The 1977 movie that would eventually spawn a multidecade, multimedia, multibillion-dollar franchise (with at least one of those billions dedicated to Baby Yoda merchandise alone) was inspired as much by the postwar landscape of the 1970s as by the samurai films and movie Westerns to which it owes an obvious cinematic debt. Years after Star Wars debuted in theaters, creator George Lucas told the Chicago Tribune that it was “really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”
Four decades later, not much has changed in the long-ago, far-away galaxy where Star Wars takes place—but the franchise is more relevant than ever. In 2020, Star Wars isn’t just political; it’s a microcosm of the fractious, tribal, exhausted landscape of American politics—and not only because of our 21st century predilection for making every major motion picture a battleground for the culture wars. The most recent trilogy of films, billed as the third and likely final act of the saga’s mainstage space opera, is as confused about its message as a Democratic primary candidate; as ambivalent about technology as a millennial in a love-hate relationship with her iPhone; as steeped in nostalgia as an old-timer wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and muttering that the factories will reopen any day now. It’s a funhouse-mirror reflection of a democracy having an identity crisis...which, incidentally, is what the franchise itself is doing, too. More than anything else, it’s the lack of a coherent narrative that makes Star Wars such a potent metacommentary on the politics of the last five years.
The Force Awakens marked the dawn of the Trump era: Released on the eve of the 2016 election, it captured a brief moment of liberal optimism—a time when the future of both Star Wars and the presidency seemed destined to be female. Then came The Last Jedi, made in those shell-shocked months following Trump’s election and inauguration. Our heroes reckoned with the consequences of putting their faith in the wrong leadership, and the movie leaned heavily on the kind of progressive rhetoric emphasized by Democrats who thought that 2018 would usher in a wave of radically progressive politicians (rhetoric that fell as flat with voters as The Last Jedi did with most fans). Finally, there was Rise of Skywalker. Premiering almost exactly a year before our next presidential election, the film read like a flailing Hail Mary attempt to get things back on track, reuniting the (fan) base with a familiar narrative, canon characters, and apologies for the excesses of the film that preceded it.
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