The Force Awakens opened this Friday to packed theaters across America. I haven’t seen it for a number of reasons, among which is an unwillingness to tent out for days just to buy tickets. The film will nonetheless make oodles of money, I’m sure, as “Star Wars” has replaced the Bible as Western civilization’s primary cultural commonality, both relevant and accessible to people across the societal spectrum.
This seventh chapter of the epic space opera may be the first to steer clear of political themes. According to film critic Matt Singer, “The Force Awakens is — arguably to its detriment — completely uninterested in politics.” This newfound political disinterest may have something to do with the fact that “Star Wars” is no longer the property of its creator, George Lucas, who infused the prequels and, to a lesser extent, the original trilogy, with political overtones.
“Star Wars” has never been what it appears to be — good clean fun with spaceships and laser beams. Don’t feel bad; that’s what I thought it was too when I was a little kid playing with action figures.
Space ships and laser beams are the packaging, not the story. To get to the real story it’s necessary to turn the clock back to April 1973, a time of great disillusionment, when the last American combat troops were withdrawing from Vietnam and the Watergate hearings were only a month away. With these generation-shaping events as a backdrop, twenty-eight year old George Lucas began typing the story of a courageous farm boy from the galaxy’s rural backwaters who took on a rotting empire replete with militarism and darkness — and won.
He told his audience that it all took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but its actual setting was both contemporary and terrestrial. “Star Wars” was an allegory for the world as seen through the eyes of a baby boomer who had come of age on a college campus in the 1960s, who had felt the draft board breathing down his neck, and who had imbibed the spirit of San Francisco, where he was living at the time. The militaristic empire he imagined was his own country and the rebels were communist Vietnamese, though they could have been any number of “anti-imperialist” forces around the globe — the ANC in South Africa, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, etc. The Death Star was a warning against the destructive power of nuclear weapons, though it could be seen as analogous to the Pentagon. Darth Vader? Probably Dick Nixon or just a stand-in for the soulless admirals and generals in command of the war machine.
Lucas had other influences, of course, because inspiration is never that simple. “Star Wars” was also one part Flash Gordon serial and one part gun-slinging western with a whole heap of Kurosawa’s samurai cinema thrown in. The story also paralleled the Third Reich, starring Darth Vader as Hitler and stormtroopers as, well … stormtroopers.
But it was always about America, the only country George Lucas had ever known. If the film evoked images of Nazi Germany, the logical conclusion was that that’s what America had become or was on the verge of becoming. “Star Wars” could be read as a cautionary tale of what might happen if we didn’t change course.
Consider some of the notes Lucas scribbled in late 1973:
Aquilae is a small independent country like North Vietnam, threatened by a neighbour or provincial rebellion, instigated by gangsters aided by empire. Fight to get rightful planet back. Half of the system has been lost to gangsters… The empire is like America ten years from now, after gangsters assassinated the emperor and were elevated to power in a rigged election… We are at a turning point: fascism or revolution.
That’s not exactly the “Star Wars” we all know and love, largely because Lucas’s concept still had a lot of growing to do, but the framework was there. From its earliest drafts, the script told the story of a scrappy underdog, patterned after North Vietnam, doing battle with a corrupt American empire. The underdog had only his convictions to give him heart, while the empire, which seemed invincible, was actually rotten to the core.
The politics got even more heavy in the prequels, culminating in the hyperpolitical Revenge of the Sith, which the Washington Post jokingly dubbed The Empire Strikes Bush. Actually, the Galactic Empire is Bush, but I understand it’s a fun witticism. Sith’s subliminal messages were not lost on The New York Times’s film reviewer A.O. Scott, who wrote:
“Revenge of the Sith” is about how a republic dismantles its own democratic principles, about how politics becomes militarized, about how a Manichaean ideology undermines the rational exercise of power. Mr. Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders. At one point, Darth Vader… echoing the words of George W. Bush, hisses at Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.”
That wasn’t really Darth Vader; or not yet. It was Anakin Skywalker, but clearly he was mimicking Bush’s post-9/11 admonition to foreign leaders, “Either you’re with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the newest film would abstain from political commentary. That’s really unfortunate because we need it now more than ever. We’re a nation adrift, led by a corrupt, unprincipled political class that seems to have pulled the wool over the eyes of half the population.
Consider for a moment the scene in Revenge of the Sith in which Emperor Palpatine convinces the Senate to cede unprecedented power to him, thus establishing the Galactic Empire “in order to secure the security” of the Republic. Queen Amidala famously remarks “So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.” Lucas was surely knocking Bush though it’s even more relevant today. The scene seemed a clever reference to the PATRIOT Act which, in case you haven’t noticed, is still the law of the land because Barack Obama approved its extension. But the Senate scene was about a lot more than just the PATRIOT Act; it was about our willingness, in times of trouble, to cede the power vested in the people and their elected representatives to a single charismatic leader. In light of Obama’s imperial presidency, the scene has assumed new meaning.
Richard Nixon and George W. Bush weren’t great presidents but neither were they Emperor Palpatine. I can’t say the same about President Obama, who really does bear a striking resemblance to that wrinkled geezer in a hoody. So why can’t we make a movie about his policies, about his administration?
The Obama administration has given us so much material to work with, the script would practically write itself. Imagine an evil Sith Lord who sweeps away any restraints on his authority with the words, “If the Senate won’t act, I will” or “We can’t wait for (fill in the blank).” The same Sith Lord could go to war in a sandy place resembling Tatooine without the approval of the Senate. Here’s a better one — the aforementioned villain pits one alien race against another (Jawas vs. Ewoks?) with his constantly divisive rhetoric, then uses the crisis to snatch up all the blasters and lightsabers in the galaxy. Stormtroopers go planet to planet, kicking down doors and confiscating anything that resembles a weapon. One of the Sith Lord’s closest advisors then turns to his boss and mutters something like “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Another idea: A council of supposed sages, call them judges if you will, abandon their fidelity to the law they swore to uphold and begin making decisions based on their own personal agendas. Here’s a good one — the Jedi are prohibited from practicing their ancient religion for fear that some people might get their feelings hurt.
Why, oh why, did “Star Wars” stop being political at the very moment that the most Palpatine-esque president ever to defile the Oval Office came to power? Maybe it’s because George Lucas isn’t at the helm anymore, though it’s doubtful that his directing and/or production would have made a difference. I suspect that The Force Awakens would still avoid criticizing the president because Lucas has, or once had, a man-crush on him. Said Lucas in 2008: “We have a hero in the making back in the United States today because we have a new candidate for president of the United States, Barack Obama.” Whether Lucas still feels that way is unknown. Perhaps he’s been appalled with what he’s seen in the ensuing seven years but I doubt it.
It’s almost as if political commentary just isn’t cool in show biz anymore. Would a major movie studio even make a film that was so obviously critical of this president and his policies? I have my doubts. Dissent isn’t patriotic anymore, less so in Hollywood, so I guess we’ll have to settle for spaceships and laser beams. What a pity.