“I’ve never had the luxury of political opinions,” snarks Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the reluctant heroine of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, turning down an invitation to join the Rebel Alliance against the insidious Galactic Empire and its squadron of fascist goons. Disney CEO Bob Iger might agree. The studio head insisted recently that Rogue One—the latest Star Wars film carried by a strong female lead, here backed by the most diverse, multicultural supporting cast in the entire four-decade franchise—“is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.”
Both Jyn and Iger would be wrong on those counts, but at least she eventually owns up to it in the rousing Star Wars standalone, a spiritual and canonical companion piece to The Empire Strikes Back set in a crucial historical gap between Episodes III and IV. Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) with an assured confidence and a stacked arsenal of original trilogy references, callbacks, and yes, cameos, Rogue One serves up plenty of political statements about what makes a hero—or rather, a heroine—and the timeless human imperative to stand up to bullying and injustice in the world.
Even Rogue One co-scripter Chris Weitz acknowledged the series’ longstanding duality as a political allegory when he tweeted in November after Donald Trump’s Election Night victory, “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” The tweet came down after it and a similar post from original project writer Gary Whitta triggered a backlash of alt-right hot air. Maybe Iger was just protecting one of Disney’s most prized and diverse four-quadrant investments from the nefarious #DumpStarWars hashtag. But why ignore the truth when it’s right there onscreen?
Rogue One is a kind of sideways Star Wars movie with darker, more mature elements at play—emphasis on the war—in which a fearless young woman steps up to lead soldiers on a suicide mission against impossible odds. Well, someone had to steal the plans to the Death Star. But while the criminal-turned-resistance fighter Jyn’s loyalties are questioned as wary rebels waver over a risky mission at the start of the Galactic Civil War, her ability never is. As the latest great Star Wars heroine to face off against the Empire, she’s neither born into political service like Princess Leia nor chosen by The Force like Rey. Being a hero is a choice that Jyn Erso makes—tentatively, for her own reasons, and ultimately for the greater good—and in doing so, her personal convictions become political.
Jones’s Jyn has a good reason for thinking herself immune to the influences of greater political machinations. The daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the architect of a fearsome new “planet-killer” dubbed the Death Star and one of the most notorious tools of the Empire, she has long staved off her unresolved childhood abandonment issues and the judgmental eyes of the free galaxy by developing a tough exterior and crafty sense of self-preservation. A pre-title prologue simultaneously establishes her own personal tragedy and introduces the ruthless Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s come to hunt down the Ersos on a remote planet, sweeping across its black sands flanked by ominous black storm troopers, his signature white duds gleaming across the ground like a slow-moving cancer.
Raised since that day by the rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a fighter so rigid in his own methods he’s sacrificed limb and lung to the cause, Jyn learned everything she knows from joining his guerrilla insurrection against the Empire. His is the kind of dirty war fought in dusty marketplaces with guns and grenades, IEDs blowing up the Empire’s tanks, ambushes set for their troops. Eventually Jyn found herself on her own, racking up an extensive rap sheet, feeling further alienated from society. So when Rebel forces break her out of prison at the start of the film—on the condition she get Saw to lead them to her father in order to stop his weapon of mass destruction—she’s forced into service to secure her own freedom.
Soon enough, Rogue One turns into The Dirty Dozen of space operas, a premise that delivers its most satisfying payoff in Edwards’s dazzling third-act conclusion. Call it The Dirty Half-Dozen: There’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a cocky Rebel Alliance intel officer willing to do whatever’s necessary to help the cause; Cassian’s metallic sidekick K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reconfigured Imperial enforcer droid given to manic swings of neurosis and comical pettiness; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), the brain-frazzled pilot who defects from the Empire to deliver an important message; Chirrut Imwe (the spotlight-stealing Donnie Yen), a blind warrior-monk who’s lost his purpose in life but finds a new one fighting for the Alliance; and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s protective life partner/assassin in arms.
It’s a shame Luna’s Cassian Andor, infusing a hint of that brusque Han Solo charm into his prickly dealings with Jyn, makes himself too closed off to serve as a good foil for Jones. The clear-eyed young actress runs circles around him in the course of bringing Jyn to life—so much so that when Jyn and Cassian finally reach an understanding, as you know that they will, it feels disjointed and forced, as if footage containing a crucial character moment has gone missing. Whitaker, on the other hand, is a tad too much as Saw Gerrera, a veteran of the Clone Wars made unyielding in his methods by the battles he’s seen.
Yen’s contributions to Rogue One, however, cannot be overpraised: The Hong Kong martial-arts superstar is the film’s secret weapon, whether he’s casually cleaning the clocks of a dozen stormtroopers while armed only with a staff, or delivering some of the film’s many offhanded one-liners with effortless charisma and humor. “There are no Jedi anymore, only dreamers,” he declares, himself a relic of the past now that the Jedi way is no more. And yet it’s his recurring mantra that rings into the ears of his squadmates, taking on new meaning: “I am one with the Force,” he repeats, “and the Force is one with me.”
Rogue One, more so than The Force Awakens, is a Star Wars fanatic’s wet dream. Contained yet expansive, nostalgic yet new, it introduces striking heroes and villains and fills its two hours and 13 minutes with a narrative that fits snugly into the canon. But where The Force Awakens leaned on a family-friendly appeal with its innocent do-gooder leads and tantrum-throwing baddie, Rogue One satisfies a darker itch. Its stakes are higher, soaring on the bombastic score of Michael Giacchino, which turns iconic themes into hard-charging new arrangements; its battles are more violent and militaristic. The scope of the mass casualties incurred in ground and air assaults between the Alliance rebels, Saw Gerrera’s insurgents, and the Empire’s heavily armed forces hammer home the costs of war.
The film also takes one of the biggest risks since Jar Jar Binks with a CG character that’ll make fans do a double take—and then wrestle with how they feel about it. Rogue One keeps more than a few tricks up its sleeve, in fact. While they don’t all work, they’re enough to flesh out what’s otherwise a fairly straightforward narrative and tether it back to the main saga.
Familiar faces show up onscreen to thrill fans, some from very unexpected corners of the Star Wars universe. Even in its most patronizing moments, the script credited to Weitz and Tony Gilroy finds ways to weave Rogue One into the pre-established Star Wars fabric. What makes Rogue One exciting, after a bumpy middle stretch jammed with narrative shortcuts and choppy transitions, are the emotional payoffs that come in a spectacular denouement. Every hero gets a moment—and those who don’t make it, an earned goodbye.
So is Rogue One a political movie? One might easily see it as the tale of multicultural insurgents blasting their way through the defenses of powerful white fascist overlords on a mission to stop the deployment of WMDs against the innocent. It’s also a Star Wars movie grounded by the limits of human capabilities, largely absent of the supernatural Force, with nary a Jedi to be seen; that’s a crucial key to understanding the inner turmoil of its new villain Krennic, too, who finds himself on the losing side of a sibling-esque rivalry with the Emperor’s No. 1 pet: Darth Vader.
As Jyn discovers, taking a stand for a cause isn’t a luxury when it’s something you must do. That matters as much now for screenwriters, directors, stars, producers, and even studio heads forging bold paths toward new ideals as it did a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away for heroines like Leia, Rey, Jyn, and those whom we have yet to meet, still waiting to see their own stories brought to life.