The response to Rogue One has been interesting to watch. While there may have been some trepidation going in, it seems to have accrued quite a bit of critical goodwill. Among other things though, there have been plenty of observations that it’s the most the series has been willing to explore that second word of the franchise’s name. It’s certainly hard to disagree with: it does dig very deep into the idea of war, which for a movie that has always had a history of exploration of war and politics is pretty interesting. It’s also curious considering this was the film Disney CEO Bob Iger declared “There are no political statements in it.”
The relationship of war and Star Wars has evolved over time. While the original movie Star Wars borrowed liberally from Japanese culture like Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress in terms of the skeleton of the plot, the design of Darth Vader’s look from samurai armor, and from Space Battleship Yamato, it was more or less World War II in space. The prequel trilogy started out with similar gestures towards World War II in the Phantom Menace with the running plot of the Republic’s unwillingness to help Naboo from the threat of the Trade Federation, it eventually ended with a scathing review of the then current Bush Administration and the “War on Terror”. From Palpatine’s use of the fear of terrorism to ascend to absolute power, to Anakin’s dogged jingoism to his newly-formed Empire, and Padme’s observation of “This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause”. None of this is a secret of course, but it does provide at least a broad outline for how the perception of war in pop culture evolved in relation to Star Wars.
Rogue One for the most part hews closely to the aesthetics of the old Star Wars movies as opposed to the prequels, which is a wise choice especially considering it takes place so closely to the original. But the politics that define it exist in a slightly grayer area than the original films that cast a black and white dichotomy between the Rebellion and the Empire. For example, the introduction of the Partisans: a faction explained as too extreme even for the Rebellion’s taste led by Saw Gerrera causes tension, despite the fact that the Rebellion needs him to find out about what Jyn’s father Galen Erso is working on for the Empire. In addition, the Rebellion itself has some of its sympathy removed from it. While they ARE a rebellion, they’re not presented in the hard scrabble fashion that they are in A New Hope. They have a fleet, military, and an intelligence network that can keep up with the Empire, and in Cassian’s case assassins as well.
A large chunk of the film requires major characters compromising their ethics in order to compete with the Empire and survive. This even extends to Cassian’s dilemma on whether to assassinate Galen or not, as well as what exactly distinguishes the Rebellion from the Empire when they’re willing to kill innocents. The one failing of the film in this regard is that it’s still as easy as ever for any side to insert themselves into the shoes of the Rebellion, and that why they fight is baked into the line “The Empire has the capability of mass destruction, we don’t” by one of the Rebellion council members. To an extent this idea also undermines some of the Rebellion’s own motivation in the original film. While obviously the Empire’s destructive capability with the Death Star is terrifying, it’s somewhat disconcerting to see the Rebellion on the cusp of giving up, especially since beforehand they refuse to even believe in the existence of the superweapon they beheld later on in the film, especially The Empire is as terrifying in form as ever, but it doesn’t change the strange nature of what motivates them to fight. There are defectors, but aside from the vague allusions to their distaste for the Death Star, the lack of motivation is strange. Especially considering the allusions towards modern day asymmetrical terrorism that’s baked into the tactics and motivations of the Rebellion here.
Overall though, Rogue One is a good if imperfect movie. When it actually has something to say about the universe it lives in, it shines. But to an extent, it feels like it treats the Star Wars of prior movies and this movie as needing to be merged into one. There’s nothing mutually exclusive about the tone of Rogue One from the movies that came before, and if the next movies can learn from Rogue One’s mistakes as well as what it got right, we may well be in for a smarter Star Wars movie series.