The Symbolism of Star Wars

Written by Mike Blackburn
Date: 2002-06-09

Critics who dismiss Star Wars as merely a popcorn movie are missing the point. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones might be the most spectacularly symbolic film since Bladerunner. Before you dismiss my article as a pathetic attempt to jazz up the sequel to the mediocre Phantom Menace, think about the film. When Count Dooku was flying to the hangar on his swoop bike, think about how similar the scene was to classic shots of a witch flying on a broom. In Empire, when Luke uses the Force to pull his lightsaber from the ice, think about how that parallels the moment when King Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. These are exactly the kinds of scenes that are meant to evoke an unconscious impact on people who watch the films, and these shots should be seen as works of art that deserve our attention.

The sheer depth of AotC is revealed when Queen Jamillia tells Padme and her advisors that "The day we stop believing in democracy is the day we lose it." This line has been called many things, few of them flattering. Critics who attack this line are only demonstrating their own moronic inability to look beyond the surface of the film. When the average person sees a Star Wars film, he is trying to turn off his brain. This is something that many people find enjoyable. When people turn their brains back on after the movie, they find that there are many aspects of the Star Wars films that are not present in any other cinematic piece.

The point of Queen Jamillia's line is that it ties everything together. Think about how the movie proceeded. Remember when Yoda told Obi-Wan that "[arrogance is] a flaw more and more common among Jedi?. Even the older, more experienced Jedi?" Yoda was clearly referring to Obi-Wan, Mace Windu, and himself at the same time. Now recall Yoda's options at the end of the movie. Yoda sacrificed hundreds, perhaps thousands of clone soldiers in order to save twenty Jedi. He decided that those twenty Jedi were more important than the lives of the nameless soldiers he was ordering to their deaths. This is clearly an undemocratic decision, and perhaps a poor moral decision by Yoda. It clearly hurt far more beings than it helped. The point then becomes: Yoda's belief that the Jedi were more important than the clone soldiers stemmed from his arrogance, and that Yoda and the Jedi had stopped believing in democracy. That is why the Old Republic failed. Even the Jedi had stopped believing in its ideals. Now we can appreciate the depth of the movie, both within and without the Star Wars universe.

I realize that the idea above will be unpopular with many people. After all, Yoda can't be wrong. These people are nearly as bad as the movie critics who completely missed this idea. First of all, the clones were created to fight and die, but at the same time Lama Su stresses that clones are different from battle droids. Clones can think. This is meant to get the audience to question what it is to be human, much like Data gets us to ask the same question in Star Trek. If the clones are to be considered human, then Yoda's decision can be viewed as morally flawed. If Yoda's decision was the wrong one, what does this do to the rest of Star Wars? If you can see all of the moral issues that this brings up during the original trilogy, you are beginning to see how AotC is meant to be read. AotC is meant to be a profoundly disturbing film. We went through the entire original trilogy knowing the difference between good and evil. Now we see that all of those distinctions that we made were far more blurred than they at first appeared. AotC stands triumphantly on the surface; but after we are willing to commit ourselves to looking deeper at it, we can find a far more complete film. But the symbolism of in AotC is not limited to the story line, it also applies to characters.

Notice the use of falling as a motif in AotC and in many of the other films. Both Anakin and Obi Wan are seen falling in a number of shots. For instance, during the speeder chase, Anakin deliberately jumps from his vehicle onto Zam Wessel's. Padmé falls a couple of times in the Droid Foundry on Geonosis. Note the persistent uses of chasms and other drops throughout all of the films, like the one in the first Death Star. In another pivotal scene from AotC, Anakin quite literally falls out of heaven, thus connecting him with any number of mythological heroes and villains. When he crouches atop the cliff while searching for his mother, Anakin is silhouetted against the stars behind him. These stars can be seen as metaphors for a number of people and ideals inside and outside of the Star Wars universe. For instance, stars can be viewed as the souls of the dead, watching over the affairs of people below. Of course under this interpretation, one of the stars must have been Qui-Gon, who was heard ordering Anakin to stop when he was slaughtering the Tusken Raiders. Also note that while Anakin was searching for his mother, the twin suns of Tatooine gradually set. By the time he finally found the Tusken camp, it was in the dead of night. These suns can be seen as setting on many things: Anakin's life as a Jedi; the Republic; the Jedi Order; the old ways of life; even the Sith, who are wiped out because of Anakin's actions in Episode VI. When Anakin returns with his mother's body, he has become a different person. It is a new day, and a new era for the Galaxy.

Remember the conversation during which Anakin tells Padme how he murdered the Tuskens? Remember how Padme never moved from her position until the very end of the scene, even though she probably should have moved towards Anakin during the course of the conversation? To emphasize her lack of motion, she even rocks back and forth while standing in place. This is to show that she is anchoring Anakin to the light, which is positioned behind her in that set of shots. Thus, while Anakin is adrift and searching for direction, Padme must remain static in order to remain consistent to the symbolism of the scene. Only when Anakin returns to her (and, by extension, the light) does she move to comfort him. This theme of Padme serving as a solid place for Anakin to attach himself to is further stressed by the stylized anchor that she wears on her breast during this sequence.

My point is this: Star Wars is meant to be seen on the surface as a popcorn thriller. It is meant to be enjoyed by all people. When critics and other know-nothings on the street dismiss it as shallow and mindless, they are only demonstrating their own ignorance and inability to understand something that is definitely NOT mindless. Think about how stupid people sound when they say that Lord of the Flies and The Grapes of Wrath are weak books because the stories they tell are strained. AotC might not be quite as strong on the surface as, say, A Beautiful Mind or Saving Private Ryan (Despite what most critics are saying, it is stronger than Spiderman.), but it has a hell of a lot more depth in it than any of those other films. Someone once criticized Star Wars as being a kid film, and so the cult of "Star Wars is for dummies" began. People began to repeat this idea, and soon everyone stopped thinking when they watched Star Wars films. These idiots are not thinking for themselves, and so they cannot understand how flawed their original idea was.

Next time you watch AotC, start noticing these themes that run throughout the story. Think about how Mace Windu is a character foil of Anakin. Think about how Jango and Boba Fett can be seen as foils for Han Solo. Try and understand how the themes of greed and lusts for power can be plainly viewed throughout the Star Wars saga. Think about the moral dilemmas that the characters face. Think about how the Star Wars saga parallels mythology, and how that adds to the film. I'm not telling you not to enjoy the movie. I want people to enjoy the movie, but I also want them to appreciate that Star Wars is not merely an idiot's way of forgetting real-life problems for a couple hours. Watch AotC as a fun movie, but also heed Yoda's advice to "clear your mind," and understand that the movie is about more than fun. It is also a lens through which we can examine ourselves. In short, watch AotC as you would read a good novel. Have fun, but make connections when they appear. I'm sure that you will find far more in the film than I was able to elaborate on, and when you find it, appreciate it, and understand how AotC is a cinematic masterpiece.