Film Review: Rogue One

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog – hell, if you’re on the internet – you know a good bit about Rogue One’s context, plot and characters.

Billed as “a Star Wars story”, it follows Jyn, the daughter of an Imperial scientist who finds herself recruited by the Resistance to capture the Death Star blueprints whose theft kicks off A New Hope.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course, but good enough for government work.

Rogue One marks something of a departure for Star Wars. For one thing, it scores considerably more diversity points than any of the original six. Its protagonist is a woman who has no significant romantic entanglements (depending, I suppose, on how you want to read the film’s final scenes) – although it’s worth noting that her mother gets double-fridged, as Kate Elliott pointed out at the Book Smugglers. Its male lead, Cassian, a leading member of the Resistance, has an Eastern European accent, for no other reason than he just does, because some people do. And it has two POCs playing extensive speaking parts as lingering vestiges of the Jedi order – which perhaps strays slightly into Orientalising, mystic-sage-type territory, but their relationship is nevertheless well-realised and rather lovely.

This signals, I think, an engagement with a different kind of Star Wars story: a story not about key political players manipulating the fortunes of billions, nor about the forces of Good in hand-to-hand combat with the forces of Evil, but a story about revolution, small and ordinary people making small cumulative differences. Jyn’s father, unable to escape working for the Empire, designs a vulnerability into the Death Star so that it can be destroyed some day. A cargo pilot dies hooking his ship up to a communications network so the all-important plans can be beamed out to the waiting Rebel fleet. Even the operation to capture the plans is barely a footnote in the saga that comes after – and yet we know just how vital they are to the rest of the story, the destruction of Darth Vader and the Empire. The film’s entire affect is based on our knowledge of what comes after, which its characters, of course, cannot see: it makes us see that the victories of high-ranking rebels like Luke and Han and Leia are rooted in the deaths of hundreds of unnamed people who believed in something beyond the Empire.

Perhaps this is a timely message.

Of course, it’s not all noble sacrifice and light: Rogue One, like The Force Awakens, is full also of destruction and horror and real human cost. The rebel forces face moral ambiguity, political squabbles and impossible dilemmas, illustrated graphically in Cassian’s murder of an informant at the beginning of the film. Does the end justify the means? Should tyranny be used as a weapon against tyranny?

Unfortunately, the film ducks slightly out of these ambiguities by making them rather one-sided. We never see a nice Imperial person who isn’t secretly a rebel, and consequently, because they are all Evil, and all the same (like Tolkien’s orcs), they can be mown down and blown up with gleeful impunity. The rebel forces may be a bit grubby, but, the film implies, they still pale in comparison with the sheer inhumanity of every single Imperial agent. This rather undermines the moral ambiguity the film’s going for.

None of this is really to suggest that Rogue One‘s a bad film – after all, any step towards greater complexity and greater diversity of storytelling is a step in the right direction. And despite its tonal departures, it still manages to feel like Star Wars, thanks to its judicious use of props and characters. (I did not spot that Tarkin was computer generated.) Generally, I liked Rogue One – I just think it could have done more.

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