“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
Apart from learning it was set long ago in a galaxy far away, these vague allusions to Rebel victory in the opening salvo of a galactic war and the Alliance’s acquisition of schematics to a weapon of planetary destruction were the very first glimpses audiences would glean into the Star Wars universe. Never expounded upon in the films beyond that preambulary prose, nevertheless such was a story fans were eager to see explored. As soon as Lucas began to hand over the reins to his universe in the early ‘90s creators immediately gravitated to the tale of Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans, first in Dark Forces, later in Battlefront II, and finally under the close auspices of Lucas himself in the frenetic Force Unleashed.
The last especially is of obvious influence on the cinematic and canonical account of those events, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Both prominently feature men by the name of Galen initially instrumental to the Imperials’ machinations but whose defection directly led to the destruction of the Death Star. And yet, despite clearly pulling from this previous version of essentially the same events, Rogue One is in many ways the exact opposite of its predecessors in terms of tone and theme. Dark Forces and The Force Unleashed were about lone-wolf super-soldiers wielding arsenals the size of an army’s and godlike levels of magic powers stomping their adversaries into submission through superior strength. Such were perfect power fantasies for video games, but tonally divergent from the spirit of Star Wars seen in the films. Contra director Gareth Edwards’ approach with Rogue One:
“It comes down to a group of individuals that don’t have magic powers, that have to bring hope to the galaxy. It’s about the fact that God’s not coming to save us, and we’re on our own. The absence of the Jedi is omnipresent in the film. It hangs over the whole movie.”
This is either a bit of a misdirect on Edwards’ part, or he missed the most prominent themes in Knoll and Whitta’s story treatment even as he adapted such, the latter being extremely unlikely. While it is true that overt displays of The Force are few and far between, especially relative to the other films or The Force Unleashed, nevertheless Rogue One has more to say about Jedi and The Force than those works which feature them front and center.
My personal favorite scene in the saga is not Vader’s reveal of Luke’s parentage or Yoda’s tutelage of Skywalker or metal bikini-clad slave Leia or any of the other usual answers. Rather, it’s early on in the first film as uncle Owen is in the process of purchasing a pair of droids from the Jawas when – at just the right moment – the motivator on his nearly-paid for R5 unit fails, prompting Lars to acquire another astromech instead. Were that mechanical malfunction not to occur exactly then and there, Luke would not have delivered the plans to Obi-Wan and the rebellion would have failed. Were this simply a cosmic coincidence, such would have proven poor writing on Lucas’ part. But from the context clearly this was no coincidence. It is a signal to the audience, before Ben Kenobi even introduces the concept of The Force, that there is a force a work in the galaxy, grander than the designs of the Imperials and Alliance alike, which wants the side of good to prevail; it is no passive player. The Jedi and the Sith may both “use” The Force for their petty parlor tricks, but more important to the ultimate outcome of their conflict is how The Force uses the Jedi and the Sith (as well as non-sensitive humans and aliens and even droids) to achieve in mysterious ways its own providential purpose. Similar scenes abound in Rogue One. Indeed, absent such displays of divine miracles and demonic powers on the parts of the saintly Jedi and heretical Sith, respectively, Rogue One offers a look at the real role of religion and God in the lives of everyday denizens of the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
It should come as no surprise then that much of the movie takes place in the Holy City of Jedha (presumably from which the Jedi Knights derive their name). The urban warfare which takes place in its sandy city-streets is visually reminiscent of modern Middle-Eastern conflicts, a retro sci-fi reimagining of battles in Bagdad and Aleppo, perhaps. But almost certainly the most direct inspiration is Jerusalem herself, the war waged in Jedha less so inspired by operations in Iraq or Afghanistan and more so by the first few Crusades. Indeed, that is exactly what the Galactic Civil War really is: a holy war. Not in the modern, pejorative sense which implies two equally erroneous factions using ideological differences as a pretext for violence and extremism. Rather, ‘holy war’ as the term originally was understood, with God on the side of good, favoring adherents of the right religion against evil forces led by followers of a false sect. It’s not a concept particularly agreeable to most modern minds, but is perfectly consistent with the underlying premise Star Wars’ fiction, in which The Force is real and active and the Jedi teachings true.
And while not every member of the Rogue One squad professed faith in The Force, that’s not to say that The Force is not seen working through or on them. All throughout, Chirrut Îmwe is seen repeating the mantra, “I am with The Force, and The Force is with me.” Such is a confession and profession, but also a witness to his apostate associate Baze Malbus. The latter remained consternate to such constant proselytizing, till on the field of the final battle the former suffered sacrificial martyrdom, still chanting his creed as the blaster bolts barraged him. Both played a key role in the Rebel victory, but in that particular moment it is clear that the battle is not merely for Scarif; The Force is waging holy war for not merely the galaxy as a whole but each individual in it, wanting as adherents not merely those that can lift stones and Starfighters with their thoughts, but each and every lifeform through which it flows, sensitive or not. More than Jyn or even the ensemble crew of Rogue One, The Force itself is the true protagonist of the film.
Speaking of Jyn, her character is the one flaw in what is otherwise the best Star Wars film in a full forty years. Unlike Luke or Anakin, she does not work as a cypher for the viewer to project onto, nor as a classic Campbellian hero for the audience to journey alongside. Yet neither does she share the strong feminine virtues of her fellow leading ladies, whether the regal elegance of Queen Amidala and Princess Leia or the bright-eyed, neotenous charm of Rey (though that could be more attributed to Daisy Ridley’s performance than Kasdan’s script or Abram’s direction, whereas Felicity Jones here is merely serviceable, never redeeming the role that was written).
And yet the rest of the characters are, without exception, excellent. Nearly all harken back to Expanded Universe characters of yore. Baze Malbus takes clear cues from Canderous Ordo, both being heavy-weapon wielding warriors that once fought for a people since defeated and scattered (the Mandalorians and the Guardians of the Whills, respectively). Chirrut Îmwe has a hint of Rahm Kota to him, both blind but still seeing through The Force and clad in oriental-inspired garb, in reference to the Jedi’s real world inspiration of the samurai. Sure to be the fan favorite though is K-2SO, just similar enough to the brutally honest and honestly brutal HK-47 as not to be derivative.
Not that it’s merely characters which are callbacks to the old Expanded Universe and larger mythology behind the films. Many of Rogue One’s elements can be traced directly back to Lucas’ early drafts. Kyber Crystals and the Whills both pre-date “Star Wars,” back when the intended title was “The Adventures of Luke Starkiller.” Vader’s lava fortress is first found in concept art for “Revenge of the Jedi.” Even the very title “Rogue One” is a shout-out to the popular “Rogue Squadron” novels and games. Far from Lucas’ token inclusion of Aayla Secura and the Outrider or Abram’s instance on regurgitating the Original Trilogy and nothing new, Rogue One is the first Star Wars film for fans of more than just the films. And considering the films have long since ceased to be the best the franchise has to offer, the result accordingly is Star Wars’ best big screen experience since the spring of ’77.There’s a scene towards the climax in which the Rogue One squad must use possibly invalidated Imperial codes to secure passage through a planet-spanning force field. The obvious parallel is to the same situation occurring over Endor in Return of the Jedi, but it reminded me equally of the aforementioned scene with R5 and the faulty motivator. As the crew awaits with bated breath for confirmation to proceed, Jyn holds in her hand the Kyber Crystal bequeathed to her by her father, now a necklace treated as a talisman or charm, albeit with newfound religious significance since her unintended pilgrimage to Jedha. But before the Imperials even respond the viewer knows – as does, perhaps, Jyn, in her heart – that the code will be accepted. Indeed, the whole history of the galaxy thus far has been ordered just so in anticipation of this present moment; that on some distant rock somewhere, something so innocuous as an astromech malfunctioning caused a chain of events that resulted in a transmission code which should have rightfully been rejected somehow being overlooked. That was exact moment when I realized that Knoll and Whitta and (perhaps) even Edwards truly got The Force and the Jedi and Star Wars itself better than Kasdan or Marquand or Abrams or any other writer or director since Lucas himself circa the ‘70s. Such was, honestly, the last thing I expected from what was purportedly the “grounded” Star Wars spin-off. But Rogue One proved a revelation. It is truly a phenomenal film – Star Wars at its very best!