When I saw “Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope,” the first of its series, in 1977, I was mesmerized. The fabulous galactic imagination of George Lucas led me on a true adventure through a vast, unknown universe. Since I was a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy already, this futuristic movie enthralled me, as it magically transported me to a fantastic future land.
There was another reason why I liked the movie. When I watched the original Star Wars trilogy, Korea was still under a ruthless military dictatorship. I could thus easily draw a connection between Korean military dictators with the leaders of the Galactic Empire, and anti-government activists with the rebel force. Even the title of the series, Star Wars, seemed to resonate with the power struggle at that time among Korean military generals who flashed stardust insignias on their shoulders.
Forty-three years have passed since I first watched the movie. With the grand finale of the sequel trilogy, “Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker” in 2019, we now have three trilogies. Each time I watch the Star Wars series, I find new motifs that enlighten me, such as the father-son relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, and between Han Solo and Kylo Ren, the danger of self-righteousness, and the thin red line between good and evil. There are other motifs in the Star Wars series that I found illuminating as well: the importance of loyalty, moral agonies, and the vast cultural and ethnic diversity of the universe. I also appreciated the films’ messages about the value of freedom, human rights, and liberal democracy.
Recently, I re-watched “Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith,” a prequel to the original trilogy. In this episode, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine of the Republic’s Galactic Senate turns out to be the evil Sith Lord Darth Sidious in disguise. Yet neither the wise Senate nor the perceptive Jedi Council was aware that the evil Sidious had been among them all the time, disguising himself as Supreme Chancellor of the Senate. In order to disintegrate the Jedi Council, Palpatine lures young Jedi Anakin Skywalker into being loyal to him and the dark side, secretly dubbing him the Sith Lord Darth Vader.
Sensing that something is wrong, Sen. Padme Amidala asks her lover Anakin, “Have you ever considered that we may be on the wrong side?” She continues, “What if the democracy we thought was ours no longer exists and the Republic has become the very evil we’ve been fighting to destroy?” Not listening to her, however, Anakin kneels before Palpatine and pledges loyalty to him.
Palpatine orders Anakin and his clone armies to massacre all the Jedi masters including younglings, that is, children in Jedi training, simply because they do not obey him and have served the side of the Republic he denounces. When Anakin returns after killing all the remaining Jedi knights and trainees, Palpatine praises him, saying, “You have restored peace and justice to the Galaxy.” Here, Palpatine confuses peace and justice with the massacre of his political opponents. He also sugarcoats his personal vendetta with “peace and justice” as well. Burning with anger and vengeful thoughts, Palpatine indeed does evil things in the name of peace and justice.
Palpatine appears in the Senate and declares himself emperor of the newly born Galactic Empire that has just replaced the Republic he denounces. Partly out of fear and cowardice, and partly out of ignorance and indifference, senators applaud. Watching them, Padme sighs and whispers to Yoda sitting next to her, “This is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.” This scene warns us of the dangers of the kind of mob democracy that can legitimate dictatorship easily. Hitler and Stalin, for example, justified their ruthless tyranny with the thunderous applause of the people.
As soon as he seizes power, Palpatine abolishes the Republic and builds an Empire instead. Then, he becomes a self-appointed tyrannical emperor who not only terrorizes the Empire, but also threatens the entire Galaxy. In order to monopolize political power and wield the power to eliminate political opponents and rebels, Palpatine subdues the Senate and eradicates the Jedi Council. He does not care about the welfare of his people. All he cares is how to remain in power forever.
Since science fiction and fantasy are a mirror to the present, they reflect and criticize the present reality metaphorically. Indeed, “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” is a solemn reminder that people like Palpatine are everywhere in today’s world. The problem is that since they are the enemies within, we do not know who they are until they reveal their identity and overthrow our system. We belatedly realize that these people do not hesitate to let their followers and clone armies do all kinds of evil things in the name of “peace and justice,” just as Palpatine does.
Star Wars Episode VI, Revenge of the Sith teaches us such invaluable lessons that we should keep in mind.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.