The progressive and regressive politics of Star Wars.


It’s been twenty-eight years since Han Solo and his multimorphic crew set out to destroy the Evil Empire. That was a long time ago in a cineplex far, far away. The original Star Wars audience is now nearly old enough to worry about Social Security, and any new episode in the saga has to engage that aging generation as well as its spawn. No wonder Revenge of the Sith, the sixth and final installment, is darker and more reflective than what came before. The need to be mature–and “relevant”–may explain why George Lucas chose to make this film so overtly political.

Revenge of the Sith is salted with anti-Bush insinuations, none more telling than the moment when the villainous chancellor, Palpatine, wins sweeping new powers from the galactic senate in the name of security. Watching from her seat, the virtuous Padmé observes, “This is how democracy dies: to thunderous applause.” It remains to be seen whether this line will join the many maxims Star Wars has contributed to American discourse, but it’s already stuck to Bill Frist’s back, thanks to a media campaign against his war on the filibuster by MoveOn.org. (“One senator, seduced by a dark vision of absolute power, seeks to destroy the fabled order, replacing fair judges with right-wing clones.”) Of course, partisans have always tried to latch on to the power of this formative saga, the closest thing in entertainment to Wagner’s Ring cycle. Many politicians have been dubbed Darth Vader; Henry Kissinger is only the most deserving. But usually Lucas remains hors de combat. This time he’s waving a blue light-saber and hoping the film “will waken people to the situation.” A sincere sentiment? Granted–but also a canny way to make another sequel seem like more than that.

The truly newsworthy thing is not that Star Wars has an ideology but how it has changed over the years. The best way to track this evolution is to watch the latest episode alongside the original 1977 feature (now called A New Hope). Lucas masterfully played to the retro yearnings of the late 1970s, channeling the feeling of forgotten movie serials and introducing a new emblem of rugged individuality in Han Solo, the free agent with a heart of gold. The 1977 film prefigured the contours of Reaganism in its manichean tropes, right down to its fabled Evil Empire. Revenge of the Sith has a very different feeling. Gone are the verities of light and darkness; now complexity rules–or as Obi-Wan Kenobi counsels, “Only the Sith think in absolutes.” This isn’t just about aging; it’s also Lucas’s sense of what his audience is thinking now. In Anakin Skywalker, who crosses over to the Darth side, we see how evil can flow from smug naïveté. He is as prophetic an American type as Han Solo once was, and Sith offers as striking an image of our anxiety as the original feature did in its time. Let’s hope the new film is as predictive of social change.

Still, there’s something ill fitting about the liberal platitudes Lucas sprinkles over Sith. They clash with the conservative hallmarks of the series as a whole. Consider the galactic government: Even before Palpatine’s power play, it was a “democracy” overseen by a clique of spiritual warriors–something like a benign version of Iran. Lucas’s cosmic order may be a highly diverse place, with many species mingling over drinks and subtitles, but authority tends to flow upward toward humans–usually male humans. Here is the ideology of Star Wars that never changes, and it has less to do with left and right than with the values of machismo. If this saga has an authoritarian streak, that’s because macho narratives often do. They are mystifications of hierarchy, and Star Wars is one of the best. Take the Jedi. For all their noblesse, they are basically a gang of wand-wielding guys passing power from member to member in a top-down way. As the mini-patriarch Yoda puts it, “Always two there are: a master and an apprentice.” Is there a more succinct summation of the way machismo confers and confines clout?

Star Wars has always been a male preoccupation. By now the series holds a sacred place in the temple of dude. Tamper with its codes and there’s hell to pay, as Lucas learned in 1999 when he dared to insert an androgynous character into The Phantom Menace: the fearless but flouncy Jar Jar Binks. With his West Indian accent and dreadlocks, he seemed like a shuffling black man to some brothers, but white boys simply saw him as gay–and the Internet exploded with cries of “Jar Jar must die!” Apparently Lucas learned his lesson, since everyone–or -thing–in his current galaxy is saber straight (though some fans detect a touch of the queer-brush in C-3PO). But the memory of that fey moment lingers on, informing Bill Frist’s response to being compared to Palpatine. Through a spokesperson, he proclaimed that Howard Dean is Jar Jar Binks–a Republican way of saying faggot.

Revenge of the Sith doesn’t just recapitulate this sexist structure; it’s the most reactionary film in the Star Wars series when it comes to gender. In the 1977 feature Luke Skywalker’s sister, Leia, was a fighting babe. In 2005 Leia’s mother, Padmé, is a helpmeet to her husband, Anakin–all the more striking since she’s a former queen who saw action in an earlier episode. How fitting that she dies of a broken heart when her man becomes a Sith-ophant. Back in the Alien days, when a female astronaut named Ripley was slaying slimy monsters, Padmé would have looked laughably retrograde. Today she seems like a proper heroine–and critics are so taken with the idea that a blockbuster disses the President that they overlook its sexual politics.

Like all great pop artists, Lucas can read the dream life of the nation. The good news is that he’s picked up an underlying uneasiness about the government. The bad news is that he’s also noticed a retro trend in gender attitudes. The important thing is to be aware of both.

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