DECEMBER 26, 2016
“I’VE NEVER HAD the luxury of political opinions,” quips Jyn Erso, the second scrappy young heroine in the Disney-era Star Wars franchise. Jyn is clearly no Luke Skywalker: she isn’t born with Force powers, she doesn’t hate the Empire as a matter of course, and for her, joining the Rebellion isn’t some kind of Call to Adventure. Instead, her words set up a provocative narrative of political awakening that makes this “Star Wars Story” more than just a profitable and spectacular elaboration of an existing franchise; it is also — and most importantly — a film that is topical, politically charged, and even, perhaps, a little bit radical.
Rogue One’s appeal is hard to resist as we skim fearfully through the daily headlines and appear to witness a rising tide of global fascism. In this context, a Hollywood blockbuster in which a ragtag team of minorities embarks on a seemingly hopeless mission to disrupt a white supremacist superpower plays directly into a leftist political sensibility. And when proto-fascist commander Krennic gleefully quips that the Death Star’s genocidal terror is necessary to “restore order,” the narrative’s resonance with the coded racism of the Trump campaign is difficult to ignore.
In a certain sense, Star Wars has always been political — though clearly not in the same way as Star Trek, which (at least in its early years) emphatically expressed a progressive liberal agenda. George Lucas, the one-time radical who was originally slated to direct Apocalypse Now, slyly organized his cheesy space opera’s deep political structure as an allegory about the United States’s involvement in Vietnam. It doesn’t take a whole lot of analytical insight to recognize the original trilogy’s Rebellion as a band of guerrilla fighters taking up arms against a technologically superior invading force — with Return of the Jedi’s battle of Endor surely the most obvious expression of this subversive political edge.
Over the years, snarky critics have had fun pointing out that Luke Skywalker is the very model of a radicalized jihadist freedom fighter, but the fact that the Rebels were portrayed on-screen by a bunch of white guys ended up undercutting or arguably even reversing this dynamic. Over the years, the staggering absence of diversity in the Star Wars films has become a key point of criticism within fan culture, aggravated further by the franchise’s pervasive nostalgia and the prequels’ racist stereotypes.
As the first theatrical Star Wars film to appear outside of the franchise’s central numbered movie episodes, Rogue One embraces the basic political orientation of the original trilogy and the recent “legacyquel” The Force Awakens: a young protagonist is drawn into the battle against an emerging evil Empire and joins the fight against an impossibly superior force. While this standalone adventure positively overflows with fan-friendly references to the existing storyworld, however, it is also — importantly — a story that plays out almost entirely outside the Skywalker family saga that has been the central films’ main focus. By ridding Rogue One of the Skywalker family and the politically indefensible order of mystical Jedi knights, this film treads new ground. It’s refreshing to engage with this world via a character who is not a messianic “Chosen One” who’s genetically disposed to engage in lightsaber duels or sorcerer’s mind tricks. Presenting her and the team that develops around her as fairly ordinary folks who find common cause against a totalitarian regime gives director Gareth Edwards a terrific opportunity for a major intervention.
This liberates Rogue One from the franchise’s tiresome Hero’s Journey myth-making, and the new film’s long-overdue investment in gender balance and ethnic diversity (which is also shared by The Force Awakens) radically alters its political and ideological implications: it’s one thing to watch blue-eyed Luke Skywalker blow up a weapon of mass destruction populated by guys in Nazi uniforms in the 1970s. But it is something else entirely to see a young woman leading a crack squad of minorities on a suicide mission against an arrogant gang of white supremacists in the age of Trump, the “alt-right,” and neo-fascist populism.
This provocative and timely aspect of Rogue One is most visible during the film’s first major battle, set in the decidedly Middle Eastern ancient city of Jedha, where armed insurgents have destabilized the Empire’s occupying forces. In the exciting action sequence that quickly develops, Jyn and her friends are assisted by a group of fighters clad in robes and turbans who show up just in time to save Jyn and her shipmates from the imperial forces that quickly surround them. In this moment, the film both acknowledges the franchise’s historical appropriation of global anti-imperialist struggles and at the same time introduces a street-level perspective on the larger conflict’s real impact on daily life in occupied territories.
Rogue One is also the first film in the franchise that looks and feels like an actual war film, where battles are messy, where major characters are counted among the casualties, and where anti-fascist struggle is a fundamentally political choice. There are moments in the film where this sense of political commitment as a more-than-symbolic anti-fascism really finds purchase — especially where those deciding to sacrifice their lives to fight the Empire are represented on-screen by ethnic groups that are currently most vulnerable. In this context, I will concede that I am myself somewhat vulnerable to the well-meaning but inevitably clunky speeches in which the real necessity for direct action is laid out clearly and plainly.
Unfortunately, this admirable attempt to politicize Star Wars isn’t the film’s only focus, or even necessarily its dominant one. For a seemingly simple and straightforward narrative, Rogue One allows itself to be sidetracked with alarming frequency. The most obvious distractions come in the form of the constant callbacks to the original trilogy (in case anyone forgets they’re watching a Star Wars movie, I suppose). Some of these reassuring nods to the nerdiest fans are clever and unobtrusive, especially when superficially familiar locations (like the Yavin rebel base) are fleshed out more fully without getting in the way of the story.
But the barrage of characters shoehorned into the film as jokey cameos and “Easter Eggs,” like those two hoodlums from the Mos Eisley bar bumping into Jyn on another planet, feel forced and uncalled for. As with the endless, similar callbacks in the prequels, these incessant connections make the Star Wars universe somehow feel smaller, with the same limited cast of characters constantly bumping into each other across an insanely large-scale intergalactic adventure story. And speaking of the lamentable prequels, it’s ironic that the worst distraction throughout the film is a CGI character who — while far removed from the deeply offensive Jar Jar Binks — still just about ruins every scene he shows up in.
However, much more aggravating than the fan service being offered here is how this emphatic franchise-building feeds into a nostalgia that is directly at odds with the film’s refreshing political energy. Fredric Jameson famously described the original Star Wars as the epitome of nostalgia cinema: the type of Hollywood storytelling that stimulates the postmodern audience’s reactionary desire for the forms and styles of a simpler, purer, but ultimately imaginary past. With his glossy pastiche of popular genres from the medium’s past (the western, the World War II movie, the sci-fi serial), George Lucas couched his already oblique political allegory in the hazy glow of media nostalgia, thereby making Star Wars come across as reactionary myth-making rather than progressive science-fantasy.
As an entry in Disney’s growing collection of transmedia storyworlds, charting new ground in the Star Wars franchise is therefore obviously an uphill battle. While one can’t help but wonder what kind of film this was before the elaborate last-minute rewrites and reshoots, the end result is in too many ways a war film that is often its own worst enemy. This is not to say that it’s a failure: Rogue One is as dark, edgy, and ideologically forthright as a major franchise movie like this is likely to get. And we should be thankful not only for the way it provides positive representation for minority groups who are increasingly embattled, but also for the fact that it has pissed off quite a few Trump supporters who are only now realizing that the bad guys in these movies are quite literally Nazis.
So we might surely quibble about how Jyn too rarely comes alive as a character in the way that The Force Awakens’s Rey did so effortlessly, or how Forest Whitaker’s bizarrely accented guerrilla leader serves so little narrative purpose, or how the great Ben Mendelsohn is criminally under-utilized as the main new villain, or even how doing to Darth Vader what the prequels did to Yoda may look cool at first, but is actually quite annoying in hindsight. And at another level, we could justifiably complain that progressive radical politics are poorly served by devoting even more attention to corporate-produced entertainment franchises like this.
But to a global culture fully immersed in media, it truly matters what shapes these stories take. Representation matters. Storytelling matters. And yes, Star Wars matters. Not just because a film like this gives millions of people of color around the globe heroic characters to recognize and identify with, or that it’s centered on a female protagonist whose actions and abilities aren’t defined by her parentage or her romantic relationships.
It matters most of all because the one idea the film really commits to is how these “star wars” aren’t about abstract collisions between mythic notions of good and evil. As much as the Easter Eggs, cameos, and uncanny CGI specters try to weaponize the wrong kind of nostalgia, something in Rogue One nevertheless continues to resist the gravitational pull of reactionary spectacle. By telling a story in which political resistance isn’t a matter of fate, but of political choices made at tremendous personal cost, we are indeed far removed from the original film’s phallocentric conflation of Jungian archetypes and Freudian motifs.
So even as the script appears to be building up to the moment when a key character finally learns to intone the franchise’s spiritual mantra, “May the Force be with you,” the line that truly resonates is both more fearful, more honest, and more respectful toward its audience. At the end of their last-ditch effort to broadcast the stolen Death Star plans to the Rebellion, Jyn’s comrade-in-arms Cassian turns to her and asks, “You think anybody’s listening?” Coming toward the end of the film’s sometimes-awkward jumble of world-building, franchising, and retconning, the line has a tinge of desperation to it, asking us directly if we, the audience, have managed to dismiss all the clutter and truly get the point. But even through all the techno-hubris and nostalgiaphilia, the backward-glancing Rogue One somehow makes important steps forward, as its anti-fascist payload thankfully manages to come through loud and clear.