The Rise of the Empire

The Phantom Menace

Terrible movie, but the rise of the Empire narrative throughout the prequels has good lessons.

I haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet. I’ll get there soon. In the meantime, I decided to rewatch the first six. I will defend III as a respectable movie other than some terrible writing for Anakin and Padme. I won’t defend I and II at all except for one area of the plot that does always interest me: the rise of the Empire.

Prior to the events that open the first movie, the Galactic Republic had been in relative peace for a long time. Of course there’s still violence on the individual level up to the planetary level, but there’s no large-scale warfare like that which characterizes the six movies.

The Republic didn’t even have an army. They had the Jedi, who are probably best compared to the best-case scenario of police. They do not use force unless absolutely necessary. They don’t enforce laws which aren’t hurting anybody, but they do step in – including with some calculated violence if necessary – to help alleviate conflicts. I’m definitely not pretending they were pacifists, but they would probably mostly align with the goals of Just War theory. That was it for state violence, probably about as close to a utopia as possible.

Enter Palpatine. He’s an important Senator. He has a lot of significant say on the future of the galaxy. But that’s not enough for him. He wants to rule the galaxy unilaterally. He’s also a Sith Lord, so evil, but without ever really explaining what is evil about the dark side of the force in general or the Sith in particular (because they’re motivated by anger?). Palpatine is the architect of everything that happens. Take any conspiracy theory you can imagine about the Illuminati secretly running the world, and amplify that to only one man over the entire galaxy.

Episode I

Episode I opens with the Trade Federation blockade, perfectly legal, but Palpatine is pulling the strings from behind and convinces them they need to start a war. War tends to benefit those in power. They aren’t the ones actually dying in war. At best, they’re using other lives as pawns to help people like them. At worst, they’re using other lives as pawns to give themselves more power.

The current Chancellor doesn’t act immediately (like in most democracies), and Palpatine gets Padme to call for a non-confidence vote which then puts him in power instead. This is a major theme: he capitalizes on fears not to actually help those who are afraid but to help himself. Padme ends up turning to the one who manufactured her sense of insecurity, hoping that he will answer that fear.

That sounds a lot like many of our current politicians: “only I can solve the Muslim threat!” It doesn’t matter that the threat doesn’t really exist, but might if we keep demonizing them. It would be a mistake to turn to our own Palpatines stoking fear. It makes us less safe while they benefit.

Episode II

Starting Episode II, the war is in full effect. What’s the next big step for enforcing your power? Having an army. The Jedi won’t do – their Code stops them from blindly following Republic orders and their ability with the Force means they’ll catch on eventually. Years in advance, Palpatine had his army being developed. They’re clones, not regular recruits. They’re genetically engineered to not only be a strong physical specimen, but also to be totally obedient.

In the real world, we don’t (yet) have clones. Our armies do try to take as much individuality out of our soldiers as we can, though. Many would point out our militaries have characteristics similar to a cult: absolute obedience and internal justice. Plus, with modern technology, we can replace a lot of humans and their pesky consciences with blindly obedient technological warfare instead. Drones can bomb weddings and hospitals for us. If anybody notices, we’ll just pretend it was a malfunction. Oops, accidentally killed 1000 civilians again.

Episode III

Opening Episode III, the Republic is clearly winning the war thanks to the new army, but they still need to wipe out the opposing leadership. In the meantime, we learn that Palpatine has steadily been given more and more emergency powers. Hitler followed a tact like this – all of his power was democratically granted – and there are some disturbing trends again in current political discourse along the same lines.

The Jedi catch on and are prepared to force him to give up those powers as soon as the war is over, but it’s too little, too late for a couple of reasons.

The obvious one in the movie is that Palpatine has converted Anakin. An interesting hypothetical is whether Anakin created a self-fulfilling prophecy. He saw that Padme would die in childbirth. She did, but it was because of the “broken heart” caused by Anakin (not going to pretend that makes sense). So, if he hadn’t given in to his fear, would she have even died? His own fear created the exact thing he was afraid of.

The other factor is that Palpatine already controls basically the whole Senate. As Padme notes, democracy dies to the sounds of applause of the Senators who voted it away. Maybe they were under Palpatine’s Force influence to a degree, but it never suggests that. It seems to be primarily that they were simply afraid and turned to somebody who promised to make it better.

Episodes IV-VI

That explains why the Empire is marked by its human-supremacy. To maintain power, they cannot allow other voices to be seen as equal. Only those with power get to speak. And then when their clones are all used up, they can recruit more because there are always people who want to wield power. They’re not afraid to do things like slaughter Jawas or blow up an entire planet just to prove that they can, when it means they stay on top of the universe.

The real world parallel here is white supremacy, but you can also apply to patriarchy or any other group wielding power to maintain power at the expense of those who are different. This is how we know the Empire is evil as we watch the movies. And yet, it’s easy for us to act more like the stormtroopers, maintaining the status quo that helps us no matter how much we trample on others to do it.

But there is, as Episode IV’s title implies, a new hope. Hope always beats out the fear which the Empire is built upon, whether that Empire is Galactic, Roman, or American.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.