This year, by most accounts, has been tumultuous. Notwithstanding the rise of far-right extremism, “Brexitrump” and the horrors of Aleppo, there have been strikes, anti-government protests and discord on the streets of many cities around the world.
The political legacies of the Arab Spring, Occupy and the 2011 UK riots are bearing fruit, and resistance to the perceived injustices of state power are intensifying. Indeed, subversive and activist groups, such as guerrilla skateboarders, an ever-growing number of anti-gentrification cells in London and the army of humanitarian volunteers in places like the Calais Jungle are proliferating. Is it any wonder then that rebellion, resistance and protest strike such a chord in contemporary popular culture?
The latest offering in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One, gives us such a narrative. It is the first of (what will no doubt be many) “spin-off” films from the Star Wars universe. It tells the story – alluded to in the first Star Wars film in 1977 – of how a group of resistance fighters stole the plans to the Death Star from under the noses of the Galactic Empire.
Being once removed from the Star Wars saga, Rogue One had the freedom to dispense with the tired platitudes, cheesy star-wipe edits and homogeneous good versus evil, dark versus light tropes of the core films. With Godzilla and Monsters director Gareth Edwards at the helm, the film feels far grittier and somewhat more macabre. Edwards even had the licence to bring in, albeit briefly and somewhat unnecessarily, his trademark of a slimy, tenticular monster.
The story revolves around our hero Jyn Erso (ably played with a battle-hardened sobriety by Felicity Jones), who we see as a little girl in the prologue escaping capture from the Empire. As an older woman she is urged into joining the rebellion. She then leads a band of mercenaries on an against-all-odds heist mission to steal the plans to the Death Star and save the galaxy from the totalitarian Empire and their weapon of planetary destruction (leading some to label the film, somewhat unfairly, as “Ocean’s 11 in space”).
Edwards has skilfully produced a less cliched Star Wars film (and in the hilariously sarcastic droid K-2SO, produced the best non-human Star Wars character since Yoda), but kept the faithful happy with subtle references and the reintroduction of Darth Vader’s malevolence and fear-inducing power. One climatic scene in particular rolls back the years and rekindles some of the terror that gave Vader the accolade of the ultimate cinematic villain.
What the film does not compromise on are the spectacular visuals. Battle scenes set against tropical beaches give a World War II feel to it, and the CGI reincarnation of Peter Cushing’s Moff Tarkin is breathtaking. How the film links back into the first is done extremely skilfully, building to a quite chilling finale.
The faces of resistance
So Edwards has kept within the confines of the Star Wars canon, but created a narrative that complicates the clear distinction between good and evil, right and wrong. We see this particularly with the infighting among different factions of the Rebellion. After Erso’s father is taken away, she is raised by Saw Gerrera, an “extremist” who even the Rebellion have disowned. The broad spectrum of political thought that characterises subversion from and protest against contemporary state power is reflected here. Pseudo-spirituality, comical cynicism, personal grievances and lifelong idealistic struggle are all represented in the band of fighters Erso corrals to the cause.
The aesthetic alignment of the Empire (and its reincarnation of The First Order in The Force Awakens) with Nazism is proving to make the Star Wars films sadly far more prescient than they should be. The fact that Rogue One has been released now, at the end of 2016, and pits a political eclectic bunch of rebellious ideologues against a totalitarian and fascist regime, I’m sure is coincidental. But cinema, far more than any other medium, has the power to tap into, probe and catalyse tacit feelings within a society.
Rogue One stirs themes of resistance, empowerment and activism in the face of large-scale injustices, but also speaks to the political difficulties of enacting this. The amalgamation of diverse activist practice into a single political movement is fraught with difficulties: ideological differences between different groups, emotional and physical burnout, the lure of stardom and selling out, and many other pitfalls.
This is why, for me, cinema is an important resource in maintaining these practices. It can act as a shot-in-the-arm of hope and inspiration (much like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival did, released as it was the week of Trump’s victory in the US election).
Rogue One plays on this directly with the repeated refrain that “rebellions are built on hope”. This is an important truth, one that will no doubt proliferate as the events of 2016 unfold in the coming years. Rogue One has tapped into that masterfully; and to do so in the confines of a hyper-commercialised Disney profit-fest, is an impressive feat indeed.