The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Metropolis

For anyone who has ever looked at the poster for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it’s quite clear that it influenced Ralph McQuarrie’s designs and paintings of See-Threepio. Released in 1927, Metropolis has the distinction of being the first feature length science-fiction film and tells the story of a worker class ruled by a tyrannical overlord named Joh Frederson.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, it would be easy to assume that the design on display of the poster was the single greatest source of visual inspiration on the Star Wars saga, but diving into the movie, the parallels run deep. For one, the city of Metropolis is a sprawling art deco city that reaches as high as one could imagine. Running between the maze of buildings are space lanes full of flying cars, traveling in neat rows. One is instantly reminded of the city-planet of Coruscant. Aside from the design style, even the color palette for the black-and-white silent film is similar to Coruscant’s, save for the flourish of colored lights.

The machines of the under-city seem to do something, but their workings are almost absurd. With the juxtaposition of shots that seems much more careful in silent films that today, it would not surprise me to learn that George Lucas had studied the film to crib Lang’s editing and special effects techniques. One of the things George Lucas is best at is making you believe the machines being manipulated on screen are real and work when operated by characters and since Metropolis seems to be the first example of this in cinema, it seems like an easy thing to connect those dots.

Another set of dots that need connecting is the right hand of Rotwang. Rotwang is the inventor of the Threepio-like robot and has a mechanical right hand he keeps covered with a black glove. Sounds very much like a piece of Threepio and Anakin Skywalker’s history, with the motif of the black glove carrying on through the entire Star Wars saga.

Designs and visuals are not the only thing that Metropolis has in common with Star Wars. There are plenty of story elements that run in common between the two. The biggest would be the struggle of the lower class, reminiscent of the Rebel Alliance, and their fight with the tyranny of the upper classes. They lead a rebellion to improve their plight, but are bamboozled by life-like robotic impersonators of their leadership, sent by the ruling class to confuse and ruin them. The duality of the doubles echo the split nature of Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, one a cold machine bent on evil, the other a man with the best intentions held inside a beating human heart.

The film is also punctuated by absurd yet titillating dance numbers, opulent examples of the excess of the ruling class, that instantly draw comparisons to the dancing done on Jabba’s behalf in Return of the Jedi. 

The thematic thesis of Metropolis is also mirrored in the entire Star Wars saga. The people and machines are the hands of society, and the upper-class serves as the mind in the equation. Unless there is a mediator of both worlds to provide the heart, tyranny ensues.

Metropolis is a film that runs between 80 and 210 minutes, depending on the version you watch. Two of them are easily available on Netflix, making them accessible to anyone who needs a break from binges of The Clone Wars. Despite the aforementioned dance numbers, the film is appropriate for audiences of all ages, as long as they have the patience to sit through a silent film.

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