A couple things up front. I’m not a Star Wars fanboy (isn’t that right Boba Fett 12" figure standing on my desk?), but I have always been into science fiction (which some claim that Star Wars is not), particularly allegorical sci-fi. I’ve only viewed Force Awakens once. I considered seeing it a second time as research for this post, but I wanted to keep this to my first impressions. That said I did subsequently watch the prequel trilogy again despite its seeming lack of consequence to the recent J.J. Abrams reboot. I was moved to do so because it seems that much of what is so satisfying to the fan base is that there are practically no references to the prequels in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You don’t have to be a hardcore Star Wars fan to know that the prequel films were an enormous disappointment to much of the original trilogy’s fan base.
Not familiar with the chronology of the seven films (go ahead and skip this whole paragraph if you are)? Star Wars, released in 1977, is now referred to as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The following two films The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V) and Return of the Jedi (Episode VI) complete what is commonly referred to as “the original trilogy.” Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is released sixteen years after the original trilogy in 1999, followed by Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. These three films chronicling the origin of Darth Vader and the events leading to the rise of the Galactic Empire are commonly referred to as “the prequels.” The new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh in the series and takes place approximately 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi.
Ok – so let’s get started, as all Star Wars films do, with the opening crawl:
Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.
With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.
Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke's whereabouts....
The first thing I notice here is that the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion of the original trilogy have been replaced by the First Order and the Resistance respectively.
As a child watching Star Wars for the first time, I don’t think I was particular familiar with the term empire, but I had heard of rebellion in the context of the Revolutionary War in grade school social studies class. Seeing this group of Rebels rise up against an oppressive Empire was a pretty formative moment for me. While I wasn’t quite sure how the fighting had begun, it was pretty evident that the Empire were some bad guys. They had built a weapon that was capable of destroying whole planets, and they used it to destroy Princess Leia’s home world just to demonstrate its power. Now these Rebels on the other hand, they appeared to be quite the ragtag bunch, barely able to keep it together. Watching their tiny Rebel ship completely outclassed by the enormous Star Destroyer in the opening sequence, stormtroopers utterly overwhelming the Rebel soldiers as they board the ship, Darth Vader strangling the Rebel commander with his iron grip – clearly some desperate times. The opening crawl told me there was a civil war, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I knew that there had been a civil war in the United States, between the North and the South, but it didn’t occur to me that this implied the Empire and the Rebels had once been united in some fashion. And I certainly couldn’t conceive of the stormtroopers evolving from the existing army of that united body. More on that later.
Years later I would hear the term “empire” used in all kinds of contexts from historical colonization, to Reagan’s cold war, to recent wars for oil. And while I may have come to understand that there was more to empire than “evil,” the underlying meaning was there. And of course the antidote to empire? Well that would be rebellion – pretty radical politics for a Saturday matinee serial writ large.
So what do we get from the Force Awakens crawl? The First Order is sinister, instead of Evil (with a capital E). Well maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s more of a shade of gray, yes? And maybe that provides us with a more workable starting point if a galaxy far far away is going to work its shit out ultimately – balance the Force and all that good stuff.
But what is this First Order’s objective? Well they want to find that last Jedi and destroy him! Darth Vader was hot to get Luke on board with the Dark Side so they could rule the Empire together. This First Order doesn’t seem to have any subjects at all, only troops. I couldn’t help but wonder after watching General Hux’s rousing speech to his troops, does an army made up entirely of captured children “raised to do one thing” (– Finn) really need a pep rally to get them to raise their fists (raised fists – really? Power to the people.)? Perhaps they just needed a little extra encouragement. When the time comes to test the new mega Death Star, the Order obliterates five planets all at once. I get that they are incapacitating their enemy in a single stroke, but without the prequel provided context of a Republic consisting of thousands of worlds, doesn’t this sequence play out as a mass execution of all the people they could potentially rule? So if not Imperial rule, what exactly is their motivation? We’re not given much to go on beyond some dialogue establishing General Hux and Kylo Ren’s obsession with order and power. Or maybe it’s all just about grandaddy’s melted helmet.
And what of the Resistance? Depicted as the bastard child of the Republic, they are a sort of independent special ops counter to the threat of the First Order. But if the Republic is still the ruling body of the galaxy, then isn’t the First Order also a resistance? Or perhaps this word is reserved only for the good guys? Empire and Rebellion meant something to me as a child watching Star Wars and they were concepts that I could reference later in life, I wonder how the less explicit First Order and Resistance will resonate with a new generation of Star Wars fans. It took three films to destroy democracy (the prequels), and three more to restore freedom (the original trilogy). I’m not sure when they lost it, but I look forward to finding out how they go about “restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.”
I can still clearly recall hearing the theater audience cheer when the 2nd Death Star was destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi. I remember being deeply disturbed by this – hundreds of thousands (over half a million crew on the Death Star itself) killed in a war that was set up as the inevitable clash between the light and dark sides of the Force. What is the take away here as we wander back into the same conflict for a new generation?
The second thing that stood out to me: a stormtrooper with a conscience?
Kylo Ren gives an order to slaughter a group of villagers and a single stormtrooper, FN-2187, disobeys this order. The character appears to be in shock, his helmet marked with the crimson hand print of a fallen comrade. When the order is given he stands perfectly still while other troopers massacre the remaining villagers. We don’t know what is going through his head, is he consciously disobeying the order or is he simply not able to comply? It’s an important moment because in six films we have never seen a stormtrooper (or clone trooper) disobey orders. What is it that keeps him from killing the villagers? Revulsion? Compassion?
Later in the story this same character, now called Finn, tries to convince new found friend Rey to forsake the coming battle and head for the outer rim of the galaxy. Maz Kanata, this iteration’s new wise sage character (a reboot Yoda if you will) tells Finn “I am looking at the eyes of a man who wants to run.” Is this solely about self preservation? How does this square with the earlier scene where Finn disobeys orders? Is he risking his own safety in that scene? Is he being portrayed as a coward? Afraid to kill the villagers, but also too afraid to fight back? And how about now – perhaps Finn is just lacking faith that the Resistance can actually defeat the First Order? Or perhaps he is just trying to keep Rey safe? “You don't know a thing about me, what I’ve seen… we all need to run.” I am intrigued, not because Finn seems to be taking some sort of principled stand against the war, but because he is questioning it at all. Everyone else on the scene seems willing, ready and able to do what must be done.
The third thing I notice watching Force Awakens is possibly the most challenging to address: the narrative surrounding Rey.
Long before the movie was released Star Wars fans were well aware of the new female lead character Rey. Watching the trailers it became fairly obvious that she was essentially the new Luke, which of course implied that she would also become a Jedi. George Lucas has said on many occasions that the Star Wars saga (the six films together) is the story of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the dark side and his redemption through his son Luke, but for those of us who grew up watching the original trilogy, the central character is of course Luke Skywalker.
Rey is presented to us as a prodigy, exceptionally good at everything that she does, often to her own surprise (she even speaks Wookiee). This is similar to the way Luke or Anakin are depicted in the previous films, but there is an essential difference in these narratives. Both Luke and Anakin are introduced to the Force through a master, whereas Rey begins using the Force with apparently no training at all. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with having a character discover her power on her own, and it does help the writers avoid a potential patriarchal pitfall having her learn from a male master; it does, however, create some narrative questions for me that I think may prove problematic. Is Rey infallible? Does she, can she, make mistakes/bad decisions?
Again I come back to the moment in Maz Kanata’s castle/cantina when Rey effectively joins the Resistance. What is her motivation here? What is the context of her decision? In the previous films it is the dialogue between master and apprentice/padawan that has provided us with this context. But with that missing here it appears that Rey is essentially going along with the decision that Han Solo has already made for himself. Perhaps this is to show us the implicit trust that she has for Han, but it provides us little insight into Rey’s character when she is making perhaps her most important decision in the film. This may not be an issue for original trilogy fans (who have been there with Han through thick and thin, carbonite and all), but how does this play to a new generation who will be inspired by Rey? Does it allow them to understand why Rey is willing to go to war? Practically two weeks to the day before the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens United States Department of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced the decision to open all combat jobs in the United States military to women.
Star Wars is quite literally filled with characters that go to war at the drop of a hat (it is, after all, called Star WARS), so why does this bother me? Well I think it is primarily because George Lucas has intentionally built a great deal of complexity into his grand myth. He has claimed repeatedly that he made Star Wars primarily with children in mind, going as far as to categorize it as a kind of mythmaking experiment to see how it might affect a generation of youth. With that in mind I have to wonder what, if any, mythmaking J.J. Abrams is engaged in with Force Awakens.
Star Wars warns again and again of the potential downside when good people are stirred to action through emotional response. This is of course central to our understanding of The Force as presented in Lucas’ films. Yoda’s explains to Luke:
Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
Yoda famously clarifies this in The Phantom Menace:
Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.
But then maybe I am reading too much into this. Perhaps this isn’t lazy writing, basing the motivations of new characters almost entirely on the motivations of past characters. Perhaps it is the Force itself that is guiding Rey in her actions.
This brings me to my fourth point: is Star Wars at its essence about one really dysfunctional “royal” family whose problems cost the lives of millions throughout the galaxy?
Wasn’t there something along the way about seeking balance in the force? Why is everyone so hell bent on killing one another? Watching the original trilogy as a child the war seemed unavoidable. Dropped into the middle of it, it felt as reasonable, and vindicating, as a kid fighting back against a schoolyard bully – the quintessential David and Goliath story. But rewatching the prequels recently it became more apparent to me that the wars began as a distraction, a conflict methodically engineered to consolidate power in the hands of the Emperor (Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious).
The clone army of the Republic, activated through emergency powers granted to the Supreme Chancellor (Palpatine at the time) to battle the secessionists (whose leadership was actually a cabal of corporatists, bankers and weapons manufacturers in cahoots with Palpatine), would become the Galactic Empire’s stormtroopers. As a child I was completely unaware that the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars was effectively fighting their own army.
This type of conflict narrative manipulation is common throughout the prequels. Queen Amidala, Luke and Leia’s mother, is manipulated by Palpatine (who is a Senator from her planet Naboo at the time) into calling for a vote of no confidence directed at the serving Chancellor, clearing the way for Palpatine to become Chancellor. He does this by creating a crisis on Naboo in which their citizens are under attack and then claiming that the serving Chancellor is beholden to those who are involved in the attack. Anakin Skywalker is also manipulated by Palpatine, claiming that only the dark side of the Force can save his wife (Padmé Amidala) from dying while giving birth, a fate Anakin has foreseen in nightmares. And of course we all know that Vader and Luke are eventually able to work through their conflict, but does this really count as a balancing of the Force or just a rejection of the dark side?
After watching the trailer for the J.J Abrams reboot, I commented to my partner that it looked like the new characters in the film were essentially fanboys (and fangirl in the case of Rey of course), in absolute awe of the heroes we have seen in the past films. Pretty clever in terms of drawing in an audience full of fans that have grown up watching Star Wars, allowing them to vicariously participate through the on screen awe/adoration of these new characters, but how does it play to a younger audience? There is something disturbing about a narrative honoring and celebrating the heroes of the war while simultaneously excising the political machinations that led to the war. What are they fighting for? Does it matter any more?
Related posts on The Missing Point:
CONFLICT NARRATIVES AND THEIR POWER TO INFLUENCE
Are we courageous enough to face the why?
VISIONS OF PEACE?
SHUT IT DOWN II
Related Star Wars articles:
Corruption, Exploitation, and Decay: The Politics of Star Wars
The Empty Politics of ‘Star Wars’
Why Star Wars is a political Force to be reckoned with
In ‘Star Wars,’ politics is always personal
The Personal and the Political in “Star Wars”
Why I don’t care about the new Star Wars film
The Politics Behind the Original “Star Wars”