This post contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). If you haven’t yet seen the film, and would prefer to watch it with fresh eyes, stop reading now. As my final post of 2016, I wanted to write about something that allowed me to reflect on the year as a whole. Please note: I don’t mean to undermine anyone else’s opinion about Rogue One with this review. There are many valid understandings of what ‘good’ cinema (and good feminism) entails, and I firmly believe conflicting opinions about this subject can and should exist.
The internet is in general agreement that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It was a year that saw a seemingly never-ending stream of human suffering, war, political strife, and celebrity deaths. On social media and the news, it often seemed like there was nothing but fear, hate, and darkness in the world.
Enter Rogue One, a film Variety called ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’. The first standalone film in Disney’s planned sequence of Star Wars tie-ins, Rogue One tells the story of the team of rebels who stole the plans to the first Death Star, revealing a small, key weakness in its construction and enabling Luke Skywalker destroy the doomsday weapon in the very first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977). The team is led by reluctant hero Jyn Erso (played by British actress Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist responsible for inserting the key weakness into the Death Star, and for notifying the Rebel Alliance of its existence.
I wrote a bit about Rogue One when the first trailer was released, and I went to see it on December 15th, the day it opened in the UK. Because I’m currently working on an academic article that explores whether or not the Star Wars franchise can be said to have a feminist agenda, I approached the film in two minds: on the one hand as an academic, and on the other as a life-long Star Wars fan. I came away from it in two minds as well. A part of me loved it, and wholeheartedly agreed with the many reviews that hail it as a victory not just for feminism, but also for diversity and subversive politics in mainstream entertainment. Another part of me remained unconvinced, and even disappointed with what I saw as a series of missed opportunities. A third and final part of me, shaken by yesterday’s news that Carrie Fisher (writer, mental health activist, and the actress who portrayed Princess Leia) had died, continues to cast about for a way to tie these conflicting emotions and opinions together.
So, here it goes.
To understand why I felt the way I did about Rogue One, it’s necessary to give a bit of background about the film’s place in the franchise. In the Star Wars universe, the films have always been the firmest decider of what is ‘canon’, and tend to be the part of the franchise that will reach the widest audience. Since Disney acquired Star Wars in 2012 there have been signs that this could change, but the films have played a large part in establishing audience faith in the franchise, and in setting the mould for what Star Wars will look like in the future.
2015’s The Force Awakens broke box office records by being doggedly faithful to the things fans loved most about the films from the 1970s and ’80s. Rogue One represented Disney’s first attempt to take Star Wars in a truly new direction, and establish a series of stories and properties that fit within the Star Wars universe, but that weren’t limited by the Skywalker narrative that dominates the central films. If The Force Awakens was Disney’s opportunity to show me it could make a Star Wars movie, Rogue One was its opportunity to show me that Star Wars could do something different while still feeling like Star Wars. (Side note: for those interested in the concept, Bioware’s 2003 video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did a damn good job of using a familiar universe to tell new and interesting stories in new and interesting ways.)
TL;DR: Rogue One had a lot to do in just 133 minutes. And as a Star Wars fan I’m very happy with the way it did so. I found the experience visually and emotionally arresting, and thought the story was well-written, unexpectedly bold, and did a good job of balancing its enormous cast of central characters. Would I buy an extended version that takes the time to flesh out some of the characters more thoroughly? In a heartbeat, but I also felt that the film gave me more than enough subtle characterisations to help me understand and relate to each of its key characters from the get-go. The film was also chock full of references to (and cameos from) the original film trilogy, keeping my inner fan very entertained.
From a political perspective, I also admired the way the film depicted the Rebel Alliance as a collection of determined, action-oriented people who also happen to be largely made up of the marginalised in our own Western society: people of colour, women, the elderly. When Cassian Andor (played by Mexican actor Diego Luna) tells Jyn that ‘not all of us get to choose to rebel’ [not an exact quote, please do correct me], for me the implications were unmistakeable. It was a message straight to to all those out there who are fortunate enough to be able to ignore racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are still widespread in our culture: you may think you’re an ally, but make sure you understand what that means. Not everyone has the luxury of leaving a situation when things get bad. Jyn Erso may be a relatively privileged white woman, but she gives her mind, heart, and body to the rebel cause, even when it is no longer strictly necessary. She also knows when to move aside and give other people the chance to step up. Ultimately, she shares the same fate as the rest of her team, dying on Scarif after successfully transmitting the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance.
This was exactly the message I needed at the end of 2016. It was a year that left many of us feeling helpless and hopeless, and Rogue One delivered a powerful message in response, from the marginalised, outnumbered, and outgunned members of the Rebel Alliance. ‘Welcome to the real rebellion,’ it seemed to say. ‘We’ve been fighting here for decades. Now that you finally understand what it feels like, and what we’re fighting for, here’s what you can do about it’. It was a call to fight terrorism (from left and right), totalitarianism, and discrimination, even when that fight is ultimately doomed.
So far, so good. This reading is the one most reviews have taken in the aftermath of Rogue One, and if we only look at the story itself I think this reading is a good one. For ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’, though, I feel obligated to dig a bit deeper than that. I’ll start by explaining why I don’t really agree with the people who think Rogue One is a feminist film.
Rogue One needed to prove to me that it could be a different kind of Star Wars movie, which it did very admirably, but Disney and Lucasfilm still haven’t convinced me that they aren’t the evil Empire in this scenario. They seem to insist on maintaining the stats quo because it’s the safe bet and it’s ‘what sells’—even when the message audiences are buying directly contradicts that idea. The Rebel Alliance—clearly the good guy in Rogue One, despite some new grey areas—is racially diverse, but the film’s protagonist is white, as is the leader of the rebellion (Mon Mothma). The titular ‘Rogue One’ team may be led by a woman, but the ratio of men to women in the film (± 7.7:1) is bad even by Hollywood standards. And though Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy prides herself on the gender parity of her executive team, she has essentially stated that the Star Wars franchise is not willing to be the one to break the gender bias in big-budget directing.
As Cassian makes so explicit, it’s not enough to pay lip service to rebellion. We need to get our hands dirty, and this is something Star Wars the franchise still seems unlikely to do. This is evidenced not only by Disney’s haste to distance itself from the political implications of the film, but also in Rogue One’s overwhelming lack of gender parity in both cast and crew, and even in its CGI recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994) and a young Princess Leia. This last point is relatively minor, but as a fan of Peter Cushing from his work with Hammer Horror, I found it surprisingly ghoulish. I remain unconvinced by John Knoll’s argument that a CGI clone is somehow equivalent to a new actor performing in tribute.
I also can’t forget Carrie Fisher’s open letter to Princess Leia upon hearing that she would be appearing in new Star Wars films. She wrote:
[W]hile you will forever be remembered loitering in star-infested landscapes, existing endlessly in imaginations and onscreen, I putter noisily in that infamous closet of celebrity—expanding, wrinkling, stooping, and far too often, stupid with age. Here we are enacting our very own Dorian Gray configuration. You: smooth, certain, and straight-backed, forever condemned to the vast, enviable prison of intergalactic adventure. Me: struggling more and more with post-galactic stress disorder, bearing your scars, graying your eternally dark, ridiculous hair.
Here Leia appears in Rogue One, then, as young and sure as ever. The audience is not even allowed to remember the Carrie Fisher of the past. Instead, we are given another version of the eternally young Princess. We haven’t even begun to untangle the ethical issues raised by digitally resurrecting the deceased for profit—even with the permission of their estate.
What about feminism, then? Rogue One makes a few feminist choices in terms of narrative, but on an industry level it could have been pushed much further. To be honest, I’m baffled as to why Disney is even playing it safe. Like The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One was both lauded as feminist by mainstream media and decried as ‘Social Justice propaganda’ by so-called mens rights activists (MRA). Both perspectives would seem to indicate that Rogue One is indeed feminist. It features a female protagonist, and women seem to fill all kinds of roles throughout the film, from diplomat to pilot to rebel insurgent. In a way, Rogue One is very much a story of how sacrifice knows no boundaries—be it gender, race, or class. At a young age Jyn watches her mother die in a largely symbolic gesture, trying to stop Director Orson Krennic from forcing her husband, herself, and her young daughter to serve the Empire. By the end of the film, we have come full circle, and it is Jyn who gives up her life for a lost cause. Neither Jyn nor her mother are expected to be particularly useful or relevant against the Empire, but each builds on the sacrifices of the other in the slow battle towards freedom. In this, Jyn becomes a proud successor to Princess (later General) Leia Organa, who strangles her oppressor with the very chains he used to bind her in Return of the Jedi (1983). She refuses to give up, and when there seems to be no hope, she makes her own.
In 2016, however, an empowering story is not enough.
Rogue One could have taken the opportunity, with its first ‘original’ Star Wars movie, to go all the way. It could have given us a film that showed us how Hollywood films should be, not just in terms of racial and gender diversity on-screen, but in the way it navigated the industry. It took a bold chance, but it could have taken a much bolder one. Give us a cast and crew with gender parity, that includes people of all ages and economic backgrounds, and that is racially diverse. If any franchise had the money and the opportunity to do this, it was Star Wars. I won’t even go into how this film spectacularly failed to subvert the franchise’s serial obsession with heterosexuality. As a guaranteed blockbuster, but also as a relatively safe ‘spinoff’ film, now was the time to take the big risks.
What Rogue One would be called if it was left up to the people currently having a meltdown in the Daily Mail comments section pic.twitter.com/tAQHxkPMbd
— TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon) December 14, 2016
As MRA website Return of Kings concluded after actually viewing the film, ‘Rogue One shows that Hollywood is listening to our complaints about feminism in films’. The rest of the review echoes many of the things I found so disappointing, and the fact that they were able to come to this conclusion shows just how much further Disney should have gone. As a film, I don’t think Rogue One was particularly feminist, or even particularly rebellious. As Michelle Goldberg’s aptly titled article on Slate argues, 2016 was also ‘the year the feminist bubble burst […] People who are committed to gender equality will try to salvage what they can of the last 40 years of progress. They’ll try to maintain their morale, but living in total opposition to the zeitgeist is hard.’ The odds are still firmly against equality. And Star Wars still has a long way to go.
Rogue One was the movie I needed this year, both because it reminded me of all the things that still need to be done, and because its story showed us where we can start. It reminded me that we need to keep hoping and fighting. We need to do something—anything. This is also the lesson that I will take from Carrie Fisher’s story. One of her many quotes that’s currently making the rounds of the internet feels especially relevant in the light of this review:
Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.
At the time she was speaking about mental illness, but Carrie Fisher was outspoken about social justice as well. So was the Star Wars character she embodied: General Leia Organa. Both Fisher and Jyn Erso show us that suffering, loss, and even death need not be the end. They inspire us to follow their example, and to take up the fight that they have been forced to abandon.
So let’s get to it.