‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is the political (and religious) parable we need right now

Yes, it’s good.

CREDIT: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP
CREDIT: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

This review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards and produced by Disney, is broken into two sections. The first is a surface-level review intentionally devoid of spoilers, but the second delves into an in-depth analysis of the movie’s major themes and plot points. If you haven’t yet seen the film, just read the first section. You can read the second bit when you get back home.

In the lead up to the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a group of white supremacists announced their intention to boycott the film, condemning what they called its “pro-multiculturalism” message—or the fact that the bad guys are entirely white humans and the heroes are a diverse band of mostly non-white men, women, aliens, and robots.

The boycott itself isn’t especially surprising, as hate groups issued a similar threat ahead of the release of last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Moreover, Rogue One’s writers directly challenged white supremacists weeks earlier, when Chris Weitz tweeted in response to Donald Trump’s election “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” His fellow writer Gary Whitta later added “…Opposed by a multicultural group led by brave women.”

But it was a bit surprising last week when Disney CEO Bob Iger dismissed the idea that the film, directed by Gareth Edwards, had any political dimensions.

“Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy,” he told The Hollywood Reporter while attending the world premiere in Los Angeles. “It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.”

Having seen the film, I can tell you the truth: That is a baldfaced lie.

Rogue One, like all Star Wars films, is unabashedly, unashamedly political in all the ways that matter. It’s also overtly religious in ways that previous Star Wars films only hinted at, and while the result is flawed in several ways, Edwards manages to combine these two dynamics to create one of the best films ever to come out of the galaxy far, far away.

Yes, ‘Rogue One’ is a fantastic Star Wars film.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Rogue One is a stunning film, and easily the most beautiful of the entire series. You should ignore seemingly unhinged reviewers who panned it because they inexplicably loved the prequels more (what?), and know that this movie rivals The Empire Strikes Back in terms of maturity and punch.

But what makes Rogue One so special is often lost in comparisons to other “trilogy” films such as last year’s The Force Awakens — because while Edwards’ tale is part of the Star Wars story, it’s not meant to be part of George Lucas’/J.J. Abrams’ grander “myth.” Rather, it’s the first installment of what Disney is calling “Anthology” Star Wars films, which connect to the larger overarching narrative but which aren’t part of the core series. It is meant to be a direct prequel to the original Star Wars film, 1977’s A New Hope, tasked with describing how the Rebel Alliance managed to apprehend the Death Star plans that allowed Luke Skywalker to destroy the massive space station and become the hero we all know and love.

What makes Rogue One so special is lost in comparisons to other “trilogy” films such as last year’s The Force Awakens, because while Edwards’ tale is part of the Star Wars story, it’s not meant to be part of Lucas’ grander “myth.”

And in that regard, this film more than succeeds. Rogue One is a genuinely engaging war story laser-focused on characters who never even get to know someone with a lightsaber, much less hold one. It’s a yarn about the galaxy’s true misfits — the less-than-special ones who rise up against the empire out of desperation and necessity.

Granted, it helps that these characters are portrayed by an enormously talented troupe of actors, who, as mentioned, are indeed super diverse (as one of my theater companions excitedly whispered early on in the film, “there’s not a single white American man on screen right now!”). Rogue One centers on the story of Jyn Erso, a rebel-without-a-cause (who eventually finds one) aptly performed by Felicity Jones.

After being cast away from her family at a young age and raised by controversial revolutionary Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), Jyn is quite literally forced back into the fight against the Empire by dashing Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the true star of the film: K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a hilarious, reprogrammed Imperial droid who is rapidly becoming Star Wars fans’ new favorite robot. Hounded at every turn by the darkly ambitious Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the group eventually teams up with the likes of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) to stage a heist of galactic proportions.

If that description sounds action-oriented, that’s because it is — the entire third act had my heart pounding out of my chest. But don’t be misled into thinking that this is a “fun” buddy film a la The Force Awakens. This is a war film, and it is dark, a fact Edwards makes clear in the first 10 minutes and drives home for the next two hours. To be fair, this is kind of the point: the story is rooted in the experience of the “everyday” rebels — those extras who seem to take all the blaster bolts that inexplicably miss heroes like Leia Organa, Han Solo, or Luke Skywalker. Consequently, people die in this film. A lot of people. All the time.

The story is rooted in the experience of the “everyday” rebels — those extras who seem to take all the blaster bolts that inexplicably miss heroes like Leia Organa, Han Solo, or Luke Skywalker. Consequently, people die in this film. A lot of people. All the time.

And yet their deaths, like everything else in Rogue One, are somehow jaw-droppingly beautiful. Fans of Edwards’ work won’t be too surprised, given the director once painstakingly created digital effects for a full-length feature film entirely on his own. But his adoration for high quality special effects shines in Rogue One, where he uses a number of technological tricks and signature muted tones to expand the list of known planets, bring new (and old) characters to life, and generally craft an entirely new look for the Star Wars universe.

But in the midst of all this new, Edwards is more than happy to offer some of the old. The film is chock-full of cameos, clever Easter Eggs, and hidden references to other parts of the franchise, but delivered in a very different way than the nostalgia-fest that was Abrams’ The Force Awakens. Edwards’ references are often subtle and obscure, and highlight a clear difference between how the two directors approach the Star Wars universe. As one of my friends put it, the films speak to two different kinds of “fanboys (or girls)”: Abrams is for the boy who dressed up like a Jedi on Halloween, but Edwards is for the girl who poured over the Star Wars encyclopedia for hours on end, committing to memory the names, species, and back stories of the most obscure characters. Both breeds of fandom will love Rogue One, but the super-nerds will probably love it just a little bit more.

This isn’t to say that Rogue One is without major flaws. The first third is needlessly frenetic, jumping from location to location in a way that is initially entertaining, but ultimately confusing. There are moments when the dialogue veers into platitudes, and times when CG characters — while generally stunning — tumble into the “uncanny valley” that will weird some viewers out. Sometimes scenes clearly designed to have emotional impact don’t quite connect, the whole thing suffers from “trying to do too much” syndrome, and it’s unclear how the film’s dark tenor will play with younger audiences (parents be warned: this film may frighten your children).

But the final result far outweighs the film’s shortcomings, with Edwards finally mustering the gritty kind of Star Wars experience that many fans have been craving for years.

The movie is also a poignant reflection on religion and politics, and how the two interact in times of war.

Now about that whole “no political statements” thing. While it’s true that Star Wars rarely veers into explicit political commentary, it’s absurd to argue that a story about a rebellion against an evil Empire isn’t at some level inherently political—and Rogue One is no exception. From the Empire’s internal squabbles to the tension between the Rebellion and Saw Gerrera’s “militant” splinter group on Jedha, Edwards and his team of writers tackle the geo-political (gala-political?) complexities of a universe at war head-on.

The writers even appear to use an exchange between Gerrera and Jyn to shame those who would try to opt out of the galaxy’s moral conflicts. When Jyn expresses frustration with the grizzled veteran’s thirst for violent resistance, he replies by asking how she could possibly live happily in a universe where Imperial flags fly.

“What does it matter if you never look up?” she responds, flatly. The line is meant to stun Gerrera and the audience alike, and she’s ultimately proven wrong. The moment Jyn loses another loved one to the Empire is the same moment she commits herself to the Rebellion, as she comes to recognize that so many of her fellow fighters, like herself, “lost everything.”

Yet the rag-tag band of rebels are bound together by more than just anger and grief—they are also connected by a shared quasi-religious devotion to the Force. Rogue One is certainly not the first Star Wars film to play with faith themes. George Lucas has spoken at length about how the Force is meant to be religious, telling Bill Moyers in 1999 that including it was a deliberate attempt to “awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people.”

“That is what ‘Use The Force’ is, is a leap of faith,” he said. “That there are mysteries and powers larger than we are, and that you have to trust your feelings in order to — to access these things.”

But Edwards takes this idea a step further by blurring the line between religion and galactic politics—just as our own world does. It’s not exactly hard to parse, for instance, that the film’s first major set piece — Jedha, a city the Jedi deem sacred—is a fusion of “Jedi” and “Judah,” the latter being the Biblical kingdom whose capital was Jerusalem. Edwards has openly admitted that the fictional city is meant to evoke very real, modern-day holy locales such as Mecca or Jerusalem, in part because he sees the original trilogy as a retelling of the Christ narrative.

“If A New Hope is kind of the story of Jesus, there must be a whole religion beyond that, and so it felt like what was it a thousand generations the Jedi were the leaders of the spiritual belief system, so it’s like there’s gotta be like a Mecca or Jerusalem within the Star Wars world,” Edwards said during a panel in July. “It felt very contemporary to have a situation where the Empire were imposing themselves on what means a lot to the spiritual side of Star Wars for their own reasons, their own goals, and within that area there’s a resistance that’s building and trying to fight back, but our characters end up having to go to Jedha and they basically end up getting pulled into their story a bit.”

Anyone who has strolled through the markets of Jerusalem’s Old City and been jarred by the sight of heavily armed Israel Defense Force soldiers on every corner (not to mention checkpoints in hyper-militarized East Jerusalem) will see parallels with the Imperial presence in Jedha.

His use of “contemporary” is key. Anyone who has strolled through the markets of Jerusalem’s Old City and been jarred by the sight of heavily armed Israel Defense Force soldiers on every corner (not to mention checkpoints in hyper-militarized East Jerusalem) will see parallels with the Imperial occupation of Jedha. Meanwhile, the rampant militancy of Saw Gerrera’s fringe group of unusually violent rebels (insert any of history’s innumerable armed militia groups here) is never glorified, but rather repeatedly veiled in shades of gray. When beloved characters die in Rogue One, it is not always the Empire that kills them.

To be clear, Edwards isn’t trying to equate the IDF with the Empire or using Star Wars to make a point about groups who participate in the Israel-Palestine conflict (and neither am I). But he doesn’t have to: like every Star Wars film, Rogue One lifts up political images we recognize to help us reflect on our own world by traveling to another one.

Like every Star Wars film, Rogue One lifts up political images we recognize to help us reflect on our own world — by traveling to another one.

And then there is Chirrut Îmwe, the blind warrior-priest who helps spell out the film’s take on faith itself. Although not a Jedi, he reveres the Force (which this time is graciously devoid of “midichlorians” Lucas invented during the prequels) in an overtly religious fashion, and his constant refrain “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me” is described as a prayer. The Force is something more tangible for him than others (it’s presumably what allows him to see), but he also says explicitly what other characters only hint at: even for those who will never lift an X-Wing with their mind, the Force remains powerful, in part because it is believed to be good.

Meanwhile, hope, which is mentioned often in this film, becomes synonymous with the Force. The parting words of Jyn’s mother are “trust the Force”; when frightened or tense, our hero fingers her kyber-crystal necklace, forged from the same material the Empire is plundering in Jedha; and when she stares out at her newly assembled team of warriors near the end of the film—who she knows are most likely doomed to failure—Jyn utters roughly the same line Han Solo will deliver in the same hangar later in the series: “May the Force be with us.”

The true meaning behind all of this doesn’t become clear until the closing scene of the film, when Darth Vader finally ignites his lightsaber and wreaks unspeakable havoc on desperate rebel fighters frantically trying to deliver the Death Star plans. The scene is, without embellishment, genuinely horrifying: this is the Vader we always heard about but never saw, the thinly-veiled threat that lurked just behind the nightmarish mask, the inhuman monster that Obi-Wan Kenobi once described as “more machine than man.” It is frustratingly brief, but speaks volumes about the barbarous creature Anakin Skywalker has become: using a combination of brute strength, lightsaber swings, and dark force powers, the Sith Lord does far more than vanquish his terrified foes — he slaughters them.

And yet despite his tremendous power — the kind of power recently praised by soon-to-be presidential adviser Steve Bannon — the pile of bodies Vader leaves in his wake is not enough to keep the Death Star plans from escaping his grasp. Against all odds, the tapes make it to Princess Leia anyway.

It’s an awe-inspiring moment of cinema that depicts — in visceral fashion — the grim reality of what heroism often looks like to those who live it. Not only is this unlikely troupe of wounded warriors fighting an unimaginably powerful war machine that can destroy planets, they are also given the harrowing responsibility of confronting an evil, cape-wearing demon with god-like powers and seemingly no sense of empathy. Yet over and over again, the sacrifice of Rogue One’s characters — be it Saw Gerrera, Jyn, or pretty much every major character in this film — drive the same point home: at times, to resist power is to stare death and certain defeat in the face and not just accept it, but embrace it. Sometimes that means not succeeding, or even knowing if you will — not everyone gets the applause and acclaim enjoyed by Luke Skywalker. But the effort alone is worth it all the same, because maybe, just maybe, it will make all the difference.

It’s no wonder white supremacists would boycott such a film. Although wrapped in a fictional universe, it’s a reminder of what real-life humanity was willing sacrifice to defeat them in the first place, and why those who mire themselves in such wanton hatred — no matter what weapons they construct or how powerful they become — will always lose. Those they hurt, even the ones without lightsabers, will forever be willing to sacrifice more, because they believe in something greater.

If that’s not Star Wars, then I don’t know what is.