Since the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” came out over the Thanksgiving weekend, fans have debated literally everything in and about the short clip, from the racial composition of the Imperial Navy to the utility of crossguards on a lightsaber (a subject on which The Post is officially split). And while we are all reading things into these precious seconds of footage at this point, I found myself just as excited by the image of a frightened, sweating man sitting up and looking around the waste in which he is marooned as I was by the sight of the Millennium Falcon soaring skyward.
In the “Star Wars” universe, politics, even on the highest level, is almost always a personal affair. Palpatine pursues democratic power and then dictatorship because of his own belief in his abilities, and because his private devotion to the Sith, which in George Lucas’s films is essentially a cultic religion. Darth Vader has a similar absolute faith in the Emperor’s power. His opposition to the Rebellion is rooted not in a political program or philosophical differences, but in a distaste for disorder and anything that challenges Palpatine’s reign.
In his original trilogy, Lucas is similarly focused on individuals who join the Rebellion and personify the Empire, rather than in explaining the grand strategy of either side. Mon Mothma, a Galactic Senator-turned-Rebellion leader and eventual Chief of State of the New Republic, appears mostly in the backgrounds of scenes and in briefings. Grand Moff Tarkin and other Imperial officials talk about tactics and technology rather than about their political visions.
Princess Leia may be the series’ most committed revolutionary, but we know essentially nothing about what she believes in other than freedom from Imperial tyranny and the idea that blowing up other people’s home planets is not attractive behavior. Han Solo gets in on the action for the cash and stays for the kisses and a restored sense of personal honor. Luke Skywalker first hungers for adventure, then for revenge and finally craves balance. Lando Calrissian’s quasi-libertarian approach to running the Cloud City mining colony without attracting the attention and oversight of either the Empire or the Rebellion is the closest thing we get to a character arguing that there is a best way to run institutions.
Discussions of Lucas’s prequel movies tend to focus on the dreadful acting and racist foolishness therein, but they are also the movies where Lucas tried to develop actual political factions and positions. And even though he failed, there are a lot of interesting things going on in his creations.
In the Trade Federation, we get a vision of corporate leaders as small-minded and easy to manipulate. General Grievous, a cyborg with formidable lightsaber skills, represents the uneasy melding of man and machine that is in opposition to the Force. He also reminds us that even in a universe that recognizes many kinds of beings as sentient and intelligence, there are still bound to be clashes between people who see themselves as superior and those they understand to be lesser.
And the Star Wars Expanded Universe succeeded where Lucas proved himself so clumsy. In novels, games and spin-off television shows, we got a sense of how hard it is to build a coalition government, the cultures of politically independent systems like Corellia, the codes of traders and smugglers who operate beyond the reach of any government, and the devastating impacts of powerful economic cartels. We even saw what it would take to reunite the remnants of the Empire with the New Republic when a terrifying new species invaded the galaxy, intending to repurpose inhabited planets for their own use.
These flickerings of political ideas were why I was excited that John Boyega’s face, as a sweaty, lost storm trooper, is the first we see in the trailer for “Episode VII.”
Imperial Storm Troopers have always been formidable in part because of their anonymity, and in the prequel films, we learned that this blankness was in part by design: the first men to wear the white armor in Imperial service were clones. Now, for the first time since those white suits were filled with cloned troops, we are getting a glimpse of a storm trooper as an individual and separated from his colleagues. Whether he was cooked up in the lab or joined the Imperial Navy of his own volition, Boyega’s character is one of our first chances to see why an individual might join the Imperial Navy at the rank and file level — and why he might leave.
By venturing a to a galaxy far, far away, the original “Star Wars” movies managed to shake loose of the allusions to contemporary politics that shape so many fantasy and science fiction movies today. But if the most basic step in a hero’s journey — the decision to leave home — translated to a dusty little foreign planet of George Lucas’s imagining, the most basic question of politics — how to have a better life — can as well. And if J.J. Abrams wants to tell a story about the awakening of an old power and the victory of a new political movement over a sclerotic old system, it is an issue that ought to inform his story and his new characters.