What genre does Star Wars belong to? Obviously science-fiction (sci-fi), right? Casual Star Wars fans and people who have never seen the movies would agree. Space, lasers, faster-than-light travel all standard sci-fi tropes, so Star Wars equals sci-fi, correct?
Wrong. Star Wars is epic-fantasy at its grandest. Think more Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and less Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Wars stories are built on strong fantastical narrative elements like magic (the force), mythical weapons (light sabres), order of knights (the jedis), giant monsters, strange creatures, a hero’s journey, a princess in peril, an evil empire, a prophecy, the chosen one and many more.
Even if one chooses to disregard all these arguments, comments of the creator of the multi-billion dollar franchise George Lucas should drive the point home. In a discussion at the Sundance Film Festival last year Lucas had said, “Star Wars really isn’t a science-fiction film; it’s a fantasy film and a space opera.”
And since its inception, narrative laced in epic-fantasy has been the franchise’s safe space. Through all the good (the original trilogy), the safe (Episode-VII) and the terrible (the prequels) fantasy storytelling has remained the constant. But the rule book has been torn.
‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is not a fantasy film. Rogue One is not a space opera. Rogue One though is still very much Star Wars, it also happens to be the boldest film in the franchise since the 1980 release, Empire Strikes Back.
With Rogue One, a spin-off (or ‘Anthology Film’ as Disney calls it) not being part of the main episodic stories director Gareth Edwards has the freedom to go genre hopping. Rogue One is a film that is distinctly two parts; the short first act is subtle homage to old Westerns while the second and third acts have a very strong war-film vibe.
With the Skywalkers mostly out the picture, the film introduces the members of the ‘Rebellion’ as a rag-tag group of guerillas fighting in the lawless planet of Jeddah. Freeing prisoners, assassinating people, destroying property; there is a distinct lack of empathy among rebel forces for their actions. The imperial forces are even more ruthless, willing to kill anyone and destroy cities to retain or strengthen their authority. The red desert planet of Jeddah is the wild, wild west.
At the end of the first-act, Rogue One the war-film begins to take shape. The Empire as always is not so subtly is depicted as a Nazi-style occupying force. This time with prisoner labour camps, hundreds of uniformed troopers, scores of battle stations, a weapon of mass-destruction and scheming commanders.
At first tiny group of rebels, with more heart than brains, begin to band together for a suicide mission to help neutralize the Empire’s super weapon. The effort eventually snowballs into a full scale war mission by the rebel alliance.
War film tropes, they are all there, the sneaking into the enemy base, the ‘Saving Private Ryan’ style beach battles, warplane dogfights in space, heroic sacrifices and a copious amount of death.
What makes Rogue One unique though is the narrative is driven by protagonists who are - in the larger scheme of things - common foot soldiers. The Star Wars movies have always revolved around heroic Jedi Knight and evil Sith Lords with the power to bend planets to their will. Rogue One is about the little guy, the one whose blaster fire is used to be a wonky sound effect in the background at best.
Rogue One strips away the mythical powers, the political wrangling, the magical weapons and titular heroes. In doing so director Gareth Edwards probably tells the most human of all Star Wars stories.