Nov 302015

Even after the prequel trilogy, I still have fond memories of going to see the original Star Wars with my uncle. I plan to do the same with my nephew and niece this holiday season. From what I’ve seen in the trailers and commercials, there’s cause for cautious optimism: a race and gender diverse cast, a world that returns to the tactile, lived in quality of the original trilogy, plus things that don’t need changing, like John Williams’ score.

There is, however, one thing I’m a little suspicious of. I refer specifically to what is clearly intended to be the breakout, cute character of the new trilogy.

I refer, of course, to BB-8. I am increasingly convinced there is more to this little automaton than meets the eye, and we all should be suspicious of him/her/it(?).

You have to understand what a technical accomplishment the original Star Wars trilogy was. George Lucas came out a film geek background, and arguably the original trilogy is the boilerplate Campbellian hero’s journey used as a framework for his experimentation in film-making, art design, and sound design. You could write a book just on the sound of things in Star Wars: the hum of lightsabres, the screech of TIE fighters, the musicality of alien languages. For me, the most effective moment in the entire prequel trilogy was when Annakin was sealed inside the Vader armor and takes his first breath, and we hear that rasping “huuuuh-kaaaaah” sound. I had chills in that one moment.

That attention to detail and them comes through in the visuals too. Notice, for example, that the machines and locations associated with good-guys tend to be asymmetrical. E.g. the offset cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

Or the all-nose design of the X-wing fighter.

Or the even more unbalanced design of the B-wing fighter.

By comparison, the Empire and its forces prefer simple, highly symmetrical shapes, like the Star Destroyer:

Or the interior of the detention block:

The Imperial TIE fighter is even more symmetrical, with a spherical cockpit and hexagonal “solar panels”.

The storm trooper armor simplifies and homogenizes the human form, fitting this aesthetic.

In the Star Wars universe, the simpler and more symmetrical an object is, the more aligned with evil it is. Witness the nearly spherical interrogator droid:

And, of course, the planet-destroying Death Star, almost a perfect sphere.

So, given the precedent established of spherical objects, you’ll have to excuse me for being a little suspicious of BB-8.

There is an obvious visual antecedent in R2-D2. We tend to think of rounded things as cute, probably due to their resemblance to babies and other mammalian young. R2 also speaks in electronic beeps, suggestive of baby-talk or small animals, which BB-8 does too. They also share the combination of primarily white colours mixed with vibrant trim, blue versus orange. The film is trying to set up BB-8 as R2-D2’s even cuter next generation.

Still, the fact that BB-8 goes so against the established visual language of the universe makes me pause. Either the new Disney-Abrams regime knows what they are doing and are deliberately setting us up for a face-heel turn from what will probably be the hottest toy of Christmas 2015, or they just didn’t put the same kind of thought into design and visuals that Lucas did back in the late 1970s.

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