It is by now common knowledge that George Lucas sought, with Star Wars, to create a myth for the modern age. Drawing heavily upon the works of his friend and mentor Joseph Campbell, Lucas built all six of his films around the perennial motifs of mythology and religion. The so-called Monomyth, documented in Campbell’s magisterial work of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has since become a staple for screenwriters, but primarily as a structural touchstone ‐ a kind of high-brow Save the Cat. Few since Lucas have adhered to the fundamentally spiritual core of Campbell’s work. “I wanted to make [Star Wars],” Lucas told Bill Moyers, “so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.”
Rogue One, the first stand-alone effort in the Star Wars anthology, has now garnered impressive box office receipts and favorable (if tempered) reviews. This means that Kathleen Kennedy’s plan to churn out a Star Wars film every year will progress unimpeded, and we’re very likely headed toward a future in which Star Wars is no more associated with George Lucas than James Bond is with Ian Fleming. So the question presents itself: what has become of Star Wars, the myth? Does Gareth Edwards share Lucas’s spiritual preoccupations? Should he?
The answer is complicated. Many have observed that Rogue One is essentially a war film, and Edwards himself has acknowledged the influence of films like The Battle of Algiers on his approach. Indeed, Rogue One unfolds with a mixture of Algiers’s guerrilla dynamism and the ragtag nobility of a WWII picture. It’s this grounding in historical sources that, from Edwards’s perspective, lends the film its weight. “I think Star Wars, when done properly, should be timeless,” he explained to the LA Times. “People like to think of it as science fiction…but I think it’s got more in common with history and mythology.” Unlike Lucas, though, Edwards draws upon these two resources ‐ history and mythology ‐ more or less interchangeably. Both are sources of narrative and thematic heft. But the additional function of mythology ‐ the treatment of the metaphysical, the mystical, and the mysterious ‐ is left untapped.
Felicity Jones crystallized this distinction when describing how Jyn Erso differs from previous Star Wars protagonists: “She’s not a character who’s asking, ‘Who am I, and where have I come from?’ We know that about her. We know where she comes from. And that fact is what propels the story, and it’s the beginning of Jyn’s journey to find out what her reason is, and her cause.” Unlike Luke Skywalker and Rey, Jyn’s initial alienation is defined relative to political affiliation rather than cosmic origin. Suitably for our secular age, she finds redemption not through integration with a higher power but through an embrace of a terrestrial cause.
This exchange of the celestial for the earthly (of the Stars for the Wars, so to speak) typifies Edwards’s approach. When describing his aspirations for the film, he throws around the word “real” a great deal:
Gritty, verité-style cinematography from Zero Dark Thirty lenser Greig Fraser makes Rogue One feel more like newsreel footage than a lost myth from a galaxy far, far away. (Indeed, real(!) war footage from WWII and Vietnam was spliced into early cuts of the film for reference).
Realism served Edwards well for his Godzilla reboot, but Star Wars is a different beast. Its unreality is, in certain important ways, built into the fabric of its narrative. Take Darth Vader. Clad in patent black, half man, half machine, Vader is designed as a mythic villain. Set against the backdrop of a less fantastical narrative, his larger-than-life malevolence feels overwrought, even kitschy. Clearly sensing this, the filmmakers focus instead on Orson Krennic ‐ a villain whose careerist and bureaucratic motivations are human to the point of being mundane.
Unlike Vader and the computer-resurrected Grand Moff Tarkin, Krennic’s costuming does not directly telegraph his villainy. Rather, his white imperial uniform and black trousers allude to the duality in his nature. As played by Ben Mendelsohn, Krennic bears more in common with a Wall Street scoundrel than a horned demon-like Darth Maul. He is, literally, white-collar.
By bringing their villains down to earth in this way, Edwards and his screenwriters (Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz) set the stage for the film’s overall moral murkiness. Whereas Lucas rebelled against his 1970s peers by staging a Manichaean battle between good and evil, Edwards now forgoes Marvel’s black-and-white morality for the messy grey areas of modern warfare.
The ethics of Rogue One are unique and worth dwelling on. Like The Battle of Algiers, Rogue One does not shy away from the cruelty to which rebels are sometimes driven in their struggle against the empire. Cassian Andor, the rebel intelligence officer played by Diego Luna, confesses to Jyn at one point that he has “done terrible things for the rebellion.” His primary fear is that these deeds will have been in vain. If, on the other hand, the rebellion succeeds, so the implication goes, his cruelty will have been justified. The ends justify the means.
Contrast this with the ethics of the Jedi, as espoused by Yoda: “Anger, fear, aggression: the dark side of the Force are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” The preoccupation here is not with consequences or causes but character. Good and bad are not outcomes to be sought in the world but warring forces within the human spirit, parts of a common mystical whole. The ends are inseparable from the means.
This brings us to Rogue One’s most decisive point of departure from Lucas’s mythological ambitions: its treatment of the Force. More than any other element, the Force is what elevated the original Star Wars films from mere sci-fi fare into the realm of religion and mythology. The notion of a unified “ground of being,” Joseph Campbell noted, has been described by mystics and sages throughout history. “I put the Force in the movies in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people,” Lucas has said. The Force in Lucas’s films permeates everything and plays a decisive role in the characters’ lives.
In Rogue One, by contrast, the Force is invoked in more or less the way God is invoked by the secular today ‐ as a good luck charm or superstition. Chirrut Imwe, the blind warrior played by Donnie Yen, is the only character said to have any connection with the Force, but we scarcely see it working on his behalf. Rather, he repeats, “I’m one with the Force and the Force is with me” as a kind of mantra, deriving power from the comfort and courage the phrase provides. Only Vader actually wields the Force in the film, and then it is just for a nostalgic callback to the chokings in A New Hope. Even the iconic Light of the Force theme, which has found its way into all of the Star Wars films to date, is conspicuously absent from Michael Giacchino’s score.
Does any of this matter? Should Edwards be faulted for secularizing the Star Wars universe? I don’t think so. He has made a film very much of this moment, with vision and vigor to spare. There is more to Star Wars than its mythological origins, and Edwards has brought the franchise in compelling new directions. But it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Rogue One belongs in a different world, a different galaxy ‐ not so long ago, and perhaps not so far away.