Monday, May 23, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III And Politics

The new Star Wars movie, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, directed by the series' creator George Lucas, has caused a furore in the United States over the alleged parallels of the film and President George W. Bush's politics.

I have so far only seen the Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and that was on TV, and I'm probably going to wait for another few years for these latter two installments having their local TV premiere, since I haven't become exactly convinced that these new Star Wars movies are anything more that FX-heavy computer games disguising as some sort of weak excuses for a movie, at the expense of any proper plot or characters. (My own Star Wars episode is Empire Strikes Back where George Lucas had some writing help from such people as an old film veteran Leigh Brackett and the director Irwin Kershner who added some Zen Buddhism sort of touches.) Even though people have said that Episode III is a considerably better offering compared to the first two ones, I think these new Star Wars films will be remembered as examples of an era of film-making when technology took over and threw such old-fashioned things as a good story and memorable characters overboard, and replaced those with FX and CGI wizardry.

Anyway, some US conservatives have now been lacerating Lucas over the film's perceived jabs at President Bush -- as when Anakin Skywalker, on his way to becoming the evil Darth Vader, tells his one-time mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi: "If you're not with me, you're my enemy," in an echo of Mr. Bush's post-9/11 ultimatum: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Commentators have also seen other parallels to the Bush administration in the film, such as the Sith plot where when seeking to strengthen security during wartime, Chancellor Palpatine persuades the Senate to give up civil liberties and elect him emperor for life. "So this is how liberty dies -— to thunderous applause," Senator Amidala laments. Compare this to the Bush plot: seeking to strengthen security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush urged legislators to pass the Patriot Act, which opponents say infringes on civil liberties.

Or Sith's war: Palpatine starts a war to divert attention from his true political motives. In Bush's war Bush persuaded Congress to go to war with Iraq based on evidence that has now been largely dismissed.

A conservative film Website ("Patriotic Americans Boycotting Anti-American Hollywood") added George Lucas to its list of boycotted entertainers, along with more than 200 others, including Michael Moore, Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and the Dixie Chicks.

The liberal advocacy group Move On was preparing to spend $150,000 to run advertisements on CNN over the next few days -- and to spread leaflets among audiences in line at multiplexes -- comparing Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, to the movie's power-grabbing, evil Chancellor Palpatine, for Dr. Frist's role in the Senate's showdown over the confirmation of federal judges.

Even the Drudge Report Website got into the act: beneath a picture of Darth Vader, it compared the White House press corps to the vengeful Sith, after reporters peppered a press secretary for pressing Newsweek magazine to "repair the damage" in the Muslim world caused by a
retracted report about desecration of the Koran.

The White House has declined to comment on the controversy.

There is nothing all that new or imaginative, of course, about politicians borrowing from popular movies to score points; witness Ronald Reagan's co-opting of the "evil empire" metaphor for use against the Soviet bloc, or his critics lampooning his missile defense ideas as something straight out of Star Wars. And Senator John McCain of Arizona compared his 2000 primary campaign to Luke Skywalker's fighting his way out of the Death Star.

But it is highly unusual for a mainstream Hollywood movie to wind up in the swirl of politics even before it has opened -- though that did occur with 20th Century Fox's Day After Tomorrow, with its apocalyptic vision of global warming's consequences, which advocates including and Al Gore used to protest the Bush administration's environmental policy.

As a rule, Hollywood studios go to great lengths to ensure that their projects -- both in the development stage and especially when they are positioned in the marketplace -- are free of messages that could be offensive to any great swath of the moviegoing public. Like, say, people who vote for one political party or the other.

Lucas told the audience at the Cannes Film Festival that he had not realised in plotting the film years ago that fact might so closely track his fiction.

Alluding to Michael Moore's remarks about Fahrenheit 9/11 at Cannes a year earlier, George Lucas joked, "Maybe the film will waken people to the situation."

Apparently in all seriousness, though, he went on to say that he had first devised the Star Wars story during the Vietnam War: "In terms of evil, one of the original concepts was how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship". Lucas told at the Cannes Film Festival that the movie was written before the Iraq war. "We were just funding Saddam Hussein and giving him weapons of mass destruction," he said, adding, "The parallels between Vietnam and what we're doing in Iraq now are unbelievable." "On the personal level it was how does a good person turn into a bad person, and part of the observation of that is that most bad people think they are good people, they are doing it for the right reasons", Lucas added.

Peter Sealey, a former marketing chief at Columbia Pictures, said the partisan tug of war over the new Star Wars episode seemed absurd, likening the political interpretations of it to a Rorschach test. But he said Mr. Lucas was probably savvy in adding sizzle and relevance to a movie that otherwise might have earned publicity only by its effectiveness as entertainment.

"He could've come out and said, 'That's ridiculous -- this is the white hats and black hats of the 1950's in space,' and quashed it," said Mr. Sealey, who teaches entertainment marketing at the University of California, Berkeley. "Did he do that? No, and it was probably smart. If he can get Star Wars brought into the debate over unilateralism and the Iraq war, it just brings a current spin to it. And I don't think it's going to rule people out."

Indeed, it is extremely unlikely that all the online screeds and boycotts put together will leave so much as a dent in the movie's box office results. On its opening weekend the film scored the second-best three-day weekend of all time, selling an estimated $108.5 million worth of tickets for the Friday-to-Sunday period, taking its total to $158.5 million since it opened after midnight on Thursday.

But Mr. Sealey said other filmmakers and marketers might do well to inspect their pictures for latent political messaging before the public does it for them.

He noted that a Universal Pictures marketing executive had given a lecture to his marketing class about Peter Jackson's King Kong, which is coming out later this year. "Is there a political overtone to it?" Mr. Sealey said. "I suspect he's got to think that through today. The political sensitivities are so great that you have to take that calculus into consideration. Is somebody going to read into 'King Kong' that it's pro-Iraq, or it's going to get PETA upset?"

Well, as we know, any of these film boycotts (remember Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ?) only contribute to add the interest for the particular piece, so in any case, we may be only expecting George Lucas to laugh all the way to the bank.

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