Some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Poe Dameron and General Hux














Tale as old as time: the younger generation repeats the actions of the older generation. Each generation thinks they invented the world, but, always, there is precedent.

When A New Hope came out in 1977, its success was driven by teens but it was also a perfect family picture — adults could get lost in the nostalgia for old-timey serials, and perhaps admire the classically-hand-tooled-leather-bound storytelling, while children and teenagers could be simply thrilled and amazed as they never had been in a movie theater before. It was the Beatles of my generation, the one thing everyone agreed on.

I had never seen a Flash Gordon serial in my life, as there was no Youtube at the time, so the vision of George Lucas was a searingly brand new thing for me. I didn’t know that he’d lifted things from Flash Gordon (and many other sources), from the title crawl to the names of his characters. Nor would it have mattered to me if I did. Clearly, clearly, Lucas had added something to his endless references. Kurosawa could immediately see that Sergio Leone had stolen A Fistful of Dollars from Yojimbo, but I’m guessing he’d be hard-pressed to identify the elements George Lucas stole from The Hidden Fortress, although he would have recognized his beloved screen wipes.

Today, The Force Awakens repeats the feat of A New Hope, with a twist: children are amazed and moved by the stories of Rey and Finn, and everyone else gets lost in the nostalgia, but instead of nostalgia for other movies, it’s nostalgia for Star Wars itself. The defining feature of George Lucas’s generation of filmmakers (Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Landis, Dante, Miller) was that they were the first generation of film-school directors: their movies were about other movies. Now, a generation later, filmmakers like JJ Abrams grew up on the movies of Lucas’s generation, and make movies about movies, about movies.  My father was shocked at Jaws, not because of the violence in it, but because the kid who directed the movie ripped off Hitchcock at every turn and didn’t even break a sweat to do it.  He took Hitchcock for granted. Now, that level of tossed-off cinematic reference is simply a part of the typical movie-going experience. In The Force Awakens, the Star Wars narrative, having launched a generation of imitators, has nothing to refer to but itself. What thirty-year-old genre could a new Star Wars movie refer to at this point?

A New Hope (God, I still hate that title) starred a cast of complete unknowns, with one special elderly guest star brought in to lend some gravitas to the proceedings. The Force Awakens repeats that trick, too, but in this case the elderly guest star is Harrison Ford, and he very much plays the Obi-Wan role, narratively speaking. The other actors are largely unknown, with the exception of Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron. Isaac, if you haven’t seen Inside Llewen Davis, A Most Violent Year or Ex Machina, is an incredibly serious capital-A Actor, the kind who, 30 years ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Star Wars movie. If you can imagine Al Pacino playing a minor role in A New Hope, maybe Jabba the Hutt, with his tail being tread upon by Han Solo, that’s the level of incongruity at work here. (Not to mention Max von Sydow — Max von Sydow! — showing up briefly.)

That’s another symptom of our current generation of filmmakers. A Star Wars movie, or a Marvel movie, or a Harry Potter movie, or a Hunger Games movie, is no longer considered an embarrassment on your resume, something you did “for the money,” like Max von Sydow doing Flash Gordon (as we come full circle). It’s a badge of honor, a sign you’ve “made it.” “Serious” filmmaking used to be done in the realm of drama, and Star Wars was science fiction, a gutter genre. All that has changed now, all the serious money, and serious talent, is drawn not only to genre pictures, but juvenilia, and “serious drama” is all on television now. And Star Wars is the engine that drove that change.

But, to the question at hand: What does Poe Dameron want? Spoilers within!

vBulletin statistics

Poe Dameron enters the narrative of The Force Awakens miming the actions of Princess Leia at the beginning of A New Hope, under attack by Stormtroopers and hiding a valuable piece of information inside an astromech droid. But, as with all the references in The Force Awakens, the beat is given a twist, as, it turns out, Poe Dameron is not a princess but a cocky, smart-alec flying ace, closer to Han Solo in character than Princess Leia. The difference here being, this Han Solo joined the Resistance a long time ago, possesses no cynicism about galactic politics and is completely honorable and selfless. He also, I might add, when faced with Kylo Ren, shoots first, and even that beat is given the twist that Kylo freezes his blaster-bolt in mid-air.

How awesome would it have been for BB-8 to be carrying a message from Poe Dameron to Luke Skywalker, pleading for help from the elderly Jedi, and having it be intercepted by Finn, who immediately falls in love with the spectral Dameron? But no, instead, Dameron gets captured by the First Order (as Leia was captured by the Empire), gets tortured to reveal his information (with the exact same model of interrogation droid hovering in the torture chamber), and gets rescued in a daring prison break — not by a guy dressed up in Stormtrooper armor, but by an actual Stormtrooper, as I’ve mentioned before, adding a whole new level to the franchise. He then leaps from being a Han Solo-Princess Leia hybrid to being a sort of speed-freak Obi-Wan to Finn, radicalizing him against the First Order, teaching him how to defend himself (something Stormtroopers are obviously never taught to do) and even granting him his name, all within minutes of meeting him and while under fire from enemy forces. Why does Dameron take the time to give Finn a name? In (bad) screenwriting classes, they refer to this kind of beat as a “save the cat” moment, where the character does something selfless and kind so he’s “likable.” But it speaks to his inherent humanity, that he sees this renegade Stormtrooper as a fellow human being first, deserving of a name like other humans. Because Finn is played by a black actor, this, of course, gets into touchy racial politics, with Dameron granting humanity to Finn by dint of his superior social standing. But Finn is not granted freedom by Dameron — rather, it is the other way around. Finn frees Dameron, and in doing so frees himself, and shoots a bunch of guys, steals a spaceship and blows a bunch of stuff up, proving that, despite his indistinct sense of identity, he was a complete person before Dameron ever came along.

Dameron then vanishes from the movie for a long time, turning up to save the day with a squadron of fighters outside Maz Kanata’s castle (bar? Bar-castle? Castle-bar?) (Where is the infrastructure supporting Maz’s bar? I don’t remember even seeing a parking lot.) When Dameron first showed up flying an X-wing, I thought perhaps the Resistance had cloned him to fly all their X-wings, but no, he has (somehow) escaped Jakku on his own and made it back to wherever the Resistance hangs out. Missing are the scenes where he somehow survived the crash on Jakku, left Jakku without finding the precious information he was sworn to deliver, and showed up empty-handed on Resistance Planet to tell General Leia he’d failed. Presumably, he knew (somehow) that the vital droid had gotten on board the Millenium Falcon and had, further, ended up at Maz Kanata’s place, and thus led his squadron of X-Wing pilots there for a raid just as the First Order attacks.

Dameron is a minor character (who was originally scheduled to die in the first act), and his presence in Acts II and III are there to serve the minor antagonist sent to match him: General Hux, whose agenda has nothing to do with Rey, Finn, Han or even Kylo. General Hux just wants to rule the galaxy, and is really really impatient about it. He doesn’t care about Kylo’s problems controlling the Force, he doesn’t care about BB-8 and the missing map, he doesn’t care about Luke Skywalker, and the Oedipal conflict brewing in his army base doesn’t even show up on his radar. That is why Starkiller Base feels like an afterthought and its destruction feels like a checked box. And, it’s why Dameron was made to survive into Act II — so that Hux would have someone fighting him, someone we care about. Dameron doesn’t have a conflict with Kylo per se, and isn’t impressed with his costume or threats. He’s a military guy and his conflict is with the guy leading the First Order. It’s a shame there isn’t a scene between the two of them to cement their relationship.

Still, Hux interests me. The first thing I thought when seeing the Star Destroyer at the beginning of the movie was “Wait, I thought the Empire was defeated, why are there people still flying around Star Destroyers?” Then I saw that the Stormtrooper uniforms are essentially the same thirty years later, and Hux’s entire base seems to have lifted huge amounts of design elements from the Death Star.

I realized, it’s all part and parcel with Hux’s youth, and his arrogance. I looked him up at Wookiepedia, and found that he was an imperial army brat who had grown up believing it was his destiny to rule the galaxy. And I realized, yes, that’s exactly right — Hux is a boy-child who has been granted his immense power — and financial clout — by whatever the Star Wars-universe equivalent of Royalists are. The Empire, it seems, never really went away, and Hux stepped forward, the heir of some highly-placed Empire officer, to claim what he feels is his. He reminds me overwhelmingly of George W. Bush, the dauphin who ran wars like a drunk driver plowing through a bicycle race and threw troops to their deaths like a spoiled rich kid playing with plastic army men. But now, as history has suggested since the movie went into production, we have our own General Hux now: Donald Trump, who has no understanding of politics, no wish to govern, no knowledge of governance, and no patience for anyone who disagrees with him. What does he have? Like Hux, he has a ton of money, a deep hatred of anyone who is not wealthy and white, a completely insulated view of the world, and an intense, singular desire to leave his mark  on the world.

Before I go, I’d like to say one more thing on the politics of The Force Awakens. People have commented on my posts (not here, but elsewhere on the internet) saying that the casting of The Force Awakens is nothing but a cynical cash-grab on the behalf of the studio. They point to The Hunger Games and Jessica Jones as examples of how this is the “hip new thing that people seem to like,” and that this too will pass and The Force Awakens will eventually be seen as dated. Likewise, the “Mary Sue” question of Rey elicits learned, beard-stroking responses from people about how it’s a shame that Rey is so competent, but it is, perhaps, inevitable that Disney would demand such an element in the script in order to expand their audience base. “You know, to bring in the Hunger Games crowd.” They strive in their comments to be wiser-than-thou, in the manner of Republicans saying how it is wiser to know that poor people are lazy and proceed from there. Their tone is exactly the manner of the woman at the party who says “I’m not racist, but…”

The supposition underlying the first remark is that narratives focussing on straight white men are, of course, the absolute norm, and, when the culture has gotten over its current fad of non-white, non-male casting, things will return to normal and all will be well. The supposition underlying the Rey comments, meanwhile, is that females are less than human, and should not be allowed to play in the boys’ sandbox.

A friend of a friend of mine went to see Frozen when it came out and frowned disapprovingly. “Not a lot there for boys,” he sniffed, dismissing the movie as okay, “for what it is.” I said “Really? Why? Because it’s about two sisters? And yet, girls are expected to be held in the thrall of stories about boys all the timeAll the freaking time. Are you saying that, because the narrative does not focus on the story of a boy, boys will not be able to relate to it? Because not only does that relegate the status of females to sub-human, it suggests that boys are sociopaths, incapable of relating to, empathizing with, or even liking a female protagonist.” He reconsidered and admitted that I had a point. And Frozen went on to make a billion dollars. What The Force Awakens suggests is that, as Donald Trump will no doubt discover before the end of 2016, the era when the straight white man is unquestionably given everything he wants is coming to an end.


8 Responses to “Some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Poe Dameron and General Hux”
  1. Peter Erwin says:

    “one special elderly guest star brought in to lend some gravitas to the proceedings”

    Two, actually — there’s also Peter Cushing. (Not as prestigious a star as Alec Guinness, but certainly an elderly guest star who could bring the gravitas.)

    • Todd says:

      Ah yes, how could I forget, indeed. Would that make Carrie Fisher this movie’s Peter Cushing?

    • Max von Sydow was a genius casting choice. And much more Peter Cushing than Carrie Fisher who like the rest of the original cast. was there for the fan base as much as for the story.

      Academy award winner Lupita N’yango was prob the best known of the younger cast and although she felt under utilized, it was the closest any Star Wars movie has come to passing the Beshdel test. (Although technically it didn’t since her conversation with Rey revolved around Luke Skywalker’s light saber.

      My biggest casting disappointment was the way the new Death Star seemed entirely staffed by people in their 20s. Wouldn’t some of these high ranking generals be a little older?

      • Jim Kiley says:

        Susanna – presumably the core of promising young officers that would be this generation’s senior generals were aboard one of the two original Death Stars, or support fleets, 30-some years ago, and never had a chance to grow into senior general officers.

      • Todd says:

        The casting of the Starkiller Base staff was one of my favorite things about the movie. It suggested to me that older people wouldn’t have taken up the banner, it has to be people who weren’t even born when the Death Star exploded. Like neo-Nazis in South Carolina who have no understanding of either World War II or the Civil War, yet define themselves by events from each.

  2. Kevin says:

    Another link between FLASH GORDON (1980) and STAR WARS — Deep Roy. He’s in Jedi and the 1980 Flash.

    These Star Wars posts are excellent, Todd.

  3. C.T. Phipps says:

    On my end, I think General Hux is an interesting character to go view as the leader of not the Western world with its George W. Bushes and Donald Trumps but the alternative. In a very real way, the politics of the new Star Wars movies are reflective of our time as the ones in the 70s are. The Empire is a radical ideology of zealous young men following its doctrines religiously out to destroy a superior technology as well as military powerhouse because they genuinely believe it’s the right thing to do. General Hux undoubtedly inherited his position from his father but there’s countless RL dictatorships which do the same. The First Order is basically North Korea meets ISIS, except they have nukes they’re willing to use on New York and Washington D.C.

  4. Doug Orleans says:

    Your comment about Poe giving Finn his name made me think of Finn as an escaped slave, like Jim from Huck… Finn. Coincidence?