From sirens blaring like state of emergency curfews a silhouette emerges, so saturated in lore that his very respiration, heavy and haunting, transcends the medium that nurtured his reputation: In the Star Wars universe, Darth Vader is the specter that extinguishes all hope.
Hope is an oft quoted narrative device in Rogue One, one that alternates as cliché and inspiration. It is used by the alliance to propagandize for their cause: a return to the erstwhile Elysium of a galaxy, where conflicts were few and governments mostly benevolent. In the eyes of the alliance commanders, those hay days are in sharp contrast to life under the Empire, which Rogue One writer Christ Weitz described, in a later deleted tweet, as “a white supremacist (human) organization”
The empire, which usurped power after Palpatine’s Order 66 wiped out virtually all potent opposition, including most prominently the force wielding Jedis, has gone onto impose a brutal trans-galactic occupation extolling ideologies of militarism and obedience. The monochrome color scheme of their uniforms and deep red insignias are intentionally designed to evoke 20th century fascism.
There is no escape. The Empire’s range of operations is all encompassing. The countless planets resemble a panopticon from the lighthouse of the death star. It sees itself as a civilizing force; for the empire, carrying the “white man’s burden,” all development must be achieved by the unforgiving caress of force. It wants its vassals to realize that things are changing even that entails muddying the lines between peace and terror.
Sith Lords and officers don’t concern themselves with the menial labor of policing, of course. Thus the Stormtrooper is ubiquitous. Its former incarnation, The Clone might have been unrestrained by biological shackles, but the Stormtrooper is a loyal recruit. He is the universal emblem of order, unquestioning, always obeying. It is vital to note that his earliest iterations did not hold the same nefarious reputation in public consciousness. During the clone wars, he was an unsung hero on the front lines, un-celebrated but always respected. His condition and transformation is not unlike that of the policeman, who is nominally a force for good, but too often is plunged into tasks provoking opprobrium.
But now he patrols the streets, the markets, the places of public life. He polices thought, and suppresses dissent. He is seen as an occupying presence. In Rogue One we see him policing the alleyways of Jedha, marching garrisons with heavily armored tanks. As Jack Jenkins wrote:
“Anyone who has strolled through the markets of Jerusalem’s Old City and been jarred by the sight of heavily armed Israel Defense Force soldiers on every corner (not to mention checkpoints in hyper-militarized East Jerusalem) will see parallels with the Imperial presence in Jedha”
It is on this galaxy of competing hegemonies that our band of misfits find themselves in: an imperial defector pilot, an alliance officer, a priest with an unwavering belief in the force, a reprogrammed droid with a penchant for one liners and a rebel, who in the chronology of the film runs the gamut from James dean to Leila Khalid.
There is no neutrality in deep space. You are either with us or you are with them. Bangladeshis old enough to remember will find this Manicheanism familiar. During the liberation war there was no middle ground. As an East Pakistani, you could either join the Mukti Bahinis, or at the very least offer them your hospitality and support, in establishing a Shadhin Bangla or you were a Raazaker.
So, when Saw Gerrera, the limp-gaited “extremist,” so dubbed by the alliance, asks our protagonist Jyn Erso how she can stand to watch imperial flags sail over her very existence, she takes the position of many an east Pakistani civil servant. Her reply is simultaneously thought-provoking and untenable:
“What does it matter if you never look up?”
Of Course, that is not a choice. You cannot not look up. The empire does not afford you an autonomous zone to operate in. You are always a vassal, whether you know it or not. Jyn is no more free at the beginning of the film, when she’s in an Imperial labor camp, than 20 odd years earlier in the tense cold open, when her mother is murdered and her father, Galen Erso is coerced into operating as the chief scientist behind the Death Star.
Eventually they will come for you. Gallen Erso recognizes this when the imperial officer Orphon Krennic descends in fluttering white cape upon the idyllic countryside with Stormtrooper escorts to recruit him for the empire. “He knew they’d do it without him,” so he surrendered but in that submission he laid the plans for the Empire’s eventual downfall.
The catalyst of her father’s death, compels Jyn to overcome her contradictions. She knows what she must do. She propose a plan to invade the Imperial archives and steal the architectural plans of the Death Star; to exploit the weakness of the thermal exhaust port.
But the mission is carried out without official sanction, in the manner of a wildcat strike. Not taken seriously by the alliance commanders, Jyn and the rest of the rogue squadron nonetheless decide to carry out a guerrilla assault to retrieve the vital plans.
Rogue One is a vituperative rebuke of the Great Man Theory of history all previous Star Wars saga films had labored so hard to culture. We finally see the cannon fodder behind the revolution:
“The story is rooted in the experience of the ‘everyday’ rebels — those extras who seem to take all the blaster bolts that inexplicably miss heroes like Leia Organa, Han Solo, or Luke Skywalker. Consequently, people die in this film. A lot of people. All the time.”