Rogue One is a film about resistance and domination, time and space, environment and technology. Can linking these concepts together tell us more about the film's science fiction storytelling... and reveal something about our own forms of contemporary resistance?
Rogue One is a science fiction story, and it’s a science fiction story about spacetime.
This is probably a bit of a controversial statement at the outset: calling Star Wars “Science Fantasy” seems to be the trendy thing to do these days, due to the narrative’s almost complete disinterest in how anything actually works. Which, fair enough, if you feel like defining science fiction purely by its proximity to Isaac Asimov, you do you I guess.
The actual history of the genre suggests an alternate understanding than this engineer’s approach, though, one grounded in the effects of technology on our experience of the world--how we relate to time and space, and to others and ourselves within the context of particular tools. We could say more broadly that science fiction is about the way science and engineering reshape our world.
Rogue One is a film deeply interested in this question and the way it intersects with another now critical question:
How do we resist?
Rogue One is a story about characters spread across space, across a galaxy far far away, coming together to fight Space Nazis. I’m not going to do a detailed summary here, because let’s be real you’ve either seen the film or at least read about the plot by now, but in brief: this film directly proceeds Star Wars in continuity. This is the story of the rebels who stole the plans for the Death Star, making its destruction possible. The original film begins where this film ends, and Rogue One focuses on the human cost the victory won over the Empire.
The human cost specifically is… everybody. Everybody dies. It’s incredible.
This incredible narrative of success at an apocalyptic cost is matched by some truly incredible effects designed to underscore the drama of this sacrifice. There’s a moment late in the film when the rebel fleet, now with its plans in hand, is about to escape, and as the fleet is preparing to move to hyperdrive suddenly a Star Destroyer is just…
Immediately a bunch of X Wings plow into it and blow up. It’s horrifying. Part of it is horrifying for what it represents--i.e. much of the rebel fleet being effectively fucked, and damn I appreciate the way the film takes the time to show the Mon Calamari commander realizing that there’s no way he can get his people out of there safely. But the unsettling nature of this moment goes deeper than that, I think. There’s a total distortion in this moment of how we expect space and time and velocity to operate. This absolute mountainous structure is suddenly... just... there! Moving from faster-than-light to immovable-object within just a few frames.
What really stands out to me there is the way the film uses this and other effects to make tangible the strange timespace of Star Wars and how that impacts the whole dynamic of rebellion. The film constantly goes out of its way to cinematographically emphasize the sheer scope of the conflict, to emphasize that this is happening on the scope of planets, on a level that individuals find overwhelming, difficult if not impossible to process.
This is great because it allows them to blow loads of shit up in really spectacular ways. That’s kind of the blockbuster logic operating here, and it’s important to recognize that the way blowing stuff up spectacularly leads to a solid box office return is a motivating factor here.
But beyond that, there’s an emphasis on overwhelming scope that is… well, actually, come to think of it, it’s pretty reminiscent of the way the Sublime operates in Fury Road. To recap that article, I think Fury Road’s cinematography deliberately dwarfs the human characters in order to pull out a kind of environmental message, one of humans facing down an ecological disaster that is beyond them and yet of them, created by them.
In Rogue One, the Sublime, this experience of an environment that dwarfs the human, serves not as a straight environmental parable but as a way of emphasizing the frailty of individuals in the context of a vast system of war and domination. I feel like I talk a lot these days about art that is cognitively or affectively overwhelming. What can I say? I find these kinds of techniques really fascinating, whether in a context like this or in the context of weird internet counterculture. And Rogue One is a film about being overwhelmed.
One of the critiques I’ve seen of the film is that the rapid bolting from location to location and character intro to character intro in the beginning is too fast paced. I think this is quite deliberate, actually. The experience is one of constantly running out of time, being up against the clock, and I think it makes some sense that the film is edited in a way that underscores that experience, and that it’s put into this context of hopping between entire worlds. Time in Rogue One is always too short, and yet passes with nightmarish slowness; space is always too vast, and yet too easily crossable.
Oh, and speaking of space being too vast, let’s talk about the Death Star. Images of Death Star rising in the sky over a world are intimidating and powerful, and they serve to emphasize the frailty of the human characters in the face of these megastructures. In this sense, the film takes the Death Star and to an extent the star destroyers as well and uses them as a vehicle for what, in traditional models of the sublime, would be conveyed through vast landscapes.
This technological turn for the sublime is pretty important, because it reveals the way vast systems of domination can be both human and inhuman, taking that “beyond-but-because-of” thing from Mad Max a step further. The Death Star is almost an environment unto itself, humanity composing a structure that is planetary in scope. You and say “that’s no moon” but it kind of is--it’s just an artificial moon. That’s the audacity the Death Star represents, the ability to create these sublime objects. Humanity in that context is dwarfed.
There maybe is something you could say about the way Space Nazis, and real nazis, go after projects like this. As we see in actual fascism, the cults of personality fascists tend to gravitate towards result in sycophants jockeying for acclaim and power through these kinds of flashy impressive projects. Star Wars seems to take the fundamental madness of the fascist system plausibly to the scale of galaxies. Sure, the Death Star isn’t actually sound military strategy. That’s probably deliberate--the Empire is an unstable system of remarkable waste and excess, but it’s good at putting on a big show of power.
So, this sublime, vast, overwhelming technology in Rogue One has kind of a weird duality to it. There’s simultaneously an acknowledgment in the film that the Empire can be driven by petty, acquisitive megalomaniacs while also being materially a nightmare for the people it’s dominating. It is both laughably foolish and deadly serious.
Possibly my favorite scene in any Star Wars film is the bit in this movie when Krennic, overseer of the Death Star’s development, called to account to Vader for the various setbacks the project faced. Faced with the possibility of being demoted, Vader’s demand that he demonstrate the Death Star in action for the Emperor prompts Krennic to immediately, reflexively go, “...So I am still in command then?”
And it’s perfect. It’s so perfect! Because at heart he’s this conniving little weasel! He absolutely cannot help himself because it’s his nature to grasp for power.
But at the same time the actual material results of his grasping for power are horrific. This is the binary of the Empire--at once absurd in its bloated quest for power but nightmarish in its actual casual willingness to commit atrocity in the name of achieving that power. Part of the Empire’s terror is its transmogrification of petty bureaucrats into wielders of mass murder, and the way that is expressed through size and mass is the first way of understanding the way geographies beyond the human are core to the film.
If the Death Star is a kind of ecological object, though--a whole system or assemblage that has human and nonhuman parts--it is one that is vastly destructive not only in its weapon capacity but in terms of its effect on the Empire, the way its construction and destruction bring the empire to its knees. The sublime, remember, dwarfs humans, and if the Death Star is a sublime object, it dwarfs not only the Rebellion but the Emperor as well.
In this respect it parallels the vast assemblages that we see arise with the collision between industrialization, capitalism, neoliberalism and so on, and other external natural systems. The resultant systems, systems like deep ocean gyres and ozone holes and ice cap melts, are assemblages that we’re part of and in some sense responsible for creating but they are also beyond our ability to interact with as individuals, impossible for us to take in and grasp in their totality. We can take advantage of them, if we’re high on the capitalist food chain--that’s the point of disaster capitalism!--but even imperialists and disaster capitalists (inasmuch as we can draw a clear line between them) can’t really control them.
The Death Star is sort of an extension of the Emperor’s will, a tool to his hand. But Galen’s placement of a critical failure path into the system and the subsequent exploitation of that system by the Rebel Alliance demonstrates that the Death Star is actually not just an extension of will but an entity in its own right with its own behaviors (this behavior specifically being “exploding”).
The film, particularly in its wider intertextual context, has a bunch of these sorts of reversals, where technological regimes that seem to favor the highly equipped, overwhelmingly powerful Empire turn back on it instead in some way. The power of hyperspeed travel is a tool for the Empire to be sure, allowing them to suddenly materialize out of nowhere to suppress rebellion with overwhelming force, but it just as equally is a tool of that rebellion, a tool that transforms the nature of space and geography.
Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything investigates a particular geographic region that she calls “blockadia.” It is a region of the world characterized by extractivist technologies--removing materials from the earth--and by a responding kind of blockade strategy by environmentalists and people in the working class affected by the ensuing environmental catastrophes. This region might also be termed a “sacrifice zone”--a space designated an un-geography, an unplottable, invisible space that can be safely ignored by power (with the inhabitants rendered unpeople, subaltern). This process of blockading, of fighting back and bringing work to a halt, transforms the space from a sacrifice zone to something tangible again.
This geography is potentially anywhere and everywhere.
The North Dakota Sioux blockading the NDAP have turned their space into a region of blockadia. Anti-fracking activists in my native Pennsylvania have declared the coal region an outpost of blockadia. First Nations communities in Canada blocking pipelines here are rendering swaths of the country blockadia.
This is a contested territory that is not contiguous geographically, not connected to itself. Instead, it’s connected notionally through the mechanisms of global capitalism, digital communication, and trans-national megastructure projects like these pipelines which are, from a human survival perspective, our own death star. Just, you know, not to put too fine a point on it. (I was going to link that last line to an article on the catastrophic record sea ice lows this year but I couldn’t find any articles that actually explicitly talked about this as a man-made problem and after reading a piece from Nature that was talking cheerfully about how much money we were going to make from the oil and natural gas in the Arctic I was too revolted to keep looking.)
I’m fascinated by the way this idea of an unstable, noncontiguous geography appears in speculative fiction. I don’t think anyone takes it up in quite the way Rogue One does, explicitly connecting geography to resistance, but we can draw parallels to things like the way instant transportation and unplottable zones connect wizarding society in Harry Potter despite geographic distance. Fallen London and Sunless Sea, with their focus on resistance that I’ve described previously, make heavy use of these ideas, presenting a setting that is constantly changing and in the process of being forgotten, disorder in geography here used to mirror the bewildering manipulations of Space Bat Capitalism. This is also something that I’ve baked into the structure of the Twine I’m currently working on, A Host of Gentle Terrors, which is an exploration game without a consistent geography that can be backtracked across. It’s an environment that in-game I describe as “deplotted”--something that once was a mappable landscape but that has been abandoned by the forces of imperial order, left to decay into unmappability.
Rogue One takes this up by examining the way hyperspeed technology transforms all places into one place. It makes it possible to connect the unconnected. This is what we see in the scene where the star destroyers show up: suddenly the imperial fleet has gone from one place to another place. Anything can suddenly become a staging ground in the war between empire and rebellion. And crucially, any planet within this galaxy, even Imperial holdings, can become a part of their blockadia.
It’s this dramatic alteration of the nature of conflict and resistance that makes this fundamentally a science fiction film. This as science fiction is much more relevant and meaningful than something with well thought out rules for how FTL travel works, because this is expressing, through jumping one level of abstraction down from our own reality, something about the technological regime we exist within, a regime characterized by this same flattening of geographies. We can’t literally move entire battleships across vast stretches of space certainly, but the reality of blockadia means that we can close gaps between geography in ways that are meaningful.
When I attended the Women’s March a few weeks ago, I was in some sense marching with my partners despite being literally in another country from them. That interconnection, the fact that this march took place on literally every continent, and linked together geographical spaces that lately have felt insurmountable in separating me from the people I care about, feels profound and meaningful both in terms of hope and in terms of material results. We need to be able to connect across vast distances and move at light speed, because that is how the Empire operates. We need to make use of those same technologies.
Rogue One (the group I mean) is able to succeed because they are a moving target, because they jump all across the galaxy. The final battle takes place on multiple geographic fronts simultaneously in a delicate operation where any one failure would bring the whole thing down. This is something I’ve seen criticized, actually, the number of working pieces going into the success of Rogue One here. Once again I can’t really empathize with the critique. This is an over the top sequence, sure, but I think it’s also a meaningful commentary on the way resistance in this kind of post-geographic sense requires intense coordination, sacrifice, and some measure of dumb luck.
This is a kind of counter-assemblage and it’s difficult for anyone within that assemblage to make sense of the whole. Baze Malbus for example in the novelization is described as going to his death unsure if they achieved anything, unsure if the signal carrying the vital plans was broadcast in time. It’s only from the perspective we’re given of the whole field, this jumping out of the system that cinematography affords us, that distance, that allows us to see how all the individual actions link up.
Moreover, this is a film that makes sense only within the context of a wider narrative. It’s our ability to transcend the singular film and make sense of it as parter of a wider narrative that makes sense of the narrative on like… any level. Otherwise it just wouldn’t work. It’s the best star wars film [air horns blare over the audience howling in rage], but it’s able to be the best because it’s part of this shared world.
And I do, incidentally, think that the shared world aspect rather than any sort of stewardship from a central creative vision that makes this possible. Certainly Disney seems to have been utterly oblivious to the film’s actual contents. Despite everyone else involved pretty much describing this as an antifascist film, including writer CHris Weitz urging readers to “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization,” some CEO or whatever of Disney hastily proclaimed that Star Wars, a movie series that literally has “wars” in the god damn christ-sucking title, has no political content whatsoever. Everyone immediately noted that this was stupid bullshit, but there it is.
Not that the film’s ambitions always succeed, mind. Dan Hassler-Forest (so like... Fangorn?) notes multiple places where nostalgia threatens to swamp the film. I don’t necessarily agree with all his takes, but I think the danger he points out is a real one: Rogue One’s production and status as part of a wider shared universe threatens to swamp its thematic breakthroughs in “reactionary nostalgia”--something Disney is much, much more comfortable with and indeed has built its entire creativity-choking litigative behemoth, its empire if you will, upon. The film itself as a site of technologically facilitated resistance is tenuous, a range of narrative technologies that waffle back and forth between mass media spectacle and profound science fiction exploration of technology and resistance
This isn’t to imply that there’s a straightforward narrative of plucky writers defying the evil corporation--I literally don’t care enough about the production history of this film to find out whether there’s any backing to this--it’s just to point out that the odds were against this film having such a thematic throughline, and it’s interesting that it seems to be able to pursue these ideas due to the relative security of Disney’s franchise-building efforts in the wake of the MCU’s successes.
This is the kind of counter-reading that I’m more used to seeing from fanfiction, which is often another kind of shared world storytelling. A kind of counter-reading doesn’t have to be a kind of crude opposite of the original, the way Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality for example simply crudely replaces magic with “reason” (and indeed fanfiction largely shouldn’t take that approach, given that Yudkowsky mostly seems to have just invented shit whole cloth to solve problems while blaming JK Rowling for flaws entirely of his own making. But I digress). It can instead take politics that, as Hassler-Forest notes, were always embedded in the original text and drag them out from the cloud of nostalgia.
While the ending of the film could be read straight, then, I tend to read it with a sense of irony. The film’s back half is a slow process of attrition and escalating violence as the conflict just. keeps. going. We see every single character we’ve come to care about sacrifice themselves in the name of the mission. And then we see a bunch of Scarif casually blown to shit by the Death Star. And then the Rebel fleet is cornered, and we get to watch a bunch of fish people nobly resign themselves to death and where exactly else in our media landscape are you going to get THAT? And just to really top things off we have the nightmarish sequence where Darth Vader methodically and systematically slaughters a bunch of soldiers who are desperately trying to get the Death Star plans out through the Imperial blockade.
Oh and then Leia shows up to smile beatifically and say that they’ve been given hope :)
A New Hope :) :) :)
It’s just… stunning in its jarring tonal shift, in its sheer insufficiency. It reminds me of nothing so much as the herald showing up at the end of Hamlet to tell everyone that oh by the way Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, just on top of everything else. It pushes the horror and tragedy, for me at least, into something like absurdity. In this moment we’re dragged back into the vast overwhelming system that is the conflict between Empire and Rebellion, reminded that even the god’s eye view we’re given in any individual movie is still fundamentally limited.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Even if Leia’s line seems comically out of step with the gut-wrenching tragedy that is the grinding end of the film, she’s not fundamentally wrong. In the end Rogue One did succeed, racing time and warping space, seizing upon technologies of domination and turning them into technologies of resistance, in order to offer a new hope.
This reminder, that in the long view their resistance and sacrifice did mean something, even if it is not tangible to the individual players, may be one of the greatest messages that a science fiction work can offer. By affording us that long view, science fiction can make more tangible through metaphor and applicability the way technology might serve our own struggle against oppression, and assure us that outside the baffling, overwhelming, sublime systems that we find ourselves caught up in, we are still working to keep hope alive across time and space.