Why the Old 'Star Wars' Formula Can't Work in the War-on-Terror Era

To connect with a new audience, Star Wars needs to catch up with the modern political zeitgeist.


The unexpected news of Disney acquiring Lucasfilm and the plans to continue Star Wars are worth some consideration. The Atlantic's Spencer Kornhaber is right, of course—the saga will survive "whatever horrible thing Disney does to it." But the timing of a new film, presently set for release in 2015, has implications beyond the state of CGI and digital projection. This isn't just another Star Wars film; it's Episode VII, which means we are set for the continuation of a story that ended in 1983. And life in the galaxy following the Return of the Jedi will have an interesting parallel with our world post-War on Terror.

George Lucas has long claimed that the Star Wars universe is heavily influenced by American foreign policy. According to Lucas, in the first film the Galactic Empire represented U.S. imperialism in Vietnam. (Which, carried forward, makes Princess Leia a member of the VC.) In Revenge of the Sith, the death of the Republic (and specifically, Palpatine and a corrupted Anakin) parallel an America post-9/11. (Here, there's an uncomfortable implication of the Jedi as members of al-Qaeda.)

I'm not sure I really believe Lucas on either assertion. It seems more likely that he wants to be known for having strong political beliefs and for creating art with a resonance beyond Taco Bell cups. Empire-as-America is the most convenient trope, though it's not really reflected on screen but for one ham-fisted "with us or against us" line in Episode III. Though the world really was enduring a hard grind during much of the prequel trilogy's run, the films themselves never escaped a certain plastic gloss. They were hardly an escape because they were essentially about a war, but the war depicted was so inauthentic that audiences never latched on. Perhaps (in addition to so much else) the poor reception of the prequel trilogy can be attributed to a simple disconnect between events on the screen and events outside. They really did feel like something a long time ago, but not in the way anyone wanted.

There is a direct comparison with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, whose first film premiered three months after 9/11. That trilogy found success in no small measure because it worked as a prism through which Western audiences could evaluate their newly fragile world. (The second part was even called The Two Towers.) Yes, principal photography had wrapped in 2000, and the novels were first published in the 1950s. But in theaters, audiences were imbuing the films with meaning and finding favorable comparison with events of the day. Here we had a nebulous evil thrust upon an unsuspecting group, and a consequent hard task and eventual obliteration of innocence. Sometimes the evil caused otherwise good people to do terrible things. And the world as masterfully portrayed by Peter Jackson was cold and challenging. The Lord of the Rings was dark, unrelenting, and very serious.

None of those things can really be said of Star Wars, whatever Lucas wants us to believe. Not for a moment would any clear minded moviegoer point to a screening of Attack of the Clones and say, "Geonosis is just like Afghanistan!" Rather, the prequels told a perfect story for the 1990s, when war was pretty much entirely bracketed by the imaginations of filmmakers. Obviously Lucas couldn't have foreseen the catastrophe about to engulf the planet, and so his story derailed. Later planning and regrouping wouldn't necessarily have helped—Lord of the Rings, certainly, would have been diminished had it been conceived and filmed as a statement on the War on Terror. The prequel story was simply incongruous to the times, however it was retrofitted.

With Episode VII, however, the disconnect may be righted. Already, we have a good idea of what the world post-War on Terror will look like. In lieu of big military offenses or visible progress, we have sanitized drone wars and covert actions. Gone is a monolithic enemy—that's been replaced by al-Qaeda, personified by Osama bin Laden. Here to stay are scores of loosely affiliated and undefined groups, each with its own goal. The horror in Benghazi might be a one-off, but it might also be a glimpse at the new normal. Gone is a president whose first act in office was directing the closure of Guantanamo; here to stay, whoever wins in November, are secret kill lists and four-part tests to decide when it's okay to assassinate American citizens.

Star Wars beyond the Battle of Endor elegantly and naturally speaks to such times, whatever story might be told. What do we know of the New Republic? To be sure, life in the galaxy will lack the stability found in the Palpatine regime. "Fear" kept the local systems in line. Specifically, fear of the Death Star. With the battle station destroyed and the imperium collapsed, it seems likely that governance would fall to the regional governors—all of whom, one would expect, were installed by the empire. Instead of a singular evil to topple, the galaxy is therefore left with dozens of warlords, each with his or her own agenda, each willing to keep power by any means necessary, each actively working toward the failure of the New Republic. Likewise, oligarchs such as the Hutts are newly empowered. After the fireworks spectacular shared with the Ewoks, the messy business of actually crafting new system begins. Absent the political will to send in a fresh clone army to quell unrest in the Outer Rim, how long before Princess Leia is choosing which governor or slug to target as a means of quietly advancing the New Republican agenda?

None of this even considers the challenge of planetary governance and pacifying the citizenry. All things considered, Owen and Beru had a pretty good life. They had a farm and a little money to spend on droids. The Tatooine economy clearly had something going for it. Once you kill Jabba the Hutt and wipe out the state and status quo, market destabilization is the best-case scenario. It stands to reason that some non-trivial percentage of citizens will not like their new, free society. Even during the best of times, planets were torn by strife and distrust, as evidenced by Naboo and the bitter relations between the humans and Gungans. Once chaos spreads across the galaxy, will planetary societies come together in common purpose, or will they start settling scores? The ongoing ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet republics might well answer that question. Authoritarian strongmen might look good in such conditions, and systems might trade Palpatine for a cosmic Vladimir Putin.

Star Wars has always benefited from its appeal to our fundamental love for chivalric romances, but that appeal has been eroded. (We can only take a certain number of Dex Jettsters, or lines like "Around the survivors a perimeter create!") The episodes to come might find re-invigoration simply by being naturally at pace with contemporary events. They might not be George Lucas's stories, but they're his galaxy, and will perhaps help us make sense of our world.