Every couple of months I do a Star Wars-related post, delving into the history of the franchise or analyzing elements within it, like my article from January on the environments we see in the series. (That’s not counting my review of The Force Awakens). I’ve had this one on my list to do for a while, and it’s an element that is not often talked about: the political side of Star Wars. It may seem a bit arcane, but it’s no more so than an environmental analysis of the franchise, and I think it’s well-timed now, fall 2016, as a U.S. Presidential election is in its home stretch that offers a very stark choice between liberty and authoritarianism. Reading a political subtext into the Star Wars films is dangerous for a number of reasons, but it’s an aspect worth thinking about.
If we start with the original 1977 film–since the ’90s it’s been known also by its subtitle, A New Hope–the political landscape (or starscape, as it were) of the Star Wars universe seems fairly simple. The Rebel Alliance are freedom fighters, while Darth Vader and the Empire represent repressive authoritarianism. This is all the movie really gives us, except some vague references to the political structure of the galaxy as it existed before the Empire came about: we hear early in the picture that there is/was a Senate, which is dissolved by the Emperor midway through the film. There’s a reference to a “bureaucracy” and “territorial governors.” But aside from the simplistic good vs. evil message, which is very much a product of the morally black-and-white Westerns and Japanese samurai films from which George Lucas drew his inspiration, there’s no real sense of what the political stakes are in the Rebels’ political struggle with the Empire. Is it about personal freedom? Genocide? Human rights? Representation? We have no idea. Curiously, neither The Empire Strikes Back nor Return of the Jedi flesh out the picture any better. Lucas seems afraid to go there, emphasizing the simple good vs. evil theme above all else.
In this scene from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, George Lucas’s disdain for the political process comes out–as well as the seed of the Empire’s eventual ideology.
The politics of Star Wars gets more complicated, however, when we get to the prequels, the much-derided Episodes I, II and III released between 1999 and 2005. It is from these films that Lucas’s disdain for politics and politicians, seemingly of every stripe, comes through most clearly. I’m particularly struck by Attack of the Clones, which is easily the most political of the films. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) have a political debate on-screen. Anakin disdains the democratic political process as ineffectual, complaining that “all they [politicans] do is talk,” and says he prefers a system where a wise person decides what’s best for everyone and then does it. “Sounds more like a dictatorship,” Padme replies. From a story point this foreshadows Anakin’s eventual transformation into Darth Vader, presumably the most authoritarian would-be dictator in the galaxy, but it also begins to answer the question carefully avoided by the original films: why would anyone ever want to follow the Empire for any reason? Here we get a hint of a potential answer: because the Empire gets things done, where the Republic is dysfunctional.
This is an interesting shade of nuance between the prequels and the original trilogy. The original films portray the Empire as something that’s almost externally inflicted. Nobody seems to really want or like the Empire, but as Luke says, “There’s nothing I can do about it right now.” There’s a sense that this political system was artificially imposed, perhaps as by a coup of some kind, and in fact Revenge of the Sith (2005) actually shows us the coup in which Emperor Palpatine takes power. But political systems are generally not imposed by internal coups. A coup is a change of leadership. A revolution is a change of system. There’s a difference. Somebody, somewhere out there in the galaxy has to think that having an authoritarian Emperor instead of a republican Senate is a good idea. Attack of the Clones hints at why, and Revenge of the Sith underscores it. As Palpatine proclaims himself Emperor, Padme comments sadly, “So this is how democracy dies…with thunderous applause.”
Attack of the Clones is generally regarded as one of the poorer entries in the Star Wars franchise, but this penultimate scene is one of the most fascinating–politically speaking.
Let us not forget the context of the times when these pictures were made. Attack of the Clones came out in 2002, during the lengthy run-up to the Iraq War. Militarism and the moral use of force is a subtext in the film. The “clones” of the title are an army, secretly created by a rogue Jedi, for what purpose is left unclear (was he planning to use them to take over the galaxy himself?) Though the Jedi Council, especially Yoda, dithers about their principles, at the end of the film they feel they have no choice but to take ownership of the army and use it to fight a war against galactic separatists. The penultimate scene of Attack of the Clones–one of the most ominous in the entire franchise–depicts the Republic leaders somewhat reluctantly looking on as rows upon rows of Nazi-like clone troops march in formation and take off in battle cruisers, presumably to go off to fight this war. John Williams’s immortal “Imperial March” musical cue plays for chronologically the first time in the story’s arc. But it’s the Republic who has brought this weapon, the clone army, to bear, not the “bad guys.” This is not only a hint of a moral inversion, which is inherent in the story arc of Anakin becoming Darth Vader, but a political one. The Republic is the Empire in another form and vice-versa.
The Force Awakens, the first film in the franchise that has no involvement by George Lucas, continues to flesh out the political parameters of the Star Wars universe. In this picture, which takes place 20 years after Return of the Jedi, the dregs of the defeated Empire have coalesced into a successor organization called the First Order, which of course looks and acts exactly like the Empire. A curious hint of the First Order’s political ideology whizzes by in an early scene so fast you’d miss it unless you’re paying attention. While investigating why stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) refused to obey orders, First Order commander General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) asks a subordinate if there had been any previous instances of “non-comformity” in Finn’s behavior. This is an interesting detail. If non-comformity is a sin and warning sign in the First Order’s army, that suggests that the opposite, conformity and homogeneity, is a core ideological value of the First Order. If the Empire’s program for a better universe, as hinted by Anakin in Attack of the Clones, is “We’ll make things work,” the First Order’s might be “We’ll make everybody the same.” Presumably they’ll do this either by killing anyone who steps out of line, or threatening to with their big star-killer weapon.
The oratory of General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) in The Force Awakens is further evidence that the First Order’s political ideology is a reaction against “disorder”–a common fascist and authoritarian refrain.
Still, authoritarianism for its own sake, however it sells itself, is a darkly and frighteningly attractive political ideology in its own right. We’ve learned that from the 2016 Presidential election, though history is rife with examples of it. When the nominee of a major U.S. political party declares in his acceptance speech, “I alone can fix it,” meaning the problems of the nation, that’s a starkly and nakedly authoritarian message. Times of significant social and economic change often create anxiety that is rife for exploitation by an opportunistic would-be leader. One wonders if the events of the Star Wars universe, explored initially by 1999’s The Phantom Menace (the first in the story’s chronological order), were preceded by decades or perhaps centuries of social and economic change that left the galaxy uneasy and restive. It would have been great if Lucas had given us some sense of this, but it’s clear he was not interested in political or historical sophistication in a series of films intended as science fiction adventure fantasies.
Star Wars is not intended to be political. I get that. But science fiction is and always has been of social use when it reflects issues and problems in the real world, and many of those problems are political in nature. So in a sense Star Wars can’t get away from politics, however much it may want to. Unfortunately, neither can we–even if we were somehow magically transported to a galaxy far, far away.