History Channel Star Wars documentary has moments but fails to deliver

History Channel Star Wars documentary has moments but fails to deliver May 28, 2007

Watched The History Channel’s "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed", a documentary purporting to unveil the artistic and cultural underpinnings of the Star Wars genre. Found it pretty disappointing. It shed a few intriguing insights, but was overall pretty light on information and devoid of the revelations promised by the title.

Hadn’t given much thought to how multi-faceted the franchise’s female heroines are, nor how the personalities of all its main characters (even villains) develop before one’s eyes during the films. Nor had I noted the absence of women in the Empire, or how the Empire handily symbolizes the  creeping mechanization and homogenization of modern life (and in strong contrast to the diversity, individualism and smaller reliance on technology of the Rebellion forces).

I did get a kick out of one African-American film critic declaring Darth Vader the ultimate "pimp"  from Blacksploitation films. He’s a got a point–Darth’s dressed in black, is a bad-ass who towers over everybody around him, walks with a confident swagger, owns everything in sight, and is a snazzy dresser (including a flashy cape).  It never occured to me before, but he’s straight out of "Superfly".

Nor had I thought about how intriguingly Christian the final battle scene in "Return of the Jedi" is. Luke rejects heroic convention and triumphs through nonviolence and self-sacrifice. His unexpected refusal to save himself redeems his father and results in a messianic triumph over evil (and one with a perhaps unintended trinitarian overtone due to the symoblic union of the son and father when they join forces in the final struggle with the Emperor, which is then followed by Vader’s own sacrifice for the greater good).

Was a bit disappointed by the pedestrian interpretations offered of the mythos’ most intriguing figures, the Jedi.

First of all, cowboy westerns are barely mentioned in the documentary even though the influence is self-evident at times (e.g., the gunglinger costumes, the visual demarcation between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys).  I think there is a sense of Jedis being akin to the solitary lawmen who maintain the peace out in the badlands of the Wild West.

Then there is how Eurocentric the discussion is despite the fact that you can’t IMO make sense of the Jedi without considering non-Western literary genres. While these archetypes inevitably resonate for people from all cultures, I don’t see how one can neglect to mention the constant parallels with various mystical religious traditions, especially Sufism. Their dress (consciously drawn from North African culture), style of speech ("May the Force be with you", constant references to the way of the "Force", use of deeply respectful titles like "Master"), the way of the Force’s emphasis on self-abnegation and taming one’s ego,  the paramount importance played by the master/disciple relationship in a Jedi’s spiritual development, and constant discussion of unseen higher reality are tropes of Sufi tradition.

Of course, the Star Wars universe also lends itself well to an Asian religious reading. The Jedi master/disciple relationship is no less reminiscent of various "eastern" religious traditions, especially to my mind Buddhism. The emphasis on maintaining cosmic balance brings to mind the pan-Indian religious doctrine of Karma, not to mention the Daoist focus on harmony.

Both camps can make a credible claim to the Jedi. The call depends, I think, on which Jedi figure one takes as normative. Obi Won and Yoda seem to me to be Sufi and Buddhist archetypes, respectively. With its emphasis on paradox as a means of exposing the limitations of conventional binary categories of thought, I find Yoda’s homiletic style especially Zen-like (though certainly not unfamiliar to one versed in Sufi discourse). Obi Won, by contrast, strikes me as a more conventional Sufi figure in his style, presence and more overtly moralistic orientation, though I imagine there’s nothing particularly un-"eastern" about him, either.

In any case, I think to confine the discussion of the Jedi images of wizards and priests from Western literature and folklore leaves out the most interesting dimension to the film’s Weltanschung.

Finally, it was quite irritating how the documentary completely left out the thing that educated fans most want to see: a rundown of Lucas’ specific inspirations and borrowings throughout the films. For example, the comic relief characters of C-3PO and R2-D2 are unmistakably lifted right out of Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai classic "The Hidden Fortress" , but this film never bothers to point this out as it discusses the droids.

There’s also a weird bait & switch, as the commercial tantalizingly promises fascinating disclosures–it shows a sequence from the Cloud City battle between Luke and Darth Vader alongside, in split screens, an identically choreographed sword fight in an unidentified  samurai film–but then inexplicably and maddeningly leaves this and all other specific references completely out of the documentary. 

This makes much of the documentary a bit of a dud. Hearing professors of literature pontificate on the relevance of the theories of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung to science fiction gets old after a while. Give us facts, not interminable commentary. And don’t get us to tune in by showing things in the trailer that aren’t in the final film.

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