SPOILER ALERT: I spoil everything.
Disney’s decision to reboot Star Wars left me with a lot of anxiety, anxiety that was not necessarily alleviated by the release of The Force Awakens; yes, I thought the film was good and even went to see it multiple times, but its obvious reliance on the plot of A New Hope was concerning. Well, now that I’ve seen Rogue One I can officially breath a sigh of relief for the franchise, if not for global politics, as I’ll explain: it wasn’t just a remake of Empire Strikes Back, so, I can rest reasonably assured I’ve not just been going to see Star Wars: The Remastered Edition.
One of the things that has given Star Wars its staying power over the years (besides capitalistic if not creative genius on the part of George Lucas and those really cool lightsaber noises) has been its pertinence. Star Wars, like many other works of popular media, is a cultural litmus, and the man behind the scary robot mask is a great indication of what most Westerners are concerned about at any given point in time. In the original trilogy, we had a simple breakdown between the good guys, who stood for freedom and democratic leadership in the form of the last remnants of the galactic senate, versus the evil Empire, presented on screen with a cold Soviet aesthetic and propensity for mass destruction in the form of everyone’s favorite “secret weapon” the size of a small moon, The Death Star. Let’s be honest, this plot has such distinctive Cold War era vibes that it led Ronald Reagan to name a space-age inspired defense system after it. Following this, we, begrudgingly, received the prequels, in which the real enemy is the sneaking abuse of societal fear by the Senator Palpatine who, SPOILER is actually the bad guy who rises to power just like Hitler, but in a film series that actually speaks to the concerns of Bush-Era America. I might add it speaks to these concerns in a distinctly more liberal register than the earlier films, and many were forced (see what I did there) to ask is George Bush a Sith Lord?
Fast forward to Star Wars in its newest manifestation. I would argue that The Force Awakens only addresses contemporary concerns in as far as the promulgation of big budget franchise reboots selling consumers the same thing over and over and over again is a major concern in the age of Marvel, but in reality the movie played it safe topically. Rogue One, however, is the first of the rebooted films to take an overarching stance. This was evident before the film even premiered with certain Alt-Right figures and Trump supporters calling to boycott the film as anti-Trump after the filmmakers made some disparaging comments about Trump and posited the Empire as the kind of “White Supremacist” organization the Alt-Right would like to see itself as and that Mr. Trump has done very little to distance himself from (“Fans boycott ‘Star Wars'”).
The film itself, rather than its media coverage, certainly encourages turning a critical eye towards demagoguery, and offers a nice, diverse cast of heroes to look towards instead. However, what is more revealing about the film is its probing of the nature and ethics of resistance. In Rogue One we do not see the unified, always in the right, rebellion. Rather, we see disjointed factions that cannot agree on the best way to keep evil at bay. For filmmakers of the stated political persuasion of the film’s writers Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta this obviously reveals a certain fear concerning the American Left’s disorganized and panicked response to the rise of Donald Trump and the kind of conservatism he represents. More importantly, it speaks to America’s heated debate about the “right” way to protest, sparked by concerns over the Confederate Flag flying in the South in the summer of 2015, and carrying right through the year in the form of Black Lives Matter protests, Colin Kaepernick, the prepping of “militias” to combat a “rigged” election, Anti-Trump protesters, and of course the new hallmark of Christmas, anti-Starbucks outrage. Viewers must choose between the tactics of militant extremist Saw Gerrera,
and the more stayed, political approach of the Rebellion proper. The film, in a surprising revision of usual portrayals of protest, seems to favor Saw’s methods, as his kinda sorta adopted daughter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) leads a violent, guerrilla attack on the Empire against the Rebellion’s orders in the film’s climax. I wouldn’t go as far as to argue that Rogue One is endorsing a violent approach to protesting trivialities like Starbucks’ cups in this move, but I do think the film is encouraging those who might want to “go rogue” (see what I did there) that to successfully resist, they must make those in power uncomfortable in a meaningful way.
And finally, to come back to my title, I feel like Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to be about war. (Skip to about 1:20 in video below for visual aid)
This is a film that questions the ethics of conflict and resistance. It isn’t a journey with implications of war like the original films, or a political drama with a military backdrop like the prequels; this is a film centered on conflict in such a way as to alter the very cinematic style of the film. Rogue One speaks in the visual shorthand of war films in a way I’ve never observed in a Star Wars film. This is clear in the early desert conflict on Jedha, an urban shootout between disguised militant rebels and the iconic stormtroopers extremely reminiscent of present day conflicts in the Middle-East. What makes the scene particularly reminiscent of a war film rather than your usual Star Wars fun is the obvious presence of civilian danger in the form of the small child Jyn rescues from the fight in a moment that was easily one of the most uncomfortable I’ve experienced watching a Star Wars entry. The war film aesthetic only becomes more obvious in the film’s climax on Scarif, a tropical jungle island, that, complete with guerrilla soldiers and dramatic air-drops, screams Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket.
This leaves me with my most uncomfortable response to the film; simply put, what can we do with all of this violence simmering in the world? The film’s warlike tone could be addressing the many, many less acknowledged conflicts of our time, be they in Syria, North Dakota, or a part of America’s continuing engagement and deployment in Afghanistan. A more optimistic part of me hopes that Rogue One, with its emphasis on covert military actions, is only working to draw attention towards the violence and war that, like the Rogue One forces on Scarif, are already at work, unnoticed, but before the public eye; however, I fear that Rogue One has clearly tapped into an extremely divided and angry public consciousness. How can we hope to diffuse those tensions without resorting to the kind of violence that I, personally, would prefer to leave in a galaxy far, far, away?
“Fans boycott ‘Star Wars’ over rumored anti-Trump scenes.” Foxnews.com, 13 December 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2016/12/13/fans-boycott-star-wars-over-rumors-anti-trump-scenes-re-shot.html?refresh=true. Accessed on 16 December 2016.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Directed by Gareth Edwards, Walt Disney Studios, 2016.
Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith. Directed by George Lucas, Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Directed by George Lucas, Twentieth Century Fox, 1977.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Directed by J. J. Abrams, Walt Disney Studios, 2016.