Donald J. Trump. Depending on where you were born, your gender, your race, your level of education, or the amount of money in your bank account, you might find him to be an irredeemable devil figure or the prophesied savior that will prevent America’s ultimate ruin. He’s Darth Vader or he’s Luke Skywalker. Whatever he is, he’s not a unifying presence in this nation. Here’s a list of things that unify people in this country: football, pizza, the ability to pause and rewind live television, a federally mandated holiday, the phrase “all you can eat,” and Star Wars.
Well, maybe not Star Wars anymore. You see, thanks to some completely unfounded rumors regarding the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One, conservative Trump supporters have threatened to boycott the film due to its alleged progressive politics. Having seen the movie just last night, I can report that those rumors are baseless. Rogue One is, as Disney chief Bob Iger said at the premiere, “a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film.”
For decades, science fiction has been used allegorically to project the fears and aspirations of society onto a fantastical vision of what could be. From the nightmare surveillance state fascism of George Orwell’s 1984 to the eerily prescient invasions of privacy in the film Minority Report and the 9/11 allusions in Cloverfield, the genre allows us to process traumas and paranoia through art. As Ben Guarino pointed out in the Washington Post this week, even the crowd-pleasing original Star Wars contained imagery heavily influenced by the real-world events of the Vietnam War. In that reading of the Star Wars films, the Rebel Alliance stands in for the underdog Vietcong, while the techno-fetishist Empire is the United States. Through pluck, tenacity, and faith in a higher power, David can defeat Goliath.
Star Wars (or A New Hope, which is what its mercurial creator prefers to call it) was a product of the zeitgeist of 1977, down to the fashions and the substantial sideburns. Though, when the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi, the Star Wars saga became timeless — forever stuck in the moment in which it was birthed. Star Wars is not modern. Star Wars is Star Wars. As such, it ceases to have an obvious meaning. It’s not ideological. It’s not avant garde or rebellious. It’s dogma, and that’s OK. What’s troubling is when someone — anyone — tries to graft their political agenda onto Star Wars, because like Bob Iger said, there is no politics to Star Wars.
Guarino cites A.O. Scott’s review of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which quotes a speech from Senator Padme Amidala about the rise of dictatorship to illustrate the heavy political subtext of the film. “This is how liberty dies — to thunderous applause,” she says ominously, as Chancellor Palpatine declares the reorganization of the Republic into the First Galactic Empire. To a liberal viewer, this could be interpreted as a strong rebuke to the Bush administration that held on to power in the US during the time of Episode III’s release. Conversely, to a conservative, this same quote could be seen as an attack on their progressive foes who seek to, in their mind, increase the scope and reach of the federal government. A website called Conservative Review, which lists well-known GOP pundit Michelle Malkin as one of its contributors, published a piece last year in which the author cites that very Episode III quote and compares the Empire to the Obama administration.
How is it that one simple quote could elicit wildly divergent responses? Whether this was intended or not, Star Wars has ascended into pure myth, divorced from ideology. Maybe this isn’t what George Lucas wanted. Maybe he intended Star Wars to be militantly political when he devised of the first film. Regardless of intent, the very fact that he employed the purest archetypes and the least subtle ideas of good and evil meant that Star Wars would forever be open to interpretation — not unlike the various religious texts we all keep fighting over, or even the United States Constitution.
This is not unique to Star Wars, though. At first glance, Star Trek appears to be a triumphalist socialist fever dream with a benign, yet omnipresent central government that has abolished the cruelty of capitalism. That hasn’t stopped conservatives like former GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz from latching onto the themes of heroism, individuality, and muscular diplomatic techniques that run through all of the many incarnations of Star Trek.
Decoding the implicit significance of a film is a hallmark of cinema nerd culture. I’ll never forget the film criticism I took in college where the TA expounded on her theory that the shark’s mouth in Jaws was meant to signify a vagina and that the movie was a down-low mediation on gender, or that the role of the mayor of Amity was a dig at Richard Nixon. Film fans have been doing this since Cahiers du Cinema was explaining all the metaphors in John Ford westerns. I suppose it’s in our nature to apply meaning to what initially seems meaningless. Patriotism, spirituality, family bonds, and all manner of sacred institutions of society perform that same function as the budding film critic — they bring order to that which has none. This is what it means.
For Hollywood filmmakers, the trouble comes when that meaning is so explicit that it ceases to be universal. There are some genre films where you’d be hard-pressed to interpret them more than one way. Many of the genre films of the 1980s were fairly explicit attacks against Reagan’s America — RoboCop, They Live, The Running Man, Videodrome, Escape from New York, etc. Each one of those films outwardly condemned aspects of American society at the time. Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop tackled the unchecked power grabs of corporations, Running Man and Videodrome looked at the increasing thirst for televised mayhem, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York imagined a city so overrun with crime that the fascist American government abandoned it and converted it into a supermax prison. They Live, also by Carpenter, was by far the most upfront condemnation of the US in the '80s, imagining yuppies as alien conquerors and the homeless of Los Angeles as its heroes. It’s possible to enjoy all of these films as pure entertainment, but a conscious effort must be made to ignore their politics.
The 1980s saw mostly financial and critical success for these satirical sci-fi films, but as the years went by, it became harder and harder to pull off the same trick. Verhoeven went back to the sci-fi genre (with RoboCop co-writer Ed Neumeier) to adapt Robert Heinlein’s militaristic novel Starship Troopers for the screen in the '90s. A book about duty, honor, and military supremacy became a not-so-subtle parody of war films that satirizes fascism like a modern-day Duck Soup with worse acting, exploding CGI bugs, and way, way, way more nudity. It bombed at the box office and contributed to Verhoeven’s retreat from studio filmmaking. Starship Troopers didn’t quite beat viewers over the head with its message as incessantly tickle you with it until you physically can’t stand it anymore.
I happen to love Starship Troopers, and it stands up nicely next to RoboCop and Total Recall, but pointed satire in studio motion pictures is exceedingly rare. Blockbusters with a truly overt message (one that isn’t as non-threatening as “love your neighbor” or “prejudice is bad”) aren’t being released very often, if at all. In order to guarantee the largest audience, a film needs to allow a wide variety of people an identification point within the narrative. The universal nature of the modern blockbuster allows everyone a chance to feel as though they are one and the same with the movie’s protagonists, that their struggle is just. The last two Captain America movies have toyed around with big ideas like government intrusion on the lives of regular citizens, but that particular boogeyman can be frightening to both sides of the political spectrum, as is made clear by the contradictory responses to Episode III.
Characters in genre films stand up for values we can all agree on — tolerance, fairness, individual freedom, love, general mistrust of alien invaders, etc. Captain America isn’t reciting a monologue on why he’s pro-life. Jyn Erso isn’t fighting the Empire because they’ve taken away her Obamacare. Star Wars is the perfect four-quadrant movie franchise because there really is no ideology to it at all. The Rebels are good because they fight the Empire — a government that’s bad because they murder people and wear black. At most, it could be argued that the ideology of Star Wars is democracy versus totalitarianism, but in America, both political parties believe they’re the keepers of our values and would never consider in a million years that they were the villains of this 240-year-old story.
There’s a moment in Rogue One where a character laments the horrible things they’ve done for the Rebellion, which is as close as Star Wars gets to shades of gray in its characterization outside of the “will they or won’t they” dance Luke and Anakin do with the Dark Side in their respective trilogies. Good is good because it’s good. Evil is evil because it’s evil. Isn’t that why audiences flocked to Star Wars in the first place? It was an alternative to the darkness and moral ambiguity of the films of the New Hollywood period of the '60s and '70s. Now, our multiplexes are filled to the brim with these sorts of swashbuckling morality plays. We can lose ourselves in the sweeping romance of the narrative, the heroic deeds, and the satisfaction that the virtue will triumph in the end, whatever that ideal might be for the individual in the moment. Our movies are ciphers. Their aim is to entertain. Their ideology is capitalism. It’s escapism, a vice we all crave, especially in these challenging times. It’s just that the simplification of thought and moral absolutism of entertainment has influenced real-world events far more than the other way around. We look to heroes and strongmen. We vilify and demonize each other. We think in terms of vanquishing a foe rather than working together for a common good. Star Wars posits a universe in a constant state of galactic conflict, perpetually beset by threats both internal and external. If we’re looking for a connection to our reality in Star Wars, it’s right there.