It’s a telling comment on our unsettling political moment that Bob Iger, the head of Disney, has felt compelled to clarify that “there are no political statements” in Rogue One, the new Star Wars movie in which a diverse cast of heroes take on an evil empire led by white men. (Darth Vader is voiced by James Earl Jones, but ostensibly that’s still Hayden Christensen in there.)
There was somehow no need for a similar statement just last year, when the franchise dropped a hugely successful film that pitted a white woman and a black man against an angry white guy. Nor was George Lucas called upon to issue such a disclaimer when he made the original Star Wars, with Imperial forces obviously inspired by Nazis.
Rogue One is set in the time period immediately leading up to that first film, and accordingly it’s full of details that put us back into the world of the Galactic Empire at the height of its power. In Star Wars we only glimpsed how this world might feel from a civilian perspective — we saw the casual brutality and oppression carried out by the Stormtroopers on Tatooine — but in Rogue One we see the Empire’s interplanetary presence in a fuller scope.
The achievement of director Gareth Edwards is to expand Lucas’s creation both upwards —a Star Destroyer hovers over a holy city, the Death Star rises over a horizon like a deadly sun — and downwards, right down to the raindrops that roll off a wicked officer’s waterproof white cape. If there’s no scene in Rogue One as visceral as the moment in Star Wars when Luke discovers the fate of his aunt and uncle, the new film makes the Empire feel more widely tangible.
The irony of the alt-right’s Rogue One protest is that if anything, Edwards and his team pulled their punches. It would have been easy, and in fact more convincing, to give the Empire an explicit racial agenda and to portray a cult of personality around figures like Darth Vader. Sure, the optics aren’t great around the Emperor and Grand Moff Tarkin, but autocratic leaders in the real world aren’t exactly handsome devils either.
The film’s setting, a precise redux of its 1970s genesis, inevitably recalls the science fiction films of a decade where moviemakers were socially engaged. It was the Watergate era and the decade in which the environmental movement came into flower, the era of Soylent Green and Lucas’s own cautionary THX-1138 — a predecessor to Star Wars in which free spirits try to escape from an oppressive domain of faceless fascists.
Though the original Star Wars films weren’t so didactic, Lucas wasn’t afraid to go there in showing that the Galactic Empire drew from an all-too-familiar toolkit. There’s no torture scene in Rogue One, and if that sounds like it would be just too brutal for the escapist fantasy universe of Star Wars, remember that Han Solo was tortured onscreen in The Empire Strikes Back.
Lucas got even more real in his prequel trilogy, which came to amplify his frustration with the George W. Bush era. “This is how liberty dies,” observes Senator Amidala in Revenge of the Sith, as her colleagues enthusiastically grant wartime powers to the scheming Palpatine. “With thunderous applause.”
Even so, there was a glass ceiling in the Rebel Alliance. It’s significant that the Rebels were portrayed as being led by a woman, but Mon Mothma made only a brief appearance in the original trilogy. (She gets many more lines in Rogue One.) Carrie Fisher was repeatedly frustrated at the way her character was marginalized in action sequences: Princess Leia had some badass moments, true, but fundamentally it was white dudes Luke and Han who led the charge.
J.J. Abrams knew that had to change in The Force Awakens — the first post-Lucas Star Wars film — and accordingly, in that film our new heroes are a woman and two men of color. The casting was far from incidental to the overwhelmingly positive commercial and critical response the film received, and it was clear that Star Wars wasn’t going to slide back to the old days.
(There’s actually a detail of the New Hope universe that many Rogue One viewers will notice immediately while others might take a while to pick up on: as in the original trilogy, in Rogue One the overwhelming majority of Rebel pilots are men. That must have been a conscious decision, but it’s not at all remarked upon in the new film. It’s just a fact of life.)
Iger is both right and wrong when he says there are no political statements in Rogue One. The more precise way to state it would be to say that the Rogue One filmmakers declined opportunities to draw more specific real-world parallels in a fantasy universe that fundamentally centers on a political act: a rebellion against unjust rule. If anyone seriously thought that story wasn’t going to resonate, I have some seaside real estate on Tatooine to sell them.