Rewatching “Rogue One” for the first time since it was in theaters, it’s impossible not to see the movie it could have been — a dark, nuanced exploration of the central conflict of “Star Wars,” the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.
In fact, “Rogue One” has always felt like it was meant to be that exploration of the gray area between good and evil, before rewrites and reshoots turned it into more of a compendium of plot threads than one coherent story. For evidence of that, look no further than Saw Guerrera, Forest Whitaker’s character — who should have been a much, much bigger deal.
“Rogue One” spends most of its first act talking about Saw — pretty much whenever it’s not talking about Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the former Imperial defector and weapons scientist who is more responsible than anyone else for creating the Death Star.
The Rebels have it on good authority that removing Galen from the equation would halt or terminate the development of the as-yet-unknown superweapon. They think Saw has received intelligence that will tell them how to find Galen, so they can assassinate him. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is Galen’s daughter and was raised by Saw after her father was recaptured by the Empire, so the rebels send her to make contact with Saw and get info on Galen.
It’s telling that nobody wants to deal with Saw. A former rebel, he’s now created a splinter resistance group on Jedha, where the Empire is ravaging old Jedi temples for crystals to power the Death Star. He doesn’t like the rest of the rebels, and they don’t like him — we don’t know what Saw’s issue is, but it seems like the rest of the Rebel Alliance, up to this point content to operate clandestinely in small skirmishes and mostly through spies, thinks he’s too reckless and brash. And when “Rogue One” gets to Jedha, we see why.
As Jyn and Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) are wandering Jedha looking to get in touch with Saw, his guys launch a guerrilla ambush on an Imperial tank and a squad of troops. They do this in the middle of a town square occupied very obviously by civilians, including children. The battle results in some severe destruction, a destroyed building and a lot of collateral damage.
Saw isn’t running an army — he’s running an insurgency in a desert city against an occupying force. Skipping over the obvious present-day political implications, Saw’s choice of tactics is packed with gray-area morality. In his view, the ends — disrupting the Empire’s operations — justify the means, even if that includes blowing up some kids.
Spend any time watching Saw and looking at his extensive getup and you can see he was meant for more in “Rogue One.” There’s a lot about his character that’s extremely thematically and visually significant. He’s missing both legs, which have been replaced with robot parts. He can barely get around. He’s basically wearing an iron lung, and breathes occasionally from a handy mask attached to his chest.
If all this sounds familiar, it should. Because Saw Guerrera is basically Rebel Darth Vader.
Later in the movie, we get a sense of maybe why Saw split from the Rebels. Faced with Jyn’s information about a flying superweapon space station full of Imperials that can also decimate planets (or at the very least whole cities), the Rebels turn into a flailing bureaucracy. Half or more want to flee outright, disband the Alliance, and pretty much hope they don’t get cooked by a capricious Empire. The other half want to fight but don’t really have, uh … any kind of plan.
You’d almost think their amassed forces aren’t really up to the task, standing in the old temple on Yavin, the camera tracking across their collected faces.
Meanwhile, you have Saw and his band of like 30 guys spending all their time trying to disrupt Imperial activities in a single occupied city. Arguably this is an almost empty gesture given the Empire’s size and might, but they’ve been doing it anyway with at least some success, in that they’re not all dead, for long enough to become well-known. No wonder he bailed on this collective of all-talk senators.
Saw is obviously not the kind of rebel the Rebellion wants, and he probably sees his counterparts as ineffectually gesturing at opposing the Empire more than actually doing anything about it. And then we have Jyn and her team, who should be caught between these two extremes.
Watch early trailers with Saw’s voice-over asking, “What will you do when they catch you — what will you do when they break you? …What will you become?” That dialogue isn’t in the final cut of the movie, but it lends more evidence to the central idea of what “Rogue One” and Saw as a character were aiming at: This movie should have been a battle for the soul of the Rebellion.
And that’s a story “Star Wars” could really stand to tell. Stories in the franchise are all about redemption for past bad deeds. The prequel trilogy movies try to show how fear can be corrupted into evil. “Rogue One,” bridging the gap, was primed to be a story about intentions versus consequences, and about the fact that how the characters fight their war is as important as why they fight it.
Saw was the fickle, paranoid, and cruel mirror that would have helped us to understand the Rebellion, and the people in it, on a much deeper level. Like Luke Skywalker tossing away his lightsaber rather than executing Darth Vader in “Return of the Jedi,” it would have given Jyn and the rest of the rebels a way not just to oppose evil, but to actively choose good.
That story would have taught us a lot more about the Rebellion than showing us exactly how the Death Star plans ended up with Princess Leia.