U.S. Politics in "A Galaxy Far, Far Away"
Not so long ago, in the not-so distant galaxy of California, a young filmmaker named George Lucas created a compelling space opera involving talking robots, deep space dog fights, intense lightsaber duels, and an epic struggle between "The Rebellion" and the Galactic Empire. As a new take on the timeless story of good versus evil, Lucas' fascinating tale changed pop culture and cinema forever.
The "Star Wars" saga spawned the most successful movie and marketing franchise in history, as well as some of cinema's most memorable characters, including noble Luke Skywalker, cocky Han Solo, the radiant Princess Leia, widely reviled Jar Jar Binks, and of course, Darth Vader, perhaps the most recognizable movie villain of all time.
Revolutionary as the original "Star Wars" trilogy was, it was decidedly apolitical. Such is not the case with Lucas' latest films, three prequels to the original 1977 film. "Revenge of the Sith," the last film in the "Star Wars" saga, is awash in political meaning, both general and quite specific to the present day United States.
"Revenge of the Sith" is the keystone to the entire "Star Wars" series: in two and a half hours of screen time we learn how the good Jedi Anakin Skywalker becomes evil Sith Lord Darth Vader, paralleled by the metamorphosis of a democratic Republic into the Galactic Empire. Through subtle and not so subtle language and imagery, George Lucas compares the events in the movie to what is happening at home and abroad.
In the "Star Wars" prequels, the snaky Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Senate, absorbs power by promising to restore peace to the democratic Republic, which is under attack by separatist forces that Palpatine secretly controls.
To gain absolute power, Palpatine convinces senators from across the galaxy that the Jedi are plotting to overthrow him. His lies fool the politicians, as well as the young Jedi Anakin Skywalker. Palpatine lures Anakin to the dark side by promising to save Anakin's wife Padme from a death Anakin envisions in his nightmares. After becoming Palpatine's new apprentice, Anakin slaughters the Jedi and separatists with Palpatine's army of human clone warriors.
Since 9/11, the Bush administration has used our collective fear of terrorism just as Emperor Palpatine used the Clone Wars: to increase the executive branch's power at home, and increase America's power abroad.
Like Palpatine, the Bush administration has been able to feed on people's fears to gain more power. The regular (and many think politically motivated) changing of the color-coded terror "threat advisory" level system is just one telling example.
The Bush administration has also toyed with citizens' emotions by using 9/11 images constantly in speeches, invoking images of burning buildings and grieving families to promote the war in Iraq and various domestic policies, such as the Patriot Act, that often limit freedoms in the name of national security.
In the "Star Wars" universe, Palpatine spent years plotting to launch a war and build a massive, unstoppable army to dominate the Republic. Now, it is becoming more obvious that the Bush administration planned to invade Iraq since coming to office.
Journalist Greg Palast recently published a timeline that shows the State Department began planning to remove Saddam Hussein from power as early as February of 2001. The recently publicized and much debated Downing Street memos also argue that the Bush administration hungered to topple Saddam far before any bombs fell in Baghdad.
The memos state that British and U.S. officials met in July of 2002, months before Congress was consulted about the war. According to the memos, intelligence was being "fixed around the policy."
Among the many shifting reasons President Bush and his staff gave for launching a war on Iraq, fear played a large part in the perceived threat of Saddam Hussein's WMDs. And just as Palpatine claimed that waging the Clone Wars and killing the Jedi would "restore peace to the galaxy," so has Bush announced that ousting Saddam would allow peace, democracy, and prosperity to blossom throughout the Middle East.
Some of the dialogue in "Revenge of the Sith" also seems inspired by post-9/11 United States policy. "You're either with me, or you're my enemy," Anakin tells his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of the film, while the Jedi Knights clash in a lightsaber duel. And soon after 9/11, Bush declared to the world, "you are either with us or against us."
There are other lines in the film that reflect current U.S. politics. When Samuel L. Jackson's character, Mace Windu, leads a group of Jedi to arrest Palpatine, the power-hungry tyrant hisses, "I am the Senate." One can't help but wonder if Lucas stole that line from the Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who reportedly once said: "I am the government."
Recently, some conservative groups called for a boycott of "Revenge of the Sith" after its creator, director and producer, George Lucas, commented on the political content of his movies at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
"Because this is the back story (of the "Star Wars" saga), one of the main features of the back story was to tell how the Republic became the Empire," Lucas said at the festival. "I hope this doesn't come true in our country. Maybe the film will awaken people to how dangerous this situation is," he said.
Actor Hayden Christensen, who starred in the film as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, also commented on the political content of the film. Before the film's release on May 19th, the Ottawa Sun asked the young actor if the film "takes metaphoric shots at the war mongering politics of U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and the two George Bushes." Christensen answered, "absolutely."
"I think for that reason the French will be really responsive to it," Christensen added. " I think they'll get it. They'll get the political commentary and the subtext. Anakin says: 'If you're not with me, you're my enemy!' I think they'll love it."
Conservatives can boycott the film or complain about some of its political undertones, but that has not halted the "Star Wars" juggernaut. In its four day opening release, "Revenge of the Sith" made over $158 million at the U.S. box office, pulverizing records. Worldwide, the film grossed more than $300 million its opening weekend.
The film's stunning success helped it to reach $200 and $300 million at the domestic box office faster than any film in history.
But will box office success also spread Lucas' political ideas? Some fans developed strong reactions to the politics in "Sith." "It had political relevance because it dealt with power which had no checks and balances," said 20-year old Vanessa Holwitt, who saw the film on its opening weekend. "I don't think the undertones were in-your face-obvious. They were more subtle," Holwitt added.
"The action sequences will make people forget how much politics is actually in the film," said 21-year old "Star Wars" fan Matt Haley.
But Haley said he didn't see any political parallels between "Revenge of the Sith" and the United States. Instead, he sees a stronger resemblance between the Galactic Empire and Nazi Germany.
Not everyone equated the movie to modern politics. Long-time "Star Wars" fanatic Tom Goode, who brags about his impressive boxed collection of "Star Wars" action figures, also found no political similarities between "Sith" and United States politics. "I didn't feel any lines were jabs at the Bush administration," he said. "The movie may have been based on any number of historical events or eras. Don't forget, Lucas had a lot of this written 35 years ago."
Politics aside, the final prequel seemed to satisfy fans of the saga. "The back story made me think differently about Darth Vader. I don't see him as completely evil now," Holwitt said.
Matt Haley agreed. "Anakin's fall from grace was very believable. He was put in a very abnormal position, and he tried to do what he thought was right," he said.
Despite "Episode III," some fans will still not forgive Lucas for the first two prequels. Goode called the films "extremely pointless" to the saga, while also stating that Lucas should have had someone else write the screenplays for the prequels.
Through the use of captivating special effects and a powerful, long-waited storyline, Lucas has drawn strong reactions from fans with "Revenge of the Sith." Despite some stiff acting and stiffer dialogue, Lucas has managed to create an enormously successful and entertaining film that also warns us about the dangers of war, greed, and empire.