Star Wars has always been mythical in stark and relatively simple terms. The original trilogy took the now-controversial position that the guys based on the Nazis — the ones who destroyed Princess Leia's home planet Alderaan just as a demonstration of the Death Star laser's power — were pretty uncomplicatedly bad. It trafficked in the archetypal psychodrama of fathers and sons. It subscribed to a now-obsolete American notion that a victory won in hatred is no victory at all. And if the prequels offered some complicating material, they did so by anticipating America's antihero craze and tracking, in dull and deadening detail, the reasons Darth Vader broke bad. But he did break bad: The vocabulary of the Jedi forces that distinction. There is evil, and there is good.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is different. The first film of the Star Wars Anthology Series, hitting theaters Dec. 16, sidesteps this Jedi Manichaeism almost entirely.
Judging from the trailers, Rogue One commits to a view of war that will not reduce to one-on-one lightsaber battles or the "honorable" logic of duels. It intends to be messy, all shades of gray. Director Gareth Edwards' goal — aesthetically and ethically — was to make the standalone film "gritty" in the style of other in-the-trenches movies that favor following the grunts on the ground over the power players (or the Jedi samurai warriors). Edwards, who previously directed Monster and Godzilla, has cited footage from Vietnam, World War II, and the Gulf War as inspirations, and hired cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) to achieve a look that's as grimy as it is epic. The aim? To reflect the ways in which war is messy, visually and morally. "It's been very easy in the past to label it as we're the good guys and they're the bad guys," Edwards told Indiewire:
And I'm sure like they feel they're the good guys and we're the bad guys. And the goal of a lot of films used to be: If we just eliminate the bad guys, we win. But I think a more modern, realistic viewpoint is that no one's good, no one's evil, and the only real way we're going to stop wars is to understand each other better, come together and empathize with them. And this film tried to take away the black and white and make it more gray. You even see the point of view of the bad guys and you start to understand what [the Empire] tried to do. [Edwards, via Indiewire]
It's a perspective that reflects any number of changes in the culture, including the dour nihilism that haunts our superhero films, our obsession with antiheroes, and our growing ideological distance from the clear-cut moral victories of World War II. (Even The Force Awakens — which so obviously echoed A New Hope, did so by catastrophically misunderstanding the earlier film's moral center.)
Our wartime ethics have gotten blunted and warped over the years. If many Americans were horrified by the actions committed in their name in Vietnam (and by the torture John McCain suffered while a captive of the North Vietnamese, and by American casualties), Americans today seem comparatively indifferent to U.S.-inflicted civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unmoved by veteran suffering. Indeed, almost half of Americans today say they favor torture as a method for extracting information. Our Overton window has drifted. We always seem to be one big war behind when it comes to giant film franchises, and if George Lucas famously modeled his X-wing dogfights on WWII footage, Edwards' approach looks like it will borrow more heavily from Vietnam for its tone as well as its content.
(Screenshot/Rogue One Trailer/YouTube)
The film is also diverse, that curious word whose utility should have long since vanished. It has not, and the word soldiers on, wearily recognizing that it is still noteworthy, in 2016, whenever 90 percent of the speaking lines in a film are not delivered by white men.
Instead, Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, an outlaw recruited by the rebels to steal the plans for the Death Star. Forest Whitaker plays a resistance fighter named Saw Gerrera, Donnie Yen is a blind monastic fighter named Chirrut Îmwe, and Diega Luna plays Cassian, a rebel officer. Riz Ahmed, whose extraordinary performance as Naz in HBO's The Night Of you might recall, stars as a pilot named Bodhi Rook.
Plenty of Americans have elected to side with the Emperor in response, and are happily letting the hate flow through them. Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and men's rights activists plan to boycott Rogue One on the grounds that the Empire is another casualty of the "liberal media." One can certainly see why: White supremacists — or the "alt-right," as it prefers to call itself these days — would prefer a return to the status quo. "Nearly all of the major characters are non-Whites and the main character is an empowered White female," says a poster urging the Rogue One boycott. (A hatred of feminism has led this group to determine that "empowering" women, even white ones, threatens white supremacy.) Their other objection is that the Star Wars franchise as a whole is Jewish "anti-White social engineering." (One poster suggested he'd pirate Rogue One and "fantasize about being a stormtrooper.")
It's symptomatic of this confused moment in America that this darkest, most nuanced Star Wars movie — the one that expressly aims to humanize the Empire even more radically than The Force Awakens, which makes John Boyega's character Finn, a former stormtrooper, a sympathetic figure — is being boycotted for not catering enough to neo-Nazis.
One might find it reasonable, in the context of an intergalactic story featuring a wide range of species and civilizations, for the actors not to conform to white supremacists' preferred demographic. But if the film's first sin is its protagonist — yet another woman! wasn't Rey enough? — its second is that it refused to bow to the pressure the "alt-right" tried to exert on The Force Awakens (they tried to boycott that film on the grounds that it included Boyega, a black actor, in a prominent role).
This is the complicated terrain onto which a new Star Wars movie will drop. The idealism of the franchise is up for grabs. The question facing this cloudy, ambitious, standalone entry into the Star Wars Universe — which has always, up until now, defined its terms according to dark and light, good and evil — is who will grab it.