Did we think, at the end of the very first Star Wars movie, that Luke Skywalker was a hero? He was nothing. Nothing.
Okay, not nothing. But, as Rogue One reveals with brutal clarity, Luke’s lucky Force-assisted like–bulls-eying–womprats bombing run at the Death Star was only the final link in a very long chain of people doing way more brave and way more daring things. Everything we see here is happening immediately prior to the events of A New Hope. What happens here is what is alluded to in the first movie’s opening crawl: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon…” That sounds awesome, doesn’t it, and kinda like no big deal? “Pfft, no sweat, here are those plans you wanted.” But that’s not how it was at all. The Rebellion’s “new hope” came at a very high price in pain and blood.
I was initially worried when we first heard the news that director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) was doing reshoots on Rogue One to lighten the tone. If this is the lighter version… *phew.*
Don’t judge Stormtrooper Kevin. He’s away from home for the first time and being a soldier is stressful.
Now, there is genuine geeky Star Wars fun here. One key element of Rogue One’s plot is a brilliant retcon of something that felt like a niggling but fundamental problem at the very heart of A New Hope: Oh, really, there’s a very convenient flaw in the Death Star design? How lucky for the Rebellion! (Turns out it was not a matter either of convenience or of luck.) We visit planet after planet of beautiful landscapes. (Can’t quite call ’em “alien,” though, because this was all shot on Earth. The most dramatic planet here? It’s just Iceland. Which, granted, does not have those gorgeous planetary rings hanging in the sky.) We visit city after city teeming with populations of creatures so strange and wonderful that you’ve barely taken in the strangeness and the wonderfulness of one of them before a dozen more catch your attention. (I am reminded of Arthur Dent marveling at the dining room at Milliway’s in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “The things… the people…” And Ford Prefect reminds him that “the things are also people.”) The antiseptic cleanliness and digital perfection of Coruscant and Naboo of the second trilogy is gone, and Rogue One takes us back to the rough-and-tumble jury-rigged aesthetic of the original films: this is a lived-in universe where things fall apart and get put back together, where even amidst theoretically infinite natural resources stuff gets reused and recycled. There are tons of throwbacks to the original trilogy, sometimes in how Edwards uses one of the franchise’s familiar visual tropes to trick you into thinking you’re seeing something that turns into another thing entirely. There are appeances from characters we’ve met before (though there are minor issues in how some of those were pulled off). Some throwbacks are completely undisguised and wholly reveled in, like everything about the Rebel base on the moon of Yavin (a major setting for the film), from the 70s-esque hairstyles to the gritty functionality of the Rebels’ equipment (nothing is shiny, like the Empire’s stuff). Absolutely everything up on the screen is thrilling to the eye and to the nerd gland. You want to linger everywhere forever.
Still… there is no comic relief here, no goofy sidekicks, no Laurel-and-Hardy droids. The only humor at all comes via K-2SO (the voice of Alan Tudyk: Moana, Zootopia), the reprogrammed Imperial droid who serves as a sort of Chewbacca to Rebel scoundrel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna: Blood Father, The Book of Life)… and K2 is all cynical snark, pure sarcasm on metal legs. (As for Cassian, he always shoots first. Including sometimes when he maybe shouldn’t. There’s certainly nothing jokey in his behavior, like how we might have sniggered at Han shooting Greedo.) It’s only a very bitter brand of humor to be found in Rogue One.
The Star Destroyer hung over Jedha City in much the same way that bricks don’t.
And then we have Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones: Inferno, True Story). She is no privileged princess. She is no naive farmboy. We first meet her, very briefly, as a small child, but our introduction to her as an adult comes as she is being transferred from an Imperial prison to an Imperial workcamp (the horrors of which we are left to imagine, thank the Maker). We have no idea what she did to end up in such places, and we never learn. Her closest analogue to the characters we already know and love is more Han Solo than anyone else: she is, at first, only very reluctantly drawn into Rebel intrigue, and only because the Rebels will dump her right back into Imperial custody (from which they sprang her) if she doesn’t help them. Anyway, they need her for a brief, specific task along the road to defeating the Empire, and then she can be on her way. Of course she never gets on her way, because everything about her experience changes her, transforms her from someone only looking out for herself to a woman who suddenly sees a bigger — much bigger — picture, one that she can help change for the better.
It astonishes me that anyone — such as, ahem, Disney head Bob Iger — can say that Star Wars isn’t political, because it always has been. But even if it hadn’t been before, the entire ethos of Rogue One is overtly political. People talk about politics here, and all of the key decisions they make are reactions to the political situation in which they are living. The machinations of its plot are a foregone conclusion: we are in no suspense whatsoever that Jyn and Cassian and their team will succeed in retrieving those Death Star plans. So what’s at stake here, from our perspectives as outsiders looking in on a larger story on which we have a much wider view than its characters do, is personal. (Rogue One really is fan fiction like no other movie in any franchise ever has been.) How will these characters play the cards they are dealt, and what will that mean for them, never mind for the Galaxy? (We already know the Galaxy will be fine.) For Cassian, it’s about being so far gone down the rabbit hole of his cause, having done things he’s not proud of, that not to see it through and ensure the right ending would render his own bad behavior moot. For Jyn, it’s about simply starting to care about politics in the first place: she thinks that if you keep your head down, it doesn’t matter. And then she discovers that it’s impossible to keep your head down. She thinks you can avoid caring about politics: but you can’t when it is in your face like this.
Watching Rogue One, I had a similar feeling to what it was like to watch the first Lord of the Rings movie a few months after 9/11: Frodo lamenting that he wished the Ring had never come to him, and Gandalf reminding him that’s how everyone feels when the shit hits the fan but ya gotta buck up and figure out how to handle it… that was like a smack in the face, in a bracing way, like a cold wind that wakes you up and stiffens your resolve (as it would later do for Frodo). Of course Peter Jackson could never have imagined that a wholly invented magical fantasy would have such resonance in the 21st century. And Rogue One director Gareth Edwards (and screenwriters Chris Weitz [Cinderella, The Golden Compass], Tony Gilroy [The Bourne Legacy, State of Play], John Knoll [a visual FX artist making his writing debut], and Gary Whitta [The Book of Eli]) could not have imagined that their little sci-fi fanfic would feel like it is speaking specifically to us today. Such resonances say less about these movies, however, than they do about the state of the world today. Are we up against Mordor and the Empire? If the jackboot fits…
“I’m Orson Krennic, and I buy all my capes at Evil Supply Unlimited. Only on the Death Star, level 14, section 3. Closed on Sundays.”
Rogue One reminded me too, oddly enough, of Miss Sloane: maybe even the good guys need to consider fighting dirty sometimes. Even among the Rebellion, Jyn and Cassian and the small team they gather around them are outsiders, a ragtag group even in the ragtag Rebellion, and includes a defector Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed: Jason Bourne, Nightcrawler), whom almost no one trusts, as well Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen: Shanghai Knights, Highlander: Endgame), who isn’t a Jedi but more sort of warrior monk and “fool” for the Force, and his protector and sidekick, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who are the most irregular of irregular soldiers. And nothing of importance here would have happened if they’d obeyed orders: it’s only when they strike off on their own while the leadership of the Rebellion is squabbling among itself that shit starts to get done in a big way. When even the forces of light and hope are fractured, and cannot agree on what to do… that’s when the rogues and scoundrels need to step up.
And of course Rogue One is political in a meta sense, with its wonderful diversity in casting. Of course that is political. It wouldn’t be if the world — including Hollywood — treated everyone who isn’t white and male with the same courtesy and benefit of the doubt that white men get, but it doesn’t. The heroes of this story are women (mostly white, alas) and nonwhite men; the villains are white men, like Imperial science officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn: Mississippi Grind, Slow West), who is overseeing the completion of the Death Star. (Note to alt-right dudes: If you don’t want the powerful villains to always be white men, work to support women and nonwhite men getting to positions of power where they can do evil, too.) It’s really, really obvious in a way that it wouldn’t be in another similar movie that when Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen: Doctor Strange, The Salvation) — the engineering genius behind the Death Star, and also Jyn’s father — shows up with his team of Death Star engineers, they are all middle-aged and old white men. It’s such a blinding contrast to the Rebellion, and even beyond the Rebellion to the “militant” “extremist” Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker: Arrival, Southpaw) and his very diverse gang, whom Rebel leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly: The Legend of Tarzan, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) shudders to think about having to work with. And while the Rebellion may be pretty diverse, the white men among the Rebel characters are never more than support for the heroes. This is astonishing, and delightful.
(The film is pretty speciesist, though: all the main characters are human, with no nonhuman meatbag people among them, though plenty in supporting roles. And there’s even only just one token droid among the central characters, in K-2SO, a step back from the original films, which at least nodded at robot diversity with its two radically different machine intelligences in R2-D2 and C-3PO. Still, baby steps.)
George Lucas’s taxation of trade routes and freedom dying to thunderous applause of the second Star Wars trilogy, while clearly political, wasn’t like this: personal, and immediate, and even intimate. Rogue One may be happening a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it feels a lot more like here and now than its trappings would suggest. And that only makes it even more potent. This may be the best Star Wars movie ever, maybe because the fantasy of it doesn’t seem as remote as it once did.