As our prayers go out to Carrie Fisher, the dark urgency of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” only escalates with each passing day. It’s a transporting fluke — one of those rare movies that hits theaters with a timing that’s nearly karmic. Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” to name one other example, came out two months after the Oct. 19, 1987, stock-market crash, and it seemed to channel all the greed and house-of-cards financial chicanery that caused the crash to happen. But, of course, the film was shot many months before the market plunged. Stone, with his conspiratorial feelers, had tapped into something hovering in the zeitgeist. “Rogue One” has its finger on the pulse in a comparable way — and that’s a real surprise, since the “Star Wars” films, apart from a few throwaway knocks on President George W. Bush, have never existed inside the arena of topicality. Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, claims that there are “no political statements” in “Rogue One.” The funny thing is, I believe him entirely. “Rogue One” wasn’t designed to be intensely political. It just turned out that way.
The “Star Wars” universe has long been a narcotic alternative to the real world. When the original George Lucas film came out in May 1977, it was several years after Watergate, and Richard Nixon was still so demonized (oh, for the days when he looked like the Antichrist!) that any reference to Nixon in a movie inevitably provoked hisses and boos from the audience — the same response that ritually greeted Darth Vader. But I don’t remember anyone ever suggesting that Darth Vader was some sort of Nixonian power figure, and no one ever tried to link Luke Skywalker and his fellow Rebels to the spirit of the counterculture. To do so would have seemed insane, since “Star Wars” was a one-movie counter-counterculture, rooted in the mystical shiny new Force of technology. The film created its own cosmic hermetic sci-fi zap-o-sphere, and that was the thrill of it all. That’s what made it the ultimate escape.
To say that “Rogue One” is the best “Star Wars” film since “The Empire Strikes Back” is to acknowledge, on the one hand, that the bar has been set rather low. Yes, the new movie is superior to the top-heavy but slipshod “Return of the Jedi,” it’s better than the three digitally overcooked yet joyless prequels — and, to my mind, it’s a more exciting movie than “The Force Awakens,” because that film, enjoyable as it was, wore its commercial imperatives on its fighter-jock sleeve (it had to relaunch the series and restore its credibility), whereas “Rogue One” is a less programmed, more organic entertainment. It doesn’t have the burden of being an installment. It’s a rough-and-ready combat adventure crossed with a heist film, and the fact that its tone is new — more grit and grime; a spunky cynical heroine, played by the vibrantly alert-to-every-threat Felicity Jones, whose gender doesn’t need to be showcased, it’s just there — brings it closer to the spirit of the first film.
The movie’s one true note of revelation is its explosive topicality, which feels both accidental and inevitable. The relevance wasn’t planned — and if it had been, “Rogue One” would probably be just another didactic liberal message movie. (A rumor fueled by Donald Trump supporters, that the film was rewritten to include anti-Trump sentiments, has turned out to be totally false.) Yet part of the power of “Rogue One” is that as you watch it, the fight against the Empire expresses something in the air, something beyond itself.
I acknowledge: As part of the 53 percent of the electorate who didn’t vote for Donald Trump, it’s easy enough for me to say that the Empire, with its top-down authoritarian menace, equals what the gathering Trump administration is starting to look like. But my real point isn’t about facile fascism. It’s about how the ragtag, hanging-by-a-thread spirit of the Rebel Alliance connects, to an astonishing degree, with the dazed and confused mood that anti-Trump voters now find themselves in. The true subject of “Rogue One” is what it takes to get up and fight, just when you’re starting to be convinced that all hope is lost. Right now, more Democratic voters than you can count feel that way. We feel like our government has been taken over by a figure who got voted in because his supporters wanted, with some legitimacy, to see him “drain the swamp” — and instead, here’s a man who is already rattling the American nuclear saber (and talking about making it bigger and longer), as if it were his own personal Death Star.
For a lot of people, it’s impossible to watch “Rogue One” without thinking of that parallel. The Death Star, the weapon that incarnates the spirit of the Empire, has a power of annihilation that in “Rogue One” — far more than in “Star Wars” — plays off the imagery of nuclear detonation. The movie isn’t about trade policy or racism (though the multi-ethnic cast, led by the Mexican-born Diego Luna’s utilitarian cool as Cassian Andor, makes its own statement). The explicit metaphorical upshot of “Rogue One” is that people who dream of wiping things out with nuclear weapons have to be stopped. They need to be defeated. And Trump is already flirting with becoming that person. You can just imagine his Twitter review of “Rogue One”: “The new Stars Wars movie is junk. A dying franchise. Will someone bring back Harrison Ford — I am tired of these rebel wimps. Boring!”
The emotional power of “Rogue One” lies in how Jones’ Jyn Erso finds the faith to fight her way through to the other side of hopelessness. A great many adventure movies are structured that way — the heroes are up against it, it’s darkest before the dawn, etc. — but in “Rogue One,” the sense that the Rebels don’t have nearly as much power as the Empire, with its coiffed bureaucrats of death, is palpable. The Empire has the will, and the weaponry. But the Rebel Alliance has a spiritual belief: that those who attempt to rule by controlling everything are destined to see their dominion spin out of control. There will always be a weak point, like the one implanted in the Death Star.
It’s galvanizing to see a message this politically primal embedded in a “Star Wars” movie, since there’s always been something passive about “Star Wars” culture. It’s the quintessence of sit-back, drop-your-jaw, munch-your-popcorn, let-special-effects-do-the-work-for-you fantasy. In fact, you could make a case that the political environment in which we now find ourselves, where fake news is as influential as real news, and where you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint where Donald Trump’s fantasies leave off and his policies begin, was brought to you, in part, by the paradigm shift in pop culture ignited 40 years ago by “Star Wars.”
The galactically ginormous success of “Star Wars” gave rise, over time, to the preeminence of fantasy culture. And while I don’t want to serve up an overly tidy cause-and-effect equation, it seems naïve to imagine that the new, fake-news America has no connection to our all-fantasy-all-the-time movie culture. On a mass scale, we no longer want (or expect) reality at the movies. That makes it easier to stop wanting — or expecting — reality in other places. Put another way: How many of the people who voted for Donald Trump really care if he’s a fantasy-based or even fraudulent politician? He’s an exciting character. That’s what matters. Maybe that’s why “Rogue One” packs a political punch. The movie speaks to its audience in the language of fantasy, and that has a special power when the leadership it’s commenting on threatens to leave reality-based thinking in the dustbin of history.