Star Wars (continued)

copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005


If STAR WARS is "about" anything, it is about power—and the source of ultimate power in the film is the Force. Equally vulnerable and helpless at the beginning, Luke grows up into possession of power and the Force while Princess Leia retreats into the background. This happens because power in STAR WARS is male power, the patriarchal power of fathers and sons. Ben Kenobi says the Force is "the energy field surrounding all living things … it binds the universe together." But as the images presented in the film show, the Force is synonymous with Kenobi himself, the archetypal father and grandfather figure, the rescuer, protector, magician, master warrior and wise man.

The process of Luke's education and initiation in battle is a rite of passage into a nostalgic world of patriarchal power that no longer reflects either our contemporary society or childhood experience. It is a world in which power (symbolized by the Force) is passed from father to son. Ben Kenobi is the means for Luke's coming into his true patriarchal heritage. He tells Luke that his father was not just a middle-class "navigator on a space freighter," but an aristocratic Jedi Knight. Kenobi gives Luke his father's laser sword, the ultimate phallic weapon (you carry it in your pocket until you need it, then press a button and it's three feet long and glows in the dark). It is a technological version of the Sword in the Stone that makes Arthur king of the Britons. Old Ben functions as a surrogate father for Luke, instructing him in the ways of weapons and the secrets of the Force.

Supposedly the collective will of millions of people, the Force is actually a mystical substitute for the collective action, learning and hard work needed to effect change. It enables Luke to shortcut the necessarily lengthy process of growing up and acting effectively in the world. Ben urges Luke to use the Force in his sword practice, a Zen-archery technique that lets him shortcut years of practice by using his "feelings." Essentially Luke inherits his newfound powers and skills rather than earning them through learning and practice; the only price he pays for them is obedience. Luke actually internalizes Kenobi after the old magician's death. When he attacks the space station it is Luke's obedience to Kenobi's voice inside his head, his willingness to give up the rational control which the radar-scope represents. His trust in the irrational, mystical Force enables him to penetrate the space station's defenses and shoot his missile into the station's one vulnerable spot—a phallic sexual conquest culminating in the orgasmic fireworks of the exploding Death Star.

If Luke is Kenobi's "good son" in this Oedipal structure, Darth Vader is the "bad son," the student who rejects the master's teachings, allows himself to be seduced by the "dark side of the Force," and finally fights against and kills Kenobi. Darth Vader is the Faustian man of nineteenth-century literature, the man in black seduced by the pursuit of dark knowledge and experience, unable to deny the definitions of right and wrong by which his community lives, but nevertheless choosing to defy them and place himself outside the society.[14] But whereas in European romantic works like Goethe's Faust the Faustian man is the protagonist and represents all of us in his feelings of alienation and rebellion, the U.S. Faustian man, like Cooper's Magua, or Hawthorne's Chillingworth, or Melville's Ahab, is put outside of us as a dangerous Other, leaving us with a sanitized Romanticism that denies self-awareness and an honest confrontation with the destructive forces within. All that's left for the hero is the embrace of the society and its conformist tendencies. While Luke theoretically joins the "rebels," it is really Darth Vader who is the rebel against the orderly succession of patriarchal power that structures the film's psychological fantasies.

These elements of the fantasy structure make the actual political situation in the film, its power relationships, confusing and contradictory. However, these confusions reflect some of the fundamental contradictions in contemporary foreign policy. The U.S. theoretical fondness for underdogs and rebels, stemming from our own revolutionary history, dictates that the good guys be rebels.[15] However, the film's romance fantasy structure and its support of traditional ideas of hierarchy and obedience demand equally that the bad guys be the rebels. The same confusion is reflected in the contradiction between the theoretical support of freedom and independence in the world by the United States and its actual support of oppressive and dictatorial regimes.

In STAR WARS this confusion shows up most clearly in the role of Princess Leia, who as a part of the fantasy must be a princess, the daughter of the king deposed by evil tyrants, but in terms of the plot can only be a senator from the planet Alderaan, her father a simple general of the former Republic. In fact, she functions as both. The rebels are actually the loyalists, trying to preserve the old Republic, which has been somehow turned into an Empire headed by a ruler who has dissolved the Senate and allows men like Tarkin and Darth Vader to do as they please. Thus the rebels are in fact the restorers of the old order and not creators of a new one. They want to return to the old Republican days of the aristocratic Jedi knights (whatever sense that makes), and it is Tarkin and Darth Vader who are the rebels against the old order.

All these permutations make the political background of the plot almost incomprehensible. Yet they maintain one of the most fundamental traditions of romance—that the hero cannot rebel against duly-constituted authority, only against tyrannical usurpers. Tarkin and Darth Vader are bad because they use force to seize power. Luke and his new comrades are good because they derive their power and position from the metaphysical sanction of the Force and the moral and legal authority of the Republic.

As one experiences the film, however, without stopping to figure all this out, it seems simply that Luke and his friends rescue the Princess from the bad guys and are rewarded by her father who functions structurally, if not literally, as the Emperor. So the good guys are supporters of a hierarchical, imperial system with kings and princesses on the level of patriarchal fantasy, but supporters of the Republic and democracy on the level of the literal plot, a way to have your authoritarian cake and eat it too.

Because of this contradiction at the center of the film, the distinction between good and evil itself tends to break down. Luke's victory does not revitalize the society or change it fundamentally—it simply replaces one order with another. The old status quo replaces the new one; now Luke is the insider, Darth Vader the outsider. There is no revolutionary change, no reordering of priorities, no new knowledge that fundamentally transforms reality, no alternative vision. All we really have are two basically similar groups competing for power and dichotomized into "good" and "evil." There is no complex understanding of what either good or evil could really mean.

Since there are no real distinctions between groups of characters, the narrative structure derives from a series of parallel sequences in which the good characters do exactly the same thing as the bad ones have done, but are justified in what they do. Compare, for example,

  • Darth Vader's use of the Force in the council meeting to control his opponent and Ben Kenobi's use of the Force to get by the storm troopers;
  • or the "bad" guys' destruction of Alderaan and the "good" guys' destruction of the Death Star;
  • or the attack and penetration of Princess Leia's ship by Darth Vader's men firing laser guns, and Luke and Han breaking into the control room on the Death Star in the rescue of the princess;
  • or Darth Vader breaking the neck of the technician on Princess Leia's ship and Ben Kenobi dismembering the alien in the bar scene;
  • or the pursuit of Princess Leia's ship by the enormous ship of Tarkin and the pursuit of the imperial fighter by the Millennium Falcon; and so on.

The common denominators of these scenes are power and violence, and war is an ideal plot vehicle because it sanctions this violence, either to protect the community (Luke must destroy the Death Star before it destroys the rebels' planet), to avenge fallen family and comrades (Luke's family, the planet Alderaan, the other pilots), or to rescue and protect women (Princess Leia). The film makes Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin as evil as they are in order to justify the violent actions of Luke and his comrades. The film pretends to depict the struggle of good against evil, but in fact the evil exists in order to allow the good characters to act violently. In other words, Lucas's desire to make a film about laser guns and abducted princesses and interstellar combat impels him to generate the bad guys. It is not simply that the behavior of the bad guys forces Luke to take up arms. The real relation between good and evil in STAR WARS is a symbiotic one: Comic book heroes need villains to justify their actions, and in the end the villains are usually more interesting anyway. Darth Vader became the most popular character in the STAR WARS fan mags almost immediately.

Given this basically symbiotic relationship, the two groups of characters are distinguished primarily by their attitudes towards technology, the kind of technology they seem to represent. Lucas himself sees the fundamental difference between STAR WARS and Kubrick's 2001 as one of attitude towards technology. Lucas says Kubrick is interested in technology, the "hard facts," the "rational side of things," while he is interested in romance and adventure, the "irrational side of things."

What Lucas sees as this fundamental difference in approach is articulated in two basic ways in STAR WARS. First, the two groups of characters are characterized by what seem to be different approaches to technology or different kinds of technology. Darth Vader and Tarkin represent the large and impersonal, authoritarian, coldly rational forces which threaten us. They are characterized by the gigantic, impersonal, menacing Death Star, a prison and instrument of destruction run by bloodless technocrats. Luke and his companions are characterized by their one-man fighters and personalized robots, by Han Solo's eccentric hot-rod spaceship, and by Ben Kenobi's preference for the more traditionally elegant laser sword over the newer, "clumsier" blaster. This opposition between an individual or a small, coherent group and a large, impersonal, authoritarian force is a common motif in Hollywood films. In STAR WARS this preference for the individual and traditional reflects the nostalgic, individualistic romance ethos of the fantasy structure.

Second, the Force seems to represent a withdrawal from technology altogether in favor of the irrational and mystical. Luke's 'droid is out of commission in the final attack on the Death Star, and he switches off his radar-controlled bombsight in response to Obi-Wan Kenobi's disembodied voice urging him to "use the Force … let go of the computer.... trust me." In the novel Lucas makes Luke's firing of the missile an unconscious act, something he cannot remember doing. The individual and the irrational triumph over the impersonal and the rational.

But Luke's merger with the all-encompassing Force is simply another version of the big, impersonal, authoritarian forces that Tarkin and his henchmen on the Death Star represent. It prefigures the neo-fascist militarism of the final scene in which Luke and Han are absorbed into the rebel order. This mysticism and irrationality are simply mysterioso smoke screens for the reactionary ideology at the center of the film. STAR WARS rejects technology in favor of the Force in order to disassociate itself from the more menacing aspects of technology run amok which threaten us. But practically every frame is a hymn to the technology which made the film possible. Lucas' claim to be interested in "the irrational" is simply an excuse for not looking more closely at the issues he raises. We cannot possibly abandon technology, we need it to survive. Even when Luke turns off the bombsight he still remains encased in his ship, dependent on Han Solo to get Darth Vader's ships off his tail. His giving in to the Force is more a bionic fusion with his ship than a rejection of technology. It is an image of the union of man and machine.

Finally, this union of man and machine represents a fantasy of immortality, an assumption by human beings of the hard-edged, replaceable-part nature of machines. The Death Star is a symbol of death. Luke's destruction of it is a victory over death itself, accomplished with the aid of the Force. The concern with death runs throughout the film, and the robots serve as comic vehicles for the safe exploration of anxieties about death. C-3PO whines continually about his fears of being disconnected or sold for scrap. But both he and R2-D2 articulate bionic resurrection fantasies—for example, the reconnection of C-3PO's severed arm in contrast to the bar scene in which Ben Kenobi kills a "live" by cutting off his arm, or the resurrection of R2-D2 after the final battle in contrast to the more permanent deaths of the human pilots. The return of Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) as the voice of the Force is a mythic resurrection which connects the Force and immortality fantasies.

Aside from these fantasies, the real question is not whether or not we should depend on technology but what kind of technology we should adopt to solve our problems. Despite the superficial differences between the "good" technology of Luke and his friends and the "bad" technology of Tarkin and Darth Vader, STAR WARS offers no real alternatives. The differences are stylistic rather than real. Both groups are characterized by a high-energy technology of weapons, power, noise, speed and violence. Obi-Wan Kenobi's laser sword is still a weapon. Han Solo's Millennium Falcon is the fastest ship around, "the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve standard timeparts." Luke's innate flying skill was used to kill "womp-rats in my T-16 back home" and then to destroy the Death Star in his final initiation. There is no difference in the special-effects treatment of the destruction of both the planet Alderaan and the Death Star, or in our reaction to either event, because finally there is no difference. Both are explosions, and explosions are fun. As a returned POW in HEARTS AND MINDS says in justification of his role as a bomber pilot,

"Almost everyone has blown off firecrackers. The excitement of those explosives hitting their targets is thrilling, deeply satisfying."

There is no sense in any of this of a truly alternative technology like the "small is beautiful" philosophy of E.F. Schumacher, with its orientation away from size, speed and violence and towards "the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful," or like the soft-energy path of Amory Lovins with its emphasis on a technology of energy efficiency and conservation, and dependence on soft-energy sources like decentralized solar power and wind.[16] The difference between these technologies and the hard-energy technology of STAR WARS is the difference between organic farming, 10-speed bicycles, and decentralized solar energy on the one hand, and chemical agribusiness, high-powered gas guzzlers, and nuclear power on the other. The first approach accepts natural limits and works within them; the second recognizes no limits and depends on ever-increasing power and expansion.

The only really alternative approach towards technology present in STAR WARS is the self-sufficient farming technology of Luke's home. The desert planet Tatooine gives Lucas an opportunity to develop the kind of ecologically sensitive approach to technology that Frank Herbert developed in Dune, and the reference to "spice mines" and the skeleton of the sand worm which R2-D2 passes are allusions to Herbert's novel. But this alternative is destroyed when the storm troopers burn Luke's home, and its rejection is an important part of the family-romance fantasy structure. This alternative technology is identified with the cast-off bourgeois world of his foster parents, and Luke moves on to excitement, hard-energy technology, and the aristocracy. Thus the desire for social mobility and a technology of power, speed and violence are linked together, a linkage which reflects the film's capitalist ideology.

As Schumacher puts it, the modern private-enterprise system employs greed and envy as its motivating forces, and greed and envy demand continuous and limitless material growth.[17] Unlimited expansion is important to capitalism because only by constantly increasing the size of the economic pie can attention be kept away from the disproportionate and unequal size of the pieces.[18] But the inevitable outcome of this union of capitalism and the hard-energy technology to which it remains committed in order to ensure growth is an increasing concentration of capital, increasing centralization, and an increasingly authoritarian power structure, a combination that Lovins calls "friendly fascism."[19]

In the end, STAR WARS embraces by implication all the things it pretends to oppose. The Nuremberg rally scene is a fitting conclusion coherent with the film's fascination with speed, size, and violence, and with the mysticism that cloaks the film's patriarchal power structures. The romance plot incorporates sexism and racism and supports a hierarchical social system that glamorizes those at the top and literally turns those at the bottom into machines. The robots in STAR WARS do not represent the technology with a human face that Schumacher calls for. They are human beings turned into machines, a metallic Laurel and Hardy, the ultimate workers in a capitalist technology.

The film's commitment to excitement and speed locks it into a hard-energy weapons technology that undercuts its attempts to disassociate itself from the harmful and threatening aspects of that technology. By having no thought-out, consistent position on any of the issues he touches on, Lucas dooms STAR WARS to repeat all the dominant ideological clichés of our society. That distant galaxy turns out to be not so far away after all.


1. On Nov. 19, 1977, STAR WARS became [for the moment] the "new all-time top grossing film" in history, nosing out JAWS to achieve a cumulative domestic rental tally of $120,286,000 and a domestic box-office rental of $186,924,664 (Variety, Nov. 23, 1977).

2. There is a detailed technical account of these special effects in the July 1977 issue of American Cinematographer.

3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: New American Library, 1973), pp. 284 ff.

4. Paul Scanlon, "The Force Behind George Lucas," Rolling Stone (August 25, 1977) p. 48.

5. Robert Jay Lifton, Home From the War: Vietnam Veterans, Neither Victims nor Executioners (New York: Simon and Schuster. 1973), pp. 26-67.

6. Lifton, Home, p. 347.

7. Fred Branfman, "The Wild Blue Yonder Over Laos," Washington Monthly 3 (July 1971): 28-43; quoted in Lifton, Home, p. 349.

8. Scanlon, "The Force," pp. 43, 51.

9. George Lucas, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976), p. 101.

10. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 36.

11. Arthur Lubow, "The Space Iliad," Film Comment 13 (July-August 1977): 20-21; Vincent Canby, New York Times Arts and Leisure Section, June 5, 1977.

12. When Lucas was asked about the corniness of Mark Hamill's lines, he said (Scanlon, "The Force," p. 48):

"There is some very strong stuff in there. In the end, when you know better, it sort of takes a lot of guts to do it because it's the same thing with the whole movie—doing a children's film. I didn't want to play it down and make a camp movie, I wanted to make it a very good movie. And it wasn't camp, it was not making fun of itself. I wanted it to be real."

13. Freud coined the term "family romance" in 1897 and included a note on it in Otto Rank's The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (published in German in 1909), a work which applies the concept to mythology. For a discussion of the family romance and the work done since Freud and Rank, see Linda Joan Kaplan's "The Concept of the Family Romance," The Psychoanalytic Review 61 (Summer 1974): 169-202.

14. See Leslie Fiedler's discussion of the Faustian man in American literature in Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Stein & Day, 1966).

15. This image of ourselves, which we project to the outside world, helps to explain why Ho Chi Minh initially thought the Americans would be his natural allies in the struggle against French colonialism.

16. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 31; Amory B. Lovins, "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?" Foreign Affairs 55 (October 1976): 64-96, and Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace (San Francisco: Friends of the Earth International, 1977).

17. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 247.

18. See Fred Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977).

19. Lovins, Soft Energy Paths, pp. 91-92, 95.