Primed by Imaginary World’s episode “Workin’ on the Death Star” which deals in part on the ethics of destroying the Death Star, watching Rogue One was not a pleasant experience. Though admittedly, I went in expecting a depressing movie. For the original trilogy to be meaningful, the characters in Rogue One have to lose and lose badly so I knew from the onset that most of the characters would die sad and premature deaths.
What I didn’t expect was my knee-jerk revulsion to the amount of death in Rogue One, and how it’s glossed over. I don’t think film or art necessarily has a moral obligation. It shouldn’t be held to some sort of journalistic integrity.
And yet, when I saw the destruction of Jedha, I thought of Aleppo. The fight scene and its backdrop just seemed to lack the horror and the despair and the dirtiness of the pictures in the news. And how to take out the shield at Scarif to get the plans of the Death Star, the Rebellion pushes two Imperial ships into the force field. There is a lot of death in Rogue One, but a disproportionately low amount of loss.
I mean, we see Jyn’s loss when she loses her family, but we don’t see the anonymous loss. We don’t see the scars that are left on a culture. We don’t take the time to breathe in the trauma and the fear of whole societies. We get a few minutes of a jittery informant, who had good reason to be jittery. Rogue One could have been dogged with an atmosphere of stifling oppression, but it’s more of a sprig of parsley.
I’m not saying that it is wrong to destroy the Death Star or the Scarif shield. But I want to point out the wrongness of not even weighing those imaginary, fictional lives. We are told that Cassian (Diego Luna) and his motley crew of rebels have committed terrible crimes, but we aren’t forced to go through the devil’s arithmetic. Cassian decides not to kill Jyn’s father; it’s a rather nice touch that Galen is killed instead by rebel ship’s bombing. But we don’t see people deal with the consequences of killing others.
There was this great Crash Course philosophy video on the morality of taking a life. I’ll link it here, because it does a great job of laying out the various stances.
We see ships destroyed and cities obliterated. But we don’t see much death. Except the deaths of our heroes. And the bodies of scattered storm troopers which almost look like discarded toys. It is a common complaint of many movies that destruction is sanitized.
Some might argue that I am expecting far too much from a Star Wars movie, but there were some great parts of Rogue One. Jyn is obviously haunted by the things she’s lost, while her father (Mads Mikkelsen) and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) are equally warped by the things they’ve done. Forest Whitaker knocks it out of the park with his portrayal of an aging, paranoid, crippled revolutionary that tortures and lashes out at others because he suspects everyone. And when he sees Jyn, he allows her to get close while thinking that maybe she has come to assassinate him. It’s both a blessing and a curse to have a few round characters against a flat backdrop.
I also enjoyed the gamble the film took with a main character like Jyn. She’s not exactly passive, but she’s reactive rather than active. But when she sees her father’s hologram message, it galvanizes her first to rescue and redeem him and also, finish what he began.
And that shift is fascinating. For most the movie, we see Jyn as a person shaped by her circumstances: by the loss of her family, abandonment by Saw, and years of scraping by. Jyn doesn’t have dreams or hobbies or life ambitions; she just wants to make it to tomorrow. As soon as she shifts from surviving to having ideals, she gets blown up. The tragedy of Rogue One is not that we lose lovable, meaningful characters — none of the characters are lovable although Alan Tudyk and Riz Ahmed are likable — but that we lose them at the cusp of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The Jedi temple caretakers Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) are a great amiable comedic duo, but why exactly are they in this movie? Like plot wise? As much as I like Donnie Yen and appreciate his marital arts skills and the fact that he provides the spiritual center of the movie, he and Jiang Wen often feel crammed in. And Chirrut’s wild antics and Baze’s put upon countenance remind me of Mindy and Buttons.
I enjoyed the first half of the movie more than a Force Awakens; it was more intimate, more character driven, and then the second half was just an elaborate treasure hunt with a nearly comical saucing of live artillery.
Rogue One is not my cup of tea, but I think it made a lot more interesting narrative choices than A Force Awakens. And also, Darth Vader was pretty cool.