Both equal parts praise and scorn have been dished out by reviewers of The Force Awakens. Praise for its aesthetic and production choices like shooting on film, using practical effects, and eschewing green screens whenever possible. Additional praise for female and black leads with great chemistry, the handling of old characters, and the design of BB8. Scorn for a plot that essentially retreads the original trilogy, with a script mirroring A New Hope almost beat-for-beat with elements of Jedi in the mix.
However, every review I've seen of The Force Awaken, both positive and negative, has missed the biggest bombshell dropped on us by JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan: the First Order can fire a weapon through hyperspace. This information came from a single line of dialog, delivered by an insignificant, nameless character, but it should have been even more terrifying news than when the rebellion first learned of the Death Star. Everyone in the room should have stopped and shuddered at the implications. Through hyperspace!
Until now, weapons in the Star Wars universe have always operated at visual range. The Death Star was powerful, but needed to be in sight of its target. Because of that, the rebels always had time to prepare a counter attack or flee. However, a weapon that can fire through hyperspace, regardless of its destructive capacity, is the ultimate weapon of terror. Cities, bases, and ships could be destroyed anytime, anywhere in the galaxy, with no warning. No one could ever feel safe, not even in the most remote edges of the galaxy. However, it seems the filmmakers were so blinded by their desire to retread the original trilogy, they missed the opportunity to tell a compelling original story about terrorism, imperial collapse, and the realities of regime change.
Galactic Politics Post-Return of the Jedi
Most reviewers have commented on the galaxy's confusing politics in The Force Awakens. As expected, a New Republic has been formed under the leadership of the Rebellion, but the Empire seems just as strong as ever, now re-branded as the First Order. Not only is the First Order as well equipped and funded as the Empire, their new Star Destroyers are even bigger than before! And Star Killer Base is bigger than the Death Star! Even more confusingly, instead of an Army of the Republic, we have something called the Resistance. The opening crawl should have provided some details, but it did not. So what happened after the death of Emperor Palpatine?
It seems a whole bunch of scenes were shot with Princess Leia that would have explained this mess, but they were cut from the film. They are included in the DVD, but present a confused, poorly thought out history of the galaxy after Jedi. Here is a summary: Following the Battle of Endor, the rebellion clashes with remnants of the imperial fleet, culminating in a battle above Jakku where the rebellion is victorious. The leadership of the Rebellion then signs a treaty with imperial loyalists that brings peace but divides the galaxy. Some of the galaxy remains the territory of the First Order while the rest forms the New Republic -- in other words, the Rebellion failed in its mission to liberate the entire galaxy from tyranny and was comfortable with a partial victory. Afterwards Leia tries to convince Republic politicians of the threat posed by the First Order, but her arguments to build a new Army of the Republic are inexplicably rejected. Thus, she leaves politics and forms the Resistance to fight the First Order. Meanwhile the First Order builds in strength and secretly violates its treaty with the New Republic.
Keep the Good Guys Need as Underdogs
Politics in The Force Awakens are all a big mess, but I know why JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan did it: Star Wars is about cheering for the underdog. Hence they had to come up with a way, no matter how convoluted, to make the good guys an underdog even though the Rebellion clearly triumphed at the end of Jedi. I agree with the goal but not the means they took to achieve it. There was a better way, one so simple it could have been outlined in the opening crawl. A weapon that can fire through hyperspace is key, as is taking inspiration from history. Here's how I would have done it:
1) A liberated galaxy. Unlike in The Force Awakens, the Rebel Alliance successfully liberated the entire galaxy and no part remains the territory of a imperial holdout.
2) A fractured galaxy. After the Battle of Endor and the defeat of the Empire, it's unlikely the entire galaxy would have willingly united under a single government, no matter how democratic, and especially without the Jedi. It was the galaxy's unification that allowed the Empire to form in the first place. Instead, the galaxy more likely would have fractured into small regional states based on race, ethnicity, language, et cetera, just as the Soviet Union did. Or as Yugoslavia did. Or as Iraq is currently doing. The Rebel Alliance was united in their opposition to the Empire after all, not necessarily by a shared vision of a post-war order. Additionally, without the Jedi and their religion of the Force, nothing can unite the many races of the galaxy.
3) Imperial loyalists go underground, become cult-like, and form terror cells. Like after the fall of Nazi Germany, there would logically be imperial loyalists who believe with religious-like fervor in the glory of the former Empire. Their ideology would be similar to but not exactly like that of the Empire. For example, Neo-nazis rarely display an aptitude for strategic political thinking or the discipline that characterized the original Nazi party during its ascendancy. In my imagining of Star Wars, the neo-imperialists would likely be devout believers in the Force (its dark side, obviously) even though the old Empire was atheistic and materialistic. Why? Since the emperor and Vader were believers, but no one else was, its easy to imagine that the neo-imperialists would come to believe that if the entire Empire had been believers, they would not have been defeated.
4) A campaign of terror. One of these neo-imperialists, a former imperial scientist, has developed a new technology that can fire a weapon through hyperspace. While small compared to the Death Star, it is mobile and can destroy cities and military bases with a single shot. This weapon can fire from any point in space and hit any other point in space, and the neo-imperialists use it to engage in a campaign of galaxy-wide terrorism.
5) Terrorism destabilizes a still struggling galaxy. Still rebuilding from years of imperial rule and civil war, the galactic peace is fragile and susceptible to fear. The campaign of terror waged by the neo-imperialists fosters authoritarianism, militarism, and distrust among the many small states.
6) Only the Jedi can find the hyperspace weapon and unite the small states under a shared belief system. The opening of The Force Awakens starts with a great hook:
where is Luke Skywaker? Clearly the galaxy needs the Jedi, but the reason provided by Max Von Sydow's character is terrible: "Without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the Force." Like all the
talk of Force-balancing in the prequel trilogy, this is nonsense. We are never presented with an explanation of what a balanced Force means, or looks like, or why "an energy field created by all living things [that] surrounds us and penetrates us [and] binds the galaxy together" needs balancing by human agency.
Instead, it would have been much more compelling if Leia and company were searching for Luke because they had failed time and again to locate the hyperspace weapon, and every day galactic peace
and stability grew weaker. Only Luke and his use of the Force could track down the weapon. (Remember how it is Vader, with his preternatural abilities, who discerns the location of the hidden
rebel base in Empire Strikes Back? Same thing.)
Here's how the opening crawl of my alternative Episode 7 would read:
Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the small but sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire. With a new weapon that can fire through hyperspace, it wages a campaign of terror across the galaxy. No city or planet is safe.
The NEW REPUBLIC struggles to maintain a fragile peace with many small states that formed after the collapse of the Empire, but without the Jedi has been unable to find the hyperspace weapon or bring an end to the terrorism. Desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy, Senator Leia Organa has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts….
Keeps the politics simple yet exciting, right? The good guys remain underdogs. What's at stake is straight forward and easy to understand -- and it doesn't bury the lead.
- September 2016
PS - Journalism majors, I know that in journalism jargon you spell it "lede" but nobody else does.