Sunday 10 January 2016

J.J. Abrams Hollywood Reporter Interview

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter  J.J. Abrams addressed criticisms that The Force Awakens is derivative of A New Hope. This is one of my larger disappointments with the The Force Awakens. The answer he gave was, well, lackluster and didn't really address the situation.

I should reiterate that I actually quite liked The Force Awakens. It's a good movie. But the similarity to A New Hope is one of my disappointments. There are some things that stand out to me in the interview that need addressing.

The full quotes are available on The Hollywood Reporter website.

"Star Wars is a kind of specific gorgeous concoction of George [Lucas]'s — that combines all sorts of things. Ultimately the structure of Star Wars itself is as classic and tried and true as you can get. It was itself derivative of all of these things that George loved so much, from the most obvious, Flash Gordon and Joseph Campbell, to the [Akira] Kurosawa references, to Westerns — I mean, all of these elements were part of what made Star Wars..."

Abrams opens with this statement arguing that a New Hope was itself a derivative work. The thrust of the argument being that this is the nature of Star Wars. Essentially, you can't single out The Force Awakens for being in a "a genre comfort zone" when A New Hope did the same thing.  The thing is, this isn't really true. And to an extent suggests that Abrams doesn't really understand the criticism.

Yes A New Hope was influenced by earlier works that Lucas enjoyed. But this is how art works - new artists take what they found enjoyable from earlier works, and build on them to make new unique art. Without Black Sabbath we wouldn't have Metallica. Without Bram Stokers Dracula we wouldn't have Interview with the Vampire. Without William Shakespeare's Hamlet we wouldn't have The Lion King. It could be said that all of these works derived from their predecessors, yet none would be considered derivative of their predecessors.

Likewise, Lucas's passion for the old Flash Gordon series may have influenced him to do an action sci-fi film. His interest in Japanese Samurai films may have been the inspiration for the Jedi. And westerns may have been the inspiration for the farm-boy turned hero story. But you can't say the Jedi were directly taken from Akira Kurosawa. Or that the assault on the death star was copied from Flash Gordon.

There is no previous work that you can point to and say 'well A New Hope is just a retelling of this other movie with a sci-fi skin over the top'. A New Hope is its own unique experience. It borrowed ideas from those earlier works, but it built on them and made something completely different. It was a new experience.

"What was important for me was introducing brand new characters using relationships that were embracing the history that we know to tell a story that is new — to go backwards to go forwards. So I understand that this movie... needed to take a couple of steps backwards into very familiar terrain, and using a structure of nobodies becoming somebodies defeating the baddies which is, again, I would argue, not a brand new concept, admittedly — but use that to do, I think, a far more important thing, which is introduce this young woman... [and] the first Storm Trooper we've ever seen who we get to know as a human being; to see the two of them have an adventure in a way that no one has had yet, with Han Solo..."

"...Yes, the bones of [The Force Awakens] we always knew would be a genre comfort zone, but what the thing looks like — we all have a skeleton that looks somewhat similar, but none of us look the same. To me, the important thing was not, 'What are the bones of this thing?' To me, it was meeting new characters who discover themselves that they are in a universe that is spiritual and that is optimistic, in a world where you meet people that will become your family."

I don't think anyone is arguing that The Force Awakens doesn't add anything new to Star Wars. I would even go as far to say that Kylo Ren is the best addition to the film franchise, well, since A New Hope. And the new film needed to focus on the new characters - no complaints there. The new characters are very well done.

And, yea, the story of a pauper rising to greatness was centuries old before Lucas told it. Agreed. But everyone understands that the everyman is the literary device trough which modern science fiction and fantasy stories are told. No one is arguing that you should avoid centuries old story telling archetypes that are considered fundamental to modern film making.  But to say that "the bones" of the story are the same, or that the film is in a "genre comfort zone" is completely underselling just how similar the two films are.

While Lucas may have taken the concept of the samurai and used it as the inspiration for the Jedi - The Force Awakens goes almost as far as it can in what it takes from A New Hope.

The setting is the same, the general environments are the same, the themes explored are the same, and Ray is Luke Skywalker. But if that is where it ended that would be fine. The major problem for me is that it replicates so many scenes from A New Hope. Maybe 80% of The Force Awakens is taken directly from the earlier film, to the point that in many ways the The Force Awakens could be considered an almost scene for scene retelling of a New Hope. And the scenes that are unique to The Force Awakens are fall of call backs to the earlier film.

Take any major scene from The Force Awakens, and there is either a corresponding scene in A New Hope where pretty much the exact same thing happened, or A New Hope is referenced in some way. 

It's good that you wanted to Rey and Finn to be relatable, and it's fine that you felt that the best way to do that was through a rags to riches story. But did Ray really need to live on a desert planet? Did BB-8 need to be given the secrete data? Did Maz Kanata's cantina really need to look like the Yavin 4 base? Did Han Solo's death actually have to be thematically the same as Ben Kenobi's? Did we really need another death star trench run? 

"...yes, they destroy a weapon at the end of this movie, but then something else happens which is, I think, far more critical and far more important — and I think even in that moment, when that is happening, the thing I think the audience is focused on and cares more about is not, 'Is that big planet gonna blow up?' — 'cause we all know it's gonna blow up. What you really care about is what's gonna happen in the forest between these two characters who are now alone."

The end battle between Ray, Finn and Kylo Ren was fantastic. Easily my favourite part of the film. The characters, the visuals, the audio, it all came together to make a perfect lightsaber battle.

But did it need to take place on yet another death star? With a countdown to the weapon firing and destroying the rebel, ahem resistance, base? While the resistance leadership huddled around a circular table watching the countdown? With an X-wing assault targeting the one weak spot in the battle station? With yet another trench run?

Could we not have had a different scenario?

This doesn't make The Force Awakens a bad film, but it is a bit disappointing. Ultimately what I wanted was a sequel to the original trilogy. A new story that added to the saga, and told of what happened to the rebellion as it formed in to the New Republic. I think this was a fair expectation - when you go to a sequel film you want to see more of what you enjoyed about the earlier films, you want it expanded upon. You don't want to see the exact same film over again with a new coat of paint. 

But The Force Awakens is more of a remake or soft reboot. It's the same film as A New Hope, and it feels like it. I came away with the sensation that I had seen this all before. That this story had already been done. That some scenes were straight up copies of the previous film. Everything is bigger and shinier. But it feels derivative.

And the worst thing is that the film almost goes out of its way to not add to the mythology of Star Wars. It doesn't tell you what is going on. What the state of the galaxy is. Why the New Republic is relying on the resistance. What the conflict is about.

The new characters are great. But the universe feels neglected.

What did Abrams Expect?

In the end I don't really understand why Abrams didn't see this coming.

For starters it's not like Star Wars is a forgotten franchise from decades ago that no one really remembers. If anything Star Wars has the most dedicated of fan bases. Even the casual fans have their favourite lines committed to memory. While many people of my generation grew up watching the original trilogy countless times. It is impossible that the similarity between the two films was going to go unnoticed.

And to be honest, sequels that have done this sort of thing in the past have also been called out as being derivative, and have suffered because of it. Ahem. Ghostbusters 2. Ahem. There is a history of fan reaction here.

Not to mention that it is no secrete that people are getting sick of remakes and reboots. People are getting tired of the same old stories being polished up and sold back to them. A fact that Abrams should have been extra aware of being that one of the biggest complaints that came out of the Star Trek community about Star Trek: Into Darkness was that it was derivative of The Wrath a Khan. Star Wars has a larger fan base than Star Trek, and The Force Awakens is far more derivative of A New Hope than Into Darkness is of Star Trek 2. A larger fan reaction should have been obvious.

Wednesday 6 January 2016

The Force Awakens: Second Viewing

I saw The Force Awakens for the second time yesterday, and I think it's fair to say that I enjoyed it a lot more on my second viewing. If you can look past the short comings of the plot, and the fuzzy science at play, there is a lot to like about this movie.

Excellent Characters

For starters the new characters are very well done. They all have personalities, depth, well defined and simple goals, and most importantly are relatable. There is more characterisation and complexity to these characters in this one film than there is for Obi Wan, Anakin and Padme in the entire prequel trilogy.

Kylo Ren in particular is very well done. There is true depth to this character. You can see and feel the anguish he is in being torn between his desire for power and greatness through the dark side, and the love for his family that keeps him anchored to the light. And while he portrays a strong exterior clad in black, behind a sold heavy mask that distorts and deepens his voice, he is actually very vulnerable and fragile. Like a child he is prone to bursts of emotion, tantrums, and a fear that he will never be good enough. And while strong with the force you can see that he is undisciplined and under trained. Even his lightsaber is unrefined and jagged. While his basic understanding of the force is better than Rey, training wise he is only a step or two above her - a raw unrefined talent.

And the characters play off each other extremely well. Poe's headstrong daredevil nature is countered by Finn's pragmatism. Kylo Ren is the embodiment of the dark side - chaotic, emotional and reliant on brute force, while Rey represents the light - strength through discipline, focus and attention to detail.

And Harrison Ford's performance is great. Han Solo is perhaps the most enjoyable part of this film. Although I would have liked to have spent more time on his relationship to Ben, when is it brought up you can feel the emotion he has for the loss of his son. It's really good work.


While I do feel that the film has pacing problems towards the end, individual scenes are shot extremely well. All the battle scenes are great, fast paced but not too fast and without the CGI clutter. The reactions Finn has to shooting down Tie Fighters, his reunion with Poe, Han's reaction to the Millennium Falcon, Rey's plight finding enough scrap for food - these all feel real, as if actual human beings are involved.

The portrayal of Kylo Ren in Han Solo's death scene is brilliant. The tension of Kylo with his internal conflict, standing eye to eye with the one person who is keeping him attached to the light. You can see just how much he is tearing himself apart. He could almost come back to the light side. And then you see the moment the dark sides wins - Kylo's face changes to be stern. This is paralleled by the extinguishing of the light from the nearby sun by the starkiller. And Kylo Ren removes that relationship that has held him back. Amazing.

And the light sabers! Ok, so while I would argue that the light saber fights in Empire and Jedi actually have more going for them from a character development and feel of tension, the light saber combat in The Force Awakens is easily the best in the series so far. It feels real. It feel less like a  choreographed dance, and more like two people who are actually intent on killing each other.

The last light saber fight is great. Especially with the surround sound giving you the sensation of being inside the snow storm - you feel like you're inside the action. Then we have a wounded Kylo first facing off against Finn - who has overcome his desire to run - and then Rey. During this fight you can see the moment that Rey figures out the force and uses it to her advantage. It's really good stuff with heaps of immersion.



As I predicted in my previous post, on my second viewing I was able to pick up on a lot more of the finer details of what is going on. For example, in her flashback we see that Rey was left with the shopkeeper when she is orphaned on Jakku. Presumably it was in his service that she learned her mechanical skills and how to fly - moving the junkers that the shopkeeper had been collecting. She also helped with the modifications made by the shopkeeper to the Millenium Falcon, hence why she was so familiar with the ships systems and how to fly it.

That Leia sent Ben to Luke because he was undisciplined. That the First Order officers were wearing the Imperial officer uniforms. The additional exposition that the resistance is a private army supported by the republic. That Han blames himself for loosing Ben. And that the First Order only became powerful after Luke Skywalker vanished (and that Leia feels at least a little responsible for it).

I feel that this movie will continue to get better with additional viewings.

Stuff I Still Don't Like

I still feel that the film has pacing issues towards the end. The starkillers destruction is abrupt and feels like it doesn't fit. To be honest, I kind of feel that they crammed too much stuff into the end of the movie. In the final act we have the starkiller destroyed, Rey's awakening into the force, the death of Han Solo and the discovery of Luke Skywalker. It comes off as a little bit rushed. Some of these plot threads could have been resolved in the next film.
I still find the use of deus ex machina distracting.

I still really wish that there was a little bit more exposition as to what is going on with the New Republic and the resistance. Where are the other star fighters from Return of the Jedi? Let alone the Mon Calamari cruisers and Nebulon B frigates...

And yea, The Force Awakens is derivative as it can get. It even takes from The Phantom Menace. Rey / Anakin grew up working for a scrap merchant who treated them as little more than slaves, and is a natural pilot and mechanic whose abilities are amplified by an innate sensitivity to the force. And we now have four Star Wars films that end with a star fighter attack on a space station.

Han Solo's Death

The death of Han Solo is perhaps the thing I'm least happy with. While the scene itself was very well done from Kylo Ren's perspective, I feel the same couldn't be said from Han Solo's perspective.

I still feel the decision to kill off Han was predictable and lacked overall tension. Kylo wasn't going to be redeemed, and it is obvious that Han is going to die.

I watched an interview with Abrams the other night where he states that he killed off Han because he needed to do something bold to make Kylo Ren a threat equal to Darth Vader. But, really, your bold move was to kill off a character that Harrison Ford and Lawrence Kasdan were begging to kill off back in Return of the Jedi?

And again, this scene would have had more tension and emotion from Han Solo's point of view had the relationship between the two been further explored. Really, this story could have been the major plot line of a movie itself - and in fact was in Return of the Jedi. Because the first half of the The Force Awakens concentrates on Rey and Finn (as it should) the story of Han and Ben is pushed right back to a second and third act secondary story.

The death scene depicts Kylo's final transition to the dark side extremely well. But the emotional impact of Han Solo's death is just lacking. If there was a history between these characters, if it appeared that Kylo's interaction with Han could actually be enough to turn him back, then the scene would have had far more tension, and Han's failure would have had far more impact. Perhaps if there had been interactions between the two characters earlier in the film. If Han had made previous attempts to rescue Ben, or if Kylo had in the past had let Han go, or saved him from a peril. If a relationship had actually been built up in the story.

Because as it stands Han has essentially been an uncommitted parent to Ben right up until this point.

  • For starters, once Ben became difficult as a child his parents sent him away to train under Luke rather than parent him themselves. Leia even says that she regrets this. And we know that Kylo has self esteem issues, that his greatest fear is underachieving. Being sent off to Luke for being difficult would likely have been seen by Ben as an abandonment by his parents because of his shortcomings. 

  • Secondly, when Ben turned to the dark side Han abandoned any effort to try and rescue him - instead, as he states, in grief he left Leia to go back to being a smuggler. So the movie states that there has been no real interaction between these two characters since Ben's perceived abandonment by his parents as a child.

So then we come to Han's death scene and we are presented with Kylo Ren having to choose between his father, a man who wasn't there for him as a child and who he hasn't even seen since his conversion to the dark side, and Snoke, a man who promises power, relief from his insecurities through training in the dark side, and a strong father figure. Of course Kylo sides with Snoke - it's an obvious and forgone conclusion.

Instead Han Solo's death relies on the fact that the audience already has a connection to this character through the original trilogy, and requires this connection to generate an emotional response. It's weak.

I think this plot line would have been better to resolve in the next film. Laying the foundations of Han and Kylo's relationship in this film, then exploring that relationship in the next so that Han's death has a real impact on the viewer.

Or just not have included it at all.

And Some Nitpicks

I have some minor nitpicks. These don't kill the movie for me, but are a distraction.

Starkiller base. Star Wars is all about being fuzzy with science - but I find the starkiller really immersion breaking. This space station is just so totally impractical that my brain collapses just thinking about it.

  • For starters, this thing sucks in stars, and prior to firing has the mass of an entire yellow star inside of itself. This would mean that it also has the gravity of that star. The energy required to create a dampening field necessary to stop the crew being crushed to a wet pulp on the floor must be beyond impractical.

  • Next, they are cramming a star roughly the size of our sun into a starkiller about the size of Mars. When the starkiller is destroyed we see the star is left behind - so they aren't breaking it up as they suck it in or anything, they are literally cramming a star into the starkiller. Would cramming the star into such a small space not make it incredibly unstable? Would it not accelerate the nuclear fusion making it a gigantic hydrogen bomb? Maybe this is what powers the weapon - but this thing could go boom at any moment, any malfunction in the priming or firing of the weapon, no matter how minor, would be catastrophic.

  • Likewise, containing the star inside the starkiller would require energy shields of some description. But the power requirement necessary to power shields capable of not only holding a star, but also compressing it into a space the size of a small planet would be ridiculous. It would take as much power to operate these shields as it does to power the weapon! Not to mention that if these shields were to fail in any part of the starkiller then the star wold expand out of that failed section of shielding destroying the base!

  • The starkiller is effectively a Dyson sphere and relies on its spherical shape to provide structural integrity. So don't even worry about finding the thermal oscillator, any damage to the superstructure of the base would be catastrophic. Pick any part of the starkiller that is exposed (i.e. not covered by the planets crust) and launch everything you have at it. Even if you didn't damage the superstructure to the point of collapse, any power failure in this area would also destroy the base. Honestly, this is where Y-Wings and B-Wings would have been invaluable.

  • Operating the starkiller requires destroying your own systems! For every New Republic system you destroy, you have to destroy one of your own systems to power the weapon... The ratio of destruction is close to 1 to 1. Ok, you could use stars in uninhabited systems to power the weapon - but any class M (to borrow from Trek) planets that are in the system are now completely uninhabitable. Any star bases or mining facilities in orbit are now flying off into space, as too are any asteroids or plants that could have been used for resources - including gas giants similar to Bespin. These planets are now flung off into space, their positions are not on your star charts, and are just cruising through space waiting to collide with your own ships traveling through hyperspace. Using the weapon weakens your own future strategic and economic positions.

  • You could move the starkiller into enemy space, using their stars to power the weapon - a double hit. But now you are putting a very vulnerable weapon directly into spitting distance of the enemy, defeating the purpose of building a weapon capable of attacking from behind your own lines in the first place! They may as well just built conventional death stars.

So the starkiller requires an enormous amount of energy just to prime the weapon, is so fragile that any minor malfunction to a major system will destroy the base, and when is does work it destroys your own systems... Good job First Order engineers.

Ok, moving on though - the Luke Skywalker star map is kind of a weak plot device. I can accept that the New Republic doesn't have access to the Jedi star map seen in Attack of the Clones - perhaps the Empire moved all that information to a secure location once the Rebellion kicked up and now the First Order only has access. 

But Kylo Ren tells Rey that they were able to put together the rest of the map from the Imperial archives. The missing part is only about 5  - 10 % of the total map, and contains a handful of star systems. You know from the Imperial archive the general location in the galaxy where Luke Skywalker is - why not send out a bunch of probe droids to search the hand full of planets in that unknown area?

And R2D2 put himself into low power mode after Luke left. But he has a nearly complete map to Luke minus that small missing piece. So how did the map get out? Was it put together from word of mouth - people that had spotted Luke on his travels? Then how did R2D2 get it? Did Luke make the map sans that small piece and left it with R2D2? Then how did the First Order get it? Why did R2D2 not pass on the map to the resistance? Perhaps Luke told him not to. But then why would Luke make a map in the first place? Why would R2 change his mind at the end of the film? So many questions....

Instead recovering the map form the First Order should have been one of the goals of the resistance.

Second Viewing Thoughts

So, yea, I like this movie. Even given its short comings. 

I would say story wise it's not as good as a New Hope or Empire Strikes Back. It is better than the prequels mostly because the prequels have a habit of not explaining key characters, contradict the original trilogy, have very poorly written characters and script. But I would put it slightly behind Return of the Jedi simply because of the derivative nature of the work.

Action wise it is really good. That last lightsaber duel was at least as good as the fights between Luke and Vader in Empire and Jedi. The X-wing battles are also really good. But I do feel that the space battle to defeat the second death star was superior to that to destroy the star killer. And the battle at the end of A New Hope had more tension.

If I was to rank the films I would put them: Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, Return of the Jedi / The Force Awakens (maybe equal), Revenge of the Sith, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones.

Friday 1 January 2016

The Force Awakens: Thoughts On What’s Going On

(I made some slight corrections to this post after my second viewing of the film).

Alrighty, in my previous post I commented that I found the story the The Force Awakens lacking. In this post I give my ideas for what might be going on in the galaxy far far away.

The biggest problem with The Force Awakens is that it left so many questions open. Would the New Republic not be the dominant force in the galaxy now? Why do they rely on a small resistance force to fight the First Order? Why doesn't the New Republic have a large navy at least the size of the previous Rebel Alliance fleet, if not the size of the Imperial fleet? Why only X-Wings - what happened to the other star fighters? What is the First Order, why did the New Republic allow it to form? How has the galaxy been shaped by events that followed The Return of the Jedi?

Again, these ramblings are based on my first (and currently only) viewing of the film.

The New Republic and the Larger Galaxy

First things first, I doubt very much the New Republic is anywhere near the size of the old Republic.

For starters, after the Empire collapsed there would have been a power grab as interested parties tried to carve out their own little Empires. I could see the Hutts or other crime syndicates expanding their holdings. There would also be world's loyal to the Empire that would not have reverted to Republic control. And the imperial military would have fractured into smaller fleets under the control of their individual moff’s and admirals. These independent fleets would likely have carved out their own territories.

Also, it was shown in the prequel trilogy that the old Republic existed as a collection of individual states held together by a federal government based at Coruscant. The system was similar to the USA or Australia where the federal government maintained a common currency and a set of laws voted on by the member states, which included the banning of slavery and the defence of the member states, and each member state was represented in a senate.

But clearly the member states didn’t always get along, and were at times downright aggressive to one another. Not only do we see disagreements between the representatives within the senate, but the Republic federal government also maintained a set of laws outlining how military engagements between Republic member states were to be conducted. I think it’s telling that military action between member states was not only an option for resolving major conflicts within the old Republic, but was common enough that laws were needed to keep the engagements fair.

Image: Wookieepedia
The establishment of the New Republic would almost certainly have required a new constitution or similar founding document, new trade pacts, defense pacts, etcetera. It is very unlikely that every system in the old Republic was 100% satisfied with the agreements that had been made under that government, and clearly there was animosity between some cultures. Many states would have argued for better or more favourable positions within the New Republic. Reforms to previous federal laws, better trade deals, better defence, more access to power, more access to resources and so on. These sort of agreements take years to establish on Earth, and we’re all human. How long would these negotiations take on a galactic scale, between alien species and cultures? Decades? Centuries?

No doubt some former old Republic worlds would have broken away from the New Republic until these negotiations were complete. Perhaps going as far as to form their own independent states if diplomatic negotiations fell apart.

So my basic premise is that after the Empire fell the former Imperial territory (and the outer rim) fractured into several smaller independent sovereign states, which include the New Republic and the First Order. The New Republic is much smaller than the old Republic and may only comprise what were the core worlds of the old Republic. The New Republic is surrounded by these new states. Some of these states would be New Republic friendly, but many wouldn’t many wouldn’t.

The galaxy is in a certain amount of turmoil as the new states each jostle for power. The loss of the Imperial navy as an overwhelming police force has also meant an escalation of piracy, crime  and dissident groups throughout the region.

The First Order

The first order is likely an independent state that formed from worlds loyal to the Empire. Only a state with a centralised government would have the resources and infrastructure to build the starkiller. So it is unlikely that the first order is a rogue former imperial fleet. The First Order could be very powerful if it inherited a large portion of the defeated Imperial fleet.

The First Order does not appear to be expansionist or aggressive towards the New Republic. If there was a threat that the First Order was going to invade New Republic space then the border would have been strengthened with an actual Republic fleet rather than relying on a rag tag resistance for defence.

Had tensions between the two nations been heated, and an attack expected, then the attack by the starkiller would have been countered by an attack from a larger Republic fleet patrolling the border. This fleet would have had large capital ships and B-Wings to counter the First Orders star destroyers. That the only Republic friendly force in the region was a single fleet of resistance X-wings suggests that prior to the attack relations between the New Republic and the First Order were amicable, and the Republic did not expect an attack.

The New Republic wasn't even spying on the First Order. The Republic wasn't aware that the First Order was constructing the starkiller -  information about the starkiller was collected by the resistance prior to the attack. Given that even allied nations on Earth spy on each other is very telling about how much of a threat the New Republic felt the First Order was.

The starkillers attack was a show of force and not part of an invasion. It is stated in the film that the First Order had built the starkiller in response to suspicions that the New Republic was funding the resistance.** And the attack by the starkiller was not followed by an invasion to grab territory. Had the First Order been expansionist then they would have almost certainly have used the starkiller to create confusion inside the New Republic while at the same time taking territory with an invasion force. All they did was destroy some planets and left it at that.

The attack by the starkiller was a response to the Republic supporting the resistance, and the perceived threat that the Republic was going to invade First Order space. They wanted to strike first as a deterrent.

A preemptive show of force of this manner is the same tactic Grand Moff Tarkin used against the Rebel Alliance when the first death star destroyed Alderaan. It was felt that showing the destructive power of the death star would stop further attacks from the Rebellion.

** EDIT 06.01.16. They don't actually say that they suspect the New Republic is financing the resistance. I remembered this wrong. What they do state is that they are attacking the New Republic as it is the government that is supporting the resistance.

It appears that the First Order is primarily concerned with finding Luke Skywalker. Attacks on the New Republic are at this stage a  secondary concern. They are only attacking the New Republic because this government is supporting the resistance, an the resistance has been launching attacks against the First Order.

The Resistance

A couple of facts about the resistance can be gleaned from the film;

It’s possible that the resistance aren’t part of the New Republic military, or part of the New Republic government. As above, it’s stated that the First Order suspects that the New Republic is funding the resistance.** The resistance may therefore not be part of the New Republic itself, but an independent group funded, at least in part, by the Republic government.*** That, or maybe the First Order simply failed to find the evidence connecting the resistance to the New Republic government, perhaps their spies only discovered the movement of funds.

*** EDIT 06.01.2016. It is stated several times through the film that the resistance it a private military that is only supported by the New Republic government (including in the opening crawl). The First Order are attacking the New Republic in retaliation to the support they give the resistance.

The First Order is at least partially correct about the New Republic’s involvement in the resistance. The resistance is staffed by several high ranking Republic commanders, is clearly very sympathetic towards the Republic, and is likely based within New Republic space.

While not part of the New Republic military, the resistance is based within New Republic space. When the starkiller destroys the New Republic planets the explosions of those planets are visible from the resistance base. This must mean that the resistance base and those planets are located within the same star system, otherwise the explosions would not have been visible. They must therefore be crossing into First Order territory to conduct their attacks.

The resistance is primarily concerned with finding Luke Skywalker. Unlike the First Order they want to enlist his help. This is because they believe that the galaxy cannot have stability and order without the Jedi order being present. If Luke Skywalker is lost then the galaxy would plummet into a period of anarchy. This has brought them into conflict with the First Order.

The resistance is very small, much smaller than the rebellion. Not only does the resistance lack the capital ships that were available to the rebellion (Nebulon B frigates, Mon Calamari cruisers, Corellian corvettes), but also all the starfighters with the exception of the X-Wing. If the rebellion was a fleet representing the combined arms of several allied rebel worlds, then the resistance is perhaps just a single cell more akin to a guerilla group or, ahem, terrorist cell.

Princess Leia is fighting with the resistance to help cope with the loss of Ben. The resistance gives her a familiar setting, something to concentrate on and is perhaps the only way she can rescue her son. This is likely one of her primary motivations for wanting to find Luke Skywalker.

My Thoughts on the background to The Force Awakens

It appears to me that at some level the New Republic is the aggressor in the story.

At the very least they are financing a group that is crossing the border to conduct guerrilla attacks against another sovereign nation (the First Order). The statement made that the First Order built the starkiller as a retaliation to the New Republic funding the resistance is very telling.** It is likely that the First Order saw the Republic as a threat, and that the use of the starkiller was a preemptive strike to that perceived threat.

The First Order are not expansionist, and prior to the The Force Awakens had not invaded New Republic space. At the moment they are only really concerned with finding Luke Skywalker, and this has brought them into conflict with the resistance, a group that has been conducting very effective guerrilla raids against them. Initially the First Order was unaware of the connection between the resistance and the New Republic and felt that the resistance was an independent terrorist or dissident group.

At some point prior to The Force Awakens the First Order discovers that the New Republic is at least supporting the resistance. They interpret this as a direct threat from the New Republic. That the resistance is striking First Order targets and gathering intelligence prior to a larger New Republic invasion, or that the Republic is actively trying to disrupt the First Order and create a state of panic. As a result they begin construction of the starkiller as a means for conducting a massive first strike against the New Republic - the thought being that such a show of force would cause the Republic to rethink it's plans to invade. Attack them before they attack us.

Now, this is not to say that the First Order aren’t the bad guys. Ideologically the First Order may still be evil, they do employ dark Jedi and impress children into service after all. And it doesn't mean that the First Order will not become the major aggressor going forward. It just means that it was the Republic that, at least in part, provoked an attack in The Force Awakens.

Ok, so that's my broad thoughts on whats happening within the galaxy. What about the finer details?

The New Republic is the Aggressor

Theory 1: The New Republic is economically and diplomatically very strong. While peaceful, New Republic is expansionist and wishes to bring surrounding territories under their control. They are not using their military to do this. Instead they are doing this using a combination of diplomatic and more subversive methods.

Diplomatic methods include spreading propaganda, economic sanctions, diplomatic pressures, tariffs, preferential treatment of states that share New Republic ideologies, etcetera. More subversive methods may include spying, assassinations, and financing dissident groups that promote instability within neighbouring states. Worlds in a state of anarchy will be more susceptible to Republic propaganda, while financing dissident groups will weaken neighbouring militaries so that the New Republic remains the dominant military force in the region.

In this scenario there has been no direct conflict between the New Republic and the First Order. The resistance already existed and was conducting guerrilla attacks against the First Order as part of their goal of safeguarding Luke Skywalker. The New Republic secretly began supporting the resistance as a means to further their own goals of disrupting and conquering the First Order.

A good analogy would be the current situation of Russia supporting rebel forces inside of the Ukraine.

The connection between the resistance and the New Republic was not meant to be discovered, and so the New Republic did not expect an attack from the First Order. Because of this the New Republic fleet was not ready to retaliate to the starkiller's attack.

But we can take this further. Perhaps the Republic is so worried about another Empire rising that they became incredibly authoritarian - passing draconian laws against free speech and cracking down hard on anything that could be considered as being detrimental to the state. Maybe there is mass surveillance of the population, curfews and restrictions on travel. Maybe these restrictions are imposed with force.

Perhaps in trying to stop the Empire they themselves became just as tyrannical.

The First Order may not actually be evil, but desperate. In order to retain their freedom they are having to resort to dark Jedi and impressment of children just so they have enough of a military presence to resist the Republic. The starkiller being a last resort. Kylo Ren is still evil and on his way to becoming a sith, but he is a means to an end. Perhaps the First Order fear that the Jedi would force their incorporation into the New Republic, and Kylo Ren is viewed as a necessary evil.

There are hints in the film that the Republic has become a second Empire. For example the uniforms worn by the high ranking resistance / Republic officers are very similar to the Imperial officer uniforms including solid colour earth-tone jacket that skirts towards the bottom, broad belt over the waist, Chinese collars, and rectangular badges on the left breast (on the Imperial uniforms these were rank insignia, on the Republic they appear to be some sort of icon). Telling…. or overthinking it?

LEFT: Admiral Statura - The Force Awakens, seen working with Leia in the resistance. Image: RIGHT: Moff Jerjerrod - Return of the Jedi. Image:

This could be part of the reason why Luke has gone into hiding. He can’t side with Kylo Ren and aid the dark Jedi take over, however he doesn’t want to help a distorted New Republic control the galaxy. Instead taking a completely neutral position.

A Crippled New Republic

Theory 2: Either it took so long to establish a new federal government, cleaning up the remaining Imperial forces took a vast amount of resources, or the high cost of protecting its borders from attacks from neighbouring sovereign states has meant that the New Republic is financially crippled. The main Republic fleet is small and is also spread very thin protecting the territorial borders from the surrounding independent states.

As a result the Republic has seeded militia groups along its borders to act as first line defenders as these are all it can afford. These militia groups are not traditional standing armies, instead many people serve voluntarily because they believe in the Republic, similar to the Rebel Alliance.

The paper trail connecting these militia groups to the New Republic government is kept to a minimum. This has a couple of advantages;

  1. The Republic can order military operations in foreign territories or against foreign ships while at the same time appearing neutral. These attacks might appear as being pirate raids, rogue fleets or dissident groups for example - this would be particularly true if the galaxy is still in a state of turmoil after the fall of the Empire as it is likely that pirate raids would now be fairly common. This would allow the Republic to protect their borders from minor incursions or raids without necessarily escalating diplomatic tensions. 

  2. Without a paper trail it would be easier for these small militias to remain hidden. This gives them the element of surprise, making their small numbers more effective. A strategy used by the Rebel Alliance. 

  3. These militias are supplied mostly with X-Wings as these are the most versatile craft available, being a very competent joint strike fighter bomber. Capital ships and specialised starfighters such as Y-Wings, B-Wings and A-Wings are reserved for the main Republic fleet.

The resistance would be one of these militias. After it was discovered that the First Order was trying to locate Luke Skywalker they were given orders to stop them. This escalated attacks from the resistance into First Order space. The First Order initially thought that the resistance was an independent terrorist group, acting by itself, and therefore only attacked resistance targets rather than engaging the New Republic directly. However, at some point it was discovered that the resistance was at the very least being funded by the New Republic. This increased tensions between the New Republic and the First Order resulting in the preemptive strike using the starkiller.

Because the New Republic was unprepared for the attack the main republic fleet was not available to retaliate against the First Order, meaning the defense relied only on the local militia (i.e. the resistance). 

A Fractured Republic

Theory 3: The Republic never reestablished a federal government on Coruscant. Instead the New Republic exists as a collection of loosely allied independent states. Each state maintains it own military. This would mean that capital ships would be largely localised to the systems that produce them. For example, Mon Cala would be well protected fleets of Mon Calamari cruisers. Other systems would have to use whatever ships they could produce or purchase.

The resistance is the military of one of these independent New Republic States. This is a smaller state that only has a fleet of X-Wings protecting its borders. This is why other starfighters and capital ships were not available to engage the starkiller.

The resistance is used in the same way as in theory 2, as a semi-hidden militia with a loose paper trail to the government that operates it.

The Resistance is an Independent Terrorist Cell

Theory 4: The resistance is an independant terrorist cell that is on it’s own mission to find Luke Skywalker, and stop the First Order. The resistance is not operating under the orders of the Republic, and is instead a collection of Republic military commanders and pilots that broke away from the Republic military and came together because they believe in Luke Skywalkers ability to bring stability to the galaxy. They are launching terrorist attacks against the First Order from Republic space simply because the First Order have the goal of killing Skywalker.

But they are getting some funding from the New Republic. Not enough to build a force of ships beyond a single fleet of X-Wings, but enough to maintain their force. This may be because the New Republic doesn’t believe Luke Skywalker can actually be found, or that they feel that the resistance’s belief in Luke Skywalker as a saviour of the galaxy is unfounded and the resources would be better spent elsewhere. But they do want to fund the resistance to a certain extent for a couple of reasons;

  1. The resistance has been very effective in harassing the First Order, and this is in line goals of the New Republic.

  2. The Republic is willing to spend some funds on the small chance that the resistance can find Luke Skywalker.

The New Republic felt that the First Order would not be able to detect its involvement with the resistance, and felt that the resistance would have been treated as an independent terrorist or dissident group.  The sudden preemptive attack by the starkiller was not foreseen, and therefore a larger fleet was not on standby to retaliate to the attack.

JJ Abrams is a Hack

Theory 5: The most likely scenario. Disney actually wanted to reboot the franchise, but worried about the backlash from fans. And JJ Abrams is a director that doesn't like to push boundaries, likes to work within established boxes, and really just likes 'splosions...

So they hit the reset button and remade A New Hope without any concern for how The Force Awakens fits into the cannon. Everyone was reset to their original starting positions, and this required a rebellion for Han Solo and Princess Leia to participate in. It's never going to be explained why the New Republic doesn't have a military, why the resistance only uses X-Wings, and the First Order is just going to be a second Empire hell bent on galactic domination. Cos why not do something new when remaking the old is so easy?

Episode VIII

I think each of my scenarios (except theory 5) would result in an escalated response form the New Republic. Hopefully we will see more ships coming into play. Fleet on fleet battles with capital ships, A-Wings, Y-Wings and B-wings making an appearance.

And hopefully Episode VIII actually gives some better background as to what is happening in the Galaxy!

Oh - and the Knights of Ren are clones of Kylo. And Rey is Luke Skywalkers daughter.