In one of the more visually stunning scenes of the new Star Wars movie, director J.J. Abrams creates a vast rally reminiscent of those Albert Speer organized for Adolf Hitler, replete with rhetoric glorifying a new kind of super-weapon. (Hint: It’s better than the Death Star!) A thousand storm troopers raise their hands in a Nazi-like salute and shout something that sounds a lot like “Sieg Heil!”
And so another grandiose Star Wars plot gets underway—and we all start debating again what this epic set in a galaxy far, far away tells us about politics right here on Earth. The latest question: Who makes a better Darth Vader? Dick Cheney or Donald Trump?
Why have the politics of what is, at its core, a mythic fantasy cartoon drawn out over 40 years proved to have such enduring fascination to so many? I am, frankly, a late convert to the idea that Star Wars means anything at all. I used to think it was, essentially, Top Gun in space, a moderately entertaining pastiche of myth and magic that was more fantasy than science fiction and hence, in my mind, unserious.
But over the years I’ve come to believe that because the Star Wars movies are so empty of specifics about politics yet at the same time strive to tell, in broad strokes, a societal morality tale about good and evil—the core political point made by the new movie, The Force Awakens, is that the struggle between order and freedom is perpetual—viewers are eager to fill in their own details. Everyone injects his own politics into the plots.
Thus, no single reading of the Star Wars saga satisfies everyone, and commentators see meaning where there may—or may not—be any. The left points to the anti-Vietnam overtures in the original movies and the barely disguised critique of the George W. Bush administration in the prequels. Star Wars, to liberals, is about the struggle against authoritarianism and hypermilitarism. The right has its own take. Conservatives see the rebels as grass-roots fighters battling an overweening central government or, in a new twist, argue that the Empire has been unjustly maligned: It was a force for order battling a terroristic rebellion orchestrated by the insidious Jedi.
The newest installment, Abrams explained in a magazine interview, “came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again? What could be born of that? Could The First Order exist as a group that actually admired The Empire? Could the work of The Empire be seen as unfulfilled? And could Vader be a martyr? Could there be a need to see through what didn’t get done?”
In Star Wars, the struggle between good and evil appears irresolvable until balance is achieved in a “force” that can be bent toward either moral end. In the new film, 30 years after the defeat of the Empire, its successors, The First Order, control territory, an extensive armada and a superweapon. The story of the original trilogy was the inability of the forces of order to crush the forces of freedom. It looks like the new set of movies will be about the opposite problem.
It’s beginning to make sense to me. I used to want my science fiction to aim for the head. I thought it could have political meaning only if it had well-developed political themes. To be confident that there was political meaning in sci-fi stories, I wanted to see clear institutions such as those showcased in the political/military contests of Battlestar Galactica. I pored over the navy-in-space rank structure of Star Trek, in which the United Federation of Planets set missions for Star Fleet, an armada for peace.
I used to be infuriated by the vagueness of the Star Wars universe. Political structures were shown in ellipsis. In the organization chart of the evil Empire, where did Darth Vader fit? Was he a military commander? A prime minister to the Emperor? A religious high priest? The new movie revives this ambiguity: Vader acolyte Kylo Ren seems at times in control of, and at times subordinate to, the secular authorities of the First Order.
Things were no clearer on the side of the good guys. Mon Mothma, the political leader of the Rebellion, was absent from the saga until a single scene at the climax of Return of the Jedi. She gave no elaboration of her governing philosophy, and we see her exercising power just once, in a pre-flight briefing of rebel fighter pilots. We were told nothing of where she came from or why she is in charge. She was on screen for 26 seconds.
But I’ve come to see that explanatory thriftiness was the great genius of Star Wars episodes IV-VI. As story expert Alastair Stephens explains, George Lucas casually dropped bombshells of information into the script and let them explode in our imagination. We do most of the world-building in our minds. And we are thrilled by the endless possibilities of this universe, having been shown only the sparest outline of its scaffolding.
In Star Wars, I see now, art and analysis merge in a galaxy-sized reminder that politics—that indefinite combination of power and money, family drama and national fate, our better angels and our inner demons—is the most irresistible of human activities to ponder. This explains why the politics of Star Wars are so contested: it is such an empty vessel of political thought, dealing in grand principles and vague allusions. The emotions elicited by these epic tales are so strong that the saga commands our imagination, so we pour in the specifics for ourselves.
And here of course is the great paradox: The imaginary politics of Star Wars is so much more captivating than the actual politics Lucas gave us in the prequels. Telling the story of the subversion of the Republic, the prequels got off some good lines: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy,” says Anakin Skywalker, channeling George W. Bush as he careens toward the Dark Side. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” is the on-the-nose response. But these were blunt instruments for exploring politics compared to the tantalizing nuggets revealed in episodes IV-VI.
Although I think Abrams is more skilled with action than ideas, the Star Wars universe is so rich that politics is baked into The Force Awakens anyway. And, without getting too deep into spoilers, it’s fair to say that family lineage plays a major role in the new movie. With a Clinton and a Bush running for president, maybe our politics aren’t all that different from those of that galaxy far, far away.
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