originally posted in The Gryphon
The new addition to the Star Wars world, Rogue One, has painted a much darker picture than its predecessors. In doing so it has also accentuated possible existing themes related to conflict in the Middle East. The latest film goes a step further and can be seen as a damning critique not only of current events, but also of the western meddling of over a century.
The Star Wars world pitches the ‘Rebels’ against an evil ‘Empire’. If we look to history for the main causes for conflict in the Middle East, the topic of European colonialism – predominantly British – appears promptly. The empire’s leadership of course has always spoken with a British accent, although the British do seem to traditionally be evil in American films anyway. Their uniforms also without a doubt have a certain 20th century vibe; a time where the British Empire was at its strength.
The Rebel Alliance represents the resulting anger that eventually developed throughout the Middle East. Pressured by an unwelcome power from far away, each rebel is a lost soul fighting for what they or their family once knew.
Cassian Anor epitomises this resentment. A roguish character who has been embroiled in conflict since a child, he knows only war. This is the situation we now face in the Middle East. For some countries the fighting has continued for generations. A child brought up to adulthood through continuous conflict will grow to accept it as normality, no matter how tough or how much suffering and loss it inflicts.
Cassian’s speech to Jyn before the final assault of the film highlights the beliefs such a life creates. Cassian fights the good fight. He may kill and commit atrocities, but as long as he keeps telling himself that those actions are ‘good’, then he is in the right.
Here Cassian appears strikingly similar to the rebel defenders of Aleppo. On social media the defenders against Assad’s soldiers were seen to be fighting for a greater good. As the rebels broadcasted messages across the web, the sound of bullets and bombs echoed in the background. That the rebel forces in Aleppo carried out executions and launched missiles at civilians was forgotten. The world’s sadness and pity appeared directed at fighters who weren’t as harmless as they appeared online rather than the helpless civilians left within the walls of the city.
The film would have already been made by the time of the siege of Aleppo, but what is important is the similarity of how events turned out between the Star Wars galaxy and our current reality. The rebels of Aleppo were painted as something close to martyrs and the dark side of their fight has been glazed over in favour of anti-Assad sentiment. Aleppo was no doubt a horrific moment of the conflict in the Middle East, but the reluctance to engage critically towards the rebel force’s story covers up implications that a Star Wars film helps to reveal.
Jyn Erso offers a very diferent and valuable perspective. She is the daughter of a defected Imperial scientist. Her childhood holds memories of the ‘enemy’ as normal life. She learns to hate the Empire, but not before spending years resigned to a life of apathy towards its dominion.
In the modern day, Jyn resembles the western internet community; a land where a million sad smileys are sent and nothing tangible is done. She also represents the colonial era British citizen. She is passively a player and beneficiary of the Empire’s exploitation but only comes to realise its dark side (excuse the pun) after her family becomes dissident. Jyn expresses in the film that if she accepts silently her pseudo-enslavement to the Empire, then a satisfactory existence is possible. This is the life of a citizen under a despotic dictatorship; the life many will have experienced in the countries carved from the Sykes-Picot agreement.
Though true that the film could be seen more generally as a critique of colonialism and imperialism, the more direct link to the Middle East comes from the film’s imagery. The main planet essentially shares its name with the city Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Likewise the architecture and culture of the setting is synonymous with the Middle East, albeit sufficiently Sci-fi-ed.
Perhaps most importantly however is the Empire’s ground for colonising the planet. The empire is there to harvest kyber crystals, a fuel needed to power the Death Star’s planet-shattering capabilities. Fuel was the main point of contention in Middle Eastern colonialism too. The British Empire needed oil, and just like Darth Vader’s Empire, that fuel served first and foremost a military purpose: The British Navy.
British empiricism did however have its contemporary critics. Figures such as T.E Laurence and Gertrude Bell may be romanticised figures now but they were in some ways British dissenters. Galen Erso fills the roll of dissenter in Rogue One, choosing only to re-join the Empire in order to destroy it from within. This may not have been the intention of the above historical figures, but criticism of empirical action has certainly always been part of the conflict in the Middle East.
Finally remains the contentious issue of religion. There is an impossible to avoid link between European colonialism in the Middle East and Central Asia and the rise of radical Islam. In Rogue One, disregard for Jedha’s temple leads to the Monk character Chirrut Îmwe joining the fight against the empire. The message is clear: religion is not radical, but radicalised. A conquering land may claim to be able to bring peace to a people (the British claimed to do so in its justifications for owning India) but to disregard culture and belief can lead to violence.
Whether intentional or not, Rogue One gives a new perspective on the continuing conflicts in the Middle East. The most troubling element arising from a comparison between reality and the Star Wars galaxy is a question of perspective. Until Rogue One, the Star Wars series had a very clear distinction between who was good and who wasn’t. Somehow the blurring of those lines in Rogue One has highlighted the fact that the Empire is a past Europe and the Rebel alliance is a battered and bruised Middle East, tired of decades of exploitation and war. A question of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ is fruitless, but there remains a large amount of deficit responsibility in both the Star Wars galaxy and our own.