Star Wars has always been about black-and-white heroism in a fun fantastical universe with admittedly bad theology. In its newest installment, the bad theology is mitigated, but to a certain extent, so is the heroism.
Even from the opening moments, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t quite like the other Star Wars films. There’s no opening crawl, for one thing, and the conflict doesn’t begin on a desert planet or in a high-tension space battle, but on a small farm on a remote planet. There, Jyn watches the Empire capture her father Galen – a former Empire science officer gone rogue. Fast forward a few years, and the Rebellion wants her, because her father is now the head engineer for the most dangerous weapon the Empire has ever produced – the Death Star.
But this rebellion isn’t quite the same as the one we see in the original trilogy. In many ways, it’s a more ragtag and morally gray rebellion. Our first introduction to Cassian, the man who takes Jyn on the dangerous mission, sees him killing a would-be ally to escape from the stormtroopers, and talks of killing men in cold blood to prevent the Death Star’s construction. It’s a Rebellion that’s so cold and forceful at times that Jyn says in a particularly emotional scene, “You might as well be a stormtrooper.”
As for Jyn, well, she doesn’t have much of a dog in this fight. The Empire has only ever brought her pain, but so has the Rebellion. She just wants to ignore the fighting and get back to her real life (although we never get a very clear picture of what that actually is). But as the story unfolds, Jyn becomes convinced of the need for action, and eventually takes the helm not of a hesitant participant in the fight, but a passionate leader. Throw in a smart-alecky droid, some space fighting, and just a pinch of an absolutely terrifying Darth Vader, and you’ve got yourself a Star Wars movie.
When you approach this film is just another installment to a fun action franchise, it hits a lot of the right points. Jyn is a likeable protagonist thanks to a very solid performance by Felicity Jones. Most of the supporting characters are memorable, there are cool space sequences, and the threat of Vader and the Empire is impressive and imposing. As a story and a film, however, it has some flaws. Cassian is a very cliche character who is tonally inconsistent at moments. It also uses CGI in some cheap and distracting ways that look more like video game graphics than live-action film. The reason for this in context is a symptom of a deeper problem that the film has: forcing nostalgia into the narrative at the expense of the story.
It’s really quite surprising, then, that the philosophy of this film is a bit less problematic than that of the original Star Wars lore. As I’ve written before, Star Wars, while espousing many Christian values such as sacrifice, patience, and love, espouses a theology that is primarily deistic in nature, not theistic. In fact, it bears more similarities to Buddhism than it does Christianity. And yet, the Force is hardly mentioned in this film. Just about the only references we have are when Jyn is told to trust the Force as a child, and Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), who uses his knowledge of the Force to sense things, but cannot control it like a jedi can. In a Star Wars film that has little to do with the Jedi, the Force takes a backseat.
So what takes its place instead? Largely a rumination on the ethics (or, as the film would have us believe, lack thereof) of inaction during war. Cassian tells Jyn that, while she had chosen not to be involved in the war, “Not all of us have the luxury of that choice.” The worthiness of the cause increasingly becomes the focus of the film, as Jyn becomes more convinced of its necessity. A lot of this is due to the influence of her father, who placed a lethal flaw on the Death Star to hopefully ensure its destruction. This ultimately leads to a crescendo that’s far from the Star Wars high we’ve come to expect – yes, there is hope, as the film leads directly into the beginning of “A New Hope,” but it’s notably darker. Darth Vader, an enormous and terrifying figure in this film, still looks like he has the upper hand, even if the Empire was momentarily surprised. The ending of this story is not one that, like far too many sci-fi action flicks, shows the good guy winning over the villain by use of great sheer force. Instead, it prizes acting sacrificially for a noble end.
This theme of fighting against apathy, and doing so sacrificially, is a noble concept, even if it’s hardly new. Scripture says that the greatest love is lay down one’s life for his or her friend, and Paul in Romans 12 emphasizes living our lives as living sacrifices. But the strength of that in this film is frequently diluted by choosing nostalgia over innovation. Because it relies so heavily on A New Hope, it feels less like the film is making a particular point, so much as it is just trying to get to the starting point of the original film. That leads to some questionable narrative decisions, like an overabundance of cameos and unfortunate indulgences in computer technology.
In the end, there’s no great moral flaw in this film. The bad theology of Star Wars is not on display as much here, and the end game of the film is noble. Additionally, Darth Vader is excellent in this film, and a new knockout droid character along with a solid supporting cast make this a fun film. But it drops the ball on its most interesting theme – a more ethically suspect rebellion – and settles for a moderately interesting film that never reaches the height of filmmaking that is associated with the original trilogy, or even with The Force Awakens. It is by no means the travesty that is The Phantom Menace, but it’s hard not to feel like there are some missed opportunities here that would made the film more meaningful and more deserving of the Star Wars name.