(This post contains spoilers for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. Do not proceed if you do not want to know key points of the film)
If there is one thing about which I am not shy, it is my love of Star Wars. In fact, it is one of my favorite topics. The latest entry in the saga, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is the first standalone film that does not connect directly to the larger saga of the Skywalker/Solo clan. It is the story summarized in the opening crawl of the original film:
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
These couple of lines of text are fleshed out into a thrilling film, that gains momentum with each scene until a third act that might be the most impressive of any Star Wars film. It’s a tight film that wastes no time with “B” stories as, in a way, it is itself a “B” story. The characters are given just enough screen time to get at their motivations and personalities and the visuals are stunning, especially in the aforementioned third act. And though many people have had issues with it, I was impressed with the computer generated resurrection of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and the quick replication of a much younger Carrie Fisher in her iconic role as Princess Leia.
The film on its own merits is stunning, but in this era where many of us are thinking through what it means to be on side of justice, it also gives us some helpful illustrations of the ways that empire works and what makes for an effective rebellion. I’m sure I’ll have some additional thoughts after my inevitable second (and third… and let’s be honest, fourth) viewing but here’s what I think we can take away right now.
Coalitions: The first half of the film centers largely on finding Galen Erso, a scientist who has been instrumental in the development of the Death Star and who also has sympathies and connections to the burgeoning rebel alliance. Galen’s daughter is Jyn, the film’s main protagonist. Jyn is recruited by the rebel alliance to find Saw Guerrerra, a rebel considered too militant by the more politically-minded leadership of the rebel alliance. Jyn becomes the bridge between the more radical Guerrera and the senators and officials who make up the alliance.
One of the things I have noticed since the election is how fractured the progressive movement is in this country. We disagree on priorities. We privilege our own identity politics above the needs of other marginalized groups. We differ on tactics and strategy. We do all of this to our own detriment and to the detriment of the causes we claim to champion. Effective rebellions are coalitions of people from differing backgrounds and perspective coming together to effect change. We have to recognize that we need the people who know how to work within the system and those who fight the system from the outside. We need the pragmatists and the radicals. We need King and Malcolm X (that’s an oversimplification of both men, but you get my point). We need the resourced supporters and the grassroots activists. The challenges ahead of us are too big to rely on any one tactic exclusively. We need each other in the days ahead and that will mean putting some egos on the shelf for the sake of common goals.
Faith – While “hope” was the common refrain of the film, a more subtle aspect of the story is faith. While we’re used to seeing the Jedi and the Sith use the force to do incredible feats of strength, “Rogue One” gives us a scenario where we see the cult of the force as a folk religion. Jyn’s mother Lyra places a shard of kyber crystal, the same substance used to power both lightsabers and the Death Star’s laser, around Jyn’s neck before they separate. She tells Jyn to “trust the force” in the same way that we might tell someone in a similarly desperate situation to trust that God will be with them. It is Jyn herself who utters the iconic line “May the Force Be with us”, both as a rallying cry and as an act of faith as the team prepares to go on their deadly mission.
The film also gives us two extraordinary characters in the form of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus. The two have served as guardians of the Whills, former attendants and protectors of a Jedi temple that is now being ravaged by the empire. Chirrut is a devotee of the Force, constantly reciting the mantra “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me”. Baze, on the other hand, we’re told was once the most devoted of guardians, but has lost his faith in recent years, likely because of what the empire has done to the temple. While he seems to have become somewhat agnostic, at least until the very end, he remains devoted to the cause and the mission largely because of Chirrut’s faith.
Resistance movements need a moral base and compass. Movements need spirituality. It doesn’t need to be any particular faith, but it needs to be so deeply rooted that even the agnostics and non-believers will be moved by the conviction of the faithful. The civil rights movement in this country was energized by black church leaders who felt as much of a spiritual conviction as they did a political one. I believe the days ahead will require an interfaith coalition of people dedicated to justice who are dedicated to something larger than themselves and use their convictions to galvanize people to act.
Sacrifice – (I mentioned that there would be spoilers, right?) There is a moment in the third act when K-2SO, the sarcastic former imperial droid is helping the rebels to get the plans and is overrun by Stormtroopers. He fights them off as best he can, as he continues to go about his mission, but he is eventually overpowered by the surging troops. K-2SO is the first of the main characters to “die” and with his fate it becomes pretty clear: none of our heroes are walking out of this thing alive. One by one the protagonists meet their fates in heroic fashion. I will admit to being teary eyed as Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor hold each other on the beach as the approaching shockwave from the Death Star’s blast overtakes them. They die knowing that they’ve done what they can for the rebellion, that they’ve remained faithful to their comrades and to their convictions, and that they were on the right side of history.
Talib Kweli has a line in his song “Rocket Ships”: They saying that we need a revolution but their passion is reduced to all caps on a computer. A real resistance movement requires genuine sacrifice. It could be sacrifice of status or wealth. It almost always means sacrifice of time and energy. It could mean sacrifice of relationships. For some it will mean physical sacrifice as we put ourselves in between the mechanisms of empire and those who are most vulnerable. To truly be on the side of the hurting means that we have to stand up to the powers that be even when that stand comes at great risk to ourselves. It requires courage. It requires faith. And it requires the belief that you’ve been a part of something that can truly outlive and outlast the individual. This is what movements of rebellion are all about.
“Rogue One” was a phenomenal movie, not just for the ways that it expanded the Star Wars universe, but for the ways that it inspires us to think about what this world needs to push back against the forces of domination and oppression. Ultimately it asks us if we’re willing to do what it takes to be on the side of love and freedom. What are we willing to risk to fight the forces of fear? These are tough questions, but ones that transcend the world of fantasy. We cannot simply escape into the rebellion of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away. We need to join the rebellion that is forming today.