The best thing that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story does as a movie, and as a piece of the franchise, is open up the galaxy to a new perspective. Because, while Star Wars has always had an expansive universe of worlds and characters, I could never really imagine what it would be like to live in it. Star Wars was always about rebels, but it concerned itself with heroes, with the important people with important lives who carried the fate of the universe on their shoulders. Things didn’t happen to Luke, Leia, Han, etc. as a matter of circumstance, but because they were, well, main characters. Even if I lived in that universe as a rebel, I wouldn’t be like Luke, Leia, or Han, because, while they were part of the Rebel Alliance, they were always more heroic than rebellious.
Rouge One: A Star Wars Story isn’t about the same sort of hero. It’s about the people who aren’t destined to be heroes, but chose to go through hell anyway. It’s about people who aren’t thinking about saving the universe because they’re looking to survive one more day with their bodies and morals intact. It’s about the people who choose to die for a cause knowing that they won’t necessarily be remembered for doing so. It’s about rebels.
And while Rogue One still has the good-against-evil laser space battles that the franchise always had, this change of perspective manages to ground them, as it constantly reminds us that we’re not watching destiny-backed heroes fight a battle they have a small chance of winning, we’re watching a group of out-gunned and out-manned criminals of the state resist a force that will surely crush them.
Rogue One’s ensemble cast of rebels is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the runaway daughter of and Imperial weapons engineer, who is initially kidnapped by the Rebel Alliance as a way for them to open communications with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a more radical resistance leader outside of the religious capitol of Jedha, who has information from about the Empire’s new super-weapon. But, upon learning that the information came from her father (Mads Mikkelsen), and seeing first-hand the damage that the super-weapon – the Death Star – is capable of, Jyn decides to join the rebellion for herself and lead a small group on an insurgency mission to an Empire-controlled stronghold to steal information that would help the rebels take down the Death Star.
Jyn’s group comes to be made of Capt. Andor (Diego Luna), the rebel pilot who initially found her; K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial Droid with a sardonic streak; Bohdi (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial defector who initially gave Saw the information; Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind monk of the Force; and Baze (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s partner with a big gun.
Unfortunately, Rogue One leans a bit too much on the diversity of its cast to build characterization. And while this is used effectively in certain respects, like a scene where Bohdi – played by a Muslim actor – is treated with suspicion and tortured for information despite willingly turning himself over; or how the Eastern-philosophy inspired Force finally has some representation by Asian faces; and overall sells the Rebel Alliance as an actual coalition of the oppressed; many of the characters don’t actually have much…character to them, besides the fact that they’re all rebels. To the film’s credit, it does use the characterization of “rebel” for all it’s worth.
The first scene of the movie shows us Jyn’s family being torn apart by the Empire forcing to run and hide for her life. Chirrut and Baze have their culture erased, their way of life removed, and their holy space destroyed by the Empire. We’re told that Andor has been a rebel since he was a child and see both the paranoia and willingness to do whatever it takes that comes from living that sort of life.
Rogue One creates a gray space in the traditionally very black-and-white Star Wars mythos where hero and rebel aren’t necessarily interchangeable. The first real rebel vs. Empire battle we see does a lot to set this up, showing us a rebel force dressed in robes and turbans – and one in a suicide-vest – ambush the American-accented, better-equipped Imperial forces in the middle of a crowded marketplace. It’s a bold statement that twists and ties are expectations of Star Wars and most American’s learned experience of war to really push the point that “freedom-fighter” and “terrorist” are subjective labels.
Star Wars has always been political, of course, but it’s never been so directly partisan. No matter where you really stood, you could always make a case that your political opponent is the Empire, while your side are the Rebel Alliance. This once scene makes that case a bit harder for some people, I imagine.
Rogue One shows the Rebel Alliance, like many historical rebel groups, using ends to justify means. They openly engage in theft, torture, assassination, destruction of property, subterfuge, and espionage. They’ll even kill one of their own to protect the group. Again, Rogue One really introduces to Star Wars that even being the “good guys” in a war still means fighting a war, and all of the atrocity that entails. If rebellions were fun, easy, and innocent, rebels wouldn’t be a minority.
But, it’s more than just narrative that Rogue One uses to give us a new perspective on the titular wars. Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without an opening crawl. There’s no hagiography here, this isn’t the stuff of myth like the others. And that’s just the first big deviation from the norm. Don’t expect to see any of those iconic dissolves, or hear a Wilhelm scream in this one. Heck, John Williams didn’t even do the music for this one!
And then there’s the action direction, which leans closer to movies like Saving Private Ryan than other entrees in the franchise. There are no scenes of our heroes tearing through armies of Stormtroopers single-handedly here. Stormtroopers, and the new black-armored Death-Troopers, pose an actual mortal threat to our protagonists this time, and you can really feel the oppression of their greater numbers and firepower in every battle. Without lightsabers, the rebels have to take cover and actually try to avoid fire instead of just reflect it. Our protagonists never feel truly safe from a stray shot, loose grenade, or later, the towering AT-AT tanks.
And the Death Star no longer just some giant space piñata. The Death Star actually gives director Gareth Edwards the chance to flex some of the same muscles he used for 2014’s Godzilla, showing the catastrophic amount of disaster the weapon is capable of creating.
Every action scene reinforces the idea that the rebels aren’t capable of fighting to take down the Empire just yet; they’re just fighting to survive, working towards the new hope that each day and each small push-back allows them.
I think that Rogue One – despite flaws with character development, some weird pacing issues between set-pieces, and a terribly distracting CGI Peter Cushing – ultimately succeeds because it manages to tell a different Star Wars story. By taking us away from the Skywalker Saga, Rogue One opens up the universe to so much more. It’s the first movie in the franchise that really sells the idea of the Rebel Alliance as more than just a smaller army, but of a collection of people actively resisting oppression. And it’s made me more excited to hear the stories of the other people in this galaxy far away, the people that aren’t destined to save it, but chose to anyway.