It's Bigger Than America

I don't know anyone my age or younger who hasn't seen "Star Wars." No, wait, I know someone who claims not to have seen a single "Star Wars" movie, but I suspect she's lying in an attempt to be cool. "Star Wars" is beyond ordinary notions of coolness. Either you love it, or you're an agent of the dark side.

"Star Wars" opened in Manila when I was in grade school. It was a huge hit. Kids nagged their parents to buy the action figures, T shirts, model X-wing fighters and whatnot. We came to understand the power of the Force--the force of merchandising. Parents, teachers, authority figures who wouldn't allow us to have fun became our own personal Darth Vaders. Broomsticks and flashlights became laser swords. I wore my hair in the style of Princess Leia.

Sure it was another instance of American cultural imperialism, but I would like to think that "Star Wars" touched us in a way that has nothing to do with countries. George Lucas's space opera showed us the clash of good and evil, told us about a force that surrounds and binds the universe. And he threw in swordfights, ancient religions, fighter planes and the Death Star to make us pay attention.

"Star Wars" mania is not something you outgrow. It may quiet down, but it stays inside you waiting, waiting... for the next reissue, the next special edition, the next installment in the saga. Remember all the "Star Wars" toys your parents wouldn't buy you? When you have your own income, you can buy all the action figures you want. I see young fathers walking into Manila's toy stores buying "Star Wars" stuff ostensibly for their children, but you know who it's really for.

I have friends who can recite "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" backward. When I told two of them that I was trying to explain the "Star Wars" appeal to Filipinos, they chorused: "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."

In "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" and "The Power of Myth," Joseph Campbell interprets the universal appeal of "Star Wars." To understand the impact of "Star Wars" on Philippine pop culture, consider its effects on two of our major pastimes: basketball and politics. A local basketball hero who seemed to defy gravity was nicknamed The Skywalker. In the presidential elections of 1998, one candidate's resemblance to Yoda was widely remarked upon. The candidate replied that it was an honor to be compared to a Jedi master.

"Star Wars" may be viewed as an allegory of recent Philippine history. The ancient, ailing emperor who whipped the galaxy into submission is obviously the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled for 20 years. The Imperial Stormtroopers are the forces of martial law. There's Darth Vader, a Jedi knight seduced by the dark side who ultimately takes sides with the good guys--you may see parallels with former Defense secretary (now Senator) Juan Ponce Enrile, although many other politicians who would like to claim this as their story. There is the brave little band of rebels led by Luke Skywalker--read the political opposition. Like Luke Skywalker, they had a lot in common with Darth Vader.

We have seen how Anakin Skywalkers are transformed into Darth Vaders, and we remain vigilant lest the Empire strike back. The formerly uninvolved Ewoks of Endor are drawn into the conflict with the Empire, much like the Filipino middle class, which found itself in the thick of the protest movement. There is the swashbuckling Han Solo throwing in his lot with the rebels--shades of Gen. (later President) Fidel Ramos and the officers of the Reform Armed Forces Movement.

The droids R2-D2 and C-3PO could be the media. Obi-Wan Kenobi, who in death became more powerful than the Empire had ever imagined, is former senator Benigno Aquino Jr., whose assassination triggered a chain of events leading to the fall of Marcos. Princess Leia could only be Corazon Aquino, who became president after the Edsa revolution of 1986.

All these events happened a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In our case, exactly 13 years ago on Feb. 25, on a street now made unrecognizable by vast shopping malls whose shining interiors and consumer temptations remind me that the Death Star is still operational.