Star Wars' Identity Crisis
And our own
"It is a period of civil war," begins the opening scroll of the very first film in the Star Wars series, which just goes to show that these movies have always been more than space chases and lightsaber fights. The 1977 movie that would eventually spawn a multidecade, multimedia, multibillion-dollar franchise (with at least one of those billions dedicated to Baby Yoda merchandise alone) was inspired as much by the postwar landscape of the 1970s as by the samurai films and movie Westerns to which it owes an obvious cinematic debt. Years after Star Wars debuted in theaters, creator George Lucas told the Chicago Tribune that it was "really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren't overthrown; they're given away."
Four decades later, not much has changed in the long-ago, far-away galaxy where Star Wars takes place—but the franchise is more relevant than ever. In 2020, Star Wars isn't just political; it's a microcosm of the fractious, tribal, exhausted landscape of American politics—and not only because of our 21st century predilection for making every major motion picture a battleground for the culture wars. The most recent trilogy of films, billed as the third and likely final act of the saga's mainstage space opera, is as confused about its message as a Democratic primary candidate; as ambivalent about technology as a millennial in a love-hate relationship with her iPhone; as steeped in nostalgia as an old-timer wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat and muttering that the factories will reopen any day now. It's a funhouse-mirror reflection of a democracy having an identity crisis…which, incidentally, is what the franchise itself is doing, too. More than anything else, it's the lack of a coherent narrative that makes Star Wars such a potent meta-commentary on the politics of the last five years.
The Force Awakens marked the dawn of the Trump era: Released on the eve of the 2016 election, it captured a brief moment of liberal optimism—a time when the future of both Star Wars and the presidency seemed destined to be female. Then came The Last Jedi, made in those shell-shocked months following Trump's election and inauguration. Our heroes reckoned with the consequences of putting their faith in the wrong leadership, and the movie leaned heavily on the kind of progressive rhetoric emphasized by Democrats who thought that 2018 would usher in a wave of radically progressive politicians (rhetoric that fell as flat with voters as The Last Jedi did with most fans). Finally, there was Rise of Skywalker. Premiering almost exactly a year before our next presidential election, the film read like a flailing Hail Mary attempt to get things back on track, reuniting the (fan) base with a familiar narrative, canon characters, and apologies for the excesses of the film that preceded it.
Star Wars lost its narrative footing just as pop culture was increasingly becoming the lens through which our political conflicts take place. The personal is the political, fandom is religion, and the release of every Star Wars film is accompanied by a spate of breathless Twitter-sourced news stories about problematic fans boycotting the movie or bullying minority cast members off social media. As a result, the new trilogy is seen as a proxy for America in the age of Trump. Luke Skywalker, the anointed leadership of a new generation of Jedi, now lives in self-imposed exile on a distant planet after failing to live up to expectations. (Hillary Clinton, without a spaceship on hand, had to settle for the Chappaqua woods.) Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia, was pushed into the arms of the evil First Order by the mentor who feared his dreams of the dark side—and became the pop-culture patron saint of disaffected young men who, seeing themselves as unfairly demonized by the progressive left, veer to the right in search of belonging. There's even a ripped-from-the-headlines plot twist in Rise of Skywalker in which the First Order's Admiral Hux is revealed to be a secret rebel mole, for no other reason than that he's lost confidence in the temperamental Kylo Ren; the only thing missing is an anonymous op-ed assuring the galactic public that the First Order administration still has adults in the room. (Perhaps ominously, things do not end well for Hux.)
But it's not just about liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, or the light vs. dark sides of the Force. Both the fictional Star Wars galaxy and our present political landscape are trapped between the competing lures of burn-it-all-down progressivism and wallow-in-the-past nostalgia. And while the former had its disastrous trial run during The Last Jedi, the latter isn't necessarily working either, as evidenced by the franchise's uneasy relationship with advances in technology.
Take the action scenes, which have always been inspired by real-world combat: samurai sword battles, tank warfare, high-flying dogfights at close range. Behold the thrilling spectacle of the rebels navigating their X-wings through the twisty, turny trenches of the Death Star before a well-timed torpedo incinerates its core—or, 40 years later, the gut-punching Last Jedi opening sequence, in which the Resistance "bombs" the First Order as it closes in on a planet housing the rebel base, losing countless lives and resources in the process.
But where combat tech hasn't evolved much in the world of Star Wars, our own has been revolutionized by targeted missiles and unmanned drones. This makes kicking off The Last Jedi with what's essentially a suicide mission—all to destroy one lousy dreadnought—seem that much more incongruous. Back in 1977, remotely detonating your enemies from thousands of miles away was a movie villain's game. In the 21st century, it's how Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama preferred to wage war. An American military operation no longer takes the form of a few plucky pilots standing up to a massive, organized, military-industrial machine; we are the machine, the uniformed leadership with our finger on a button, obliterating our enemies from space (where no one can hear them scream).
Even as it ignores modern drone warfare, Star Wars has swung dramatically in the opposite direction when it comes to anxieties over the internet. In the real world, bots sow chaos on social platforms, A.I. sex dolls create consent controversies, and Jordan Peterson's YouTube channel just might be a rabbit hole to alt-right radicalization. In a key Rise of Skywalker plotline, C3PO deprives the Resistance of valuable information because of a flaw in his programming: The droid cannot translate an inscription written in Sith, a quirk that feels like a warning about the dangers of suppressing speech. Trying to silence their enemies leaves our heroes dangerously ignorant of the key to defeating them. Worse, the only way to retrieve the essential information is a hack that also wipes C3PO's memory—and the decades' worth of information, and relationships with his human comrades, that memory contains.
The whole thing is distasteful, and it highlights the inconsistencies in how droids are treated: At the same time they're cooly weighing the need to scramble C3PO's brain, the rebels are coddling an abused droid named D-0 who rebuffs them when they get too close, rolling back with a panicked "No, thank you!" (Insert your best R2-#MeToo pun here.)
That's an exception that proves the rule: In the Star Wars universe, droids may be servants, companions, soldiers, or co-pilots; the one thing they aren't is autonomous. When they try to exert control over their own lives, bad things happen. In the spin-off film Solo: A Star Wars Story, we learn that Lando Calrissian once had an unrequited love affair with a temperamental droid named L3-37. L3 is a tireless advocate for droid emancipation, and she gets catastrophically injured after inciting a droid revolt; the only way to save her is to upload her consciousness to the Millennium Falcon, where she's subsumed into the ship's navigation system. Though nobody says so, it's an ethically fraught moment: L3 survives, sort of, but at the cost of her personhood. It's not hard to imagine the rambunctious droid balking at her new future as a vehicle, her jilted lover and his pals literally riding around inside her head. And all this droid-rights rhetoric is happening at a moment when real-life science is finally getting advanced enough to raise complicated questions about our relationships with A.I. and related technologies.
Your Alexa may not be colluding with Siri and Google to overthrow the government or kill you in your sleep, but she's listening in on your conversations, collecting your data, and violating your privacy—and your trust. But whose fault is that? In a world where we allow algorithms to guide what we watch, where we travel, even who we date, we have to ask ourselves which kind of intelligence is truly in control. What would have happened if C3PO, rather than welcoming his amnesiac future with a resigned farewell, screamed and wept and begged his friends not to erase his mind?
As though the franchise weren't confused enough in its reckoning with the ways technology has changed us, there's also the fact that the actual politics of the Star Wars universe somehow haven't changed at all. Four decades after the first films, our heroes are still fighting the exact same ideological battles as before, a conceit so bizarre that it bypasses nostalgia and veers into self-delusion.
At the start of The Force Awakens, the opening scroll informs us that Princess Leia and her band of resistance fighters are once again on a quest to liberate the oppressed, re-establish the Republic, and "restore peace and justice" to the galaxy—in other words, a quest to spread democracy on a massive scale. But as three decades of real-life American foreign policy have taught us, democracy can't be foisted on an unwilling public, and Star Wars doesn't make a particularly convincing case that the galaxy even wants what the Resistance is selling. Thirty years after the Battle of Endor, the Republic established by Leia has already fallen into ruin; in The Last Jedi, a wrecked Resistance sends out a frantic distress call and is met with silence. The people have lost hope, someone says—but what if it's worse? What if they're simply sick of it all?
By the time we get to Rise of Skywalker, the idea that anyone appreciates what the rebels are doing becomes a literal punchline, as Rey uses a Jedi mind trick to brainwash the First Order's stormtroopers into welcoming her aboard. "It's OK we're here," she says. "You're relieved that we're here."
"Thank goodness you're here," the stormtrooper agrees.
It's funny because it's bullshit.
By the time we reach the climax of Rise of Skywalker, the lines between good and evil, oppressed and oppressor, light side and dark side are hopelessly blurred. Remember, the Resistance is ostensibly mobilizing to regain control of a Republic that rightfully belongs to them, having won the war for the galaxy a good 30 years ago. Yet they still call themselves rebels, and they still operate less as an organized government and more as a slapdash militia with questionable leadership, which spends most of its time being dominated by the better-funded, better-organized, technologically superior First Order. Even their big, final battle is won only at the last minute by the lucky arrival of a populist army of private citizens, all of whom just happen to have ships with advanced battle tech on board. (Nobody mentions it, but the Resistance would've been a lost cause from the get-go if the new Republic had decided to get serious about gun control.) And the enemies they're here to fight? After you've spent three films peeking under the armor of the First Order's storm-troopers, learning their backstories, and even meeting some who defected, escaped, and have lived peaceful lives ever since, it's a lot less clear in these final moments that the Resistance victory is a cause for celebration.
Knowing that the First Order's army is made up of kidnapped child soldiers who were ripped from their families and trained to kill, are we really meant to enjoy the spectacle of them running, screaming, helplessly trapped in their ship and dying en masse as it crashes and burns? And are the galactic masses, including the recently defeated, really going to welcome their new overlords under the current circumstances? One can't help noticing that this war wasn't even about the competing armies at all. The battle that mattered was an intimate, secret stand-off between Rey, Palpatine, and Ben Solo—in other words, just another power struggle between members of the galaxy's ruling elite. If the people can't be arsed to join the fight, maybe it's because it's all the same to them: No matter who ends up in charge, it's Force-sensitive family dynasties all the way down. Palpatines, Skywalkers. Sith lords, Jedi knights.
Culture critics often compare the interplanetary government of Star Wars to the United Nations, but the fractious galaxy with its unregulated movement and free trade among various worlds feels much more like a single nation of cooperating states: ours. And on the eve of the 2020 election, Star Wars feels like a cautionary tale about the dangers of putting your faith in leaders who turn out to be sore winners, of scorching the earth you have to live on when the war is over, of win-at-all-costs tribalism when you still need the losers' acceptance in order to govern effectively. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people were divided, fearful, frustrated, exhausted, and justifiably pessimistic about things ever being otherwise.
May the Force be with us.