No Star Wars movie worth its blaster skips a good test of faith, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story doesn’t disappoint. Early on in the film, young rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is being grilled about her allegiances by the Alliance she’s about to join. Her response? “I’ve never had the luxury of political opinions.” If you believe Disney CEO Bob Iger, this is true. But if you believe almost anyone else–the alt-right, the writers of the film, the writers of the Internet–the problem isn’t that Jyn doesn’t have the luxury of political opinions, it’s that she no longer has the luxury of existing without having those opinions ascribed to her. Her journey in the movie, being thrust into the position of helping steal the plans for the Death Star, pales in comparison to her real-world role: lightning rod. No other movie this year has been even remotely as intertwined with the toxic journey that was 2016.
Let’s back up, though. Rogue One started as a simple, smart concept: Make a standalone movie–an “anthology” flick, in official Lucasfilm parlance–based on the line in the opening crawl of 1977’s Star Wars about Rebel spies nabbing the plans for the Empire’s superweapon. And that’s exactly what it is. The Rebellion first recruits Jyn as a way to get to her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a man who happens to have invented the Death Star. In true hero fashion, she’s reluctant, only joining their cause after receiving a message from her father that he put a weakness in the weapon’s design. But when she learns there’s a way it can be defeated, she assembles a team of Rebels that includes her recruiter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the pilot who delivered her father’s message (Riz Ahmed), and Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind fighter strong with the Force. Retrieving the plans, of course, means a showdown with the Empire, and this one happens to be one of the most visually epic final battles of the entire Star Wars saga.
Because the story–or at least its conclusion–is so familiar to fans, its prospects were strong from the outset. But because not much was known about the “Rebel spies” in the Star Wars canon, Lucasfilm/Disney was able to bring in a whole new cast of characters and, for the first time ever, make a woman the team’s leader.
And that’s where things got messy. By all measures, Rogue One succeeds; it’s a thrilling, well-told, Star Wars movie that will scratch any fan’s itch. It also succeeds at continuing to bring the franchise into the 21st century by featuring the most inclusive cast to date. But in two and a half years since the first “Star Wars story” was announced (“Spring 2014: Officially a Lifetime Ago!(TM)”), the Culture Wars Story has shifted from talk about female heroines to an unprecedentedly divisive presidential election that saw many of the saga’s themes–faith, repression, the corruptive power of anger–enacted on a global stage.
Normally, this wouldn’t matter. Normally it shouldn’t. Star Wars movies have been released during all kinds of political climates: the franchise started during the Carter administration; Return of the Jedi came out during the Reagan years; the prequels started during Bill Clinton’s second term and ended while George W. Bush was in office. Rogue One, though, has been saddled with a greater significance, whether it warrants the burden or not. Bigots of all stripes, perhaps confusing Star Wars’ messaging with that of overtly humanist Star Trek, are boycotting the film for being too political. The movie’s writers–Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta–have taken to Twitter to remind people that the franchise is “against hate.”
So here we are, unable to talk about this movie like any other movie. Its very existence has become a symbol of the ways in which the Dark Side and the light creep into the world every day–even if its representations of “good” and “bad” are far too simplistic to actually work as political allegories. In a year like 2016, it’s hard not to see pleas for sanity or reasons for despair in almost any movie, and Rogue One will not be exempt from that–especially not when it wears its “rebellions are built on hope” heart so prominently on its dystopia-distressed denim sleeve.
If Clinton had won the presidency, if the aftermath of the election wasn’t about political meddling and stolen information, the conversation about Rogue One might be very different. For one, we’d be primarily discussing how much darker it is than the rest of the franchise. (Considering the very nature of the movie’s fictional mission, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that more than a few people die in this movie.) Before he took the director’s chair for this one, Gareth Edwards made 2014’s remarkably bleak Godzilla reboot–and while the movie’s third act livens it up with stirring inspiration speeches and blind Rebel fighters kicking stormtrooper ass, it’s very clear that this is Star Wars on its darkest timeline. (Even the movie’s requisite smart-alecky droid, K-2SO, is a reprogrammed Imperial bot whose best mood seems to be “fatalistic.”)
Had Rogue One not found itself the avatar of All Things Now, we might even be able to talk about whether or not it’s, you know, good. That’s too bad, because it is. All your Star Wars is here for the sometimes-more-somber-than-usual enjoyment. X-wing battles! Stormtroopers with unconscionably terrible aim! Daddy issues! Edwards’ direction veers towards the humdrum in the beginning, but the movie saves itself by the third act, and the Jones/Luna/Ahmed/Yen team feels at home in the Star Wars galaxy, despite being new to fans. And there’s more than enough room for Alan Tudyk as K-2SO in the pantheon of droids–ideally next to C-3PO, so they can be vaguely British together.
Every Star Wars film is some incarnation of The Jedi with a Thousand Faces, and Rogue One is no different–even if there are no Jedi. It doesn’t have the grandeur of last year’s The Force Awakens, but it shouldn’t; as the first of its nascent category, it needs only to be a ripping yarn in its own right. This isn’t the beginning of a new saga, it’s the model house that encourages you to buy in a subdivision that will someday feature standalone installments like 2018’s young Han Solo movie. Perhaps fittingly, its quality lines up neatly with its position on the universe’s timeline: better than the prequels, not quite as good as the original trilogy or Force. And considering the juggernaut that Star Wars is now, nearly every movie will likely be of its caliber or better. The story department will see to it. Nothing is too big too fail, but Lucasfilm is pretty damn close.
Which brings us back to Jyn. The world may have told her she isn’t entitled to her political opinions, but she does represent some, even if she doesn’t want to. She is also anti-totalitarian, anti-establishment, and pro-hope. And maybe, in 2016, those are the best ways for any member of the Resistance to go rogue.