Sunday, November 5, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: Rogue One

Problem: How to make a galaxy far, far away relatable to human viewers? Answer: Get rid of the space wizards.

I wouldn't have believed that a Star Wars movie could ever appeal to me. When I first saw an expressionless, comically stiff-necked rando with an inverted bucket on his head kidnap a princess with two huge donuts on her head who'd just entrusted her life's mission to a beeping wheeled thermos, I was unimpressed, to say the least. A few minutes later, when the movie solemnly introduced its protagonist to what was supposed to be the legendary weapon of the Jedi knights (basically a neon party glow stick), it was impossible for me to feel any respect for that universe.

That's one of the defining flaws of Star Wars: it tackles very serious themes in very unserious ways. How does the Galactic Empire operate? Why exactly did Palpatine seize power? What is so dark about the Dark Side? The prequels were supposed to fill in these blanks, but they doubled down on the original trilogy's reductive view of evil. There was potential to explore the insidious machinations that make a fascist dictatorship possible, but what we got in Episodes 1 to 3 was a moustache-twirling caricature of political ambition.

This being the overall impression Star Wars had left on me, I was meh about the prequels, and meh again when Disney announced it was producing its own movies. I saw The Force Awakens merely to be informed about it, and my low expectations weren't challenged. But one day I stumbled upon the first trailer for Rogue One, and I knew I just had to watch it.

Unlike the Episode movies, Rogue One doesn't view itself as an epic tale. It doesn't come clothed in the trappings of ancestral legend. Sure, it carries all the gravitas of inevitable tragedy, but it doesn't waste its effort in trying to prove it to you. It has none of the Episodes' suffocating self-importance. Whereas A New Hope puffs out its chest, convinced it's the love child of Shakespeare and Wagner, Rogue One keeps its attention down to earth, focused on the pain of oppression. It rejects the romanticized representation of war in the original trilogy, a thrilling adventure that culminates in everlasting glory. Instead, it owns up to the messy moral compromises you have to make when you're fighting absolute evil.

If admittedly simplistic labels such as "grimdark" and "noblebright" mean anything, Star Wars is a prime example of noblebright. The galaxy may look rustic, even derelict (I swear I'll scream if I have to hear that damn phrase "lived-in" one more time), but the story never lets go of its unshakable hope in the victory of Light over Dark. Now, there's nothing wrong with shining a golden halo above your heroes, but Star Wars pairs its chivalric fantasy with the gritty underbelly of tyranny, and the combination doesn't really work. Star Wars wants to have its noblebright cake and eat it alive too. This is the mistake that Rogue One knows to avoid.

Rogue One rejects the noblebright assumptions of just war theory and dramatizes with unblinking honesty the ugliness of armed rebellion. You may have been pushed to the breaking point where only violence will give you freedom, and you may be fully justified in seizing that freedom by force, but the rightness of your cause does not negate the inherent immorality of violence. War corrupts everyone it touches, even those fighting for the virtuous cause. And the character of Cassian Andor is a superb illustration of the muddy grey zone you have to inhabit once you've chosen to take up arms. Andor has lied and cheated and betrayed in the service of the Rebellion, and it bears fruit: this final mission will give the galaxy the strategic edge over the Empire it desperately needs. But you're not meant to forget the cost of that victory. As you'll recall, Return of the Jedi makes the ridiculous argument that Darth Vader killing the Emperor somehow suffices as redemption. Rogue One treats the viewer with more respect than that.

Moreover, Rogue One figures out how to work within the limitations established by the prequels. At this point in the timeline, there are no active Jedis, so the Rebellion has to make do with the proverbial duct tape and a prayer. That's the winning formula for instant relatability. Star Wars needs more stories like this (as Andor would later prove): human-sized stories where grit, perseverance and cooperation prove stronger than an entire Imperial army.

As Star Wars viewers know better than anyone, it's extremely hard to make a decent prequel. In Revenge of the Sith, the final fight between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader is choreographed and acted as if it were an explosive climax with massive emotional stakes... which it could be, if we didn't already know that both characters are alive in A New Hope. So this supposedly epic duel carries zero tension. Rogue One avoids that problem by using original characters. The effect, once the battle on Scarif has begun, is that the viewer slowly comes to realize that everyone in the core team is going to die, because they don't appear in the original trilogy. This is a brilliant way of leveraging viewer knowledge to enhance the drama.

And what a stellar cast we have here. Jyn Erso grows from disaffected outlaw to true believer. Cassian Andor finds a worthy reason to justify all his past misdeeds. Chirrut Îmwe is a fascinating Force-sensitive character who doesn't become a Force-user, like the Jedi, but still follows his faith to where the Force needs him to be. K-2SO is the perfect deliverer of gallows comedy. And Galen Erso navigates his delicate position by making the most of what little agency he's allowed, to the point that his story has prompted academic discussion about the ethics of engineering in the real world. There are misfires, of course; the unconvincing reanimation of Grand Moff Tarkin is a disgrace to the digital arts. We're fortunate that he's used only sparingly.

Rogue One didn't need to exist. "Why did the Death Star have a design defect?" is exactly the kind of trivia question that never matters, just like "Why didn't Rose make space for Jack on that door?" or "Why wasn't the Holdo maneuver tried before?" or "Why didn't the Fellowship just ride eagles to Mordor?" But once you've decided that you're going to make a whole movie to address that question, you had better commit to giving a meaningful answer. Rogue One took the question seriously and delivered an emotionally mature account of the pressing circumstances that make people risk everything.

The storytelling achievement that is Rogue One was the first Star Wars movie I liked, and it was what gave me the motivation to go to the cinema for The Last Jedi the following year. As I'll soon describe in its own post, that was another happy viewing experience.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.