The night before seeing The Force Awakens, I said to a friend, “You know what I’m excited about? Han Solo now lives in a galaxy where respect for women is a cultural norm and he can no longer go around sexually harassing every women who sits in his cockpit.”
Full disclosure: I’m not a dedicated Star Wars fanatic. I may have preached a sermon last Sunday in which I called Luke Skywalker “an emotionally stunted Jedi who avoids emotional growth by hiding behind the veil of his masculinity.” But I do happen to have friends. I hadn’t intended to see Star Wars on opening weekend, but peer pressure is a powerful thing.
And it was! It was satisfying to see how much influence feminism has had in the galaxy in the last three decades. It was satisfying to see an independent black man and a skilled white woman rise up, to create a collaborative, intercultural, relational approach to destroying fascist power.
It was satisfying to see the open communication style between the Millennial-space generation, who don’t keep secrets for long and who meet each other in their weaknesses and build into their strengths. It was rewarding to see two young people who understood that the Force is ultimately a relational religion and to intentionally cultivate shared leadership and healthy interpersonal development. It was gratifying to see intergenerational collaboration toward a common goal, to see Hollywood highlighting mentorship and innovation, its successes and its challenges. It was a relief to see a leadership role for a woman over 40. It was refreshing to see an old white man responding to a romantic interest in his peer, rather than a woman two decades his junior. Han Solo, you made third wave feminism proud.
The interpersonal dynamics of the film were refreshing. As if all the cultural critique of the last generation is finally catching Hollywood’s attention.
Except. It’s still fundamentally a story of a galaxy caught in a tumultuous civil and ideological war. And as a pacifist, I am stumped as to how a documentary of this war could fail to acknowledge a single planet that demonstrates a collective nonviolent social resistance to an oppressive regime. It’s unbelievable. Lightsabers? Fine. Choking people with your mind? Possible. Surviving a crash that literally blows your spaceship apart? I’ll take it. But the idea that there is no unified, nonviolent response to an oppressive state? It’s unrealistic.
This is where Hollywood has not changed. The film still turns on out-exploding its predecessor. Why blow up one planet when you can blow up five? Not only is that inconsistent with the whole plot (how can a weakened regime somehow build a more powerful nuclear weapon than they were able to wield when they were in power?), but it’s inconsistent with the religion of the Force. As my (more knowledgeable) friend pointed out, when we left the theater, “How is it that five planets explode, and people look up in surprise? But in A New Hope, when the Death Star blows up Alderaan, Obi-Wan Kenobi just about keels over. He feels it.”
Apparently, in the last 30 years, the world of Star Wars not only had the same feminist concientization that we had in our world, they also experienced the same desensitized reaction to violence that we’ve experienced in our world. Based on the earlier films, you would expect Rey and Finn to pass out at the moment the blast hits each planet (which is somehow simultaneous). But they stay on their feet and immediately return to their own concerns.
How many more planets can the producers invent, just to destroy? In what galaxy are there enough life-saturated planets to go around blowing them up just for fun? How much more will they play on the assumption that audiences will tolerate any degree of violence for the thrill of it? It’s a cheap trick. It’s a bet against empathy. It’s a bet that life is expendable, while by the same token, they bet that the bloody print on Finn’s helmet will hook our empathy on him. It’s emotionally manipulative, crude, and highly problematic to have a universe where worlds are capriciously destroyed for minor plot points.
In the previews before the film, I saw four ads for explosion-based action flicks and followed by one oddly dissonant children’s animated feature. Aliens blew up continents at least twice, in separate previews. When did it become radically socially conservative to ask for fewer continental explosions in our cultural discourse? How can we have a conversation about gun violence without setting limits on the violence of our collective imagination? Can we not agree that there are some violences we should not imagine in public?
A desensitized Star Wars benefits no one, save the NRA and the war hawks begging us to nuke Iran. Star Wars was always a series that shines in the individual battle: the trademark lightsaber scenes, in choreographed fights that are a metaphor for self-growth. And in The Force Awakens, the lightsaber battle at the end of the film–it was cinematically and narratively more interesting than the gratuitous ejaculation of violence that destroyed so many planets. But if this new trilogy continues this trajectory, if it privileges big-ticket explosions over individual character battles, it loses not only ethical depth, but the original spirit of the films. It’s no longer playing by the internal universe rules, it’s playing for cheap applause in a numbed crowd.
Fiction always says more about the culture that created it than about the fictional world itself. Fiction is a product of social imagination.
If we show up for the global explosion montages, we’re already giving up the ethical ambiguity of violence. We’re already giving up any substantive conversation about gratuitous violence in our culture. When Christians see Star Wars, this is the conversation we ought to have.
Let us applaud the interpersonal growth, the social awareness of the writers. Let us applaud black and female protagonists. But let us hold them accountable–even under a guise a regime of unspeakable violence, there are some things we will not stand to watch. As a media of sight and sound and overwhelming experience, there are some experiences we’re not interested in having. There are some experiences that are unnecessary for your plot. There are some things that are unacceptable in film–that has always been embedded in American Christian thought. American Christians should reflect on this point now. Don’t give us gratuitous violence because you think we need it. Don’t out-explode yourself for our sake. We didn’t come for that. And we won’t come back for it.