Bread and Circuses? Why Movies Like Rogue One Make a Difference

The latest Rogue One trailer has arrived, with all the pomp and circumstance one would expect. With the rest of reality going completely bananas, it comes amid questions we wouldn’t have considered just a few months ago. Specifically, how can we watch the Rebel Alliance fight the Empire when the real world is scarier than ever? Why should we put trivial distractions out into pop culture – bread and circuses for the 21st Century – when it’s clear we have more important things to worry about?

The problem with that thinking comes by labeling Star Wars – or the MCU or any other pop-culture touchstone – as trivial in the first place. They are straightforward, yes. Popular and easily accessible, certainly. The kids sure dig them. But we confuse that for trivial at our peril. Some of it is nostalgia, of course, and the worry that we could slip too far into it if we’re not careful (The point behind South Park’s brilliant Member Berries gag is well taken.) But that’s also a little dismissive. It’s not just nostalgia.

There are pressures out there that we grapple with every day, and lately, they’ve come at us from some very scary directions. “Am I going to lose the house?” “Are my kids gonna be safe?” “Are we really going to put that lunatic in the White House?” Those fears grind away at us, as individuals and as a culture, and fighting back means more than just turning off the news for a bit. We need to do more than rest. We need to believe we can face whatever the hell is waiting for us at the start of each day.

And suddenly, like a miracle, there’s Star Wars. Or the MCU. Or any one of a half dozen commercial properties that hold our collective attention rapt.  They lay down the Hero’s Journey for us, and remind us why that template is so important. It always appears just when we need it the most – when the world quite literally goes bugfuck insane – and it can connect us to our ability to solve our problems with uncanny strength. (Whether we use that ability is another story, but no one can deny its presence.)

Consider how excited this trailer made people in your social circles. Race, creed, gender, politics… it doesn’t matter. Everyone gets excited by something this big, and that unity remains a powerful thing in an era of unprecedented division. It speaks to common cause, which we desperately need, and it reminds us that we’re not alone.

More importantly, it shows us who we can be. Besides entertainment and escape, movies like this act as a spiritual armory: a place to get your bearings, take a breath and remind yourself that you can rise to the occasion. Evil empires and rampaging supervillains are just a sexier form of more mundane fears, fears that are no less potent for their ordinary nature.

So we watch. And we remind ourselves that even the scariest obstacle can be overcome. The mortgage can get paid this month. We can get the kids to soccer practice in time to make the dentist’s appointment. We can find a better place to live, we can afford to replace that failing muffler, we can put a little aside for a rainy day, we can help our family stay sane and talking to each other. That midterm isn’t so scary. That job interview might be easier than it seems. That painting you’ve been working on really looks good. That cute boy/girl might be worth talking to. And that narcissistic fucker who just won the election? He may have awakened a sleeping giant.

Those issues make up what it means to live a life. And we need ways to face them head-on, especially in hard times with the whiff of madness in the air. There’s no better place to find that strength than the movies. There’s no better way to get recharged, look this terrifying world in the eye, and tell ourselves that we got this. The universe will supply horrors aplenty; none can doubt that in these dark days. We need only decide how we deal with them. Sometimes, that means hearing a well-told story delivered at just the right time.

And if we’re really, really lucky, that story will have spaceships.

Rogue One opens on December 16.


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