Star Wars offers enduring themes that appeal to our deepest selves
Joel Hodge, Australian Catholic University
“No. I am your father.” The shocking words of Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker, as Luke clings for life at the end of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), made an enduring impression on more than one generation of fans.
That same Star Wars effect, remarkably, continues 35 years on, albeit with some dispute over the franchise’s legacy. These high emotions come to the surface when new teasers are released to whet audience expectations about the release of new features.
Now it is the turn of The Force Awakens, which is due for release at the end of this year. A second teaser was released last week to much excitement. The film is seventh in the Star Wars series, which began in 1977 with Star Wars: A New Hope, followed by The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983.
Those recent additions to the Star Wars canon received mixed responses and expectations are high for a return to form with The Force Awakens, now under the ownership of Disney.
A new mythology for a new age
I was born after Darth Vader broke the bad news to Luke but was captivated with the films from a young age. It is interesting to see this same captivation seize the imaginations of children today and re-live the entry into a world that I had lived with such excitement and wonder.
The lightsabers and guns, the heroes and villains, the Empire and Rebellion, the light and the dark, the adventures and adversities, all make for a rich, imaginative world of which one can become part.
When Star Wars was released in 1977, all those factors, as well as the powerful special effects, cinematography, soundtrack and production, provided the foundations of a new mythology in the premiere medium of the day, cinema.
George Lucas’ stated aim was to create a mythology that could provide moral guidance within the context of renewed sense of spirituality and transcendence.
Lucas was concerned this mythology was lacking both in cinema (following the decline of the Western) and in a post-60s social context. In a 1999 interview with Time magazine, he reflected on these mythic qualities:
I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct […] I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.
This, in large part, helps to explain the enduring quality of Star Wars: it sought to take us deep into the mystery of life and existence through an imaginative and engaging story.
Star Wars purposefully engaged with the full potential of storytelling in film to address a social and cinematic gap. As the enduring popularity of science fiction and fantasy films shows, there is a yearning and need for big stories to be told that deal with universal themes – good, evil, love, friendships, violence and the transcendent.
This trend stands in contrast to the relativist and postmodern tendencies of the age.
The story goes deeper
Star Wars has powerful themes, within a well-constructed galaxy and adventure narrative that appeals to the times.
The story centres on the battle between the evil Empire and virtuous Rebellion, which appeals for its action as well as the injustice that is being fought. But the narrative moves beyond a conventional political and military fight to deeper considerations of character, friendship, technology, transcendence and redemption.
A viewer can enjoy the story on two levels, then: as an action-adventure of good versus evil, or as a reflection on the deepest human themes. Literary-critic and philosopher René Girard argues that the most enduring stories function on these two levels by simultaneously appealing to different audiences, with the deeper level effectively subverting and deepening the most superficial level over time.
In his book The Gospel According to Star Wars (2007), John McDowell argues that over the course of the films, Star Wars problematises and/ or deepens some of its seemingly more simplistic starting points, such as the power of redemptive violence and the binary of good and evil.
The fall and redemption of the ‘Chosen One’
This movement is shown in the primary story-line of Star Wars – the fall and redemption of Darth Vader/ Anakin Skywalker. Vader began as the archetype of the evil villain, following Star Wars: A New Hope.
Yet, as the series progressed, it became clearer that Vader was a complex character. In fact, he is the “Chosen One” who is meant to provide balance to the Force.
Here we see clear allusions to a saviour figure, even to Jesus Christ.
But the story that unfurls is an inversion of the Christian Gospel: the Chosen One does not save others but falls into the depths of evil, power and anger by following a false model (The Emperor) who in a sense personifies evil (“Satan”). Vader thinks he can restore order to the galaxy – as he says to Luke after revealing his identity – but his evil is ultimately destructive of others and himself.
In a parallel way to humanity in the Christian story, Vader falls and cannot find his way out of the dark side – “You don’t know the power of the dark side! I must obey my Master”, he says to Luke. Yet, Vader is eventually redeemed, though not through his own power or by his manipulation of the Force, but through his son, Luke Skywalker. In the same moment, the Force is purified of evil.
For the Force, we can read “transcendence” in general - that which goes beyond the material world - and more specifically, “God”. (“May the Force be with you” parallels the Christian greeting of “May the Lord be with you”.) It will be interesting to see how the new film deals with this legacy. In the most recent three outings we were introduced to the genetic-sounding Midi-chlorians – intelligent microscopic life-forms that allow their hosts to detect the Force.
The Force itself is too abstract and impersonal to equate with the biblical God and is more readily identifiable with concepts in Eastern religions (Lucas came to describe himself as a “Buddhist Methodist” ).
Over the course of the films, the Force is purified away from violence, power, anger, fear, aggression and toward love, forgiveness and friendship.
This purification occurs because Luke has a personal faith in Vader’s “real self” – his goodness despite his evil persona – that provides the impetus for Vader’s conversion and redemption.
While Star Wars emphasises moral responsibility by choosing between good and evil, Luke’s faith goes beyond categorising people by their choices to something deeper – something that can only be seen in the light of love and forgiveness.
Luke holds onto this madness and folly – as St Paul called Christian faith in the love of the Crucified Christ – even to the point of risking his life to spare Vader, and is eventually vindicated. It is Vader’s conversion prompted by Luke’s faith and impending death that leads to Vader’s rejection of evil (throwing the Emperor away to save Luke) and to the breakdown of the Empire’s efforts in battle.
Vader’s journey, then, moves beyond the good-evil binary – not by goodness violently suppressing evil, but a person realising his true self in converting from evil into goodness (which has a distinctively biblical resonance).
Similarly, Luke himself undergoes a conversion – away from the violent, swashbuckling hero to the monk-like Jedi Knight who gives up on violence and anger. At the climatic end of Return of the Jedi, Luke refuses his chance to kill Vader – and indeed tries to save him – aware that by using violence he risks becoming a half-human enslaved to a false master, who promises liberation through anger and hate.
Redemptive violence and heroism are set aside for a spiritual path of non-violent love (heavily influenced in Lucas’ thought by Buddhism and Christianity). Crucially, the story here turns from Luke becoming a violent victor to a loving victim who is willing to give his life rather than take another’s life. In suffering and confronting evil with love, evil can be transformed, resisted and overcome.
Heeding the call into mystery …
The important and enduring themes in Star Wars appeal to our deepest selves and sense of goodness and transcendence.
Beyond the action, it is the mystery of the spirit that endures, which is what makes Star Wars itself enduring. But the Star Wars story is just that: a story. It is not a complete picture of human life, but is a way of pointing us to contemplate and live life more authentically.
To become fixated on the story alone or to use it for a particular agenda – such as by trying to create a Jedi religion and have that included in census data or claim ownership of the franchise’s direction/ meaning – is to ignore the message of Star Wars itself.
And that is, to go beyond ourselves, and the binaries and limits of our own secular time and compromised identities, to contemplate the mystery of life and become our true selves in the loving fellowship and transcendence of the Force.
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This article is part of The Conversation’s Religion + Mythology series.
Joel Hodge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Australian Catholic University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.