Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

The Force is With Us

Is it just me, or has George Lucas written an anti-capitalist allegory?

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 footing.

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.