Rogue One: A (Star) War(s) Story

Rogue One is many things. It is an action movie, an abbreviated hero narrative, a heist film (for about twenty minutes), and, yes, undeniably, a Star Wars story. However, more than anything else, Rogue One is a war movie, and it inhabits that intersection between escapist action and a horrors-of-war narrative better than any other film I can remember, somehow managing to be both thrilling and solemn (and often at the same time). Moreover, it escapes virtually every pitfall of that difficult combination, and uses it to subvert and deconstruct the very narrative that Star Wars itself is built on.

In other words, Rogue One is absolutely brilliant, and I’m going to try and figure out why.

(Fair warning, I’m going to spoil everything. So watch it first. It’s worth it, I promise.)

Because while Star Wars has always built itself on the broadest, most recognizable narrative archetypes—Campbellian hero journeys, ascension and redemption, familial bonds, good vs. evil—Rogue One’s narrative is anything but simplistic. While on the surface it might appear like standard Star Wars fare, with an introduction on a desolate farm, an Imperial invasion, a mountain-bound mentor, a grimy Rebel base, and a climax featuring an epic space battle, its narrative has a range far deeper than anything George Lucas ever attempted to write. And not only does it eschew the series’ usual black-and-white moral landscape for one awash in almost indistinguishable shades of gray, it does so in a way that actually feels necessary, and that fits perfectly into everything it tries to do as a piece of art.

In short, Rogue One is dark-and-gritty done exceptionally well. It is everything Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tried and utterly failed to be—a film that was exciting, as thrilling as any other entry in the Star Wars canon has ever been, yet complex and utterly authentic about the nature of its war-torn storyline and characters. While we don’t get to spend much time with its exceptional ensemble cast, we get just enough from each of them to feel for them as individuals, and for each of them to present a different deconstruction of the Star Wars mythos.

The easiest to identify is Diego Luna’s Captain Cassian Andor—a Rebel pilot who delivers two of the film’s most powerful moments. If you’ve seen them (and if you haven’t, please stop reading here since I really am going to spoil everything), you’ll remember both: his retorts in the ship after he spared Galen Erso (only to have him die to friendly fire) and his monologue at Yavin 4 as he volunteers for the final assault on Scarif. Both express one of Rogue One’s central ideas—that for the Rebels’ “spies, saboteurs, and assassins,” a sense of morality, of a defined right and wrong, is impossible to hold onto. Cassian and each and every one of his men had committed horrible acts and killed in cold blood for their cause, to the point where they’d lost all sense of morality. This, of course, flies in the face of everything Star Wars had previously built itself on—the Rebels are unassailable, the Empire is monolithic, and Luke, Leia, and Han were always forces of good. Here, these soldiers are just forces—forces untethered to the moral codes that had once bound them, lost, trying to be found. It’s a powerful meditation on the nature of war made only stronger by its choice of universe.

Because that’s Rogue One’s game—it takes the Star Wars universe, which ranks with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in terms of moral absolutism, and reveals the ambiguity, the confusion, and the suffering lurking under the surface. While the Original Trilogy follows the ascension of a chosen one and the redemption of a fallen one, Rogue One is about the footsoldiers that came before them—the ones who had died offscreen to make their story possible. Star Wars is about the heroes; Rogue One is about all the people that supported their heroism, that made their narratives possible.

And that idea—of the grayscale morality and twisted reflections—permeates every moment of Rogue One. When Forest Whittaker’s Saw Gererra takes that first long, rattling breath from his inhaler, surrounded by the creaking of his mechanical exoskeleton, he sounds almost exactly like Darth Vader. In the following minutes, he tortures a defected Imperial pilot with a mind-reading slug to satisfy his own paranoia, and later accuses Jyn—effectively his foster daughter—of trying to trap him for the empire. More machine than man and lost to a brand of extremism almost indistinguishable from the Empire’s own style of tyranny, he accepts his death when it comes, leaving Jyn and her crew to carry on those very themes.

In truth, that may also be the most powerful thing about Rogue One: that it makes death important. Star Wars is filled with deaths that leave little impact, of foot-soldiers fallen to Imperial attacks, of X-Wings crashed into the side of the Death Star, of rebels dying by the thousands just on or off-screen, and most of those deaths barely cause any impact. Star Wars is Luke’s story, Anakin’s story—the story of the commanders, the superheroes, the chosen ones. In contrast, Rogue One is the story of those very foot-soldiers sacrificing themselves for their cause, and from its amazing central quintet to every other Rebel soldier, it makes their sacrifices impactful. Somehow, it avoids the harshest pitfall of the “everybody dies” narrative—here, every death does actually feel necessary. Each fallen character adds something to the story, from redemption to rediscovered morality to an affirmation of the power of the Force. And for each of those main characters (for all of them do, in fact, die), their final frames are more powerful than almost anything Star Wars had ever done. Hours later, the image of Jyn and Cassian embracing as the shock wave engulfs them, secure in the knowledge that they’d sent their transmission, that their cause would survive, is still giving me chills.

Of course, Rogue One has much more than that—it is, after all, the Star Wars story its subtitle announces it as, and the cameos and references would feel incredibly gratuitous if the rest of the movie didn’t make them feel earned (though Tarkin’s reanimation raises way more questions than it answers, and never quite leaves the uncanny valley enough to be anything but disturbing). Darth Vader provided a couple of incredible moments, especially in the finale as the film finally shifted back towards Star Wars’ typical aesthetic, and Leia’s brief cameo gave it the conclusion it needed. But still, it’s so much more than just another Star Wars film.

In fact, the best comparison I can make is to another space-set piece of fiction—to Doctor Who and my all-time favorite of its many, many episodes, a piece of locked-room horror titled “Midnight.” Like “Midnight,” Rogue One is a deconstruction—a work that subverts the tropes and narratives of its parent series to create something incredibly powerful. Like “Midnight,” it reverses routine components of its series’ mythos and inverts its usual moral structure. And like “Midnight,” it’s impactful precisely because of that subversiveness, of its critique of the series around it. For “Midnight,” it presented the Doctor as someone without the ability to communicate, an alien unable to understand human fear. For Rogue One, it presents the war that defines the Star Wars universe not as glamorous and defined by singular heroism, but as dark, ambiguous, and defined by sacrifice. By death.

And like “Midnight,” Rogue One will keep me thinking and analyzing for a long, long time. One motif in particular caught my eye: the tower cilmb. Twice in Rogue One, Jyn finds herself climbing a seemingly impassable tower, first in the rain to reach her lost father and second on Scarif to reach the radio transmitter. The first is to save someone she loves, the second is to save everything she cares about. The first ends in her father’s death—to friendly fire, another powerful statement about the true nature of war—and the second ends in hers. Both moments find their power in that idea of exertion, of effort, of, in essence, a kind of heroism associated not with chosen heroes but with soldiers. And in the end, that’s what Rogue One is.

A film about soldiers, chosen not by divine providence but by chance and circumstance, trying to rediscover the morality the lofty ideals of their universe seem to take for granted.

A subversive deconstruction of the Star Wars universe, of its disregard for death and its impossibly clear morality.

A piece of art about survival, about the continuation of an ideal in the face of the horrors of war, in context with a story destined to be won or lost by someone else.

One of the best prequels I’ve ever seen. One of the best big-budget movies in recent memory. Both not at all Star Wars film and the best Star Wars film ever made.

I won’t be able to watch the rest of them the same way ever again.

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