Warning: The following post has heavy-duty spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Read at your own risk.
There is plenty in Rogue One that may surprise you, but most of those surprises are predicated on your familiarity with the Star Wars franchise. Were you expecting to see Jimmy Smits reprise his role of Bail Organa from the prequel trilogy? Did you let out a laugh when you caught those two Cantina characters in the crowd? And when characters like Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia appeared looking no older than they did in A New Hope — if a little more pixilated — could you believe your eyes?
Those are all worthy shocks, but the moment that surprised me the most in Rogue One is something that felt new and wholly unexpected, something that I hadn’t seen before in a Star Wars film and frankly didn’t expect to find in this one. In a movie full of violence and blaster fights, it’s the most tender thing that happens over two hours, and since it happens between two men, it got me wondering: Has the Star Wars franchise finally introduced the gay characters that many fans have been clamoring for?
When Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze (Jiang Wen) first meet up with our heroes on the planet Jedha, there isn’t much time for backstory. Rebellious Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) find herself drawn to Chirrut, who is blind but can single her out in a crowd and sense things about her that she hasn’t divulged. Almost offhandedly, she’s told that Chirrut is a Force-aligned warrior-monk operating in an era where the Force’s reputation is on the wane; indeed, his protector Baze doesn’t seem to share those ancient beliefs, though whenever Chirrut launches into a spiel about the Force, a bemused Baze treats him like a spouse telling the umpteenth iteration of a well-worn anecdote.
I enjoyed their old-married-couple vibe, though I didn’t think much of it until a sweet little moment where Baze tells Chirrut that he doesn’t need the Force if he’s got him — something that a protective friend might say to his peer, of course, but also the kind of sentiment you’d end an interstellar Valentine’s Day note with. The real eyebrow-raiser comes much later, when our brave heroes charge into a third-act battle on the planet Scarif that claims most of the cast as casualties. In order to transmit a message to the Rebel Alliance hovering way above the planet, a heavily guarded lever must be pulled, and Chirrut is the only one courageous enough to wade into enemy fire and make that self-sacrifice. Murmuring, “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me,” Chirrut makes it to the control panel and completes the task, though a subsequent explosion knocks almost all the life out of him.
He spends his final moments in Baze’s lap, and as his friend stares down at him, devastated, Chirrut raises his hand as if to caress Baze’s cheek. It’s the simplest gesture, but it packs a potent, more-than-platonic current, and as Chirrut expires, it’s clear that Baze does not want to live in a world without this man. He charges almost suicidally into battle, firing at Stormtroopers while repeating Chirrut’s mantra over and over — finally, at the end of his life, paying tribute to his partner’s guiding philosophy — until he, too, is felled. And while there are still plenty of big moments yet to come as Rogue One completes its story and links up with the familiar opening minutes of A New Hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about that near caress and what it might mean. After the movie was over, I asked other audience members if they thought Baze and Chirrut could have been in a relationship, and I was surprised by how many people had been picking up on the same signal.
Skeptics will accuse us of reading way too much into a simple friendship and its single affectionate gesture, but studio movies often speak in code when it comes to gay characters: The essential documentary The Celluloid Closet traces those depictions back for nearly a century as it shows how movies would present gay characters with enough plausible deniability to fly over the heads of straight audiences but with plenty of signifiers that friendly gay audiences would be likely to pick up on. This past year alone, there have been several coded characters in highly expensive studio movies: Ghostbusters director Paul Feig all but confirmed that Kate McKinnon’s fan-favorite character was less than straight, while the brief sight of two women pushing a baby carriage in Finding Dory had any gay person or city dweller certain they were looking at two moms.
You would think that as the country becomes more progressive on gay issues and as gay characters appear on television with increasing frequency, blockbusters movies would be a little braver and a lot less coy. Alas, many nervous executives have used the expansion of the foreign-film marketplace to retreat to their most conservative instincts when it comes to casting actors and conceiving characters. I heard recently that when one filmmaker wanted to include an attraction between two women in a forthcoming big-budget spectacular, that notion was nixed: “China doesn’t like lesbians,” came the message from high. If any of that original intention survives all the way to the final cut, you’d better believe those female characters will speak in code.
Changing that status quo will take brave creative people with clout, and indeed, Rogue One represents a promising step in a more progressive direction: It’s the second Star Wars film in a row where the protagonist is a woman, and it’s the most racially diverse installment of the franchise yet. Still, to borrow the language from a competing space epic, canonized gay characters remain the final frontier for this franchise. When asked about his intentions for Baze and Chirrut by Yahoo Movies, Rogue One director Gareth Edwards proved just as ambiguous as his warrior-monks. “I don’t mind people reading into it,” he said with a slight smile, either inviting savvy viewers to read between the lines or, perhaps, imagining the dedicated fandom that sprung up from people pairing Poe and Finn, two male characters from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They’ll likely take to Baze and Chirrut, too, but maybe someday in this galaxy far, far away, the gay characters can be not just touted by the fans but confirmed by the filmmakers. Like Leia, I’ve got hope.