Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
There was a minor dust-up earlier this week when a different critic’s review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ran with a headline saying it’s the first movie in the series to acknowledge that it’s about war. The guffaws came in fast; “of course it’s about war; the word ‘war’ is right in the name!” But in their hurry to take potshots at the writer (who did not compose the headline but did approve it), the peanut gallery missed one important thing: it’s actually right.
Yes, there’s always plenty of big war action inspired (in part) by the World War II dogfighting scenes George Lucas grew up on. But Star Wars movies have always been something more like epics and operas, with grand stakes and clear, black-and-white morality. Luke Skywalker may have been conflicted on learning that his enemy was also his father, but there was no question that fighting Darth Vader was the Right Thing to Do, and we know that he’ll do it. Even in The Force Awakens, Finn may want to run and hide, but it’s always clear that he should stay to fight, and we know he’ll return just like Han Solo did in A New Hope.
But the Star Wars story that director Gareth Edwards tells is a different sort of thing, messy and grey the way that actual wars are. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the Oppenheimer of the Death Star’s power source, decides to collaborate because it’s getting built anyway, and if he’s there he can design the fatal flaw the Rebellion can use to destroy it, as revenge for the project’s director, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) killing his wife and driving his daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones) into hiding. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) splits with the Rebellion’s approach of building up a shadow government in favor of guerrilla strikes wherever and whenever possible. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is a Rebel spy, but he’s willing to summarily execute a jumpy source who might get him captured; the ends justify the means. And Jyn herself just wants to be left alone, figuring she’s screwed no matter who wins the balance of power.
Plenty of ink has been spilled lately over the idea that the Empire is a stand-in for Nazi Germany, and that’s true — they’re called “stormtroopers” after all — but no Star Wars script has ever drawn such a pointed analogy between the Empire and America itself. Much of the action takes place on Jedha, an Empire-occupied planet where Cassian takes Jyn to make contact with Saw. Jedha City is clearly styled after a Middle-Eastern market, shadowed by the ruins of an ancient temple. The occupying forces are harassed by terrorist attacks as they try to protect the flow of a resource they deem vital to their war efforts. Saw’s life-support system, while clearly resembling the one built into Darth Vader’s armor, also recalls a Fremen stillsuit and all the connotations that brings up.
Or there are other ways to read the overtones. Jedha is also where the team comes together, taking on a defecting cargo pilot (Riz Ahmed), a displaced warrior-monk (Donnie Yen), and his similarly homeless temple guard friend (Jiang Wen). They may all be human — with the exception of the reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) seemingly inspired by Marvin the Paranoid Android — but their racial diversity reflects the species diversity we see elsewhere in both the Rebellion and Saw’s insurgency. They stack up against an Empire led by old white men jealously clinging to power. The analogy with the current battle over the soul of this nation practically draws itself, and the way the Rebels fall into petty factional squabbling carries its own sting.
But the whole thing is more than a little confused, even aside from these two not-entirely-compatible themes. The diversity doesn’t seem to extend to women, for instance; they’re all but absent from the backgrounds, with a handful of extras scattered around. And by the end the grey has all washed out and moral clarity is again in evidence for a final battle that, on the ground, resembles nothing so much as a World War II assault on some South Pacific island. Jyn’s conversion to caring about the Rebellion makes some sense, but Cassian’s change of heart is completely unmotivated.
I appreciate the stab at a greater emotional and moral depth here, but it might just be that Star Wars — which still hangs its bottom line on delivering spectacular space-opera action to a PG-13 audience — isn’t really built to delve that deeply into murky questions like these. Setting them aside, it’s still plenty of fun. Tudyk, as usual, steals every scene he’s (virtually) in, but he’s far from the only source of humor to cut the tone that could otherwise turn very dark. And the action itself is well-crafted, if at a slightly less than epic scale. It’s a fine end-of-year diversion, but ultimately settles out somewhere short of greatness.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: a judgement call, but I’m going to say it fails.