Tuesday, December 29, 2015
How The Force Awakens Is a Politically Reversed Remake of the Original Star Wars Trilogy, and What That Means for the Progress — or Regress — of American Ideology
Everybody knows the story of Star Wars. Even if you haven't seen the original three movies made between 1977 and 1983, you will recognize their structure. As every modern review of them loves to point out, they are a close adaptation of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth (aka The Hero's Journey), and as such their story of a young boy answering the call to adventure is a familiar one to audiences of any age or literary expertise. But it's in the details that this tale begins to take on political significance.
The story of Star Wars is constructed as a conflict not only between the light and dark sides of the Force, but also between the Rebellion (the light side) and the tyrannical Galactic Empire (the dark side). In the late 1970's when the first movie was made, this presentation of the universe was born out of George Lucas's frustration with the United States's participation in the Vietnam War. The Empire, with its Death Star capable of wiping out entire civilizations in the blink of an eye, is the embodiment of his view of America. The US was destroying Vietnam in the same way that the Empire destroys Alderaan. Luke Skywalker begins his journey by deciding to learn the ways of the Force and joining the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire, and in this way he is a kind of resistance fighter against American militarism.
The Force Awakens, as an allegory for modern international politics, has it the other way around. After the destruction of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, the Galactic Empire has broken down and the Republic has been restored, leaving only a small group of ex-Empire militants called the First Order. But with the Senate unwilling to dedicate its resources to fighting a supposedly minor threat, Princess Leia forms the Resistance, a private military force supported by the Republic. What the Republic doesn't know is that the First Order has retained the Empire's technological research and has used it to create Starkiller Base, a weapon even more powerful than the Death Star. With this new weapon their rise back to power seems inevitable, putting in jeopardy the reign of the newly established Republic.
Like the original trilogy, the story of The Force Awakens takes two governing bodies and roughly aligns one with the light side (the Republic) and one with the dark side (the First Order), but now the two bodies' political orientations are reversed from the way they were in the original trilogy. Where before the underdog Rebels were fighting against their tyrannical rulers, now the Republic is the dominant power in the universe and the First Order is the force fighting against it. While the First Order is clearly supposed to be the bad guys, without the dark side they would actually have more in common with the Rebellion than the Empire. Their ambition and violence give them power, but when the film begins they're on the outside of the dominant political order. We (the light side; the Republic) are no longer on the outside looking in, we are on the inside destroying outsiders.
Whether conscious or otherwise, this shift in perspective seems to be the result of America's current fears about the threat of terrorism. The First Order is clearly constructed as a terrorist organization, interested primarily in destroying the Republic and its supporters in order to re-establish the Galactic Empire in the same way that America (and the world) feels ISIS threatening our current global order. It's not hard to understand how this shift came about: with the global hegemony of the United States slipping and anxiety about terrorism on the rise, Americans feel increasingly insecure in their own homes, so rather than fighting against their own government they begin to find their enemies outside.
From this modern standpoint, the story of the original Star Wars begins to look slightly different. The Rebellion begins to look like the terrorists. There have even been several popular pieces on the supposed "radicalization" of Luke Skywalker, presenting him as a religious extremist on par with ISIS or Al Qaeda, but what these pieces miss is precisely this historical contextualization within Lucas's reaction to the Vietnam War. With the understanding that the Rebellion is fighting against American militarism, Luke's supposed "radicalization" makes sense: he's fighting for a worthy cause, and it's only from this position as an outsider that we can see the evils of the Galactic Empire (the metaphorical stand in for an internationally aggressive American government). It is a movie that takes the position of the outsider in order to look critically inward.
But it's looking at The Force Awakens from the perspective of the original Star Wars that offers the most insight into current American ideology. If we take the position of the outsider looking critically inward (as we do in A New Hope), that puts us on the side of the First Order. They are the ones struggling after being crippled by the Rebellion, and instead we side with those that crippled them. To rephrase an awful quotation from Revenge of the Sith, from the First Order's point of view the Republic is evil—and maybe that point of view is worth looking at more closely.
Whereas in the original trilogy the Empire served as a symbolic representation of American government, a look inside our own politics, now the First Order serves as a representation of external extremism (whether space terrorists or space nazis), a look outside ourselves at a violent other. The dark side has shifted from the symbol of American politics to the political outsider, and the light side—our perspective through the film—has shifted from the political outsider (the Rebellion) to the ideological inside (the Republic). We've gone from demonizing our own politics to the politics of the Other.
The fact that we now take the position of those inside the dominant order (the Republic) says everything about the difference in the point of enunciation of the original Star Wars trilogy and of The Force Awakens. We are now more worried about threats from the outside; but as we turn our eyes outward we lose sight of the problems within our own government. After all, evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself. Maybe it's time to look inward again.
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