In her feminist tract Stiffed, Susan Faludi talked about how the folk hero America looked up to had morphed from the anonymous infantry foot soldier of the Second World War to the rebellious, lone wolf test pilot of the atomic age – men of colour and personality rather than the mud-streaked faces of grunts fighting in jungles, all dressed (and looking) the same.
That partly explains why rule-breaking, rough and tumble heroes who like to make up their own rules have been a lynchpin of American movies since. Of course, hordes of characters like invading soldiers that look the same aren’t very cinematic, but it appeals to the deeper psyche to worship the devil-may-care hellraiser, not the team player who does his part.
Even movies that portray military teamwork like those from Marvel combine characters who couldn’t be more different from each other, giving them the kind of individualism armed forces in the real world are quick to extinguish.
If this occurs to you while watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it might be because it makes you realise how A New Hope subscribed to that same postwar mythology of military might and conquest by the cocky outsiders and flyboys all those years ago.
Even though there was already an established military structure in the rebel alliance, the heroes who destroyed the death star were the whiny farm boy blow-in who just wanted to rescue the girl and the smarmy mercenary in it for the money, the rank and file of the rebel forces relegated to mere support.
And it’s the same in Rogue One. Although Cassian (Diego Luna) is a rebel intelligence officer, Jyn (Felicity Jones) could well be the rogue of the title. She’s grown up a destructive and antisocial runaway, constantly in trouble with the Imperial powers, and suddenly she’s given the most important mission in the alliance while the rebel order stands by in wait. That she’s the daughter of the scientist pressganged by the Empire into designing the Death Star, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is just a matter of plot mechanics.
But there’s another uniquely American sensibility on display in Rogue One (the fact that it was made by a British director only underscores the entrenchment of such sensibilities in movies).
When the alliance learns of the Death Star’s existence, Jyn makes the case for striking first to intercept the plans while the various factions of the alliance squabble and ultimately decide to back down and disperse, considering the mission to be suicide.
So Jyn, Cassian and their ragtag crew (the Avengers of the Star Wars universe, maybe?) collect a few platoons loyal to their cause and go anyway, defying the rebel command. They end up literally rebelling against the rebellion.
That suits the other American sensibility – if there’s one thing Americans hate, it’s authority. Rather than that anonymous grunt fighting along with his buddies taking orders from superiors, they want to see the defiant hellraiser who defies the rules and gets the job done.
By drawing the rebel alliance as a stuffy, impotent hierarchy beset by infighting (just like the Republic Senate in the prequels), it gives Jyn, Cassian and their friends the chance to invoke heroes from John Wayne to John McClane, lovable tough guys who trample over due process to kick arses and get things done no matter how many headaches it gives their bosses.
Such is the philosophical Tao of the Star Wars universe, but the story itself is a fantastic premise, and the execution is so good it might place Rogue One near the top of the entire canon.
That it exists at all is testament to the mythological power of the Star Wars name. There was only a simple offhand comment in the original 1976 script ‘The Star Wars’ by George Lucas about how the Tantive IV intercepted a data transmission, and now we have the whole story behind it. The movie even explains why the data had to be sent as a signal rather than just transported on disc.
As the film opens, the well-hidden Erso home is sniffed out by snivelling Imperial officer Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who takes Galen prisoner and kills his wife while their little girl Jyn makes good the escape her family has long prepared for.
Years later, she’s a tearaway troublemaker who’s been raised by a rebel so militant even the alliance hierarchy won’t deal with him – Saw (Forest Whittaker). Meanwhile, news gets around the ancient city of Jedha that a pilot (Riz Ahmed) has defected from the Empire bearing news of a new weapon that will crush any resistance.
The rebels put intelligence officer Cassian on the pilot’s trail, believing him to be carrying a message from Galen about how to destroy it. The trouble is, Saw is harbouring the pilot and the rebels know the only one he’ll trust is Jyn, so they send her along with Cassian and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to receive Galen’s message.
The race is on, all while the Death Star is becoming operational, destroying Jedha in a wave of debris as tall as the sky from which the gang (with a few colourful new members in tow) only just escapes.
Director Gareth Edwards – it’s still hard to believe this is only his third movie – does a great job of bouncing back and forth across the galaxy, every planet and location with its own distinctive colour scheme and mood. Just like JJ Abrams, he does something much better with the canon than George Lucas has in decades, staying truer to the spirit of the original films than the prequels did.
Still, there are one or two stumbles. Like we saw a few years back in Tron: Legacy, the CGI involved in putting a digital face onto a real body isn’t quite there yet, and even though it’s a fantastic effort, Grand Moff Tarkin (based on the late Peter Cushing) is a bit too dead-eyed, and Leia Organa in the final frames falls even deeper into the uncanny valley.
But as the presence of Tarkin (and the frisson of excitement when Darth Vader appears) signals, this is absolutely the story that led to the unforgettable opening sequence of A New Hope. As Tarkin tells an underling that Vader will handle the rebel fleet, the familiar graphics of the Death Star appear on screens during transmission and characters like the rebel air wing squadron leaders appear, there’s a thrilling sense of watching history in the making.
The last sequence in particular – as Vader starts a murderous rampage through the corridors of the Tantive VI’s mothership in pursuit of the chip Leia will hence input into R2-D2 – is as spine-chilling as it is goose bump-inducing.
Aside from any cinematic quality, the power of Star Wars is one that comes simply from time. Like Batman, Harry Potter and Willy Wonka, there are now generations of fans who love it, who know every line and every sound effect, who can name the model of every droid and the race of every alien and who want to know the stories behind each one.
Disney are very smartly promising us just that, and when they put directors as good as Edwards on the case, the results will continue to be nothing less than spectacular. Like him, this will turn you into a kid again.
It’s also worth nothing that Rogue One, like The Force Awakens, was released at a time when hand-wringing about minority representation in film had reached fever pitch in Hollywood. I’m not sure I’d go as far as believing Disney strictly mandated that Abrams and Edwards cast leads who were black, female, Hispanic, Asian, etc, but neither film featured a white male in any lead roles, and it’s interesting that movies from the more light-hearted genres like sci-fi are leading the charge for diversity.