Hi guys! I’m still alive! Life has been relentlessly lifing at me since my last, and as I said awhile back, the first thing to get dropped is blogging. I just saw Rogue One, though, and I am full of thoughts that I wanted to share.
So full of thoughts that I’m splitting this post into multiple parts. Part Two should be up after Christmas.
SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! Oh so many spoilers for all the Star Wars things. I’m going to talk about Rogue One and related Star Wars media under the assumption that we’ve all seen them. If you haven’t and want to remain unspoiled, TURN BACK NOW.
So, Rogue One was a pretty seriously mixed bag of a movie, like the trail mix you buy at the store because you like the little chunks of dark chocolate–but it also has horrid little bits of dessicated ex-fruit in it. At least there’s chocolate, though, right? Okay, maybe this metaphor is not working for me, but you get the idea. Lots of delicious stuff to love, but also some severe flaws that keep the film from greatness.
The following is in no particular order, but let’s start with the stuff they got right.
The Villain: Orson Krennic is not one of your iconic Star Wars villains like Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine or the Grand Moff Tarkin. He’s not even a B-level attempt at iconic, like Darth Maul or Count Dooku.
(For purposes of this not-a-review I’m limiting myself to talking about the films–er, mostly. Some commentary about the new canon animated shows is going to creep in, because Clone Wars and Rebels are good TV and add galaxies of depth and flavor to the Star Wars universe. But here I’m just talking about the movie incarnations.) Director Krennic is a weasel. He doesn’t care about the shiny uniforms, and if he has bought into the Empire’s vision (whatever that is) for the galaxy, it is only because it allows him to build a mega space weapon capable of blowing up planets. Because what good is being a sociopath if you only get to kill a few people at a time? Figures like Tarkin and Vader do not awe him; he just wants to make sure he gets the credit he deserves.
He is perfect for this movie.
Think about it. Rogue One is about the ground-level folks (metaphorically; some of them are space pilots), the hardscrabble ones who normally wouldn’t even get names as they did their essential work in the background of the story while in the foreground the space wizards with their shiny laser swords did the flashy world-saving. It makes sense that their primary antagonist would be a mid-level bureaucrat with all the moral compass of a hungry stoat.
The Death Star is Flawed on Purpose: After literally decades of nitpicking, we have an answer to “Why would the Empire build such a devastating flaw into their supposedly invulnerable super-weapon?”, and it is perfect. Here we’re shown that not everyone in the Empire was a goose-stepping space nazi who bought into the Emperor’s vision for the galaxy (again, whatever exactly that is; still not sure, other than “let’s kill lots of people and decorate in monochrome”); there are doubtless as many reasons for working for the Empire as there are people who do so. That Galen Erso worked for the Empire (under duress) and yet defiantly ruined their awesome mega space weapon adds a layer of depth to the Star Wars universe.
Rebels! One of my favorite new shows is Star Wars Rebels, following the ragtag crew of a clunky spaceship as they fly about the galaxy covertly throwing spanners into the Empire’s gears. (Yeah, it’s a bit Firefly, but cooler. More on that in a later post–or probably not, given how much I’ve been blogging lately.) Again, it’s really cool to see those ground-level folks doing what they can to make it a little bit harder for the Empire to close its fist around the entire galaxy, even if they’re just sticking tiny thorns into the giant mailed fist. Here we get to see the Rebellion in action, and honestly it’s a mess. (This is as it should be.) There are factions, and people disagree not just about what should be done, but what exactly the goal of the Rebellion is. Saw Gerrera’s people are terrorists, Cassian Andor shoots an informant without a qualm and accepts an assassination mission with the same emotion some people might display when accepting their change from the cashier. (TV Rebels aside: I am trying to imagine Hera and the crew of the Ghost going on a mission with Andor. They would be appalled and horrified–and they would be right to be. There is nothing redeeming about this guy.)
Yes, there are principled rebels: Mon Mothma and Bail Organa want to do the right thing, not merely the expedient one. Are they and their faction efficacious? Well… even they have shown themselves willing to work with people like Andor and Gerrera if it gets the job done. This adds an interesting level of moral ambiguity to the Rebellion, which is well worth pondering. Can the evil galactic Empire be brought down without a certain amount of moral compromise? Is the job worth doing, if it cannot be done righteously? And what happens to the people who are willing to compromise, once the goals have been achieved? Is there a place for them in the new world their actions have won? Other science fiction stories have asked these questions before, but it is cool to see them specifically in the context of a Star Wars movie.
Let me be clear. I am not saying, “Yay, there is no moral difference between the Empire and the Rebellion, and that is cool! Everything is morally grey and there are no good guys and no bad guys!” Of course good and evil are not the same, and Rogue One does indeed acknowledge this fact; it’s not the rebels who have built a Mordor-like castle of doom on a volcano planet (film is a visual medium, and this is Star Wars: showing the scary dude in black hanging out in his volcano doom castle is as good as shouting “THIS GUY IS EVIL”). Is one visual enough to maintain the difference between Empire and Rebellion, the bad guys and the good guys? One could write a whole article simply on the visuals of Rogue One, and where they do and do not clarify or muddy-up the lines between good and evil, and whether or not these are good choices and do they work.
On the whole, however, I think it does work, and the questions about line-blurring and “how far is too far in the name of a good cause” are worthwhile both in general and in the specific context of Star Wars.
No Jedi, but the Force is Strong: Me, I love the Jedi. Space paladin-samurai-peacekeepers with magical laser swords? SIGN ME UP. But we could have a long and fruitful discussion about the problems with the Jedi Order, the ways in which the Order failed itself and humanity as the Clone Wars dragged on, and how ultimately the fall of the Jedi and the rise of Palpatine are all the Jedis’ fault.
Rogue One gives us a glimpse of a galaxy without the Jedi, and it’s pretty bleak. Without the Jedi to help keep the peace, the little guys are left to scramble as best they can, and that’s how we get guys like Saw Gerrera and Cassian Andor filling the gaps, fighting the Empire in their own way (and in a way the Jedi would most definitely not approve).
So, the galaxy without the Jedi is an ugly, rough-and-ready place, all one big Old West frontier but with more space Nazis who will kill you if you look at them funny. Yet, two things become clear. First, the Sith and the Jedi are not the only ones with access to the Force (more on this in a bit). Second, even if they were, you don’t have to be a magical space wizard to fight against evil. Of the rebels in Rogue One, only one may or may not have Force abilities; the rest do the best they can with what they have.
This makes them mighty.
There is a bleak beauty to seeing ordinary humans facing incredible odds and achieving extraordinary things. Jyn Erso is not a Force-user; she’s not of a (probable) Jedi lineage (or one of the many Force-sensitive kids who sprang up around the galaxy apparently at random, as we have seen in both Clone Wars and Rebels). Similarly, the other main characters are not Jedi or Jedi-adjuncts or discovering their hitherto unknown powers or anything like that. They’re just folks, fighting as best they can, adding scope and nuance to the Star Wars galaxy, showing that there is room for both the grandiose Mighty Conflict of Good Vs Evil that the Sith and Jedi represent, and the little, ordinary guys.
The one maybe/maybe-not exception here is Chirrut Imwe (and I am inclined to say not; what Chirrut does is humanly possible with training and skill). More important than whether or not he is a Force-user or Force-sensitive, however, is his faith. We have seen in Clone Wars and Rebels that there are other ways to interact and connect with the Force than paths of the Jedi and Sith (I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to bring up the shows, but this is important); that is, following the Jedi or anti-Jedi way is not a requirement for belief in or connection with the Force.
In a way, it doesn’t even matter whether or not Chirrut is Force-sensitive. He has faith, and through his faith he peforms great deeds, and through his deeds he transmits his faith. (We don’t need to ask whether or not his faith is in vain, or whether he could have performed the deeds through faith whether or not the object of his faith exists. It is firmly established in the Star Wars universe that the Force is real and has agency to influence people and events.)
So, in short (too late! ha!), the great strength of Rogue One is its expansion of the moral and ethical dimensions of the Star Wars universe, bringing to a wider audience the idea that ordinary folks can be heroes and villains in a Star Wars-specific context, and bringing also the question of how that heroism or villainy plays out. (Fans of the animated shows will not be surprised by any of the above.) Rogue One says that there’s room in the Star Wars universe for all kinds of stories, including war stories.
Stay tuned for part two, in which I’ll talk about all the stuff Rogue One kinda messed up. Thanks for reading!