By Dipsikha Thakur
My feelings on Star Wars have remained ambivalent for a very long time. I was raised in a household without much exposure to American culture and definitely without much exposure to other households, so my teenage years were more dedicated to Wordsworth Classics paperbacks and borrowed volumes of Tintin than Star Wars or Firefly. I only discovered Firefly earlier this year and went completely batty binge-watching it. Star Wars, on other hand, never really crossed paths with me. Or rather, it did, very occasionally: like that time someone else was watching it in the college common room, and I casually discovered Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s dad, yawned, and went back to playing carrom. I think you get the picture by this point.
Fast forward to 2016. I am dating a nerd who is into Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Spaceteam, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime and every other combination of space-themed film, book and video game titles you can think of. I have been getting threatened with Star Wars marathons for a couple of years now, but I am usually able to redirect the situation into the safety of other things like Dracula or Tim Burton. The inevitable arrived last week when some friends of my boyfriend invited us to watch Rogue One with them the following week. On one hand, I wanted to meet these awesome people and hang out with them. On the other hand, my patience for the Star Wars franchise is quite limited. Even more importantly, I hate movie theatres. This was in Sheffield, but the stream of stupid adverts is universal and only marginally better than standing to a national anthem.
It was every bit as miserable as I expected. We got white, het, creepily smiling couples and Jeremy Clarkson endorsing everything from co-op food to cars to perfumes. Then we got some more inspiring Coke-drinking cameos and IMAX paeans. And then, finally, the film began.
The very first thing that struck me about it was just how bleak and fragmented the outset was. This is a film that begins and ends with despair, despite CGI Carrie Fisher claiming otherwise at the end of the film. I watched a young child witness her parents’ incarceration and murder, side by side, and then having to flee to the next makeshift, mostly off-screen foster-care. Watching a solitary, sooty child trying to beat a lamp into functioning in a cold bunker was a very alerting experience. My mind went from being semi-attentive at ‘another Star Wars film’ to being acutely aware of a beginning heavily resonant of the continuing refugee crisis that has had moments like the rescue of Omran Daqneesh from a house reduced to rubble and the discovery of a drowned toddler’s body on a Turkish shore. The prologue of the protagonist escaping disaster as a child is common, but that does not reduce the heart-stopping relevance of that scene. Nor does it help that the vocabulary of ‘rebel-held’ areas, a crippled ‘senate’ and an accelerated arms race are all things I read about every morning in the newspaper.
In fact, as the film progressed, it became hard to ignore that this film has all the potential to be read as an allegory of state occupation and the violent politics of despair it provokes. Most importantly, at the heart of this allegory lies the question of liberation from patriarchy—a question embodied in its fiery heroine, Jyn Erso. Jyn does not take shit from anyone, not even her foster parent and feared ‘extremist’ Gerrera. To call Jyn feminist is a bit of a stating-the-obvious and, weirdly enough, also a bit of an overreading. She is a petty criminal, a last-minute idealist, a reluctant hero and mostly cares about nothing except finding her father. It is her characterisation and the plot’s refusal to compromise her integrity by pairing her with anyone that is an almost unbelievable moment of feminist triumph in popular cinema. Not so much she herself.
And I preferred it this way. She is flawed, messy and not an amazing role model till the second half—which is lovely because women should not have to strive for perfect politics, or indeed general perfection in order to be incredible human beings.
Even more importantly, the kind of politics she ends up practising has very little scope for propriety or classroom ethics.
I said earlier that Rogue One reads rather stunningly as a parable for state occupation. Time for some close reading now: the first and major casualty to the Deathstar (a nuclear weapon equivalent) is a city on an ‘Imperial-occupied moon’ called Jedha. This is the first time Jedha has appeared in the Star Wars franchise. It is perhaps not a coincidence that it resembles ‘Jeddah’, the name of the city that acts as a gateway to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. As the characters keep saying, Jedha is a holy city, one with temples and a highly-prized natural resource (kyber crystals). Petropolitics and religion, anyone?
The ‘holy city’ bit reminded me of Jerusalem too. That Jedha was represented as a city with aliens in niqab and its classification as a desert did not do much to dispel that sense. Jedha is occupied by the Galactic Empire led by the Emperor and Darth Vader. When the rebellion gets to be too much, they use it as a test site for the Deathstar—removing the whole city and destroying all life in it. If this plotline was not enough to mark this film as a very particular exception to the general politics of Hollywood, there is the fact that the mission of the protagonist is suicidal from the very start. The unsteady, squabbling and generally useless Alliance (a wonderful mirror to the American, British and Indian Left front, I thought) refuses to back Jyn’s mission and actually ends up killing her father in a poorly targeted bombing run. She winds up leading what is effectively a single-handed and sped-up intifada, and one whose end is no more romantic or affirming than what real-life rebellion against the state, including that in Aleppo, looks like.
This film is bleak as fuck and I liked that about it. For the Star Wars initiates, it is quite rightly inadequate and full of plot holes. It lacks a strong villain. Again, I liked that last bit. Uprisings, especially the really hopeless and necessary ones, are seldom against conveniently solitary dark lords. They are against the faceless, oppressive and usually pretty damn powerful institutions: like the state or the patriarchy. The fight is always unequal and hopeless. Which brings me to my next point.
This film demonstrates a very un-Hollywood disavowal of the humanitarian imagination. There are heroes, but not really saviours who survive for the claps. There are certainly none that are saved. Even the plans to disable the Deathstar, the main driving force of the story, are not enough to prevent two different cities—one with all the main characters—from being reduced to ashes. That beautiful, useless fable of triumphing over baddies and restoring humanity to victims is smashed. No CGI Leia can infuse hope into the political present of this film. The best is a kind of generational hope—a hope for a future; for other people coming later.
I am usually a copious crier at movie halls. Just for reference, Severus Snape’s death had me hiccupping into a friend’s shoulder. Granted, it has been a while since then, but I still expected to feel awful when Jyn and her sidekick Cassin dissolved into nothing thanks to the Deathstar. Surprisingly, all I felt was relief. I don’t think I could have stomached a last-minute rescue.
This film is not so much (or perhaps at least as much) about the original Star Wars films as it is about our times. About the fact that for many people across the world, making a moral decision and choosing to survive are mutually incompatible; that the rest of us have been petrified into a static bystanding without any action. Syria, Kashmir and Palestine continue to happen. There is no Deathstar yet, but there are barrel bombs, daisy-cutters and Operation Protective Edge.