So there’s no getting around it. If you haven’t yet seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, bookmark this piece and stop now, because it is FULL OF SPOILERS.
But I’m guessing you’ve already seen it, not just because of the typical Star Wars hype machine, but because it’s gotten a lot of strong reviews, comparing favorably to last year’s Star Wars hit The Force Awakens.
The comparisons usually focus on the strong female protagonists in both films. This time around, it’s Felicity Jones getting rave reviews as Jyn Erso, a plucky heroine who plays a central role in the quest to obtain the plans to defeat the Death Star. Just like Rey from The Force Awakens, Jyn also descends from an important figure in the rebellion against the Galactic Empire.
But Jyn’s feelings about the rebellion are complicated by her father. Galen Erso’s scientific research was manipulated by the Empire for weapon development in a project that eventually became the Death Star. In a bid to hide her from the Empire, Jyn’s parents arranged for her to be smuggled away into the care of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a military leader known for extremist tactics and having enemies across the galaxy. Gerrera ends up raising Jyn and training her as a warrior, but to preserve her safety from an impending battle, he abandons her as a teenager.
And even though Saw Gerrera ends up playing a minor role in the overall story, his moral ambiguity provides the necessary emotional conflict that drives the film. Because when Jyn reunites with Gerrera as an adult, the reunion is anything but joyous. On the contrary, Jyn is embittered, having been twice abandoned and now estranged from the man who raised her. Far from being a valued member of the Rebel Alliance, she is instead just a rebel, caring for neither the Alliance nor the Empire, and now defensive over being outed as Galen Erso’s daughter. At this point in her life (and in the movie), she is something of an outcast, and it would take something extraordinary to motivate her to join the fight.
But of course, that extraordinary thing happens—Jyn receives a message from her father, Galen, explaining that his participation in the Death Star project was coerced, and that as revenge, he deliberately engineered a fatal flaw that could bring the whole thing down.
Consequently, while the external objectives—reuniting with her father, Galen, and securing the Death Star plans—drive the plot of Rogue One, Jyn’s inner journey is what gives it emotional heft. Emotionally, it’s about a loner who learns to function in a team and as part of a community.
And from my vantage point, that sense of community is what made the film seem grounded and emotionally resonant. Since many of us have been exposed to Star Wars lore from an early age, we’re predisposed to thinking about the conflict in purely dualistic terms—dark versus light, good versus evil, the Rebel Alliance versus the Galactic Empire.
But here we get more shades of gray and moral ambiguity than we’re used to getting in a Star Wars movie. In Rogue One, the alliance between the various rebel factions was tenuous at best, with infighting and discord at various plot points. This lent the film a greater level of realism and gravitas, because unity among a swath of disparate people is far from inevitable, and at times can seem downright impossible.
For Jyn, that conflict manifests in her relationship with rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor, introduced during a tense rescue mission to free Jyn from an Imperial transport. Although they become trusted allies and confidants by the end, in the middle of the film their internal conflict spills over into arguments and accusations when it becomes clear to Jyn that, during the operation to rescue her father, Cassian had considered killing him instead of rescuing him. In their heated conversation, Jyn and Cassian end up reenacting a typical divide between stubborn idealists who want their ideas to Stand For Something, and calculating pragmatists who see collateral damage as part of the cost of doing business. As the movie progresses, Jyn and Cassian begin to see each other less as political adversaries and more as reliable coworkers, but that perspective comes at a cost of time, effort, and eventually, tragedy.
So for anyone looking for life lessons, Rogue One offers several.
The most obvious is, if you’re designing a planet-sized superweapon, don’t connect your thermal exhaust ports into the vent shaft of your reactor core.
But perhaps a better one is this: anyone striving for greatness is required to let go of their rebel loner status and learn how to operate in the context of community.
As a Christian who believes in the Bible’s teachings, I have a moral imperative to care for and seek justice for the oppressed. But doing so requires a healthy dose of humility and cooperation, especially because the categories of oppressor and oppressed aren’t always easily distinguishable, and because of intersectionality, sometimes those categories can, as for Jyn, make me feel as though I’m at war with other Christians.
And even in situations where the lines between oppressed and oppressor are crystal clear, Christians can’t afford to marginalize and belittle political opponents just because they don’t see things the same way, even in the heat of battle. Jyn was right to be angry that her so-called collaborator was a hair-trigger away from thwarting the stated mission and murdering her father—but Cassian had been drawn into the thick of the resistance battle long before Jyn, and he knew sometimes hard decisions need to be made. They both had reasons for why they did what they did, but they needed to hear and understand each other to be able to truly collaborate. The work of justice is impeded by walls of skepticism and distrust, and to do that work, we must break them down.
Consider a key scene that bears the movie’s name. One of the more interesting reveals in Rogue One is that the mission to obtain the Death Star plans was undergone not at the behest of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance, but over their objections. Alliance leader Mon Mothma had nixed Jyn’s proposal, implying it was too risky. The only reason the mission even got off the ground (literally!) is because a group of likeminded people were willing to stand with Jyn and risk their lives so that others might one day be spared. “Rogue One” was the invented call sign of the repurposed Imperial transport ship that Jyn, Cassian, and company had stolen from the Rebel base.
Ultimately, that motley crew fulfilled their mission, and ended up sacrificing their lives for what they believed in.
Luke Skywalker might’ve fired the one shot that took down the Death Star, but that one shot was only possible because of all the work that came before—the work of a team, functioning as part of a community.