On the Dark and the Light in Star Wars

The grittiness of “Rogue One” doesn’t place the story outside the Star Wars moral universe—it shows the contours of that universe in even greater relief.

The newest Star Wars movie is different. That is not a controversial observation. Many of the features that shout “Star Wars!” have been deliberately removed: the opening crawl, the John Williams score, the Jedi as on-screen characters, etc. Another difference is the title. Each previous movie led with “Star Wars”: Star Wars: A New Hope; Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The latest installment is called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The difference is subtle but important: the films that follow the Skywalker family are Star Wars. They are the Star Wars story. Rogue One, by contrast, is a Star Wars story. It is ancillary, perhaps even secondary. That means it will be different in other respects, too, that are more crucial to the story being told.

Steven Greydanus, the outstanding Catholic film reviewer, is worried that with Rogue One, Star Wars has turned to the Dark Side. He says, “Rogue One isn’t just a different sort of story than the original Star Wars films, or even just a story in a different genre. It is a story set in a different moral universe—a story that is on some levels fundamentally incompatible with the spirit of the original Star Wars films.” While some have praised Rogue One as “leaner” and “darker” and “gritty,” Greydanus worries the new film betrays the fundamental core of Star Wars: its status as “a more or less straightforward moral tableau of archetypal good and evil.”

In most circumstances, I would agree with Greydanus. One of the most frustrating tics Hollywood has right now is the gritty remake, which seems born out of boredom with or hatred for innocence, by turns. And by no means do I think that Rogue One is without flaws, most of which boil down to skimping on character development. But I think Greydanus’ worries are misplaced, at least for the moment. I’ll explain why.

First, the moral lines between characters are less clear-cut in the original Star Wars films than Greydanus presents. In Lucas’ much-maligned prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), the Jedi are revealed to be an ancient force for good that has begun to rot: they are cold, aloof, and arrogant. Even the best of their order, Master Yoda, carries their flaws with him. When Luke receives visions of his friends Han and Leia suffering on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that his attachment to his friends should not blind Luke to the bigger picture: completing his training so that he can defeat Darth Vader. Yoda’s allegiance to calculation and his admonition to Luke are not just the difference between the caution of age and Luke’s hot-blooded spiritedness; they also reveal that Yoda is not moved by personal love, as Luke is. But it is ultimately Luke’s capacity for personal love that overcomes Vader, not his advanced Jedi training. Luke receives what he can from Yoda, but also surpasses his flawed master.

The transmoral calculations of Yoda are not far from the immoral calculations of Rogue One’s Rebel Alliance, which is not above assassination of civilians and cold-blooded murder. As Greydanus points out, one of the main protagonists of Rogue One, Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, confesses to having done “terrible things” for the cause of the Rebellion. He implies that many of his Rebel compatriots have done the same.

But Captain Andor is a prime counterexample to another of Greydanus’ arguments, that Rogue One abandons what is most compelling about Star Wars stories: spiritual transformation, as we get to see with, preeminently, Han Solo. Andor has his sniper sites trained on Jyn Erso’s father, whom Andor has orders to assassinate before he can determine whether his target is an Imperial collaborator or an undercover ally to the Rebellion. Andor’s conscience, as well as his nascent admiration for Jyn, get the better of him and he refuses the take the shot.

Andor’s moment of temptation, his struggle with conscience, and his embrace of the right choice are not as fleshed out as what we see Luke Skywalker go through in the original trilogy, but they are present. Along the same lines, Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook defects to the Rebellion in order to make up for something he has done in the past. Because of sloppy edits or sloppy storytelling, we’re frustratingly never told what that might be.

Greydanus also sees Rogue One as lacking those important moments in which the heroes of Star Wars acknowledge that the use of force can only do so much, that the selfless offering of oneself is ultimately the way that good can triumph. Greydanus quotes Christianity Today film critic Jeffrey Overstreet, who says,

I believe that Star Wars storytellers’ emphasis on a spiritual transformation is, far more than any special-effects revolution, the real secret to the saga’s enduring popularity. Obi-Wan, Luke and, eventually, Han all have defining moments of selfless surrender. Yes, they carry weapons. But they are distinguished by how they put them down and open their hands in risky offers of grace. …

See if you can discern whether or not the Force is strong with Rogue One. Will the 7-year-olds who see it emerge with imaginary blasters in hand, eager to shoot down bad guys? Or will they value mercy, resist the Dark Side, and open themselves to a benevolent force that moves in mysterious ways?

Up to a point, Greydanus and Overstreet are right. They have identified Star Wars’ beating heart. And it is true that Rogue One is a less ambitious movie than the others. It is true that self-surrender is the key to the victory of good in the Star Wars universe; but it is also true that the way was paved for those triumphant moments of self-surrender by a lot of rebels with blasters in hand—or in X-Wings—shooting down bad guys. Rogue One is their story, it’s a Star Wars story, and it’s a pretty good one.

Rogue One’s descent into darkness and grittiness is really at the service of what Greydanus and Overstreet admire about the original trilogy. Rogue One allows us to glimpse the Rebellion without Skywalkers. The most unambiguously good characters in the original films are Luke and Leia; the other characters (insofar as they are real characters and not just supporting props, like Chewbacca or Admiral Ackbar) are mostly painted in shades of grey. Lando Calrissian and Han Solo are both drawn from their seedy, listless lives by contact with Luke and Leia, who inspire them to nobility, virtue, and dedication to a good cause greater than themselves. Rogue One contributes to the overall Star Wars story by showing a Rebellion strongly tempted to become a terrorist organization—a temptation that can be resisted because of the leadership and example of Leia and eventually Luke.

The theme of Rogue One is hope—at first just hope for success in toppling the Empire. But the last character to invoke hope in Rogue One is Princess Leia, whose appearance adds a new layer: her presence gives hope not only that the Rebellion might be successful, but that it might be good. The “grittiness” of the Rebellion in Rogue One gives way to the hope and goodness of Leia and Luke, allowing the moral clarity of the original trilogy to shine even more brightly.

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About Thomas P. Harmon 19 Articles
Thomas P. Harmon is Associate Professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. He lives in Sugar Land with his wife and five children.

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