I Am Your Father Luke

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 March 1997

The release of the Star Wars “Special Edition” has left me in a funk.

I am a fan of the movies and a fan of technology - yet maintaining both of these perspectives is proving impossible. Despite their hi-tech special effects, the Star Wars movies are anti-technology to their core. By attempting to wrap a space opera around the traditional heroic journey, George Lucas has needlessly polarized spirituality and technology. He put them at war with one another.

The Empire Strikes Back, number two in the series, deals most directly with the themes of the saga. In it, we watch young Luke Skywalker and his lovable rebels fight against the fascist Empire and its pro-technology-at-all-costs Darth Vader. Quite simply, the Empire has better technology than the rebels; but the rebels have a better relationship with animals and with the “force” nature.

Vader himself has been the victim of some awful technological accident, and now depends on his black helmet and breathing apparatus for life support. But he steadfastly promotes the aggressive, ambitious expansion of the technological beast. His wounds are proof of his determination.

Luke, on the other hand, is injured early in the movie by a snow monster. His wounds came from an inability or an unwillingness to kill every natural threat in his path. When Hans Solo finds Luke freezing in the snow, he cuts open the carcass of his fallen ostrich-horse-creature to warm Luke’s body. A simple use of technology. We are left to wonder, though, if Hans would have killed his animal to achieve the same purpose. Conveniently, the charge that he dominated animals for “higher order” human survival was a non-issue.

The rebels love animals. They treat Chewbacca, Hans Solo’s furry co-pilot, with great admiration. This is because Chewy is the interface between the rebels and the natural, animal kingdom they fight for. On the other hand, the rebels treat their technology with disdain. They regularly insult and ignore C3PO, the kindly gold android translator and their interface to the world of technology. Poor little R2D2 is only appreciated as a cute, unthreatening clown - even though his facility with technology saves the rebels on many occasions. To the rebels, the technology they use - from Hans’s dilapidated ship to their friendly robots - are a necessary evil, and maintained with a great lack of respect. Their spaceships are dirty and their robots are verbally and physically abused. Once, when Hans tries to repair his ship, his own tools fall on his head. Technology bites back. They should have read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” where the kind and skillful treatment of technology is itself a spiritual art.

You certainly never see the Empire abuse its robots or technology in such a fashion. But, according to the story, this respect towards technology enslaves them to its evil. Technology, when it is respected, victimizes the humans.

This is why the rebels only use technology as they must to fight the Empire. Their spiritual leader, the magical Yoda, is devoutly anti-technology and anti-progress. He encourages Luke not to look ahead or even strive for anything at all - just “to be.” Very animal-like himself, Yoda lives in harmony with nature, and is protected not by devices or even architecture, but his magical abilities and spiritual fortitude.

In Lucas’s world, the New Age is opposed to the New Technology. It is a classic conflict between the urge towards the future and urge towards the “moment.” But it is a set-up.

When has a large fascistic dictatorship ever actually called itself “the dark side?” Not even the Nazis did that. No - if Lucas wanted these two ideologies to duke it out on screen in a philosophically valid way, he would have allowed the Empire to present it’s own better side. They certainly wouldn’t accept labeling themselves as evil.

The critical moment in the film, one that still resonates profoundly in popular culture, is when Darth Vader reveals to Skywalker the secret truth of his origins: “I am your father, Luke. This is your destiny.” Evocative of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” Darth essentially tells his son that it’s time to grow up. He proposes that Luke join with him - together they can use the force of aggression and the force of spirituality alike to conquer the evil Emperor.

But Luke refuses. He sees no possible good in the concept of a partnership, and remains true to his New Age programming from Yoda.

I would have liked to see a different ending. I think the only possible happy ending would be an alliance between these two unnecessarily polarized extremes. Technology and spirituality are not really at odds. They can express one another.

Ironically, Lucas’s anti-technology films are made using the highest level of technology available. If Lucas were truly anti-technology as his movies suggest, he never would have seen the need to remake them using state-of-the-art computer graphics.

If his films are successful, it is because they do represent a marriage of technology and spirituality through the relationship of their technofetishistic form and their spiritually orthodox content. I just would have liked to see him craft a plot that made the same point.