Rogue One, a 2016 story

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Spoiler warning: If you don’t already know the plot of Rogue One or the result of the US presidential election, this blog will ruin everything.

The scene is a holy city in the desert, a place of pilgrimage already half-destroyed by war, its temple in ruins. A tank is rolling slowly through the streets, accompanied by a small group of armed soldiers on foot, members of a powerful occupying army. What the soldiers don’t know is that a group of rebels have taken up positions on rooftops all around them, and are about to stage an ambush.

In fact there are two separate groups of rebels in the streets, both with different agendas. One of the most shocking things that happens in the gunfight that follows is that a rebel from one group shoots a rebel from the other group, purely to give himself a tactical advantage. It works, briefly. But the shooting hasn’t gone unnoticed, and soon he finds himself imprisoned in a cave at the secret mountain hideout of a man regarded by many, including his own commander, as a dangerous militant.

Does any of the above remind you of anything in the real world? If the answer is no, then you probably work for Disney, and are therefore following the party line that Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is ‘not, in any way, a political film’. But come on, you’re not fooling anyone. All art is political, either because of what it says or what it chooses not to say. As the director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami said to me earlier this year, when I asked her about the politics of her compelling, controversial documentary about refugee rapper Sonita, ‘if you make a film in Iran about nature, not showing anything about the country, that is also political.’

Still, it was surprising to me how much Rogue One, a fantasy movie with talking robots, seemed to sum up the political and cultural trauma of 2016. (Traumatic, that is, if you’re from the liberal left. I appreciate that people of some other political persuasions had a fantastic year.)

In case it’s not obvious, I am a Star Wars fan, one of the generation who saw the original films at the most impressionable age, became instantly addicted, thought we’d finally kicked the habit after the long, cold sweat-inducing dose of cinematic methadone that was the prequel trilogy, but then got hooked in again by The Force Awakens. I went to see Rogue One twice on its opening weekend, on Friday and then again early on Saturday morning. I am slightly embarrassed by this, and couldn’t help noticing how that Saturday morning audience consisted almost entirely of men around my own age, probably also seeing the film a second time. We were like alcoholics secretly drinking in a pub where we hoped we wouldn’t be spotted (I even went to a different cinema the second time to avoid the embarrassment of buying a ticket from the same person). Some of the men had brought their children, but I’m fairly sure they were there mostly as props. 

So, you should maybe take the following with a pinch of salt. Beware of addicts, for they see the world through the prism of their addiction. But here, largely for my own entertainment, is a review of 2016 through the prism of a Star Wars film. Make of it what you will.

Everybody died

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It feels grimly appropriate that a year in which so many culturally important figures died should end with a blockbuster movie in which every single one of the heroes is killed. I didn’t actually register the shockingness of this until other people began pointing it out, which perhaps says something about how accustomed I’d become, by that point in the year, to news of famous people dying. Earlier this month Ian McCaskill, a beloved figure from my childhood, passed away, and my reaction was ‘oh right, another one.’ How did I become so casual about death – in this case the death of a man who was as significant a part of my TV childhood as Victoria Wood? Numbness, perhaps, and not just because of the loss of Bowie, Prince, George Martin, Leonard Cohen et al in quick succession. Death has infiltrated my social and family circle too this year. At time of writing, two people I know are in the final stages of cancer, and someone very close to me is in what appears to be the final stages of dementia. I’ve never been in quite this position before, and every day I brace myself for bad news. When the news is about someone I don’t know, it’s a guilty relief.

The deaths in Rogue One are like the deaths of 2016 – waves of them, in quick succession, with little time to process one before the next comes along. The film has faced some criticism for this. Why introduce so many characters just to kill them off so unceremoniously before we’ve got to know them? But I actually admire the film for that, and am surprised at Disney’s bravery (this is, emphatically, not a film for anyone under 12). It illustrates how high the stakes are, that so many people sacrificed their lives just so a transmission could be sent that might, or might not, offer some hope to their cause. It certainly makes you watch the opening scene of the original Star Wars in a new way – they went through all that only to get caught ten minutes later?

We were in denial about fascism

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One of my favourite moments in Rogue One is when Mon Mothma, leader of the Rebel Alliance, tells our hero Jyn Erso that she hopes to bring her father, Imperial scientist Galen Erso, back to the Senate to face a tribunal. Unlike Mon Mothma, we have already seen the future, and therefore know how utterly doomed this plan is. The Senate, after all, is about to be dissolved by an evil Emperor with a gigantic space station that can blow up planets. The idea that the scientist employed to build this space station could somehow be brought before a committee, and that this might somehow prevent its creation, seems hilariously, tragically naive. It is, of course, quite possible that Mon Mothma knows this perfectly well and is lying in order to get Jyn on side, but the whole exchange still reminds me of journalists and politicians talking about Donald Trump as if he is capable of being a reasonable person rather than a fascist, not to mention a compulsive, shameless liar and a narcissist who has openly boasted about sexually assaulting women, and that we can still talk about democratic political processes with any confidence that they’re going to continue as they did before – rather than, say, pronouncements and decisions of huge, potentially global impact being made on the hoof via Twitter. I think of the media’s reluctance to describe the so-called ‘alt-right’ as fascists when this is plainly what they are. In the UK, I think of the bizarre respectability of Kate Hopkins, an extremist who has described migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and regularly incites racial hatred, yet has been given a platform on the BBC’s flagship politics show Question Time and – in the same week she was forced to apologise for falsely accusing a Muslim family of being terrorists – the Jeremy Vine show.

Is it absurd to compare Donald Trump to the evil Emperor in Star Wars? Maybe, but remember how absurd it seemed this time last year that he might actually be elected as president (the Emperor, by the way, was also an elected politician). Is it alarmist to suggest that not only the US but also Europe is sleepwalking towards fascism? If so, there are an awful lot of alarm bells ringing just now.

Star Wars has always been about fascism, of course. George Lucas himself has said the Empire was modelled partly on Nazi Germany. One of the most interesting things about Rogue One, for me, is that it’s the story of a resistance movement waking up to the reality of what they are up against.

Resistance was divided

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If the far right is on the rise, the left seems more divided and ineffective than at any point in my political life. One of the most dispiriting sights this year has been a series of  attempts to blame the rise of Trump on a liberal elite’s obsession with ‘identity politics’, as if Trump’s own campaign wasn’t also driven by identity politics. The argument, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to point out, was always made by white men, one of whom, Simon Jenkins, began his polemic with a statement – ‘I have no tribe’ – that suggested an extraordinary lack of self-awareness about his own tribal perspective on all this. In case it’s not already obvious, my own position is closer to that of writers like Laurie Penny. What was most dispiriting, though, was that it was yet another example of the left fighting amongst themselves, on terms of engagement set by the right, instead of finding a way to articulate an alternative, equally populist narrative, one that doesn’t rely on setting different tribes against each other. And no, this needn’t mean the left has to abandon identity politics (as Laurie points out, all politics is identity politics), it just means that we have to be wiser to the ways in which the right has colonised identity politics for decades, and stake out our own territory. One of my favourite pieces of writing this year was Gareth Fearn’s Debating Immigration: A Labour Strategy for UKIP Votes, a thoughtful proposal for how Labour, instead of pandering to prejudices about immigrants, could go about challenging them.

What has this got to do with Star Wars? Not a lot, perhaps, except the troubling idea that what it takes for liberals to unite against fascism is a crisis so daunting – a space station that can destroy planets, perhaps, or a spoiled, narcissistic child who has nuclear weapons and doesn’t accept climate change is actually happening despite overwhelming scientific proof – that there just isn’t time to debate differences of strategy anymore. There’s a striking early scene in Rogue One when the Rebel Alliance concludes, after years of fruitlessly trying to use what is left of the old democratic systems to fight the Empire, that it has no choice but to reach out to Saw Gerrara, a man from whom they have been distancing themselves because, while he is technically on the same side, he is a terrorist.

Not that it has to go that way, but if you thought 2016 was frightening, the chances are it’s going to get a lot worse.

Sexism was rife

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Rogue One is a film with one main female character. One. And she is entirely surrounded by men, on the poster and in the film itself. And yet, long before it was even clear whether Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso was actually the central character rather than just an equal part of an ensemble, arguments raged over how feminist the film might be. As if a woman being the lead character in a science fiction movie – three decades after Aliens – somehow represented any sort of significant cultural shift in an industry still overwhelmingly controlled by men. This debate had, of course, already begun with The Force Awakens, a film loudly celebrated as well as condemned for its feminism despite the fact that just one of its four new principal cast members was a woman. This, clearly, is not what equality looks like. The parallels between this and the endless sexism directed towards Hillary Clinton are screamingly obvious, and typical of the deeply sexist culture we still live in (as described – far better than I could do it – in this review of 2016 by Vonny Moyes).

Still, one of the most enjoyable things about Rogue One, for me, was that Jyn Erso’s sex is never once commented on. It is clearly irrelevant. She dresses the same as the boys, fights like the boys, and it never occurs to any of the boys to think there’s anything strange about this (more so, if anything, than in The Force Awakens, in which 1. Rey is constantly referred to as ‘a girl’ rather than a woman, and 2. Finn is constantly attempting to rescue her, despite the fact that she clearly doesn’t need rescued from anyone). When Jyn proposes that the Rebels should embark on a possibly suicidal mission to a heavily guarded Imperial facility on the off-chance that they might be able to steal the Death Star plans despite having very little idea of how to find them once they get there, nobody thinks she’s being crazy or emotional, they just line up behind her in exactly the way they would if a man came up with the same idea. Because it’s the best idea anyone has come up with and she seems like she knows what she’s doing. All of which does make me wonder why at least half of the rebels weren’t women, rather than just one. Still, wouldn’t it be brilliant if women in the real world were treated the way Jyn Erso is?

In conclusion

I know. It’s just a movie. And despite my fandom, it wasn’t even my favourite movie of 2016 (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) or even my favourite science fiction movie of 2016 (Arrival). Still, for me, no other film felt quite as in tune with this year as Rogue One, and no other film lifted my spirits more. I liked that it begins with something resembling the messy factional politics of the real world – that street battle in the holy city, in which our ‘heroes’ are a man willing to shoot people on his own side and a woman who has abandoned political idealism altogether – and ends with those same two people knowing that they have done something good and important (a rare feeling in these confusing, idealism-sapping times). I like – if I’m honest with myself – that despite some lip service to the fact that real conflict is full of moral grey areas, with no clear-cut heroes and villains, it’s obvious in the end who the bad guys are (clue: look for the ones in Nazi uniforms with the planet-destroying super-weapon). It would certainly make life a lot easier if I could always feel that about the real world (as awful as Trump clearly is, Hillary Clinton was not exactly a saint). And I like that it points toward the possibility of those bad guys being defeated, without trying to persuade you that this might happen any time soon.

In short, I like the fact that it offers what is probably the only sort of happy ending I’d believe in a year like this – a thin note of hope after a wave of catastrophe, the sound of a spaceship racing away into the distance, not to safety (we already know how this journey turns out) but at least towards something better, eventually. And at this point, 2016 is stubbornly refusing to offer a happy ending, so Rogue One will just have to do.

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