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If you liked the original Star Wars trilogy, as I did, grab your popcorn! You’ll no doubt enjoy the sequel, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But be prepared to discover political confusion in the Star Wars universe. (No spoilers ahead.)
The Force Awakens recycles plot elements, scenarios, reveals, bar scenes, Death Stars, and surviving characters from the original trilogy created by George Lucas. Thus you’ll have a feeling of familiarity that might have you asking, why couldn’t director J.J. Abrams come up with something original?
Fortunately, he includes most of the spirit and humor from the originals in the sequel, and it’s great to see Han Solo and Chewbacca in action again. The two new good guys, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), aren’t initially fighting for high ideals. They just want to survive. Rey is a poor scavenger on a desert planet who longs for her lost family. Finn is a storm trooper who, in his first battle, decides he doesn’t want to kill innocent women and children, so he defects. But these two rise to the occasion when faced with the conflicts of a wider world.
Abrams’ characters here channel some of Lucas’s use of the insights of Joseph Campbell, who explained the archetypes of heroes in myth. Rey and Finn are doubly archetypical, reflecting the epic heroes of myth and the heroes of the original trilogy at the same time.
You don’t go to a Star Wars movie for political commentary, but politics has been central to the franchise. Unfortunately, Abrams offers confused politics and misses a chance to offer something really interesting and thought-provoking.
Of course, in the prequels, Lucas wasn’t as exactly clear, either, as he traced the fall of the Galactic Republic and the rise of the repressive Galactic Empire. Secessionists wanted to break away from the Republic. But why? Their ranks included a Trade Federation, Banking Clan, Commerce Guild, and Corporate Alliance. Were they free marketeers trying to avoid Republic regulations—good guys!—or corrupt cronies—boo, hiss—who wanted to use political power to suppress competitors?
What does stand out in the prequels is that the Republic falls due to the abdication of power by the Galactic Senate and concentration of power in the hands of a Chancellor—secretly an evil Sith Lord—in order to fight foreign wars or internal enemies, real or manufactured. Lucas makes parallels both to the fall of the Roman republic and the rise of Hitler in Germany.
The original trilogy had clear political lines just as it had clear good guys and bad guys. The Empire was evil, ruled over by the Emperor with the aid of Darth Vader. Han Solo was a smuggler, striking a blow for free trade! The Empire is overthrown by plucky rebels who favor a republic.
In Abram’s sequel, it seems like the victory of the Rebellion over the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi never happened. It is 30 years after Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han, and the gang presumably restored the Republic. In the film’s opening crawl we’re told “Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed. With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE.” We then see First Order storm troopers, led by a Darth Vader wannabe named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), attacking the Resistance. We later learn that the First Order wants to destroy the Republic because it supports the Resistance. What’s the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance? What’s the First Order’s real beef with the Republic? Who knows?
Overthrowing tyrants can provide good plot fare for movies, but in the real world what comes after the revolution is even more interesting. Here we have two archetypes. One is the American Revolution. The king was dumped. The new Americans had the morality that it took to make a successful free society. They sought individual prosperity through productive efforts, peacefully trading with one another. The government restricted itself to protecting rights. That made for a great country, but filmmakers seem to find this dramatic arc difficult to make into a great movie.
Then you have most other revolutions. In the French case, the king was overthrown. But reasonable liberals who led the revolution were quickly superseded by the ignorant mob, Robespierre, the guillotine, and a bloodbath. It ended up producing the dictator Napoleon—ala the Star Wars prequels—and pan-European wars. Or you had the Russian revolution, with the authoritarian Czar replaced by totalitarian Communists who murdered tens of millions. Or you have the Iranian and other Islamist revolutions today, with their rivers of blood.
With more than just battle scenes, Abrams could have made The Force Awakens an allegory on the current shaky state of America’s republic. But that would have recycled some of the more ponderous aspects of Lucas’s prequels.
But rich and exciting drama could fill the screens with heroes fighting the forces of reaction and ignorance as they struggle to establish a new, free, Galactic Republic. Will the revolution turn into a French-style bloodbath—or an American-style liberation? That would be a sequel that I’d love to see!
But perhaps Abrams just wanted to make a movie to make the fans happy. And he did!
Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed. History Channel documentary (features Edward Hudgins)
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.