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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Entry updated 3 January 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (2016). Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (see The Walt Disney Company) presents a Lucasfilm production. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta, based on characters created by George Lucas. Cast includes Riz Ahmed, Peter Cushing, Ingvild Deila, Carrie Fisher, Felicity Jones, James Earl Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Wayne Pygram, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker and Donnie Yen. 133 minutes. Colour.

A fragmented Rebel Alliance steals the plans of the Death Star from the Empire's military Keep on Scarif.

Peter Graham's famous (possibly apocryphal) comment about the Golden Age of SF being twelve is as important to the cinematic blockbuster of the twenty-first century as to the Pulp magazine of the twentieth and this simple truth – as much emotional as it is commercial – fuels the engine not only of Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm but also of its previous $4 billion investment in Marvel and its array of Superheroes (see Marvel Cinematic Universe). Abandoned children, compromised family set-ups and a disrupted social order tend to feature diegetically in the media produced by such large-scale enterprises.

This – the first of the feature film spin-offs from the Star Wars franchise since Disney paid George Lucas a little over $4 billion for Lucasfilm and its intellectual property rights – is a movie prefigured by references to pre-existing plotlines and motifs and then reassembled in post-production from several possible routes to the same outcome: the first scene of Star Wars (1977). That Rogue One succeeds in corralling its strange-but-familiar melange of Space Opera and Science Fantasy through the dramatic syntax of the Western, the War movie and the Videogame is due to the way it weds a detailed understanding of its source material to the pervasive influence of its Fandom. The hopes of the child are crowned by the expectations of the adult.

Imperial Weapons developer Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) arrives on the wet and misty planet of Lah'mu in a bid to recapture escaped research Scientist Galen Erso (Mikkelsen), whose planet-killing Death Star project has stalled since his conscience drove him to carry his family into hiding. Erso's wife Lyra is killed in the ensuing confrontation but daughter Jyn Erso is bundled off to serve in the army of Rebel fanatic Saw Gerrera (Whitaker) – a plot-point that proves significant when, fifteen years later, defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Ahmed) smuggles a holographic Communication to Gerrera on the desert moon of Jedha. Rebel agent Cassian Andor (Luna) frees Jyn Erso (Jones) from an Imperial Prison and delivers her to the Rebels, who intend to use her connection with Gerrera to learn more about the Death Star. Jyn Erso is told the Rebels plan to free her father from captivity but Andor is given secret orders to assassinate him.

It is as Erso, Andor and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Tudyk) arrive on Jedha that the film's alluring and Orientalist aesthetic begins to assert itself. The desert-guerrillas there are versions of the Religious freedom-fighters of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, a rendering once again leavened by a Jungian comprehension of the archetypes of Mythological story structures – Hero, mentor, shadow and so on – and yet updated too to combine some of the semiotic of contemporary conflicts in the Middle East with that of North American Cinema about World War Two: the Rebels display the suicidal register of the jihadist under the helmet and flak-jacket of the United States Army. It is a decision that reveals both the creative influences on the original trio of Star Wars movies and the tendency of Fantasy to appropriate and exoticize real-world cultures for imaginary purposes (see Imperialism); it functions very well here, not least because prominent members of the cast are not Caucasian. Blind adherent-of-the-Force Chirrut Îmwe (Yen) and mercenary-bodyguard Baze Malbus (Wen) conduct Erso, Andor and K-2SO to where Gerrera and his band of partisans are harrying the Empire's attempts to extract "kyber crystals" – these, it seems, are the Power Source for both Jedi lightsabers and the Death Star's planet-destroying Death Ray – from the mines of Jedha. The ruins and fragmentary archaeology that formed some of the backdrop of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) are used to frame some of the impact of the Empire on the planetary cultures it has dominated (see also Ruins and Futurity). Gerrera shows Jyn Erso the message in which her father Galen Erso reveals he has worked a fatal weakness into the Death Star. Jyn and her allies must however retrieve schematics stored in an Imperial data bank on the planet of Scarif in order to accurately target the fault and thereby destroy the Death Star before it destroys them.

Thus the unanswered deus ex machina of the original Star Wars movie – why would the Death Star be so easily destroyed? – is made to serve as the McGuffin of this, its directly-sequential prequel. Where Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens used the New-Wave device of the Force to invert the Inner Space of the Skywalker family-romance with the fate of a Galactic Empire, Rogue One uses the Force's apparent absence to revert to the scale of the human. There is even a soupçon of psychological complexity: some of the Rebels are fanatical and nasty and some of the Imperial personnel coerced by circumstance rather than by evil. The monotheistic dimension of the Force is softened by hints of Daoism, Buddhism and Islamic mysticism and broadened in register by the ethnicity of the cast. Gerrera and his zealots are wiped out by a blast from the Death Star when Grand Moff Tarkin (Cushing/Pygram) – Peter Cushing's face from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope has been transposed digitally onto the performance of another actor, in the almost-convincing fashion of a Computer Role Playing Game – first orders Krennic to fire upon Jedha's capital City and then uses the defection of Bodhi Rook as a pretext to seize control of the Death Star project. Jyn Erso and the remnants of her group take Rook and flee to the Imperial research facility on Eadu, where Andor chokes as he is about to shoot Galen Erso. Galen is fatally wounded when Rebel bombers attack the facility and expires in the arms of tearful daughter Jyn.

Jyn is denied permission to use the Rebel fleet when it fragments following the demolition of Jedha City and must instead settle for a motley crew of Rebel die-hards with which to raid the Imperial Computers on Scarif. Rook identifies their stolen Imperial ship as "Rogue One" in order to bypass the planetary Force Field around Scarif and the Rebel troops attack the Imperial garrison as a distraction while Jyn, Andor and K-2SO attempt to gain access to the Death Star schematics. This is where the familiar war-movie tropes of swapped uniforms, fake prisoners and foiled assignation attempts begin to give way to something a little harder-edged and more reminiscent of the influence of the films of Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) on the original Star Wars movies: characters begin to die in the manner of the protagonists of Shichinin no Samurai ["The Seven Samurai"] (1954) or Battle beyond the Stars (1980). Rook is killed by a grenade while informing the nearby Rebel fleet that the planetary shield must be deactivated in order for Jyn and Andor to transmit the Death Star schematics to them. Droid K-2SO sacrifices itself. Krennic shoots Andor. Îmwe and Malbus are killed following a long series of action sequences asking whether or not they will manage to activate the "master switch" that allows communication with the Rebel fleet. Fast-moving and suspenseful Hitchcock-like montages are interspersed with the impending dread on the faces of those about to die – a technique director Gareth Edwards seems to have imported from his experience of helming Godzilla (2014) – to more-or-less exciting effect, though this part of the film does form rather a large slice of its more than two hours running time. Up pops Andor – no, not dead after all – to save Jyn when she is cornered by Krennic and she manages to transmit the schematics to the orbiting fleet. Tarkin orders the Death Star to destroy the Empire's base on Scarif and Jyn and Andor gaze lovingly into one another's eyes as a nuclear-scale shock wave engulfs them. Darth Vader meanwhile, boards the Rebel command ship in search of the Death Star schematics as Princess Leia – face coloured-in digitally in a manner similar to that of Peter Cushing/Grand Moff Tarkin – announces that the plans will provide new hope for the Rebellion.

The overall effect is to (a) humanize and (b) expand the Star Wars project along familiar lines. The plot-holes – Bodhi Rook experiences a Memory Edit by a Supernatural Creature that is simply forgotten, the back-and-forth McGuffin of the Death Star schematics in fact bears very little logical examination and the last-minute romance between Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor is rumoured to have been accentuated by reshoots – seem to be an interesting feature of conversation for the fans rather than any reason to doubt the efficacy of the franchise. The economics speaks for itself. Rogue One is one of a number of recent sf films and tv series that successfully insert a strong female lead into action narratives without including other women among the major protagonists: it is difficult to build a meaningful dramatic triad around such a character without reverting to "father" or "lover"; hence, Jyn begins the movie by doing it for her dad and ends it holding hands with a man (see Women in SF). If certain sequences of Rogue One seem familiar to fans of science fiction cinema, it is more than vague similarity: editor Colin Goudie mapped out the film before shooting began by using footage from other films, in much the same manner employed by the Duffer Brothers during the pitching process for tv series Stranger Things (2016-current): the interrogation scene from Aliens (1986) was used to stand in for Jyn Erso's first meeting with the Rebel council for instance, and a scene from WarGames (1983) was used to pace-out the sequence in which Jyn and company break into the Imperial data banks. This does not harm the overall effect: originality is not required. George Lucas reacted positively to Rogue One after making some disparaging remarks about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – he has since apologized to Disney – and there are rumours he may become more closely involved in future spin-offs, all of which will be standalone projects that refer to the central corpus of nine films without affecting their events. Disney's investment seems securer than most. [MD]


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