On December 22, as Israel flattened Gaza with powerful bombs, Netflix released the space opera Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire. Zack Snyder (300, Man of Steel, Justice League, and so on) directed this mostly entertaining studio movie, which cost $166 million to make and features Anthony Hopkins as the voice of a pacified robot, Jimmy the Robot, a 21st century C-3PO. (The golden Star Wars droid was voiced by another British actor, Anthony Daniels.) The connection between Jimmy the Robot and C-3PO is not singular. Rebel Moon has, structurally and thematically, a lot in common with the original Star Wars trilogy.

Both have an empire at war with rebels. In both, the empire's army (Stormtroopers in the former; Imperium, in the latter) oppress powerless farmers and other ordinary space people.  And, most telling of all, we find the racial composition of the empire to be homogenous (very white); and that of the rebels to be heterogeneous. Indeed, the leaders of the rebellion in Snyder's epic are Black: Darrian Bloodaxe (Ray Fisher) and Devra (Cleopatra Coleman). Furthermore, the star of the film, and future leader of the rebellion, Kora is Algerian (Sofia Boutella).

True, Kora was once an Imperium soldier, but Snyder made the main villain and Imperium admiral, Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein), look like the pale commander of the Galactic Empire's planet-destroying Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing). Skrein and Tarkin are, like Jimmy the Robot and C-3PO, played by Brits. But those who watched Star Wars in the 1970s found it hard to miss the connection between the Galactic Empire and American Empire, and particularly its failed war with the poor people of Vietnam. The latter clearly resembled the Rebel Alliance in that far, far away galaxy. But what to make of Rebel Moon? And, in general, Hollywood films that identify evil power with empire and good power with insurgents?

James Cameron: If you think about it. The good guys [in Star Wars] are the rebels. They're using asymmetric warfare against a highly organized empire. I think we call those guys "terrorists" today.  We call them "Mujahideen." We call them "Al-Qaeda."

George Lucas: "When I did it, they were 'Viet Cong.'"

George Lucas was supposed to direct Apocalypse Now, which is based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. In the latter, empire is Belgium; in the former, it is the United States. And this connection between European imperialism and American Empire, as Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch called it in their masterful The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, is explicit in one of the most famous deleted scenes in the history of cinema, the French Plantation scene. 

 

After World War II, America assumed the global-scale operations of empire. This fact is also explicit in a scene that was never shot but is in the screenplay for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. What we see in the film are a bunch of buffoons, led by Ralph Fiennes (the head of a private army), as what remains of Britain's control of Iraq and its oil. But in the script, by Mark Boal, we see British imperialism as very much central to and continued by American militarism. There's none of this buffoonery we see on the screen. There is instead the very serious business of state power and contracts.

INT. AMBASSADOR’S OFFICE AMBASSADOR SIR AUCKLAND GEDDES, the epitome of the old style of British foreign service: elegant, self assured, a
gentleman adventurer in Seville Row, hoping to improve the
world, certain he’ll profit in the attempt. He’s holding court with a group of EXECUTIVES. The executives are seated around a conference table under the Ambassador’s sway. There’s a model of a British Petroleum gas station/convenience store, in English and Arabic, in the center of the table.

In Rebel Moon, the Imperium occupies a rural area on the moon of Veldt. Empire wants all of the food the farmers, who have lived in peace and with the rhythms of nature, produce. The exploitation is that raw. What's left to be done but revolt against the empire, which calls home the Motherworld (one of the few interesting twists to this form of Hollywood narrative)? Even more curious are the Imperium soldiers based on Veldt. They seem to speak Afrikaans English. Indeed, I heard one of them say "futseke." Why is this connection interesting? One only has to watch Neill Blomkamp's Elysium to hit upon a plausible answer. The high-tech mercenaries in that film are Afrikaaners. And what is their key gripe? Why do they hate America's elite, represented by Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt, so much? Because it's never really done the dirty work of empire. The Boers had to oppress, punish, kill Black Africans to keep the system going, to keep the profits flowing upward to Elysium. 

Nevertheless, when the basic structure of Rebel Moon is translated into the real world of our moment, it's clear who in Gaza is continuous with empire and who with the rebels of empire. The same goes for Saudi Arabia's bombing of Yemen, which was supported by Obama. We know exactly who is who in these Hollywood spectacles. We see the destruction of Palestinian olive trees in the same way as the devastating tree scene in Avatar.