“Rebellions are built on hope.”
This is the refrain throughout Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a peculiarly optimistic phrase for what is, perhaps, the darkest entry in the Star Wars saga.
The first of the Disney spin-off films in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One feels, in many ways, like a high-quality fan-film. This isn’t a bad thing. As a side note to the projected trilogy that began with The Force Awakens last year, Rogue One can take risks that the other films cannot. No title scrawl, no John Williams, no Bothans, and certain digitally resurrected or rejuvenated actors, would almost certainly have been more negatively received in a primary Star Wars film. Rogue One effectively revives and remixes tropes and figures from the earlier films, while stepping out on its own to explore some truly new territory for the franchise.
The most striking of these explorations is the aforementioned darkness of the film, a darkness in the outcome of the plot which, though not unpredictable, proves to be emotionally weighty. There are no “character shields” in Rogue One, no “plot armour” or “script immunity.” No one is invulnerable. In the original trilogy it would have been unthinkable for Luke Skywalker to be killed; similarly with Anakin and Obi-Wan in the prequels, and Rey in the new trilogy. In Rogue One, however, our heroes are not so safe.
Rogue One is a human story (“human” encompassing droids and all manner of aliens, in fitting Star Wars fashion), a story of heroism most significant in that the requisite Jedi heroics of the other Star Wars films are absent. Our heroes have neither lightsabers nor Force powers. They are morally compromised, many of them guilty of horrible crimes committed in the name of the causes which they serve. They are people caught up in a struggle far larger than themselves, a situation demanding more than any one of them could be expected to give, which requires them to do so whether they want to or not. Jyn Erso, the central figure of the film, does not choose to fight against the Empire but is rather thrust into the conflict, and must see it to its end. Everywhere in Rogue One there is such exception and necessity, and it is uniquely compelling for we viewers to recognize that, as our regular heroes wrestle with their extraordinary circumstances, compelled to make impossible decisions and strive against overwhelming odds, the chances of a deus ex machina are slim.
So, when Saw Gerrera cries out, “Save the Rebellion! Save the dream!” we feel the gravity of what is at stake. The dream of the Rebellion does not come without cost: bodies—actual, material lives—are on the line, friendships and families, whole civilizations and planets. Where The Force Awakens was criticized for the flippant destruction of five planets and their entire populations, Rogue One brings those populations to the fore, the people whose living and being is threatened, and for whom our heroes give everything to preserve. Rogue One is not so concerned with new spaceships and new technologies, flashy set pieces and stunning action sequences (though all of such are present). Before these, Rogue One is a story about people and our responsibility to one another, the demand of the other which is always already made upon us. Rogue One makes us think about the hard choices we face, about our moral criteria, about what we value in this world. I find such probing questions and the conversations they provoke to be worth far more than the ticket price.