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Monday, December 28, 2015

The Politics of: Star Wars VII

"The prequels trilogy is our last hope!"
"No . . . There is another."
The long wait has ended--the new era has begun: Star Wars VII is in theaters. The first part of this reviews the movie. The second does the politics and has spoilers.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

An equally fitting title might be "The Fan-base Awakens"--Star Wars has opened to record setting numbers. Here's a (non-inflation adjusted, but still) comparison:
Directed by JJ Abrams who proved he could bring the Star Trek franchise back from never-never land, it shows the craft of a director who has a very clear idea of what he has to do. What does he have to do? He has to make something that is interesting enough to stand on its own while hitting all the markers of familiarity in order to mesh itself with the canon.

In other words, The Force Awakens has to feel like the sequel to Return of the Jedi--it has to call back to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back (or maybe that should just be Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back--there has never been a movie series that is harder to figure out what to call its films).

Abrams does this relentlessly. The component elements, mostly centered on the first Star Wars movie (probably wisely, as this is the first of a new trilogy), come at us just slightly shifted around at a pace where each act feels both familiar and new.

We get to meet old characters--the droids, Han Solo, Chewbaca, Princess--now General--Leia. We get two ones in the form of Finn, a stormtrooper who switches sides, and Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet with a mysterious past and force powers. We get a new bad guy in a black suit, a black mask, and a red light-saber.

In the interest of not spoiling things (although, from the box-office, you've all seen it anyway), there isn't a great deal to say about the plot beyond:

  1. The acts are similar to those of Star Wars--both in pacing and content. They are not identical. Abrams feels he is making something more than a homage (it's a re-start) but knows he must not make a knock-off (he doesn't).
  2. The old characters feel well integrated if, well, old. If you're hoping for some CGI to make them look less aged, you're not getting it. They're 30 years older and so are we.
  3. The movie uses both coincidence (running into the Falcon by chance) and biology (at least one of the characters is a descendant of others from the first movie and is trying to live up to his heritage). The plotting may not be any model of genius but it gets the job done and, most importantly, feels like Star Wars.
In other words, this is sequel you were hoping to get instead of the The Phantom Menace. Is it "good"? Well, if your metric is "does this take Star Wars to a whole new level"? The answer is "No." Movies like Aliens and Terminator 2, did "the original but bigger and more impactful." With Star Wars you can't get "bigger" without destroying the galaxy or something. What you could do--what Disney has hinted at doing--is getting smaller

Doing a Star Wars where you aren't in the fastest ship in the galaxy, with one of the best pilots, and the best mechanic--where your enemy crime-lord isn't the worst the galaxy has seen--and fighting a foe who is pure evil--doing a smaller Star Wars would be a game changer.

On the other hand, that Star Wars probably wouldn't have that still climbing profit-arc. That Star Wars wouldn't be the thing to kick off the revival with. For that you need to go for the uncut Star Wars stuff, injected directly into the frontal cortex. That's what The Force Awakens does. 

When it strays from the original structure (think the bad-guy character throwing literal tantrums with his light-saber) it's surprising and refreshing. When we get a female kinda-sorta-version of Yoda, it feels comfortably familiar. Abrams is not the world's most surprising director but he is one of the ones with the best grip on the elements--the tropes--of genre. 

His appointment was the right thing to do--he has created a modern masterpiece that will probably create a new, young, legion of Star Wars fans while bringing most of those older ones who felt betrayed by the prequels back into the fold. The Force Awakens is a cultural moment--for that reason alone you should go see it.

You'll probably also have a good time.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens


The politics around Star Wars VII aren't about the remnants of the galactic empire or the inefficiency of The Republic. No, they're around a black storm trooper and a female lead. Star Wars Is A Social Justice Propaganda Film, says Return of Kings (a 'Men's Rights' web-site). The problems with Star Wars from the alt-right seem to be:
  1. Rey is simply too good, too fast. She is either a "Mary Sue" (a character a fan-fic author uses as a kind of self-insert to get acclaim from the actual main characters) or else a social-justice plug for "girl power."
  2. Finn, the black storm trooper, is an offense against clone-dom, is black for no reason other than racial-quota-style casting, and just isn't very good.
  3. Other characters, like First Order trooper Captain Phasma are just female for no reason. Basically the whole rest of the casting save for one guy (the resistance's best pilot) is only a white guy when there's no way around it (Han Solo)--or evil (his son).
Basically, they think that the movie is actively promoting "black over white" or otherwise just plugging social justice points as fast as they can. Is this the case? Let's take a look!

Rey? Girl Power? Mary Sue?

While JJ Abrams gets the blame for giving us a female protagonist, Matthew Vaughn, a director who entered negotiations, backed out due to differences over the "level of violence" and the "casting of the female lead." Of course just because Rey was in there from the start doesn't mean she wasn't a product of political correctness. 

Abrams has gone on the record as wanting a multi-cultural / racial / gendered cast. This isn't a surprise--it's a trend now in casting. The question is: are we stronger or weaker for it? The idea that "the best actor/actress" would be cast in a role but for the color of their skin (white people need not apply) is clearly nonsense. Firstly, while roles have been gender-flipped at times (Alien, notably, had Ripley written as a man), for the most part, women are cast for female roles and men are cast for male roles, and looking at a broad swath of races / colors can only help.

Keep in mind that (some) people were outraged over Idris Elba being cast as a Norse god in a Thor movie. Making the case that "The Norse Gods were not black," whether true or not, elides the question of whether Idris is a good actor (he is, if you debate that, The Omnivore cannot help you), and whether or not the movie falls apart when you cast a black actor as a Norse God (the presence of space ships and aliens were less historically accurate than skin color).

Is she "too powerful"? Well, while Return of Kings makes a case that Luke's skill was maybe reasonable and Rey's isn't, The Omnivore isn't so sure that holds up. Yes, Rey picks up force training really, really quickly--but there's no indication she does that "because she's female." If you protest that "she's obviously female so it counts as progressiveness run amok" consider that in Star Wars pretty much everyone is a quick study. Yes, Luke isn't ready to face Vader when he leaves Yoda--but he's blocking laser bolts from the training orb in like 26 minutes after getting the light saber.

The Omnivore finds Rey's ability no more questionable than, for example, Ripley making a decent Colonial Marine or Solo piloting through an asteroid field. She's good--but she isn't that good.

A final point: the bad guy, Kylo Ren, is really, really bad. He doesn't easily defeat a non-force-using storm-trooper. He throws tantrums. His big plan is a catastrophic failure. Basically, his whole deal is that he isn't up to snuff and he knows it. He also doesn't force-block Chewbaca's blaster-bolt. Beating him isn't trivial--but it isn't like beating Darth Maul either.

A Black Storm Trooper?? 

The casting of a black guy as a storm trooper was cause for anger . . . why? Because he's a bad actor? Doesn't seem like it. Because storm troopers aren't black? Well, they're clones of a Polynesian actor--so, yeah, not black--but probably not 'white' by racial-purists standards. The closest The Omnivore can get to this is that:
  1. It's a bit of a play-against-expectation to see a black guy come out of a white storm-trooper outfit and
  2. The eternal battle-cry of "why make him black??"
It's worth noting that, despite what some people believe, Star Wars does have a history of white people in black body-suits--why not a black guy in a white body suit? It's also noteworthy that Finn's character has no real defining cultural characteristics at all--he's a decent guy who is forced to witness (and almost participate in) an atrocity. There is nothing "black" about his character. There's nothing "white" about his character. He's just this guy--That's it. If we expect storm troopers to all be generic white guys under the suit, that's on us, not Star Wars.

The response to #2 is, of course, "Why not?" Just as with Thor, there doesn't seem to be a compelling loss by making Finn black. The idea that storm troopers are all identical clones has been ditched by canon for some time (indeed, his backstory seems plausible for the First Order).

The Multi-Culti Casting

We know Abrams made a choice to cast people from different cultures. This echoes the discussion, decades ago, around casting a black guy (Lando) in Empire. The issue here is that being "inclusive" is a problem for a lot of people--objectively so. The question is "Why?"

To answer that, let's look to the concept of 'privilege.' No, The Omnivore isn't about to lecture you on checking your privilege--the opposite, actually. Consider this: In the original privilege article we see this:
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
Now. privilege is either a thing--or it is bullshit. If it is bullshit, then #6 on the list of privilege is bullshit and being able to turn on the TV and see white people isn't a big deal to most white people.

That may well actually be true.

But to some dimension of white people, being able to turn on the TV and see other white people is very, very important. For those people--the white supremacist / white-genocide guys--that #6 really is a privilege--and one they plan to fight like hell to keep.

On the other hand, if you, reader, don't really identify with the white nationalist dudes do you want to keep making that privilege a thing? Because if you're complaining about racial casting, that's what you're doing (the link above ignores that Han Solo, Luke, and Leia are all in the movie and all white--and there is no real counterpoint to them on the bad-guy list. Chewbaca is white too).

Conclusions

The politics around Star Wars VII are around those of eroding privilege in the face of the modern media. The Force Awakens clocks in at 94% critical acclaim and 91% reader-reviews on Rotten Tomatoes--this alone justifies virtually any decision Abrams made as a director (the bad reviews seem to be around it "not being original enough"--and the tidal wave of good reviews indicates he made the right call there too).

If the movie is objectively good--from both the populace and the critics then either societies metrics are wholesale broken . . . or the haters are. You decide.

3 comments:

  1. The white pilot? Oh, yeah. You must referring to Oscar Isaac Hernández...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. * White Hispanic

      -The Omnivore

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  2. [veronica here]

    I loved-loved-loved that TFA has a female lead. I LOVE it.

    I mean, I would, right?

    But all the same, white dudes are *not* abstract, universal people. They are culturally situated. And myself, being not-a-dude, I love seeing movies where various not-a-dudes can frolic around and have adventures. Dudely heroes are dime-a-dozen. Done with that.

    Personally the race stuff doesn't matter to me, being white myself. But the thing is, I understand how much my heart soars when I see someone-like-me in a movie -- and dammit *that* is rare as heck -- so I suppose a lot of minority people must feel like that. Plenty say they do. It seem likely. So yeah. Obviously having black leads matters. So let's have more black leads. Duh.

    Cuz white dudes aren't universal, abstract people.

    Neither are black people, of course, but that's the point.

    The people who get upset about this? They're fucking bigots, all the way to the bone. I mean, it's disgusting. Throw rocks at them. Kick 'em in the knee.

    ReplyDelete