by Rob Harding
Warning: contains spoilers. Also mentions fascistic, militaristic imperialism, Trump, and ‘Nazi dickheads’.
I know it came out last year, I was on holiday damn it.
The first I properly heard about Rogue One was that some Trump supporters wanted to boycott it because it was rumoured to contain anti-Trump themes. Seemed like a good reason to go and see it. Incidentally, the finished product contains no giant smug orange aliens inexplicably allowed out without supervision groping women – perhaps people were getting confused by Star Wars’ underlying anti-Nazi overtones. I can’t imagine how anti-fascism would seem anti-Trumpist at all. Those ‘Alt right’ (read: Nazi) dickheads really don’t like it, of course. Tough. They can fuck off back to Ender’s Game.
With that decent start in mind, I went to go and see it just before New Year. You know what? It’s pretty decent.
Three scenes had me on the edge of my seat with my mouth hanging open, because this is the series’ best attempt yet at taking the ‘frantic action sequence with colourful spaceships’ crown back off Guardians of the Galaxy, with special props to a scene with Darth Vader at the end and even more special props to the HAMMERHEAD CLASS CORVETTE (You’ll know it when you see it.) This really does feel like the first time a Star Wars movie has balanced comedy and grimness since The Empire Strikes Back, with wise-cracking Alan Tudyk complementing Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as comic foils to the straight-faced Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and Riz Ahmed and the enjoyably villainous Ben Mendelsohn Krennic and Guy Henry/Peter Cushing CGI Nightmare Hybrid.
I do have a few less positive things to say, and here’s where we go a little more in depth. The plot’s a mess, character motivation is all over the damn place and a lot of the time it’s hard to work out what’s going on, the film settling back too often on explosions and CGI over actual substance. There are deeper issues, however.
The Empire in Star Wars have always been a hybrid of several different cultures. They’re the Nazis, obviously, with their Stormtroopers and their black uniforms and their genocide. They’re also the British Empire, posh British-accented officers fighting scrappy American-accented rebels (America, it’s adorable that you still care about the War of Independence. Call India and ask about theirs, it was way more badass). The Nazi-Imperial analogue has always been joined by a deliciously subversive American element to them as well, made extremely explicit in Rogue One.
America, it’s adorable that you still care about the War of Independence. Call India and ask about theirs, it was way more badass
After about nine planet-establishing shots (bit of a drag, that) we finally get our heroine Jyn Erso (Jones) and her dark edgy Rebel spy handler Cassian (Luna) en route to the obligatory desert planet, Jedda. Once we get there, we find a gargantuan Star Destroyer (For me the symbol of the Empire in the films, a giant unsubtle death triangle that exemplifies fascistic, militaristic imperialism better than the Death Star ever could) hovering over a desert city.
Supplementary dialogue establishes an explicit War On Terror parallel. The Empire are here with an absurd amount of military force to mine some things, treading all over local customs on the way and destroying temples. When the rebels appear they’re fighting from a bunch of caves in the desert and look like sci-fi quasi Taliban right down to the headscarves. The one firefight we see between them is like watching Black Hawk Down with the US marines in cosplay. Hell, even the planet’s name reinforces that, presumably referencing Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately, Rogue One doesn’t do enough with this parallel. You want to be edgy? Don’t relegate your Middle Eastern resistance fighter analogues to ‘rogue fanatics’, make them part of the Rebel Alliance, even if they are a maligned one. It’s repeatedly emphasised in the film that rebellions sometimes involve people doing bad things for good causes (brilliantly set up when Captain Cassian kills a man in cold blood to maintain his cover minutes in). Instead we get and old colonialist (and new islamophobic neo-crusader) narrative of greedy westerners versus fanatical locals.
Don’t relegate your Middle Eastern resistance fighter analogues to ‘rogue fanatics’, make them part of the Rebel Alliance, even if they are a maligned one.
And as such it’s depressing that in an openly ‘progressive’ film the Jedda fanatics are framed as caricatures of Middle Eastern rebels and then ostracised as a dangerous ‘other’, who torture people with squid monsters. While I appreciate they tried (and given how much Rogue One was cut up behind the scenes I wouldn’t be surprised if the parallels were initially a lot more explicit) Rogue One’s attempt to comment on contemporary Middle Eastern politics doesn’t quite go as far as it could.
On the other hand, we do get a genuinely non-stereotypical character played by a Middle Eastern actor (disclaimer: Of course they’re all from a different galaxy, shut up) (Fridge logic addendum: Riz Ahmed is from England, so he’s a posh British guy like all the other Imperial officers). Taken by itself, his nervous, awkward defecting Imperial Pilot character is great fun — the distressed dude among all the badasses. With modern pop culture stuffed to the sodding brim with Homeland extras, he’s a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, he appears opposite Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as the Mainland Chinese Marketing Characters playing Japanese (?) stereotypes.
With modern pop culture stuffed to the sodding brim with Homeland extras, he’s a breath of fresh air.
Now, Star Wars has never been short of racist stereotypes, (hello, Jar Jar. Hi, Watto. Why are the black characters all traitors?) and various elements have always been modelled on samurai, ninja, martial arts films and monks, but given that the characters seem to be solely there to reduce the number of Stormtroopers on screen (bar one single contribution to the plot at the end) it’s hard not to see them as just China-focused marketing clothed in tired stock characters straight out of the 80s. While they are pretty fun to watch in their own right, they ultimately come across as cynical.
Quibbles aside, however, I still really liked Rogue One. With a slightly more focused script that hadn’t been re-shot to hell and back it would have been great, and as it is it stands up. And it has Darth Vader puns! Worth a watch.
Featured image: Diego Luna / Cassian Ando, Felicity Jones / Jyn Erso, K-2so