Among other firsts for a Star Wars film, Rogue One is notable for dragging the warfare of the franchise into the modern age. Where battles in Revenge of the Sith hearken back to D-Day and Vietnam and The Force Awakens boasts the massive WWII-inspired dog fights that where a staple of the original trilogy, Rogue One looks to more recent combat for its conflicts.
The most immediately recognizable example is Jedha, the desert planet of pilgrims being ransacked for its natural resource, kyber crystals, that stands in for an occupied Middle East. The imagery of an Imperial Hovertank creeping through the city while its armed chaperones survey a crowd that is just as likely to be disinterested as it is to be volatile evokes the likes of Hurt Locker, or Call Duty: Modern Warfare. It’s arguably the most directly analogous battlefield we’ve seen in the Star Wars franchise and it’s one that demands thoughtful, nuanced consideration of the parties involved and what they represent.
The planet Eadu sees a similarly contemporary depiction of warfare. As a fleet of X-Wings sweeps down onto the planet I initially found myself disappointed that there were no interior shots of cockpits housing goofy aliens and mustaches. We never see the faces of the pilots flying on Eadu. Instead, we see the equivalent of a drone strike in a galaxy far, far away. The X-Wings here are more sinister, more distinctly weapons, than ever before, as they are faceless and voiceless. There’s no Red Five of Gold Leader on Eadu, just machines descending from the sky, lasers blazing down on anything in the kill box.
Finally, Rogue One is centered on a data leak. Plans and blueprints have always been a part of Star Wars’ third acts, from the original film to Return of the Jedi to The Force Awakens, but here more than ever before there is a focus on the pursuit and distribution of classified information. If anything, the prospect of a data leak has only become more timely since the film was released less than six months ago. Espionage and the accusation of enemy information if hardly a child of the new millennium, but what is ultimately achieved in Rogue One is a data leak that, coupled with the other more modernized combat operations in the film, feels utterly of the moment.
Waging a war that looks more like the headlines of the day, Rogue One presents a certain analogical fluidity. The Empire is violently occupying a resource-rich desert. The Rebellion is conducting scorched earth air strikes, complete with collateral damage and questionable casualties. Its easy to look back on the original 1977 Star Wars and correlate the Empire to Nazis, or a colonial regime, but seeing the questionable military tactics of the day represented on both sides of the conflict in Rogue One begs the question, in 2017 who are the Rebels and who is the Empire?