By: Daniel Reynolds
So as to burnish his counterculture credentials in 2005, George Lucas said sure, you could totally view his Star Wars films through a political lens. The Emperor and his Empire were the Nixon administration, the Rebellion a stand-in for what was left of the flower power generation who stood opposed. (In this comparison, Bea Arthur represents Bea Arthur.) If that assessment feels like a stretch today, that’s because it is. Lucas, borrowing from old 1930’s serials, Akira Kurosawa, and Joseph Campbell-ian hero’s journey black-and-white morality, was almost certainly not thinking about Richard gotdamn Nixon when he dreamt up Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and his mythic galactic universe. Let’s be real.
This is what made Disney CEO Bob Iger’s recent statement about the new Star Wars film Rogue One so curious. “It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film,” he said. “There are no political statements in it, at all.” He was attempting to downplay the words of one of the film’s writers, Chris Weitz, who was quick to remind everyone that the Empire is a “white supremacist (human) organization.” To which, duh, but also: very topical thank you very much. (Let’s leave aside the fact that the Rebellion of the original Star Wars trilogy was mostly white and human too. Whoops!)
As directed by relative newcomer Gareth Edwards, we are left with a question: Is Rogue One a political film or not? Having seen it, I can say with confidence: definitely, yes. And, as it turns out, this is a welcome thematic element to add to the Star Wars universe, something which — much like the film itself — I didn’t know we needed until we got it. No wonder George Lucas is a fan.
Unlike every other Star Wars film, there is no opening text crawl in Rogue One. We see instead a visual prologue. The Imperial science officer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), hiding out as a farmer, is paid a visit by erstwhile pal Lieutenant Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). It’s not a friendly pop-in. Krennic wants Erso to come back to the Empire to help design and build a new superweapon for him. Now, some of this does feel vaguely familiar (the farm hideout, the Death Star reference) but, as with the absence of the text crawl (and perfect-fifth intro score), Rogue One is appreciably different. That the film’s centre Jyn (played by young Dolly Gadson and then Felicity Jones), Galen’s daughter, watches this entire confrontation happen only to find herself years later in an Imperial prison should be proof enough of that. This is a Star Wars film minus the wide-eyed adventure; there are no kisses for luck.
Rogue One‘s characters instead are all moving along arcs of radicalization. Jyn is largely beaten down at the film’s outset, lost and alone. She hasn’t seen her father since that fateful opening scene; nor has she been in contact with the guerrilla leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), her stand-in dad. Now based on Jedha, an occupied planet, Saw combats the Empire’s influence as an increasingly unhinged voice in the wilderness. (I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Gerrera is awfully close to Guevara.) Likewise, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Rebel spy and infiltrator, who selflessly does terrible things (like shooting first) for the Alliance. He’s in charge of tracking down the defector Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), the jittery man who may have valuable intel regarding the Death Star. This gang recruits a couple of aimless monks, Chirrut and Baze (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang), believers in the Force and heavy weaponry respectively, to fill out its ranks. Even the droid of the party, Cassian’s partner K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), is off — he’s a reprogrammed Imperial robot, one that can calculate the odds with a lot less empathy than we’re used to. These are some broken hard-cases is my point, and they’re looking for a cause to believe in.
In response, director Edwards moves these pieces across the broad space of the Star Wars universe with martial purpose. Without going into particulars, just know the Rogue One crew comes together as an unlikely spearhead for attack. Using the language of a war film, Rogue One gives us a sense of the growing conflict between the desperate Alliance and the all-powerful Empire. There was much snickering on the Internet when this Vox piece and its unfortunate headline made the rounds, but it’s not wrong — this is the first Star Wars film to capture the violence of war, and its cost. A first half action setpiece drives this point home. We see blaster fire and explosions, sure, but also a crying child amidst the dirt and wreckage. It’s a small touch, but one that adds a dreadful dimension to the film. (Not for nothing: the terrific climactic battle takes place on a beach, only the most historically resonant setting for some good warring.) And before you say the previous Star Wars films have tried for these images too, try to remember the context. The prequels feel like they happen in a CGI vacuum; the original trilogy meanwhile has scorched bodies and then never gets that serious again.
That strict militaristic pace — to say nothing of the much publicized re-shoots — does cause the film to lose a bit of its humanity though. It’s clear the re-writes (with Weitz and legendary script doctor Tony Gilroy) did change the momentum and direction in Rogue One. For proof, just think about how many scenes in the trailers didn’t make it into the final film. While I’m sure every effort was made to smooth over the rough edges, and the film’s moral complexity is laudable, the seams sometimes show. And it’s the characters of Rogue One who are often left exposed. This starts at the top with Jyn. For her part, Jones brings emotion to the role, but the character isn’t particularly well-defined outside of the narrative points that come to dictate her actions. Luna, on the other hand, is given some richer material to work with but doesn’t quite have the dangerous charm required for the role of Cassian. The rest of Rogue One’s crew ably supports the plot but doesn’t make as strong an impression as one would like. (Though Yen’s blind warrior act is fun.) The exception here is Tudyk’s K-2SO, who is given all of the film’s best lines. On the dark side, Mendelsohn does controlled villainy better than most, so he’s easy to watch and root against as the aspirant Krennic; Darth Vader and James Earl Jones are always welcome; and while digital Peter Cushing may drive some to anger, I had no problem absorbing his “role” as Governor (not Grand Moff?) Tarkin in the film. We’ve seen weirder stuff in a Star Wars film, to be honest.
This brings us back to a uniquely wild Star Wars character, Saw Gerrera, and the legitimately bizarre energy Whitaker brings to the performance. In a sense, Saw is the Obi-Wan Kenobi analogue for Rogue One. He is the wise, strong man in the desert who is sought for advice. Owing to the tenor of the film however, he is not kindly, but instead deranged. This speaks again of the film’s loaded political context and visual themes which are impossible to ignore. Saw’s city of Jedha is considered holy. Its inhabitants all have the look of “other,” even within a Star Wars context. The production design — which is sharp and wondrous throughout — makes it clear: this could be an interstellar Iraq. (And what is a Death Star if not a weapon of mass destruction?) For the first time we really see the day-to-day effect the Empire has as an occupying force in the galaxy. Here they strip-mine resources and plunder sacred land for their own nefarious ends; it is straight-up colonization. And as much as Disney would like to deny it, or Lucas would like to claim it, Rogue One actually asserts it. Yes, the conclusion steers us back into Star Wars-land, with a pulse-pounding triple-layered climax, but those images remain.
So, does Star Wars need politics to be relevant? The lazy answer is still no. But before frame one of Rogue One had even been revealed it was already making statements. The diverse cast — shout out to entire scenes with no white human characters! — and central female protagonist speak volumes as to where this new chapter of Star Wars is heading. There will always be the pull of nostalgia on its side, and questions of what is appropriate for everyone’s favourite sci-fi fantasy epic. But there’s been enough pointless bickering about what Star Wars could and should be, and it would have been very easy for Disney to sit back, play it safe, and count their money; they’re their own cultural empire, remember. It’s not nothing then for Edwards to create this film in that kind of shadow, and to stock the film with enough visual firepower so as to draw the attention of his own real-world emperor in Iger. That the film manages to do all of this in a blockbuster designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible is rather stunning. It’s hard not to feel, yes: a new hope.