Until Rogue One, it was all about dichotomies in Star Wars — Dark side versus Light side, Jedi versus Sith, good versus evil. But the saga’s first standalone movie is at it’s best when it complicates that cut and dry understanding of the titular galactic conflict at hand.
Before this it’s always been fairly simple. The bad guys — the Sith, the Empire, the First Order — are most obviously bad because they’re the powerful despots who wear space Nazi uniforms. The good guys — the Jedi, the Rebellion, the Resistance — are obviously good because they’re the scrappy outfit trying to stand up to the bullies with the planet-destroying battle station. You know what side you’re on before Rogue One — that is until you see the Rebels for what they really are: an unprepared and disparate group of freethinking functionaries that bicker at the drop of a hat.
To quote the most powerful Jedi under three feet tall, Yoda once said, “You must unlearn what you have learned,” especially when it comes to the morality of the Rebel Alliance.
There Are Extremist Factions
The most fascinating hiccup of Rebel righteousness is Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who resolutely embodies the rogue part of Rogue One. Too extreme even for the revolutionaries of Star Wars, Gerrera is the type of guy who will do some seriously dark shit completely independent of Mon Mothma’s control if it means the Empire loses. He definitely complicates the idea of a benevolent Rebel Alliance because he and his group of militant fanatics on Jedha are the equivalent of Star Wars terrorists. Saw represents the idea that not everyone is on board with the gung ho mentality seen in A New Hope.
There Are Dissident Soldiers
You know you’re going to get a very different version of escapist Star Wars warfare when the character who is the ostensible male lead of the movie, Cassian Andor, is introduced in a scene where he murders an informant in cold blood. It adds an even more stinging reality to Andor’s later line of dialogue in the movie where he tells Jyn Erso, “We’ve all done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion.”
Though we’ve seen people die for the Rebel cause before, Rogue One the first time that we see the true personal cost of fighting against the Empire. But it’s this kind of personal stake — we also learn Cassian has been fighting since he was six years old — that drives him to violate orders so Jyn and his rogue Rebel squad can confront the Empire on Scarif by themselves. As long as this kind of breach of protocol works its completely justified.
There Are Rogue Generals Within the Rebellion
The shady morality goes all the way up the chain of command to the generals as well. Cassian basically gets his orders from General Draven, the dude who also gives the initial spiel about her father and his relation to the Death Star plans to Jyn. Before Cassian and Jyn listen to him and Mon Mothma’s suggestion to fly off to Jedha to follow the trail to Galen, starting with Saw Gerrera, Draven gives the long-serving Rebel officer the seemingly impulsive order to kill Galen by any means necessary.
Fortunately for Cassian, he doesn’t have to kill Galen, a Rebel X-wing squadron does it for him, and unfortunately for Jyn she has to watch her dad get offed by alleged friendly fire. Draven obviously thought he was doing the right thing until he wasn’t.
They Are Frustratingly Political
Jyns most rousing moment in Rogue One — including her “Rebellions are built on hope” speech around in the boardroom scene on Yavin 4 — is gloriously shot down in the most anticlimactic way. She makes an incredible case for the Rebels to use their resources to attack Scarif, but the senatorial leaders of the Rebel Alliance give her a collective “Thanks, but no thanks.” They can’t trust the word of a thief. It’s a wonderful little subversion of a scene that other movies in the saga — A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens — have used to power their climactic battles. In Rogue One, it’s the bureaucratic squabbling that gives Jyn, Cassian, and their ragtag group enough of a charge to get stuff done.
Mon Mothma and the rest of the group’s leadership long for the rational days of the Galactic Republic where representatives of thousands of star systems meet on Coruscant for discourse. Through Jyn’s rebelliousness in the middle of a rebellion, Mon Mothma learns that a kind of irrational self-determination might just be the craziest but most effective way to defeat the Empire.