Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Deferred Promise of The Force Awakens: Some Rogue One Thoughts

(This post discusses the plot of Rogue One in detail.)

The enthusiastic response to, and box office of, "The Force Awakens" was many things, but mostly it was a delicious thumb in the eye to the Worst People On The Internet. The ones who huffily insisted (wrongly) there are no Black Stormtroopers in "Star Wars" when John Boyega in the uniform was the first person we saw in the trailer for the film at the beginning of 2015. The ones who grumbled that an icky girl, Daisy Ridley, was one of the leads. The ones who were gonna hold their breath until they turned blue if anybody but them got to play with their favorite toys.

It was easy to laugh at their impotent fury. It was so easy to see the vibrant, diverse new blockbuster as the pop culture reflection of the changes the Obama Administration had brought to the larger culture. It was so easy to believe that by the following December we would have built on the progress of the last 8 years and have our first female President. It was easy to laugh off an 80s has-been who found another 15 minutes as the host of a reality show's stumbling attempts to run for office.

And then 2016 happened, and smarting in the aftermath of November 8th it felt very much like everyone who hated Finn (Boyega) and Rey (Ridley) had their revenge. And their revenge was terrible and total. It was the fury of those who never had to ask for a place at the table enraged at the suggestion they put in a leaf to make room for more. It was the petty, ugly temper tantrum that breaks the toy rather than share it with anyone else. It was racism and misogyny standing on top of the pile of ruble and baying well into the night.

And so it was, weighed down by despair and panic that I saw "Rogue One". And discovered yet again the curious ways that movies find their moment. I'm sure that the long development of "Rogue One" did not take into account the events of 2016, and more than likely they probably worried that a darker, sadder "Star Wars" film would be a tougher sell. But "Rogue One" ended up being the perfect "Star Wars" film for 2016. Because it asks the simple question, what do you do when hope has fled?

The heroine is Jyn (Felicity Jones). She is very reluctantly roped into the Rebel Alliance fight against the Empire. She is the link to her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the captured weapons designer who is building The Death Star, a planet killer that would ensure the Empire's victory and rule is total. Jyn will work with Cassian (Diego Luna), a rebel operative who is barely holding himself together as the cost of things he's done in the name of freedom mount. He's accompanied by K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) an android who has a sharp tongue despite not having an actual one. They will be joined by Chirrut (Donnie Yen) a blind mystic and warrior and Baze (Wen Jiang) who's grumbling exterior cannot hide his loyalty to Chirrut and his wish for a better world. They all will have to depend on the word of defector pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) to get them access to the plans of The Death Star.

There is a fair question to be raised on did we need to be told this story. And it's not strictly necessary to know the reason The Death Star would have such a fatal flaw that one shot could destroy the whole thing. But it's how "Rogue One" found its time that I was incredibly moved by it. There is an aching sorrow, a bone deep weariness etched in the character's faces. The loneliness of having given so much and know it's not enough, there will still be more battles, more taken from you. How easy it is to go along with authority or burn out in a nihilistic burst of violence. Cassian's haunted speech to Jyn before they go to the place The Death Star plans are stored is the film in focus. Cassian says they all have done terrible things, but they must see the work through or else those terrible things will have been for nothing. It's remarkably bleak for a "Star Wars" film and in any other year it might have been dismissed as the unfortunate trend of genre films mistaking grim for serious.

But not this year. Not after a wretched election, that stretched out over a year and indulged every vile impulse in the American public. Not after a  message of xenophobia and misogyny that was countered with the message we were better than our worst instincts and we were stronger together only for that message to get resoundingly spit back in their faces. The question of what do you do when it all seems so hopeless, so lost is more important than ever.

"Rogue One" answers that question in different ways. Some characters like Saw (Forrest Whitaker) and his guerrillas rage against the dying of the light by charging into hopelessly out matched battles with imperial soldiers hoping to die fighting at least. Saw's death is one of the film's most powerful images as a literal tidal wave of earth rises up to bury him and his entire fortress. He faces it standing. Some are careerists like Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), loyal to the Empire not necessarily because they believe in it but because the Empire is in power and power makes right and those who want power cosy up to those who have it. And some resist by appearing to capitulate. Galen builds the Empire their Death Star, but he places a fatal flaw in his design, a single shot can blow up the whole thing. And Jyn fights back by discovering the hope that never left her, by being reminded she is more than herself, she is part of a whole. She is loved by her father, she is needed by the Alliance and she is cherished by her friends.

And that is what I needed the most at the end of this draining year. The reminder that I am not alone. That I cannot collapse into self pity and the lotus eating of losing myself in media and ignoring the real world. Pop culture will not save us, but the stories that speak to us can recharge us to do the work that needs doing. I will protest, I will call and write letters. I will give to groups committed to protecting the vulnerable. I will be angry and let my anger be the fuel that moves me.

And when it's too much, and when the fear threatens to shut me down I will remember my friends. That was one of the things I loved most about "Rogue One", showing the fast bonds that are made in conflict. The found families we make to survive. How the work that needs to be done is only possible by doing it together. How it's not the victories that keep us going but it's in how Baze affectionately calls Jyn "little sister" before they embark on their final raid. I think of the people I know and love, scattered across the globe. I fear for them but I cherish them too, and that determination to fight for them keeps me going when I can't see the point for myself anymore.

And I loved how "Rogue One" kept going with the diverse casting "The Force Awakens" angered all the right people with. It matters seeing yourself in the stories you love, and that feels all the more poignant now with the death of Carrie Fisher. I started this article in the hope I would not have to type those words, and when 2016 behaved like it's been behaving I almost let this post sit in drafts for good. (And if your response is to sniff that lots of folks die every year and it's silly to get upset about someone you never met there's a convenient reactor shaft you can throw yourself down.) Princess Leia (Fisher) was the first time I saw myself in the sci-fi adventures I loved, and I loved seeing her as the brassy older woman of the "Star Wars" universe in "The Force Awakens". And in a year where an older woman was treated like garbage repeatedly it was a necessary tonic to see an older woman on screen and in marvelous interviews who clearly did not give a damn what you thought of her .

And it's losing people like that that makes this year so painful and the next one so terrifying. People like David Bowie, Prince, and so many others who told us it was okay to be ourselves, our strange, weird, prickly, magical selves. People like Muhammad Ali who stood up against injustice. People who are so very badly needed as we enter a time of seething resentment seeking an enforced conformity. But "Rogue One" understands that too. That life is loss, life is inevitably being left behind. Jyn finds her father only to lose him moments later. The mission to steal the Death Star plans ends with them successfully handed off and Jyn and Cassian embracing before the shock wave the Death Star's firing at their location made destroys them.

And that is what was shocking to see in a "Star Wars" film, the acknowledgement that you will not live to see the end of the work, you might not even know if your little part of it made any difference at all. But that's all the more reason to show up and do your best, to look out for each other. And it's strange that such a tough, sad, broken-hearted sci-fi adventure could make me feel ready for next year. But it's not so strange at all. I needed to be reminded of the importance of friendship, of rebellion, of the inevitability of death. To not resist fear or hope but let them flow through me, to get me to do the work that needs doing. To remember that I am more powerful than I know. We all are.

Because I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

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