In honor of Rogue One’s recent release on Netflix, the first of the Star Wars films available to the popular streaming medium, take a second look with us at this most recent cinematic entry into that galaxy far, far away.
As the first of several planned anthology films (that is, those not dependent upon the Skywalker family and its ongoing saga), Rogue One was given the opportunity to be a bit different from the rest of the episodic entries. But what about it makes it different? Among other things, Rogue One may be the first Star Wars film to be an actual anti-war film, finally addressing the “war” part of “Star Wars.”
The episodic movies feature and focus on the Skywalker clan, from Anakin to Luke to Leia to Ben (Solo) and maybe more (as additional episodes are released). Rogue One, given the freedom to explore the galaxy separate and apart from the Skywalkers, presented a chance for the creative team to actually be creative. Gareth Edwards, director, made a brave decision to focus the story on promoting an overtly anti-war and anti-nuclear proliferation message which stands in pretty strong contrast to the episodic entries. The other films, while containing elements of anti-war, anti-Imperialist sentiments, chose to focus on a more broad theme of redemption. Three pillars support the anti-war tendencies of Rogue One and make it unique among the Star Wars films:
The rejection and ignoring of military hierarchy
In Rogue One, there is a surefire way to make sure no one pays attention to you: hold military rank. Jyn, after learning that the Alliance failed to vote to attack Scariff, defies instructions to stay put, steals a ship out of the Alliance fleet, and orchestrates her own assault with the aide of Rebellion officers. Cassian, a captain himself, seems prepared to forfeit his role in the Alliance and musters similar malcontents. Consider, from an alternative point of view and applying real-world principles, that, if Congress would fail to pass an order authorizing military action against a country, a small band of U.S. Marines decided to take matters into their own hands, launching against the stronghold of such an opposing country. Those Marines would be more likely considered treasonous than heroic, yet Rogue One suggests that Jyn’s actions (and those of her companions) are more heroic than the rest of the Alliance, sitting at home on Yavin 4. Edwards is showing us that the actions of military leadership gets in the way of actually doing the right thing. And perhaps he is not content to limit it to military leadership, but the will of democracy as something that can be influenced, bought, and peddled.
But then there is Raduss, the Mon Calamari Admiral and commander of the Profundity, who demonstrated that it is not just the civilians who get all the defiance-fun.
Raduss made quite a splash at his debut in the Alliance’s war room. After making his argument in favor of Jyn’s recommendation for assault and its subsequent failure upon voting, Raduss made an undeniably treasonous next move: he readied his fleet without the consent of the authorities. Perhaps intuiting that Jyn would not let her actions be dictated by a governing body she had no fealty to, he prepared for the inevitable call for help. This would fly in the face of the council and their inability to act. With his fate less-than-clear, though, we should presume he did not survive against the forces of the Dark Lord; we can read his small contribution to the story as a sacrifice for the greater good. Willing to face the consequences of semi-insurrection in order to assist the strike team tasked with uncovering the secrets of the Death Star, Raddus makes no bones about what he considers to be the right and appropriate play and then lets nothing stand in his way to accomplish it. The council could not stop him, the Imperial navy could not stop him. It took Vader himself to end the heroic achievements of the great admiral.
The demonstration of incompetence and impotence of governmental bureaucracy
About that vote. This is more an element of story design than reasonable in-universe decision making. Edwards wanted to continue Jyn’s outsider approach and appeal so it took her defying the decision of the council to force that issue. It seems more than unrealistic that anyone contributing or participating in the Rebellion would have any problem continuing the fight against the Empire if they knew there was a hidden flaw in the ultimate Imperial war machine. What would the alternative be? Disburse the Rebellion and go back to servitude and enslavement? Anyone who signed up to support the Alliance itself would only be discovered and eliminated if only within a matter of time. Vader was aware of Princess Leia’s connection to the Rebellion immediately after this battle, so it stands to reason that the rest of Palpatine’s government would be able to identify any and all known sympathizers and supporters. Anonymity would have been in short supply. Therefore, the decision of the Alliance council to drop the pursuit of the alleged secret plans is a plot device only. Not necessarily a bad one, but one that stands out like a red lightsaber in a dark hallway.
But Rogue One displays another type of bureaucratic nightmare and that is the structure and action of the Imperial military itself. Between Tarkin, Krennic, and Vader, we can see that clarity and definition are not always the way of the Empire. Rather, and in accordance with the Tarkin Doctrine outlined in the novel bearing the originator’s name, might doth continue to make right. Imagine, for a moment, an Imperial science officer who (relatively speaking) believes in the mission of the Empire. Imagine that officer overcoming insurmountable obstacles to create a feat of engineering so daring that it took over twenty years to complete it. Imagine having to do it in relative secrecy since its existence was only confirmed outside of the Empire within the events of this film. Krennic is that officer and his entire life’s work (in theory) was ripped out from under him when Tarkin assumed control and command of the Death Star.
Tarkin’s role as Grand Moff is described as being the second-in-command over the Empire. The problem comes into focus when you consider Krennic’s next move, though. He does not plead his case to the Emperor nor the courts but rather to the Dark Lord himself. Vader occupies no official rank in the military nor even the Empire. He submits to the Emperor but he also submits to Tarkin. He threatens (and even takes) the lives of military personnel at some of the highest ranks without impunity nor concern for inconvenience. Yet Krennic considers Vader as the only way back to the top of the Death Star. While Vader agrees to represent Krennic’s concerns to Palpatine, it is in vain as the Death Star arrives at Scariff in order to stop the Rebel attack without concern for the Imperial lives lost in the matter. Not only that, Vader is not headed back to Coruscant to confer with the Emperor, but rather to Scariff as well in order to stop the Rebel fleet in the system. In the end, Vader worked with Tarkin rather than thwarting him.
This is no way to run a military, nevermind a government. Conniving, back-stabbing, lack of definition and responsibility, entrusting command to (ostensibly) an over-emotional superhuman, the issues go on and on and Krennic’s faith in that system is his undoing.
The clear influences of the film-makers’ preparatory work
Taking a step back from what happens in-universe, Edwards recommended a list of films to serve as inspiration for his cast and crew. The idea was to provide the team with a little more insight into his own vision for Rogue One. Here are the films Edwards recommended:
- Zero Dark Thirty
- Seven Samurai
- Thin Red Line
- Blue Velvet
- Guns of Navarone
- Reservoir Dogs
- Black Hawk Down
- The Wizard of Oz
- Blade Runner
- Saving Private Ryan
- Band of Brothers
- Hidden Fortress
- Battle for Algiers
- Apocalypse Now
- Star Wars
There is certainly much to unpack from this list in terms of borrowed elements and direct inspiration (#18 should have been expected from parsecs away). One of the clearest messages that this list gets across, though, is that a realistic portrayal of warfare and its cost on the human soul would be on full display. Almost half of these films are explicitly war films (Zero Dark Thirty, Thin Red Line, Guns of Navarone, Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Battle for Algiers, and Apocalypse Now) and most of the rest center around violence and combat (Seven Samurai, Alien, Reservoir Dogs, Blade Runner sort of, Hidden Fortress, and Star Wars). There is no glory in these movies’ violence. There is the cost of war on both the body and the soul.
Rogue One certainly looks and feels different from every other entry in the Star Wars cinematic universe. When we consider Edwards’ approach to the military hierarchy, the impact of the governmental bureaucracy, and the education that went on behind the camera, it is not hard to see why that is: Lucas wanted to tell a fairy tale; Edwards wanted to tell a cautionary war story, not one that celebrated war in the least. And indeed he did.