The new Star Wars movie is opening this week to massive fanfare and rave critical reviews. It promises to be the biggest blockbuster of the holiday season – and perhaps ever.
Much of its cross generational appeal lies in its telling of an epic adventure “a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away” between morally good rebels and an evil imperial empire. These themes seem especially relevant today in a world where Western military and economic might is being challenged by extremist terrorist across at home and abroad.
Not surprisingly, the Star Wars franchise has been rightly criticized for reinforcing a simplified – and possibly racist - political worldview of “us vs. them” and good vs. evil. As one commentator recently observed
“We pine for the consolation of religion, but in its absence allow ourselves to be bamboozled by technology and browbeaten by consumerism. Star Wars is irresistible because it caters to every aspect of our moral frailty.”
Moreover, despite original intentions, it can also be viewed as an ironic reaffirmation of the goodness of modern US imperialism as a positive force in the global fight for liberal values.
Yet there is a potentially more radical and progressive message contained in Star Wars. Its portrayal of an intergalactic struggle points to the possibilities for a new internationalism against imperialism and for shared values of political freedom alongside social and economic justice.
An Imperial Fantasy
For all its swashbuckling action, Star Wars was always profoundly political. Both its first trilogy and its latter prequels followed the exploits of those trying to preserve democracy against authoritarianism. Yet for all its simplified – sometimes literal -black and white ideas, the actual politics in the movie could be quite confusing.
Despite the confusion, Star Wars has been broadly criticized for its assumed politics. The whiteness of its original cast led to charges of implicit racism – a notion popularly reinforced by the symbolic equation of blackness with evil throughout the films.
It also creates a rather ironic imperial fantasy. While the original rebels are combatting the empire, they do so in the name of a “senate” that looks conspicuously like contemporary liberal democracies. In the contemporary context of Western invasions for “spreading democracy,” this explicitly anti-imperial tale began to seem like a justification for Western militarism – first against the evil Soviet empire and later the dark threat of terrorism.
An Intergalactic Call to Arms
It is undeniable that Star Wars plays into our worst political tendencies. It nurtured a Hollywood movie version of reality – where complex power relations are replaced by easy morality tales. Where all that is needed to save the world is to climatically destroy our enemies – whether it is Emperor Palpatine on the silver screen or Saddam Hussein in real life.
However, there is a way to reboot Star Wars toward more radical ends. The mere existence of an inter-planetary rebel alliance harkens back to the internationalism of the 20th century. It was a movement that inspired millions to reject divisions of nationality, class and race to fight in common for progressive values of freedom and democracy.
More than just escapism, it can also be an intergalactic call to arms. Lucas himself intended the movies to have a broader effect – though one more spiritual than politically oriented. He declared in 1999 interview that
“I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct […] I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.”
In the present age, the multi-species Star Wars galaxy speaks to much more than a spiritual yearning – it also reflects the need for a multi-ethnic and radical alliance against imperialism. One that challenges traditional social geographies such as “the West” or the proverbial “Clash of civilizations” for an inclusive politics of international solidarity. That connects all of us in a larger political and spiritual struggle for a better future in the face of past and present empires.
A Force for Revolution
While Star Wars is first and foremost entertainment – it too often has been a force for reaction. It repackages WWII tropes of valiant republicans taking on the looming danger of fascist destruction. It taps into deep seated longings to eliminate the perceived real threat of the “dark side” in our societies.
Yet it is exactly this desire that makes it so potentially revolutionary. At a time when authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide the need for a renewed internationalism has perhaps never been so strong. Already activists converged on Paris to push for real climate change measures. Popularly, progressive grassroots movements are gaining strength around the world – from the US to the UK to Spain to the Middle East and beyond.
Whereas mainstream politicians continue to push that the enemy are “terrorists,” new divisions are emerging that pit an elite and imperialist right wing status quo against all those committed to sustainability and justice. The fundamentalism of ISIL and the free market extremism of the West are tragically two sides of the same imperial coin.
The ethos of the Jedi and the Star Wars universe is one of dedicating yourself to a higher cause. To resist the temptations of personal power and political glory for the greater rewards of peace and justice. It does not discriminate based on race nor confine itself to artificially created borders. It compels individuals and groups to strive together against imperialism and injustice wherever it is found.
In the current global struggle against imperialism one wonders what side the new Star Wars will be on. In the words of one contemporary observer,
“If J.J. Abrams wants to tell a story about the awakening of an old power and the victory of a new political movement over a sclerotic old system, it is an issue that ought to inform his story and his new characters."
As Star Wars seems destined to take over the world once again – the question is whether it can be a force for revolution, not just empire?