Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels, Part II

The endless tirades against the Star Wars prequels were, of course, narrow and highly repetitive. One of the least compelling complaints was that their stories contained references to political details and events, which made the movies boring or confusing or somesuch.

This is an odd thing to say given that the original trilogy was, after all, about an armed rebellion against an emperor.

I suspect that the complainers were simply muddled in their thinking and inarticulate in their speech, that what they really meant to say was not that there were politics in the prequels, but rather that they foregrounded some of the intricacies of those politics. Where in the first film references to diplomatic privilege in the opening scene, or to the emperor's struggle with his bureaucracy, could easily go over the heads of the duller-witted viewers without marring their enjoyment, here such things as the doings of the Trade Federation and the Galactic Senate are central to following the story.

Yet, one should not make too much of them, those references not inappropriate to the plot, or of an indigestible sort. The Phantom Menace opens with the Trade Federation blockading the planet Naboo because of a dispute over the taxation of the spaceways.

Is this really such a hard concept to grasp? Or so out of place in a movie such as this one? One would think that Star Wars fans would be quite comfortable with the idea of a blockade. Smugglers like Han Solo have to find business opportunities somewhere, after all.

Which is not to deny that such details can seem a bit lacking in the sort of romance for which one comes to these films (especially if one idealized the Republic the rebels were seeking to restore). But more fundamental, I suppose, are the politics of these details.

Here we have a vast republic in which Big Business in its greed is trampling on everything and everyone, unrestrained by the government, which has had its courts and its legislators corrupted to such an extent that even after the violence on Naboo in the first film, none of those responsible are ever punished, never mind the institution of any reform. Meanwhile, the most backward forms of exploitation and oppression continue to flourish--or perhaps, even resurge--at the margins (like slavery on Tatooine), and the whole system appears increasingly decrepit. Naturally the mess creates openings for reviving violent, irrational, reactionary elements (the Sith) that present themselves as partners to an economic elite determined not to compromise with the rest of society.

The Big Business-Sith alliance goes on to manufacture a crisis (the Separatist Crisis), and seize on the growing desire of a frustrated public for strong leadership that would master the chaos. The result is a dramatic expansion of executive power (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine granted "emergency" powers) that opens the door to militarization (the "Grand Army of the Republic"), repression (extending to the brutal liquidation of elements which might resist to this process, like the Jedi) and the establishment of a formal dictatorship (as the Galactic Republic gives way to a Galactic Empire, "for a safe and secure society"), which is welcomed by many (liberty dying to the sound of thunderous applause).

The analogies with present-day anxieties, fears, possibilities and events is not easily mistaken, with these drawing particular attention when Revenge of the Sith came out, with many conservatives taking umbrage at the echoes of the Bush administration's rhetoric in the language of Anakin Skywalker.

Of course, one ought not to exaggerate the leftishness of the vision. If one believes in the primacy of economics in political life, the Emperor's turning on the businessmen who did so much to put him in power is unconvincing. A Marxist will certainly wonder where the Republic's working class has been in all these events. And rationalists of all types will be dubious about the connection of the Republic's destruction with mystical cycles. Indeed, one can even argue that there is a conservatism about the films' outlook, presenting at least one obvious cure to the utter corruption of the Republic's political system as worse than the disease--without hinting at any alternatives, either in the way of sociopolitical arrangements that may be more desirable, or more modest measures that might rectify the situation.

Nonetheless, the fact that exercises of corporate power and government corruption of familiar types were prominent in the films, and their dangers pointed up, doubtless exaggerated the ire of many toward these movies.

"In Defense Of . . ."
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels

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