The Force is With Us
Is it just me, or has George Lucas written an anti-capitalist
The Ecologist, October 1999
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away
something eerily familiar happened. Picture this: a
peaceful indigenous population, living off the fruits
of its own labour and generally minding its own business,
finds itself threatened from the outside by a larger,
more powerful and more technologically advanced enemy.
Under the pretext of freeing up the economy for some
much-needed competition, this enemy proceeds to blockade,
harass and finally invade said indigenous population,
in a blatant attempt (thinly veiled in the language
of legal rights and market economics) to colonise it,
grab its land and claim its resources for their own.
If this development-as-colonialism scenario is one
which Ecologist readers feel they've seen before, there
are two possible reasons. One: you've recently succumbed
to the unrelenting global hype and visited your local
multiplex to take in Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom
Menace, the plot of which revolves around the conflict
outlined above. Two: you've been reading The Ecologist
for a while. For interestingly (though incidentally)
George Lucas, writer and director of the Star Wars films,
claims to base all his plots on common themes drawn
from the traditional mythologies of ancient (Earth-bound)
civilisations. This surely means that, whatever their
other failings, the Star Wars films must be the only
Hollywood blockbusters in history with a sound anthropological
If The Ecologist is the last publication in which you
expected to read acres of guff about history's most
over-hyped film, please do persevere: there is a reason.
For whether he knows it or not (and I suspect not) George
Lucas has created, with The Phantom Menace, not only
an unrivalled marketing phenomenon which will keep him
in champagne and truffles for the rest of his days,
but also a powerful allegory about the state of the
world as we leave the twentieth century. And although
it would probably be going too far to suggest that the
key struggle of the film - between the heroic, vaguely
Zen-like Jedi knights and the evil Trade Federation
- mirrors the fight between the environmental movement
and the rapacious proponents of globalisation, I'm going
to suggest it anyway, because I like a challenge.
A brief trot through the plot of The Phantom Menace
will support my thesis. As the film opens, we learn
that the peaceful planet of Naboo, a green and pleasant
utopia of spectacular Byzantine citadels surrounded
by absurdly verdant rainforest, is being harassed by
the sinister Trade Federation, a sort of galactic descendant
of the WTO. The viewer never learns quite what the dispute
is about, but the Trade Federation is accusing Naboo's
government (disturbingly, most of the planets in George
Lucas's imaginary universe are run by centralised world
governments, but that's another story) of breaking one
of its trade rules. Possibly the planet's population
are refusing to eat genetically-modified Wookie meat
or hormone-injected Banther.
Whatever the cause of the dispute, the Federation wants
the Naboo government, headed by the oddly-dressed Queen
Amidala, to sign a treaty which will essentially hand
the levers of her economy over to them. Admirably, she
refuses, and the Federation, in a clear echo of the
current Euro-American beef war, erects a trade barrier
around her planet. However, the Trade Federation has
more resources than the WTO, being presumably at a much
later stage of development: its idea of a trade barrier
is not the raising of import tariffs, but a ring of
a hundred vast starships hanging around in Naboo's atmosphere,
blasting anything that attempts to get in or out. Renato
Ruggiero take note: it's possibly illegal, but it works.
Enter the film's heroes. The Galactic Jedi Council,
a sort of UN with lightsabres and political will, sends
a couple of Jedi knights - Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon
Jinn - to the headquarters of the Trade Federation to
mediate between its leaders and the Naboo government.
In another move which might give our political and industrial
leaders some fond ideas, the Trade Federation's response
to this selfless gesture is to attempt to have the two
mediators gassed as they wait in the lobby. Being Jedi
knights, though, and thus able to hold their breath
for several days, they survive and proceed to give the
Federation's minor officials a good kicking before escaping
to warn the galaxy that something very dodgy is going
on with the execution of macroeconomic policy.
It is at this stage that things start to get even more
allegorical. For we learn what the Jedis suspect - there
is a hidden agenda behind the Trade Federation's blockade
of Naboo. The two weasel-worded Directors of the Federation
are having their strings pulled by a deeply unpleasant
figure known as Darth Sidious, whose agenda, rather
like that of Bill Clinton, is the conquest and colonisation
of the entire universe. In the later Star Wars films
(the ones we all saw, for some reason, before this one)
Darth Sidious, who is also a Galactic Senator, has mutated
into the Emperor who, with Darth Vader, his heavy-breathing
sidekick, has managed to corrupt the noble ideals of
the Galactic Republic for his own megalomaniacal ends.
Amateur historians will note the rather obvious parallel
with the decay of the Roman Empire.
Anyway, the rest of the film (basically a miasma of
very expensive special effects and aliens with absurdly-shaped
heads) trawls through the conflict between the Jedi,
whose ideals are never anything less than pure, and
the disingenuous Trade Federation. After a few minor
wars, lightsabre fights and intergalactic spaceship
races, the Jedi naturally triumph over the Federation.
Of course, Lucas has another two films to make in this
trilogy, so this is actually no more than a temporary
setback in the plans of Darth Clinton/Sidious, who survives
unscathed to conquer the universe at a later date.
So is George Lucas a closet environmentalist? Is his
representation of little people against a vast, sprawling,
armed bureaucracy bent on domination really a parallel
with today's growing movement of little people (that's
us) against the globalisation machine (that's them)?
Since Lucas claims to have written the first draft of
The Phantom Menace over twenty years ago, the answer
is probably no. But all art is what you make it, and
as anyone who has ever studied Shakespeare or T. S.
Eliot can tell you, it's all about interpretation. So
I personally choose to interpret this film as not only
a fable but a battle cry for those of us who sometimes
feel overwhelmed by the forces we are battling against.
True, we don't have lightsabres or Jedi mind tricks
(more's the pity) - but our victory is still assured.
And this is not the end of it. Keen environmentalists
may also spot other lessons, warnings and parallels
throughout The Phantom Menace. For example, the centralisation
of political power inevitably leads to world - and eventually
galactic - government (some would say that the likes
of Leon Brittan know this very well already.) Such government
is not only unwieldy and undemocratic by its very nature,
it is also open to abuse - the Chancellor of the Galactic
Republic himself is, before he is deposed in favour
of Darth/Senator Sidious, deep in the pocket of the
Trade Federation. Ring any bells?
Furthermore, economic globalisation, if unopposed, will
end in the horrors of not just a global but a galactic
economy. Just imagine: butter from Mars costing less
than butter from next door. And unchecked urbanisation
could have horrible consequences for the future of society.
The capital of the Galactic Republic, the planet Coruscant,
is one vast city - the entire planet is covered in what
looks like a giant New York, its orange skies teeming
with traffic jams that make the streets of Los Angeles
look positively pleasant. It is truly hideous; its only
redeeming feature being that, if James Lovelock's Gaia
theory is correct, it could never, in reality, be more
than a giant special effect.
Then there's the threat of runaway technology. If you
think nuclear weapons are scary, wait till you see what
the Trade Federation's droid army - thousands of identical
robots all controlled by a faraway computer - can do
in battle. Though perhaps this particular episode in
the film is also a salutary warning to worshippers of
technology - the entire droid army is disabled by the
Jedi when they destroy the Federation's master computer,
bringing the invasion of Naboo to a grinding halt. The
Millennium Bug has nothing on this.
Posing, then, as an enormously expensive, effects-heavy
American blockbuster, The Phantom Menace is actually
a parable, a fable for our times, and its message is
a heartening one: those of us battling the forces of
globalisation, centralisation and obsessive technocracy
have right on our side. The battle may be hard, and
the road may be long. There may even be a few gratuitous
lightsabre battles along the way. But we'll get there,
because the good guys always win in the end. Because
The Force is with us.