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Everybody Loves Vader

By Annalee Newitz

ALL OF US cheered when medic robots snapped the shiny black mask on Anakin's burned, skinless face, and he began to breathe in that characteristic, amplified way. Of course, we'd cheered for the wookies too, but that isn't the point. It was Darth Vader! After enduring Episodes I and II, we'd come to know him in a whole new way.

He wasn't just the evil guy in black with cool telekinetic strangle powers. Vader was a sensitive guy damaged by childhood trauma and an obsessive, secret love affair; he was a confused, up-and-coming military leader in the Republic whose loyalties were captured and twisted by a proto-dictator.

Anakin's fall wasn't just a nifty plot device, though. It was no less than the fall of the United States. And director George Lucas knows that quite well. When Sen. Palpatine—shortly to be Galactic Emperor—announces that the Republic should grant him emergency military powers, he justifies the transition to a politically repressive regime with references to "safety and security." Anyone who has ever watched a George W. Bush speech about why we need to sacrifice civil liberties for "security from terrorists" knew what Lucas was getting at.

As if that weren't enough, we learn that Palpatine has secretly been funding the separatist factions whose activities threaten the Republic. Could this be a reference to the way the CIA trained and funded groups connected with Osama bin Laden, whose later activities wound up justifying anti-freedom legislation like the USA-PATRIOT Act? You bet it's a reference. Revenge of the Sith is a savage critique of the current Bush administration.

It may not be an epic poem like the Aeneid or The Faerie Queen, but this movie cycle about righteous swordsmen from a crumbling Republic battling devious fascists is no less a powerful allegory about the fate of a great and dangerous international power. Star Wars is the closest thing the United States has to a national mythology. The films have inspired everything from massive military defense projects during the 1980s to debates in the 2000s about how the government should handle media piracy among its citizens.

Interestingly, as the country has grown more conservative, Lucas' films have tipped further and further toward liberalism. All those long scenes that take place in the Senate—which everyone says are boring—are actually crucial to understanding what the series is really saying about the country whose life it allegorizes in the rise and fall (and rise) of the Skywalker clan. These are adventure movies that aren't afraid to urge fans to consider that power is made as much in bureaucratic meetings as space battles. Our beautiful princess mourns the loss of democratic freedom, and the bad guys scheme to take over the Senate. Most of our heroes battle the specter of authoritarianism rather than dragons. Well, OK, there are dragons, too.

And those dragons are exactly what make it easy to watch Revenge of the Sith without actually figuring out the liberal message behind the flick. If you just ignore the boring dialogue about political alliances (which is so badly written that you'll want to ignore it) and focus entirely on the fight scenes with giant lizards and scary robo-Siths, you won't get anything out of the series other than a general sense that spaceships are cool. You might also pick up on the idea that every righteous revolution is fought with deadly weapons.

That's why it doesn't surprise me that the meaning and importance of Star Wars is always being co-opted by some of the nation's most conservative forces. Less than a week after the premiere of Revenge of the Sith, the FBI announced it had shut down EliteTorrents.org, a popular site for file sharers who use Bittorrent software. In fact, Star Wars was used as one of many justifications for the criminal prosecution of several people allegedly running the site, which posted information about where to download copyrighted materials—including, mere hours after it hit theaters, a copy of Revenge of the Sith.

Never mind that the movie had one of the biggest opening weekends in history, despite the machinations of naughty P2P pirates. Never mind that the feds appear to have siezed the EliteTorrents.org domain name and posted a storm-trooperish warning on it, despite the fact that they had no need to do so for the purposes of their investigation. Never mind that Hollywood companies are getting the government to do their dirty work for them.

We need to repress the people if Hollywood is going to keep producing epics about evil Empires repressing the people. That's all there is to it.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who carries a concealed lightsaber.

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From the June 1-7, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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