In 2012, Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, and the Star Wars fanbase erupted with excitement at the prospect of seeing the franchise return to big screens for the first time since 2005. For me personally, it was a chance to see Star Wars in the cinema for the first time, a chance I had never expected to get. However, since then, many of Disney’s Star Wars projects have been received with varying levels of disappointment. Even when they’re entertaining, the films often feel like a slightly worse version of something we’ve already seen, a criticism particularly levied at Disney’s first Star Wars outing, The Force Awakens, and one that followed its subsequent trilogy.
A force-sensitive protagonist on a desert planet, an evil dictatorship with a terrifying new weapon that needs to be destroyed by the plucky Resistance, and a dark masked villain who’s really being manipulated by an even greater evil. All of this was familiar ground for fans. The films also relied quite heavily on characters from the original trilogy, with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia Organa all playing prominent roles. Whilst the nostalgia trip could still be fun, it never came close to matching the feeling of experiencing it for the first time while failing to offer much new to the franchise.
Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One avoids this problem, feeling fresh and distinctive, carving out its own unique spot within the franchise, and creating a brilliant final product. Some of this is due to its status as a spinoff movie allowing it to deviate away from the main story, introducing new characters and planets. However, I don’t believe this alone is enough to explain what makes it feel so different. Although it may rely slightly less on recognisable elements, iconography like Darth Vader, the Death Star, and X-Wings do still appear, and the story taking place so close to the first movie means the original film is frequently referenced. I believe that what makes Rogue One so unique and impressive isn’t the way it introduces new elements or avoids old ones, but the manner in which it re-evaluates elements of Star Wars that have always been present, specifically the theme of rebellion.
It bears traits of a scene from a horror film, an entirely new and much darker way of depicting rebels in Star Wars
In the original films, the Rebellion was a flawless force for good, a group of idealists fighting selflessly for a better world. Every rebel we meet is likeable, their brightly coloured ships and uniforms juxtapose the dark greys and blacks of the Empire, and their actions are never questioned. The same can be said for the sequel’s ‘Resistance’, which functions in essentially the same way. This makes it all the more shocking when, ten minutes into Rogue One, the rebel Andor shoots a man in the back who had just helped him. The man’s panicked performance and broken arm make him seem helpless and innocent, conveying from the off that this film’s rebels aren’t perfect heroes; they’re willing to take immoral actions in the service of a greater cause. Later, another rebel named Saw Guerrera tortures Bodhi, a pilot who defected from the Empire. The scene alternates between shots of a terrified Bodhi and close-ups of a huge grotesque tentacled monster approaching him, punctuated by flickering lights and Bodhi’s screams. It bears traits of a scene from a horror film, an entirely new and much darker way of depicting rebels in Star Wars.
Rogue One takes its own perspective on the Star Wars universe and creates a unique identity, all while staying loyal to the theme of hope at the core of the series
Despite all of this, Edwards certainly doesn’t strip the rebels of their heroic qualities, which are allowed to shine throughout the battle in the third act. A team of rebels land on the planet of Scariff in order to steal the plans for the Death Star, a superweapon with the power to destroy the Rebellion if they don’t destroy it first. Long shots track rebel soldiers surrounded by gunfire and explosions wading through water to storm beaches. It’s reminiscent of scenes from WW2 films and so evokes the violence, sacrifice, and heroism associated with that genre. The battle is broken up into small goals, grounding the action in something more tangible for the audience to follow. Each of these goals is only achieved by razor-thin margins, creating a series of tense moments amidst the action, and many of them result in the death of a major character. Within about 10 minutes, four major characters die in service of these small goals, showing how rebellions are built on a series of individual acts of heroism and sacrifice. Eventually, Andor and Jyn too sacrifice themselves. After successfully transmitting the plans, they sit together on the beach as the planet around them is decimated by the Death Star, becoming enveloped by a blinding white light as Michael Giacchino’s tragic but soaring score sends them off as heroes of the rebellion.
A line repeated in the film is that ‘rebellions are built on hope’. Hope is certainly nothing new to Star Wars, with the very first film entitled A New Hope. But the way Rogue One ties it together with literal and especially moral sacrifice is relatively new for the franchise. The heroes don’t know if the Rebellion will ultimately succeed, and many died without even knowing if their mission was a success. But each one was willing to lay down their lives in the hope that it would. Andor is willing to shoot an innocent man in the back, sacrificing his own innocence in the hope that it will all result in a greater good. By not shying away from this brutal dark side of rebellion, Rogue One takes its own perspective on the Star Wars universe and creates a unique identity, all while staying loyal to the theme of hope at the core of the series.