‘Star Wars’ Stormtroopers: What message do they send?

Editor’s Note: Laurie Garrett is senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Laurie Garrett: Will the Stormtroopers of "Star Wars" send the wrong message?

Garrett: In the 1970s, they echoed fascism, but what will audiences conclude today?

CNN  — 

On the opening night of J.J. Abrams’ amazing film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” I enjoyed a special 3-D screening in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s intimate Harvey Theater. I’ll begin by stipulating that I loved the movie, I often had goosebumps, tears and the urge to stand up and cheer, and the entire audience apparently shared a similarly exuberant and nostalgic response to the movie.

The instant the theater lights went down the audience started cheering, and at the first chord of John Williams’ music the crowd was shouting; when the “galaxy far, far away” backstory began streaming into the screen’s outer space the audience simply went wild.

Laurie Garrett

But lingering in the back of my otherwise highly entertained mind was an unease about those Stormtroopers in their white plastic body armor and helmets, toting weapons that look an awful lot like the armaments United States soldiers carry into battle.

When the original “Star Wars” was released in 1977, the Vietnam War was two-years-over, and the film hit an America that was more than ready for a hefty dose of escapism.

Harrison Ford’s attitude-swagger and swashbuckling appeal struck a perfect post-Vietnam protest note: He was a good guy, but by his own rules. Chewbacca’s big hairy incoherent presence felt neo-hippie, and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia offered hints of feminism that titillated, rather than offended male viewers. The Stormtroopers and Darth Vader were perfect enemies, reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary images of Hitler’s supporters at Nuremberg. The enemy was the “dark side” of fascism. And the battlefield was a galaxy.

J.J. Abrams and the Disney Corp. have deliberately and liberally peppered this latest installment in the “Star Wars” saga with reverence for and allusions to original director George Lucas’ first three films, including “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi” (1983), and dodged everything that audiences disliked about the subsequent “Star Wars” movies. In so doing, they have raised high the nostalgia bar.

And that is why the Stormtroopers bothered me. While there are moments in the new movie that absolutely recall Riefenstahl’s Nazis and equate the enemy and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren with something akin to fascism, the Stormtroopers themselves move and fight exactly like U.S. military deployed in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

U.S. Press Secretary Josh Earnest speaks to the press in the briefing room at the White House in Washington, DC, on December 18, 2015, with Star Wars characters R2D2 and Storm Troopers.

They signal one another using hand waves that other Hollywood productions and American TV shows depict our armed forces and police deploying. It wasn’t long into the movie before I felt uncomfortable, seeing the “dark side” as a blend of Lucas’ originally blatantly Nazi-modeled bad guys and our nation’s current armed forces.

In one particular scene involving a genocidal massacre, the blended enemy depiction momentarily shook me out of the entertainment and into thinking of the many battle-hardened military officers I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pentagon and in the Ebola fight in Liberia.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved “Episode VII” in the “Star Wars” series, and shouted with genuine joy at its end. I will definitely vie for opening night seats for “Episode VIII” in 2017, and IX two years later.

But I do worry how the Stormtroopers – the enemy – will play overseas. German fascism seems to millennial audiences in China, India, Africa and the Middle East, like ancient, unfamiliar history. But American Special Forces squads outfitted in high-tech gear and body armor constitute a very real and current image, awfully close to Kylo Ren’s First Order troops.

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