(Lucasfilm)

We are the evil Empire now: This is how "Star Wars" grows up — by confronting what it means to become a traitor to your own beliefs

Today's rebels are tomorrow's establishment — just ask the Tea Party. The new "Star Wars" needs to deal with that


Arthur Chu
October 26, 2015 4:00AM (UTC)

So I’m as excited about the "Star Wars Episode VII" trailer as the next huge dork. The story of this year’s "Star Wars" hype has been one thing we didn’t know we’d always wanted until we saw it after another. We still have absolutely no idea what the BB-8 droid is, what it does or what role it plays in the story but people are already incorporating it into Halloween costumes. Characters we’ve never met who have no known connection to the Skywalker/Solo clan have already inspired fans and shippers, much like fans in the 1970s fell in love with the bounty hunter Boba Fett on the strength of a cartoon short and an action figure. (They ended up cruelly disappointed, but that’s neither here nor there.)

This is all enough to make me cautiously optimistic that the “magic” of "Star Wars" might be coming back. The key to the magic coming back is, of course, not getting the sinking feeling that we’re just rehashing the former magic over and over, that we’re not going to get the disastrous Anakin Skywalker backstory obsession of the prequels or the endless Mary Sueing/Gary Stuing of the Skywalker-Solo kids from the old tie-in books.

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What gives me hope is the sense that — even if fan theories that Rey or Finn or Jason Isaacs’ Poe Dameron have secret Skywalker blood bear out — these characters are being presented to us as unfamiliar and new. We’re not doing what unimaginative fanfic writers do and filling in perceived blanks in George Lucas’ original story or doing riffs on it, spinning our wheels in the rut that Lucasfilm’s "Star Wars" tie-in properties spent so much time in.

The biggest applause line in the new trailer is when we see the weathered, grizzled face of Harrison Ford telling our new young heroes, “It’s true, all of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi, they’re real.” Han Solo is directly contradicting his memorable dismissal of “hokey religions and ancient weapons” in the first "Star Wars." He’s gone from the brash young man who lives in the present to the wise old mentor who remembers legends from the past. Unlike the failed attempt to revive the "Indiana Jones" franchise with Ford still playing the action hero he used to be -- unlike the many annoying attempts to bank on nostalgia for yesterday’s action heroes -- this movie has the courage to pass the torch, to make the old story a springboard for the new one.

I keep telling my friends I’m stoked that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford are back in this cast -- and I’m even more stoked that, much as I love these actors, none of them have yet had a leading role in the trailers. All the secrecy around the new "Star Wars" gives me hope -- a new hope, you might say -- that this franchise is lucrative and well-established enough that the filmmakers might be willing to take risks with it, that this movie won’t be just a glorified cast reunion and cash grab.

That said, there’s one particular risk I dearly hope they will take, and it’s one that involves an actor from the first trilogy taking a pivotal role.

I’m on board with the people who hope that Kylo Ren, the creepy masked figure/Darth Vader wannabe who leads the “First Order” trying to restore the Empire played (in his Kylo Ren guise) by Adam Driver, either is Luke Skywalker in disguise or is acting on his behalf.

It’s not just because Mark Hamill personally wanted to play a bad guy this time around, and it’s not just because Mark Hamill has arguably had a much more successful and storied career playing bad guys than he has playing Luke Skywalker. (If you think I just mean the Joker, check out his work as Fire Lord Ozai or as half of Metalocalypse’s Tribunal.)

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It’s not just because, if you still care about George Lucas’ original vision, the "Dark Empire" comic book was the Star Wars “sequel” Lucas had the most direct involvement in and Luke’s fall to the Dark Side is a key plot point in that story (along with Emperor Palpatine coming back in the form of a series of clones, which is a plot point I don’t endorse Disney borrowing).

It’s not even that it makes Luke’s character more interesting. I’ve pointed out in the past that "Star Wars" talks about being about internal moral struggle but doesn’t really succeed as such; Luke struggles with negative emotions like being alternately afraid of and angry at his genocidal cyborg father, but he never actually does anything a normal person would call “evil” during the story.

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All of these are good, interesting reasons to have a Dark Side Luke in the sequels. Having the Darth Vader arc only this time redeeming a character we actually did know and like as a good guy, so we can actually make the painful comparison between who he used to be and who he’s become, so we can actually root for his redemption on a personal level -- making the Vader redemption arc work on that level would be picking up the original trilogy’s biggest dropped ball.

But that’s not the biggest reason for doing it. In fact, if that were the main reason for doing it I’d oppose it, because that would make the story be exactly what I don’t want it to be, bringing back the original trilogy’s main character and doing his story all over again instead of moving on to something new.

I want Luke Skywalker to fall to the Dark Side for real because "Star Wars" is a story about rebellion -- it’s right in the name of the good guys, the Rebel Alliance or, in "Episode VII," the Resistance -- and the most important lesson for wannabe rebels to learn is:

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Today’s Rebels are tomorrow’s Empire. Today’s Empire were yesterday’s Rebels. 

Rebellion never fully stops. The day is always coming when you might find yourself convicted by conscience and have to turn traitor to your own cause. We’ll never be free of rebellion, at least not until that mythical future where everything’s perfect, which ain’t coming anytime soon.

The prequels dealt with this theme, showing the “good guys” building an army of stormtroopers and violently quashing insurrection and electing the future cackling dictator Palpatine into office as the galaxy’s rightful ruler. But it didn’t deal with it on a personal level. Leaving aside the failure to make a Shakespearean tragedy out of Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side -- as opposed to an impatient wait for this whiny teenager to fall into a lava pit and become a villain who was at least cool -- no one else changes allegiances in the story. Palpatine was secretly a monster planning to seize totalitarian rule all along.

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The Jedi are shown as misguided but not corrupted, and every single one of them except Anakin dies fighting for the good guys once Palpatine reveals his true nature. The indoctrinated clone troopers of the prequels don’t have much moral agency at all, casually accepting an order to turn on and assassinate their Jedi commanding officers without even a second’s hesitation.

This time it’s different. Based on what little we know, one of our heroes, Finn, once served as a stormtrooper, actively sworn to uphold law and order in the name of the Empire, before defecting -- a moral switch none of the sympathetic characters in the original trilogy ever makes, where everyone who’s halfway decent automatically hates the Empire as a matter of course.

This time, instead of an Empire composed entirely of assholes who hate each other, try to strangle each other during staff meetings, say “my friend” to each other in tones of dripping irony -- with Kylo Ren’s obsession with Darth Vader (whether or not he’s secretly Darth Vader’s son) we have a hint of a genuine case of hero-worship on the Imperial side, of someone who really believes in the cause.

These are just hints that "The Force Awakens" will take seriously the idea of confronting and rejecting your old ideals when they fail you. Finn’s Stormtrooper past or Ren’s genuine love for the dream of his dead father (literal or figurative) might turn out to have little significance in the finished film.

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But I have hope it’ll be more than that. The "Star Wars" I want to see is a story where rebellion isn’t just a convenient label for the good guys but is the core theme, where we face head-on the emotional struggle of becoming a traitor to something you once believed in.

If you make rebellion seem easy and natural, young wholesome blue-eyed farmboy Luke instinctively siding with the Rebels because obviously the Empire is evil -- then you miss the whole point of rebellion. You open the "Star Wars" franchise up to its most obvious critique, which is that the country we live in -- the world’s only remaining superpower -- is the closest thing we have to "Star Wars"’ Empire, that the superweapons that most resemble the Death Star in real life aren’t pointed at us but at our enemies, that we are the ones regularly causing voices to suddenly cry out in terror only to be suddenly silenced, and most of us don’t seem too eager to rebel.

But imagine if the story forced us to confront this fact. Imagine if we had to deal with someone fighting for tyranny and destruction who really thought he was upholding law and order, fighting for his “way of life.” Imagine really confronting the fact that we’re all heroes in our own story, that bad guys not played by a yellow-eyed Ian McDiarmid rarely think of themselves as such, and that the heroes and legends of our own culture are built on a foundation of murder.

I would love to see Luke Skywalker live long enough to become a villain. I would love to see a film with the message that the next hero might not look anything like Luke Skywalker -- might be black, might be Latino, might be a woman -- and, in order to fight for what Luke once stood for, might have to fight against Luke himself.

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It’s a powerful message and a message suited for our times, with young progressives losing faith in old guard Democrats as their Tea Party counterparts do the same with Establishment Republicans, with all of us grappling with how our faves are problematic and our heroes had feet of clay -- with how Gandhi was racist and FDR threw Japanese-Americans in camps and our modern incarnation of “hope” and “change” shoots people dead with drones every week, how every rebel and reformer turns out to have gaps in their idea of justice a mile wide, waiting for the next generation of rebels to fix them.

Where Robert Redford comes back to play the bad guy in a Captain America movie about how the well-meaning, idealistic rebels of an earlier era became everything they once fought against. Where Atticus Finch lives long enough to find out the exact same attitude and beliefs that made him yesterday’s White Savior hero makes him today’s unreconstructed Klansman.

Who knows what Han Solo’s relationship with Finn and Rey will be? But I hope that it’s less one-sided than Luke’s relationship with Obi-Wan -- keeping in mind that Luke, himself, only saves the world by becoming a bigger man than Obi-Wan was and disregarding his instructions to keep fighting the old war the old way.

I hope we get to see up close the psychological effects of a man forced to take up arms against his former friends and allies -- whether that be Finn against his former brothers-in-arms or Han Solo against a Dark Side Luke. I hope that the actors bring more depth to it than Ewan MacGregor’s rant in "Revenge of the Sith," that we get to the root of the real fear that comes with every conflict -- not the fear that a good man might become a raving monster through dark magic, but the fear that a good man might do evil things because of the very qualities that make him good, that he might fight for an evil cause because he believes he’s doing what’s right.

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I have a lot of hopes for this movie. Say what you will about "Star Wars’" cheesiness and crass commercialism -- and I’ve said a lot over the years -- but it’s an enduring franchise because it speaks to deep themes of rebellion and resistance in our culture. We’re excited by Luke Skywalker not just because of the fantasy of picking up a weapon and fighting evil enemies -- we’re excited because of the energizing possibility of seeing what’s broken and twisted and wrong in the world and taking action to fix it. We want to join the Rebellion against the Empire.

Lucas genuinely sought to convey a subversive message with his films, intending the original trilogy as a statement against the Vietnam War and his prequel trilogy as a statement against the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for the Empire to co-opt rebellion by branding themselves as the rebels--something Reagan’s speechwriters did with "Star Wars"' rhetoric almost effortlessly.

That question, of figuring out whether you’re the Rebels or the Empire, of realizing you might have to rebel against the Rebels -- that’s something "Star Wars" has never really grappled with. The ambiguous political situation in "The Force Awakens," with the “First Order” as an insurgency seeking to restore the Empire, might be a good place for the franchise to start asking that question. Subverting the legacy of legendary heroes and forcing us to confront a Dark Luke? Even better.


Arthur Chu

MORE FROM Arthur Chu


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