***Spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story follow.
There are countless reviews of Gareth Edwards’ first of the Star Wars anthology films, all variations on comparing it to this Episode or that; but its solitary focus makes for a tale set apart. As the lost piece of an intricate puzzle, Rogue One satisfyingly presses into its rightful place in the series’ universe. Filling in that blank space might never have seemed necessary, but, once you’ve seen it, there’s no denying the richness added. Like a secret ingredient playing up all the other flavors, suddenly, nothing is the same without it.
Courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the smallest of steps forward changes entire worlds. Rogue One is a portrait of unsung heroes, their story hidden in the vast spaces between stars. The timely tale of quiet rebellion, hope against reason and logic, and an overwhelming and powerful enemy lingers long past the final credits rolling, alongside thrilling visions of battles and the faces of unflinching warriors. We are barely introduced to its core characters, never know them well and, for some critics, that feels like a failing. But for me, the film’s perfection is in our understanding of the nature and spirit of their revolution. In any war, there are untold sacrifices and it may be years or decades before — if ever — we hear their stories. For every small decision by each brave soul, for this fearful walk through enemy fire or that jump across an impossible chasm, the tiniest bit of hope might be the only thing gained. Like a batch of undiscovered letters and photos from a time long past, Rogue One settles into the void we hadn’t known existed until we combed through its bits and in that vein lies another great reward.
After a second viewing (as compelling as the first time around), it is more than the heartwarming sacrifices, the battles and fine performances that stay with me. A powerful difference manifests in this story’s lead, and it isn’t only her gender. Whether Jyn Erso was first conceived in John Knoll’s story idea and written as such (by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy), or whether it was a conscious decision made by Edwards and Felicity Jones, the way this character is portrayed imparts an unexpected reward. I can’t recall having seen a movie where the lead actress is able to play her role in such an utterly genderless manner. From the moment we meet Jones’ adult Jyn, she exists as the (traditionally male) protagonist with none of the usual perceived female, shall we call them, adjustments. She is never feminized, neither in dress nor manner. Most of Jyn’s life she’s had to take care of herself and, as Saw Gerrera explains to Erso, when he left her at only 16 she was already the best soldier he had. Offered a mission that would benefit her, Jyn takes that mission and, with assigned cohorts, completes it and is preparing to take off alone when she gets word of Galen’s message. She immediately understands the importance of her father’s information, takes it to the Rebel Alliance and, despite their lack of support, decides she must go after the data files herself. The ragtag group she meets along the way pledges itself to helping her. No one questions her leadership or ability; in fact, no one so much as mentions her gender in other than a passing pronoun. That mightn’t be something you immediately notice, but if you take a moment to think about how often women in charge are publicly and privately challenged, its significance speaks volumes. Erso doesn’t ask for their help or wear revealing clothes; never bats an eyelash or shares that knowing look indicating a sexy scene to come somewhere down the line. Heck, even our most iconic movie heroines — Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Wonder Woman — couldn’t escape make-up or some kind of revealing attire; in Rogue One, we see Jyn only in uniform. Despite filmdom’s best female characters’ strength, capabilities, intelligence and independence, there is usually some dude at least trying to step in and “help” her (See: The Force Awakens‘ Rey who, whether she needs a hand or not, has Finn at the ready). Not this time, fellas.
Jyn Erso is simply a badass soldier. She is matter-of-fact; decisive; falls into her role as leader naturally; is fearless in the face of physical perils. Quickly jumping across a huge chasm to get to the Death Star data file (before Cassian), and into the line of fire to rescue a child (with no implied maternal slant), Erso consistently leads the way, or does what she has to do alone. The moments Jyn is truly emotional are in reacting to her father (a person of any gender would have behaved similarly and gotten the same quick coaxing from their buddy to leave the fallen man behind) and at the very end, when she and Cassian both realize and together, face their fate. There is no inexplicable last-minute kiss or drummed-up romantic encounter; they are simply two soldiers bonded by their mission. The beauty of this character, of the way Felicity Jones is — by whatever forces — able to play Jyn Erso may seem so very simple, but at this particular point in history, it is a masterful stroke.
Amid fantastic battle sequences in space and on-planet are multiple diverse standouts: Diego Luna’s Andor, Donnie Yen’s unforgettable and brilliant fighter, Chirrut, and his partner, Wen Jiang’s Maze, provide Jyn with incredibly engaging and poignant mission backup. Mads Mikkelsen and Ben Mendelsohn make the most of their respective flawed hero and villain moments, as does Riz Ahmed’s alternately brave and terrified Bohdi, and Alan Tudyk’s hilarious altereDroid, K2SO. Were nitpicking necessity, I’d lean toward the wasting of Forest Whitaker’s talents on a throwaway character and Vader’s oddly slight physicality, but all that fades in the wonderfully executed cameo of a once and future general. Rogue One and its heroes leave us filled with hope in our hearts for rebellions old and new, that we might face our own battles with such courage and conviction. We are one with the Force; the Force is with us.