Recently watching Rogue One, I was struck by its style and storytelling chops as if it was the first time, but then its deeper themes and devices become more apparent to me than they ever had before. I tweeted as much at the time and while the replies were largely positive, one curious response got me thinking.
I’m paraphrasing, but the tweet argued that people want good old-fashioned action heroes and not dark, flawed and brooding types he likened to nineties comic book characters. The example he drew attention to was Cassian Andor who, within the film’s first fifteen minutes, is seen shooting dead an informant rather than let the Rebel Alliance be compromised. I agree that these aren’t the swashbuckling do-gooders that first inspired George Lucas, but they are the complex, conflicted and nuanced heroes we need today.
Whether politically, socially or economically, human history has always been fraught with fear, iniquity and exploitation; but there was a time where the world made some kind of sense. Collectively, we thought we had a grasp on how everything tessellated together. 9/11 saw an upending of this system and the shared beliefs and values that governed our existence. Whether intentional or not, art is beholden to the age that bore it, and we see this tumultuous time reflected in the Star Wars prequels.
These three movies were pre-destined to weave a progressively darkening tale as a young Anakin Skywalker transforms into Darth Vader, love gives way to hate, and democracy is crushed under the bootheel of fascism. The first rough draft for Attack of the Clones (AOTC) was written in March 2000, more than a year before 9/11, but Lucas was famous for re-writing as he filmed and the influence of the attack can be seen and felt in the finished film.
AOTC opens with an act of domestic terrorism while the rest of the film is steeped in paranoia, secret manoeuvrings in the political system and a discourse between people’s freedoms and the cost of their safety. The influence is more overt still in Revenge of the Sith as it mirrors real-life events. Before his duel with Obi-Wan, Anakin says “If you are not with me, then you are my enemy” all but mimicking the anti-terrorist rhetoric of George W Bush.
It’s impossible not to see the simplicity of this stance. Obi-Wan says “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”, but this black and white thinking pervades the political sphere as much as the cinema screen. There’s no spectrum here, simply a line drawn in the dirt with good guys on one side and baddies on the other. Though always politically aware, Star Wars began life as a mythic struggle between good and evil, but evolved as early as Return of the Jedi and grew yet more complex in the early noughties. In 2016, a year that witnessed the rise of isolationism, protectionism and a widespread right-wing ideology, Rogue One saw the franchise evolve again with a vision of the Star Wars universe that was more shades of grey than we’d ever seen on the silver screen before. It’s filled with flawed conflicted characters, none of whom fit the classic hero profile.
First up there’s Jyn Erso, the daughter of an Imperial science officer, who was trained and radicalised as a young girl by a militant band of rebels. By all accounts she should be a politically aware paragon of the people fighting against injustice… but she’s not. She’s an apathetic, lost soul who avoids any allegiances and safeguards whatever opinions she might still hold. On life under the Imperials she says “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up”, expressing not only her own attitude but capturing the zeitgeist. Yet by the third act she is empowered and inspired, her personal struggle evolving into acting against the Empire – not because she has to, not to further her own aims, but because she believes in the cause and chooses to be a hero.
Jyn’s father Galen is another of the film’s unlikely archetype-busting characters whose personal struggle also plays out through a greater act of heroism. As an Imperial science office, Galen was an indispensable part of the design, construction and realisation of the Death Star. Fleeing with his family before the work was completed was perhaps well-intentioned, but it cost the life of his wife and saw him separated from his daughter. But Galen understood that while he was an important asset to the Empire, he wasn’t indispensable, and so he “did the one thing no one expected” and helped finish the Death Star.
Galen built a weakness within the plans, one that a young Luke Skywalker would later exploit. Yet when confessing this design flaw in a hologram, it’s clear that behind wanting to do the right thing, wanting to atone and bring the Empire down, is the pain of not having his family with him. I won’t repeat his speech – which I explore in greater depth here – but it seems to me that without this pain and loss, he never would have risked hiding the flaw in the first place. Clearly there was more truth to him playing the role of a “broken man” than he let on.
And then there’s Cassian Andor who’s been part of a rebellion in one form or another since he was six. War, espionage and hardship are all he’s ever known. He does what he’s told and everything he does is all for the Alliance. Let’s return to that early scene where Cassian shoots dead an informant rather than let him be taken by approaching Storm Troopers. Some might say it was a mercy, killing the man quick rather than let him be tortured (or worse), but it’s clear from his conflicted expression that Cassian is by no means a cold-hearted agent who’ll do whatever it takes. He has a heart, he has a conscience and, as Baze Malbus put it, he has “the face of a friend”.
Although he’s later tasked by the Alliance to assassinate Galen Erso, he can’t bring himself to do it. By not killing him as ordered, Cassian takes charge of his own destiny perhaps for the first time in his life. As Jyn said, following orders when you know they’re wrong makes you no better than a stormtrooper, and if that’s the case, what’s Cassian even fighting for? It’s a moment of awakening and he decides to go against orders, undermine the Rebel Alliance and leave for Scarif because he believes it’s truly the best thing for the galaxy.
Rogue One isn’t a story of clear-cut heroes battling against evil, but of conflicted characters trying to do the right thing, be better people and figure out their place in the galaxy. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than with Bodhi Rook, a defected Imperial cargo pilot inspired into bravery by Galen Erso. He’s an everyday hero fighting against tyranny and injustice a little at a time and this before the ‘everyone can be a hero’ theme of The Last Jedi. Heroes, like art, need to evolve to reflect the times. Rogue One might not offer everyone the heroes they want, but they are the heroes we need.