In defense of Starkiller Base (Force Awakens spoilers!)

I loved The Force Awakens.  It harkens back to the themes, characters and humor that made the original trilogy (OT) so great.  People have leveled several criticisms of the film, to which they are entitled.  I want to explain why the criticisms don’t bother me so much and why some of these criticisms seem to be a little hypocritical in my mind.

Spoilers, spoilers, for the love of God, spoilers.

One of the primary criticisms leveled at the film is that, plot-wise, it is essentially a re-telling of Episode IV.  This doesn’t bother me at all.  In my mind, it is a classic human thematic re-telling of Coming of Age.  It just happens to be set in the Star Wars Universe again, with a new lead character:

reyhero

It follows a narrative that worked and that people respond to.  Most people that see this film are too young to have seen the OT (many even the PT!) and most aren’t 40 year old mouth breathers with a serious emotional stake in it.

To me, it feels very much like the OT.  Same humor (so many truly funny moments, unlike the “fart humor” of the PT), similar compelling characters, same sense of fast-paced adventure.  I don’t think George Lucas was a genius story-teller.  I happen to think that he was a genius filmmaker who just happened to select classic story concepts that he liked and shared them with the world through a medium that he happened to be good at.

It’s more than a little hypocritical to me that Star Wars fans complained that they hated the PT for a myriad of (very good) reasons and now they get a film that feels like the OT, doesn’t do what the PT did wrong, and now they’re mad.  I made a meme!

chan star wars

I mean, seriously.  It’s like the consumer who finds money with the toaster they just bought and they complain about how the money is folded.

I have a bunch of hypotheses as to why fans are reacting so strongly, and I tried to explain my thoughts in the Facebook group “Let’s talk about VII!””

“After thinking about it a little more, I think I would be most fair if I presented multiple hypotheses of what I think is actually going on here. I’ve already presented Hypothesis 1: “The movie isn’t what I expected/wanted, therefore it’s terrible.” People have a tendency to react very strongly to things that they feel very deeply about. Some people feel Star Wars has to be different from main stream cinema to be good, because like many of us, they dislike what mainstream cinema has become. I don’t think they’re allowing themselves the possibility that since Star Wars created mainstream cinema, that it could live within it. Another arm of this group is likely people who felt really strongly about the “Luke is bad” hypothesis, and when that didn’t turn out to be true they’re pissed that they were wrong. I was never a subscriber of that hypothesis because it would cut against the thematic core of the movies. Hypothesis 2: One of my friend’s hypotheses is a good one. I’ll call it the Grief Hypothesis. People grieve in different ways. Some people isolate themselves, some people are very sad, and some people go in attack mode. My friend suggests that part of the extreme backlash amongst fans is that some people are still grieving that one of their favorite characters is dead, and they’re lashing out at the film as part of their grieving process. This makes sense to me and I appreciate him suggesting it. Hypothesis 3: “I judge stories based upon the sum of their parts, not the union of the whole.” Look, I’m not saying that many of the points in this article aren’t correct. They certainly are. And when you judge something by the sum of its parts, rather than it as a whole, you essentially can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m a professional educator and I’ll tell you right now that some people struggle to think holistically. This doesn’t make them stupid or wrong. It just means that they focus their thinking in ways that can be a liability for drawing conclusions. Many of you have noticed that many of the gripes in the article are actually solved by the movie itself. People still post those for a couple of reasons, in my mind: 1) They demand movies in general to be internally consistent (none is) and their stories to be seamless (none is) or 2) They’re so determined to knock it down that they (consciously/unconsciously?) move the goal posts on any issue that validates their claim. Hypothesis 4: “I thought I knew what Star Wars was, but I actually don’t.” The hard part for me of this new film is the realisation that there are a lot of people out there who claim to understand what Star Wars is, but clearly never have. I think this manifests itself in contradiction. There are a lot of thematic elements in this film that match up with the OT. I know a lot of hardcore SW fans. Over the years I’ve heard them talk about what they love about the movies. I met some of them post PT, so I don’t have a measure of what they thought about the OT as it was. The funny thing is that I’ve heard them pay service to loving the themes of the OT. But now those same elements are present in TFA, and they hate it. I’m not saying that their feelings are wrong. Everyone is entitled to their feelings. It just makes me question what people understood (or didn’t) about what the OT represented. TFA is Star Wars. In summary, I find the negative reactions to the film to be grounded in logic, but I don’t draw the same overarching conclusion as some people do. People are entitled to their opinions. I find it extra tasty crispy interesting that SW fans are seeing things in this film that we’ve seen before and they’ve claimed to like before, yet they suddenly don’t like it, for some reason. Maybe these hypotheses get at the core of why we’re seeing these contradictions? I don’t know. But it’s interesting to me.”

TL;DR What people are actually mad about is how they are expressing their grief over Han (Jack’s hypothesis) or the fact that they had hyped their expectations and are butt hurt over how their pre-conceived notions of the film didn’t pan out.  By the way, the suggestion that Luke had turned evil is the dumbest hypothesis.  It ignores what Star Wars was about, thematically, and is the thinking of someone who is very plot-focused, in my opinion.  It would invalidate Luke’s whole character arc.  Once again, people are entitled to their opinions but that doesn’t mean that I can’t find their opinions stupid.

A specific detail that bothers a lot of people is another super weapon.  The argument goes:  “Another giant battle station with an obvious weakness!  How unoriginal!  How stupid can the First Order be?”

I think the “unoriginal” accusation is a cop out that implies that some narrative techniques are inherently better than others when it should be a zero sum choice.  “Super weapons” as plot devices permeate the modern cinema.  From a narrative perspective, they are a really convenient way to create tension and say “our heroes have a time limit and if they don’t accomplish their task soon, all is lost.”  What the super weapon really does is serve as a call to action that forces the heroes to progress on the hero’s journey.  People may not like that as the instigating factor, but it shows the audience that a change must and will happen.  Nothing in story-telling is original.  To say that this “unoriginal” is worse than an alternative “unoriginal” is cherry picking.

I want to challenge the “First Order is stupid for making another super weapon with a weakness” claim, because I’m getting real sick of what I consider to be a lack of imagination.  This is what I understand to be the in-universe thesis of that argument:  “Building another super weapon with a fatal weakness is a stupid thing for the First Order to do.”

People have been complaining about the “logic” of the Death Star for decades and it actually isn’t difficult to show the flaws in the argument if you just extend it out.  Dorkly did a really great job recently of confronting the Episode IV criticisms:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agcRwGDKulw

But that leads us to the Death Star II.  Why build it if it can be destroyed?

Why bother to build a battleship or a tank if it can be destroyed?  If the Pacific Fleet was so vulnerable to Japanese bombs, why even build it?

From the perspective of military strategy, the use of technology has always been a risk/reward prospect.  Yeah, you could lose your battleship.  Your cannon could blow up in your face.  Your rifle can jam.  There is no military tech that exists that doesn’t have some kind of downside.  This is why arms races exist.  People find the downside and make something that outmaneuvers the opponent.

I’d like to point out that the Death Star II was protected by a giant shield that had to be destroyed first before it could even be touched.  And when the rebels went to destroy it, it was a deliberate trap that would have worked for the Empire if not for our heroes being more exceptional, which is what heroic stories are all about.

its a trap

Our exceptional heroes got unexpected help on the ground.  The Emperor waxed a couple Rebel cruisers before the Station went down.  Had the Empire actually won the Battle of Endor (with the odds in their favor!), they would have been on their way to destroying entire planets sympathetic to the Rebellion.  The risk/reward for the Empire favors reward.  Now, Luke was right.  The Emperor’s overconfidence was his weakness.  But it wasn’t a bad bet, either.

“But, but, why build something that can be destroyed so easily???”

Your definition of “easy” is very different from mine.  But, for a moment, let’s ignore that (because you’re cherry picking) and focus on what it would be like to build something that could destroy an entire planet.  Have you ever thought about how much energy that would take?  A lot.  As a scientist, I’ll tell you right now that we don’t have even remotely close to the ability to harness that amount of energy.  The Kardashev scale, in theoretical xenobiology, rates civilizations that can use all the energy of their planet (Type 1), host star (Type 2) or galaxy (Type 3).  Carl Sagan classified Earth as about a 0.7 in the 90s.  We don’t really know how to classify the Empire, but a Death Star would seem to put the Empire somewhere between Type 2 and 3.  We don’t have to explain the science behind it, because it’s fiction.  As a story-teller you can do anything you want.  But, assuming that this is the case for the SW Universe, is it a surprise to us that that amount of energy may be difficult to contain?  And that you’d have to vent some of it out into space?  Or that the choice to contain it means that you have to accept a big weakness to your device?

Starkiller Base is shown using an entire star for it’s “fuel”, clearly at a Type 2 Kardashev civilization.  Wouldn’t sucking that amount of energy into a planet be a pretty risky proposition?  You see, military personnel don’t choose to bankroll tech that doesn’t have risks.  Is it possible that the risk is well worth the strategic reward?

Let’s think about that.  Starkiller Base destroys five Republic worlds before being destroyed.  The movie doesn’t explain this in detail (which I like), but the Republic is essentially North Vietnam to the Resistance’s Viet Cong, as far as we can tell.  The Republic is the source of capital using a terrorist organization to fight the First Order.  What kind of resources can the Republic provide?  We don’t know that, but on a galactic scale, it could be huge.  It’s hard for us to speculate on a galaxy-wide economy.  Recently, someone published a paper about it, saying that the Death Stars would be “unrecoverable” financial losses.  The problem with this analysis, from a scientist’s perspective, is that it is really difficult for us to even estimate what a galactic military’s budget might be and whether or not a loss is an acceptable loss given the gains.

But back to Starkiller Base.  Starkiller Base destroyed five Republic worlds (I do hate how JJ Abrams thinks that people can see planets from other planets in space.  LOL).  We don’t really have any idea how badly that cripples the Republic and, by extension, the Resistance.  Is it so hard to imagine that the answer is a lot?  And that maybe even the morale hit of dozens or even hundreds of billions of innocent Republic citizens being killed would have sapped the willingness of many Resistance fighters to fight?

We may never know the precise quantitative toll the destruction of those worlds made on the Resistance.  And we don’t have to.  The difference between the “super weapon complainer” and I seems to simply be that I can imagine the risk/reward ratio for the First Order as being worth the potential loss of the station, and the detractors can’t.  Or, they simply haven’t bothered to take the time to think about those possibilities.

Fiction doesn’t have to follow the rules of logic.  And rarely does it do so.  You can either suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride, or you can’t.  All I’m saying is that I don’t see giant super weapons like that as “stupid” from a military perspective, given what they can do.  I see their function as carrying with them inherent liabilities and I see the rewards to the wielder as potentially worth the risks.

Scale factors hugely into the assessment here.  I could see a counter argument in that regard.  Perhaps five Republic worlds is a drop in the bucket compared to a galaxy-wide theatre?  I’m willing to entertain those ideas.  What I’m not willing to entertain is a lack of imagination, and that is what I think the “super weapons are stupid ideas” argument to be.

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3 thoughts on “In defense of Starkiller Base (Force Awakens spoilers!)

  1. Pingback: All this Mary Sue talk surrounding Force Awakens makes me sad | Tactical Thinking

  2. as140

    You are missing the point. The prequels did some things wrong and this movie does other things wrong. How does the first order build this thing? They should be smaller than the empire and not have the resources. And second doesn’t it make sense storywise. The rebels have proven that they can destroy such a space station with ease. And third it is plotwise not a good idea to just copy the backstory.

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