Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, where have you been living, under a rock? Because it’s been out for like 3 weeks already.
One of the recurring jokes during the run up to the premier of The Force Awakens was about how Star Wars told the tale of a young man’s journey to Jihad. Luke has all the hallmarks of the nascent terrorist: no family to speak of, isolated, idealistic. He even grew up in a desert, and is converted to a little-understood religion by a bearded radical. This is a funny, because like most jokes, it contains a bit of truth.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, the terrorists are called Rebels, because they have tacit support from a disenfranchised branch of the government, but they use asymmetrical tactics and seek to overthrow a government they see as illegitimate. When we meet Leia, she’s smuggling data hacked by spies and is on a desperate mission to recruit a religious fanatic so well-known for his military prowess, that he is currently living as a hermit under an assumed name.
So why do we root for a ragtag army of rebels led by religious fanatics fighting to rebuild a semi-mythic state? To the Rebellion, the Old Republic is the “shining city on a hill,” that “more civilized time” Obi Wan tells Luke about, filling his head with promises of a past golden age that, thanks to the prequels, we know is bullshit.
One of the (many, many) reasons the Prequel trilogy fails is that the heroes of that story aren’t the underdog radicals, but unwitting agents of the burgeoning Empire. They don’t realize until too late that they’ve been manipulated by a despot into helping him overthrow the established order and install himself as the supreme ruler of a crypto-fascist regime. It’s hard, on an emotional level, to get behind that cause. And we know, going in that this is the end game, because these are prequels and we already know what needs to happen. The Republic must fall and here, Lucus presents us with the agents of that downfall: our hero’s younger selves. Told in reverse, it’s the story of youthful idealism failing to the realpolitik of middle aged compromise. We can understand why this might be a resonant theme for George Lucus, but for the audience at large, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Despite all the British accents, Star Wars is an American myth and as such, it holds to its heart an unrepentant admiration for the rebel with a just cause.
Part of the the narrative of the founding of the American Republic is that we were and still consider ourselves to be the scrappy underdogs of history. Americans are exceptional because we were the one case when the rebels were the good guys, and so our stories reflect this. We identify with the myth of the righteous rebel because once upon a time, it gave birth to the American dream. That it was, from a certain point of view, as Obi Wan would say, also a bloody insurrection on the part of colonial subjects to the British Empire is one of those implicit truths we prefer to ignore. It doesn’t do well for national moral to admit that we are a country founded by traitors. But they were successful traitors!
Which brings us to The Force Awakens.
Thirty years after what we were led to believe was another instance of successful rebellion in the name of greater freedom from tyranny, we find the galaxy far far away still rent by civil war.
The factions in this version are a bit ill-defined. Obviously the First Order are bad guys, because like all bad guys, they have snappy uniforms and like to recreate Leni Riefenstahl films. But the Resistance is a bit harder to pin down. They aren’t officially part of the New Republic, which gets nuked by the Starkiller. We’d feel bad for them, but we didn’t even know they existed until about five minutes before the sun-gobbling ray gun that’s totally not a Death Star blasts them to space debris.
So the Resistance are The Rebellion: The Next Generation, fighting the good fight against the First Order so the Republic doesn’t have to? I guess? Anyway, it’s never really been clear just what the political structure of this galaxy has been. The Old Republic was a unicameral senate comprised of democratically elected royalty, so, yeah. Vague hand wavy ideas about democracy grafted onto a fairy tale structure that requires a royalist backbone. It’s problematic, to say the least.
You can almost see why some Conservatives root for the Empire. It sweeps away the bureaucratic deadlock of a faux republic full of princes and princesses, which slots neatly between the Tab A of American Rebellion and Slot B of Neocon Imperialism. Plus you know, Darth Vader is pretty cool, as villains go. Better to be ruled by the mechanical iron fist of a strong leader than a committee of girly princesses, am I right?
But we had the Rebels and now we have the Resistance, which is very French Underground, and builds on the grafted-on World War II imagery from the original trilogy. It also ties into the romanticized rebel ideal that motivates a lot of American politics today (I’m looking at you, Oregon Militia dickheads).
By making callbacks to the original trilogy, The Force Awakens brings that old school rebellion, DIY ethos into the 21st century. Which is a savvy storytelling decision, as it taps into our cultural mythology, rather than trying to tell a hamfisted political alegory. This in turn reminds us how important the rebel with a cause story is to us. It’s vital and necessary, because democracy is, to a large extent, built on cycles of rebellion.
The devil in the details lies in how the powers-that-be decide to react to that rebellion. Do you try and stomp it out with one Death Star after another? Or do you recognize that gradual change is an inevitable part of human culture and society? Because if there is one thing Star Wars and history both teach us, it’s that if you make gradual change impossible, you make armed rebellion inevitable.
Obviously one makes for good storytelling while the other makes for stable governments and livable planets. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to keep my Nazi analogs in a galaxy far far away.