Many thanks to Maritere Gomez for making this post possible.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t watched Rogue One yet and you care about spoilers, you might want to save this post for later.
As far as I am concerned, none of the Star Wars movies had ever been noteworthy from a critical perspective, (which did nothing to deter me from avid fanhood). Sure, they were either lovably campy or laughably trying too hard, but I think the closest we ever got to critical was the comparison some could make between the Galactic Republic and the Roman Empire in the prequel trilogy (if I’m remembering things correctly).
That all changes with the release of Rogue One.
It should be noted, the timing of this movie’s release is miraculous. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting much, and this movie far exceeded even the expectations I could have had. I don’t know how Gareth Edwards knew that radicals of the world would need a message like this after the election we just went through, but if you need an antidote for your cynicism (like I always do), then this movie is for you.
Rogue One was so different from any of the Star Wars storylines we have seen so far. For one, it is not concerned with the Big People at the top. The film shows us the nitty-gritty ugliness of war among middle management and the poor. In fact, the images evoked in this movie bear a remarkable resemblance to wars throughout the twentieth century, especially World War II. From the very start, we are taken to Jyn Erso’s (Felicity Jones) home in Lah’mu, a mountainous, evocative, green place that vaguely resembles Switzerland or Germany (with the exception of the planet’s rings in the background). This scene, where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) puts up a futile last stand against Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) even hearkens to The Sound of Music, when German soldiers attempt to coerce Captain Von Trapp into joining the army because they “need” his military prowess. I have mixed feelings about this scene. On one hand, I think it was practical of the screenplay folks to portray the mother’s death at the hands of empire. Lyra (Valene Kane) pleads with Krennic to leave her family alone, and he kills her. The Empire gives no fucks about families (kind of like empires in real life). On the other hand, it bothers me on some deeper level that this is still a scene that is only possible with white people. Let’s be real, even smart people of color are not spared by empires. They become labor forces or casualties of war.
The casting of Felicity Jones was curious to me at first, but made sense after watching the caliber of acting this film calls for. I notice that with the trilogy movies, the actors being recruited are rather new to Hollywood–which I’m guessing is strategic because it adds to the campiness of the film, since there is no “image” attached to the actors yet. (This is not to say that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega don’t have talent or do the roles justice). But Felicity Jones is relatively established–we are familiar with her in The Theory of Everything and Inferno, two films that seem somewhat dramatic compared to the Star Wars films. I wondered what the significance of that could be.
The answer came to me after I saw the movie. Even before Jyn was born, the Ersos lived with the threat of war. Jyn’s family is eventually torn apart as a direct result of the empire’s actions when she is very young. Nonetheless, she retains some semblance of innocence, in spite of being handy with a gun and throwing very effective punches. Though she is bold, she is not vengeful, nor is she originally aligned with the Rebellion. Cassian (Diego Luna) reminds her again and again that she is different from members of the Rebellion because she “chose” not to do anything about the forces that have displaced her and cause her pain. Jones does a great job of portraying a person who has seen a lot of violence and also spends a lot of time running from violence. Jyn is a person who has lived in fear all her life, as have many other people under the Empire’s reign. Rogue One aptly portrays the effects of a despot’s control over people’s daily lives.
I think the casting of a young-looking person for the role of Jyn was done intentionally. Jones is a small woman at 5’3″, and at 33 years old, she could still pass for someone in her early twenties.To me, Jyn is a symbol of the many children and youth, past and current, who live with the legacy of war. Even the settings in which she travels throughout the movie and the situations she finds herself in–hiding in small spaces, lashing out at people who claim to be helping her–are reminiscent of children in places like Syria, Palestine, Venezuela, Cambodia, Vietnam, Germany, and the streets of Chicago, who behave this way to survive.
On Jedha and Scarif, the film comments on how war affects people of color. The settings of both planets seemed very intentional to me. The city on Jedha closely resembles cities in the Middle East (or at least, the American interpretation of them). Jedha is dry and sandy, and in the crowded streets, vendors and residents wear long, flowing clothes. It is here that the main characters find Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), and also where the Death Star is first tested.
It speaks volumes that the Death Star is tested in a place where it seems like a lot of black and brown people must live (Saw dies in this first test). The Death Star acutely conjures images of nuclear warfare. This first “test” alludes to the days of testing nuclear bombs in Indigenous territory. It also appeals to more recent drone strikes in various Middle Eastern and African countries. The Empire’s excuse for using Jedha as the test site is that they know that a rebel base exists there. Yet, the force used by the Empire to demolish the base is analogous to being annoyed by a fly and throwing a brick at it. Were they really getting rid of the rebels, or did they need an excuse to get rid of a whole city of aliens/people of color/people the Empire didn’t approve of? Dare I say Rogue One seems to be commenting on the US’s interest in military force at the expense of people of color?
The symbolic cast of people of color in this film was fascinating. I’m not sure whether or not that was done on purpose, but if it was, I find this technique to be both admirable and a little concerning (admirable because people of color are playing roles where people of color should be, and concerning because I’m still not sure how I feel about one person representing a vast and diverse group). It pleases me greatly that Diego Luna, who plays Cassian, has an accent as thick as a tectonic plate and was born in Mexico City. I don’t know nearly enough about the wars of Latinoamerica to tell you how it is fitting of Luna to play Cassian, a character who is known for being kind of ruthless and fiercely loyal to the Rebellion, but I know enough to say that it is fitting.
I’m not sure I am as sold on Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook. I do feel as though they made Ahmed play up the sleazy look a little bit (not to mention the temper and the big mouth), which is a bit of a stereotype considering the guy is Pakistani. I can’t lie, though; I’m still happy there is one brown dude reppin’ the Subcontinent in this movie.
But the pair that absolutely warms and breaks my heart are Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). The deaths of these two characters seemed symbolic as well, as they took place on the planet Scarif, which was intended to resemble the Pacific Front of World War II. The last battle takes place on a beach covered with palm trees that looks as humid as Vietnam. The use of the Death Star on Scarif seems to implicate the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus, the last few scenes are a kaleidoscope of events on the Asian front of World War II.
Chirrut and Baze give radically queer vibes in the scene where they both die. Chirrut, a blind warrior-monk who staunchly reveres the Force, dies after successfully opening the portal in order for the Death Star plans to be sent. He dies in Baze’s arms, and Baze finally says the words Chirrut repeated all his life to ward off danger: “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.” There was something moving about this burly Asian guy holding a delicate, more effeminate Asian guy and crying over his demise. I swear, I cried too.
There is a hint of a connection existing between Jedi and Indigenous peoples, too. I think I was awakened (no pun intended) to that possibility when we learn about Kyber crystals, which are used by Jedi to make light sabers, and which are also used by the Empire to power the Death Star. Insofar as the crystals are a natural resource, there are probably factions in the Star Wars world who fight to preserve them, and factions that fight to harvest them. It would be interesting to see if this is a point upon which future saga directors elaborate.
In short, Rogue One shows us the possibilities of what a robust, organized force of radicals can achieve. It seems to argue something beyond just arming ourselves or debating identity politics–it shows the potential of a radical collective. It is not as though Jyn, Cassian, and their band of rebels arrive on Scarif with any sort of plan. However, it takes all of them together to send the Death Star plans back to the Rebel Alliance. Perhaps our strategy to combat empire, in this modern era, should literally just be numbers. One person’s stamina only lasts for so long, but a group can get a lot done if the work is staggered or if people just have each other’s backs. Perhaps it is not the answer to all our problems, but in the information age, where the number of twitter followers you have determines your level of outreach, it’s a start.