As another Christmas approaches, the season looks anything but merry: a malevolent regime kills and abuses thousands in the middle East and seems to extend terror throughout the globe. First world nations squabble and choose self interest over human rights. Here in the US, Presidential candidates capitalize on global suffering to further their polling numbers. The poor stay poor. The outcast remain outcast. And popular culture and the media seem to care most about promoting another blockbuster movie sure to rake in money while fans bicker about its worth and ignore the real problems facing the world. So the argument goes…
And yet… And yet. This movie is the seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise, a series of films that invented and reinvented not just visual storytelling, but the whole western understanding of how films are marketed, discussed and, yes, even complained about. The beloved original trilogy of 1977-1983 may have given way to the controversial-at-best prequel trilogy of 1999-2005, but the buzz and the fascination with the universe Lucas made has not diminished. It has only grown. Now we are on the eve of the sequel trilogy, and I for one would like to meditate, in the calm before the cultural storm, about why, in this fraught and cynical age of global awareness and global nausea, Star Wars may teach us just what we need to survive:
- There are always threats to the galaxy, and the greatest threat is within: the villains of Star Wars are a big part of its appeal: Darth Vader, stormtroopers, The Emperor, General Grievous. They put a face (or a hood) on the villainy that too often arises in human culture. It is not for nothing that the evil Empire of the original trilogy seems so obviously patterned after Nazi Germany. The late 20th century understood evil best as a bunch of drab-uniformed white men exterminating other races and cultures. But what the original trilogy, and the prequels in their due time showed, is that the most insidious threat to us may not be the totalitarian baddies a planet away. It is ourselves, our own recklessness (see Luke’s colossal failure at the end of episode 5), our own fear (see Anakin’s maddening descent into terror in episodes 2 and 3), our own petty justifications (see uncle Owen’s and Obi Wan’s continual lying to Luke for his own good in episode 4), and, perhaps most insidious of all, our assumption that because we are on the “right side” of a conflict, we needn’t police our own institutions or intentions. This is best seen in the arrogance and mis-administration of the Jedi order in the prequel trilogy and Clone Wars TV show. By the end of episode 3, one of the most believable and moving moments is Yoda’s grief over having failed the republic, and knowing he – perhaps as much as Darth Sidious himself – is to blame for its fall. It is the human heart, not a bunker full of terrorists, from which evil springs.
- The path to wonder lies in the understanding of the Other: Throughout the Star wars saga, when a character – especially a protagonist – is wrong about a stranger, that mistake costs them joy, and sometimes lives. Han dismisses Obi Wan as an “old fossil”, and so misses out on even knowing one of the greatest men of his age. Luke dismisses Yoda because of his size and demeanor and so is shamed and humbled when he learns the Jedi Master’s true identity. And the Empire, who cannot abide the stranger, loses its grip on the galaxy because it misjudged everyone: Leia, the rebellion, the millennium falcon, the ewoks, the wookiees – the lost goes on an on. Those who embrace the other – and Leia is a great example of this in episode 6 – see the value and wonder in the other. If not for Leia’s befriending and trusting of the ewoks on endor, the rebellion most surely would have lost. In this she is like her mother, Padme, who trusts the offputting Gungans, and so saves her planet from the Trade Federation.
- Our passions can destroy us: Simply put, emotion and appetite unbridled by reason and virtue lead to ruin in the Star Wars universe. Anakin is the best example of this, but we see it in other prominent characters: watto, sebulba, jabba, the whole host of sith who cultivate anger and fear, and always lose to the patient and the kind.
- The halls of power hold no satisfaction: those who seek and achieve power in the Star Wars universe seldom become more joyful. Lando Calrisian’s administrative power, far from helping him do good, leads him only to compromise. Palpatine seems positively bored by his position (this is borne out in the TV shows and books). The Senate of the Old Republic, as much as they seem preferable to the Emperor’s despotism, are a glum and impotent bunch. Star Wars reminds us that political power, even when it doesn’t corrupt, causes grief, anxiety, and plenty of temptation to compromise.
- You don’t believe in the force, do you? Finally, Lucas’s universe is one that questions the materialism of our age. Lucas assumes that we want the Old legends and religions to be true in our ideal story. His universe is open to the divine, to eucatastrophe, to a host of the departed who watch and aid the living. And he asks us, as C.S. Lewis did before him: does this spirit-shot world of wonder and danger not lick your modern world hollow?