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.