The Star Wars universe is a vast and diverse place, with hundreds of species and galaxy-spanning governments that, throughout the course of the three trilogies, work either to do good or to serve the cause of evil. Despite the huge array of planets that we see in the Star Wars series, however, the films have never done a very good job of presenting the impacts that its various factions have on the Galaxy in which they live, for various reasons. To get an idea of the variety of creative ways in which Star Wars misses the mark when it comes to Galactic Politics, it is easiest to look at each individual trilogy separately and assess the degree of success it has in making the audience genuinely care about the Galaxy at large, and not just about a band of smugglers, monks and robots travelling around in an old spaceship.
To get this right out of the way, Star Wars Episodes I to III do the best job at presenting a huge Galaxy with a wide variety of planets. One only needs to look at the Galactic Senate to get an idea of how many populated worlds there are in Star Wars, and thanks to the improved special effects and multiple plot threads going at once we get to visit many of these planets throughout the prequels – Utapau, Felucia, Kamino, Naboo, Mustafar, Mygeeto – the list goes on. But the central conflict to the Prequels – the Clone Wars – appears to stop short when we reach the Republic capital, Coruscant. Arguably the most important location in the prequels, Coruscant represents the heart of both the Republic and the Jedi, and is the primary setting of the finale, Revenge of the Sith. Despite this, the ever-present Clone Wars doesn’t seem to physically affect Coruscant in the slightest, even when a giant space battle occurs right above the planet, the city itself is totally undamaged. We see evidence of some lavish parties, mile-long traffic airborne traffic columns, and even operas going on even towards the end of the films, implying that the Clone Wars is an event that is detached from the everyday lives of Republic citizens, rather than the frightening and fate-deciding conflict that it is described as.
This is juxtaposed massively with the state of some of the planets that we see briefly throughout the film, such as Mygeeto which is portrayed as a ruin, with scarred bridges, destroyed buildings and constant combat – but this planet has never been seen before, and is never seen again after the one sequence in which it appears. How is the audience supposed to connect to a planet that we see so briefly? If it were a world like Naboo, which in The Phantom Menace is portrayed as an idyllic paradise, that was devastated by war in Revenge of the Sith, then perhaps this would provoke more of a response. As it stands, the Prequel trilogy doesn’t do a very good job of making its central conflict seem very real, pitting disposable CGI Clone Troopers against equally disposable Separatist droids on faraway planets that we never even knew existed.
The Original Trilogy
The grandfather of the franchise, the Original Trilogy does no better a job at making its conflict seem real than the Prequels do, although it has a more concrete excuse. A New Hope was released in 1977, then simply titled Star Wars, and experienced crippling issues with budget, on-location filming, limitations of the special effects of the time, and the uncertainty at the time of whether it would be a success. Regardless, we get quite the spectacular space opera, that is lacking in just one area – scale. The environments in A New Hope are small, cramped and don’t convey the true size of the Star Wars universe as effectively as its successors, with just three main locations – Tatooine, the Death Star, and Yavin IV. That being said, we do see the destruction of another planet, Alderaan, but since we know absolutely nothing about that planet and are never shown its surface or population the effect is completely nullified. The Empire may as well have blown up a barren rock for all the emotional weight that is put into Alderaan’s destruction, especially since Princess Leia doesn’t even mention it again.
But surely Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi do better jobs? After all, they had higher hopes, higher budget and higher stakes, but again, the effect is lesser than it could have been. Only Empire actually, finally, shows the audience an innocent inhabited planet threatened by the Empire, and that is Cloud City – which is abandoned to its fate by the heroes, never to be heard from again. Like A New Hope, Empire shows barren, often inhospitable worlds like Hoth and Dagobah that could bounce between ownership of the Rebellion and the Empire with absolutely no consequence for anybody, which lessens the impact of the Rebellion’s struggle. If we do not know who the Rebels are actually fighting for, surely their struggle becomes pointless? Well, not exactly. We can infer from the original trilogy that the Empire are an oppressive and ruthless force ruled by an evil master of the Dark Side – after all, Alderaan may have been a planet we knew nothing about, but presumably it had a population roughly similar to that of Earth, and the Empire wipes it out without a second thought – and we see enough of the Rebels themselves to get a sense of why we should care for their struggle. It just would have made for a valuable bit of world-building if we got an idea of who the Rebels represent.
Ironically, the abominable Special Editions give us more of an idea of the state of the wider Galaxy after the Empire is defeated in the form of a few quick shots of Coruscant, Tatooine, Naboo and Bespin, all showing mass-partying and celebration upon the defeat of the Empire. But there is a problem here – you’d expect that after 20+ years of Imperial rule, the Galaxy would be in quite a state, but this isn’t the case. When we see Coruscant in Return of the Jedi, it looks identical to where we left it in Revenge of the Sith, which begs the question – did the Empire have any impact on the planet at all? So the Special Editions are a double-edged sword – they show us the wider Galaxy in a way that the original movie couldn’t, and yet it presents it in a way which derails the point of it being there in the first place.
Now at last we reach the Sequel trilogy, which should have combined the best elements of the previous trilogies to deliver a conflict with depth and weight to it whilst also presenting the impact that said conflict has on the wider Galaxy. Sadly, we arguably get neither of these. The Force Awakens clearly tries its best to avoid any association with the Prequels, possibly based on the misguided assumption that anything that was in the Prequels is automatically bad, regardless of how it is portrayed. This essentially means that there is no politics in The Force Awakens whatsoever, which leaves fans stumped as to what the various factions in the movie actually stand for. Who are the ‘Resistance’? why are they ‘resisting’ the ‘First Order’ when there’s apparently a ‘New Republic’? None of this is ever explained, and despite how terribly it was handling the Prequels, a few scenes of Senate politics might have actually helped The Force Awakens audience members to get a grasp of the stakes. We have no idea how big the Republic is, we have no idea what it stands for. We have no idea how big the First Order is, and we have no idea where it came from. When the New Republic planet (is it Coruscant? Is it another planet? Again, we are never told) is destroyed, we see an attempt by the filmmakers to tug out our heartstrings by showing shots of various people screaming as they realise their fate, arguably something that would have been better placed in A New Hope alongside the fate of Alderaan. But without the emotional link that Princess Leia provided to Alderaan’s destruction, we find ourselves oddly desensitised to this mass-destruction, since the film never truly gives us the context we need to understand what its fate means. Ultimately, thanks to an attempt to distance itself from the sterile politics of the Prequels, the Sequel trilogy rejects any opportunities for wider world-building, instead relying on Expanded Universe media like books and comics to tell those stories in a manner similar to Halo 5: Guardians (A narrative strategy that nobody should emulate).
So where does this leave Star Wars? In a sense, right back where we started – a universe that is vast, diverse and creatively devoid of investment, especially thanks to Disney’s reset of the canon and the eradication of over 30 years of stories that filled the Star Wars universe with life. Whether or not you let this angle on the films affect your judgement of them is up to you, and one might argue that I am asking too much of Star Wars, and that the kind of world-building that I am looking for is best found in a franchise like Star Trek. But for a franchise with more planets in its Galaxy than Earth has countries, it seems smaller now than ever.
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