The Dark Side Awakens: The Eternal Recurrence of Reactionary Societies in Star Wars

As a moviegoer last year I was equally parts dismayed and underwhelmed by Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  (Hold on, fans, there will be something for you here…) The uber-hype-fest that drew the culture to the theaters in a frenzy made serious hay from our 80s movie nostalgia. But the movie oozing with spectacle and the overwhelming ecstasy of communication I felt was about as deep as the kiddie pool.  Or, at least so I thought.  Turns out, that the reasons I didn’t like the movie are the reasons it may turn out to be ironically prophetic.

So other than my little objections to the movie emanating from the flat dialog, thinly written characters, unintegrated spectacle devoid of drama or suspense, or a bunch of unearned moments (that is; here is an orphan girl, Rey, who has taken a few days to master skills that took Yoda and Obi-wan and the rest of them years of practice to master, giving the impression to our new youth that success can come easy without hard dedication), is the fact that here we have an evil empire which has returned and the form it takes is exactly the way it was before.  This was your biggest-kept-secret  script, J.J. ?!?   WTF?   In fact, the entire movie is nothing but a beat-for-beat remake of the original Star Wars.  Because it is so very close to the original story, identical in theme and plot, even duplicating the character archetypes, the Death Star, the costumes, everything, it also leaves a kind of damned nihilistic impression that the story can ultimately go nowhere else.  It leaves the impression that the spirit of Star Wars mythhistory is always about the evil empire, always about the revolutionaries, and the counterrevolution and so on and so forth.  (By the way, this mini essay could just as easily be about the Terminator movies.)  It’s a universe always in conflict.

As someone who grew up aware of Star Wars, (and I’m really more of a Star Trek fan, but that too is another story), I grew up with a naïve moral sense that history can reach some happy conclusion, that we can reach beyond the trappings of greed and power to reveal an egalitarian peaceful future. With the Return of the Jedi in 1983, we have the optimistic myth of the redemption of history, where the dark father (a conscious homonym with Darth Vader) can be overcome.

A Force Awakens contradicts this optimism with the most pessimistic backlash. It confines us to a kind of damnation of eternal recurrence. I responded to this with repulsion at first just on an artistic level, while at the same time feeling silly that I’m starting to analyze a movie predominantly made for children as if it were Shakespeare.  But I think there is a bit more here in this idea of eternal recurrence, for it tempers revolutionary optimism with its frank dialectical opponent, reactive nostalgia for an imaginary past. Revolutionaries dream of bright utopian futures, reactionaries dream of when things used to be great.  These two forces may be part of the pendulum swing of history.  This dark side looks like reactive politics today – in the form of nationalism and nativism, new levels of racism and xenophobia, and the emergence from the shadows of Isis in Syria, Brexit, as well as renewed flirtations with nationalism in France, Greece, and many other places, including of course, the mainstreaming of the Alt-Right in America.  Steve Bannon even prides himself as a Darth Vader in cargo shorts.

It amazes me that Star Wars is one of the most popular stories over the last forty years, a new conscious mythology. But it seems to me the significant meaning of the whole thing – I mean, come on, it is explicitly about the seduction of power that ruins a republic and turns it into a totalitarian state – is not really a moral that translates to people’s political lives. And I think that as a prevailing modern popular story for forty years, for anyone under fifty who grew up with this story, it would be at least subliminally relevant. It’s just not in evidence to me that it is effective, as if it was somehow morally edifying to citizens of a republic, as a warning to us.  The Jacobins never foresaw Napoleonic French nationalism either, could not anticipate autocratic urges lurking the id.

A Force Awakens, I think is not conscious of any of this, for I think its force is with Disney profit motive above all else. But remember, the injunctions on the culture industry are equally at work in the structure of society at large. And curiously, the truth is something that I wish were not so.  It’s not an optimistic tale of overcoming the dark side.  No, it is a tale about the universal truth of the dark side.  Instead, it peers into this eternal dilemma for us of an universal Ur-fascism, as coined by Umberto Eco.  For that sake, the new movie should have been called The Dark Side Awakens.  And it turns out that Disney can continue these movies indefinitely because history does indeed repeat itself.  However, I caution that the quality of these movies may continue to decline if it is, as Karl Marx wrote, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”  That is to say, the more repetitive this story gets, the more subject it will be for ridicule.  It’s enough to join Luke’s reaction when he understands his origins, “Noooooooo!!”  ………