Review of Star Wars, Directed by George Lucas
If you ask a cinephile what his favorite decade was, chances are he will pick the 1970s. That decade was full of movies that movie lovers love to love–really dark, gritty, tragic, violent movies like A Clockwork Orange (1971), Mean Streets (1793), Taxi Driver (1976), The Godfather, Parts I and II (1972, 1974), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979). These are movies that reflected their pessimistic times and, film buffs like to claim, spoke to the universal human condition through their unstinting and courageous gaze at depravity.
And then there is Star Wars (1977) right smack in the middle of them all: the operatic science-fiction space war epic, the quintessential story about the the underdog overcoming all odds to fulfill a grandiose destiny; the movie whose blaze of energetic optimism came out of nowhere to change everything.
It is hard to overstate the success and influence of Star Wars. Overshadowed by its later sequels, prequels, cartoons, action figures, lunch boxes, pajamas, Lego tie-ins, and video games was the original, actual movie. For that very reason, it is just as easy to forget how good the original really was; to be blinded by the cloud of its massive cultural impact; to view it with eyes jaundiced with cynicism, over-familiarity, or sheer memorization. Like the Christmas story, the words lose impact with repetition. The great thing about having kids is that you get to relive your childhood and see all of life like new again. I got to rewatch Episodes IV and V recently with my son, and felt like I was seeing them again for the first time.
We all know how popular and commercially successful Star Wars became. It was the highest grossing film of all time in its original release, with $307 million in 1977 dollars (a movie is a smash hit if it makes $300 million domestically today, with 35 years of inflation). Adjusting for inflation, it is the second-highest grossing of all time (after Gone with the Wind). It launched a franchise that has earned, so far, $4.3 billion at the global box office, third only to James Bond and Harry Potter. It seems likely to surpass both when Disney continues the saga in 2015. Star Wars, along with Jaws, launched the modern movie blockbuster and reshaped Hollywood and American culture.
But the original Star Wars was also beloved by critics. It is widely forgotten that the original was nominated for nine Oscars–including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan Kenobi)–and won six of them (in technical categories). It is the 16th greatest movie of all time on IMDB’s list, which you might expect on the populist website. Remarkably, it is even higher, at 13th place, on the more snooty list from the American Film Institute. It even makes the British Film Institute’s list (at 171st place), a list that leans heavily towards foreign, art-house, and indie films. For an encore, in 1989 it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for its enduring cultural legacy. You rarely find universal consensus, but this is the exception: Star Wars is indisputably one of the greatest movies ever made.
Why? What makes Star Wars great?
George Lucas famously acknowledged a debt to Joseph Campbell and his book Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). Wikipedia tells me that Campbell’s book, a work of comparative mythology, argued that virtually all cultures have hero myths that follow the same structure: boy lives in ordinary world; receives call to adventure in fantastical land; goes on said adventure; overcomes obstacles and enemies; returns a man with mysterious new power.
Not having read the collected works of world mythology, I can’t say if Campbell is right on the facts. I can, however, affirm that he described the imagination of pretty much every five-year-old boy who has ever lived. It takes no anthropological sophistication to understand that little boys are totally obsessed with exploring, jumping, running, wrestling, fighting, stories of good guys vs. bad guys, strength, competition, weapons, tools, heroism, bravery, combat, and magic. Put these in a pot on low, let simmer overnight, and you have Campbell’s myth: a sort of lowest-common-denominator narrative that strings together all the things that boys love most. The fact that the myth is universal suggests that it taps into something primal; it speaks to some deep programming in the human psyche (at least the male one), a sort of narrative version of Jungian archetypes. That is why Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Frodo Baggins are essentially interchangeable.
Star Wars is the story (for anyone who actually needs a synopsis) of Luke Skywalker, a farm boy on a backwater desert planet, whose yearning for adventure leads him to get entangled with Obi-Wan Kenobi, a mysterious old man with a shrouded past, hidden powers, and tantalizing hints about Luke’s destiny. Together they embark on a quest to join up with a secretive Rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire led by the mysterious dark lord, Darth Vader. Luke mixes with the scum of the galaxy in the dive bar to end all dive bars, picks up a mercenary cowboy pilot and friend in Han Solo, rescues the beautiful Princess Leia, learns about the Force, discovers his destiny to become a Jedi Knight, destroys the Death Star, and saves the galaxy! [You didn’t really need a spoiler warning, did you?] The parallels with Campbell’s universal myth are obvious.
There’s just a ton of stuff to have fun with here. First off, the world of Star Wars has a fantastic aesthetic. The aliens are exotic, the droids are bizarre, and lightsabers are, objectively speaking, the coolest thing ever. I’m upset Apple hasn’t invented them yet (iSaber anyone?). The world is rich in detail and imagination (which is why Disney was confident there was enough material to plumb for future movies). I think the success of Star Wars (and other, similarly detailed imaginary worlds like Middle Earth, Hyrule, Arrakis, or Hogwarts) is due in part to how it speaks to our intuitive knowledge that creation is beautiful and good and fun.
Secondly, the universe is enchanted. You walk amongst aliens and robots as a routine matter, but the coolest thing is the possibility that you might accidentally meet a hidden Jedi Knight, able to harness the secret power of the mighty Force. Obi-Wan explains “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Star Wars combines futuristic technology with medieval cosmology (albeit one more Manichean than Christian).
That we live in an enchanted world is true as far as it goes. Here it may be tempting to say that the Force is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, using the Force is an act of faith, and Star Wars is secretly a Christian film. Wrong! Obi-Wan makes clear that a Jedi uses the Force through his own intuition: “Stretch out with your feelings,” he tells Luke, and later, at the climax, “Trust your feelings!” That’s terrible advice. The Force is the science-fiction version of Romanticism, the belief that intuition is the locus of truth, which is a lie from the pit of hell. But at least they got the enchantment part right: one character even mocks Darth Vader for his “sad devotion to that ancient religion,” and Vader promptly Force-chokes him for his simplistic materialism.
Why does the Hero Myth speak so deeply to us? Why are we human beings evidently obsessed with stories about normal everyday people discovering a divine destiny? Luke, Frodo, and Harry are just the currently-popular, money-making incarnations of a figure that pops up again and again in story, myth, and history: Hercules, Aeneas, Arthur, Beowulf, and Roland are the ancient and medieval predecessors; Superman, Neo, Link, Paul Atreides, and Percy Jackson are their contemporary counterparts (along with virtually every comic-book superhero, ever).
I suspect the Hero Myth is a confluence of two distinct yearnings that, separately, are good but, together, can have dangerous consequences.
First, the Hero Myth reflects a vague sense that we mortals–otherwise normal and average persons–have within us the latent, mysterious potential to be stupendous beings of astonishing greatness. There is no such thing as a normal person: to be a person is to have a whiff of the divine about oneself. As Christians, we know that we are made in the image of God–which means, in one sense, that we bear a frightening resemblance to the Almighty Ancient of Days. We also believe that Christians literally enjoy union with Christ and that we will become “partakers of the divine nature,” (2 Peter 1:4). Luke’s discovery of his destiny to become a Jedi Knight speaks to this inarticulate awareness that to be human is to be a grand and mysterious thing.
Second, the Hero Myth also reflects the human need for a savior. Luke ends up savings the Rebellion and thus the galaxy first by destroying the Death Star, then, two movies later, converting Darth Vader and defeating the Emperor. Frodo destroys the Ring, Harry defeats Voldemort, etc. As Christians, we know it is true that humanity is under great threat from a dangerous enemy, and that we need deliverance. The fact that the Hero usually ends up being super-human–Luke’s discovery of his Jedi powers–suggests that we know we need a divine savior to overcome our enemy.
But does that make the Mythical Hero an analog to the Messiah? Have all cultures stumbled through their mythology towards an inarticulate awareness of the truth about Jesus, the Anointed One from God, the true divine hero who saves us from sin, death, and Satan?
Not quite. Remember, the Hero Myth is a human invention, and so we should expect to see the deceptive and corrupting influences of sin. Here is where I think the Hero Myth goes wrong. First, it suggests that we average people not only yearn for a Messiah, but that we can and should aspire to be the Messiah. When I read or watch these stories, more often than not I like to put myself in the shoes of the protagonist. We see the story through the hero’s eyes; we feel with them; their triumphs are ours. Star Wars was such a smash hit because we vicariously enjoy not just victory, but apotheosis.
Secondly, the Hero Myth reflects an instinctive human desire to immanentize the eschaton; that is, to build heaven on earth, to achieve complete salvation here and now. With Luke’s help, the Rebel Alliance beats all odds and nukes the Imperial headquarters (twice). And by converting Vader and defeating the Emperor, Luke essentially vanquishes the Dark Side. When Frodo destroys the Ring of Power, he destroys the source of evil from Middle Earth, forever. These victories are not just battlefield conquests; they are spiritual transformations, permanent alterations in the human condition for the better.
I’m torn when faced with these kinds of stories. On the one hand, they can be edifying imaginative tools to help us picture and look forward to Revelation 19, when Jesus appears astride a white horse as the Conquering King (Gandalf’s advent at the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers still takes my breath away every time). But, on the other hand, as stories involving humans, they can make us impatient; they can tempt us to look for (or try to become) a saving hero here and now, to achieve that final victory on this earth. That is a form of idolatry, and leads to utopianism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. That leads to the dark side.
Star Wars avoids some of the first weakness of the Hero Myth by involving a team of heroes, including several regular people, a wookie, and a few droids, none of whom are chasing a divine destiny. Movies that focus too narrowly on a lone hero can feed a Messiah complex, and I mean that in a bad way. Because protagonists in fiction are necessarily human and have weaknesses and failings (so that we can identify with them), making them into Messiah figures is unhelpful. One of the truly great strengths of Star Wars is its team of mostly normal heroes. The fact that Han Solo has become more popular than Luke in some corners of fandom suggests that people are drawn to his very human, down-to-earth, roguish heroism, which is good. We all know Han shot first.
Star Wars avoided some of the second weakness of the Hero Myth when the Empire struck back and we saw the continuing difficulty of human heroism in a world of ongoing warfare (an introduction of complexity into the Star Wars universe which deserves its own blog post). Then, the saga apparently plunged forever into the ranks of eschaton-immanentizers by how Episode VI ended: the Emperor dead, the Dark Side vanquished, the Rebellion victorious. There was always something unsatisfying for me in having a perfectly tidy ending. It is clear with retrospect that the Star Wars saga peaked with Episode V.
And there is where a discussion of Star Wars should end. But now there is an Episode VII in the works and Disney and J.J. Abrams have the opportunity to change the arc of Star Wars once again. Here is my vote for how the next movie, or triology, must end to become more than just another Hero Myth: Luke must die, and we must see a successor carry on his work. Think of Sam returning from the Grey Havens after Frodo sails away, ready to devote himself to family and Shire. The lone hero is gone, but his work continues through others’ efforts because that is the work that we, who are not the Messiah, have to do until he returns.