There is a scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in which the titular character steamrolls a slow-witted henchman to death. We’re supposed to think that the joke is the henchman’s screams, which become more protracted as the steamroller moves very slowly towards him; but then the image of the steamroller crushing the henchman cuts to that of a rolling pin rolling dough in a suburban family home. We discover the real joke: this is the henchman’s home. His wife is about to get a call telling her that her husband is dead and then she’s going to have to explain her husband’s death to her son. What we’re really laughing at, of course, is the fact that we never think of the henchman as anything other than depersonalised cannon fodder (the joke is cemented by the portrait on the wall of the proud henchman in uniform and the reveal that his name is Steve). The scene’s closing line, uttered by the henchman’s wife, is “People never think how things affect the family of a henchman”.
This has certainly been true of the Star Wars saga’s own iconic henchman, the stormtrooper. Or at least it was until J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens unwittingly introduced the idea that maybe the stormtrooper is a real person after all. The stormtrooper might not have a suburban family to come back to at the end of each day, but thanks to Finn we realise something we’ve never had to think about before: the stormtrooper’s family really does exist. True, the stormtrooper is taken from that family at birth. But the existence of a family in any context plants the germ of an idea: the stormtrooper might be something more than its iconic armour. The idea is strengthened by something else we’ve never had to think about: stormtroopers have names. The names are numbers, but they’re still a kind of name (they’re unique to each stormtrooper). The joke of course is that a number is something that depersonalises a person. But the stormtrooper was already as depersonalised as it’s possible to be. The idea of stormtrooper names was one that film audiences had never even questioned before. And so the idea has the opposite effect to what it intends: it makes you consider that those previously homogeneous stormtroopers have something that makes them in some tiny way unique. The audience watching starts to think about the fact that each stormtrooper killed in the Star Wars universe had a unique, personal number that differentiated him from hundreds (thousands? Millions?) of other dead stormtroopers.
Finn’s journey from unthinking, unnamed stormtrooper to resistance fighter is one we’ve never seen in the Star Wars films. It’s a journey that’s defined during the film’s opening attack on a Jakku village. We find out later that this is Finn’s first battle, and it’s one that reveals to him the horrors of war. It does this first through the death of a fellow soldier, and then does so more permanently when Finn – as part of Kylo Ren’s attack squad – is ordered to execute a group of unarmed prisoners (something which Finn, unlike his colleagues, is unable to do).
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fascist overtones present during The First Order’s demonstration of its Starkiller Base. The parallels with Nazi Germany are deliberate and obvious – we don’t really need the visual comparison, even if it’s a pretty powerful one. But in the context of Finn’s humanised stormtrooper the parallels with Nazi Germany suggest that the average stormtrooper is not just a suit of armour. Your average stormtrooper is motivated by the propaganda and hatred of General Hux. Watching this you begin to understand that maybe the stormtrooper’s analogue is not the depersonalised henchman of countless action films but the soldier of Nazi Germany. Which is really just a way of saying that the stormtrooper is a real person under the thrall of a powerful and charismatic leader (there’s a reason why Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is visibly shaking with anger and hysteria). The stormtrooper then is a soldier with a convincingly and terrifyingly real motive. Even if we don’t agree with the motive we can on some level understand it. And so the stormtroopers are no longer operating out of a vaguely defined sense of duty but out of hatred and anger and prejudice (perhaps even a racial sense of injustice).
All of which leaves The Force Awakens with a problem: a lot of stormtroopers are going to die, and if the audience understands that there are people behind the armour, the audience is going to find it more difficult to unequivocally accept all the stormtrooper deaths (Finn’s zeal towards the death of his former comrades is somewhat unbelievable and a little distasteful – he’s the only character with any personal experience of stormtroopers as people and he’s the one character visibly excited about killing them). And so, although it’s an understandable necessity, it’s maybe a slight disappointment that the film does not explore the motivation of the stormtrooper any further than it does.
But even with that in mind it’s hard not to feel that a door has been opened on a facet of the Star Wars universe that, for obvious reasons, has never before been opened. In some ways it’s hard not to feel, having gained an insight into the internal world of the stormtrooper, a tiny pang of conscience at the sight of dead stormtroopers strewn around The Force Awakens‘ various battlefields (I stress that it’s a tiny pang – the stormtroopers might be more recognisably real than in previous Star Wars films but they’re still essentially Nazis). And it’s hard not to stop and think that lying dead somewhere in his stormtrooper armour might be another potential Finn.
- There’s an argument that, prior to The Force Awakens, the most personal and human thing we’ve ever seen a stormtrooper do is to walk into a door frame.