Saturday, 2 January 2016

Politics and Intergalactic Relations, 3rd Edition

The Nazis on the Death Star First Order on Starkiller Base

>>Achtung! Here be spoilers<<

Viewers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens will leave the theatre with many questions: what occurs immediately after the credits roll? Is Rey a Skywalker? Will there be redemption for Kylo Ren? What the shit is a Snoke and why is he a 20ft-high hologram? Why does C-3PO have more expression on his face than Carrie Fisher?

These are all valid questions, however I left the theatre most bewildered about the state of political affairs in J.J. Abrams’ new galaxy. When we last saw our heroes at the end of Return of the Jedi, Emperor Palpatine was deposed with extreme prejudice, Darth Vader redeemed and the mighty Empire in disarray.

It was assumed, as had occurred in the now-jettisoned expanded universe, that the Rebel Alliance to Restore the Republic (to give the Alliance its formal name) did in fact become the New Republic. The opening crawl to The Force Awakens says as much. So far so good. The First Order, the new film’s surrogate Galactic Empire, can safely be assumed to be one of the many remnants of the Empire vying for control of the galaxy. Fine.

But why is the now General Leia leading a “Resistance”? Surely she should be leading a New Republic army against the First Order, rather than a rag-tag proxy Rebel Alliance with new X-Wings and helmets? This is confusing. If anyone could be classed as a resistance in this story, it’s the First Order resisting the New Republic.

The politics of the original trilogy (and even the maligned prequels) were pretty straightforward. It was the EVIL GALACTIC EMPIRE against the plucky Rebels; a tough Princess pursued by the “Empire’s sinister agents”. In the prequels, the political arc was the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, comprehensible if clumsily plotted by George Lucas (like how by the end of Revenge of the Sith, the Republic is suddenly the Empire, with TIE-sounding spaceships, Imperial uniforms and their very own Grand Moff Tarkin even though this vital character had not been glimpsed at all in the prequels – lazy plotting and lazier writing attempting to squeeze too much into too short a time....oh and they're building the Death Star...apparently that took 19 years to build. Union disputes, Lucas "jokes" in the DVD commentary. I say "jokes" because Lucas is clearly devoid of anything resembling a sense of humour...but I digress).

This is also the entire plot for Rogue One

But I have no idea where we find ourselves in The Force Awakens’ galaxy and what effect the actions of our protagonists and antagonists have on the intergalactic political status quo. Like when the Death Star III Starkiller Base destroys a planet that looks suspiciously like galactic capital Coruscant (but apparently isn’t), it’s very difficult to tell whether that’s the entire New Republic gone. Conversely when Luke Skywalker Poe Dameron flies down the Death Star Starkiller Base trench and destroys it by firing torpedoes into its One Fatal Weakness™, is that the end of the First Order? Presumably not, although it’s not as if the First Order appeared to have a heap of starships in orbit around Starkiller Base. The fact is that the scope of both the New Republic and First Order is almost completely unknown. Perhaps this is for the best, leaving writers of future installments (and the all-important tie-in books) maximum wriggle room, but it’s also frustrating given the foundation of the Star Wars saga as a “Good vs. Evil” story.

It’s difficult to believe that the destruction of the Coruscant-like planet, capital of the New Republic or not, would spell the end for that government. A space-faring administration would surely find it quite easy to ensure continuity of government by spreading out vital services like the Space Police Force, Space Army, Space Medicare and Space Centrelink over several star systems, but General Hux’s fevered Hitleresque speech, announcing the end of the "illegitimate" Republic, would indicate otherwise.

For me, the destruction of this Republic planet (referred to as the Hosnian System) doesn't carry much weight in the film. Sure, it's apparently an important place, but it's difficult for viewers to relate to what is going on. When Tarkin ordered Alderaan destroyed in Star Wars, it carried emotional weight – it was Leia's home planet and the home of peaceful people who did not deserve a planetary genocide. Viewers know nothing of Hosnian Prime, except that it had something to do with the Republic and was probably its capital. The middling responses from our lead characters to this event don't add much weight to it at all.

My bet is there’s more to this universe than meets the eye. Abrams and fellow screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt are steeped in the Star Wars universe. They know what makes it tick and what makes sense in its internal logic. There are no doubt deeper reasons to why the Republic may or may not exist any more. Perhaps they demilitarised after the end of the Galactic Civil War, leaving Leia one of the few former Rebels who recognises the necessary evil of an army. Perhaps like a reluctant superpower, the New Republic provided only basic support to the Resistance, as more earthly superpowers often do in the real world when they don't want to get their hands dirty.

The more committed Star Wars fans among you will no doubt be able to point out that some of these questions are answered in the novelisation/graphic novel/young adult novel/trading card series/colouring book/inflatable beach ball. A preliminary interweb search does indeed indicate much is explained in Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation of the film and in an assortment of tie-in books (like DK’s Visual Dictionary), but it still leaves the vast bulk of casual viewers in the dark who won’t purchase let alone read the 1001 tie-in books, games and cereal boxes.

Regardless of the finer details of this universe, I think it’s kinda refreshing to watch a Hollywood blockbuster where not much is explained at all. Although it doesn’t come close to replicating the disorienting unfamiliarity audiences must have felt thrown headfirst into this world in 1977, it's nice that the action and quieter moments aren't subsumed with blatant exposition beyond what is needed for the plot.

I look forward to finding out more about this new Star Wars universe as more of the story becomes available. I guess that’s one of the reasons I love Star Wars so much: it’s not just three good films, but a rich tapestry of media including some of the best novels and video games in the genre. Although all that is now gone down the memory hole, we can look forward to experiencing a whole new Star Wars universe and great stories it will bring.