Is the Emperor in Star Wars Supposed to Be Bush?

Some film critics think the Emperor in the latest Star Wars film was meant as a metaphor for George W. Bush.

Columbus Alive | May 26, 2005
The sixth and final film of George Lucas’ Star Wars series was released on Thursday, and it was immediately greeted with all kinds of declarations of it being the most something-or-other of the films. Critics and fans are calling it the most dark and down Star Wars, the most skillfully made Star Wars and, most remarkably, the most political Star Wars.

This charge seems a little ridiculous. For the first two decades after the first film was released, the “politics” of Lucas’ universe were as simple as your average cartoon, comic book or children’s illustrated Bible.

On the one hand you had the Empire, led by a scary old man wearing a black hood and cloak who was known as the Emperor. In his corner was a guy named Darth Vader, who you knew was evil because he looked like Dr. Doom, wore all black, choked people a lot and openly worshipped the “Dark Side.” Fighting against them were the rebels like Luke and Leia, who wore white and didn’t have scary masks on. The politics of Star Wars amounted to good versus evil, black versus white, dark versus light.

At least until 1999. When Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace came along we learned there’s actually a long, convoluted, extremely dull political backstory to how the evil Empire got to be evil, involving trade disputes, embargos and a separatist movement.

This all happened between fight scenes, of course, but what existed only in our imaginations (and in novels, comics and videogames, if you wanted to be a nerd about it) for more than 20 years became sort of a space C-SPAN, only with funny-looking aliens on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Now that the entire prequel trilogy, or “prequilogy,” has been released, it makes a bit more sense than it did six years ago: An evil senator had been playing both sides of the field, fomenting war between the money-grubbing separatists and the democratic Republic. With the galaxy fearing for its security, it grants more and more emergency powers to that evil senator, secretly a religious fanatic dedicated to the negative aspects of a widespread faith, until he turns the peace-loving Republic into a militaristic empire.

So what’s all this have to do with the current administration in Washington, D.C.? Is Episode III—Revenge of the Sith really supposed to be an indictment of the Bush administration?

It doesn’t seem likely. Lucas supposedly conceived of Star Wars as a nine-film epic a long time ago in a decade far, far away—the ’70s, to be exact, when Nixon, Ford and Carter were in the White House, the elder George Bush was an ambassador and director of the CIA, and the younger Bush—well, let’s just say he wasn’t quite presidential material yet.

As visionary as Lucas seems in some respects, predicting the political climate of the early ’00s three decades in advance is probably beyond even his powers. Of course, Lucas isn’t above tinkering with his movies in response to how well-received the previous ones were.

For example, characters from the first trilogy, like C-3P0, R2D2, Boba Fett and Chewbacca, were shoehorned into the new movie, whether it made sense or not. After Episode I was lambasted for being too dull and focused on the fake universe’s economic policy, a character responded in Episode II with the line, “Not another lecture, at least not on the economics of politics.” And when Lucas realized new character Jar Jar Binks was universally reviled, his role shrank from being front-and-center in Episode I to barely appearing in Episode III.

So it’s conceivable that if the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) wasn’t created as an analog for any real political figures, Lucas made him one by the release of Episode III. That’s how some see it, at least.

In a climactic duel in which Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) swing their laser swords at one another, Anakin intones, “If you are not with me, then you’re my enemy.” Given Lucas’ penchant for repeating readymade lines—go on, count how many times someone says, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”—one has to wonder why he didn’t use the more traditional formulation, “If you’re not with me, then you’re against me.”

Or maybe that would be too obvious an echo of Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy, which he articulated as, “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.”

Obi-Wan responds, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” with “Sith” being Star Wars shorthand for “bad guy.” Village Voice critic Ed Halter noted that the New York screening he attended greeted the line with cheers from fans who took it as “a blatant Bush bash” (and Slate film critic David Edelstein cleverly dubbed the president “Darth Dubyous” in his review).

There are problems with this reading of Bush as a Sith lord, though. After all, “absolutes” is what Star Wars is all about. The only time the films rise above the simple-minded moral of “evil is bad” is with something only slightly more specific, like “monsters are bad” or “fascism is bad.”

Slightly more subtle is the scene in which the Senate rolls over for a strongman in the name of security, passing the Star Wars version of the Patriot Act, and Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman) angrily announces, “This is how liberty dies—to thunderous applause.”

This is the scene Edelstein considers a “palpable swipe” against Bush. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott concurs, saying, “Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders,” as do a couple dozen other critics.

Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek is one of the few film critics to both point out the political parallels and dismiss them, sarcastically saying the Emperor must be a metaphor for Bush since he’s “ruthless, unappealing and arrogant. He’s a cartoon baddie, like Ming the Merciless, or Mumbles, or the Penguin—all of these are very bad men, just like that bad old George W.”

Whether there’s any there there, some people certainly want to see it. Last week the New York Times and USA Today dissected Lucas’ comments before his film’s Cannes screening as evidence of his political agenda, noting he said he was opposed to the Vietnam and Iraq wars and saw them as similar (um, him and at least half of the country). The website of a group that calls itself “Patriotic Americans Boycotting Anti-American Hollywood” devotes ample space to Lucas and Star Wars producer Rick McCallum, stating, “Please name one liberty we’ve lost, Mr. Lucas.”

If Revenge of the Sith is supposed to be Lucas getting all anti-Bush on us, it’s remarkably half-assed. Why paraphrase Bush when quoting him outright would sound much less clunky? Why not explore the religious parallel, in which the Emperor gathers strength from his faith and focuses only on the negative aspects of that faith, rather than on its positives? Why not give the Emperor some sort of motivation, other than pure, cackling evil?

Contrast Revenge of the Sith’s apparent nods to Bush to those made in another recent sci-fi film, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sam Rockwell apparently studied Bush’s infrequent public appearances closely in creating his portrayal of Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy; he closely imitated Bush’s vacant smile, stuttering small talk and clipped delivery, even adopting Bush’s strut.

Rockwell’s character explains his lack of knowledge of current events with an echo of Bush’s disdain for newspapers, saying, “I’m president of the galaxy—I don’t get a lot of time for reading.” And he says he has two heads because, “You can’t be president with a whole brain.”

You could dismiss this as a blanket critique of all politicians, as Douglas Adams likely intended when he wrote the Hitchhiker books decades ago, if the lines weren’t spoken in a Texan accent.

You could also see Revenge of the Sith as an indictment of the neo-con American empire, if you’re willing to look hard enough. Is there some significance to the fact that the heroic Jedi wield blue light sabers, the color of Democratic states, while the evil Sith use red, the color assigned to Republican states? What about the fact that Bush’s second in command, Vice President Dick Cheney, has machine components helping keep him alive, like the Emperor’s sidekick Darth Vader?

Perhaps the biggest blow to the Bush as evil Emperor theory comes from progressive activist group MoveOn, which would surely read an anti-Bush agenda into the film if at all possible. After all, they centered a whole environmental campaign around last summer’s disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow.

MoveOn launched a campaign around a Star Wars theme, entitled Senate Wars: Revenge of the Frist, in which a power-hungry senator “schemes to destroy all opposition and replace the old guardians of peace and justice with his own loyal minions” by employing the nuclear option and getting rid of the Senate’s right to filibuster.

So there you have it: Bush isn’t the Emperor, but Senator Bill Frist is.


May 25, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Columbus Alive, Inc. All rights reserved.

Columbus Alive

Founded in 1983, Alive is the Capital City's oldest and only independent alternative and is known for providing a forum for the area's free thinkers. The paper's spirited and original perspective on music, arts and culture distinguish it from the...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 62 E. Broad St., Columbus, OH 43215
  • Phone: (614) 221-2449