Editor's Note: This piece discusses plot points for the film and may contain minor spoilers.
Despite a lifetime of dedicated sci-fi geekiness, I was late to the Star Wars game. It was almost a point of pride for me that I had never seen the original movies, until last year, when I finally sat down to watch them in preparation for seeing The Force Awakens with my roommate. Within just a few scenes, the films completely won me over.
After all, Star Wars is — quite literally — the standard hero story. It has high stakes, royalty and outlaws, sage mentors, prophesied saviors, dastardly villains, glory, and a happily ever after. Star Wars was made to resonate with the part of us that longs to be a legendary hero, that aspires to the grandiose. However, Rogue One — the newest film in the Star Wars franchise — spins the classic story in a way that challenges our hero impulse and offers crucial lessons for us as we face a troubled future in 2017 and beyond.
The new film recounts the story of delinquent loner Jyn Erso, Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, and the team they work with on behalf of the Rebel Alliance to acquire the Empire’s blueprint plans for their Death Star superweapon. This accomplishment sets up the events of the original trilogy and the victories its heroes achieve, but has previously been at best a footnote in the expansive universe of Star Wars lore. In Rogue One, the stakes are still high, the scope still galactic, but where the main Star Wars narrative hinges on royal lineage and prophetic Jedi destiny, Rogue One centers on a band of misfits whose names and stories will be forgotten by history.
While the Empire in Rogue One’s time is as clearly evil as ever, the resistance movement seems morally nebulous — populated by extremist guerrilla warriors, deceitful commanders, and soldiers who commit all manner of atrocities in service of the Rebellion. It’s surely no coincidence that Saw Gerrera — the fanatical rebel who holds key information for the Alliance — sounds almost Vader-esque with his mechanical breathing apparatus. And while the Death Star looms large in the original trilogy as a known and demonstrated threat, at this film’s beginning it is primarily a phantom fear — the fight is against not just the known evil, but also the evil that may be yet to come.
In these ways, Rogue One meets us where we are. In a divisive time, when prejudice reigns with renewed power and threatens a destructive future, and where unquestionably moral leaders can be hard to come by, those of us seeking to faithfully resist injustice would do well to look to Rogue One for what it has to teach us:
1. “The time to fight is now.”
At one point in the film, Rebel Alliance leaders are debating opportunity costs and the right course of action in the face of terrible odds. Jyn incredulously interrupts, exclaiming, “What chance do we have? The question is: what choice?” She urges them to see that a failure to act with urgency would only ensure the Empire’s victory.
The same is true for us. Whether we are new to the fight for justice, or just newly galvanized, our action must not be motivated by guaranteed victory, but rather by unwillingness to give up. Of course we should be thoughtful and discerning as we move forward, but we cannot let overwhelming odds or the complexity of injustice’s tangled web lull us into complacency or normalization. When our faith commands justice, there is no faithful response but to fight for it. And when injustice seems to win the day, there is no choice but to make sure the fight isn’t over.
2. “The Rebellion is real for you now? Some of us live it.”
Reviews of Rogue One have pointed out the striking diversity among the film’s main protagonists. A film driven by nonwhite and/or non-male characters is still a rarity in Hollywood, despite growing evidence (see last year’s hugely popular Star Wars installment, for example) that success doesn’t require a white male lead. If we’ve expected our stories to be about mythic heroes, we’ve also expected those heroes to be white. In so doing, we’ve ignored and erased the lives and experiences of many and allowed injustices to be nourished by our own ignorance.
The above quote is expressed during an intense exchange between two characters in the film. While in that instance, both characters have suffered greatly from the Empire, the sentiment holds necessary wisdom especially for those of us whose lives and privilege have insulated us from much of what’s broken in this world. As we commit to showing up to stand with and serve those who are threatened by oppression, bigotry, and violent hate, we must remember that many have been fighting these evils their whole lives — not first as a matter of conviction, but as a matter of necessity. These are the stories that must be centered, and the voices that we should listen to and follow.
3. “Rebellions are built on hope.” (Not heroes.)
As mentioned before, the protagonists of this story are not major players in the Rebellion, but rather cogs in the resistance machine. They are Imperial defectors, and Rebel soldiers, petty criminals, Force-worshippers and defunct spiritual guardians. They are distrusted and discarded even by the cause they serve, and there is little chance of glory or a happy future for any of them. And yet they fight, and struggle, and sacrifice in a seemingly unwinnable battle against the Empire because they believe (eventually, anyway) in something bigger.
One key character, a blind mystic named Chirrut Imwe, repeats a mantra throughout the movie, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.” He is not a Jedi, just a believer, and in many ways his faith illustrates the driving conviction behind the whole band of misfit fighters. The film cleverly leaves open the question of whether Chirrut and his friends are truly aided by the Force or merely lucky, but he believes — not only that there is something bigger, but also that he is connected to it. That it is with him — even him.
So perhaps the biggest lesson Rogue One has to teach us is that, however much we might dream of glory, rebellions and battles for justice aren’t won by a lone hero but by an army of committed fighters willing to do the hard work for no glory or recognition at all. As Oscar Romero says “we are workers, not master builders … we are prophets of a future not our own.” There is a brilliant sequence in this film where, one by one, various characters go to dangerous lengths to each perform a single task without which the whole effort would fail.
If we wait for the right opportunity to save the day, we miss crucial moments to contribute to the larger cause. We are called to the grunt work, to the hard toil and sacrifice, and to the belief that our hope rests not in our own potential, but rather in a potential that far exceeds us. The calling to which we commit ourselves is to whatever small but essential part we might play in seeking justice and ensuring that the hope that far exceeds us also far outlives us.