In Star Wars, cities are evil

Mos Eisley, the wretched hive of scum and villany

George Lucas hates cities. At least that’s what I gather from decades of watching and rewatching the original Star Wars movies.

The Star Wars movies are famous for hewing to archetypal stories—hero sets out to save galaxy from evil warlords, hero confronts his (familial) past, hero grapples with his role as a savior. And the movies’ portrayal of urban agglomerations is similarly archetypal, drawing on a long tradition of damning the city while praising the countryside.

Let’s start from the beginning. When we meet our hero, Luke Skywalker, he’s lamenting how isolated life is on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine. But it’s that same upbringing—away from the corrupting influence of a big city—that frames his character. Luke may be brooding and somewhat annoying on the surface, but deep down we understand him as innocent and inherently good.

A few scenes later, that isolation is shattered. His aunt and uncle are ruthlessly slaughtered by Imperial storm troopers—interlopers from the city—searching for R2-D2 and C-3PO. With few other options available, he joins Obi-Wan Kenobi, a philosophical hermit living out his days in the wilderness, on a journey to find Princess Leia. That journey starts in Mos Eisley, what Obi-Wan calls a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The characters in Mos Eisley live up to that description, providing a stark contrast to Luke and Obi-Wan. The cantina patrons are rude, incendiary, and violent. It’s quickly apparent that Mos Eisley has no redeeming qualities. The best thing to do in Mos Eisley is to leave—which with the help of Han Solo, they do.

The problem is, the next place they end up is even more treacherous. They drop out of hyperspace where they had expected to find Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, but instead are captured by the Death Star. The moon-sized space station is the city at its most extreme. The Death Star is not just a moon-sized spaceship with a city covering its surface—the whole thing is a city, straight through to the power station at its core. And until it’s destroyed at the end of A New Hope, it is the embodiment of the evil Empire.

But Lucas’s critique of the city doesn’t stop there. Darth Vader’s flagship, the Super Star Destroyer Executor, paints a silhouette that resembles a city skyline. Cloud City on Bespin—where our protagonists hope to find refuge—is anything but safe. Mayor Lando Calrissian betrays Han and his companions, turning them over to Vader. Granted, Lando later struggles to undo his betrayal by helping Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca escape, but it’s too little, too late. In the bowels of Cloud City, Han is frozen in carbonite and handed over to Boba Fett while Luke battles Vader, losing a hand in the process and discovering the grim truth about his father. Cloud City is like Mos Eisley—you can’t leave soon enough.

Contrast Mos Eisley, the Death Star, and Cloud City with the Rebel strongholds. The Rebel base on Yavin Four is an ancient temple nearly overrun by a jungle teeming and screeching with life. And the Rebel Alliance’s headquarters in The Empire Strikes Back are dug into the snowy surface of Hoth, a wasteland even more desolate than Tatooine.

Luke and Obi-Wan aren’t the only protagonists closely associated with the wilderness, either. We meet Yoda in the swamps of Dagoba. The little green fellow is seemingly the only sentient being on the entire planet. It’s also there on Dagoba that Luke trains to become a Jedi and where Obi-Wan shares with Luke his last bits of wisdom.

The entire trilogy comes to a climactic finish on and above the forest moon of Endor. The moon itself isn’t necessarily representative of anything, but its inhabitants are. Ewoks are introduced as primitive and superstitious, but they quickly become our heroes’ key allies. It seems improbable that their help was what sealed the deal, but really the Imperials were doomed from the start. Their base and shield generator stood out like sore thumbs in the forest. The Ewoks and their villages, on the other hand, blended right in. The Ewoks also used their superior knowledge of the forest to turn the tide of battle in their favor. Finally, Return of the Jedi ends with our heroes celebrating their victory in a tiny Ewok village, not on a massive battleship or in a city.

▪ ▪ ■ ▪ ▪

But what about Coruscant¹? you might be thinking. Its residents cheered when the Empire was defeated in Return of the Jedi. That would seem to imply that Coruscant had some redeeming quality, that not all cities in Star Wars are evil. Technically, Coruscant wasn’t in the original trilogy prior to Lucas’s tinkering, and my analysis here has been limited to the original, unadulterated trilogy. But Coruscant is hard to ignore for two reasons: One, it’s a world that’s almost entirely urbanized, and two, even if it wasn’t portrayed in the original trilogy, it plays an undeniably central role in Star Wars mythology.

Coruscant’s portrayal is more complicated than other cities in the Star Wars universe. That’s in part because it wasn’t included in the original trilogy. Lucas’s vision for the first three movies was unsubtle—there’s good and there’s evil and there’s very little overlap between the two. Even the central characters that are the most conflicted—Han and Lando—end up so unambiguously good that they spearhead the two-pronged attack on the second Death Star. Coruscant doesn’t carry the same dichotomous baggage. Its later introduction means it’s wreathed in subtleties that are missing in the original movies. But ultimately, it’s still depicted as a bad place.

Long before we meet Luke, Coruscant was the seat of the Old Republic. For thousands of years, it was a force for good in the universe. It hosted the Imperial Senate. The Jedi Order was headquartered there, too. But over time, the Old Republic rotted like a tree—from the inside out—implying that the capital was at the center of that decay. Indeed, Palpatine plotted his takeover from a penthouse office on Coruscant and later made the planet-city capital of his Empire. On balance, Coruscant is more evil than good.

▪ ▪ ■ ▪ ▪

George Lucas isn’t the only one who has juxtaposed virtuous rural folk with vile city dwellers. People have been doing that for centuries. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements were intellectual reactions to the ascendancy of cities. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson saw cities impersonal and anonymizing, their inhabitants despondent and listless. Romantics like Percy Bysshe Shelly often brooded over ancient ruins, remarking on how such constructs of society were often overwhelmed by nature, implying a sort of justice for the wrongs cities exact on humanity. Both groups built their reputations by extolling the virtues of the countryside while decrying the debasing influence of cities.

Star Wars is just another footnote in a bulging tome of intellectual criticism on cities. It may seem surprising that such commentary would come in the form of a sci-fi film littered with energy weapons and faster-than-light travel. But if you pause to consider George Lucas himself, it shouldn’t be. Just look at where he lives—on 4,700 acres of rolling oak woodlands, secluded from the chaos of the San Francisco Bay Area.

  1. For the unfamiliar, Coruscant is a world almost entirely covered by a city, reminiscent of Trantor in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Though artist Ralph McQuarrie sketched concepts of a capital city for the original trilogy, Coruscant was never officially named or seen before Lucas tinkered with the films.

Thanks to Maura Chhun for her invaluable feedback.

Thanks to the support of readers like you, Per Square Mile remains independent and ad-free.

If you enjoy what you just read, please consider supporting the site with a monthly recurring donation as a Sustaining Member.

You can also support Per Square Mile with a one-time donation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

  1. Suggestive, but don’t you think there is a simpler explanation?:

    -Luke and family live in the countryside because they are farmers.

    -Yoda hides in Dagoba because he is an outlaw.

    -The Ewoks live in the forest because they are primitive people.

    -The Rebels are based in wastelands and jungles because they are rebels.

    -The Death Star can hardly be considered a city: no sign of public spaces, no sign of commerce, and so on.

    -Mos Eisley is a kind of border town, which explains its peculiarities.

    -Coruscant, as you write, was not included in the original trilogy.

      1. Mr. de Chant,

        This is wonderful piece, but please give a little more address to Mr. Ríos’ points. By advancing this thesis you accept the burden of proof.

        On the one hand you assert that Tatooine removes Luke from the corrupting influence of the city, then assert that Mos Eisley is a place of evil.

        Mos Eisley, as mentioned before, is a border settlement at the extreme periphery of civilization, law enforcement, and urbanization. Calling it a city stretches the word. Even Obi Wan implicitly remarks that it is an extreme example “You will not find a more wretched hive anywhere.”

        Jabba, another Tatooine resident, lives far removed from civilization, but is in every way a repulsive and degenerate villain.

        The cave on Dagobah is in Yoda’s own words a “A dwelling place of the Dark Side” and home of creates capable of eating (or attempting to eat) R2-D2. Besides being the home of the last living Jedi Master (In the movies) the planet has little to recommend it.

        Cloud City goes beneath the notice of both the Galactic Empire and the mining guild, which is the preferred state of matters for its residents. Those inhabitants flee when Darth Vader orders an imperial garrison installed, and Lando faces a clear and agonizing internal conflict in cooperating with Vader. Cloud City is forced into the shadow of evil, it is not inherently evil.

        You’ve presented an interesting and worthwhile thesis. Please address conflicting evidence rather than dismiss it coincidence.

  2. It should be noted that Thomas Jefferson wasn’t very keen on cities either. His vision for America was a nation of farmer-philosophers.

  3. Actually, and I know this is nit-picking, but Coruscant was chosen as the city planet name when Heir to the Empire was released in 1991. Just FYI.

  4. Could it also be that it is not cities that are evil, after all Coruscant was the bastion of good in the Old Republic for “a thousand years” as Palpatine put it in Episode II, or even “a thousand generations” as Obi-Wan did in Episode IV, but that Evil is inherently drawn to places where evil can be done?

    It is very hard to do any worthwhile evil in the middle of the wilderness. Who is going to see that evil?

    Also, I would point out that the city of Theed in Episode I is a beautiful place where the good people of Naboo live. It seems a wonderful place to live. We aren’t confronted with evils like slavery until they’re thrust onto the backwater planet of Tatooine.

    The same happens in episode II. They leave the pristine and safe Palace of the Queen on Naboo to go to Tatooine where they’re threatened by the boogeyman called the Sand People… who are the ultimate backwoods survivalists in desert form. From the way Shmi is tied to that post, it’s pretty evident that they’re up to evil.

    It really just seems to me that evil can get a grasp anywhere that it can have a chance to be evil, at least in Star Wars.

  5. Interesting point, but I think some of the points are missing context.

    Mos Eisley:
    The whole planet itself is a backwash and really like the western frontier. Even the rural areas are not safe as there are raiders, jawas (who steal and resell things), and crime lords with fortresses (Jabba); you can’t exactly say these things are not evil-ish since they are just an sentient as those in Mos Eisley. Also, evil? Certainly loose morals and scum, but not evil in the way the Empire is (except maybe Jabba).

    Cloud City:
    The city isn’t exactly evil. It consists of hard working people who aren’t given much attention by the galactic community. However, given the circumstances of the story, the Empire puts squeeze on them in order to get what they want. Even then, the city ends up resisting when the Empire pushes them too far.

    Death Star & Super Star Destroyer as Cities:
    Kind of a moot point? I mean, they’re an extension of the Empire and are given massive scale to emphasize the magnitude of the opposition that the rebels face; after all, it is a GALACTIC EMPIRE. In the very first scene of episode 4, we see puny little rebel ship pursued by an ENORMOUS imperial ship to establish this point. To say that these things are evil because only the empire uses them is like saying Luke’s lightsaber is good because only he uses it; we have no evidence to say these things are or can be otherwise. Also, stating these things as a city is a stretch when they’re referred to as ships or stations in the movie. Yes, these structures hold a large population, but so does a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, that doesn’t make them a city.

    Rebel base locations:
    I mean how do you hide spaceships in a city? Could you imagine seeing a movie called Star Wars and having it take place in cities with resistance fighters and not in say… space with spaceships? Secluded places offer obvious hiding places, space for the equipment, and are probably pretty abundant especially when you have an ENTIRE GALAXY of places to choose from.

    Yoda and Obi-Wan hiding:…
    in secluded places, for similar reasons as the rebels. Robe-wearing, light-saber toting dudes probably raise flags more than a citizen who may or may not be a rebel. Also, Dagoba wasn’t safe either and had places where the dark side (evil) was strong.

    Yeah primative and sure the Empire sticks out like a sore thumb… but the Empire has shield generators and machines. Were they gonna Flintstone it? The rebels didn’t exactly “blend in” with Hoth given the shield generator sticking out in the open (Yavin IV was different cause there were ruins already there). I don’t really get this point anyway. If anything, no one is necessarily “good” to the Ewoks. If we really wanna go with this point, the Empire more or less left the natives alone, whereas the rebels got captured by the natives and manipulated those natives into believing their protocol droid was a god and then got them to fight for “good”… seems kinda evil actually.

    I mean I guess, but I don’t see any other way you take over a galactic community with no army… At least starting out

  6. You may want to edit your article. Skywalker Ranch is the 4700-acre property you cite at the end of your piece… however, George Lucas does not actually live at Skywalker Ranch. He has a house — admittedly large, on a large chunk of land (though much smaller than 4700 acres!) — in the town of San Anselmo (pop. 12,000, just west of San Rafael). Living in San Anselmo myself, me and the family see a lot of him around town, usually with his kids (though less so now that they’re older). He goes to movie theaters, to bookstores… whatever. But contrary to the article… he is not holed up on some huge piece of land, like Charles Foster Kane. He enjoys being out and about in Marin County.

  7. Any military operation aims to control a region. This means facilities, government and cities. With a limited number of troops your best return is to control cities rather than be parsing the country side for people to subjugate. So clearly the empire, which happens to be evil, controls cities. Cities are not evil.

  8. I am so sick and tired of certain “STAR WARS” fans believing that Lando was supposed to consider Han’s safety over the safety of the citizens of Bespin. Really? If I had been in Lando’s shoes, I would have betrayed Han in a heartbeat. By the way, Han brought this on himself, when he failed to realize that he was being followed by Boba Fett. Screw Han.