I’m old enough to remember watching the original Star Wars back in 1977 in the theater. I still have remnants of my childhood love affair with the franchise, mostly in the form of fading stickers and a few trading cards. The rest of my “collectibles” were rode hard and put away wet until I outgrew them. I’ve been through the ups and downs of the Star Wars empire just like many of my fellow travelers from 1977. Naturally nothing short of a Zombie Apocalypse was going to stop me from seeing this new movie.
My one line review of the movie is this; it was as good as the archetypal zombie movie. Cryptic? Well, isn’t that exactly the way every good zombie movie starts? How many Force Awakens zombie movie parallels did you see? Each of these themes can show up in any type of movie, but bunched together they perfectly describe almost any zombie book or movie you can imagine. If you haven’t seen it yet, look for these when you do (again, no spoilers beyond what you might see in the movie trailer).
The Apocalypse: Most every zombie book or movie has that moment where the whole world goes pear-shaped. This is usually, but not always, at the beginning. Imagine the zombie book where the government collapsed overnight. Social services were disrupted. The military was overtaxed. Police were crushed fighting with undesirables and criminals, eventually giving up and ceding much of the landscape to mercenaries, smugglers, and other scavengers. Almost word for word this could describe Episode VII, based on the wreckage of the trailer. In the historical span of Star Wars, the apocalypse took place before Force Awakens. Just in case we have readers who haven’t seen the original six movies, I won’t give away when the collapse happened. If you’ve seen them, it is rather obvious because it happened twice.
Suffice it to say, when a collapse of government takes place, a power vacuum gets created. This is common sense. Those cities and states (or planets) far away from the remaining elements of the government must fend for themselves. The heroes have to depend on themselves to survive until polite society returns (if it ever does). This holds true in real life, galactic empires, or zombie downfalls.
Post-Apocalyptic Landscape: Given the above, the Force Awakens zombie movie would best be described as post-apocalyptic. The disaster had already happened, and those left behind had to find a way to survive. In zombie movies, the easiest way to survive–perhaps the only way unless you are in a well-stocked bunker–is to scavenge for food and supplies. The hero has to go from house to house to find her dinner, encountering who-knows-what in those dark places. Zombies. Criminals. Other scavengers. And sometimes…just sometimes…they meet those destined to join their survival group.
In the new movie (seen in the movie trailer), Rey starts her journey on a sand-blasted planet littered with the carcasses of the government. A great battle took place (Yonkers anyone?), and as in so many zombie books, chaos overcame order. The remains of powerful star destroyers litter the planet, giving symbolic and literal bodies for the survivors to search for loot. This is textbook post-apocalypse.
Inept Government: Zombie books abound with inept government departments, Presidents, science labs, and research teams. If they aren’t spilling toxins on themselves, they are shooting the good guys just as they find the cure. It’s almost a given the government is part of the problem, more than it is part of the solution in zombie lore. And no franchise screams inept big government more than Star Wars.
Where else can a powerful government organization build a huge planet-sized weapon, only to leave a small hatch that has a direct mile-long straight-shot right to the very heart of the thing? Seriously, how dumb do you have to be to build a weapon of doom and then leave it as vulnerable as a seal pup? One would think that when they get around to building a second version, the design flaws would have been worked out? A 10-year-old kid could see them. That is the government for you. They always make things worse. Padme and her lectures on the Senate can take a flying leap. I leave it to the viewer to decide if government in Star Wars recovers from its perfect record of bumbling in The Force Awakens.
In zombie books, government forces are usually only good at picking up the pieces outside their front doors, leaving the rest of the people of the world to fend for themselves. This is best expressed in the Resident Evil:Retribution movie where Alice is on the rooftop of the White House while zombies and other bad guys swirl around the building. It is literally the only piece of real estate the government controls…
In The Force Awakens there are at least two prominent governments in conflict. Both would fit snugly into any zombie book.
The Awakening: Every zombie book has to have its survivors. The people who make it to the other side of the initial plague only to ask, “What comes next?” This moment is almost literal in Force Awakens. <–The words are right on the tin. My favorite book is the 1949 classic Earth Abides. The hero survives a plague (not zombie-related) and walks out of the forest to find the world ruined. He is left to wonder how it happened and what he can do to survive. This theme is from countless zombie tales, including the recent TV series The Walking Dead where Rick Grimes wakes out of a coma to a world gone mad. It is an easy way to skip over the horror of the Apocalypse.
When the character awakens in the new Star Wars movie, they see the world for what it really is. Good vs. evil. Chaos vs. order. Plants vs. zombies. Everything a good zombie book needs to sustain itself. From that point on, the hero begins to fight the real threat. The zombies!
The zombies: So who are the zombies in Force Awakens? That’s easy. The same as they’ve been for a very long time in the franchise. The Stormtroopers. Genetically modified, grown in test tubes (some of them), and sent like a virus out into the galaxy. When they are lined up nice and neat in their staging areas it is easy to overlook their insidious and messy methods at the tip of the spear. They pour forth like a virus from their ships, always in the vanguard of attacks, often without a discernible strategy beyond brute force, heedless of loss, and seeking to infect anything and everything in their purview. The virus is so perfect in controlling the zombies/troopers it becomes almost a comic punchline if one or two of them has an original thought. It is nearly as impossible as a zombie healing itself to the point it knew it was no longer a zombie. A rarity in the literary world of zed-words.
Zombies are also prone to doing the same things over and over, sometimes for eternity. The methods and protocols of the Stormtroopers seem to repeat themselves movie after movie, making them both the Keystone Cops and the zombies. Remember the dramatic entry in Episode IV where Darth Vader comes through the door of the rebel ship? The Stormtroopers had thrown themselves through that door just moments before. The virus had been injected, and Vader was free to enter the dying host.
The plague: The zombie plague is obvious in the Star Wars universe. The dark side of the force is the source of the infection that continues to fell heroes, destroy societies, kill without regard for age, race, or creed, and spread itself to all points on the galactic map. Instead of a bite, the infection is mostly spread through the end of a blaster, although the most insidious and pure form of the virus is spread in a much more subtle fashion by the masters of the dark side–the Sith. Perhaps an analogy would be biting the brain of their targets (Luke was infected, as was his father). The masters of the dark side–such as the Emperor–have ingested and survived the virus, and through expert manipulation of history are able to expedite its spread through political and social means, sending the disease far and wide much faster than something as pedestrian as biting ever could. The dark side is the plague that spreads not just by blood, but by thought. It’s the only viable way to spread it over an entire galaxy, making it one of the most potent zombie plagues in the known literary universe.
The Cure: Another easy pitch. The light side of the force is the cure. Unlike the dark side though, it is unable to spread as quickly or as forcefully as the dark side. This is because there is no vector of transmission covering the entire galaxy to instill “light” into those infected by darkness. In zombie books it is akin to the heroes holding a vial of the cure, with no way to give it to the masses. If the Stormtroopers are the zombies, there would have to be a way–perhaps an Independence Day-esque infection of a central computer–where goodness and light are programmed into the stormtroopers galaxy-wide. They would then spread the infection in reverse…
Another staple of zombie literature is the “always over the next hill” nature of the cure. It’s out there, but you and your merry band of survivors have to do ten million things in a row to find it. Sound familiar? As a writer I’m sometimes guilty of this too, though I do it because I–as a reader–demand to know someone is going to be able to cure the broken world. Or at the very least there is hope for the cure. Otherwise, what’s the point? Hope is very powerful, and it is no coincidence A New Hope was the name of the original movie. The cure (the light side) was out there for the plague (the dark side).
Without this hope, it leads to dismal and hopeless worlds like that punch you in the gut, such as the movie The Road. A movie I will never watch again. But fear not, Force Awakens has “the cure” mystery running through the whole thing, putting it on par with the best of “positive” zombie literature.
There are plenty of other elements of zombie books baked into The Force Awakens–mysterious government functionaries, multiple layers of bureaucracy, military hit squads, powerful weapons to fight zombies, shifting alliances, survivor enclaves, human survivors with just the right knowledge to fight the plague, and that far-off horizon where everything promises to turn out all right. I doubt JJ Abrams (or his handlers at Disney) used any zombie books as the basis for his re-imagining of the Star Wars universe, but when I saw his movie I interpreted his vision as if I were watching a zombie book play out on the screen.
Maybe I just have too many zombies on the brain. Perhaps I just see conspiracy and multiple meanings in everything. I saw Episode VII–the highest grossing film of all time, a cultural tour-de-force–as more than a simple hero’s journey, though it is certainly that. The Force Awakens will eventually be seen as the most popular zombie movie in history. All the unique elements of z-lit are there.
Chew on it and see if you agree.