No Star Wars movie worth its blaster skips a good test of faith, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Storydoesn’t disappoint. Early on in the film, young rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is being grilled about her allegiances by the Alliance shes about to join. Her response? Ive never had the luxury of political opinions. If you believe Disney CEO Bob Iger, this is true. But if you believe almost anyone elsethe alt-right, the writers of the film, the writers of the Internetthe problem isn’t that Jyn doesnt have the luxury of political opinions, its that she no longer has the luxury of existing without having those opinions ascribed to her. Her journey in the movie,beingthrust intothe position of helping steal the plans for the Death Star, pales in comparison to her real-world role:lightning rod. No other movie this year has been even remotely as intertwinedwith the toxic journey that was 2016.
Lets back up, though. Rogue One started as a simple, smart concept: Make a standalone moviean “anthology” flick, in official Lucasfilm parlancebased on the line in the opening crawl of 1977’sStar Warsabout Rebel spies nabbing the plans for the Empires superweapon. And that’s exactly what it is. The Rebellion first recruits Jyn as a way to get to her father, Galen(Mads Mikkelsen), a man who happens to have invented the Death Star. In true hero fashion, she’sreluctant, only joining their cause after receivinga message from her father that he put a weakness in the weapon’s design. But when she learns there’s a way it can be defeated, she assembles a team of Rebels that includes her recruiter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the pilot who deliveredher father’s message (Riz Ahmed), and Chirrut mwe (Donnie Yen), a blind fighter strong with the Force. Retrieving the plans, of course, means ashowdown withthe Empire, and this onehappens to be one of the most visually epic final battles ofthe entireStar Warssaga.
Because thestoryor at least itsconclusionis so familiar to fans, its prospects were strong from the outset. But because not much was known about the “Rebel spies”in the Star Wars canon, Lucasfilm/Disney was able to bring in a whole new cast of characters and, for the first time ever, makea woman theteam’s leader.
And thats where things got messy. By all measures, Rogue One succeeds; it’sa thrilling, well-told, Star Wars movie that will scratch any fan’s itch. It also succeeds at continuing to bring the franchise into the 21st century by featuring the most inclusive cast to date. But in two and a half yearssince the first“Star Warsstory” was announced (“Spring 2014: Officially aLifetime Ago!”), the Culture Wars Story has shifted fromtalk about female heroines to an unprecedentedly divisive presidential election that saw many of the saga’s themesfaith, repression, the corruptive power of angerenacted on a global stage.
Normally, this wouldnt matter. Normally it shouldn’t.Star Wars movies have been released during all kinds of political climates: the franchise started during the Carter administration;Return of the Jedi came out during the Reagan years;the prequels started during Bill Clintons second term and ended whileGeorge W. Bush was inoffice. Rogue One, though, has been saddled witha greater significance,whether it warrants the burdenor not. Bigots of all stripes, perhaps confusing Star Wars messaging with that of overtly humanist Star Trek, are boycotting the film for being too political.The movies writersChris Weitz and Gary Whittahave taken to Twitter to remind people that the franchise is “against hate.”
So here we are, unable to talk about this movie like any other movie. Its very existence has become a symbol of the ways in which the Dark Side and the light creep into the world every dayeven if its representations of good and bad are far too simplistic to actually work as political allegories. In a year like 2016, its hard not to see pleas for sanity or reasons for despair in almost any movie, and Rogue One will not be exempt from thatespecially not when it wears its rebellions are built on hope heart so prominently on its dystopia-distressed denim sleeve.
Had Rogue One not found itself the avatar of All Things Now, we might even be able to talk about whether or not its, you know, good. That’s too bad, because it is.
If Clinton had won the presidency, if the aftermath of the election wasnt about political meddling and stolen information, the conversation about Rogue Onemight be very different. For one, we’d be primarily discussing howmuch darker it is than the rest of the franchise. (Considering the very nature of the movie’s fictionalmission, it shouldnt come as a huge surprise that more thana few people die in this movie.) Before he took the director’s chair for this one, Gareth Edwards made2014’sremarkablybleak Godzilla rebootand while the movies third act livens it up with stirring inspirationspeeches and blind Rebel fighters kicking stormtrooper ass, its very clear that this is Star Wars on its darkest timeline. (Even the movies requisite smart-alecky droid, K-2SO, is a reprogrammed Imperial bot whose best mood seems to be “fatalistic.”)
Had Rogue One not found itself the avatar of All Things Now, wemight even be able to talk aboutwhether or not its, you know, good. That’s too bad, because it is. Allyour Star Warsis here for the sometimes-more-somber-than-usual enjoyment.X-wing battles!Stormtroopers with unconscionably terrible aim! Daddy issues!Edwards’ direction veers towards the humdrum in the beginning, but the movie saves itself by the third act, and the Jones/Luna/Ahmed/Yen team feels at home in the Star Wars galaxy, despite being new to fans. And there’s more than enough room forAlan TudykasK-2SO in the pantheon of droidsideally next to C-3PO, so they can be vaguely British together.
Every Star Wars film is some incarnation of The Jedi with a Thousand Faces, andRogue One is no differenteven if there are noJedi. It doesnt have the grandeur of last years The Force Awakens, but it shouldn’t; as the first of its nascent category, it needs only to be a ripping yarn in its own right. This isn’t the beginning of a new saga, it’s the model house that encourages you to buy in a subdivision that will someday featurestandalone installments like 2018’syoung Han Solo movie. Perhaps fittingly, its quality lines up neatlywith its position on the universe’s timeline:better than the prequels, not quite as good as the original trilogy or Force. And considering the juggernaut that Star Wars is now, nearly every movie will likely be of its caliber or better. The story department will see to it. Nothing is too big too fail, but Lucasfilm is pretty damn close.
Which brings us back to Jyn. The world may have told her she isnt entitled to her political opinions, but she does represent some, even if she doesnt want to. She is also anti-totalitarian, anti-establishment, and pro-hope. And maybe, in 2016, those are the best ways for any member of the Resistance to go rogue.