(Diego’s Note: originally written for AE, thought I’d reupload since it’s been almost half a decade since this banger dropped. I’m not 100% as big on this film as I once was but I still think shit rocks and it’s a miracle that it comes together like it does for me. Still one of the most gorgeous blockbusters of the 2010s and I think we should all worship DP Greig Fraser for successfully pioneering the new digital look of Star Wars here and in The Mandalorian)
Early on in Rogue One Felicity Jones’s character, Jyn Erso, tells a commune of rebels, “Rebellions are built on hope.” It’s one of the more poignant lines in Rogue One, but also admittedly melancholy. In what is perhaps the darkest entry in the Star Wars saga to date, hope isn’t just a fleeting thing, it’s as though it’s been snuffed out of this once-magical universe entirely. The Empire’s arm extends across the entire galaxy, the rebellion is currently a conglomerate of uncertain allies, and the last bastion of Jedi history is now grounds for another hive of scum and villainy. How can a rebellion be built on hope when hope’s foundation is continuously pulled out from under them?
Extrapolating and reapplying his masterful sense of scale from Godzilla, Director Gareth Edwards stacks our heroes (or “Rogues”) against monstrous odds. Where Godzilla showed how little the characters (and humanity) mattered in the grand scheme of the world, Rogue One hones in on how every person does matter, even when placed against towering odds.
An early skirmish on Jedha, the Jedi Holy Planet inspired by Middle Eastern cities and culture, militant rebels engage in a firefight with a group Imperial troopers. It’s a vicious action sequence, one of the heavier moments in the Star Wars universe exposing Jyn and Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor to unforgiving crossfire. But that’s not all at the shootout threatens innocent lives merely making their way through the marketplace. A child screams out for help, Cassian refraining from helping the child because of their mission, but even early in her journey Jyn understands the magnitude of this decision. There can be no true victory if they lose themselves along the way.
There’s this fantastic juxtaposition in Rogue One as the humanity between heroes and villains is distinguished in operatic fashion. The Empire is focused on individuals tearing each other down, a race to the top of the food chain for prominence. The Rebellion learns to hold true to one another, benefiting from the belief that people are stronger together.
Ben Mendehlson’s science officer Krennic put forth the plans for the Death Star and oversaw the installation’s construction for over 15 years. He’s Oppenheimer without the conscience, a man the Empire would praise as a war hero – or so you’d think. Given the cutthroat nature of the Empire he constantly faces an uphill battle to maintain some semblance of notoriety over the project. Even though Krennic has created the space equivalent of nuclear armageddon, he’s no Darth Vader. Krennic is middle management at best.
In the early scenes in Rogue One, it matters that the rebels are no saints. There are shades of gray thrown into the mix, with characters asserting that in times of war, anything must be done to attain victory. Our first glimpse of Cassian is a reconnaissance mission where, due to the “victory at any cost” mentality, he murders his informant when exposed to a nearby Imperial patrol. It’s a dangerous ideology the film and characters rightfully address. If they can’t show the compassion, they’re no better than Stormtroopers.
Furthermore, how the film treats the Rogues on their mission continuously separates them from the Empire. The rebellion hoists up the Rogues as heroes worthy of remembrance. The Rogues march head on to inevitable self-destruction in the finale. One by one they fall, each individual edging the team further towards this a victory that will decide the fate of the galaxy. All the Rogues need to do is send a signal to one of the rebel ships above the atmosphere. The rebellion honors their sacrifice, solidifying their bravery and giving new weight to an already cathartic finale in the original Star Wars. The same respect cannot be said for any section of the Empire.
As Krennic’s political endeavors with the Death Star remains in a continuous free fall, his superiors continue to reap the benefits of the weapon’s construction. Even in Return of the Jedi, as the second Death Star begins to self-destruct, only Luke Skywalker assists Vader in the escape. The rest of the Imperial troops run to save their own asses. Individualistic greed and hunger for power cannot sustain any regime. Only in one another do the rebels find and sustain hope.
In the finale, Krennic is abandoned by the power structure he chose to impose order through, tossed by the wayside and forgotten by history. All he can do is watch as he is destroyed by the very weapon he manufactured.
Through every step of their journey the Rogues are beaten and battered, barely scraping through encounters with the endless onslaught of Stormtroopers. Their victories are small, seemingly inconsequential, with only the hunt for intelligence on the Death Star providing any sense of worth. The Rebellion can’t possibly have any feeling of consequence when the Empire now has the ability to destroy planets. A rebel leader asks “What chance do we have?” and she’s right to ask. How does someone keep powering forward even after they’ve lost everything? Hope. Rogue One is the story of establishing hope in a galaxy far from remembering what hope looks like.
Hope is not a mathematical equation or percentage calculation. The idea relies on people of all backgrounds and colors standing up together to fight for what is right. It’s in the willpower, the belief that people can achieve the impossible and that there’s something worth fighting for. If they can’t achieve it, they’ll sure as hell die trying. People of all colors stand united, appearing mightier than any AT-AT.
As Jyn Erso walks to the battered beaches with her surviving teammate, Cassian Andor, the two look to the oncoming blast of the Death Star. It’s a magnificent shot that perfectly encapsulates the film’s thesis statement, almost resembling a distorted version of the classic binary sunset. To the naked eye, these heroes appear defeated. In truth, they know victory of an unknown precedent. Jyn not only fought, led, and won the plans for the Death Star, but reminded the rebellion of the very ideals it fought to protect: hope in one another, over all else. I’m still flabbergasted this imagery made it into a $200+ million family blockbuster.
Rogue One is not the joyous space adventure that The Force Awakens was. It longs for the time when space wasn’t filled with darkness, when The Force still felt present in the universe. Through the course of the film, the battle for hope itself becomes shockingly relevant. Given the state of the world, it’s more than a little difficult to feel optimistic about the future. We’re in a world where a seemigngly confessed sexual assaultant can win the White House, progressive rights for people of color and LGTBQ are constantly pushed against, a citywide massacre occurred in real time over Twitter, and there’s seemingly no end in sight to an onslaught of garbage news.
In the real world, there’s no Death Star to blow up nor is there a simple answer to any one’s suffering. Hope can feel fleeting, it might even feel absent on an individual scale. But, Rogue One illustrates, it’s in the communal spirit of togetherness that we can build foundations for a stronger tomorrow. It won’t be easy but nothing worth having ever is. Not all of us have the ability to make change through higher positions of political power. Instead we make change on our own terms, grassroots or otherwise. Art is a common and powerful tool, one which allows us to expresses our actions and aspirations and in the great tradition of film, one we’ll be seeing more often as a volatile weapon against oppression.
What Gareth Edwards and company have built with Rogue One is a monument to hope and a reminder that even the smallest victory is still one worth celebrating.