Recently, I watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for the first time. If you haven’t seen it and care about spoilers, you should just stop reading now, because I’m going to break down the plot for you.
It’s certainly not a new observation that filming a direct prequel to an existing film frees a director from the need to set up sufficient ambiguity that there could be a sequel or no sequel, depending on how well the box office sales turn out.
But it is an apt observation for Rogue One. Because the events of the film take place immediately before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, there’s no room to squeeze in a sequel to the prequel, as is sometimes done.
I could begin with the end, but before we get to the end, let’s return to the beginning. In the beginning, a former Imperial Scientist named Galen Erso is abducted, his wife is killed in the process, and his daughter manages to escape the Stormtroopers and is raised by a guerrilla fighter resisting the Empire by any means necessary (or perhaps even unnecessary).
When we next meet his daughter, Jyn Erso, she is imprisoned by the Empire for a lovely litany of crimes. She is freed from a prisoner transport by soldiers of the Rebellion, a confederation of planets who are trying to stop the Empire’s spread.
They try to use her to get to the man who raised her, Saw Gerrera. They believe he might be able to lead them to Galen Erso, the former Imperial Scientist who resigned his post with the Empire to live a quiet life of farming and then was dragged back into being an Imperial Scientist by force, losing his wife and daughter in the process.
The intention of the Rebellion is to assassinate Galen Erso because he is the brains behind the planet-killing weapon on the space-worthy battle station known as the Death Star. Their plan to kill Galen Erso didn’t work out the way it was intended (Captain Cassian Andor doesn’t pull the trigger), but they do manage to kill Galen in an X-Wing bomber attack.
Unfortunately for Cassian (and fortunately for the Rebellion), Jyn is there to witness her father’s death, and with his dying words he explains what can be done to stop the Death Star. Cassian is struggling with his own act of disobeying his orders by not killing Galen Erso, and with his increasing respect for Jyn even as she berates him for going out to kill her father.
More importantly, he’s struggling to stay true to the cause of defeating the Empire as he wonders whether or not following orders in the Rebellion is the best way to do that. He’s clearly a rebel with a cause, but it’s less clear that he is a rebel of the Rebellion. Like Saw Gerrera, he is more devoted to the cause than many in the official Rebellion.
He demonstrates this when, after Jyn’s plea to the leaders of the Rebellion to take the fight to Scarif and steal the Death Star plans results in no official action, he forms a group of dedicated fighters so that they can accomplish the mission and goes AWOL from the Rebellion.
The mission to Scarif was, in tactical terms, highly unlikely to succeed. A few dedicated fighters can get onto the planet with a little bit of luck, but there was probably not enough luck in the Star Wars universe to get them safely back to the ships of the rebel fleet.
Their luck was good enough to get them in the door, but as with many things in life, and especially infiltrating a hostile military installation, the luck wore out very quickly and the fighting started. The fighting, both outside the building and inside, was really a matter of delaying the inevitable.
They were hoping to gain just enough time to allow Jyn and Cassian to retrieve the Death Star plans and transmit them to the rebel fleet. Our heroes outside providing a big fiery distraction were eventually taken down by waves of stormtroopers, and Cassian was shot as they were trying to get the Death Star plans transmitted.
Hope appeared to be dying as Jyn reached the transmitter, only to be fired upon by hostile aircraft and threatened by the decidedly generic villain. A wounded Cassian saved the day, the plucky hero rescuing the damsel in distress at the last minute.
At the end, the tropes were piling up as if it were a stock Disney movie sequence. But it wasn’t.
Cassian didn’t find a way to get them away from the planet before it was destroyed spectacularly by Galen Erso’s amazing weapon. Jyn didn’t find a way to have someone in the rebel fleet pick them up.
They didn’t have a blossoming romance and ride off into the binary sunsets on a paradise planet. They didn’t even share a passionate kiss. The adrenaline was gone, the weakness and shock had set in, and they staggered away from the worst of the fighting.
The soldiers hugged each other as they watched the beginning of Scarif’s immolation, resting in the few minutes of exhausted silence before their inevitable demise.
The movie that seemed on track to pile up the tropes almost as high as the bodies subverts those old tropes at the end. The heroes aren’t rescued at the last minute. There is only a noble death.
I wish more movies would end with such a death. It would make us confront the end of our own stories more regularly.
We would have to wrestle with the fact that even when we have a just cause and fight well for that just cause, giving everything we have, we will probably die without knowing whether or not our life’s work was ultimately accomplished by those who are carrying it forward.
Our life’s story, when we fight the good fight, is a story worth ending with a noble death. And like our lives, movies too are stories worth ending.