May the Force be with whom?

May the Force be with whom?
4 min read
22 Dec, 2017
Review: The new Star Wars film struggles to reflect modern day attitudes towards organised, armed rebellions, writes James Denselow.
Dubai film festival chair, Abdulhamid Juma, stands with a Star Wars storm-trooper [AFP]

If films are metaphors for our times; the events and social values of the day, then what can be made of the new Star Wars film 'The Last Jedi'?

This reporter left the cinema trying to get their head around the galactic governance that underpins its political messages. As we continue to struggle to maintain peace and order on our own single planet (human violence killed 560,000 people last year - a rate of one person dying every minute) it seems hard to fathom what it would take to unite large numbers of planets and billions of life-forms in a galaxy far, far away. 

Naturally, the Star Wars films largely focus on conflict, rather than the mundane periods when planet sized space stations were not being blown up.

"Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" kicked off with a trade dispute, but this soon escalated into a galactic showdown as the democratic Republic was overwhelmed by a 'fascist' Galactic Empire.

This was followed by a classic insurgency fought by the 'good guys' – the Rebel Alliance – against the 'bad guys' in the Galactic State.

National Liberation

The original Star Wars film was released in the 1970s when revolutionary groups were still in some sort of fashion with romance and iconography surrounding rebels like Che Guevara, Yasser Arafat and the national liberation movements that swept the world post-World War Two. 

By contrast, Rebel Alliance did their work in a very orderly fashion, as their leadership issued a 'Declaration of Rebellion' to the Galactic Emperor to dispel accusations of terrorism.

This Declaration was a classic political manifesto that included accusations against the Galactic Empire of blatant speciesism: - "Alien Lives Matter", perhaps.

In present day geopolitics back on Earth, these roles have been reserved, with non-state actors seldom lauded or celebrated in the same light. 

A recent World Bank-UN study shows "in the 1950s there was an average of eight armed groups in a civil war". Fifty years on, in 2010, that number almost doubled to 14. By 2014, there were over 1000 different groups fighting in the Syrian conflict.

Today, with the rise and complete dominance of the 'terrorism' agenda, any and all notions of the world's various non-state armed groups are predominantly negative. One case in point being the widespread suppression of many of the Arab Spring movements, and the conflicts that followed. 

In the two most recent Star Wars films, the Rebel Alliance suffers the splintering of the New Republic with the formation of "the Resistance" – a Hezbollah-esque armed faction within a wider state.

The New Republic is then destroyed by the reborn Galactic Alliance – now 'The First Order' – who proceed to virtually destroy the Resistance.

The subtext to this is that even at times of apparent peace, it pays to invest heavily in your military and prepare for the worst. This still remains true of modern America and President Trump's desire to allocate $696bn to the 2018 defence budget.

Like many of today's non-state armed groups, the Resistance in their desperate rear-guard often rely on improvised weaponry. In 'The Last Jedi', resistance fighters deployed two successful suicide attacks with another thwarted.

In this withering critique of the First Order's hierarchical command structure, one reviewer argued the Resistance's structure had become diffuse through its chaotic individuality.

The First Order certainly possess a monopoly on heavy weapons and appear to adhere to no laws on galactic conflict or show any concern for civilian casualties.

Resistance fighters on the other hand seem to rely on a higher power - exchanging the salutation 'may the force be with you' before battles. There is also a lingering hope throughout their disastrous retreat that the quasi-religious Jedi, Luke Skywalker, will return.

A New Hope

So what room is there for 'Rebel movements' and resistance in this day and age and what does the new Star Wars film suggest to tackle this disconnect between their reality and ours?

By the film's end the notion of the Resistance as an effective armed group is all but gone, but what the fighters have managed is to successfully send a message of hope out to all corners of the galaxy.

From the perspective of the Resistance, this could lead to a boon in recruitment, while from the First Order's viewpoint, people may 'self-radicalise' against them.

This leads to a number of intriguing scenarios for the next film. Will a new armed rebellion form and take down the First Order? Or will scriptwriters abandon this standard formula by focusing on new forms of ultra-connected peaceful resistance?

Perhaps they can move further by identifying further the individual acts that neither fit into the 'light' or 'dark' side of the traditional equation.

In essence - may the force be with whom?

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff