Flogging a Dead Force

The Force Awakens hints at an interesting political dynamic, yet no one quite knows how it works

Let's not beat around the bush: I have a few problems with the new Star Wars film. Not because it's not fun, or because I hate girls, or even because I've lost my sense of joy (an accusation levelled at many a critic of The Force Awakens); not because I found it boring - it entertained on a few levels (in fact, if I'd never seen a Star Wars film, I might have liked it a lot more). Not even because I went to see a Star Wars film and got a Disney one.
No, what bothers me wasn't so much that it wasn't Star Wars; what bothered me is that Star Wars seems slightly less Star Wars because of it. Much like the loathed Prequels, the Force Awakens tries to hang new baubles on the Christmas tree of everyone's favourite space film, but ends up making it look that bit more raggedy as it's dragged out of the attic once again.

Internet commentators have dissected The Force Awakens six ways to Sunday, and there's probably little criticism left that anyone hasn't heard. But while there's something of a consensus over some of the minor faults it has, there are a few major ones that, a month since I viewed the film, make me think: did the writers watch the Star Wars films before they put The Force Awakens together? It's not so much that it's bad, it isn't - but there's a far better - and somehow easier - story that could be told, and it was all just sitting there.

JJ Abrams: might not have actually seen Star Wars

Do I care that the protagonist is a one-size-fits-all character, an effortlessly skilful Disney Princess who laboriously reels off the standard kung fu shtick, while a slack-jawed male does a series of double takes, and his sexist preconceptions are well and truly skewered? Not so much; this is the Disney way. Do I care that 'it's a remake of the original Star Wars'? Not one bit, and how the hell anyone can complain about that at this stage is beyond me. This film exists because you all spent the last decade voicing your ire over George Lucas' last attempt at an original Star Wars story. 'Why wasn't it more like the originals?', you all cried. He sold it to the 'white slavers', and you got your Star Wars-y Star Wars. People said the Prequels looked like a cartoon - well, The Force Awakens plays out like one.    [cont]

The majority of why this film grates a little is that there's a lot of logical dissonance in it. Not that you'd really notice; Star Wars has never asked for much scrutiny. The recent Prequels (the story of Luke's dad and the Clone Wars) were bogged down by comparatively heavy exposition, and we all felt they were a bit clunky. Well, they aren't as clunky as The Force Awakens, even if they seem it. Lucas may have committed the sin of being boring, but the Prequels make sense. In fact, they make too much sense when compared to The Force Awakens, because they made us all aware of one obvious fact that TFA overlooks: the good guys and the bad guys in Star Wars are basically the same guys.

The Galactic Senate of the Prequels: you probably slept through this bit
Well, perhaps not entirely: Emperor Palpatine was a machiavellian despot, and Star Wars has always painted heroes and villains with quite broad strokes. However, the prequels, despite their unpopularity, were a story told at a time of real-world imperialism, and somewhat allegorically were about what happens when power corrupts; the story told of how the peaceful Republic became an Empire, as the wannabe Emperor manipulated the Senate and eventually overthrew it for Galactic domination. In doing so, it explained a few previously vague concepts in the Star Wars universe - concepts that The Force Awakens pays scant attention - about how the protagonists and antagonists were related. It wasn't even complicated.

The take-home was this:

  • The Republic created the Army of the Republic which later became known to us as Stormtroopers.
  • The Republic manufactured the giant spaceships (Star Destroyers), and continued to manufacture the iconic space ships after they became a totalitarian regime.
  • The eventual Empire could continue to use all this stuff because it was in control of the former Republic, and so had limitless power and influence.

None of this necessarily matters to the Star Wars purist (who only paid attention to the original three), because you can skip it. The Empire is an Empire, which explains everything about why they're powerful and the Rebels aren't. Yet, even the purist knows that the Empire can build the Death Star because they command all the power (and, by default - this is important - money and trade, which is also key to Han's character) in the galaxy. It is this basic, simple power structure that gives Star Wars its skeleton: the Empire is tightening its grip on the galaxy, and people from all walks of life are drawn into the battle against them.
George Lucas probably didn't think too much about this dynamic, but it seems neither did J.J. Abrams, and that's where he slipped up. Because when you reactivate a finished story, you have to unpick the tied-up ends. And there are several ends, tied and loose, that Abrams has defiled in what was the Persian Carpet of space fantasy.

The Prequels were derided for concentrating on the trade functions of the Star Wars universe, but isn't it interesting how they seem quite sensible in light of the massive lack of political exposition in Abrams' new Star Wars? Because there are obvious oversights that can't be reconciled.

Starkiller: the bad guys converted a planet into a death ray while on the cheap, while no one was looking. It was probably a kit from IKEA

1. The First Order could not build a Death Star.

Okay, this nitpick bugs a lot of people  because "You don't know where they kept their money", but that's irrelevant. Their money was the Republic's money, in the Republic's banks. It only has value in the Republic, who have destroyed the First Order's infrastructure; you can't just go to the shops for Death Stars. However, if you *could*, how the hell could you convert a planet into a gun without anyone in the free galaxy knowing?
Here's the thing: the Empire did it twice. It moderately succeeded once, and the second time, we were able to see what an arduous undertaking it was, even for them. The Force Awakens' Starkiller Base was fifty times the size of a Death Star, and sucked stars' energy for power (let's gloss over the physics of that one, but suffice it to say, it'd get hot).
Now, if you want to do the 'We're doing it again, against all logic' thing, you have to to strengthen it with exposition. Throw me a line of dialogue about how expensive it is, or how it was possible to build it, or that some First Order commanders opposed it for being a gigantic waste of time. While you're at it, explain where you get your huge (new) spaceships, because they have to be manufactured somewhere. We know the First Order operates outside the Republic, but we don't know where or how. They could have written a good story about that. Alternatively, they could have had them flying around in the classic old Star Destroyers: no explanation required.

There are so many of these ridiculously big space ships
that they've somehow become unimpressive
2. Where is the Resistance based, and why aren't the Republic using the former army of the Republic, or the massive amount of TIE fighters and weapons that would now be at their command? Hypothetically they could now build Death Stars of their own. Given that the First Order just can't quit blowing up planets with their unfathomable resources, maybe they should, as a deterrent. Not only is that interesting in and of itself, but it shows how good intentions can lead to violent and dangerous ends - apt in the case of Star Wars and The Force, and a great basis for future antagonism and power struggles.

3. What happened to Leia, and why isn't she in charge of an army?

Princess Leia, it turns out, isn't a Princess. All monarchs in Star Wars are only royalty when the plot demands it. Leia is a civilian, much the same as when her mother in the Prequels was demoted to Senator. That's doubly weird because Queen Amidala didn't have kids until she was no longer a queen, and Leia was raised by a Senator. Anyway, who cares.
Leia is General Organa now, and for very vague reasons has assembled a rag-tag Resistance to the First Order (this totally goes against the established power dynamic, in which the First Order should be the struggling underdog, but it obviously plays better with the audience if the heroes look oppressed). But wait! Wasn't Leia the second chosen one of the Star Wars trilogy? As Luke's sister, she was revealed to be Force-sensitive, and seemed bound for some kind of Jedi training. She could have even been the Luke Skywalker figure in this film - perhaps her training was incomplete, leading to some kind of failure and exile. However, there's not even a mention. That's a massive, unforgivable liberty taken with the source material. Similar to what they've done to Han.

4. Han's choices in The Force Awakens.

People defend JJ Abrams' choice of having Han (who has left Leia after their son rebels and runs away) return to smuggling. It a stylistic choice laser-targeted at your sense of nostalgia - but there are credible reasons he wouldn't behave that way.
The most notable is that, as we stated, we're not the Empire any more. When he was a space pirate, Han was a heroic rascal who ran rings around the fascistic laws of the Empire. But guess what? He's gone back to crime now, in the Republic, because of his family-related depression. Only if you recall, he's already spent a large portion of his screen history being a big-time hero and fighting for the Republic. He's now a lapsed criminal under that same system, despite his ex wife still fighting in much the same capacity to preserve the common good. That's a real cop-out from everyone's favourite reluctant hero.

Han Solo desperately searches for Luke in the Empire Strikes Back, after he's only been gone a few hours. In The Force Awakens, he's too busy enjoying a life of crime to look for him.
Han's legendary arc is that he's the ultimate reformed character. He was out for number one, but he learned loyalty and became a hero who put the Rebellion before personal gain. Are we to believe a) he left Luke and Leia out to dry (he sacrificed himself for his friends in the Empire Strikes Back, as well as risking his life for Luke on Hoth), and b) that General Solo of the Rebel Alliance went straight back to smuggling because it was 'the only thing he was good at'? He was good at being a hero, and what's more, it was his dramatic arc. You brought him back just to make sure we all knew what a cop-out he was?

If you're going to bring Han back, fine: make him a grizzled old veteran. He's a war hero. These are the Star Wars. Jaded and maybe even shell-shocked, Han could drift back into the underworld if you really wanted him to, but it takes more than a line of dialogue to undo a three-film character arc. Why bring him back at all, in fact, when you're going to kill him? What Star Wars fan really wanted to see that? I'd rather think of him off on some adventure.
Oh and by the way, he already effectively made the ultimate sacrifice in Empire, and it was far cooler. Having him 'die' twice just makes that seem less valuable.

Legend is the word you need to consider: what's the legend of Star Wars? Well, the main characters graduate to hero status, and after that, their arc should be somewhat sacrosanct. Luke Skywalker is demonstrably not the type to run away at times of hardship, yet in TFA, that's what he does. Han drops out, only as a man thirty years older, when it's not so cool (let's skip the fact that he comes back and dies like a punk). Leia gets off worst. Her clearly foreshadowed destiny was never to be, despite the obvious assumption that if she had become a Jedi, and helped Jedi Master Luke, maybe none of the off-screen drama that sets up The Force Awakens would have happened. People complain that Han was 'neutered' in Return of the Jedi. No character in Star Wars has been so utterly failed by bad writing as Leia in this film.

Leia: from potential Jedi to fluffy space Auntie

Perhaps the worst liberty they've taken though, is the fact that politics in the Star Wars universe no longer seem to matter, by audience request. We're only dimly aware of what the affiliations and stakes are, and by the looks of the box office, we don't much care. As Star Wars devolves to the status of a live-action cartoon, just like in our real-world conflicts, no one knows why we're fighting, and there's too much  at stake for anyone to stop now.