Does Rogue One Feel Like Star Wars?
One of the more subtle elements of genius in the original Star Wars trilogy was their ability to touch upon many of the most prevalent cultural and political experiences of both the generation coming of age in the seventies, and their parents before them. The parallels to the Second World War are the most commonly talked about, the connections are not limited to a global catastrophe that happened over thirty years prior. The decade leading up to 1977 was marked by continued fear surrounding weapons of mass destruction, authoritarian dictators, conflicts of imperialism against underdogs, and a swelling desire for rebellion. Rather than a democratic body pitted against an imperialist regime, Star Wars presents a rag tag band of rebels and hippies as the antagonist to the authoritarian, bureaucratic, and largely political Empire. This allows the Empire to become for the viewer, that which they wish to rebel against, be it general communism, the U.S.S.R, or the growing power and corruption of the American government. And in a more timeless way, Star Wars invites us to rebel against the generation that has come before. The shot of Luke looking over the sands of Tatooine and at the two stars has become iconic largely because it defines the modern outlook of a people looking for something greater, beyond the family homestead. Star Wars is the embodiment of everyone who is intoxicated by the idea of moving away to find a new life and a grand adventure.
I note this because reviews about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards, have been mixed, to say the least. And I do not think that all of the negative criticism of the film is off. This film certainly has its problems from a writing, direction, and editing perspective. But one of the more common criticism I have heard levied against Rogue One, with which I take issue, is that it does not have the feeling of a Star Wars movie. Namely, they claim that it ventures too far from the fantasy and adventure elements of the other films. Of course, these elements are not entirely abandoned. The inclusion of the Kyber crystals in the Jedi temple, the relationship of the every-praying Chirrut Îmwe and ever-skeptical Baze Malbus, and the allusions to the conflict that is larger than our characters adventure certainly add to the aura and mythos of the film. But instead of a science fiction space opera adventure, Rogue One presents the viewer with a story focused on war, rebellion, and the nature of hope in both. Other Star Wars films take war as the backdrop to a hero's journey. Rogue One takes war as its subject, and focuses on how that affects our heroes. Further, as a war movie and a stand alone film, our connection to the characters can only last for a single film, which allows for a darker Star Wars story than we've ever seen before, and may even be the Star Wars story that we need.
If we then accept that this is a war film, rather than a fantasy science fiction adventure, it must inevitably follow more of the tropes and focus on more of the themes of the latter rather than the former. One of the places Rogue One works best with these themes is in the central focus on hope. “Rebellions are built on hope” is the thesis that echoes throughout the core of the film. It is juxtaposed with the Marvin-esque, probability calculating droid K-2SO, always informing our heroes of the mathematical odds of their certain demise, and often proven wrong by our heroes holding onto hope against the odds. Concurrently to the theme of hope comes the idea of sacrifice, which in Rogue One takes the form of choosing the impossible odds of survival in hope that some good comes of it. As such, and typical to war films with a sacrificial mission at their center, our relationship with the characters, and in turn, their development, is tinged by their eventual sacrifice. There has to be a proper balance of connection and distance between the viewer in the characters, so that their deaths are saddening but not disheartening. We want to walk away from the film feeling hopeful and that the characters are justified in their choices, which Rogue One handles really well. One of the best sequences in the film is that final sequence in the hallways of the ship, where the soldiers pass the plans from one person to another, as Darth Vader cuts through their ranks. The tension is increased (if the viewer is able to ignore their knowledge of the other films) as the chance that our hero’s sacrifice was for not is increased. That final moment, where the plans are handed off to Leia is a sigh of relief, and the last triumph of hope in the face of sacrifice.
Where Rogue One diverts from the typical war film, and from what war film elements can be found in the original trilogy, is in its focus on what motivates the characters engagement in the conflict. Motivation is at the heart of the dilemmas that surround Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. Recognizing the evils of the Empire, but feeling abandoned by the rebellion, Jyn has taken on a sort of political apathy. This is expressed in an exchange between her and Saw Gererra, the man who took care of her for so long and brought her up in the rebellion after her father sacrifice, only to abandon her at age sixteen, in fear that she could become a hostage. When he asks her if she would rather see the Empire's flag flying across the galaxy than help the Rebellion, she remarks that it is not a problem if you keep your head down. Opposite this political apathy is the motivations of Cassian, who lost his parents at a young age and believes wholly in the rebellion. His almost blind adherence to the orders of the Rebellion even makes him quick to kill if those are the orders, which Jyn points out, makes him no better than a Storm Trooper. Both of these character, and many of the other characters find themselves amidst a cause which their parents believed in, and that ultimately took their parents from them, and therein lies the primary conflict. Do they join the conflict that they hate, perpetuating it further, but trying to do what is right; or do they keep their heads down and end the conflict that ruined their lives by non-engagement at a cost that they choose to ignore? Ultimately, the heroes choose to do what is right, even if that means perpetuating conflict, but never doing so blindly or without an understanding of what is truly right and wrong.
However, more central to the question of whether or not this has the feeling of a Star Wars movie is that the dilemmas they face are perfectly analogous to those which many people of my generation face today. Our parents, and their parents, and even their parents have been involved in almost a century of conflict and war, the likes of which has resulted in weapons of mass destruction, genocide, destruction of religious sites, human rights violations, etc. Additionally, the corruption and atrocities of governments both democratic and authoritarian are enough to dissuade many from political involvement, and cause the same sort of political apathy that Jyn expresses in the beginning of the film. Our generation no longer wants to participate in perpetuated conflict or corrupt politics. But we also realize that simply vocalizing our dissatisfaction does eliminate these systems or their consequences. To some end, these systems require internal action to be ended. In the end, perhaps the lesson of Rogue One holds up. Perhaps all we can do is what we know to be right and what will reduce the human suffering in the world. We are not so fortunate as to have parents who plotted their revenge against conflict and corruption, planting thermal exhaust ports that can cause a chain reaction of destruction with a couple of proton torpedoes. All we can do is have a clear understanding of what is good and what is wrong, and act on the former as best we can.
Just after the famous words in gothic font "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." dissolve from the screen, I was shocked at the absence of a title crawl, or that unmistakable John Williams fanfare that puts you into the Star Wars frame of mind. But the choice to leave out the crawl, and leave in the famous words is meaningful. This is not going to feel like the other films, where the our heroes will have the sort of adventure, romance, and triumph of the high fantasy space opera. As a war film, the darker tones are incompatible with the triumphant horns. Further, the context of this film should not be read, but seen and felt. Rather than leaving the parents a mystery, the hallmark of the other Star Wars films, our first moments in this world are bearing witness to the death of Jyn's mother, and the sacrifice that her father makes. The emotions felt as we see a young Jyn, cramped in a tiny bunker, tears streaming, could not properly be conveyed with words. But as a catalyst for Jyn’s motivation in the film, they are the most important context for the story of her transformation and eventual sacrifice. The words of her father “What I do, I do for you” echoes as we see her sacrifice carry out her father's revenge against the Empire.
But the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." retain their original function, and thus remain at the beginning of the film. They put the world of Star Wars in the context of our own world. “Ago” and “away” draw comparatives between us and them, making these films seem more like the history of a galaxy that we could travel to, if we could only travel far, far away. And in that connection, we find that the irony of these words holds just as true for Rogue One as it did a long time ago when the first film entered theatres. Though there are differences between the details of our world, the world of Jyn Erso, the world of the 1970’s, and the world of Luke Skywalker, the characters in the world of Star Wars experience the same struggles and conflicts that we face in our lives on earth. And it is that kind of social and political awareness that makes Rogue One feel quintessentially like a Star Wars film.