The Star Destroyer is poised over the holy city of Jedha like a dagger through the heart of the Force. The Empire needs Kyber crystals to power the newly constructed Death Star to, “Commence primary ignition.” The Star Destroyer is employed as the last word in gunboat diplomacy bleeding Jedha dry of its most precious resource. In the future, this wedge of military might will steam up the Yangtze River with the British Empire during the Opium Wars. Later it will form part of the American carrier groups that frequent the Persian Gulf securing the flow of oil from dictators. After all, the future of Star Wars was a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t the Star Wars of cuddly Ewoks or Jar Jar Binks. This isn’t an attempt to paint America as the good guys after the debacle in Vietnam. This is the other Star Wars; the Star Wars that leaves charred husks of skeletons for nephews to find, which tortures and freezes its most charismatic character, the Star Wars that commits planet wide genocide. This is a story of occupation, of rebellion, Jihad and the schism that labels some, freedom fighters and others, extremists and terrorists. Jedha City is ready to explode under the Empire’s shadow; its imperialism is as keenly felt there as in Algiers or Fallujah. Sacred relics thousands of years old have been ransacked and demolished in equal measure by the Imperial occupation and the rebel insurrection.
Director Gareth Edwards has assembled a motley crew of spacefaring reprobates, footnotes in the galactic history books and given them life (and death) to tell their unsung story of how the Death Star plans were stolen. War isn’t pretty and these rebels are the grunts that do the dirty work, a morally complex bunch of collaborators, traitors, extremists and assassins. Their leader, Jen Erso, is the daughter of the Oppenheimeresque scientist who creates the Death Star. Her partner for the mission, Cassian Andor, has also been tasked with executing Saw Gerrera, the leader of the violent insurgency on Jedha. Jen’s troopers are the multi-cultural masses that do the heavy lifting for the white elite sat around the war room back on Yavin or waiting to be discovered amongst the deserts of Tatooine.
Opposing them is an equally divided Imperial hierarchy. Like Hitler, The Emperor prefers to employ rivals for the same post, keeping them off balance should they decide to ever launch a coup d’état. The prize at stake is the command of the recently completed Death Star. The players in this power struggle are Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research, and Grand Moff Tarkin, the governor of the Imperial Outland regions. Krennic is hotheaded and ostentatious; his flowing white cape punctuated by the brutal binary code of his Deathtroopers are reminiscent of Hermann Göring. Tarkin, on the other hand, has the detached calculation of Reinhard Heydrich when debating with other SS leaders to commit to The Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference.
This multi-layered subtext in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s greatest accomplishment is to recreate The Empire as a truly terrifying, bureaucratic killing machine that has to be stopped in its tracks. Krennic truly believes his ultimate weapon will bring peace to the galaxy, the nuclear option that has no M.A.D. checks and balances. Tarkin uses the Death Star as means to an end, one that can cleanse his friends and foes alike. When it fires we are truly horrified. With the stakes so high the third act’s set piece battle on Scarif is all the more stunning for the sacrifices made by the rebel forces. Edwards transports us to the climaxes of great movies such as The Wild Bunch, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen and Excalibur. Edwards not only reclaims Darth Vader as a homicidal Lucifer, he conjures up the tragic ending of that greatest of recent apocalyptic films, These Final Hours.
Simply put, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the subversive blockbuster that Suicide Squad could never hope to be and gives us back the epic last stand, as it should be, bloody, heartbreaking and tragic. In doing so Disney might just have to reevaluate its Marvel output as it’s already starting to look dated compared to this footnote in history.