Krennic: “We have the chance to bring peace and security.”
Galen Erso: “You say peace, I think you mean terror.”
Krennic: “Gotta start somewhere.”
The matters at hand in Rogue One are this: the Empire is in power, the Rebel Alliance is splintering, and hope for the opposition forces is starting to fade. A massive weapon, a planet killer, as they call it, is in development, and if the rumored potential for destruction is realized, surrender becomes a viable possibility for the rebellion.
There’s much at play in Gareth Edwards’ movie. Rogue One is the first stand-alone Star Wars film, part of what their calling the Anthology Series. A one-shot that pushes Star Wars into the realm of “cinematic universe.” Disney has more of these films in the works, including a young Han Solo film and a Boba Fett-inspired picture. But they’ve wisely started their experiment with an action-packed war film.
Rogue One does everything a Star Wars films asks of its creators. There are battles in space and on land; there is visual delight and innovation; there’s a moving story about a poor farmer making her way in the political wars of the wider world.
But Rogue One treads new territory, too. For starters, the film allows star turns for its spectacular cast. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna tangle terrifically in the action and manage their political speeches with aplomb. Both portray complete characters with convincing emotional arcs worthy of their payoff, something no Star Wars film has accomplished in a single film.
But more importantly, Rogue One acknowledges something that Star Wars has never been willing to embrace: rebellion is a nasty business. Edwards provides this realization early in Rogue One, when a heroic rebel meets with an informant, then murders him when the situation gets sticky. Luke Skywalker’s rebellion this is not. Rebellions are built, as Diego Luna says, on hope; but they also grow out of desperation and necessity. They grow out of the dim recognition that life as it is cannot be lived; that power wielded for power’s sake cannot tolerated; and that to oppose fascism, one must engage in terrible acts.
These elements are essential to Star Wars at large, but they carry particular emotional effect in Rogue One. This fact is partly serendipitous.
The film is quite good–visually stunning, lithely acted, romping with action—but director Gareth Edwards and writers Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz surely couldn’t predict just how pointed the film’s thematic and story elements would be when released this week. Rogue One went in to production in the summer of 2014, a lifetime ago, when no one knew who our would be the next president. Since then, voters elected Donald Trump, and by no effort of their own, Rogue One’s emotional and social carrying capacity grew enormously.
Even if Rogue One was a dud of a film, its central story–a fractured rebellion searching for a foothold to fight against a totalitarian regime–would satisfy an itch that is begging to be scratched. For a certain segment of the audience, Rogue One offers resolute comfort by embedding viewers in the trenches of a rebel army at war with a villainous government.
Even the casting choices help scratch that itch; the crew of heroes aboard Rogue One notably lacks a white man. Perhaps in doing so Disney and Lucasfilm proved their social bona fides, or laid bare their concern for returns in global markets. Or maybe it was the best group of actors to hit the auditions. Whatever reason this cast came together two years ago, the lack of white male heroes matters, today, for another reason. A woman leading team of POC insurgent revolutionaries against the White Man in Power, certain President-elect’s might find the prospect unsettling.
Such political musings are baked in the crust of our popular art. They always have been. Most political musings about Star Wars, reflect on Lucas’ references to World War 2. Rightly, too; Nazi influence is everywhere in the Empire. But Lucas also looked to his own time, and his own government, for his villains. A note Lucas made in 1973 described Star Wars as “A large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters,” or the Vietnam War. Read Lucas’ films–be it the original trilogy, or his much maligned prequel trilogy–with any level of criticism and one begins to see who the Empire really is, and what it means to stand up to our own imperial government.
The climate of the US at this moment in time is one of drawing lines and assembling the parties on each side of that line. Of parties determining what tactical decisions are best for opposing an incoming president with authoritarian interests of yet unknown potential. Whatever rooted Gareth Edwards’ politics while making Rogue One, hardly a viewer will be able watch it without elucidating contemporary parallels. In that way, despite the increased violence that Edwards brings this Star Wars Story, the director is embracing the spirit of Lucas’ franchise.
The satisfaction that Rogue One provides comes not so much from the gloom of American politics of the moment–which are always ripe for criticism–but from the endeavors of a corporate art-making institution making blockbusters. Rogue One is a testament to the value of our popular entertainments. Big blockbuster movies making broad claims about the failures of the American government are a vital part of the history of film.
Fantasy is the realm of myth and thematic resonance; reality is the place we find ourselves relentlessly stuck. Combine those two things, and you get art. Many blockbusters allow escape from this life, an admirable achievement not to be undervalued. Some reach for another level, simultaneously taking us from our lives while reflecting our stories back upon us. That Star Wars once again manages this task leaves little doubt to the achievements of George Lucas and his gang of merry moviemakers, making things up in parking lots in the 1970s. Distant as they may seem in today’s rearview mirror, Rogue One would be nothing without them. And the dawn of the Trump era would be a little worse without Rogue One.