“Rogue One”‘s Moral Dilemma

I’m not a skilled film critic–let’s start with that caveat. Those who are paid to do it have been viewing and reviewing movies far longer than I have. Usually, I’m just one of the billions who views, takes in and mulls what he’s seen.

For those who haven’t seen it, I would definitely recommend “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” But with precautions (for one, it’s quite dark). Star Wars fans (come on, who isn’t?) will love this bridge story which is more precursor to Episode 4 than anything. It tells a ton of story (somewhat erratically) and hints at much more. There’s no mind-blowing a-ha moment for the central quest (the rebels’ theft of the all-important Death Star plans) but it’s still very enjoyable to see how it’s done.

Those who aren’t fans and haven’t seen Episode 4 will be hopelessly lost. There’s a million enjoyable characters and ships flying at you, and you won’t know why troubled-punk-next-door Jyn is after something so badly (the Death Star plans, via her father) and why they’re so damned important. Until the Death Star shows up to do its thing.

I will say, of all the Star Wars films (and virtually any science-fiction movie) “Rogue One” does the best at actually presenting the true scale of these machines. It starts with the sinister image of a Star Destroyer (2 miles long?) dwarfing a mountain-plateau city below. Director Gareth Edwards and company must’ve intended for the film’s “different” style–the Star Destroyer, when called, lumbers off at a realistic, ominous pace (instead of just zipping into hyperspace). When the Texas-sized (?) Death Star moves into position (in footage eerily reminiscent of a NASA satellite over one of our own celestial bodies) it helps us remember just how big planets really are. In the climax, a so-called Hammerhead Corvette cruiser plows into a colossal Star Destroyer. For me, the visuals alone will be worth watching again and again.

The Death Star coming to pay a visit in "Rogue One"

But, back to that Death Star and the central plot of the movie. I recently read a thriller that was filled with so many twists and turns, you weren’t sure where the seed of the whole dark adventure actually started–or who the chief villain was. Stories (and their villains) often boil down to one-sentence summaries. A lot of times, these are the best kinds of tales. There’s no overly-complicated amorphous blob of evil making the story unnecessarily contrived. In the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, Blackbeard sublimely confronts the clergyman who’s trying to convert him. “I’m just a bad man,” he says. It’s simple and direct, and doesn’t make you despise him any less.

I bring this up because “Rogue One” presents audiences with a quiet but crucial moral dilemma. The plot revolves around securing the Death Star plans, via the heroine’s father, Galen Erso. The film opens with Erso, a scientist/engineer, being re-acquired by the evil Director Crennick in order to complete the battle station. Key to the station is the super laser which is powered by Khyber (sp?) crystals. Erso, obviously, completes his work. A cool sequence in the film shows the finishing dish put on the super laser, and then its awesome destructive power is demonstrated.

From the story, we don’t know much about Galen Erso, except that he hates the Empire and, after losing his wife, hopes his daughter (heroine Jyn Erso) can eventually complete his work: The destruction of the Death Star. As chief designer/engineer (at least of critical systems like the reactor core and super laser) it is Erso’s “fatal flaw” which leads to the station’s ka-blammo via Luke Skywalker in Episode 4. So it seems a bit dodgy, since he built the thing in the first place.

And here’s the moral dilemma: Would you, in his shoes, carry on with the work at all?

Now, he works for the Galactic Empire, mind you. This is not some DARPA project developing a new sonar system. We have to assume that Erso knew exactly what the super-laser was for (a ginormous plate of enchiladas, obviously) and that the motivations behind creating such a thing were not benevolent. Also, we know the Empire could’ve threatened him (torture and death, the usual). Since they’re not above gunning down wives or innocent planet-wide populations, Erso must’ve figured things wouldn’t end with a gold watch and a nice pension plan. And the whole idea of tracking down and executing lots of un-involved people…really not much of coercive tactic since that what Crennick and company planned to do anyway.

On the flip side, there’s Erso’s argument (compelling as it is, on the screen) that he only finished the work so that the weakness could be built in. What now?

The Death Star–without getting into nittie-gritties–is essentially an armed space station built around a massive reactor. Pretty much the way any vehicle or floating installation works these days. Our modern aircraft carriers and submarines (and other naval vessels) rely on nuclear reactors for juice. Kind of hard to move 10 million tons of metal with oars and a whip, I guess.

We know from various mishaps (both natural and via human error) that these reactors are touchy pieces of machinery. They don’t like foreign objects at all. That whole sabotage thing actually works (and that was originally carried out against relatively simple gears and cogs of centuries past). So no reactor in the world is going to tolerate a couple proton torpedoes introduced at high velocity. Boom, chain reaction, no more fancy reactor. The fatal flaw in Erso’s design–a la Episode 4’s heroics–is a small thermal exhaust port. For J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smaug the dragon, it was a natural problem–one scale missing from his soft side. For the real life Titanic, it was a combination of human arrogance and the system of water-tight doors. Dare I say that no human-made machine or vehicle is indestructible. But while we, the audience, buy into Erso’s motivation, it does beg the question: If someone somehow could find another way to destroy the Death Star (or merely put it out of commission for a while) was his noble plan really that necessary?

The closest equivalent we have is the Manhattan Project, which gave us nuclear weapons (undeniably evil) in the latter stages of a desperate worldwide armed conflict. The scientists behind it knew their creation wasn’t going to feed the homeless or cure leukemia. It was a bomb (capable of far worse than anyone truly understood). However, it was wartime. Easy for us in “peacetime” to debate the merits of such acts.

In “Endgame” and its sequels, heroine June Vereeth is a sharpshooter. It is wartime (albeit under different circumstances and in alien environs). Though she doesn’t enjoy her job, per se, she also doesn’t have the “luxury” of questioning it. From what I’ve ready, everything a sniper does comes down to the decision to pull that trigger. That pesky kill-or-be-killed quandary.

For fellow writers, here’s the question: Your hero has a gun to his/her head and is threatened (with all kinds of penalties). Do they still choose to abet evil?

 

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