Take 36: Star Wars (a rerun)
In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week we’re rerunning the essay with the most reads (shockingly) number 36: Star Wars, directed by George Lucas. As always, there will be spoilers.
I have been nervously procrastinating writing this essay and if I’m honest about the reason, it’s because I feel a stifling Star Wars ineptitude. I am very aware of the cult surrounding the series and the depths to which their fandom extends. The hype for Star Wars: The Force Awakens helps to intensify the sense that I’m out of my element. I only watched the original Star Wars series once when I was a kid, and now two more times as an adult. I will forever associate Harrison Ford with Indiana Jones before Han Solo. My fellow movie lover friends, on the other hand, can name the obscure bots lurking in the shadows that the camera briefly pans over and likely recite the movies line by line. Knowing how much content is out there already about Star Wars is daunting, and I can almost guarantee that about my thoughts below are old news to most devotees of the franchise, so allow me to meander down a tangential path about the nature of popularity before getting to the meat and potatoes.
There are certain pillars of entertainment that are so embedded in our lives that they’ve blown right past the cultural canon and now float within the zeitgeist of our time. As I mentioned, I have only seen the original trilogy of Star Wars three times, but I was raised within the specter of the franchise. I had been exposed to lightsabers through other mediums for decades, I can identify a Yoda impression with the best of them, and have understood the notion of Jedi mind tricks long before I could name an actual Jedi from the film. A measure of greatness that can be applied to this movie, possibly more than any other on the BBC’s list, is that it is truly too pervasive within pop culture to dismiss. I can think of a few other examples of media with a similar, but far from equal, kind of impact. But, in light of my recent foray into Star Wars mania, I wonder if missing the original bandwagon means that the joy I’ll experience will always be muted by the nature of trying to catch up to peers who have invested decades consuming the canonical texts. Can a latecomer to the universe appreciate what it means to have been a fan from childhood? Will they ever be accepted by the keepers of the Star Wars fan castle? I’m not sure, but I suppose that’s a challenge we face in all aspects of fandom — the burden of proof that comes with gaining entry to a passionate club of diehards.
Maybe the fervor of Star Wars fans who wore out their VHS tapes as children can be traced to the religious undertones of the film. It might be an overstatement, but I honestly believe that many millennials must have had their moral compasses tuned by the franchise that pits good so clearly against evil, light so vehemently against dark. The crux of “the force” is accessible and relatable to every demographic; we’re instructed to do good, and that goodness reaps its own benefits. Yet, the pull of the dark side is a battle we also all wage — to drown out the compelling, turbulent, drive within each of us to break bad. Darth Vader does not appear to be lying when he tells Luke that the Dark Side can allow him to more powerfully harness the force, and doesn’t that hold true for our real lives as well? The Dark Side has always held inherent advantages and in many of the movies on this list we’re rooting for the bad guys for exactly that reason. We are vicariously watching ourselves go to unethical means to claim otherwise unattainable influence and affluence, fruits that labors of the light would never bear.
And yet the call of the straight and narrow has the benefit of not only moral rectitude, but also companionship. The best evil villains are lone wolves, inaccessible and isolated, with only their terrified advisors and leagues of faceless, nameless, henchmen by their sides. One of the delightful benefits of using the force for good is that it’s accompanied by a safety in numbers that is always out of reach for the lonely, evil, genius. Most of our heroes have a built in buddy that seems destined to see them through good and bad: C3PO has his fellow droid R2-D2, who only he can understand and communicate with. Han has Chewy, his Man Friday and his muscle. Luke and Leia don’t know yet about their familial connection, but it’s always there, lurking beneath the surface, drawing them together.
When these best buddies join together to form a super squad, the rebel movement finally gains some traction as they consistently leap frog over one another, helping each other out of jams. As individuals, they are each called to action, to rise to occasions in which the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. One by one they heed those calls, supplanting Obi-Wan Kenobi as the only hope to defeat the empire. When they join up with the larger rebel army, and manage to destroy the Death Star, it is as much an individual victory for Luke and his ability to channel Obi-Wan, as it is for the power of teamwork and a coordinated attack. At this point, there’s no chance Luke would have been able to stand up to Darth Vader mano y mano (he needs his Yoda training before he’ll be able to manage that) so it becomes clear that the collaborative nature of the light side is what tips the scales away from the empire, at least in this episode.
Luke has a kindred spirit in a different unlikely hero who was thrust into a role that required a treacherous journey. In The Wizard of Oz there is another symbol of diametrical evil flouncing the virtue of goodness, until a chosen one arrives and vanquishes the enemy, after collecting a motley crew of companions along the way. Dorothy is just one example of a Skywalker type in movies past and present that came to mind. In a lot of ways, Star Wars is the oldest story ever told, only adorned with futuristic, exciting, set dressing. It’s could be set in a Grecian sea, or weaved as a parable in the bible. Luke is David facing his Goliath, and Odysseus facing his Cyclops. Luke as a harbinger of a “new hope” was basically repurposed for President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Maybe what makes Star Wars so securely a classic tale, and so ubiquitous in our literature, is that everyone can benefit from the inspiration that Luke represents — the hope that the triumphant prowess of an evil king, high in his death castle, can be felled by the faith and commitment of a young, idealistic, Jedi.