Star Wars has always been violent without being violent. The fights and brutality are intentionally anemic, even though the story is predicated upon good guys blowing up millions of bad guys because they blew up millions of good guys. The story pits the near holy and — as Obi-Wan calls it — civilized lightsaber against the “clumsy and random” blaster, positioning that violence as contextually permissible. In the fight between the fantastical (plasma sword!) and the fairly plausible (laser gun), we rooted for the fairly plausible.
Now that’s changing.
If you go back to the original, the blasters in the 1977 movie looked like straight-up guns. Squint hard enough and the gun metal, handle, and trigger all look like the weird plausible cousin of an AK-47 or something. Again, the actual deaths caused by handheld blasters in the original movies were bloodless and typified by sparks, a puff of smoke, and a Wilhelm Scream. Stormtroopers don’t bleed out.
Star Wars has always swung for this type of innocent carnage, especially during the prequels when the filmmakers made the baddies into an entire droid army to just constantly mow down without any repercussions. Metal circuits are ratings board ratings board disposal. But the aesthetic of the blaster in the original movies was intended to be threatening. That semi-realness was due in large part to the scrappy and lived-in world that George Lucas created.
But the shifting politics of The Force Awakens also changes up the arsenal of the bad guys. With the new movie there seems to be a move towards commercialization too, which is something that Star Wars has defined and excelled at doing. In the new movie, the new blasters aren’t the deliberately menacing black metal hue anymore. Instead these laser-ific tools of intergalactic death are a more seemingly harmonious white color with black accents that look like they’re made of plastic. They’re no longer scary, they’re just toys.
But The Force Awakens still does feature a remnant leftover from the original trilogy’s level of violence: The space cowboy and scruffy looking nerf herder himself, Han Solo. Regardless of what George Lucas wants to tell you, he shoots first and asks questions later. Han is perhaps the typification of that ideology, spouting off the infamous line: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side,” before Luke undergoes his first lightsaber training session with Obi-Wan. Han is someone almost defined by his blaster, onscreen and in production stills. And it looks like he’ll carry that iconic blaster into The Force Awakens as well, so we can’t count out the fact that the new movie knows exactly what it’s doing
This is a movie that will also ostensibly feature an even stronger Death Star, capable of destroying entire solar systems on the whim of evil figures like Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux or Adam Driver’s Sith-like Kylo Ren. But there’s still a point to be made about how the Rebellion meant something different back in 1977, something more threatening or more — excuse the pun — forceful. The good guys in The Force Awakens are now simply The Resistance, a passive-sounding reaction to this poor group of stragglers being provoked.
Perhaps the overly animated features on the new blaster only serve to contrast this massive vehicle of total and absolute destruction. But that still doesn’t mean the image of the blasters themselves haven’t undergone a transformation from a real life rifle proxy to a belittled plaything. The cartoonification of those particular firearms in Star Wars remains specifically undefined (like us all, we still need to see the movie) but their appearance isn’t much of a threat. So in the end, which will be the elegant weapons for a supposedly more civilized age?