At the Rogue One red carpet event in San Francisco late last year, director Gareth Edwards said that he remembered the ground battle sequence in The Empire Strikes Back as being longer. With Rogue One, he wanted to replicate the feeling he had watching and remembering the trench warfare seen at the Battle of Hoth. The result is a Star Wars movie thematically darker than most of the Original Trilogy, which draws from war movies like Apocalypse Now as well as from slightly different looks at the familiar Rebellion and Empire.
Although it matches them visually, Rogue One is very different from the Original Trilogy films in its attitude toward good and evil. While there isn’t much to love about the Imperial officers like Orson Krennic, we see that all isn’t right in the Rebellion, either. The resistance movement is splintered, torn between Mon Mothma’s organized Rebellion and Saw Gerrera’s more violent partisans. While Mothma wants to create a peaceful anti-Imperial movement within the Senate, many of her own people believe that her plans aren’t proactive enough. That’s where Rogue One comes in, as the squad goes after the Death Star plans when no one else would.
The movie establishes that the Rebels are willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if it makes them the lesser of two moral grays. Cassian Andor is ordered to kill Galen Erso in cold blood for Galen’s involvement in the Death Star project, and he reconsiders only after getting to know Jyn. In an interview with Blastr, Edwards said “I wanted to have a world where good people do bad things and bad people do good things.”
On the Imperial side, the defector Bodhi Rook shows us that not everyone in the Empire is bad, and so does Galen Erso himself. We don’t know a lot about Bodhi’s history, but we know that Galen talks him into defecting and taking valuable information to the Rebellion. Galen convinces Bodhi to do something better with his life. The other rebels don’t trust Bodhi at first, and one of the most dramatic instances of Saw’s cruelty is the torture he exposes Bodhi to: the Bor Gullet truth-telling creature that digs through Bodhi’s mind to find any trace of treachery. Saw’s methods are almost as cruel as the Empire’s.
Galen himself is portrayed as a good person forced by circumstance to do bad things. When he’s captured by Krennic and put to work on the Death Star, Galen considers taking his own life instead of having to work on the Empire’s planet-killing machine. However, he knows that the Death Star project will be completed whether he’s there to see it through or not. He stays in the program, creating the weakness that would eventually destroy the Death Star and sending Bodhi to tell the Rebels about the the flaw. Galen is both a hero to the Rebellion and a tool of the Empire, and the film establishes him as both.
We mostly see Galen from the perspective of Jyn, who is torn about her father. Whereas Luke Skywalker idolized his father and was horrified to find that Anakin had turned to evil, Jyn eschews the black-and-white perspective when it comes to Galen. She loves and cares about him after she receives his message, but she is also angry at him for abandoning her, and sees Saw as more of a father figure than Galen ever was. Her story isn’t one of a father who was good and then turned evil – it’s a story of a man who, like many characters in the movie, were a mix of both.
Rogue One isn’t the first Star Wars story to adopt a grayer approach. New canon books like Lost Stars and Battlefront: Twilight Company show that there are “heroes on both sides” of the war, and explore ideas like the purity of the Jedi. While Battlefront: Twilight Company adopts the premise of the Battlefront video game series of games and follows Rebel infantry, Lost Stars shows a TIE fighter pilot and a Rebel soldier who are tied to one another even if they’re on opposite sides of the war.
The idea of “heroes on both sides” originally comes from the prequels, though. Clone Wars books, games, and comics are full of stories about armies or individuals facing physical and moral horrors. The Republic Commando series and other Clone Wars-era stories follow clone troopers, with their brotherly bonds and Mandalorian heritage, where Shatterpoint interrogates the very idea of Jedi as warriors, dropping Mace Windu into the endless war on his home planet.
The prequels were particularly ripe for this type of story because of the contrast between the charisma of the clones and the horror of their creation. Palpatine had already set in motion his plan to create an Empire. Like the Rogue One team itself, we know that not all of the characters in the Clone Wars may survive the day. They are crushed up against the dawning Empire in the same way Jyn’s team will make way for the main characters of the Original Trilogy.
Although A New Hope was lighter than Rogue One, it still had dark elements, chief among them the Death Star itself, and was influenced by George Lucas’ study of real wars. StarWars.com writer Cole Horton points out that the original Star Wars was influenced by the popular culture of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as World War II itself, which ended when Lucas was very young. There has been extensive writing on how the war influenced the films, and Rogue One continues that influence. Edwards also drew inspiration from real world wars: in his case, the conflict in Vietnam.
Edwards told the Los Angeles Times that he studied footage from Vietnam, the Gulf War, and World War II to get the look he wanted for Rogue One. He added X-wings and Rebel helmets to historical photos in order to get a feel for the kind of trench warfare he wanted to see in his Star Wars movie. Edwards said that he wanted to capture an element of realism using that technique. The result is the beaches of Scarif and the indiscriminate bombing runs on Eadu. Edwards also cited Apocalypse Now as a visual influence, and studied one of George Lucas’ inspirations for the original film, The Hidden Fortress.
The tropical beaches of Scarif evoke both the Vietnam War, with their jungle setting, and the beaches of Normandy where Allied forces faced Nazi stormtroopers. It’s a fusing of both eras of war that shows the saga’s legacy of exploring real-life conflicts as morality tales.
As A New Hope drew from World War II footage, so too did Rogue One draw from real-world influences. The first standalone Star Wars film added nuance to the good versus evil story of A New Hope, making a film that is both more realistic and sometimes more difficult to watch. Rogue One is the darkness before that hope arrives, and that’s part of what makes it stand out in the history of Star Wars war stories.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.