On the Battlefield

Film review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Director: Gareth Edwards)

By Sascha Krieger

John Williams‘ famed fanfare, the legendary Star Wars crawl fading into space:  when they appear, generations of movie goers knows, they’re being transported to a „long time ago“ and „a galaxy far, far away…“ When Rogue One, the first of three planned Star Wars anthology films, starts, there is none of this. No feeling of familiarity, no cozy sitting back and being immersed in the ultimate fairy-tale of good versus evil in which the former will eventually triumph, even though, as in the real world, those triumphs are never permanent, as The Force Awakens, last year’s start of the new, the third trilogy showed. The anthology films tell episodes that are not part of the main narrative but are, as in Rogue One, closely connected to it. The original 1977, episode IV in the series‘ chronology sets in with the rebel alliance trying to save plans of a deadly super weapon that have just been stolen from the totalitarian Empire. Rogue One now tells the story of how those plans were acquired.

It has become a very different Star Wars film. The everlasting battle between good and evil is present but it is taken down to the level where it gets real. No lofty philosophy, no Jedi knight esoterics – the film takes its clue from the 1977 film’s crawl: „It is a period of civil war.“ Rogue One, to make it short, is not a fairy tale, it is a war movie. Fast-paced, full of hard cuts, a narrative rhythm like a machine gone. Despite some comic relief – courtes mostly of Alan Tudik’s sarcastic and know-all droid – this is a dark film, almost claustrophobic at times, focusing largely on bare, ugly interiors. From the opening sequence of short, concise episodes taking place across the galaxy, it condenses quickly into a single, compact story confined to one place. As in The Force Awakens, the protagonist is a woman: Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erson, the daughter of an Imperial scientist and weapon specialist, as a stubborn, suspicious, hardened young woman, who has to slowly excavate her feelings, values, beliefs. She becomes the first unwilling agent in the Rebellion’s plot, a rebellion that is far from being painted in rosy colors. There is treachery, political maneuvering, opportunism. And plurality: while the Empire is led entirely by (mostly older) white men, the Rebellion is a motley crew full of diversity. A few weeks after Donald Trump’s election, this already counts as a political statement strong enough to elicit boycott calls from the right wing.

Diverse they might be, angels they are not. A stark realism – surprising for a fantasy film – informs much of Rogue One. And a sometimes shocking honesty: where the carnage is always tempered with romantic tales of heroism and the „greater good“, Rogue One goes right where the killing is done. It is a battlefield film, observing the reality of war from up close. The soldiers on Erso’s renegade team look like US troops, some of the locations remind the viewer of present-day battlegrounds in Syria or Iraq. Jyn is no shining heroine, neither are the Rebellion commander Cassian (Diego Luna) or the defected Imperial pilot Bhodi (Riz Ahmed). Their struggle is one of inevitability, if they had a choice they might well avoid it. But if it has to be done, you better do it well and professionally. And so the struggle for survival – collective and personal, physical and mental – turns into a story of sacrifice. Without any pathos or romanticisation. The price the protagonists end up accepting to pay may be heroic – above all things its dirty and bloody. Is it worth it? The film ends with a reference to the first film, which was subtitled A New Hope. Hope is here, in the final scene, the protagonists‘ budding humaneness, the humour in the face of despair – but it’s a bleak, horrifying world in which it has to thrive. Feels like today, doesn’t it?

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