It’s entirely possible that I’ve watched this 20 or 30 times in the past week:
Like a lot of other “Star Wars” acolytes, the trailer was enlightening in that it proved that, despite his best efforts, George Lucas’s prequels could not extinguish my enthusiasm for events that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far way.
The debut of the very cryptic trailer also has awakened a debate about whether this next trilogy will address political themes. My Washington Post colleague Alyssa Rosenberg began this debate with a post expressing a new hope that director J.J. Abrams will tackle some political questions head-on:
By venturing to a galaxy far, far away, the original “Star Wars” movies managed to shake loose of the allusions to contemporary politics that shape so many fantasy and science fiction movies today. But if the most basic step in a hero’s journey — the decision to leave home – translated to a dusty little foreign planet of George Lucas’s imagining, the most basic question of politics – how to have a better life – can as well. And 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.
Of course, the political wonk empire strikes back, as always. Over at Bloomberg, Jonathan Bernstein sounds a cautionary note:
I’m not sure I agree about wanting more politics.
Movies are almost always about individuals. Politics is often about institutions. That’s one reason Mr. Smithism – the idea that all it takes is for one honest person to stand up to corruption – is such a common way of portraying U.S. politics in the movies. It’s easier than explaining how institutions work, or how opposing interests can lead to conflict even though neither is inherently right or wrong.
And over at the Washington Monthly, Seth Masket weighs in as well, suggesting that political themes haunt the franchise like a phantom menace:
[J]ust because [inserting political themes into moves] can be done doesn’t mean it should be, particularly in a “Star Wars” film. Politics was never Lucas’ strength, and it’s not obvious from his previous work that J.J. Abrams has much interest in the subject. And that’s just fine. His 2009 “Star Trek” reboot had almost no politics in it at all and was one of the better sci-fi films of the last decade, faithful to the old franchise but still charting out new territory. “Into Darkness,” however, attempted to address some darker political motivations within the Federation, and it was a complete mess.
There’s certainly the potential for some interesting political observations in Episode VII. At least some significant remnants of the Empire clearly remain, for example; I’m curious to know how they survived the Battle of Endor and what kind of control they exert within the galaxy. But I’d be totally fine with little or no explicit political references in the coming films. My fellow bloggers and I will intuit them anyway.
I fear that I have to side with my fellow political scientists here, although there is a middle ground that might be possible between Rosenberg’s hopes and Masket and Bernstein’s fears. The latter two are correct that past correlations are not encouraging: The “Star Wars” films that focused more on politics were easily the worst ones in the franchise, and J.J. Abrams has a very poor track record when he concentrates on anything other than
lens flares action-packed space opera. Furthermore, a real problem with Lucas’s prequels is that their narrative arc didn’t really leave this galaxy. “Revenge of the Sith” was so easily viewed as an allegory for the Bush administration’s exploitation of the war on terrorism that the number of similar commentaries on the subject made it seem like an attack of the clones.
That said, only a vengeful Sith deals in absolutes, so maybe Rosenberg’s hopes should not be dismissed entirely. To expand on her point, the one thing that both the original trilogy and the prequels have in common is the central narrative. In both trilogies, an obscure, powerless individual on an impoverished planet is suddenly thrust into the most important and pivotal political struggles of the galaxy. In their journeys, both Luke and Anakin are tempted by the Dark Side of power, and their ultimate choices lead to very different outcomes. If John Boyega’s character represents that particular narrative arc, there are ways in which this next trilogy can address politics without getting bogged down in them.
That’s a big “if,” however, for two reasons.
First, I’m worried about what the political landscape of this galaxy will look like 30 years after the return of the Jedi. The politics of the original trilogy were simple and gripping: a rebel movement opposing a totalitarian dictatorship. The politics of the prequels were more complex — at the expense of things like, you know, characterization. The new trailer suggests that the Imperial forces have not exactly disappeared, which means that the politics here probably will be about a Rebel Alliance facing growth pains as it tries to actually govern. Although the political scientist in me is intrigued by that narrative possibility , the sci-fi geek in me is petrified that these questions will bore the hell out of me while I’m watching — or, worse, enrage me, like Anakin Skywalker’s political pontificating. And we all know what happens when fear and anger enter into the political equation.
Second, the stone-cold truth about Lucas’s “Star Wars” universe is that the politics of it are inherently elitist. The whole concept of the Jedi embraces an elitist, cartelistic view of power. Because the Force is awakening in this next movie, the Jedi will still be an ongoing political project in these films. And I’m wary that they can be used to discuss any grand political themes that resonate in our own galaxy.
So I hope that Rosenberg’s aspirations are fulfilled — but I fear that our destiny as movie-watchers probably lies with Bernstein and Masket.
What do you think?