This article originally ran on December 21, 2016. We are republishing it as a part of our Star Wars Week celebration.
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR ROGUE ONE
One of my favorite things about the military/war film genre is that it’s versatile. Within the basic framework of a war film, a lot of stories can be told and a lot of themes can be explored. A war film can be hopeful or cynical, it can explore the endurance of the human spirit or the depths of human depravity, it can be about a single individual, a squad or an army, about a single battle, a campaign, or a massive war. War films are also incredibly genre-fluid, in that they mix and match with other genres quite well, furthering the ability of the storyteller to create within said framework even more. We can find the full range of the human experience within the genre. This is a rather long and rambling way for me to say that I’m incredibly excited to get to approach the genre from a new angle today with this special edition article: The Star Wars On Film: Rogue One and Sci-Fi Warfare.
That’s right folks, the latest entry into the Star Wars franchise is a war film through and through. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “No duh, the franchise has ‘Wars’ in the title”, and while this is true, there oddly enough haven’t been any war films in the Star Wars genre prior to Rogue One. To be clear there is plenty of war and combat going on in the Star Wars universe, but the numbered entries in the franchise, also known as the Skywalker Saga, are actually surprisingly personal films with narrow focuses. They aren’t particularly interested in war as much as they are the family drama and mythology of the franchise. That is what makes Rogue One so unique. This is a film very much steeped in the tropes and visual language of military cinema, and if you aren’t familiar with those tropes it can sometimes become confusing as the genre has a shorthand to it that can feel jarring if you are not expecting it. In light of this, I want to dive in and talk about what the film is doing and how and where it is working to merge the language and tropes of Star Wars with that of the modern war film.
Be warned, everything after here is a giant spoiler risk, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, rectify that error in judgement and come back. For those of you who have already seen it, let’s dive on in. Structurally Rogue One is fairly simple, it’s a basic “squad on a mission” story. In this case the squad in question is made up of a wanted woman, a dangerous rebel operative, a blind monk and his machine gun wielding comrade, an imperial defector, and one particularly sassy droid. The mission is also fairly simple as well, an Imperial scientist has secretly snuck a critical weakness into the plans for the Imperial Death Star and has tasked his daughter Jyn (the woman mentioned above, played by Felicity Jones) with getting this information to the Rebellion so that they can retrieve it and use it to destroy the super weapon before it wipes them out.
Now we don’t jump straight in on this plot. As true to the military genre, it unfolds over a period of time as our team is brought together over the course of their adventures. This covers the first hour or so of the film, and it is crucial because one of the films biggest ideas is found therein. This idea first starts to peak through when we see Rebel operative Cassian Andor (played brilliantly by Diego Luna) shoot one of his informants in cold blood rather than risk the chance of that man causing him to be noticed by Imperial soldiers. It’s a jarring moment placed right near the beginning of the film that serves a very clear purpose, which is to tell us that just like in a real war the lines between good and evil are going to become incredibly blurry at times as we witness those on the side of the Rebellion commit truly horrific acts while others on the side of the Empire risk their lives to save the galaxy. It dares to pose the question: “How many bad things can you do while still remaining a good person?” and challenges us to ask if a just cause justifies moral compromises and atrocities. This is never clearer than in a portion of the film that revolves around the Rebels traveling to the ancient Jedha City in order to get information from a Rebel Extremist named Saw Gerrera. Saw may technically be on the side of the angels but his methods and morals clearly paint him as more of a necessary evil that the rebels once tolerated than a true ally. The scene that stands out the most in this portion of the film is when Saw’s soldiers launch an attack on an Imperial patrol moving through the ancient dust coated city. The visual language used to depict the combat is striking and all too familiar for those that follow current events. Out of nowhere a dozen or more individuals fling open their cloaks producing blasters, and grenades begin to fly, civilians run screaming for cover and a small child stands wailing in terror in the street. Director Gareth Edwards has created a scene that looks like it belongs in Aleppo or Mosul, dropped it right in the middle of our Star Wars movie, and just to make things confusing, he’s placed the insurgents on roughly the same side as our heroes. We are forced to look dead on and ponder the moral compromises the Rebellion has made in pursuit of their goal of defeating the Empire, and to question if the ends really do justify the means. It forces us to contemplate the reality that it is possible to be and do evil in service of a just cause, and the truth that compromises abound in war. Sometimes these compromises are small, like in the case of Cassian, a man who by necessity has been fighting the Empire his entire adult life and even before that, and has made small compromise after small compromise along the way, each time telling himself that his cause was just, and that in the end all that mattered was this cause. He is painted as a fundamentally broken man as a result, and his attempt to regain some small measure of his humanity is one of the more powerful arcs within the film, and a common one found within the genre.
The characterization of the main players in this story has been a point of hot contention since its release and it’s something that we should definitely dive into, because I believe it partly stems from a misunderstanding of the war genre of film and its traditional objectives. Characterization in war movies, specifically those that focus on a specific squad or unit, runs counter to some traditional notions of character development. Specifically, the military genre often prefers to make use of a large cast of archetypal characters instead of a smaller group of more fully fleshed out ones. The primary reasons for this is that it enables greater audience projection onto the characters, as well as allowing the director or writer to tell broader human stories about the impact of war on the life of the individual soldier. The broader characterizations allow for broader change and for clearer cut character moments later on. Rogue One is operating out of this playbook, with each character at least bearing some resemblance to some of the more traditional archetypes from military fiction, but with a Star Wars twist. Jyn is running from a past she doesn’t want to face and a family legacy she can’t embrace. Cassian is a hardened soldier who has seen his youth and humanity stripped away from him over the course of years of resisting the Empire. Chirrut the blind monk (played by the incomparable Donnie Yen) is a man of deep personal faith looking for meaning in a universe where it is increasingly harder to find. Chirrut’s closest companion Baze (played by Jiang Win) is a man who has had his faith stripped away from him, and who would much rather just keep his head down and go through what is left of his life in peace, though Chirrut makes that impossible. The villain, Director Krennic, is a second tier Imperial officer attempting to gain status and power through political wheeling and dealing. Bodhi Rook (played by rising star Riz Ahmed) is seeking redemption and a life of meaning after wasting years in service of the Empire. And K-2SO? Well he’s the comic relief, a deeply cynical and snarky reprogrammed Imperial droid who can’t shut up and just wants to be allowed to carry a blaster. These details make up the bulk of who these characters are, but they also make them more easily movable to the point that they need to get to in one film, because spoiler alert, this is the only film they are going to get.
This brings us to the third act of the movie. Upon learning of the flaw in the Death Star and the location of the plans that will allow the Rebels to exploit it, Jyn and the rest of the gang embark with a team of elite Rebel operatives, on an unsanctioned mission to steal the plans and save the galaxy. Using a stolen Imperial shuttle and uniforms they steal upon arriving at their destination on the planet Scarif, they begin a daring mission to steal the plans and transmit them to the Rebellion. While Jyn, Cassian, and K-2SO infiltrate the base in disguise, the rest of the team takes positions and prepare to give the Imperial forces a massive headache in order to buy those three the time they need. Shortly after the trio enters the base, the fireworks start and the situation rapidly begins to deteriorate. Our heroes are outnumbered and outgunned, and what little hope they had begins to flicker and sputter under the relentless assault and series of bad breaks that have begun to befall them. Their forces on the outside are pinned down under heavy enemy fire, while Jyn, Cassian and K-2 find themselves without any effective means to transmit the plans, as a planet wide energy shield covering Scarif has been locked down, trapping them and the message inside. This is a common story telling device and upon reaching this point I had the first inkling of what was to come in the story, but doubted if the film would be brave enough to follow through (but more on that in a minute). Just as all seems lost, the cavalry comes roaring in in the form of the Rebel fleet, who arrive just in time to launch multiple X-Wings through the gate in the energy shield before it is closed. As the X-Wings roar in to save the troops on the ground from imminent death, the fleet above is working to both engage the Imperial fleet and attempt to blow open the shield. Thus begins a massive multi-stage battle the likes of which has never been truly put to cinema before. We cut rapidly between the Rebel fleet, the X-Wing pilots, the troops on the ground, and Jyn, Cassian, and K2. It is exhilarating and visceral combat, the kind that Star Wars had often hinted at, but had never before had the means to present to us. Then, well then things start to get dark.
The average squad based war movie inevitably takes a pretty dark turn at some point or another. Eventually you will get to a point where all seems lost, and while that rarely turns out to be the case, it’s usually a harbinger that the body count is going to skyrocket. Rogue One started presenting these signs shortly after the mission on Scarif began, and once it did I sat up and took notice. This was the question at the back of my mind going in. Would a big franchise blockbuster be willing to go for it and forego potential sequels by killing off beloved characters? This film was. After a daring rush by Bodhi through oncoming fire in order to patch his shuttle into the base communications tower so that he could get a message out to the fleet, things rapidly begin to turn on the ground. First, K-2, having finally being given his blaster, is shot down while watching Cassian and Jyn’s backs as they retrieve the plans. It is a long and painful sequence as we witness him take shot after shot, never once stopping from shouting directions and encouragement to his two closest friends, until he finally crashes into the console before him, and the lights of his eyes slowly fade out. Next we witness Chirrut walk right through enemy fire to enable the communications system so that Bodhi can transmit his message, praying each step of the way, before being mortally wounded by an explosion seconds later and dying in Baze’s arms. Bodhi is able to transmit his message to the fleet who are able to take out the shield, but seconds after transmitting it he is killed by a grenade tossed into the hold of his ship. Baze, upon witnessing Chirrut’s death finds his faith once more and walks into the line of fire, killing off Krennic’s elite guard before succumbing to his own injuries. We watch one by one as the members of this team die, each in their final moments finding some measure of what they had been searching for throughout the film, until we are left with just Cassian and Jyn. And in that moment, it appears that, having successfully transmitted the message, that they might just escape and go on to live fuller lives and have more adventures. But just as the flame of hope begins to burn bright again we see the Death Star appear in the skies above Scarif, firing one shot at the Imperial base in a desperate attempt to completely undercut our heroes’ daring plan. As the horizon ignites behind them we hold on Jyn and Cassian as they embrace as allies and equals, accepting their fate, and just like that our entire cast of heroes has been wiped out. It was a bold move and at the moment, it appeared to be the ending note of the film. But Gareth Edwards had one more thing to say about the nature of war. As the Rebel fleet begins to flee the battle with the plans in tow, we witness a new assortment of Imperial Vessels jump into the fray, led by none other than Darth Vader himself. As the Rebels desperately work to move the plans to a new ship in order to get them away from the battle, Vader boards the Rebel Flagship and begins a relentless assault to reclaim them. This is Vader as we have never seen him before: vicious, unyielding, and merciless as he cuts down the panicking rebel soldiers in front of them as they desperately pass the plans on, in hopes of getting them off the ship and away from the battle in time. The Rebels barely succeed, but at great loss of life. As we witness the plans successfully passed on to the ship that we find them on at the start of A New Hope. And just as the title implies, right as that fire of hope began to sputter and die, a new one was kindled and spread. Because the final message of the film is a bittersweet one. The reality is that a war is bigger than any one soldier. That if you fight and die, the war will continue on without you. This film wasn’t just the story of Jyn, or Cassian, or Chirrut, but rather the story of the Rebellion, and the great sacrifices that it made to bring the story to the point at which it began for so many, nearly forty years ago:
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….
Rogue One is a story of sacrifice and loss. A story of hope emerging in even the darkest of times. A story of war, of striking out against the darkness around you and using everything at your disposable to make your world and the world of those around you just a little bit brighter. It’s Star Wars, and I love it.