The Force Awakens marks a fresh (and progressive) start for the Star Wars series
The minute I read the first sentence of the opening crawl – “Luke Skywalker has vanished” – I knew I was watching Star Wars again. Indeed, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, delivered the goods that fans of the original trilogy craved out of the extremely underwhelming prequel movies. Director J.J. Abrams mixed a potent cocktail of original storytelling, proven plot elements, dynamic new characters and familiar actors (Harrison Ford giving his best performance in 25 years). Over the film's 135-minute runtime, I felt the same childhood sense of awe and excitement that I experienced as a seven year-old watching the original films for the first time.
Fans and critics have spent the last month deconstructing everything about The Force Awakens, and its politics are no exception. Unlike Star Trek's overwhelmingly progressive vision of a communist future, the Star Wars series has always had more muddled political content. While the original trilogy pitted a group of self-described rebels against a literal Empire, several critics speculated that the films fed into the anti-Soviet Cold War politics of U.S. politicians in the 70s and 80s. Even the class composition of the rebel forces – former royalty (Princess Leia), deposed religious aristocrats (the Jedi), criminal smugglers (Han Solo), and union-busters (Lando Calrissian) – raises questions of how progressive the rebellion actually is.
In some ways, the prequel trilogy's story of the 'fall of the Old Republic' and the rise of the Empire tried to remedy this by incorporating a major galactic trade dispute and political crisis into the story. Released in 2005 amid growing opposition to the war in Iraq, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith's anti-Bush message is about as subtle as James Cameron's Avatar. But the prequels serve as a crucial reminder to progressives that a good political message can't make up for terrible production, bad acting, sloppy writing, and cringe-worthy dialogue.
The Force Awakens is actually an improvement on the previous installments in the series in this regard. Taking place 30 years after the last film ( Return of the Jedi), the story's main villain is a right-wing paramilitary outfit called the First Order, made up of the most reactionary remnants of the fallen Galactic Empire. With their Nazi-style black uniforms, demagoguery, continued use of 'stormtroopers' to enforce their rule, and penchant for inter-planetary genocide, the First Order is decidedly fascist. They're particularly timely and frightening given the rise of far-right forces in the U.S. and Western Europe.
The new set of heroes introduced in the film are also stark improvements over their counterparts in the preceding films. In the original trilogy, the only significant Black character was Lando Calrissian, an anti-union capitalist who betrays his friends to the Empire. But in The Force Awakens, we meet Finn, a Black stormtrooper who refuses to fight for the First Order and becomes a leader in the resistance. Similarly, the film's badass female lead character, Rey, comes from an impoverished background and quickly learns to use the Force in fighting the First Order – a sharp contrast to Princess Leia's royal pedigree and her passivity throughout most of the original trilogy.
While there are a lot of positive aspects to The Force Awakens, the film is by no means perfect. The prequel films got bogged down by its overwrought parliamentary politics and tedious trade disputes. As if in response to these common fan criticisms, J.J. Abrams makes the opposite mistake by giving us too little information about the Star Wars universe after the fall of the Empire. State power in the galaxy, we are told, lies in a new Republic government, which the First Order seeks to overthrow. How and more importantly why a 'rebellion' continues to exist in this context is perplexing, and its relationship to the Republic goes largely unexplained. Hopefully future installments can tell an equally tight story while also fleshing out the political dynamics of the Star Wars universe.
There's no doubt that The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film in last 35 years, when The Empire Strikes Back – commonly regarded as the best film in the series – was released. With its return-to-form storytelling and genuinely enjoyable characters, old and new, it revived a great but struggling sci-fi series for 21st century audiences.