This post discusses the plot of “Rogue One.”
The best thing about “Rogue One” is its politics.
No, no, not the extra-textual politics, the online fights between the alt-rightists screaming about the desecration of “white culture” on the one hand and the absurd leftists whinging about “orientalism” on the other. These people deserve each other and are better off ignored by everyone else: Paul Anka’s guarantee* that they’ll go away if you “just don’t look” applies quite nicely to those folks.
When I write approvingly about “the politics of Star Wars,” I mean instead the internal politics of the series, the back-and-forth, the power struggles between factions competing for control of the far, far away galaxy we all know and love. The very idea that the politics of Star Wars can be interesting sometimes gets a bit of an eye roll — and for good reason! George Lucas did a magnificent job of reducing the world of lightsabers and force-chokings to petty, vague squabbling over trade routes and taxation rates and the such.
But if you let your mind drift a bit, it’s all rather interesting: a fictional world waiting to be mined for meaning about the relative merits of democracy and empire, about the sentience of droids and the cruelty of slavery, about the tensions between order and freedom.
One of the big letdowns from “The Force Awakens,” at least from a certain point of view, was just how haphazardly the central political conflicts of that film were portrayed. The problems began with the very crawl, where we learn that a “resistance” was fighting against the remnant of the Empire known as the First Order. But if the Republic has been reconstituted, then what is this “resistance” resisting, exactly? Why is the Republic not taking the fight to the Empire reborn? Why is there a reticence to take on the Hitlerian Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) or anger on his part of being misled by the Republic? Is Leia (Carrie Fisher) acting as a (sorry) rogue one when she squares off against the First Order?
None of these questions is ever really addressed in “The Force Awakens,” let alone answered. And that’s a shame, since it radically reduces the stakes and renders Hux’s destruction of the Republic government’s star system as little more than a meaningless plot point designed to keep the action moving.
“Rogue One,” on the other hand, does a masterful job of helping viewers understand the various factions doing battle in the post-Republic world, both within the Rebellion and within the Empire.
On the one hand you have a more politically minded segment of Rebels led by Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), one that is willing to dispatch assassins when they need to but must also strive to keep the leaders of the Rebellion happy. In the council’s dithering — in its initial refusal to come together to take on the Empire’s forces — we see the remnants of the Republic and understand why it was so easily swept away by Emperor Palpatine in the prequels.
Compare these feckless politicians to the Rebel splinter cell led by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). On the planet Jedha, we see what the Rebellion truly looks like on the ground: terror, pure and simple. Attacking Imperial convoys in crowded marketplaces with little concern for civilian casualties, blending into civilian populations in contravention of all decent rules of warfare, and doing so in a manner that invites massive retaliation against local innocents. It’s a far messier, more interesting view of civil war than anything we’ve seen in the Star Wars universe thus far.
Similarly, the power struggle between Grand Moff Tarkin (a CGI Peter Cushing brought to life by Guy Henry) and Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) helps refine our understanding of the Galactic Empire. As my co-podcaster Jonathan V. Last noted in the most recent episode of The Substandard, you get the feeling that Krennic is a bit bloodthirsty — he wants to destroy the whole planet of Jedha while testing the Death Star, for instance. Tarkin, on the other hand, notes that they need “a statement, not a manifesto.” Tarkin is no maniac. He simply wants to help bring order to the galaxy — and, as we see near the film’s end, he’s as willing to sacrifice Imperial troops as Rebel “civilians” on Alderaan to get the job done.
“Rogue One” may not be a great movie — I agree with some of Alyssa’s complaints — but in terms of Star Wars universe building, it strikes me as a marked step up from “The Force Awakens.”
*Guarantee void in Tennessee.