The Incoherent Politics of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The movie is fun, but its post-Galactic Empire political structure doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
By now, millions of people have dressed up, stood in line, and spent two hours and change watch the latest entry in the Star Wars movie franchise, The Force Awakens. The movie made $57 million last night in early domestic preview screenings alone, shattering the previous record. In other words, it's a huge hit, and judging by my social media feeds, lots of people are already talking about it. Which means it's time to start getting into spoilers and plot details.
I won't reveal the biggest twists, but if you haven't seen the film yet and don't want to know anything about it at all, stop right here. Otherwise, read on.
You've been clearly warned: Spoilers ahead!
Like most critics, I generally liked the movie (read Kurt Loder's positive review for Reason). It's impressively faithful to the original trilogy in its visuals and tone, boasts a trio of wonderful new leads, and does a good job—maybe a little too good—of capturing the spirit and sensibility of the first movie. If you like Star Wars, you'll probably like The Force Awakens. And you might even love it.
Some of the story elements, however, struck me as a bit underdeveloped—in particular, the film's galactic political structure, which is vague at minimum and probably incoherent.
The opening crawl—which you can read here—sets up the situation: Following the events of Return of the Jedi, remnants of the Empire have reformed as The First Order, complete, it seems with a lot of Empire swag, including Stormtrooper uniforms, a Star Destroyer, and a new Death Star-like super-weapon, the planet-sized Starkiller.
In addition to the First Order, there's also the Republic, about which the movie tells us very little, but which is basically just a generic bastion of peace and decency and civilization.
Separately, there's also the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa, which is fighting the First Order. In theory, the Resistance and the Republic are aligned against the First Order, but they appears to have no official connection. The Resistance is some sort of independent military organization, and it's not entirely clear whether their actions are in any way sanctioned by the Republic. Nor is it clear whether the Republic has any kind of military at all*—one central scene (which recalls a similar scene in A New Hope) strongly suggests they do not—and if not, why not, since The First Order is very much out to destroy them.
Why The First Order is determined to completely destroy the Republic, rather than, say, occupy and rule them, is also never explained. Nor is there much detail on why the Republic and the Resistance are at least semi-independent entities. Generally speaking, how these groups relate to each other, what they ultimately want, and how they relate to the overall state of the Galactic Order is unclear at best, and probably incoherent. There's no recognizable international relations theory at work here.
The problem isn't that there are too few details. The first Star Wars was similarly short on specifics about the Galactic Empire. But when Grand Moff Tarkin made the call to blow up Alderaan, you had a pretty good idea of why, and what he wanted. The move was intended both to demonstrate the power of the Death Star, which would help keep uncooperative systems in line by showing them the consequences of rebellion, and to shock Princess Leia into revealing the location of the stolen Death Star plans. It's a pretty simple motivation, but it basically makes sense, and it works from a clear-enough understanding of the structure of the Galactic Empire's politics. It's also draws somewhat from real political history; the story of the Empire in Star Wars mirrors the story of the fall of the Roman Empire.
You can't say the same about the fuzzy political structure on display in The Force Awakens. The best attempt I've seen to put it all together relies on a number of outside sources from the new Star Wars canon, and it's still pretty unsatisfying.
Last week I wrote about how one of the pleasures of Star Wars is arguing about its politics, which support multiple interpretations. You could have those arguments because there was a simple but basically coherent internal logic to the movie's political actors and actions. Maybe the setup will eventually make more sense as the new trilogy progresses, but for now, it's a muddle.
So while The Force Awakens will no doubt give people plenty to talk about, I fear it won't really support the same sort of enjoyably nerdy political debates. The main idea I got from the film's politics is that director J.J. Abrams and his cowriters just didn't think about them much at all.
*On Twitter, knowledgeable pop culture super-geek Franklin Harris suggests there may have been a brief reference to a Republic fleet, which would answer that small question, but still not shed much light on the overall political structure of the galaxy in the film.
Watch this month's Reason-hosted panel discussion on the politics and cultural impact of Star Wars, featuring Alyssa Rosenberg, Sonny Bunch, and myself, below: