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As difficult as it is to feel sorry for someone with lots of money, artistic success and millions of adoring fans, I feel sorry for George Lucas. Twenty-two years ago, he made Star Wars, a film that shows the power of humanity over machinery when a young man armed only with a tiny space ship and a distilled version of Taoist philosophy overcomes a moon-sized weapon capable of annihilating a planet. But instead of making audiences aware of the foolishness of relying on technology to solve our problems, "Star Wars" became the nickname for the ultimate mechanical panacea, the Strategic Defense Initiative. To add insult to injury, President Reagan, who first proposed SDI, borrowed other terminology from the series to cash in on the collective resonance it inspired. The Soviet Union became known as "the evil empire," a huge bureaucratic machine that had to be kept in check by those homespun freedom loving individuals, the Jedi Knights of NATO. Much more recently, The Phantom Menace inspired an equally surprising response when some argued that it was full of offensive racial stereotypes. What must have made this response particularly upsetting to Lucas is that a closer viewing of his latest installment reveals that if anyone should have been offended, it should have been conservatives not liberals, for the political subtext of the film disparages both SDI and the man who introduced it to us.

However, this is not to say the film is all that good, even for liberals like myself. The plot is constructed with the hardcore Star Wars fan in mind, and as such it simply gives more of the same with few new insights or surprises. The film is the first of three part prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy which was released between 1977-1983, taking place an even longer time ago in that far, far away galaxy. Queen Amidala of the Naboo is taken hostage on her planet by the Trade Federation, a nasty group of capitalists who complain that their taxes are too high. Obi Wan Kenobe, a Jedi apprentice on the verge of graduating to full knighthood, arrives with his mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn, to try to resolve the conflict. They fail in this regard, but do manage to help the queen escape to Tatooine, a desert planet full of slave traders. There they meet young Anakin Skywalker who will later grow up to become the infamous Darth Vader of the original series. At this point, however, he's just a precocious kid who helps them repair their ship, so they can travel to the capitol planet to lodge an official complaint with the Imperial Senate. There they meet their representative, Senator Palpatine, who unbeknownst to them is actually Darth Sidious, the evil-dark-side-of-the-force-master who's behind all the trouble in the first place. He claims to want to help them, but only on the condition that they will support his bid to become first chancellor. That accomplished, he betrays their trust and secretly orders the Trade Federation to "utterly destroy" their opposition. Fortunately, however, before they can carry out this order, the good guys return and defeat the Trade Federation with the help of the Gungans, a less advanced fishy race, and, of course, The Force. Palpatine returns to "celebrate" the victory, letting young Annakin Skywalker know that he will be keeping an eye on him, thus moving the film to conclude like the first installment, with both a celebration and an ominous warning of things to come.

The film has all the familiar ingredients of the Star Wars formula: the cool Jedi knights doing amazing things with their light sabers, the extraordinary lad escaping from imposed limitations, a number of cute characters to please the younger viewers (and toy shop owners), and, most importantly, several extraordinary special effects. Yet while it recreates the mythological feel of the original series, it lacks the originality, humor, and character development. Had it appeared first, I doubt the series would have generated even half the interest that it has. So in general I have no quibbles with the overall critical assessment of the film, but I think that it is strange that with all the scrutiny it received concerning its lack of quality and its questionable stereotypes that no attention has been directed at its more progressive subtext, a subtext which attempts to disassociate Star Wars from SDI, and to attack the conservatives who made this connection in the first place.

As mentioned earlier, even in the original trilogy there are many places where promises of technological imperviousness get broken down, so in retrospect it is odd that SDI should be nicknamed "Star Wars." Nonetheless, the original series showed that it was very, very difficult to penetrate the enemy's defenses, a process which required a lot of help from The Force. However, in The Phantom Menace everyone's "strategic defenses" break down. First to go are the Trade Federation's when the Jedis, armed only with light sabers, manage to escape from the heavily guarded flagship. Shortly after, the Jedis lose their own ship's shields when they try to escape from the occupied planet. In the final battle sequence, the Gungans lose their shields, and the Trade Federation allows a child to stumble through and destroy theirs. In fact, the Achilles' heel of the Trade Federation is that they rely too much on technology, allowing their mechanical creations to fight their battles for them. Remember that all of these "people," even the Gungans, are light years ahead of us technologically, which should lead us to ponder the question that if none of them can construct an impervious shield, then how can we be expected to?

Of course, most scientists already acknowledge how unlikely it is that SDI could ever work. So why is it that taxpayers will allow the Pentagon to spend over four billion dollars to develop it this year? Certainly, in part it is because of its association with Star Wars; both are fantasies, but they are fantasies that people want to believe in. The very words "Star Wars" conjure up hope that we can survive our own planet-wrecking weapons, hope that the technology used by freedom loving people can negate the weapons used by "evil empires." Arguments that appeal to the emotions, to collective pathos almost always trump those that appeal to the intellect (especially in post-September 11th America). Perhaps that's why Lucas shows so many instances of failing shields, to make it absolutely clear that there are no mechanical panaceas, neither in the Star Wars' galaxy nor in our own.

The film's strongest critical subtext, however, is not focused on SDI but on the man who first proposed it, President Ronald Reagan. There are several connections between the former president and Senator Palpatine (a.k.a. Darth Sideous, the future evil emperor). Many mistakenly labeled Reagan as a bad actor, when in fact the opposite was true. Though he cut programs for the poor, for students, for the environment, he always projected a kindly grandfather facade, appearing as a nice man who seemed to care for our collective welfare. Senator Palpatine also has these two sides to him, especially in his relation to Queen Amidala. On the one hand, he acts like a concerned father, smiling, warm, caring, but at the same time he is the hidden cause behind her concern, for it is he who secretly pulls the Trade Federation's strings, giving the order for them to take over her planet.

This is why I do not think that it is a coincidence that the relationship between Palpatine and the Trade Federation closely resembles Reagan's relationship with Iran. While Palpatine outwardly condemns the Federation, especially in how they take the Naboo hostage, he secretly collaborates with his supposed enemy, using them to advance his own power by accusing the current chancellor of being too weak, too tied up in bureaucratic procedures to take action. In the same way, President Reagan gained substantial support by criticizing how his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, handled the crisis with Iran, calling his political rival to task for being too weak, especially in the way he responded to the hostage issue. At the same time, Reagan, like Palpatine, would soon secretly collaborate with his outward enemy, by selling weapons to the Iranians in order to use the profits to advance his own political agenda without the knowledge or approval of the Senate.

In fact, the whole conservative agenda that Reagan set in place is reflected in Palpatine's political stance. First, he gets the Trade Federation riled up over having to pay high taxes, an issue that has been the cornerstone of almost every Republican campaign. To make this connection even more blatant, the head of the Trade Federation is named Nute Gunray, which sounds very similar to Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker who rose to power on anti-tax campaigns. The related conservative concern is their belief that the government is too big, resulting in an unnecessary bureaucracy where nothing gets done. When Palpatine makes statements like "our best choice would be to push for the election of a new supreme chancellor-one who can take control of the bureaucrats, enforce the laws, and give us justice," he clearly sounds like Reagan in his 1980 campaign. Of course, despite all of Reagan's complaints about taxes and about government spending, he ended up being guilty of both, increasing taxes and spending more than all his predecessors combined, mostly on a massive military build up. With the memory of the millions of storm troopers, battleships and planet-wrecking stations of the original Star Wars in the back of our mind, we know that Palpatine will soon do the same.

Finally, it's important to note that despite all the recent criticism of racial stereotypes, there is still a very strong endorsement for multiculturalism in the film. Palpatine is almost always surrounded by white males, he belongs to a race of Naboo who consider themselves superior to the other races on his planet, and he feels absolutely no compunction about giving the order to wipe out the "insignificant" Gungans. This contrasts strongly with the actions of Queen Amidala. Although she also is a Naboo, she learns to regret her race's dismissal of the Gungans and begs their forgiveness for how they had been treated in the past. Furthermore, in contrast to Palpatine's entourage, the Jedi council, the undisputed good guys, are made up of the most imaginative assortment of creatures that Lucas has yet put together. Throughout the film, he shows us that the galactic races are stronger together than apart.

Perhaps one reason that this subtext was too submerged for most people to see was that Lucas tried too hard to make the film fit the traditional Star Wars formula that served him in the past; the glitter of the overly cute, contrived characters and plot blinded people to the film's more subtle political commentary. Perhaps if Lucas had studied the Tao Te Ching more carefully than to simply extract nice sounding phrases to describe The Force, he would have come across one of the many maxims which show how success can be as hollow as failure. While the film's financial success must certainly be pleasing, it must bother him that it did very little to remove Star Wars from the political camp that continues to misappropriate it.

October 2001

From Randy Fallows

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