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Art imitating politics

SUDDENLY, AFTER almost 30 years, the Manichean opposition of good and evil at the center of George Lucas's ''Star Wars" saga is front page news. The story of innocent, young Anakin Skywalker's transformation to the half-machine evil that is Darth Vader has become an allegory of the United States slipping from the light of democracy to the darkness of corporate dictatorship, Cheney-Bush style.

To hear series creator Lucas tell it, that's not a misreading of his intentions. Just when you think he has no surprises left to offer as his big-screen epic comes to a close with ''Revenge of the Sith," the third prequel to the original trilogy, he produces the biggest stunner of all: ''Star Wars" is serious stuff.

Oh, he's made the claim before, trotting out the obvious Joseph Campbell underpinnings and the familiar archetypes on which his narrative stands. We've known all along that he's been laboring to fashion a myth cycle in line with the classics of world literature. But political relevance? Real world, current events topicalism? This one's a shocker.

The proof is in the viewing. Never a subtle storyteller, Lucas infamously burdens his actors with lines of dialogue that alternate between banal embarrassments and exposition-heavy thudbombs. Watching ''Revenge of the Sith," when you're not wincing at proclamations of love that bury the needle in the red zone of superficial tripe, you're staring in disbelief as characters wonder if ''the democracy we're supposed to be defending" has been stolen by the leaders elected to protect it, or if the brutal war that's raging was started as a pretext for snatching liberty from the people in the name of security.

Anakin/Darth even proclaims, after he has personally murdered a roomful of children and another roomful of duped political allies, that in doing so he has established peace and justice on a grand scale. He seems to believe the madness that spills from his lips as he forces it upon his horrified wife, offering her a vision of their unborn children's future that is unmistakably in line with the Cheney-Bush Orwellian vision: War is peace. Oppression is freedom. Dictatorship is easier. (Hasn't someone around here said that a few times?)

There is reason to doubt that George Lucas intended all along to strike these notes of contemporary relevance. There has been a slap-dash feeling to the latter three episodes of the Vader chronicles, a sloppiness in plotting that suggests spur-of-the-moment embroidery on broad concepts decided on decades ago. His recent, startling assertions that the original ''Star Wars" was driven by discomfort with the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War might well be an attempt to create a post hoc rationale for impulsively linking this final episode to a galaxy that is not at all far away. But whatever their origin, the notes are struck. Lucas has joined the ranks of the ''enemy," as Cheney-Bush defines most of humanity. He has voiced his dissent, made his allegiance known.

Perhaps most important, by ending his series on the cusp of ''A New Hope" (the title now given to the original ''Star Wars," which moves the dark empire toward its inevitable end), he has reaffirmed the most resilient and sustaining of mythic themes: Good wins. The last moments of ''Sith" belong to the noble Obi-Wan Kenobi, cradling the infant Luke Skywalker, who will grow to bring down the empire.

Obi-Wan has been chastened by his own blindness to the danger embodied by Anakin/Vader and the ruthless politician, Palpatine, who uses the younger man to further his own quest for unassailable power. He commits himself to atoning for that blindness, to ensuring that the future is not as Anakin sees it. The future to which Obi-Wan pledges himself has no place for emperors, and no substitute for true liberty.

That's a message we need right here, right now.

Welcome back to Earth, Mr. Lucas.

Henry Marchand is assistant professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa.

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