Full disclosure, right out of the gate, I don’t intend to turn this corner of the Internet into some pretentious commentary on modern cinema and its true or false gospel undertones. It just so happens that the last few films I’ve seen have each impacted me in such a way that I felt compelled to write a few thoughts down on how they relate to and reveal the human condition in very profound ways.
It might seem ridiculous and the height of shortsightedness to dub Rogue One the “best Star Wars movie ever.” And perhaps there’s some truth to that. I’m a Millenial, after all. But I choose to see it as the culmination of prevenient themes and ideas colliding to create a more beautiful and fully realized story. Bear with me for a second.
I went into Rogue One with massive expectations. Truth be told, ever since his much-needed dose of fresh blood to the Mission: Impossible franchise in 2003, I’ve been a huge fan of JJ Abrams’ work. His reimagining of Star Trek was so well executed that now, after the subsequent success of The Force Awakens, that outstanding achievement in 2009 seems to be a mere prelude to the real show. There was some considerable backlash when it was announced that Abrams, the man behind, perhaps, the most frustrating ending in TV history (I’m looking at you, Lost!), would be taking the reigns of the most well-beloved film saga in the history of film. But the new Lucasfilm executives knew exactly what they were doing in selecting Abrams, and I was quite pleased with the announcement. (And now, even more pleased with the outcomes.)
What Abrams did with Force Awakens, while somewhat rehashing old materials and motifs (okay, maybe a lot of rehashing), was absolutely necessary to get a treasured albeit fledging franchise back on its feet. Indeed, Star Wars Episode VII is a monolithic accomplishment considering everything that was stacked against it. (You should definitely watch this outstanding video essay by YouTuber, Mike Neumann.) Yet, oddly enough, I was more intrigued and excited for the standalone movies that would accompany the main “saga” films. When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 for approximately $4 billion, it wasn’t apparent what their plan was besides making a lot of money. We knew that this probably meant the reimagining of the franchise, but after expecting to see nothing but Mickey Mouses in Darth Vader costumes and the greater dilution of the Star Wars universe through enhanced commercialization, what was delivered was stunningly terrific. And as with the meticulous designing and planning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe years before its actual realization, Disney had a blueprint for how to bring the magic — dare I say, the force — back to Star Wars.
The standalone movies — the “Star Wars Stories” (as they’re called) — were teeming with attraction. We had never been given the opportunity to see canonized stories of characters and events not involving the Skywalkers before in the Star Wars universe. And with a universe as vast as George Lucas’ original vision, that’s a travesty. Nevertheless, Rogue One was soon announced, and we all knew what was coming — which was both fascinating and uninspiring at the same time.
If you didn’t already know, Rogue One is a film that takes place just before the original 1977 Star Wars, recounting the events of the first three sentences of the infamous opening crawl:
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
Rogue One tells the story of how those secret plans were stolen. That’s not spoiling anything, this was a well-known fact months and months before any trailer was ever publicly released. We all knew what was going to go down, we just didn’t know how. And that’s what captured me.
What Rogue One does for the Star Wars saga is actually put the “war” into the title. This movie is a bona fide war movie, that feels more akin to Saving Private Ryan or Dirty Dozen or Black Hawk Down than the epic space opera of Lucas’ original trilogy. Rogue One is dirty, grimy, and gritty, not sparing on insipid violence and moral muddiness. And while the 1st act leaves a little to be desired in some spots, the 2nd and 3rd acts are absolutely breathtaking. There’s never been a more action-packed Star Wars movie, nor one that has effectuated such thrilling battle sequences. Most movies today would die for one set piece as good as Rogue One’s — and there’s plenty to love here. All of the action is exceptionally realized and the humor is accurately timed.
But there’s still the question of why we need this movie in the first place. If we already know that the plans get stolen, and that Luke Skywalker fires the shot that blows the Death Star to smithereens, why do we need this film? Isn’t it a little anticlimactic? Absolutely not.
What makes Rogue One so astonishing is not just the extraordinary visuals and the extraordinary action and the extraordinarily fast-paced plot, it’s the ordinary people that are carrying out this mission. What makes the stakes of this movie rise into the stratosphere is that ordinary people are confronted with the gross impossibility of what lies before them and they press forward anyway. There’s no Jedi. No Skywalker. No ultra-gifted hero or chosen one to save the day and save the rebellion. Nope, just some nondescript rebels attempting the “impossible mission” that would go on to change fate of the entire galaxy. What makes Rogue One so great, so absolutely captivating is that even though we all wish we could be Luke, we secretly all know we’re Wedge. The film tells its story from the eyes of you and me, regular pedestrians, insignificant people living in an outlandishly large world.
This is what intrigued me most. And this is what makes the film the peerless achievement that it is. It doesn’t focus on some person we hope to be. It doesn’t tell the story about a person we wish we could be like. It doesn’t give us one person that we should strive to imitate. Rogue One’s heroes are actually disgruntled anti-heroes that are disenchanted and despairing of the present state of universe. They see the conditions and the Empire’s increasing vice grip on the galaxy, and despite being distraught by this fate, they’ve given up trying. Hope is lost. It’s a forgotten memory. Many of them can’t even remember a time before the Imperial reign. Their former fire has turned to drudgery. The Rebellion is hanging by a thread as the Empire squeezes the air out of its lungs. Our heroes are bowed down, not in service to the Emperor but to an even more sinister foe: despair.
Yet it’s these same disillusioned rebels that are thrust into the events that would go on to alter the fate of the entire galaxy. They get caught up in a world-shattering plot that ends up turning their hope around. Through great sacrifice, our heroes succeed. And though this battle was won, victory for the Rebellion wasn’t ensured. The story continues and our heroes fade into the background, into nameless history. What’s interesting is that the names of the Rogue One protagonists aren’t mentioned ever again. Yet, without them, ensuing events couldn’t happen. And so it is that we see that those who leave a mark on this world aren’t those who are so concerned with leaving their mark, rather, they’re concerned with doing the right thing.
So often, we get caught up with the notion of reputations and résumés and our “personal brand.” We fabricate a life for ourselves 140-characters at a time, and this takes arduous amounts of time and effort. We are beguiled by the chance of being remembered, of ensuring the world won’t soon forget us and what we did. The pandemic of our time is our addiction to being extraordinary. I, too, am guilty of this — guilty of being captivated more by my own created “fame” than by the truly amazing power of grace.
We’re attracted to names and star and heroes. But many of the most important figures in your Bible aren’t even named. The pages of Scripture are filled with anonymous men and women whose singular focus wasn’t on being remembered or written down in the canon of Scripture, but with advancing and administering peace, love, grace, and hope. Hebrews 11 even closes by mentioning a collective “others” who were likewise mocked and murdered for their faith in Christ. (Heb. 11:32-38) The nameless are counted among those “whom the world was not worthy.”
Thus it is that God’s gospel is a gospel of personal insignificance. It’s a gospel that frees us to forget ourselves in the light of God’s larger redemption and restoration of His creation. Grace gives us the freedom of obscurity, of being lost to the world but known to God. The assurance of grace frees us to disregard our “brands,” our reputations, and our very lives for the sake of Christ. Confidence in the gospel produces self-forgetfulness. Hope is only found when people forget about themselves. By relinquishing our lives, we live for something and Someone so much greater.
Rogue One, then, shows us what happens when those who are bent on themselves are morphed into self-forgetful people. Though their names might not be remembered, their sacrifice won’t soon be forgotten. Like the unnamed disciples of the Bible, we ought to be content to be anonymous servants, witnessing and testifying to the grandeur of the gospel in silent faithfulness. We may not have a statue made in our likeness, or a building named after us, or a foundation to carry on our life’s labors, but the sufficiency of Christ extends to relieve us from the pressure to make a name for ourself, knowing that our name is securely written on the palms of God’s hands. (Isa. 49:16) And it is in this that we revel. It is in this that we find hope.
Photo via Gareth Edwards, Rogue One