For as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching Star Wars. I was too young to have seen the original trilogy when it first came out, but I watched them countless times in our family room growing up, and I saw Attack of the Clones an embarrassing amount of times in the theater. (I was 15, and Hayden Christensen was hot, OK? And yes, I collected the Pepsi cans with the Star Wars prequel characters on them. They had Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan! I never found an Amidala and it honestly haunts me to this day. It may as well be my villain origin story.)
From an early age, I looked up to heroes like Luke Skywalker, dreamed of marrying Han Solo, wanted to be just like Princess Leia and even Carrie Fisher herself, who in life was as much of a force with which to be reckoned. I watched all of the movies, read most of the books. Like many people, Star Wars has been so important to me for so long that it almost feels like a part of my genetic makeup. I don’t know who I would be without these stories, including this one.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes place directly before the events of 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, revolving mostly around the singular story of how the rebels came to steal the Death Star plans that fueled most of the original trilogy’s first installment. It follows the story of Jyn Erso, whose father, scientist Galen Erso, was employed by the Empire to build them the ultimate weapon against the Rebel Alliance — a planet killer they call the Death Star. Through a series of chance encounters, Jyn is joined on this space heist by Captain Cassian Andor, an Alliance intelligence officer; Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior-monk of a religious order called Guardians of the Whills, Baze Malbus, a freelance assassin and also a former Guardian; Bodhi Rook, a former Imperial pilot who defected; and K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial security droid and Cassian’s co-pilot.
These are not the main characters you expect. When we meet Diego Luna’s Cassian, he’s killing his informant with a blaster to the back so he doesn’t get caught by Stormtroopers. The first time we see Jyn as an adult, she’s in an Imperial labor camp and looking like she’s ready to shiv her cellmate. Both were child soldiers. Cassian lost his family during the Clone Wars and now follows Rebel Alliance orders to the point that Jyn later accuses him of being no better than a Stormtrooper. But we see his progression from someone comfortable with following orders to someone who questions them enough to ignore a direct order to kill Galen halfway through the film.
At the beginning of our story, Jyn is emotionally shut down and only out for herself after fighting with Saw Gerrera’s band of extremists for much of her youth following her mother’s death and separation from her father, who was forced to resume his work with the Empire. Despite this, we witness her being the first to run in front of laser fire to save a child in Jedha caught in the middle of a war zone like she once was, and reluctantly falling in with a ragtag team made up of kind of broken, dysfunctional strangers — herself included.
While events unfolding are not entirely unpredictable, they make choices that you don’t necessarily expect, making this Star Wars story unique next to most of its predecessors. For one thing, it’s a movie that’s actually focused on war. We know much of the Star Wars movies are about it — it’s even in the title — but Rogue One isn’t afraid to show us the many different sides of war in one two-hour movie. The ones that are uglier than your bloodiest battle scene. The innocent bystanders caught in the battle at Jedha. The film’s heroes skulking around in the shadows killing in the name of freedom almost as much as the film’s villains are killing in the name of oppression. Both times the Death Star is used by the Empire, we don’t just see anonymous cities and planets being destroyed, we see the faces of those helplessly trapped on them. It reinforces the valuable concept that all good and evil isn’t black and white; not everyone is truly one or the other, and the people who always pay the most are those caught in the crossfire.
The negative effects of living and fighting in a war is rife with trauma in our two leads. Every time Cassian makes the choice to kill in cold blood for the Resistance, it strips a little more of himself away. You can see it in his eyes when he kills his informant and when he speaks later of how most of the people around him have done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion — how everything he did, every time he walked away from something he wanted to forget, he told himself it was for a cause he believed in. Saw, masterfully played by the magnetic Forest Whitaker and severely underused, has seen most of his body physically destroyed by the war, having broken off from Alliance-sponsored organized violence to form his own terrorist cell that becomes its own destructive spiral of violent extremism. Rogue One illustrates the emotional and physical tolls that war takes, which for the most part go largely unaddressed in other films.
Many threads were sacrificed for the sake of fast storytelling, but I keep going back to what really connected it to stories on which The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. In war, the cost is always heavy on both sides and even corrupts the most well-intentioned, with civilian loss of life the most egregious in number every time one side pokes at another to the point that entire planets are destroyed with barely any consideration from anyone. A flippant line from Benicio del Toro’s character in The Last Jedi hits hard when he callously remarks to Finn and Rose, “They blow you up today, you can blow them up tomorrow.” Even those on the side of good find themselves doing awful things in the name of their own cause. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up just as rotten as the people against whom you’re fighting.
Needless to say, I identified a lot with Felicity Jones’s portrayal of Jyn. A heroine who compartmentalizes and disassociates as a result of her own PTSD as an adult? For how much I love the other leading ladies of Star Wars, it was the first time I really saw myself in one of them instead of just wishing I could be more like them. Her pattern of disassociation is more explicit in Alexander Freed’s novelization since 90% of her character is all internalized, but there are still hints to it in the film. When asked about her father, Jyn’s gut response that she likes to think he’s dead because it “makes things easier” is especially telling. It’s very obvious that, like Cassian, she hasn’t dealt with the things that have happened to her at all, and you can’t help but feel for them.
We also see a prevalent form of political apathy, particularly in Jyn’s character. Once a member of Saw’s splinter group, she’s since been reluctant to get involved in anything she considers something that won’t directly affect her, stating that she’s never had the luxury of political opinions. (Sound familiar?) When asked if she could stand to see the Imperial flag reign across the galaxy, she answers with a glib, “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” Star Wars is full of political commentary and social issues across the board, but none feel quite so relevant to today as that.
We witness the same disconnect in other characters to some degree; Cassian with his refusal to deviate from what the Rebellion needs him to be until Jyn moves him to reconsider. In both Rogue One and The Force Awakens, we see Bodhi and Finn get tired of looking the other way and defect. Star Wars has always felt like a deliberate response to the steady rise of fascism in this country and how it feels to be crushed under the weight of an oppressive political war machine, but Rogue One feels just a little bit more relatable because it’s not legendary heroes taking up the spotlight. It’s regular people like you and me picking the fights.
The script and overall execution isn’t without many flaws. A lot of it feels fragmented, like someone had too many ideas for a two-hour movie and didn’t want to sacrifice any of them. What the hell is the point of the Bor Gullet? The movie clearly rests a little on some guaranteed nostalgia, and the weird CGI Tarkin and Leia hit a strange note for me, though it doesn’t take away from the brief joy of seeing other familiar faces like Bail Organa, C-3PO and R2-D2. Having a “master switch” plot point was also a little contrived, but then again, so is the entire concept of the Death Star flaw that we’d already been getting fed for decades. Just par for the course with convenient Star Wars plots that generally leaves me more fond than annoyed. The Vader fight at the end is absolutely fan service, but it actually succeeds at being a little terrifying. The fact that Vader has just been chilling on Mustafar, the volcanic planet where he lost his limbs and Padmé ultimately died, makes it the biggest none-more-goth flex in history.
Still, the film carries emotional weight in unexpected places. For how little we get to know these characters, the response to them was huge — in part because of the cast’s overwhelming diversity and also in credit to the actors who portray them. And when the crew finally comes together? It’s sort of magic. The depth of Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen’s performance of Baze and Chirrut’s devotion to each other makes you feel connected to their untold histories. Galen’s hologram message to Jyn, only more heartbreaking in Mads Mikkelsen’s flawless delivery, gives their relationship the emotional hit we need to carry us to the climactic point for her character, when she turns from runaway to rebel following Galen’s last moments. K-2SO’s fate is arguably tied for the most upsetting along with L3-37’s in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and I’m still not really over it.
Cassian and Jyn’s unspoken feelings for each other resonate as strongly as more outspoken pairings, all credit going to the tangible chemistry of the actors — as even in the novelization everything between them is almost entirely nonverbal. Cassian has her back with no expectations. There’s no big dramatic kiss at the end because no one needs it. The most romantic thing about Cassian and Jyn is that they learn to trust each other, and the tragedy is that they die unfinished, like most do in war.
So much of Rogue One is passing on the torch in ways I can appreciate. Saw recognizes when his time is over — that whatever the Alliance is going to become, his brand of extremism won’t pave the way to the lasting change that the galaxy needs. His last words to Jyn, “Save the rebellion, save the dream,” are his dying wish, despite the years he spent resisting the Alliance he’d left behind. Galen sacrifices himself to do what no one else can and build a fatal flaw in the system meant to destroy entire planets, probably knowing that he won’t survive this but he can at least pass on what he knows to others who can stop it. The members of Rogue One embark on a mission to steal and deliver the plans for the Death Star on Scarif to the Rebel Alliance that some part of them knows they might not survive. The thing is, despite all logic, you still want to believe that by some miracle they’ll make it, even when we see the Death Star looming in the horizon. The fate of Rogue One was predictable but no less sad, and still pretty ballsy to (spoiler alert!) kill off your entire main cast in one fell swoop. Then there’s a very literal hand off between rebels being slaughtered by Darth Vader one by one until the plans finally reach Leia’s.
And we all know what happens from there.
Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One came at the best and the worst time, opening just a couple of weeks before Fisher’s passing. I’ll always remember the day she died as a moment that I felt a little hopeless, like an actual light had gone out in the world, but now, I think about my favorite line from The Last Jedi credited to our Princess Leia herself. “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.” That’s what Rogue One is to me. A story that tests your ability to have faith, even when things are at its darkest. With great loss, there’s always hope to be found if you’re brave enough to follow it.
At its core, it’s an inspiring story of finding your inner rebel — illustrated best in the words of Bodhi as he repeats Galen’s words to him when urging Bodhi to take his message to the alliance, that he could make it right if he was brave enough to listen to what was in his heart and do something about it. What would you do if you had the chance to make a real difference? Would you look the other way, or would you act? The film is full of characters who see what is happening and decide to do something about it, shining a light on those who are instrumental in one of the Rebellion’s earliest successes. Because no matter how dark things get? There will always be those who will light the way. An overall messy plot, maybe, but I think Rogue One is more hopeful than people give it credit for.
After all, rebellions are built on hope.