Everybody Loves Vader
All of us cheered when medic robots snapped the shiny black mask on Anakin's burned, skinless face and he began to breathe in that characteristic, amplified way. Of course, we'd cheered for the wookiees too, but that isn't the point. It was Darth Vader! After enduring Episode I and Episode II, we'd come to know him in a whole new way. He wasn't just the evil guy in black with cool telekinetic strangle powers. Vader was sensitive, damaged by childhood trauma and an obsessive, secret love affair; he was a confused, up-and-coming military leader in the Republic whose loyalties were captured and twisted by a proto-dictator.
Anakin's fall isn't just a nifty plot device, though. It represents no less than the fall of the United States. And director George Lucas knows that. When Senator Palpatine announces that the Republic should grant him emergency military powers, he justifies the transition to a politically repressive regime with references to "safety and security." Anyone who has ever watched a George W. Bush speech about sacrificing civil liberties for "security from terrorists" knows what Lucas is getting at.
As if that isn't enough, we learn that Palpatine has secretly been funding the separatist factions whose activities threaten the Republic. Could this be a reference to the way the CIA trained and funded groups connected with Osama bin Laden, whose later activities wound up justifying antifreedom legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act? You bet it's a reference.
It may not be an epic poem like the Aeneid or the Faerie Queen, but this movie cycle about righteous swordsmen from a crumbling Republic battling devious fascists is a powerful allegory about the fate of a great and dangerous international power. Star Wars is the closest thing the United States has to a national mythology. And the films have inspired everything from massive military defense projects during the 1980s to debates in the 2000s about how the government should handle media piracy among its citizens.
Interestingly, as the country has grown more conservative, Lucas's films have tipped further toward liberalism. All those long scenes in the Senate - which everyone says are boring - are crucial to understanding what the series is saying about the country whose life it allegorizes in the rise and fall (and rise) of the Skywalker clan. These are adventure movies that aren't afraid to urge fans to consider that power is made as much in bureaucratic meetings as in space battles. Our beautiful princess mourns the loss of democratic freedom, and the bad guys scheme to take over the Senate. Most of our heroes battle the specter of authoritarianism rather than dragons. Well, okay, there are dragons too.
And those dragons are exactly what makes it easy to watch Revenge of the Sith without actually figuring out its liberal message. If you just ignore the boring, badly written dialogue about political alliances and focus on the fight scenes with giant lizards and scary robo-Siths, you won't get anything out of the series other than a general sense that spaceships are cool. You might also pick up on the idea that every righteous revolution is fought with deadly weapons.
That's why it doesn't surprise me that the meaning and importance of Star Wars is always being co-opted by some of the nation's most conservative forces. Less than a week after the premiere of Revenge of the Sith, the FBI announced it had shut down EliteTorrents.org, a popular site for file sharers who use Bittorrent software. Star Wars was used as one of many justifications for the criminal prosecution of several people allegedly running the site, which posted information about where to download copyrighted materials - including, mere hours after it hit theaters, a copy of Revenge of the Sith.
Never mind that the movie had one of the biggest opening weekends in history, despite the machinations of naughty P2P pirates. Never mind that the feds appear to have seized the EliteTorrents.org domain name and posted a storm-trooperish warning on it, even though they had no need to do so for the purposes of their investigation. Never mind that Hollywood companies are getting the government to do their dirty work for them. We need to repress the people if Hollywood is going to keep producing epics about evil empires repressing the people. That's all there is to it.