Writing a revisionist interpretation of the political structure of the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, that rejects the official canon (as it developed across the many reimaginings of George Lucas), seems like one of the more self-indulgent things for me to do—but here we are.Continue reading
Unlike my last post, this one will have some spoilers. It’s been two weeks, folks. Information wants to be free!
In general, I enjoyed The Force Awakens when I saw it. However, I noticed during the climax at the end that the assault on the Death Star—uh, no, the assault on the Other Thing—anyways, it lacked a lot of the tension that characterized the original Death Star attack during A New Hope. I was discussing this with a friend the other day, and between the two of us I think we figured out the problem, and what JJ Abrams should have done instead.
During A New Hope, the first two attempts to attack the target failed. Worse, with every X-Wing that was shot down, it became increasingly less likely that the target could be attacked at all, until finally we are left with Luke, by himself, a sitting duck in Darth Vader’s gunsights. Dramatic tension was at a fever pitch, and then the Millennium Falcon arrives to save the day. Seconds later, the torpedoes go in, and we experience a massive rush of relief.
In The Force Awakens, first of all, the time limit has little impact on the viewer. We have seen this before, and giving us an exact (and arbitrary) time limit also drains away the tension until it returns in the final seconds, if even then. Second, the attacking squadrons immediately launch their attack on the primary target, and it fails without any particular explanation—or hope that the next one could succeed. Thus, we viewers realize, the X-Wing fighters actually don’t matter at all in the fight for dramatic purposes, and exist mostly to die gloriously.
So all of the attention is focused on our heroes on the ground—the same ones who have already planted bombs, and are in the middle of a dramatic character moment with a lot of emotion, and emotional tension, but not the tension you get from a race against the clock. At the final moment, time even seems to stand still, working against the larger sense of jeopardy the movie was supposed to create. All the pieces are working at cross-purposes.
What should the movie have done instead?
In the massive preemptive strike launched by the Super Weapon, it takes out multiple targets at once and then shuts down for a long period to recharge. This was a mistake, from a storytelling perspective. Only one of its targets was actually time-critical (the Republic fleet). Destroy that one first, and the others could be picked off at leisure. So what JJ Abrams should have done, is have the weapon fire once, every two minutes, continuously.
That way, every mistake the heroes make, every snag they hit, every obstacle they must overcome, means that millions more people die while they watch, each time the weapon fires again. Even better, it provides a better reason for the First Order to discover the location of the Resistance: when the X-Wing fighters make a panicked jump directly from their base to the Super Weapon, the bad guys can simply plot their path backward over the course of the next five or ten minutes. Then, after having destroyed several targets while we squirm in impotent horror, they can finally calculate the location of their hated enemies, and train their sights on the good guys, chortling evilly.
And then they can blow up.
That would have made for a much more effective Act III. And for the rest of us storytellers, it presents a lesson that sudden explosions are not necessarily better than explosions that we see coming, but cannot prevent.
[Edited to correct the name of the First Order.]
First off, this post about The Force Awakens will be spoiler-free—with the exception of a few bits of data about the power-politics situation in the Star Wars galaxy, which are actually provided in the opening crawl, so it’s not a big deal. If even this bothers you, feel free to click away; but the political background actually played very little role in the plot, so I feel comfortable discussing it more even for people who have not seen the movie.
Okay, so you’re still with me. I just saw TFA this evening (has that become the official acronym yet?), and the film gives us very little indeed about the politics behind it all. This is not a problem, exactly; the original films told us nothing except “Here is an empire, here are some rebels, go play.” I’m not demanding a strategic overview like something out of Clausewitz. (And of course, it would be silly to have some contrived plot about trade federations and blockades that hardly makes sense to a three-year-old… ahem.) But TFA gave us some tantalizing hints, that I can’t help but expand upon.
The Empire has fallen. The messy aftermath is not explored in any great depth, except that the New Republic apparently controls much of the Empire’s old territory—but not all of it. And in what remains, the First Order arises. It views itself as a strategic enemy of the New Republic, but has not launched an open war. Furthermore, the Republic has not made open war either, but instead creates a proxy group to fight the First Order, called the Resistance. (Because “Rebels” was taken, I suppose.)
This has many fascinating parallels with real-life insurgent groups, which are often supported or funded by neighboring states who wish to cause trouble for their enemies, while maintaining plausible deniability. (One of the key recent works on state support for insurgencies is Idean Salehyan’s Rebels Without Borders, a concise and informative work.) Usually, states support insurgencies if they are too weak to confront their enemy directly, or if they are powerful enough but simply don’t want to incur the costs of a direct conflict.
The movie is ambiguous on which of these is true for the Republic, but there is some evidence that the second case holds. In my view, the First Order would have dearly liked to crush the Republic even before the movie starts, but did not have the naval power to do so. So then why would the Republic resort to proxies instead of defeating them directly?
Furthermore, there are some hints (much more debatable) that not all of the Republic agrees with supporting the Resistance. A particular figure even seemed to have paid a political price for providing aid, giving up her prior position of authority. (I could be misreading this, but it seems right.) So why would the Republic be so reluctant to confront the First Order directly?
Perhaps the difficulties of rebuilding the galaxy have been too taxing. Reimposing order after the Empire’s fall would have been a grueling job, and it may not be done yet. Committing the fleet to a war might expose the Republic to dangers from other quarters. Or it may be simpler. Even if the Republic is wealthy and powerful on paper, its leaders may still bear scars from the last conflict that make them flinch away from taking on another one.
Whatever the reason, in the real world supporting proxy insurgents carries its own risks. For the state sponsor, insurgents can often provide a cheap and easy way to cause your enemy a lot of trouble; but the immediate costs may not be the whole story. The targeted country will be just as angry at state support of an insurgency as it would if it had been the subject of a full-blown war—without actually being weakened by one. And even though diplomatic fictions and strategic constraints may make retaliation difficult, the targeted country will often use any means available to strike back. Sometimes, support for proxies can lead to the worst of both worlds for the state providing support, an angry enemy at its full strength. In those cases, it would have been better to attack directly, or not at all.
Though I do hope that we get more information about the Star Wars Universe’s strategic picture in future films, I know that it’s not really that kind of film. But there does seem to be a lot more going on behind the scenes than is openly discussed in TFA, and all of it is compelling. Well done to the filmmakers!