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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  1. Hi,

    I think most of the support to your claim isn't really sound, but I do think your hypothesis has merit through other evidence. In order to take the point of view of the First Order we would have to think as only a few military generals seeking control, with a (I'm assuming sith?) leader only seeking to rule the galaxy through their power. They have no people or nation, their soldiers are stolen babies who did not have a choice in entering this war. I like your interpretation, as the social context is almost always relevant when it comes to art, but I think the people involved in making the film made sure to leave little room for interpretations such as these. That would still support your claim.

    For example (as you've probably been told before), the Resistance is the one actually made to be the underdog. It is presented through the lack of support they receive from the government except the Republic. No one believes in the Force or that the Jedis are legitimate or even existed anymore. Consider there was only one trained Jedi when the original trilogy ended, and Han has to point out now that "it's all true" to Rey and Finn. From here we see that those really in the powerful position are the First Order, because they have a powerful lord skilled in the (dark) ways of the Force as well as a young powerful-ish knight in Kylo Ren. The resistance only has Leia, an untrained Jedi who can do little but be a leader for them. With the use of the force on their side the First Order is sure to win, hence the need to find Luke.

    I guess my point is that the support to your claims seems to have been thought of beforehand by the filmmakers. Thus, they wanted to add enough context on both sides so that the First Order had no choice but to be the bad guys and viewers wouldn't sympathize. We don't take the point of view of the Republic or the Senate. We take the view of the Resistance, a small group of people within the ruling government that believe the First Order is a serious threat because they know and believe in their power at hand. They represent only the good side of the ruling government while being part of the few that believe in the Force. Taking the view of the First Order only makes you an entitled asshole with no regard for life other then themselves.

    With that being said, the fact that they had to make the First Order so "bad" and the Resistance so "good" can still support your point about current American ideology. They had to go the extra mile for people to ignore their current bias and be presented a clear picture with little room for interpretation other than the artistic view and guesses on the actual outcome of the plot. They had to disassociate the Resistance from the ruling government, and they had to make the First Order a select few who only represent themselves. Considering this is one of the largest (if not the largest) movie premiere in history, having to do this can speak of the current American, and world ideology they expect on their audience.

    Great article, I would've never thought of that connection if I hadn't read this. Thanks! I'd be happy to hear if you think this is plausible, unlikely, or if I'm an idiot. Cheers!

    1. I really appreciate the long, thoughtful comment! (You're certainly not an idiot.) I might be misunderstanding you, but I think you've sort of missed my point. You're getting at a really interesting distinction between the Resistance and the Republic that I think is both crucial to the politics of the film and their reflection of real-world politics, but that's not really what I'm talking about.

      Whether or not the Republic supports the Resistance enough, the Resistance is the one on the side of centralized government. Whether or not they're best friends, the Resistance is a representative of the Republic. The First Order, on the other hand, has their own rules and governing principles, but they only control themselves. They have a "government" in the sense that they have to answer to Snoke, but it's not centralized in the way that the Republic is. The Republic represents the galaxy, the First Order just represents the First Order.

      In the original trilogy, by contrast, the Empire is the one on the side of centralized government. They control the entire galaxy. The Rebellion has their own form of government, but they only represent themselves. The metaphor for government is the Empire, whereas in The Force Awakens the metaphor for government is the Republic, represented in turn by the Resistance (you can quibble that the Resistance doesn't "represent" the Republic, but the point is that they're on the same side).

      Let me try to lay it out in mathematical logic:
      Original trilogy: government = Empire; Empire = dark side; therefore, government = dark side Thus the message is that the (American) government is evil (because of the war they perpetuated in Vietnam).
      The Force Awakens: government = Republic/Resistance; Republic/Resistance = light side; therefore, government = light side
      Thus the message is that the (American) government is good (because the real evil is outside its borders, whether in the form of modern terrorism or 20th-century fascism).

      You can say that the Resistance is the "underdog" in the war because they have less power than the First Order, but that's not the point. The point is that the Resistance is on the side of galactic politics, which in my mind makes them *not* an underdog even if they're underpowered. And more importantly, even if the First Order is more powerful, they don't (yet) control the galaxy (although they may by the end of the movie). Thus we have the narrative of a good government losing control (the destruction of the Senate) rather than a bad government having control taken away from them (the destruction of the Death Star).

      I hope that makes sense, and thanks again for your comment!

    2. That totally makes sense. We certainly had different scopes in analyzing the relationship of Resistance and Republic.

      As I said before (or at least meant to), the larger theme certainly aligns with the theory, but I wanted to talk about how much detail they added in order to avoid larger theme associations such as the one we are discussing. This in itself speaks of the implications of the new plot framework and real-world context of the Star Wars galaxy.

      Maybe now we both get each other, and I'll certainly try to keep all of this in mind by the time the next installment shows up. Thanks for replying!

    3. I think you're right that there's enough detail in the film that you can read it a variety of different ways. Thank you for your thoughtful comments! I enjoyed this discussion, which isn't something I can say of many discussions I have on the internet.

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