'Star Wars' is about freedom of choice

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

If you'd told me a year ago that I would end up writing a book about "Star Wars," I wouldn't have believed you. But when my young son, Declan, fell for the movies, I got hooked. One reason is that the saga makes a series of claims about freedom—not only in politics and law but also in individual lives. If George Lucas had one thing to say, it's this: You are free to choose. (That's the title of a famous book by Milton and Rose Friedman, but it could also be the epigraph for "Star Wars.")

You can take that as a claim about politics—about what distinguishes a republic from an empire (and I'll get to that in later posts). But in "Star Wars," it's also an intimate claim about the pervasive presence of forks in the road.

Here's Leia, speaking of Han's apparent desertion of the rebellion in "A New Hope": "A man must follow his own path. No one can choose it for him." Here's Obi-Wan to Luke, again in "A New Hope": "Then you must do what you think is right, of course." Here are Lucas's own words: "Life sends you down funny paths. And you get many opportunities to keep your eyes open."

In the original trilogy, Darth Vader tells Luke: "It is your destiny; join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son." Wrong! The Emperor tells Luke: "It is unavoidable. It is your destiny. You, like your father, are now … mine." Wrong again!

A lot of people disparage the prequels, and understandably so; they're not nearly as good as the original trilogy. But in their own way, they're not just beautiful; they're also awfully clever. Here's the best part: All of the choices in the first trilogy are precisely mirrored in the prequels. The two trilogies are about freedom of choice under nearly identical conditions. Lucas was entirely aware of this: "Luke is faced with the same issues and practically the same scenes that Anakin is faced with. Anakin says yes and Luke says no."

In the pivotal scene in the prequels, the situation in "Return of the Jedi" is explicitly inverted, as Anakin saves Palpatine (Darth Sidious) and ultimately allows him to kill Mace Windu. When Windu is triumphing over Palpatine, the Sith Lord begs for Anakin's help, offering these defining words: "You must choose." He does, choosing Palpatine—and then yields to the Dark Side.

At the crucial moments, destiny and prophecies are just background noise. Time and again, the most important characters in "Star Wars" encounter two paths, and they intuit something about the consequences of both, and they decide accordingly. Padmé insists: "There's always a choice." Does Anakin hear the echo of her voice decades later, when he decides to save their son from the Emperor? I like to think so.

Choices are what doom and redeem Anakin, and they are certainly what turn Han into a fighter for the rebellion (kind of), and Luke into a Jedi. Choices are what turn Finn into a Resistance fighter and Rey into a Jedi-to-be. Lucas once more: "You have control of your destiny. … You have many paths to walk down."

In a 2015 interview, here's how Lawrence Kasdan, co-author of several of the "Star Wars" movies, put it:

My favorite line that I ever wrote is in Raiders [of the Lost Ark]. Sallah says to Indy, "how are you going to get the box back?" And Indy says: "I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."

That is the story of everybody's life. It happens to be very dramatic for Indiana Jones. Get on the truck, get on the horse. But for you and me, we're making it up, too. Here's how I'm going to behave. Here's what I'm willing to do to make a living; here's what I'm not willing to do. How we make up our lives as we go.

That's such a powerful idea, because it's very exciting. It's the biggest adventure you can have, making up your own life, and it's true for everybody. It's infinite possibility. It's like, I don't know what I'm going to do in the next five minutes, but I feel I can get through it. It's an assertion of a life force.

"Star Wars" builds on a universal narrative, common to many religions and myths, but it's also all-American. By pointing to people's capacity to make up their own lives as they go along, Kasdan gets at the reason.

A time-honored question: What's the Force? My answer, both personal and political: That's the Force.