Complete spoilers for ROGUE ONE follow! Be aware I will spoil it all!
It’s been interesting seeing the divide in people’s reactions to ROGUE ONE. I suspect it comes down to how you reacted to the characters; if they worked for you, you truly loved the movie, but if you didn’t gel with them the whole thing fell flat. I don’t have a further theory on this – ie, I don’t really know why some people didn’t like the characters while others, like me, fell for them hard – but it does seem to be dividing line.
Because I loved the characters I found the ending to be doubly impactful. It’s impactful on a simple level everyone has to agree on, which is that we NEVER see the leads die in a blockbuster franchise movie, let alone see ALL the leads die (also this movie blows up every new location, making ROGUE ONE almost impossible to revisit in any meaningful way in future films). That’s a big deal, and it’s a ballsy move for a movie studio that is just as interested in licensing and toys deals as it is with telling stories.
That ending is so important, though, and I believe it’s the ending that we need right now as we face down Trump’s America. Indulge me while I talk about this for a minute.
In the modern West we have this vision of heroism, and that vision is a lone wolf who gets the job done. We, as a society, have become exceedingly individualistic, and we have learned to downplay the importance of sacrifice. In our stories the hero is often willing to make a sacrifice but, because of the needs of franchise filmmaking and longform storytelling, is rarely asked to actually go through with it.
You can see this throughout the original STAR WARS trilogy. Luke Skywalker is hyper individualistic, consistently going off and doing his own thing. Han Solo’s story is the closest you get to true selflessness in the modern Western world – he becomes a hero to save his friends/his love. It’s actually selfish in a pretty fundamental way – we can’t have Solo just decide that fighting the Empire is the right thing to do, he needs to return to the battle in STAR WARS because he wants to help his buddy Luke, and in EMPIRE he is trying to help Leia. Meanwhile the only main characters in the OT who die for their beliefs are either very old (and thus on their way out already) or evil.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this messaging – it’s better to be heroic to save your friends than to be not heroic at all – but I do believe it’s limited. And ROGUE ONE blows past those limits. It’s a movie about selflessness in the most extreme way possible, about characters who sacrifice everything for a cause – not for vengeance, not to save someone, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.
We see this most radically in Jyn Erso. Her change of heart happens after the Death Star wipes out Jeddah; she has other nudges towards the direction of heroism (most specifically her father’s holographic plea), but it’s the awesome might of the Death Star that changes her mind. Jyn isn’t interested in protecting A planet or in saving someone specific, but rather she is motivated by the pure ontological horror that is the Death Star. In fact one of the best sly things ROGUE ONE does is have her father killed by Rebel fighters, not the Empire – she does not undertake her final mission out of vengeance, but rather out of love. And that love is the very broad love of all living beings in the galaxy.
Where Luke is motivated by a complex series of emotions – desire for adventure, a drive to glory, hope for vengeance for his father and Obi-Wan – Jyn is motivated simply by the fact that somebody has to stop this death machine from blowing up planets. It’s that simple, and some people get stuck on it – they want more motivation, they want more scenes of Jyn changing her mind. We are so inundated with the selfish mode of heroism, in which our hero only takes extreme action when they/their family/their essential comforts are threatened, that Jyn’s change of heart almost seemed unmotivated. But it isn’t; rather it’s motivated by the most extraordinary of all human impulses – true selflessness.
So what does this have to do with Trump? As Dave Schilling recently wrote at BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. (http://birthmoviesdeath.com/…/rogue-one-and-the-political-i…), STAR WARS is actually apolitical. You can map your own beliefs onto both sides of the Rebel/Imperial fight at will, which is why a story that began as a metaphor for Vietnam gave its name to Ronald Reagan’s missile defense system. I’d say the weirdest change in politics has been the fact that Steve Bannon openly identifies with Darth Vader; usually even the most evil of politicians see their side as the scrappy Rebellion, going up against a monolithic opposition (this is one of the reasons why the new diversity of STAR WARS infuriates white supremacists and misogynists; it makes it harder to code themselves as the Rebellion).
That means STAR WARS ends up being about the *concepts* of ideology and tactics, and ROGUE ONE offers us insight into how those things work in the Trump era (if you’re a liberal. If you’re a conservative supporting Trump please take no lessons from this film). First, through Jyn, it tells us that we don’t have to wait for the Empire to kill our aunt and uncle or blow up our home world or endanger the woman we love to take action. We can see wrong in the world and take action.
Second, and this is the big and heavy part that will sound especially awful to late capitalist era Western ears, it tells us that not all of us will be able to attend the medal ceremony at the end of the battle. But what it does is shift our understanding of those who don’t make it to the end; in STAR WARS they’re nameless squad guys – Red Two! Gold Leader! – who blow up and leave behind no trace of themselves. ROGUE ONE shifts our perspective to look at the people who sacrifice everything and shows us how heroic they truly are. Rather than cannon fodder, these self-sacrificing soldiers become aspirational figures. We look up to them, and we feel the honor in what they gave up.
Because here’s the thing – if fascism is rising in the world, and all data indicates that it is, we will soon be called to make our own sacrifices. Maybe it’s not our lives but perhaps it’s our livelihoods, or our relationships or our comfort or our sense of safety. And not all of us will see the end of this coming fight, but THAT IS OKAY. It’s the nature of how these things work
Think about what Trump said about John McCain’s time as a POW, that he doesn’t respect guys who get captured. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s pretty in line with Western ideas of heroism. The hero doesn’t get captured, and if he does, he heroically breaks himself and all his buddies out. The hero certainly doesn’t die; if Trump thinks McCain is a loser what must he think of poor Bodhi Root, getting taken out by a grenade almost unthinkingly lobbed into his ship?
That, by the way, is another piece of ROGUE ONE that delights me – not every death in this movie is meaningful. In fact very few actually are. Galen dies from injuries inflicted by the Rebels, and his last words are “I have so much to tell you,” a far cry from the usual speechifying our martyred dying do in movies like these. Baze just walks into his death. Bodhi gets fragged out of nowhere. Even Jyn and Cassian meet their doom not in a hail of heroic blaster fire but after their mission is over, calmly looking into a wall of flame that is about to consume them. This movie undermines all of our John Wayne concepts of heroism, a truly remarkable feat for a toy commercial released at Christmas.
We will not all see the end of the storm that is coming. But we will be okay. The individual might not make it, but the group will. The Rebels get the plans, blow up the Death Star and eventually defeat the Empire. Jyn and Cassian and K2SO and the rest never see the day when that happens, but it’s okay. It’s the way it goes. Their heroism, their total selflessness, is what is required so that the entirety of the galaxy can be free. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, after all. That is not a message we like hearing in this world, and if I were more conspiracy-minded I would say that we have been conditioned to shrink from the concept on purpose. The less likely we are to see ourselves as a member of the whole – a member of our nation, a citizen of the planet, a human being standing with other human beings – the less likely we are to stand up and take action when the time comes. Our movies have taught us that unless we’re the Chosen One we should probably just sit down and shut up, otherwise we’ll end up like a nameless X-Wing pilot splattered across the Death Star.
Finally that might be the greatest thing ROGUE ONE does – it undermines the Chosen One story that STAR WARS itself popularized. Once Jyn tells Galen’s message to the others she is no longer special; she has no unique abilities, positioning or disposition to lead the raid on Scarif. What she has is the will and the selflessness to do it. Every character is moved into place by the machinations of the Force, acting very subtly in this film, but none of them are great gleaming founts of potential. They’re blind, they’re faithless, they’re morally compromised assassins, they’re traitors with nowhere else to go. Each of them simply does the best they can, taking action at the time when action is indicated to them. It is on their backs that Luke takes his Hero’s Journey.
By taking away the element of the Chosen One, ROGUE ONE reinforces that we can all make a difference. We can all be involved. And it doesn’t lie to us about our odds. That’s radical, and it’s exciting, and it’s the kind of messaging that we need right now. You don’t have to be Luke Skywalker to take down the Empire, and Luke Skywalker can’t do it without you.