It's the middle of December, and my wife and I have just gotten back from seeing Rogue One. On the way to the car, I realize that this has been a Star Wars movie that the original trilogy has needed for a very long time.
The original Star Wars trilogy has some major issues. Make no mistake, they are very good movies, with characters that have well and truly earned their place in our modern mythology. However, the world-building leaves a lot to be desired. We never see more than a handful of planets, and nobody stays on them for very long. Neither do any of them feel terribly populated. There are no scenes like those in the prequel trilogy's Galactic Senate, which solidly established a galaxy-wide political entity with thousands of planets.
As my wife put it, it all seems rather provincial - and this includes the Galactic Empire. As strange as it sounds considering that the original Star Wars included genocide by giant planet-destroying space station, the slaughter of innocent civilians in their home, and storm troopers patrolling a settlement as a clear occupation force, it all too often feels like we are supposed to consider the Empire evil because the story tells us to. We never get a feeling that what we're seeing is pervasive everywhere, or get a sense of what it's like to live under the Empire as a normal citizen. We never see paranoia, forced labour camps, or people dispossessed of their homes because the Empire wants their land.
Likewise, the Rebel Alliance doesn't feel all that credible or real. Outside of the opening scrawl of Star Wars, for the entire first two movies the Empire comes to them rather than the other way around. You don't see the Rebels engage in raids or guerrilla warfare, you don't see the espionage or plotting in dark corners, and you don't see the disagreements that arise among factions about how to win. The Rebels are storybook heroes, fighting a storybook villain, and the original trilogy never pushes beyond those broad strokes.
But Rogue One, along with Star Wars: Rebels, actually fills all this in. We get to visit enough planets and stations to see that the Imperial occupation really is everywhere, and that it is a paranoia-inducing surveillance state. We see the Rebel Alliance raid Imperial installations, and Rebel extremists launch a guerrilla attack in the streets of a populated city. We see that the Imperial ruthlessness extends to every level of the Empire, with even Death Star engineers working under the threat of a gun pointed at their heads. It's no longer just a few broadly-drawn villains in the orbit of the Skywalker family.
Rebels started filling out this world-building, but Rogue One really drives it home. For the first time, the Rebellion feels like a galaxy-wide asymmetric conflict, as well as one capable of making the Empire sweat. The Empire feels like a true fascist state crushing the galaxy in oppression. And this re-frames the entire original trilogy, raising the stakes and giving the conflict a weight it previously lacked. The storybook heroes and villains are gone, replaced by a desperate effort to free billions across thousands of worlds from oppression and violence.
As I said, it's the Star Wars movie the original trilogy has needed for years, but where this gets interesting is that this wasn't always the case. While today it adds an essential depth to the story, Rogue One may very well have sabotaged the franchise had it existed when the original Star Wars was made.
Star Wars was a film that redefined its medium, and its storybook heroes and villains are key elements of this. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood wasn't so much exploring moral ambiguity as wallowing in it, and had been for years. The straight-up hero, fighting a clear villain and winning a clean victory, was an endangered species. Instead, the movies offered anti-heroes and unhappy endings. As my in-laws have pointed out, going to the movies before Star Wars tended to be more depressing than anything else.
But with Star Wars, the moral ambiguity was gone. The heroes were real heroes, and the villains were real villains. The story had an unquestionably happy ending - the superweapon was destroyed and the plucky heroes saved the day. Even when The Empire Strikes Back descends into darkness, it is still grounded in that same storybook simplicity. There is no moral ambiguity between the heroes and the villains, and its ending is a cliffhanger with a built-in hope spot - the heroes are in their darkest hour, but they are already rallying to recover, and there is no doubt that the story is going to continue. The Empire is doomed because it is evil, and the only real question is how many more movies it will take before it falls. It speaks volumes that the first real efforts to bring moral ambiguity into the Star Wars Saga - a political plot where democracy falls to fascism - appears in the prequels, which have never really managed to achieve the stature of the original trilogy.
Star Wars was the movie we needed at the time we needed it. Today, however, we need a bit more than the storybook heroes and villains. We need the conflict to feel real, and we need to know that those who do terrible things in the shadows for the side of good are present and accounted for. But, after a decade of a very real war filled with moral ambiguity, we also need to know that those spies, assassins, and saboteurs, who have spent years doing things that they are ashamed of, aren't anti-heroes but heroes, and can save everybody. And, funnily enough, at its core that was what Rogue One was all about.
Bonus: A letter recovered after the fall of the Galactic Empire
Tavor Tarniff, Minister
Ministry of Libraries, Archives, and Universities
Imperial Government Sector 17, Block 5
Sheev Palpatine, Supreme Chancellor and Emperor
Office of the Chancellery
Imperial Government Central Sector
Re: Urgent issues involving Grand Moff Tarkin's new space station
Dear Emperor Palpatine,
We hope that this message finds you well, and that Imperial affairs are not too taxing to you in these uncertain times. Unfortunately, we at the Ministry must draw your attention to a problem that has emerged in the wake of the Battle of Scarif and Grand Moff Tarkin taking command of his new mobile space station.
We at the ministry fully understand that extraordinary measures must be taken now that our beloved Empire has been plunged into a civil war. We further understand that the destruction of our facilities at Scarif may have been an unfortunate necessity, regardless of the loss of life and irreplaceable archival material.
It is what has happened in the weeks since that incident that, we feel, requires your urgent attention. Since the Battle of Scarif, Grand Moff Tarkin has now used his mobile space station to destroy 11 of our facilities on 9 different planets.
As you may be aware, shortly after the transition from republic to empire, all of our records and archives were transferred into a number of central locations as part of the reorganization, with all access to these records handled by the Galactic DataNet. As a result, any information or archives stored at any one of these central locations are permanently lost should said facility be destroyed.
Due to Grand Moff Tarkin's actions, we have now lost an enormous amount of data, including the early history of Coruscant, building plans for most of the Republic-era starship classes, the origins of the human race, and the ability to synthesize coffee. We further feel that the League of Coffee Growing Worlds' open letter of gratitude to Grand Moff Tarkin after the destruction of this data was highly inappropriate, particularly after their decision to raise the market price of their product by 10,000%.
While we sympathize with Grand Moff Tarkin's frustration at having his niece rejected for admission into Coruscant's Galactic University, we must stress that this was a decision made with the utmost care. We hold all applicants for admission to the highest standards, and we consider - and will continue to consider - any candidate whose reaction to boredom includes using the papers in a garbage can to set fire to the drapes in the admitting office foyer while shouting "Burn, baby, burn!" to render them unsuitable for a university environment. We thereby hold to our decision, and we will not change our minds, even if the currently caffeine-deprived coffee drinking half of our staff is now ready to murder the half who drinks tea.
We must beg you for an intervention. Would you please find some way to stop Grand Moff Tarkin from destroying our facilities. Yes, the giant happy face he carved onto the surface of the dead moon of Krandok was amusing, but if this goes on much longer, we fear that half of the Empire will be left in open revolt over the price of coffee alone.
At the very least, if he must continue to use his mobile space station as he has been, could you find some way to convince him to target the Rebel Alliance's facilities for a change, instead of continuing to destroy ours?
Yours with the utmost loyalty, devotion, and respect,
Tavor Tarniff, Minister of Libraries, Archives, and Universities
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is available in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.
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