The First Order Is Far More Frightening Than the Empire
I don’t like Star Wars but I loved The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams’ new film completely turned me around and made me unabashedly love Luke, the Force and galactic space battles.
It’s not that I hated Star Wars, I just didn’t grow up with it. I saw the original trilogy for the first time as a teenager, right before the prequels came out, and the mythology never grabbed me. I enjoy lightsaber battles as much as the next person, and the prequels entertained me as much as the original trilogy.
But The Force Awakens made me feel like a 10-year-old kid. It opened up my eyes and showed me how marvelous the universe Lucas created is. I’ve thought about the movie a lot in the past few days … and I think I know why I loved it so much.
The Empire is a lame and ineffective villain. It’s all threats, bluster and old men clinging to old ideals. The First Order is effective, ruthless and scarier than the Empire. The bad guys of The Force Awakens are more frightening than Vader, Palpatine and Grand Moff Tarkin combined.
Warning. I’m about to spoil a whole bunch of The Force Awakens and there will be some speculation.
After the destruction of Death Star II and the death of the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi, the Empire contracts but doesn’t collapse. The Rebels press forward, gathering planets to their cause and forming the New Republic. After a time, the fading Empire and the rising New Republic come to something of a tense peace.
But then a reform movement within the Empire grows. It’s called the First Order and it’s terrifying. The Empire and the Sith have always been space Nazis, but The Force Awakens doubles down on the connection, and the rise of the First Order in the ashes of Empire mirrors the rise of national socialism in the post-imperial Weimar Republic.
The young, angry citizens of a crumbling Empire rule the First Order. These are the kids who grew up hearing about how awesome Vader and Palpatine were and how glorious the Empire once was. They’re losing territory, the standard of living on their planets is falling and they blame the rest of the galaxy for being the cause.
The First Order also has a legitimate complaint against the New Republic. Leia uses her resources to start the Resistance, a militant group operating within First Order territory. These are guerrilla fighters — funded by the New Republic — fighting a proxy war against an enemy the New Republic sees as an existential threat.
To the First Order, the distinction between the Resistance and the New Republic is academic. Its aggressive actions are justified … from a certain point of view.
Above and at top — scenes from The Force Awakens. Lucasfilm captures
The First Order does not mess around. In the original trilogy, Palpatine uses the Death Star as a threat. It’s fired once (successfully) in the first film, when Grand Moff Tarkin decides to punish Leia. Alderaan may or may not be a legitimate military target, but as it’s presented in A New Hope, Tarkin destroys the planet as part of an interrogation.
In Return of the Jedi, Palpatine plans to fire the Death Star II at the Rebellion fleet at Endor as part of an elaborate trap. Let’s compare that with Starkiller Base — the First Order’s planet-sized sun-powered space nuke — in The Force Awakens.
“Today is the end of the Republic,” Gen. Hux promises as Starkiller Base warms up. And he’s right. The first shot destroys the New Republic capital planet, four other planets and the entirety of the New Republic fleet.
In the opening shot of a new war, the First Order eliminates its enemy’s ability to make war. It keeps the weapon secret through development and construction and fires it without fanfare, crippling its enemy. The First Order wants to win.
The New Republic is fighting a new kind of war … the kind of war superpowers fight now. It uses a small group of resistance fighters to conduct asymmetric operations within its enemy’s territory.
The First Order is fighting a traditional war — like the Empire. But the First Order learns from its predecessor’s mistakes. It builds a weapon of mass destruction and uses it. It doesn’t use it to threaten a princess during an interrogation. It doesn’t use it as bait to trap the Resistance.
It doesn’t play any games. It figures out how to knock out the New Republic’s center of gravity and it does so without remorse or hesitation.
The children of the Empire are brutal and effective every time they fight. When the First Order’s stormtroopers land on Jakku, they slaughter an entire village without blinking … with one exception. When they descend on Takodana it’s a bloodbath. They’re willing to kill to keep the Skywalker map out of Resistance hands.
The First Order is an army driven by ideology, hungry for battle and uninterested in the conventions of galactic war. It’s what happens when the galaxy presses the Empire against a wall and forces it to fight for its life. And I can’t wait to see what horrible acts this new generation of space Nazis will carry out in the Episode VIII and beyond.