Looking Up: the Luxury of Hope in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Posted 21 December 2016 about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

rogue one

NOTE: this piece contains spoilers! If you haven't watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story yet, we advise you do so before reading.

On the second viewing of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, having spent the first cheerfully abandoning all my critical faculties in favour of getting swept away by the film’s breathless current, I’m struck by the precision and weight with which the script deploys the word “luxury”. A brittle, wary Jyn Erso claims she doesn’t have “the luxury of political opinions”, guard right up, hardly daring to let herself hope. Later, Captain Andor rounds on her and snarls “not everyone has the luxury of deciding when and where to care about something”. Rogue One is about hope, but it’s also about necessity – necessity as the antithesis of luxury, the gradual closing down of chances, the inexorable running away of time. Rallying her band of rebels for their final, desperate kamikaze effort, Jyn vows to fight “until the chances are spent”. We are aware of the price that must be paid for the ending, which we already know. Rogue One is more brutal and more morally complex than the main storyline of the saga, adding shades of grey to the usually unequivocal light/dark dichotomy, striking a sombre note while delivering robust, blockbuster thrills.

Time is a luxury, and no-one in Rogue One has enough time. In another story, maybe Jyn would have time to soften, time to be something other than a thief and a warrior and a weapon. She doesn’t, here, and it’s that sacrifice that Rogue One is about, at heart – the terrible, rushed, human selflessness of knowing you don’t get to be the hero of your story, that your name might not be remembered for what you’re about to do, that you won’t get to see if it was worth it. You don’t get to choose the story you’re in, and no-one ever really gets as much time as they want. All you have, and are, is the choices you make with the time that you have. Rogue One gracefully demonstrates how history is shaped by people whose names don’t necessarily get remembered, whose stories don’t get told later. As such, it feels intrinsically separate from the mythic, galactic sweep of The Star Wars Saga – with its emphasis on destiny and legacy – in a way that lends it a scrappy, dirt-under-the-nails urgency. There are no chosen ones, and pretty much everyone is making it up as they go along, chance to chance –  the panicked improvisation that gives the film its title is a small delight).

The conspicuous lack of Jedi mind tricks or intricately choreographed, balletic lightsaber battles raises rather than conclusively answers interesting questions about what the force means to people like Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe. His rough, graceful martial arts-inflected fight scenes are a joy to behold, but don’t have a manifest tangible relationship to it the way that Luke and Rey do, and this idea – hope and belief without expectation or proof – underpins much of what makes Rogue One work as its own story, and lends it an extra, implicit poignancy in the context of the wider saga. It has the familiar aesthetic texture and tactility of Star Wars - the pleasingly clunky, knobbly spaceships, the clean modernist sweep of the Empire, miniscule details like the lo-fi holochess played on Jedha – married to a rougher and more kinetic physicality than usual, as this is the first film in the saga to take place primarily in the middle of the ground level chaos of a war. The cinematography is clear and intimate in its tracking of humans moving through warzones, and it looks and feels dirtier, grittier, more liable to collapse into catastrophe at any moment. Backstories are lightly sketched but illuminated by careful, nuanced performances in between all the explosions. Visually, the diversity of the principle cast – in pointed contrast to the Empire, represented onscreen exclusively by white men – is both powerful and prescient, even taking into account the slightly disappointing gender imbalance, and the range of actors’ natural accents on display is a genuine pleasure (as is the unexpected appearance of half of amiable chart botherers Rizzle Kicks, which is not a sentence I anticipated being able to type about Star Wars in 2016).

Romance is for the most part side-lined in favour of commitment to a cause and to a band of comrades, individual desires sublimated to collective action, but there’s still a lovely, aching tension between Jyn and Andor, sketched out lightly in a couple of moments of hyper-aware, lingering body language and eye contact (an Austenesque turn towards each other in a loading bay, echoing shots from previous films; a heartrending, silent moment in a dark lift, Jyn’s upturned face bathed in light, close but not touching; the final Hiroshima lovers silhouette). The point is potential, and its sacrifice for something more important. The tentative, adumbrated suggestion of romance here contrasts the steady partnership of Chirrut and Baze, which hints at a long, deeply committed history and largely elides the need for dialogue, and is presented as a source of strength to draw upon for the cause, a reason to keep fighting.

I loved how much the film feels like fanfic, beginning with a tiny, closed gap in the canon and then proceeding to load that vague, threadbare skein of material with human detail and texture until it becomes something richer and deeper, glowing with love for the source material. The ridiculous, brazen, glorious coup de grace of the last five minutes, when director Gareth Edwards finally drops all pretence of coyness in favour of a full-blooded evocation of the saga proper, made me laugh with delight - because of course they did! Of course you would! Perhaps most impressively, the film crackles with real energy and risk despite its outcome being set in stone, and Edwards manages to create a sense of the heart stopping slenderness of hope until the closing frames – on second viewing, I am stunned by a moment where the Rebel Alliance’s chances come down to a hand span of space in a jammed door. Hope as something small and ragged, held fast in the fist, passed hand to hand. Death, equally, often arrives without ceremony for good and bad characters alike, and the cumulative effect of this over the last forty minutes takes the film to a place that is fundamental inaccessible to the main saga. Very close to the end of the film, one wounded warrior leaning on another for support, hardly able to walk, Andor asks her, “do you think anyone’s listening?” and she says, voice steady, lit up by belief and purpose and pride, “someone’s out there.” Looking up, at last. The point is not knowing if your actions matter, if they have been witnessed, but choosing to believe that they do and they have. That you’re not alone in the galaxy. In its bleak, beautiful commitment to that choice, Rogue One goes above and beyond its apparently limited remit to make something startlingly new, even vital, within the confines of an old, beloved story, something that leaves me traipsing out of the cinema into a cold, clear night, and looking up.

Rosalie Bower

Rosalie Bower is a contributor to the Showroom blog.Read more posts by Rosalie Bower

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