he wanted to feel more of the character journey,” recalls Gary Whitta, who worked on early versions of the screenplay. “It was the difference between a plot and an emotional, character-based story.” This meant Jyn Erso becoming the emotional backbone of the narrative rather than simply the mission leader. Lucasfilm creative executive Rayne Roberts elaborates:
“[W]hen Gareth came in, he became very interested in telling a much more personal story about a singular protagonist. The hero was always a girl named Jyn, but Gareth wanted to explore her origins as the driving emotional engine for why she is completing this mission, now.”
Rogue One thus opens with a Star Wars movie first: a flashback to a key moment in Jyn’s childhood. Interestingly, Lah’mu was intended to present a vision of an idyllic childhood. The concept art utilised “bright, clear colours”, yet weather conditions in Iceland did not play ball. Persistent cloud cover necessitated a shift of location to the black sands on the edge of a glacier seen in the final film. It’s an evocative location and the bleak tones accentuate the action and mood of the narrative. Since the audience’s introduction to Lah’mu is via Krennic’s Imperial shuttle, I would argue that what was idyllic only moments ago (prior to the beginning of the movie) is no longer (as soon as the movie starts). If the weather had held, I suspect that those bright colours would have been muted within moments, with the palette darkening perceptibly. It still would have worked, but by having to contain a tonal shift it might have been less visually powerful. The final result was fortuitous and works into the intended visual scheme of Jyn’s arc perfectly:
“As she progresses and her purpose becomes clearer, the settings themselves become brighter — until the very end is staged in another idyllic environment, because her mind is clear.” — Doug Chiang
An elegant idea if ever there was one. Scarif was not designed as a visual counterpoint to the darkness inherent in the story’s ending, but rather as a representation of Jyn’s clarity of mind and purpose. The perpetual night and punishing rain on Eadu can therefore be viewed as a representation of her inner turmoil when she finds and loses her father, although he is no longer lost to her. It is on Eadu that Jyn is at a crossroads. After that, she gains purposefulness. The storm recedes.
“Very early on, Gareth wanted to set the end battle in a very dramatic place — visually dramatic. He wanted to create a tropical paradise, because he wanted Jyn’s story arc to land her in a bright and crystal clear location, to show that she’s now completely clear about her mission.” — Doug Chiang
This is at odds with conventional modern blockbuster wisdom, where many third acts end up cast in gloom. Conversely, such finales mostly see our heroes live to fight another day. It works when it works of course — a movie like The Dark Knight is at least consistently in the shadows — but so many movies get it wrong.
Scarif is a new idea, yet in keeping with George Lucas’s approach — as memorable planetscapes go, it is right up there with the best of them. I’m no fan of James Cameron’s Avatar, but it perhaps bears mentioning here. Pandora is another idyllic world, albeit one which serves an entirely different narrative purpose. The two couldn’t be more different, although each clearly expresses the intent of their respective filmmakers. (That may well be the nicest thing I have ever said about Avatar!)
The beauty and serenity of Scarif serves a further purpose. We get to witness first hand the Empire’s technological stamp upon a planet which hasn’t yet had all of its resources stripped. However, that is merely the destructive appetiser before the Death Star strikes. The blossoming mushroom cloud is terrifying within the story, but also outside of the frame with its obvious nuclear parallels. Jyn has achieved what she set out to do. Purpose achieved, she must now accept an end of all things. The landscape is wiped away as the explosion tears through the frame, as tears roll down our faces.
Jyn and Cassian holding onto each other at the end of the world — a paradise about to be lost — brings to mind Don McKellar’s Last Night. Although not in terms of imagery or scale. It’s a Canadian indie picture from 1998 about the end of the world, with people trying to make a human connection before it’s too late. Similarly there is no get out clause for the characters, although unlike Rogue One there is no hope at all in Last Night. Rogue One also makes one consider what happens after the bomb. Here I am drawn to Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. Shot in black and white, employing a narrative-defying structure, there is no possible comparison of art schemes or staging. Yet there are quietly convincing parallels nonetheless:
“Is Hiroshima mon amour the story of a woman? Or is it the story of a place where a tragedy has occurred? Or of two places, housing two separate tragedies, one massive and the other private?” — Kent Jones, from an essay accompanying Criterion Collection’s 2003 release of Hiroshima Mon Amour
Rogue One is the story of Jyn Erso and the story of a galaxy where a tragedy has happened and will happen again if nothing is done about it. She does something about it. Character and story are boldly and subtly complemented by the visual design, resulting in a work of popular art for the ages.
The Art of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Josh Kushins, and Lucasfilm Ltd. © Abrams Books, 2016