Star Wars is filled with stories of various Ne’er-do-wells overcoming their own selfishness and embracing a benevolent cause, you could even say it’s a trademark of the franchise. Whether it be Han Solo in 1977 or the Bad Batch in 2021, the saga has excelled at showing us that it is better to fight for something rather than just to fight for yourself. But what of those who commit to the cause only to give up? To give into despair and fall back into their own selfish ways?
Enter Rogue One, arguably one of the least contentious and most popular Star Wars releases of the last two decades. A film that seems universally beloved by the fandom, well at the very least there aren’t a seemingly endless amount of ill-informed video essays decrying it as the worst thing to happen to humanity. However, while I was enamored at first, enraptured by the third act that just wouldn’t relent, the film quickly fell from my ‘enjoyment graces.’ For years it languished towards the bottom of my list, I deemed it a beautiful mess whose pacing and cluttered characters kept it from greatness. How wrong I was.
Upon perhaps my twelfth or thirteenth viewing of the film, for whatever reason, something clicked. It was as the crew leaves Eadu, a Jyn enraged Cassian had gone to kill her father, locked in a heated exchange. Diego Luna delivering the now iconic line, “I’ve been in this fight since I was six years old,” and I muttered out loud to myself, “So has she!”
It had never dawned on me before that these were two child soldiers talking to each other, kids who had grown up knowing nothing but war. Cassian, fighting against the Republic in the Clone Wars, the separatists turning into rebels at wars end. Jyn meanwhile had been raised to fight in the rebellion by the most grueling and brutal fighter of them all, Saw Gerrera. She had devoted almost her entire adolescence to fighting (a period of time explored in Beth Revis’s young adult novel Rebel Rising) and been betrayed by the cause.
In that moment she heard his argument and fully understood it, her own life experience mirroring his; but her love for her father, and his for her, in their final moments together reminded her of what she must fight for, making Cassian’s point moot.
Cassian casts Jyn as “in shock,” that she just does not understand, and for a while she was. Cast aside and left to fend for herself by the only family she had left, she was alone and without purpose. But on that shuttle, Jyn is seeing clearer than ever, and he knows it. It is he who is in shock, who is pinning for all his bad deeds to finally mean something good while she has been reawakened by her loss.
Both parties ultimately resolve to do right by those they have lost (or killed), making their coming together to fight, and die, on Scarif that much more bittersweet. Unlocking that insight for myself, reframing this story as one of rediscovery as opposed to outright discovery (as seen in the original trilogy) was the key to my newfound love of this film.
These are two people who had the hope that the rebellion so often epsouses, and both had been burnt by its excesses, another key thematic element of Rogue One so oft overlooked. It matters not only what we are fighting for, but HOW we fight. That theme is usually delivered through the narrative vessel of the Jedi. But the Jedi are imaginary space wizards, idealized versions of the very best of us, masters of their own emotions (usually that is). Rogue One‘s charm is how it shows us those very same themes through the lens of the “normal” people of that galaxy far far away, making it feel just a little closer than usual.