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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.

Disney/LucasfilmDisney/LucasfilmSeparately, 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.

Spoiler alert: I'm a huge nerd.Spoiler alert: I'm a huge nerd.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:

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  • Aresen||

    galactic political structure, which is vague at minimum and probably incoherent.


    So, they're just normal.
  • brady949||

    DOOOOOOOOONNNNNNN'TTTTTTTTT CAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEE

  • Mokers||

    Yeah, the whole point of the movie (the genre really) is these guys are bad and these other guys are good. You should root for the good guys because they are good and they are fighting the bad guys who are bad.

  • The Last American Hero||

    So, it's essentially TEAM RED and TEAM BLUE politics.

  • ImanAzol||

    Indeed. The Empire eliminated the capitalist excess of the Trade Federation, cut back the bureaucracy, brought law and order to gangster-run systems, balance to the Force, and stabilized the economy.

    Then some tawdry tart wanted Mommy's crown and started a war over it.

  • UnCivilServant||

    ...the planet-sized Starkiller.

    So the guy from the vidya games got morbidly obese?

  • Free Society||

    I think you meant

    the story of the Empire Republic in Star Wars mirrors the story of the fall of the Roman Empire Republic.

    I don't recall anything in Gibbons about Ewoks crossing the Rhine and slaying Romulus Augustulus.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Being cannibals, the Ewoks ate all the evidence.

  • UnCivilServant||

    *if not strictly cannibals, they do eat sentient species, as evidenced by their plans for the main cast.

  • Aresen||

    Yeah, C-3P0 really screwed up there.

  • Free Society||

    Yeah C-3PO could have taken over the galaxy with those Ewoks. With nothing more sticks, ropes and gumption they were able to take out the 501st Division of elite Imperial stormtroopers with like 2 casualties.

  • Illocust||

    In the stormtroopers defense. The Ewoks had home turf advantage, and had already heavily trapped the area for years possibly hundreds of years beforehand. The stormtroopers probably didn't even know the little guys were there until the attacks started (It's been a long time since I watched the movie).

  • WTF||

    Because the Empire has weapons that can destroy entire planets, but they can't blow up a forest full of furries.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Think of the carbon that would have been released into the atmosphere...

  • ImanAzol||

    So, like Vietnam?

  • Free Society||

    In the stormtroopers defense.

    The stormtroopers traveled through interstellar space to protect a super-weapon space station the size of a moon that could destroy entire worlds and they were presumably the best armed, equipped and trained group of specially cloned super-soldiers in the known universe. And they were decisively defeated by neolithic furries in about ten minutes. I'm sorry, but there is no defense here.

  • Pan Zagloba||

    Nah, stormtroopers were bait, made to lure the Rebels into attacking what they thought was lightly-defended, unfinished facility whose security was compromised. They are also winning after the initial surprise, before our heroes capture AT-ST and turn it around.

  • Free Society||

    Neolithic furries aren't going to defeat a band of elite interstellar warriors. It's just not happening. It's completely and irredeemably implausible. Those furries wouldn't be able to fight their way out of a wet paper bag provided that the paper bag was made by a type 2 civilization and had a wet paper blaster mounted on it.

  • Brian||

    It's a metaphor for the Vietnam War.

  • mr simple||

    Not with that attitude, they couldn't.

  • Win Bear||

    "Your superior intellect is no match for our puny weapons."

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "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."

    It doesn't matter.

    The whole thing is just a program running on the holodeck of the USS Enterprise anyway.

  • commodious spittoon||

    Oh great well now I know an Abrams flick is messy and incoherent. THANKS FOR THE SPOILER WARNING, REASON.

  • JW||

    Oh great well now I know an Abrams flick is messy and incoherent.

    Gropes for his :::shocked::: face.

  • Pan Zagloba||

    Forget politics (First Order are essentially Spaceballs, even their leaders have similar names), how about Abrams' persistant refusal to admit distance is a thing that exists (OK, concept that describes blah blah) and that you can't see every point in universe from every other point in universe. His first Star Trek movie did the same thing.

  • commodious spittoon||

    Dude, the cell phone conversation between Pine, mid-warp, and Pegg, back on earth, killed Into Darkness. Not that it wasn't plenty dumb already, but Jesus Christ, man.

  • Animal||

    Unstable molecules!

    Oh, wait. That's Marvel.

  • John Titor||

    To be fair the original Star Wars pulled that shit a bunch of times too. Red Letter Media covered it in one of their reviews (I think it mainly had to do with how the hell Luke Skywalker was able to get to Yoda's jungle planet and then to Cloud City so quickly).

  • GILMORE™||

    " 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."

    Ah. Canada.

  • ||

    You son of a bitch.

  • Aresen||

    We just elected the Son of Palpatine.

    We are now officially the Great White Imperium.

  • But Enough About Me||

    "Ah. Canada."

    Please.

    It's "A Wholly-Owned Subsidiary of the Liberal Party of Canada." Get your facts straight, mang...

  • Animal||

    Take off, eh.

  • GILMORE™||

    " 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'

    Ah. Al Qaeda.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Sounds more like the Kurds. Especially if you assume the Republic is a mythical 67-nation coalition fighting against ISIS (or as NIck put it, "Nor is it clear whether the Republic has any kind of military at all".

  • Brochettaward||

    The prequel films tried to get into the politics more. Did it make anymore sense to anyone after that? Fuck no.

    The less you know, the better. The second you start analyzing these movies they crumble.

  • Free Society||

    Of course it made sense. NEVER DEREGULATE BANKS, IT ONLY HELPS THE SITH

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    So you're saying it IS about US foreign policy...

  • GILMORE™||

    ""The second you start analyzing these movies they crumble""

    Yeah, that was kind of what i was going for.

    I'm sticking with my idea that the Dark Side is "WalMart" and the Rebels are "Whole Foods"

  • Brochettaward||

    I like to state the obvious.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The second you start analyzing these movies they crumble.

    A lot of films are like that. I watched Planet of the Apes last night, and from a scientific perspective, it's moronic.

  • JW||

    You disappoint Dr. Zauis.

  • Michael Price||

    Yeah but that doesn't matter, do people (and by that I mean characters who can talk) act like people? Is the sociology/politics/economics even vaguely plausible. Because the rest is not vital to the story in the same way.

  • GILMORE™||

    "Why The First Order is determined to completely destroy the Republic, rather than, say, occupy and rule them, is also never explained"

    Ah. Occupy Wall St.

  • GILMORE™||

    From all of this it should be obvious that Star Wars is an Allegory. And that the bad guys are Dick Cheney and Halliburton.

  • GILMORE™||

    Consider this =

    George Lucas' original conception of of the Star Wars universe was something intended for children of the 1970s to readily grasp and understand.

    The new, Disney/JJ Abrahms conception of the Star Wars universe is something for people who are far, far stupider... to gawk at, and go, "shiny thing!!" and "positive gender role!!" and possibly "Global warming allegory!"

  • ||

    I swear...if i get a whiff of fucken Avatar...I'm gonna root for EVERYONE to die.

  • Brochettaward||

    From everything I've heard, the female lead and black dude are good actors, good characters. I have to admit, though, it bothers me just because it's such obvious pandering to the 'diversity' crowd and it serves no actual purpose from a plot standpoint. Before, I couldn't have cared less if a character was black, white, Asian. Then you had the progressives throwing their bitch fits, and it now actively annoys me. What's even funnier is that nearly everything that has tried to implement their ideas has failed. Everything they touch turns to shit, but all these corporations continue to cave. They are nothing more than a vocal minority who continue to exert undue influence on culture.

    I expect the film to have subtle nods to progressive ideology throughout, but I won't know for a while because I refuse to go see a movie like this anywhere near opening weekend when the theater is packed full of mongoloids.

  • Lee G||

    What do you get when you cross a one-legged mongoloid with a Polack?

    A Polaroid One-Step

    I'll be here all week. Try the fish.

  • Pan Zagloba||

    Yes, the best hope I have for the sequel is that the three protagonists given to us are well acted, interesting characters whose story I want to see continued. And I didn't notice any nods to any particular ideology.
    Villains are also good, but you have to deal with the fact that they are smallminded, petty, bureaucratic, shitty, passive-aggressive assholes (although, not racists or sexists this time - possibly still speciest). There is no...style, cold menace or grandeur that Vader, Tarkin or Palpatine projected. Which is all right. Often evil is like that.

  • GILMORE™||

    "What's even funnier is that nearly everything that has tried to implement their ideas has failed.

    I heard Gen Zed was a huge success

  • Bill||

    That Gen Zed show looks kind of interesting. I hear it's the
    first cartoon with a trans actress!

  • GILMORE™||

    I'm not going to see the film until the DLC is released.

  • Pan Zagloba||

    Wait for Steam sale on GOTY edition.

  • GILMORE™||

    "From everything I've heard, the female lead and black dude are good actors, good characters. I have to admit, though, it bothers me just because it's such obvious pandering to the 'diversity' crowd and it serves no actual purpose from a plot standpoint.'

    I think what we should be ready for is the whining about the systemic-oppression inherent in the fact that it was not a Black Female Lead and that the "male" was not actually a Genderqueer of Inuit-extraction, and that these existing characters were both ableist, fat-shamers who set unrealistic standards for youth.

  • Tommy_Grand||

    this ^ . I *believe* the rules are: good guy leaders should be female or disabled or minority. Sam Jackson is fine, or Morpheus. Morgan Freeman can play President or God. Villains must be male. All corporations are bad. primitive native peoples are good. Fair Warning: if your supersmart kickass fem hero gets captured, and a male character helps her escape (e.g. black widow), you are sexist worse than hitler. I'm sure there are more rules; these folks like a lot of rules.

  • GILMORE™||

    " you are sexist worse than hitler"

    Hitler was a feminist vegetarian.

  • juris imprudent||

    And Nikki is still worse than that?

  • Joe Blowski||

    because even though the actors are good, their very existence as not being white men means that they were illegitimately given their jobs. why do white guys deserve everything given to them even if they are not as good? this is the thing that makes libertarians republican--a lifetime of expecting first dibs on everything. no wonder the poor states are all conservative. entitled frat boys and rednecks.

  • Frankjasper1||

    Where was this stated above? You are making things up.

    Also your last comment seems to have contempt for others and not sure what you mean when talking about poor states. How do you reconcile this with income and wealth inequality?

  • Ship of Theseus||

    No one is seriously watching Star Wars for its political philosophy are they? ARE THEY??

  • GILMORE™||

    Political philosophy? No. Hoping that its makes *any fucking sense*? maybe.

    Given that the Galactic Empire was destroyed in Ep. VI... its hard to grasp what the "point" of the emergent baddies is supposed to be. Galactic...Caliphate? No... too Islamaphobic. I guess they're just Nihilists

  • Ship of Theseus||

    Fair enough. I haven't seen it. I just hope there's nudity.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Chewie's not wearing much. NTTAWWT.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    I'm in. Does he take the shiny belt off in a sexy dance set to music? *crosses fingers*

  • misthiocracy||

    The Old Republic didn't have a military. It was barely a government at all. It was more akin to the United Nations, with each member state getting one vote (regardless of the member state's population) and having no substantive ability to enforce any of its policies.

    It sounds like The Resistance is a way (or a cop-out) for the New Republic to maintain the polyanna-ish philosophy of the Old Republic (and the UN) without having its military needs dominated by any one member state.

    So, in other words, IF the Republic is roughly equivalent to the UN, then the Resistance is roughly equivalent to NATO.

  • But Enough About Me||

    Hmmm.

    Sounds to me like The New Republic (no, not the magazine!) is more like Iain Banks' Culture, and The Resistance is more like Banks' Special Circumstances.

  • Pulseguy||

    Re: Neolithic furries could never beat the most powerful Storm Troopers in the known Universe.

    Anyone making this claim has never had a beaver problem.

  • juris imprudent||

    Go on...

  • Vader47000||

    From the opening crawl :"With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE."

    The Republic is probably like the Old Republic, a democracy set up to replace the Empire after Endor. The First Order represents the remnants of the Imperial fleet trying to expand beyond the few systems they still controlled.

    I got the impression the Resistance was sort of like a task force sent by the Republic to contain or stop the First Order.

    General Hux in his speech makes claims the Republic is lying about the First Order in order to justify the Resistance to its citizens. Its first attack with the Starkiller base is to destroy a planet that is implied to be the capital of the Republic (but isn't Coruscant).

    So the relationships are there and not as incoherent as you'd think. But the film doesn't do much of a job of world-building beyond the POV of the main characters, who already know these things. It's pretty much a Star Wars tradition to not get bogged down with exposition unless absolutely necessary and move along and let the fans go to Wookieepedia to figure out the bigger picture.

  • mr simple||

    Yes, you really have yo be trying hard if the relations confuse you or if you don't like this movie. It's not that difficult and it's very enjoyable.

  • Shawn Levasseur||

    Bingo! It's easy to miss all of this, as the film brushes past it way too quickly. And in the moment of destruction, there is no context, and not enough horror at the act. True, the destruction of Alderaan in the original film had little of it as well, but at least you had Obi-Wan sensing the event, and Leia being distraught at her home's destruction.

    I guess the complaints about "Trade Negotiations" bogging down Episode I were taken too much to heart. Of all the complaints about the prequels this is the lamest, as no negotiations happened. Within minutes of the start of the film, the Trade Federation tries to assassinate the Jedi negotiators, and launches an attack on Naboo.

    A certain amount of WHY things are happening does need to happen, and Episode 7 didn't do enough of that.

    Still a damn good movie though, in spite of the flaws.

  • Andrew G.||

    There are some details in the books and other materials, though they haven't gotten in to the rise of the First Order yet.

    Basically after winning, the New Republic disbanded most of its military keeping only a small fleet. Individual member worlds have their own militaries, much like the Republic before the Clone Wars. It was a move to reject the strong central state built by Palpatine and return to a loose confederation.

    Not all of the worlds joined the New Republic, and the remnants of the Empire regrouped in more remote parts of the galaxy. That's where the First Order is.

    Because the New Republic and First Order are not technically a war, the Republic has been supplying and supporting rebels within the First Order territory, attempting to replicate the Rebel Alliance. The First Order isn't strong enough to confront the New Republic over it, and the New Republic isn't strong enough and doesn't have the desire to go to war with the First Order directly. Which is why the First Order is building a new superweapon to make up for their weak military.

    The First Order, for its part, seeks to create a strong central government that enforces order and peace at blaster-point.

  • Sevo||

    Folks, it's a FUCKING MOVIE!
    They don't care about libertarians, they care about selling movie tickets. I don't care if one of you finds some 'libertarian moment' in the movie.
    Star Wars and Star Trec all get the same response; Get A Life.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Just came back from seeing it, and I think the most important thing that can be said about it is that it doesn't suck.

    That makes three out of seven, by my count.

    The original, the Return of the Jedi, and this last one--the first one is great, the second one was good, and this latest one doesn't suck.

  • Judge Forrest's Clitdong||

    Wait, did you just say that Empire sucked?!?

  • mr simple||

    Seriously? Empire was the best of the original trilogy. This last one, just saw it, was a close second.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Yeah, I screwed up.

    I meant Empire instead of Return of the Jedi.

    There hadn't been a decent one since Empire Strikes Back--until this last one.

    This latest one isn't as good as Empire Strikes Back, either. It's just that it doesn't suck.

    Empire might arguably be the best sequel ever, certainly for an action movie. I'm not saying Empire Strikes Back was better than Godfather II, but it's probably easier to make a great sequel to a drama than it is to make a great sequel for an action film. I can't think of a better sequel than those two.

    Maybe Evil Dead II or Silence of the Lambs are on the list somewhere, but not ahead of the other two.

  • lgk27||

    Defeating an Evil Empire is easy compared to building a New Republic afterwards. It is not surprising that supporters of Palpatine would form a rump Empire. The Republic is most likely weak and divided as the various rebel factions are now more intent on gaining power over each other than building a new Republic. The Resistance is the remnants of the old rebel forces that remain loyal to Princess Leia who recognizes the danger of the rump Empire to the nascent Republic.

    So the political situation is not so much incoherent as it is chaotic. History is full of examples of situations like this when an established empire falls and there are multiple players trying to put the pieces back together.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    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.

    That's our J.J.!

  • Ms. Eleanor Lavish||

    Oh, fuck no.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Says you! Is that where you got your dress sense, Nick?

  • Prkell328||

    The comments on this article are spectacular! Well done internet!

  • Frankjasper1||

    Huh? Care to elaborate?

  • Prkell328||

    No? They were hilarious exercise in absurdity.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    Is anyone taking this shit seriously? WGAF.

  • Win Bear||

    in particular, the film’s galactic political structure, which is vague at minimum and probably incoherent.

    So, it's just like real-world politics then?

  • John Titor||

    the story of the Empire in Star Wars mirrors the story of the fall of the Roman Empire

    Minor nitpick/correction, but you mean the fall of the Republic, and the beginning of the Empire (the article itself uses 'Fall of the Roman Republic').

    I don't know much about the Expanded Universe, but a friend of mine says the movie retcons it while heavily ripping it off. Can anyone confirm that?

  • Bill Dalasio||

    My guess is that the New Republic would be as ineffectual, corrupt and incompetent as the old one. The Empire arose out of more than the fact that Palpatine was a bad man. The fundamental factors worked against the continuation of the Republic. They favored an Empire, if not that Empire.

    That is, unless you consider the Jedi as being the fundamental problem with the Old Republic.

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    Last week I wrote about how one of the pleasures of Star Wars is arguing about its politics, which support multiple interpretations.

    Presumably this is Suderman's way of encouraging teenagers to kill themselves before they turn old and pathetic.

  • Will Nonya||

    There are very good reasons why the Republic and the Resistance are separate entities. First it allowed the republic fleet to not be available when needed. Second it allowed one of them to be destroyed by the rehashed death star.

    The production values were high and there was so much potential in this movie but as usual for an Abram film any plot or character development was rushed so that you could get to the next effect/explosion/highly improbably twist with the minimum fuss.

    It's a sad commentary that so many people I know used words like "awesome" to describe such a vapid and disappointing movie.

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