In Praise of Star Destroyers

If you want to really win over an audience to a space opera, strong design on the starships is essential. So what was Star Wars’ answer? It was this:

This single short sequence is, by itself, of what cinematographic classics are made of! It defined the film by showing something no one had ever seen in incredibly grandiose fashion. If you but think of it, for a moment, a mile-long starship isn’t all that special – the biggest aircraft carriers are around this size! What raises it up into the heavens? Iconic design and inspired cinematography. The term icon tends to get through around a lot but, in the case of Star Destroyers, it is deserved. In terms of shot, there are all manner of ways to shoot that sequence but the way Lucas opted to do it ramps up the size and imbalance of the contest – there’s the small fleeing ship dwarfed by this behemoth we’ve just seen in its full majesty.

It also tells you all you need to know, at this point, about the bad guys – remember, Vader has yet to make his entrance as Villain Numero Uno – they have really big but cool ships. Lucas is aware of this so the rebels get the Falcon and X-Wings, but come on, given the choice, which would you go around the galaxy in? If you’re a hotshot driver, you go for the X-Wing; if you like fixing cars, it’s the Falcon, the safe option? Mile-long mobile fortress, with squadrons of TIEs and AT-ATs and able to slag any planet you don’t like.

Yet, at the same time, you know it wouldn’t feel right. For all you can say it’s just a pile of tech, there’s something malign in the aesthetics of a Star Destroyer. A bit too big, a bit too hulking, a bit too brute force, oh it’s seductive, but why does it need to be? Because at heart it’s a really ugly bastard! In this respect, the design is a clear invoking of the technology of Nazi Germany, who made some of the most lethal tanks of World War Two. Just as a TIE fighter can be seen as a future Stuka, complete with scream, so is a Star Destroyer a tank in space.

Arguably one of the reasons for why 2001’s Gamecube sold as well as it did was Star Wars. That system had one of the all-time great Star Wars games – Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader. What players found was, in addition to letting you blow up the Death Star in truly spectacular fashion, you also got to take on a Star Destroyer – and it proved to be a most lethal beastie indeed. After taking it on, most players had more respect for Rebel pilots:

Of course, jump forward a few years and The Empire Strikes Back! The key question for any sequel is how to surpass its predecessor? The answer was to show that the Empire was far from dead! One solution to this is to show a fleet of Star Destroyers! And then go one step further….

What the fuck is that? Come on, it’s easy, it’s a Super Star Destroyer! Size matters, you know? But, all jesting apart – and there have been many, many hours spent on the size of the thing – what the sequence establishes is that it is a behemoth in every sense. The audience saw how big Star Destroyers were in A New Hope, now they’re seeing those massive ships be utterly dwarfed! As a way of conveying the message, with crystal clarity, that the Empire means business, this sequence is perfect.

And before anyone asks, yes, 2003’s Star Wars: Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike on the GameCube did have a couple of Super Star Destroyer levels!

One of my key tests for an artist on a Star Wars comic that has Star Destroyers featuring is how well they do. Some do it passably well, others truly excel – those are the likes of Al Williamson, Cam Kennedy, Steve Crespo, but perhaps the crowning glory of recent years from the comics has to be Brandon Badeaux’s work below:

He then went and followed that up with one of the all-time great fleet battle depictions in the next issue of the series. But, then again, perhaps I should not have been surprised as this was what he did in the first one:

Very recently, it looks like Carlos D’Anda will be joining this elite group for his work on new Star Wars comic with Brian Wood.

Why does all this even matter? Because brilliant design stays in the minds of those who see it. After seeing a Star Wars movie, the audience should be hooked on the characters and what happens to them, but also be spellbound by the world they’ve just been immersed in for two hours. Strong ship aesthetics is a key part of that and, in a way, can be demonstrated by the lack of it in the prequel films – does anyone remember the starships of those films? No? Me neither. Star Destroyers do, therefore, deserve all manner of praise.

4 comments

  1. My favourite Star Destroyer moment comes in Enemy Lines, when Wedge turns the Lusankya on the planet to wipe out the Vong that thought they had conquered them. It’s an awesome moment that had a great build up of drama, and the aerial bombardment that we’d never really seen before…

    “We’re going to face them with an enemy they’ve never had the displeasure of fighting. We’re going to hit them with the Empire.”

  2. Nick Adams Nick Adams says:

    Great article Ben. However, now I suddenly have a urge to issue a rebuttal titled “In Praise of…. Mon Cal cruisers” or “In Praise of…. Rebel warships”. :-p

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