Renée E. Skidmore Professor Sexton English 580-B02 (Heroes’ Journeys) 21 July 2017
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) tells the story of the Rebel Alliance’s desperate attempt to steal the Imperial Empire’s plans for the Death Star, a massive weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. Although it is the eighth movie in the Star Wars franchise, the story takes place between Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), which concludes with Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, and Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), which follows Luke Skywalker’s journey into becoming a Jedi many years later. While the story takes place within the Star Wars universe and timeline, Rogue One is distinctly different because of its focus on the Rebel Alliance’s efforts to prevent the Imperial Empire’s expansion in the absence of the Jedi—the few that survived the Evil Emperor’s rise to power have gone into hiding.
As Rogue One begins, the audience is introduced to the tragic origins of the female hero, Jyn Erso, which will (eventually) lead to her crucial role in the Rebel Alliance’s mission. In this opening scene, Jyn’s mother is killed and her father, a skilled engineer whose mastery is needed to construct a weapon of mass destruction, is captured by Orson Krennic, a Lieutenant Commander in the Imperial Empire’s army with aspirations for power. The scene ends with the orphaned young Jyn’s rescue by Saw Gerrera, who has agreed to be her guardian and protector—the audience learns later that he abandons her in an attempt to protect her from being captured by Imperial forces.
From there the story skips ahead fifteen years where the audience is shown a young woman, Jyn, first being held in an Imperial cell, and later as she is transported to a labor camp. In the meantime, the audience learns that an Imperial cargo pilot has defected from the Empire to bring a message to Saw Gerrera, a former member of the Rebel Alliance who has been cast out because of his extremism, about a destructive new weapon being built by the Empire—a “planet killer” (the Death Star). Having learned of the defected pilot and the message he carries, the Rebel Alliance rescues Jyn, who has been using a false identity, from her captivity and seduces her into helping them retrieve both the message and the location of her father from Gerrera in exchange for her freedom and a possible reunion with her father—the audience knows that Cassian Andor, the leader of the mission, has orders to kill her father on sight.
Of course, all of these initial pieces of the narrative make it easy to trace Jyn’s progression through the stages of Campbell’s monomyth throughout the rest of the film; however, her journey also follows the American monomyth outlined by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence. By looking at Jyn’s journey through the lens of Jewett and Lawrence’s American monomyth rather than through Campbell’s traditional monomyth, the importance of the film to the larger Star Wars narrative (beyond merely filling in an unaddressed plot development) and its alignment to American ideals become evident.
In order to better understand the importance of the film to the larger Star Wars narrative, one needs to take a step back from the opening scene that draws them in to Jyn’s Campbellian journey and consider the broader narrative that leads to her becoming an orphan in the first place. During the first three films in the full Star Wars narrative, the peace of the universe is disrupted by a series of attacks on planetary communities which eventually culminates in a universal war and the rise of Darth Sidious, an evil leader who takes control of the Galactic Senate, and nearly destroys the Jedi Order, in order to become the supreme leader of the galaxy. Although the disruption here occurs on a far greater scale than the “small community of hard-working farmers and townspeople living in harmony” (169) described in Jewett and Lawrence’s American monomyth, it does start in one (on the planet of Naboo) before it spreads to the universe. Furthermore, the alliance (aka the Rebellion Alliance) formed by the more peaceful leaders of the (Old) Galactic Republic in the hope of destroying the evil Empire and re-establishing order and democracy is undeniably American.
By understanding the important role this larger narrative plays in the film, one is able to realize Jyn’s function as an American hero, particularly the role of the “disinterested outsider” (Jewett & Lawrence 179) depicted in cowboy Westerns. After her rescue from Imperial captivity, Jyn is brought to Alliance headquarters where she is reminded of her criminal activity and her father’s significant role in the Empire. Jyn’s initial response to these statements is one of indifference. As the leaders explain that her help is needed to assist the Rebellion, which includes the possibility of reuniting with her father, she remains unmoved. Instead, it is the promise of freedom that convinces her to help the Alliance.
Jyn’s “otherness” continues as she embarks on the mission when she and her new companions, Captain Andor and K-2SO, openly express their distrust of one another despite the dangers ahead. Her disinterest in “the cause” of the Rebellion is further established when she successfully completes her mission to help Andor gain access to Gerrera. After revealing her intentions to Gerrera and stating, “I’m out now. The rest of you can do what you want.” Gerrera, whose belief in “the cause” has led him to extreme measures, is stunned by her apathy and asks, “You care not about the cause?” Jyn’s statements that the Alliance and its Rebellion cause have done nothing but “bring [her] pain” and that the possibility of an Imperial flag flying above her head is “not a problem, if you don’t look up” sadden Gerrera and seem to complete her role as the “disinterested outsider.”
However, when Gerrera plays the message that Jyn’s father sent, she learns that it was not merely intended for Gerrera or the Alliance, but for her. Her father’s message and the despair of some new companions who joined Jyn, Andor, and K-2SO as they fled the outskirts of Jedha during its destruction awaken Jyn’s interest in “the cause” (“the right”) and her sympathy for the people affected by the Empire’s destruction (“the underdog”).
As the group set off to Eadu, Andor sends a communication to the Rebel Commander about the destruction of Jedha and the location of the mission’s target, Jyn’s father. Unable to fathom a weapon powerful enough to destroy a city as large as Jedha, the Rebel commander instructs Andor to “stick to the plan” to kill Jyn’s father in the hope of preventing him from completing the Empire’s weapon. In the meantime, Jyn’s interest in “the cause” grows as she attempts to raise the hopes of her companions by sharing with them her father’s message. While the rest of the group believes her, Andor is reluctant to believe Jyn’s story that her father only helped the Empire build the Death Star so that he could plant a weakness in its structure. Furthermore, he refuses to relay a message to the Alliance about the supposed plans’ whereabouts without the actual message from her father to prove her statements.
Unfortunately, Jyn’s mission to rescue her father and bring him back to the Alliance fails, not because of Andor’s alternate plans (he actually decides not to take the fatal shot), but because Krennic has traced the leak of information back to the base. Additionally, the loss of communication between Andor and the Alliance causes the Rebel commander to send a fighter squadron to Eadu to wipe out the base. Ultimately, the success or failure of the opposing missions, Jyn’s to save her father and Andor’s to kill him, do not really matter because the Empire’s Death Star is already complete and operational. Still, the Rebel commander’s impulsive decision to blow-up the Imperial base is a failure for the Rebel cause as it will certainly result in retaliation.
By the time Jyn and the others return to Alliance headquarters, the strength of the Rebel Council is beginning to falter. Discouraged by the Rebel forces’ failed attempts to prevent the Empire from completing their weapon, the Rebellion commander’s impulsive act, and the Alliance’s lack of resources to withstand a long-term battle, many leaders in the Rebel Council are reluctant to engage in the inevitable war against the Empire. As a result, the discussion quickly turns to scattering the fleet and disbanding the Alliance. Still, the stronger leaders remain true to the cause. As the bickering continues, it becomes evident that the faltering government is not going to come to an agreement and the people are going to suffer as a result. Thus, the circumstances are set for Jyn to rise as the “unofficial redeemer […] whose zeal for the right and sympathy for the underdog [will] triumph over evil” (Jewett & Lawrence 179).
Having taken-up the Rebellion’s “cause” as her own after witnessing the destructive capabilities of the Death Star first-hand, including the loss of her father (both in the past and present), Jyn tries desperately to convince the council of the truth behind her father’s message. Worried about acting based on hearsay rather than proof, one leader reminds the group of Jyn’s “otherness” when he asks whether or not they should risk everything “based on […] the testimony of a criminal and the dying words of her father, an Imperial scientist.”
Another leader, who is more worried about the truth behind the message, asks, “If the Imperial Empire has this kind of power, what chance do we have?” To which Jyn passionately replies, “What chance do we have? The question is what choice? Run, hide, plead for mercy, scatter your forces… You give way to an enemy this evil, with this much power, and you condemn the galaxy to an eternity of submission.” As the forces gathered around the room murmur in agreement, it appears as though Jyn has convinced them to take action. However, the room quickly quiets as one leader points out that Jyn is asking the Council to “invade a military installation based on nothing but hope” to which she retorts, “Rebellions are built on hope.” Despite the agreement of many in the room, the more cautious senators are not moved by Jyn statements and the Chief of State must conclude that “without the full support of the Council” they cannot send their forces on a mission to retrieve the plans. Still, hope remains.
While Jyn’s words have failed to convince the leaders of the Rebellion, they have empowered the Rebellion fighters who were listening but did not have a say. Because of this, a rebellion of its own forms, where “the unknown cowboy […] and those that follow […] provide the only viable defense” (Jewett & Lawrence 180). In this manner, Jyn’s place as an American hero is established. Her leadership and the band of rebels who willingly follow her are not only seen in the fictional stories of the Wild West, but also the real stories of American history. Her ability to encourage a few to stand for the interest of all in the face of a common enemy, even when the odds seem stacked against them, is reflective of the leaders who fought to establish this country.
Within the larger Star Wars narrative, Jyn’s leadership proves the real strength of the Rebellion forces and the common man/being, particularly in the absence of the Jedi (superheroes). Additionally, Jyn’s ability to successfully transmit the plans for the Death Star from the Imperial base on planet Scarif to a ship awaiting in space sets up the epic saga that follows. At the end of the film, Jyn and Andor are seen embracing (not kissing) as they are overtaken by a destructive blast from the Death Star; ironically, reminiscent of a sunset.