Faithful Viewer Opinion

Why the new ‘Star Wars’ movie could use some moral clarity

Actor Donnie Yen, center, plays Chirrut Îmwe in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm

(RNS) The headline in Time Magazine referred to “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” as “efficient and gray.”

The Huffington Post kicked it up a notch claiming, “(t)he entire film is about gray areas.”

“Screen Rant” explained that “Rogue One” is the most “real” of the “Star Wars” movies “because of morally grey areas.”

Director Gareth Edwards definitely had moral ambiguity in mind when making the film. The narrative behind his creative choices is, for many, so obviously true that it hardly needs mentioning. It goes something like this:

Those who came before us were naive and simplistic people. They believed in good and evil, light and dark. But today we are sophisticated. We have nuance. Instead of invoking stark concepts that give us easy answers, we have grown more comfortable living in the gray. Unlike those who went before us, we don’t mind moral ambiguity.

Edwards uses this narrative when naming the development of “Star Wars”:

“When they first made ‘Star Wars’ in the ’70s,” said Edwards, “the world maybe felt a bit simpler.” But “with the internet and global connection,” he said, “we know deep down that it’s not as simple as that.”

Maybe.

Or maybe movies and TV shows are being created with morally gray ideas and characters because that’s what makes entertainment companies money. From “Breaking Bad” to “House of Cards” to “Iron Man,” audiences love characters for their good and evil.

And though we like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated than folks from “the ’70s,” in truth this fascination with grayness and ambiguity can be found in the literary works of most societies. From Greek drama to Shakespeare to Mark Twain, the protagonists of the classics often have multiple layers and levels of moral complexity and ambiguity.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm

George Lucas’ “Star Wars” is no exception.

He builds his main story arc around the moral complexity and ambiguity of Anakin Skywalker, his turn to Darth Vader, and the belief of Anakin’s wife and child that there is still redemptive good in him.

Han Solo is a shady hero who also drives the film while displaying substantial moral ambiguities. Lando Calrissian is in a similar gray zone, going from Judas at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back” to Rebel Alliance general in “Return of the Jedi.” Perhaps the most heroic Jedi of them all, Obi-Wan Kenobi, misleads Luke about his father and refuses to tell him that Princess Leia is his sister. The Rebels kill millions of innocent workers when they destroy the second Death Star battle station.

But while we might be interested in morally gray people, often the very evaluations that pronounce them such require clear moral judgments about actions. Indeed, some actions require the very simple judgments of “light side = good” and “dark side = bad” of George Lucas’ original trilogy.

Spoiler alert: In “Rogue One,” the first scene with Cassian Andor — who drives much of the film’s action as a Rebel intelligence officer — sees him murder one of his informants in cold blood. It is a disturbing look at his character, and it stains him throughout the film. We know he is a cold-blooded murderer, and though he does mostly good things in the rest of the film, he can never fully be “a good guy.”

But judging Cassian’s moral ambiguity as a character requires our rejecting moral ambiguity about his action: intentionally killing the innocent. There is no circumstance that justifies such a horrific act, just as there is no circumstance that justifies genocide, torture or slavery.

The original “Star Wars” trilogy was at pains to condemn all of these actions: the genocide of the people of Alderaan by the first Death Star, the torture of Han by Vader in Cloud City, and the enslavement of Leia by Jabba the Hutt.

So, if “Rogue One” is a story about morally complex characters, it falls within a well-established literary tradition. If, however, the message of the film goes beyond this to overturning previously black/white judgments about certain actions (like killing), then that is something new. And it is very bad.

At a time when war crimes in Aleppo are calling out for clear moral condemnation from the world community, we need to be holding onto our black and white, unambiguous moral judgments with all our strength.

Edwards acknowledged that Lucas’ goal in making “Star Wars” was to provide “a life lesson for kids.”

We live in a culture obsessed with the gray of moral relativism. In light of these considerations, “Star Wars” has a moral responsibility to live up to its longtime charge of teaching children that, while people often have various levels of ambiguity, the same cannot be said of certain gravely evil actions that should be always and everywhere condemned.

Reject the dark side. Follow the light. No exceptions.

(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University and contributor to “The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy: You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned“) 

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

About the author

Charles C. Camosy

11 Comments

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  • The proponents of absolutes in motality are usually christians who hold the bible as the basis. This is a joke. The human race got its start from incest and a reboot via incest after the flood. God instructed the Israelites on several occasions to kill every man, woman and child when conquering Israel. Abraham lied twice when he identified his wife as his sister. Lot offered his virgin daughters to the perverts in Sodom. God allowed polygamy in Israel. If an Israelite raped a virgin he had to marry her. Slavery was ok in both the OT and the NT. Girls reaching puberty were available as brides. If someone murdered a family member you could kill him for revenge. God defines absolute morality? There are very few absolutes in morality and much gray. That is why it’s the subject of so much theater and literature. I grew up in the era of black and white, the good guys wore white hats and the villains wore black. Then came Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry.

  • The last people I would ask for moral clarity are hyper Catholics like camosy. Mass murder as family entertainment? Please.

    That being said, not one single star Wars movie ever has suffered from having moral clarity. The third movie was one of the worst in that regards. But none of them have it.

  • When we deal with the moral tragedy of abortion on demand, then our society will have currency to actually have something to say about the ethical behavior of other cultures. Until that day, all we do is justify our own selfishness while judging the actions of others.

  • Just saw the movie today, and I don’t recognize it in what you’ve written here. You’ve taken what someone else said about the characters and applied it to the entire movie. Yes, the principle characters are more interesting and believable due to their moral textures, with a plurality of moral opinion among the characters actually serving to emphasize the moral gravity of their common cause. To my mind, this is a vast improvement over the heavy-handed moral dichotomy of light v. dark presented in the earlier films, and is more consistent with how humans actually relate to each other in moral terms. I hope you see it.

  • Mr. Camosy is notorious for misrepresenting facts and making hamhanded and obviously sectarian skewed arguments concerning morality.

  • “At a time when war crimes in Aleppo are calling out for clear moral condemnation from the world community, we need to be holding onto our black and white, unambiguous moral judgments
    with all our strength.”

    The people with the most obvious sense of moral clarity in the Syrian Civil war are ISIS. They believe their actions are sanctioned by God himself. Therefore anything they do to anyone is good. Their victims are agents of evil. Such is the nature of religious morality.

  • I’m not sure he recognizes morality to begin with. As I say below, mass murder as family entertainment presents a few issues to me. Fake moral dilemmas based upon fake morality, as when the emperor tells luke that anger is bad, thrill me even less.

  • “At a time when war crimes in Aleppo”

    From the link:

    “Syrian activists say air strikes resumed over rebel-held territory, where at least 50,000 civilians remain. The UN said raids by the Syrian government and its allies on an area “packed with civilians” most likely violates international law.”

    Hmmm. Reminds me what my Great Uncle said about his experiences in Dresden when the “light side” did rain down fiery death upon a city packed with war refugees. That’s why I think I don’t mind a morally grey story. The narratives people build up that their side was unequivocally the “light side” allows them to ignore or downplay horrible crimes their side has perpetuated.

    Even in Aleppo, ~no one~ seems to care when the “light side” of America or its allies bombs civilian-heavy parts of Aleppo. When “dark side” Russia does it?? Then suddenly “we need to be holding onto our black and white, unambiguous moral judgments with all our strength.” It’s ~never~ the actions that are weighed as dark or light, it’s always the ~actors~.

    It seems like the modern sense of “black and white” (as well as the senses of the past) is ~not~ on what actions are taken but on ~who~ is taking them. Russians and Syrians can commit the same war crimes as Americans, but only the Russians and Syrians are worthy being known as the “dark side”.

    My great uncle said he once asked a military leader why the Royal Air Force’s bombing of Dresden hadn’t been considered a “war crime”. As he tells it, the answer he got was “because we won.” The RAF was the “light side” and thus their actions were completely unquestioned.

    Media showing the “light side” committing war crimes and atrocities?? I doubt this will happen, but maybe it will snap people out of the mentality that forbids them from recognizing American war crimes in Aleppo or British war crimes in Dresden.

  • “””Instead of invoking stark concepts that give us easy answers, we have
    grown more comfortable living in the gray”””

    Standard Evangelical trope. But “No!” we are not “more comfortable living there”. It is that it is where most of us live – period. And perhaps we prefer not to pretend that isn’t so.

    “”””Unlike those who went before
    us, we don’t mind moral ambiguity.”””

    Did you see the movie? We “mind” it plenty; but that does not make it go away. And wishing so will not make clear black-n-white options appear.

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