Notes on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Pt. 1
Some reflections on a galaxy far, far away
The following is an edited collection of thoughts about Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, from December 2015, which turned into a longer piece about the franchise. This is part 1 of 2.
When I was 8 years old, in the spring of 1997, my mother took me to see the theatrical re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy. I was immediately captivated by the series and its vast, diverse galaxy. After my introduction to the series, I watched the original trilogy on VHS tapes often enough to wear out the film and, too impatient for the prequels, delved deeper into the expanded universe material. The video games, the novels, even the encyclopedia-like “Essential Guides” to planets and moons, vehicles and vessels, weapons and technology, or the whole chronology itself, were all critical for my understanding of the fullness and totality of the Star Wars universe and how expansive it is.
Between the novels I pored through, the video games I played, and even the fan fiction I wrote in the middle of my 8th grade science classes, I gained an appreciation of how deep and broad the world is — both that within Star Wars, and our own world outside of the theatre. Star Wars represents a framework for how large, diverse, and thus completely in motion a world can be. It is a lesson in the idea that political violence, conflict, contestation, strife, in all aspects and forms, are often never ending and almost never as black and white as, ironically enough, a children’s sci-fi movie might have you believe. “Bringing balance to the Force,” as the all-important prophesy goes, does not necessarily mean that the light side always subjugates the dark, nor does it guarantee that notions of good and evil will remain constant.
This plays out among the vast array of characters, groups, spaces, places, and events, all of which is as broad and diverse as the moral spectrum that weaves through the galaxy’s complicated tapestry. Vader’s rise at the end of Revenge of the Sith and Anakin’s eventual redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi are central, but not sole, examples of this. And though this trajectory represents the central subplot of the first six films in the series, I wonder about what we might be missing from the series’s perspective on the Galactic Civil War between the Rebellion and the Empire. Out of those conflicts, our perspective is primarily occupied with the Skywalker saga, obscuring many of the other conflicts and repercussions throughout the universe, some of which we are privy to, but others which happen off-camera — but must happen, if what we see is any indication.
A New Hope provides many examples of very clearly manifest violence: the Stormtrooper massacre of the Jawas, the gruesome murder of Aunt Beru and Uncle Lars, the Death Star’s obliteration of Alderaaan, or the Rebel Alliance’s destruction of the Death Star? These instances of violence all happen within the perspective of the film, but we are not allowed much room to think about them. But Star Wars is deep enough that we have room to ask about the instances of violence are we not cognizant of. What kind of violent force is necessary to conscript civilians into the Imperial Army, who then go on to destroy Luke Skywalker’s (adoptive) family? What of the violence behind the material harvesting and labor that makes a Death Star possible? These questions about violence, about force, are every bit as important for understanding the greater Star Wars universe as coming to terms with how the Force operates within that universe, whether through the Skywalkers or otherwise.
I went into my second and third theatrical viewings of The Force Awakens with these questions in mind. Given director J.J. Abrams’s intentions with the latest entry into the saga, Star Wars’s discourse on violence is glaringly apparent, and if any of Episode VII is remotely familiar, it’s with very good reason: this is a concerted effort to cleanse the even the most causal Star Wars fan’s palette of the prequels (Jar Jar, specifically), and recall the best moments from A New Hope — “to make things right again.” Three decades after the destuction of the second Death Star over the forrest moon of Endor, the First Order, arisen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, seeks to eliminate the fledgling New Republic. The Resistance, with New Republic backing and under the leadership of General Leia Organa, defends against the First Order, while also racing against Supreme Leader Snoke and his protege Kylo Ren to find Luke Skywalker, who disappeared after the events of Return of the Jedi. Upon and throughout our return to an otherwise long-running struggle in the aftermath of the Empire, we’re treated to very obvious visual cues, plot points, and signature moments reminiscent of our first introductions to all those familiar characters and locations in A New Hope.
Perhaps the most obvious is Starkiller Base, essentially an extra large Death Star carved out of an cold-climate planet that is not Hoth. Later on, the First Order fires the superlaser at a number of planets, killing a large number of New Republic member planets. This sequence of destruction expands on the massacre of Alderaan, destroyed under observation of Grand Moff Tarkin (a scene nearly repeated in 2016’s anthology entry, Rogue One). Beyond what is already a large amount of violence in this one scene, what is most striking about Starkiller Base is its name. While the intent is to remind the audience of its genealogy as a super-weapon, it also has its differences. We can take its name literally: in order to generate the energy necessary to do what it does, it siphons energy from a nearby star, draining it of fuel, thereby destroying it. Aside from the super-laser itself, one can imagine the amount of death that would be attached to draining a star of all its life-giving energy. This is before one considers the terraforming required to transform a whole planet into a weapon, which may, in part, explain the frozen climate. The death toll is catastrophic, and though we’re not necessarily asked to count every life spent in the name of the First Order, the New Republic, or the Empire, we may at least consider how the film portrays that violence which is complicated by being uncountable.
Star Wars tends to belie its own surface-level, simplified versions of good and evil (Elizabethan Manichaeism) throughout the series with these very complications. Returning to my earlier days of the Star Wars expanded universe material, Star Wars: Tie Fighter was the first experience where I questioned my assumptions about who represented the right side of history in the Star Wars universe. Playing as a TIE fighter pilot fighting to restore order to the galaxy was a completely different experience from what I had expected from watching the films. It was alineating, at first, playing the game from the perspective of the Empire after experiencing the conflict from the perspective of Rebels. I only later understood the mental refiguring that came with playing the “villain” and not as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Han Solo… or Dash Rendar. As a young kid, I couldn’t fathom a perspective which viewed the Rebel Alliance as any kind of villainous entity, but recalling TIE Fighter now adds further complexity to my questions about violence in Star Wars: how does the series present violent conflict, and what happens to those instances when the perspectives and paradigms of war change? What happens after the Old Republic? After the Empire? Where do the next evils come from?
I would argue that one of Star Wars’s lessons, aside from the various permutations of violence and conflcit natural to a government reminiscent to a “democratic society” is that there is no “next” evil. Here, violence begets violence, takes many forms, and is always constant. Though most of the older Extended Universe material has been thrown out with Disney’s 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm, much of what has been left had previously been established, although in different forms. The Imperial Remnant eventually becomes the First Order of Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren’s, while the New Republic exists, with a proxy in the Resistance to combat the First Order. The galactic political dynamics have changed, to an extent, but there is no less strife in the galaxy than there was before the death of Palpatine and Anakin’s redemption. Mapped against Disney’s and Abram’s nostalgic reboot of the franchise, the questions about violence we see from the original trilogy, as well as the prequels, reappear here, too.