I like to think that if you really care about something and it disappoints you, you ought to give it a second chance. I have come to care much about Star Wars, and my first viewing of “Rogue One” left me feeling bewildered and a little indifferent. It was not what I expected “Star Wars” in general to be, and it was not what I expected a new installment of this franchise to be. So, I decided to watch it again, not because I loved it the first time and I just had to rewatch it, but because I felt that I needed to understand “Rogue One” and then decide if I like it or not. This will be more of an essay than a review, but there are spoilers ahead.
My first impression of “Rogue One” was that of a disjointed storyline that moved too quickly from one setting to another and that was placed in a world that did not truly feel like Star Wars although it looked like it. There were a few things about it that I found disturbing, which I will mention in this essay, and I found it hard to connect emotionally with the characters. And I didn’t find K-2SO funny at all. There were many things about this film that my expectations prevented me from processing the first time around and that presented themselves in a much different light upon a second expectation-free viewing.
It strikes me that the motto of “Rogue One”, “rebellions are built on hope,” has an unspoken corollary that makes up the very fabric of this film: hope often rises out of tragedy. We have seen tragedy in Star Wars before, in the original trilogy as well as in the prequels, but never on such a scale. A friend of mine called “Rogue One” a gutsy film. Yes, it is gutsy to do what “Rogue One” did, and it is grown-up. When I first saw the film and I sat there tearing up as our heroes stood hand in hand before their doom, I thought to myself, this is the day when our Star Wars grew up. This is not to say that there is anything childish about Star Wars (except maybe for most of the prequels), but to present a scenario where the heroes of the film die together in an unstoppable attack of the enemy and have them face death peacefully because they know they may have just saved the galaxy is not something you see very often on the big screen these days, and it is a mature creative decision. A lot of Star Wars is meant for the kid in each of us. This was meant for the kid in us that has to grow up some day. What I realized after my second viewing was that Jyn and Cassian aren’t the only ones who died on Scarif. The entire crew of Rogue One was lost on Scarif, including those we had come to care about: Bodhi, Chirrut, Baze and K-2SO. This is probably why we are not allowed to get too attached to any of them. We come to know and like them just enough to perceive their sacrifice at its true value, but not be crushed by it at the end. Still, they all sacrifice themselves in order to give hope to a wavering Rebellion, and that is what I think is the most important lesson of “Rogue One”: that you can’t have victory without loss, and hope without tragedy.
I also have to salute the production of this scene. The soft music playing over this sequence comes into contrast with the dramatic images that we see on screen but somehow captures the feelings of the characters and the higher idea of sacrifice in the name of peace. There are three main events that take place in this scene and that the music brings together in an effectively heart-wrenching whole. The commander of the Rebel fleet orders a tiny ship to ram one of the star destroyers stationed above Scarif and thus break the communication shield over the planet so that the message with the Death Star plans can get through. That star destroyer collides with another, which eventually breaks the shield. At the same time, the Death Star is unleashing its destructive ray of energy upon Scarif, which we know to mean the end of the planet and of those trapped on it. Finally, we witness the heroic death of Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. Ironically enough, the sequencing of the events and the music of this scene reminded me of Star Trek at its best.
The main aspect of “Rogue One” that threw me off the first time is its break with Fantasy. It just doesn’t feel like the old Star Wars and now I know why. It’s because it departs from the classic Fantasy storyline and archetypes and moves closer to good sci-fi. There are no princesses or wielders of magic in “Rogue One”, save for the short but amazingly satisfying presence of Darth Vader. Jyn is special in the sense that she is the daughter of a great scientist and a key player in the building of the Death Star, but she is not a royal figure, nor does she have any innate sensitivity to the Force. Captain Andor is a charismatic character, but he has none of the glowing charm of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. The character closest to a Jedi in this film, Chirrut Imwe, is no Jedi at all, but simply a dreamer who believes in the Force. And the Force itself is no longer a mystical notion, but rather a namesake for the characters’ faith in themselves and in each other. In this film, it’s the people who put the Force into action rather than the other way round.
Instead, “Rogue One” does what all good sci-fi does. It’s not about space battles and alien planets. It talks about us and about things in us that are so painful that we have to make up the metaphor of space travel to have them revealed. It paints the world in grey rather than in black and white. It presents hope as something that is not given from somewhere above, but something that is frail and easily lost when the odds are mounting against it, something that one has to fight for and sometimes die for in order to convince others that it exists. “Rogue One” paints the Rebel Alliance in less flattering colors than I have ever seen before. They are not the enthusiastic organization that we came to know in the original trilogy. They are a group of people with mixed ideas about freedom and about whether or not the rule of the Empire would be acceptable. When Jyn reaches the base on Yavin 4 with the news of a way to destroy the Death Star, most of the Rebel leaders prefer to surrender rather than risk what proved to be a suicide mission to capture the Death Star’s plans. That mission was not sanctioned by the council. It only happened because a few rebels went rogue and made it happen. The Alliance did send support, but only after the hard part of penetrating security on Scarif had been done.
Then, there is the decision to kill Galen Erso instead of giving him the opportunity to tell his story to the Senate. Of course, it is a decision that springs from self-defense, but does that make it right? The Alliance only wants to use Jyn in order to get to her father. They don’t seem to care much whether or not Erso is telling some truth that may save them. This is in fact what makes Captain Andor such a good character. He doesn’t start out as an immaculate hero, nor does he pretend to be. Instead, he’s already a hardboiled warrior who has been forced to do things he isn’t proud of. When Jyn confronts him about meaning to kill her father rather than rescue him, he doesn’t deny it. When she tells him he might as well be a stormtrooper, his response is that this is the real Alliance, with good and bad in equal measure. His excellent speech as he and a few other pilots offer their support to Jyn reinforces that idea. Rebels are not saints, but the real difference between the Alliance and the Empire is that Alliance fighters are fighting for a cause that amounts to more than holding power over the galaxy. Andor and his men choose to help Jyn because she reminds them what that cause is and doing this one final act of bravery would make up for the terrible things they’ve done. I think Diego Luna deserves to be commended for managing to play this character as appropriately aloof but sympathetic at the same time.
There is one more area where “Rogue One” pushes the Rebel Alliance far into moral ambiguity and it is what I found disturbing the first time I watched the film. The exponent of that is the character of Saw Gerrera, played masterfully to tragic greatness by Forest Whitaker. Saw Gerrera is the leader of a band of Rebel extremists in Jedha, the holy city of the Jedi, who resort to bomb attacks on the Imperial troops extracting kyber crystals from the Jedi temple. What I found disturbing about it was the look and feel of the city of Jedha, and of Gerrera’s fighters. To me, Jedha looks sadly more like a galactic Aleppo than like a fictional rendition of Jerusalem or Mecca. When bombs started going off and taking down buildings as well as people, it felt a little too close to Earth today. When Bodhi as well as Jyn and her company are captured by the black-clad fighters in Gerrera’s faction, I felt again that perhaps we don’t need to see these things in a movie like Star Wars, or in any other movie made today, when we can see them in the news. But then again, perhaps we do. Saw Gerrera embodies the true face of extremism. He is a man who has gone too far in his pursuit of freedom and has stepped into a dark place where it no longer matters that he is fighting for good. He has become paranoid and distrustful and his half-machine body inevitably makes him resemble Darth Vader. Only Jyn’s presence reminds him of his true cause, and his death comes as a choice, but a choice to redeem himself. Saw Gerrera’s last minutes in the film also come with another moment of directorial beauty. There is brilliant timing there. As Jyn watches her father’s message, in which he tells her how to destroy the Death Star, said Death Star is initiating its first attack on the very planet that this is happening on, and as Jyn’s so far tough exterior melts in front of her father’s image and she falls to her knees, the earth starts shaking and the planet starts breaking up. This is yet another instance in which hope and tragedy are woven together in a way that creates a deep emotional impact on the viewer.
“Rogue One” excels at throwing a veil of realism over the Star Wars film franchise that I found hard to accept at first. One of the great things about the original Star Wars and about “The Force Awakens” is the feeling of a lived-in world as opposed to the overly clean look that most sci-fi films have. “Rogue One” takes that one step further. Everything is grittier and dirtier than anywhere else in the Star Wars franchise. I was particularly impressed by the ground fight scenes on Jedha and especially on Scarif, which have the look of a real-world war movie in spite of the signature elements of Star Wars such as the stormtroopers or the dreaded walkers.
There are areas though where I feel that “Rogue One” gets a little too close to home. I’ve mentioned Jedha, which looks a little too much like a present-day Middle Eastern city being destroyed by war and terrorism. There are also Chirrut and Baze, who, in spite of being likeable characters, look a little too much like a Buddhist monk and a samurai.
Lastly, I think that the marketing of “Rogue One” as a Star Wars story rather than another episode somewhere between III and IV was clever and appropriate because this is not the Star Wars we are used to. Comparing it to the rest of the film franchise is not the best way to approach it because, to me, at least, it falls short of that comparison through its less fantastic and more realistic nature. Fortunately, it stands very firmly on its own when leaving those expectations aside.
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.