Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but Government is Set on Snooze
Almost forty years after its 1977 premiere, Star Wars is still in a period of Civil War.
It’s not really a spoiler when the introduction tells you up front, but all is not well with the Rebel Alliance. It seems the New Republic has turned out as incompetent as the old one, leaving an opening for Angry Young Delinquents with parental issues to wreck havoc. Leia Organa, formerly of the Imperial Senate, employs the lessons of the past and goes underground. The enemy this time is the “First Order,” which, if film historians go back to Episode I, is actually a fourth governmental body by chronology or maybe a Second Reich in terms of ideology. But whatever the number, all of these states have failed within the life span of two generations of Skywalkers. No wonder Leia organizes a new, “brave RESISTANCE” to restore “peace and justice to the galaxy.”
Sort of. As the scrawl tells us, Organa’s group is not actually a REBELLION. It is founded, supported, and funded by the status quo, namely, the Republic she helped to establish. This clandestine group freedom fighters may seem like a tremendous waste of resources. After all, the Republic supposedly already has an impressive fleet and would certainly score good public relations points by openly showing the galaxy what it can and should do when the Bad Guys start wiping out entire planets. Why doesn’t the Republic swoop in with everything it has and put an end to Darth Vader-lite and his stooges?
The answer: Leia and her screenwriters know better than rely on the Republic. The far greater threat is not from Kylo Ren and his shadowy boss, but the collective anger of the American public. The movie makes sure that the audiences’ wrath will not awaken and doom this trilogy in the same manner that plagued Leia’s mom. As a new hope for this franchise, Episode VII purposefully remakes the original movie but in order to do so, it must turn the Rebel Alliance into underdogs again. In a larger cultural context, this distinction is crucial: the Republic is not Big Government. The Alliance is not Big Brother. And in battling the Nazified neo-Imperials (British-accented, but multi-ethnic gang of human men and women), the Resistance becomes Team USA.
Defining Real American Heroes
In American culture, the “underdog” as a form of hero worship has roots in the beginning: in 1620, the pilgrims beat the odds and established a colony; a century-and-a-half later, a small band of patriotic rebels created a country that would rise into the greatest superpower the modern world has known. But in doing so, the United States has been accused of suffering from old cronyism: in the post-Watergate environment, the “Establishment” has come to mean a faceless organization that assimilates idealists into “politicians,” with all the pejoratives that term carries.
Today, the implications of Big Government and Big-Brotherism fill the political airwaves. The charges are rife: Big Government leads to socialism; the downfall of civil liberties, especially the Second Amendment; turns industrious workers into lazy welfare queens; and has no place in the “American Way” where little Horatio Algers make good by starting out as underdogs on the bottom. Thanks to government meddling, public education is broken. National healthcare is bad by nature. Government spies are everywhere, ready to lock you up or blow up your house. In the current 2016 election, that many voters rally around candidates who proudly insist they are not “insiders” speaks to the large social disgust with government in general. The proliferation of self-styled militia groups and antigovernment activists in recent years reflects the social climate of those who feel disempowered and disillusioned with the status quo. At the extreme end, ISIS and similar states have profited by offering terror—striking back at the corrupt, capitalist western imperialist governments—as an attractive, grassroots alternative to people who feel they’ve been left behind by the system.
The merits behind the pros and cons concerning Big Government aren’t really the point for Episode VII. Big Government is already a self-defeating entity. For Lucasfilm, the explosive debate itself over government and individualism can, sadly, overshadow anything Industrial Light and Magic can conjure up. The pitfalls of political intrigue certainly have the potential to deflate Star Wars. After all, the “Republic” was one of the chief complaints about George Lucas’s prequels. Among the other criticisms surrounding an over-CGI’d environment, stilted acting, and large plot holes, were the overwrought dilemmas over politics. Much of the storyline became bogged down by scenes of talking heads rambling on about trade disputes, taxation, and parliamentary procedures. While George Lucas intended his trilogy to address then-contemporary issues about the post-9/11 contentions between civil liberties and national security, audiences were less interested in the moral qualms spewing out of Queen/Senator Amidala in almost every scene she appeared in. For all of Palpatine’s faults, the future emperor was able to demonstrate that the Republic—Big Government in general—was bloated, inefficient, and unable to get anything done. In contrast, despite the horrors unleashed on the galaxy, the Empire was able to not only able to marshal all its resources to construct a Death Star, but to build another while Luke and company worried over Han Solo in carbonite.
Of course, the Death Star—in spite of its techno-nerd coolness—demonstrated why liberty lovers cannot depend on government at all. In three episodes, the Old Republic did little except create a Clone Army to usher in its own demise. In the second/original trilogy, the Empire’s goal of annihilating those it is supposed to protect tapped into the popular mentality that the little guy can’t fight, or trust, City Hall. As a result, Episode VII’s New Republic quickly disappears from the film entirely. By funding the guerrilla-esque Resistance, the Republic overrides its own cumbersome legal due processes and legitimatizes itself by its own absence. J.J. Abrams and crew wrote out the legislative branch, even if by doing so killed off the fan-based “Expanded Universe” that had twenty years of continuity. For Star Wars fans, the Expanded Universe had crafted the post-Rebellion era as an heir to the Empire, complete with Senate wrangling and political mumbo-jumbo that would overwhelm audiences. While the die-hard Star Warrior might have mourn over Kylo Ren replacing Jacen Solo on the silver screen, the more general moviegoer would no doubt prefer the action-oriented X-Wing dog-fighting than complex legal maneuverings over Mon Mothma’s successors. Such legislative nightmares had bogged down the prequels, and had no place in a war among the stars.
As a result, the movie removes all traces of Big Government from messing up fan expectations. “Princess” Leia never became a queen, presiding over court like her mom did. Instead, she is now an underground general of a group of rag-tag scoundrels. The Resistance is a self-styled militia, complete with underground bunkers and outgunned/outmanned heroes, fighting against the New Order. General Organa is on her own and the fans prefer it that way: no calls for help (the Republic’s much-discussed “fleet” does nothing) and no evacuation, not even when the First Order defies scientific principles and blows up several planets. Han Solo is once again a loner, no longer leading a band of cuddly Ewoks as we saw him last. The new kids, Finn and Rey, are scavengers and on the run—both are figures disenchanted and disenfranchised from their respective governments. As for Luke Skywalker, he, too, has exiled himself to a meager existence of creating walking trails on deserted islands that lead to no where.
In reviving the Rebels, the movie positions the First Order as the “Other”: a larger (F)orce to be contended with. While fans root for the American underdogs, they will likewise revile in distaste with the First Order, which has risen “from the ashes of the Empire.” The picture’s big rally—with choreography straight out of Triumph of the Will—reinforces the corrupt nature that comes along with Big Government. The Resistance’s rebels maintain their use of nature and organic greens—both of which reflect their general’s surname. By contrast, the cold, dark look of the First Order is embodied by the bad guys, Solo Jr. and General Hux, the latter’s trenchcoat and hate-filled diatribe suitable for a Nuremberg newsreel, complete with stormtroopers “heiling” on cue. The Republic must die, he screams, the Resistance is futile. In the Star Wars universe, the Republic and the New/First Order are the only forms of rule there are: the former, an ineffective bureaucracy and the latter a fascist militarized order that conscripts kids and give them serial numbers for identities. While the First Order is actually a rebellion itself, presenting Hux as the underdog would undermine the film’s tone. As a result, the bad guys have Star Destroyers whereas the Resistance has a small reconnaissance vessel. The First Order maintains an army of which their numbers make up for their poor marksmanship, and, of course, has a super weapon, which, as a comparison shows, dwarfs the pathetic Death Star. And what does Leia rely on in the final battle? Three outsiders flying a piece of garbage.
“You have that power, too,” Luke Skywalker intones in the trailer for Episode VII. While this blurb doesn’t make it into the film, his words do invite audiences to join him in the Force. Not the Republic. Not the dull workings of statecraft that have driven the entire cast into forms of self-exile. Luke’s sentence has a bigger punch than his silent performance: the trailer directly ties movie fans from planet Earth into the picture’s themes. Likewise, Google’s “which side are you on” marketing campaign, shown on the big screen and on gmail logins, asks fans to enlist in either the light or dark side by appealing to individual emotions, and not the governments they stand for. No one is signing up for the Republic or the First Order. After all, would anyone really ally themselves with the unappealing General Hux and the whiny Kylo Ren? And this anti-government reflection bleeds into other “universes”: at the Universal Studios multiplex where I saw Episode VII, advance trailers advertised Marvel’s upcoming Captain America flick (entitled “Civil War”) and Sony’s Independence Day sequel. Despite the patriotism implied in the titles, neither picture centers on American history but they no doubt play upon the anti-Establishment kick which those names suggest. Cap battles the government for freedom! The government can’t do squat against alien invaders who (re)target the White House! On television, the X-Files are prepping for another spin of the same old shtick: Big Brother is out to get you. Trust no one.
Leia Organa understood this angst. Rather than lead a Republic that can publicly show a galaxy the good it can do, she prefers to use its resources to fund an underground movement to battle another Evil Empire—even if the positions are actually reverse. In doing so, she can severe ties with the stigma of Big Government and all the while score points with scoundrels and aging fanboys who have harbored their own teenage restlessness forty years after her mission to find Ben Kenobi failed. In retreading Star Wars, Episode VII not only reawakens a larger cultural force of the underdog, but also uses the same motifs to continually find new hopes to continue this star-war. Having gone around the block, all parties are content for another go. And, thusly, this circle will never be complete.