Rogue One: The First Star War Movie?

SPOILER ALERT: I spoil everything.

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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 senateversus 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,

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Forest Whitaker as 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?

Works Cited

“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.

The 2016 U.S. Election as a Defense of a Humanities Education

I apologize in advance for contributing my own kindling to the already blazing inferno of think pieces responding to the 2016 U.S. election, but, as an English graduate student with aspirations of being a college professor of Literature in due time, I feel obligated to share what I’ve felt to be a leading factor in the anger, division, and outright conspiracy theories that have now, officially, set the course for the most powerful nation on Earth for the next four years at least. That factor is, as you might of guessed by the title, the failure of Humanities education in the United States of America.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Humanities is a blatantly disregarded discipline in the U.S. Jokes about unemployed Philosophy and English majors are so wide-spread that university departments devote considerable time and energy to simply convincing students that there is a benefit to the Humanities in the first place, with many a webpage devoted to enumerating the desirable skills provided by studying the Humanities (see here). In my own experiences as a former Writing Center Consultant, I can verify that there are plenty of students graduating from high school in the U.S. who have never written a full page of text on their own, who possess only a rudimentary grasp of grammar, and who’ve never been expected to do more after reading a book than be able to list the events of the text.

grammar-vaderBefore anyone signs out of this post here, fearful of a “grammar nazi” tirade, stay with me for just a bit longer. Some of the very same students were among the most hardworking, intelligent students that I spoke to during my time as a consultant. The problem had nothing to do with their ability, but simply what they had been expected to do.

So, you might be asking, where does the election come into play? Well I would usually categorize the skills one gets from the Humanities into two broad headings: literacy and communication. Literacy, fairly obviously, is the ability to read, but it is also the ability to understand what is read and it see its relationship to other, seemingly extraneous situations. Furthermore, it is the ability to assess the reliability and consistency of what is read. The ability to communicate is the ability . . . well to communicate.

Even I’m sick of my stuffy definitions, lets get to the point, shall we?

Let’s start with unpacking the failure of literacy in the election. This election was, at least partially, decided by conspiracy theories. Yes, there were hard line Republicans who would never dream of voting any other way, there were hard put to it working class people who heard in Trump’s message hope of a new job instead of a place in the Welfare line, and people with genuine, reasonable reservations about Hilary Clinton. Then there were people who voted for Trump because they believed Hilary Clinton is a rampant murderer and suffers from very well hidden Parkinson’s Disease (you know, that really subtle disease that Michael J. Fox suffers from). To make a brief recourse to the anecdotal, I’ve heard extremely intelligent, rational people hold this line of argument in real life, face to face, not just in the no-man’s-land of the internet. As explained earlier, literacy is more than just reading; it is the rational evaluation of what is read. It is asking whether the writer is biased and making a decision to seek additional sources to verify what you have read. Yes, the internet makes it very easy to spread fake news (see here for a Guardian article on the same theme), but, with a quick Google search, verification has also never been faster. This kind of literacy, focused on checking the validity of sources, is a central component of a Humanities education, but what are you going to do with a Humanities education, amiright?

communist-partyFor those of you who made it past the grammar nazi scare who are now considering signing out before this crazy liberal writes the next Communist Manifesto, again, patience, patience, the Dems and a proper definition of communication (you didn’t think that I would really let that shoddy one from earlier stand in a post in defense of the Humanities did you?) are next.

As any Rhetoric and Composition professor can tell you, good communication is clear, simple, and fact-driven (though always willing to engage emotionally), appropriate to its subject-matter, and, what has probably been the most grievous mistake for liberals and conservatives of late, it speaks to its audience, not against them. It doesn’t take long to see where self-proclaimed Democrats and the Left at large failed in almost all of these charges. Some defended their views with unnecessary critical terminology and identity theory to force an intellectual high-ground in situations where a simple “do unto others” would have sufficed, but those who failed to communicate through appropriate means failed most “bigly” (maybe that word alone suffices for why the Humanities were sadly absent in this election). If I am interested in applying for a job, I send in a cover letter, not a greeting card. I text my friends, but I call my grandfather. A key to clear communication is to choose the medium most conducive to what you want to communicate and to whom you are communicating. As a whole, I feel like the Left failed to do this this election season. Bernie-or-Busters chanted in the aisles of the DNC rather than took efforts to make their loss into a victory (something I feel Sander’s himself succeeded wonderfully at doing). Thousands of protesters are marching across the U.S. in protest of Trump’s victory, many of whom did not bother to march to vote, and, please do not mistake me, I am completely in favor of their decision to march against President-Elect Trump, but if this is the only course of action you are taking you are failing to communicate clearly.

And, finally, both sides of this argument are failing to actually address their attempts at communication to one another. It is really easy to convince a bunch of Trump supporters Trump is great, and it is easy to convince a bunch of liberals the very same about Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but this doesn’t actually accomplish anything, and referring to those you disagree with as libtard-crybabies and nazi-deplorables isn’t really reaching out to the hearts and minds of the people.  People respond when communication is addressed to them in such a way as to make them feel “on the same team” with the communicator. If you have any doubts about how important the words you choose are, simply consider the fact that a billionaire real-estate tycoon currently has a lot of middle-class factory workers convinced he understands and cares about their problems. It is up to Americans to realize that most people agree that they want our country to be a great place and work towards that together, instead of in opposition to one another.

So, you might ask, what’s the takeaway here? Simply put, the Humanities, the most widely dismissed branch of academic study in the U.S. today, is the only one that could give the American citizenry the skills needed to fight back against conspiracy theories, to articulate their political goals clearly and productively, and most importantly, to remember that the big bad “other” isn’t so other, but is really just a human, subject to the same failings as you and anyone else on your “team.” After all, it’s called the Humanities for a reason.