Understanding “Star Wars”

If you know me even a little, you know I love “Star Wars.”

Despite this pure love for all things that are amazing and good, I realize there are (somehow) people in the Western world who are still unfamiliar with the movies or (even more inexplicably) don’t care for them.

Thus, what follows is my magnum opus, the best thing I’ve ever written: a full-on explanation of why – whether you like it or not – you should at least appreciate what “Star Wars” is.

First of all, they’re movies.  I hope that’s evident.

What is not obvious is what kind of movies they are.  Many people assume they’re science fiction, but that actually isn’t true, and this makes a large difference in how one approaches watching them.

George Lucas wrote the first movie as a kind of love letter / homage to the kind of Americana he loved as a kid while growing up in the 1940s and 50s: comic books, pulp science fiction radio and TV serials like “Flash Gordon,” Westerns, Samurai, swashbuckling Errol Flynn and B-movies of different genres.

Because America doesn’t have a culturally-defining mythology like “Beowulf” or “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” Lucas chose to package the movie as a mythology – a classic hero’s quest story in which a young hero leaves his family and, with the help of a wise older mentor and a pirate (smuggler), rescues a princess in distress and saves the day.

“Star Wars” is, at its heart, an American mythology: a defining morality tale comprised of different elements of quintessential American pop culture.

As such, it’s also modeled a good bit around opera, stories in which characters are over-the-top because they are archetypes (representatives) more than they are meant to be individuals like you and me.  Much of what is attributed to bad acting or bad writing (particularly in the prequels) is actually due to the theatrical nature of opera (if you’ve ever seen an opera, you know the acting is incredibly exaggerated and dramatic to the point of being ludicrous).

Finally, “Star Wars” is also a fantasy.  “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” is very much equivalent to “Once upon a time.”  The movies are meant to transport you to a time and place that is very different from the world as we know it.

Now that the foundation is laid for what “Star Wars” is, let’s look at the movies themselves.

In short – the original three made in the 70s and 80s were primarily the story of the redemption of a character who appeared to be completely evil, Darth Vader.  The next three movies were “prequels” which chronologically began 40 years before the first three in order to show how a good person, Anakin Skywalker, can become evil – how he became Vader.

I won’t argue that the original trilogy isn’t better than the prequels, but I still appreciate them, especially “Revenge of the Sith.”

I was at first dissatisfied with the way this movie seemed to quickly depict Anakin’s turn to evil as a “flip of the switch.”

Now I’m not so sure.

“Star Wars” is a morality tale that asks questions about the nature of good and evil, where the lines are drawn between each, and how people are compelled to be the kinds of people they become.

It takes place in a fictional galaxy with different physical laws.  There is a mystical connection between all life called the Force, and certain people are born with an ability to tap into the powers of the Force and can thus perform spectacular physical and mental feats.

A religious / warrior caste devoted to doing good through use of the Force is called the Jedi.  A similar caste devoted to pursuing power and imposing order through the Force is called the Sith.  Light and dark, good and bad.

Anakin is seemingly a child born of Jedi prophecy – conceived in his mother by the Force in order to bring a balance between the light and dark.  He is discovered by the Jedi in the first prequel as a 10-year-old boy living as a slave.  He has a powerful connection with the Force, but his life as a slave has fostered a great deal of fear inside of him, which initially make the Jedi hesitant to train him as one of their own.

Anakin is depicted as a kind-hearted boy whom grows into a powerful Jedi, caring a great deal about justice and order.

The other prequels chronicle how Anakin’s deep passion and love for his friends and family are centered around a core of selfishness: he is afraid to lose those he loves and shows a great deal of possessiveness because he does not want to experience the intense pain associated with loss.

The temptation for Anakin is he has the power to potentially control such things, but trying to do so is opposed to Jedi teachings.

The stage for Anakin’s fall is set when doubts are raised in his mind about who the Jedi really are.  He begins to question their motives, and this questioning is driven in large part by his growing desire to become more powerful in order to prevent a vision of his wife’s death from happening.

What had troubled me about Anakin’s decision to leave the Jedi and join the Sith was how quickly it seemed to happen.

But when we view our knowledge, beliefs, and motivations as rising from our loves and desires more than from our intellectual processes, this makes sense: the core of who Anakin was – what he wanted, what he loved – had always been tainted.

His deepest desires were selfish: in his heart, he wanted to control all aspects of his life because he loved out of attachment and personal need, not out of a place that considered the intrinsic worth of others.

These core desires fought against the ideals of the community he had aligned himself with, and by allowing his desires to trump his morals, his convictions changed.

I think this is a realistic portrait of internal struggles within all of us that at any moment can likewise abruptly surface and give the appearance that a very sudden change has occurred.

How many times have we heard friends and loved ones of people who commit terrible atrocities say, “That’s not the person I knew.  He (or she) was always so nice and pleasant to talk to” or some such variation?

In reality a struggle was being waged internally, often subconsciously, and maybe for just one horrific moment, the wrong desire won out.

Anakin’s choice to fuel his controlling desires directly impacted his outlook, beliefs, and knowledge.  He interpreted events at the end of “Revenge of the Sith” as attempts by the Jedi to overthrow the government.  Suddenly he “knew” that he had been lied to during his entire training by the Jedi, and in “reality” they were trying to cause turmoil and disorder.

Instead of his training being an attempt at teaching him how to find life by giving his own in service of something greater than himself, he now “understood” that the Jedi were trying to rob him of what was rightfully his – his raw power and personal will – because they did not want to lose their own power to him.

One of the important truths we need to understand is that there aren’t “good people” and “bad people” in this world: there are only people who choose to be influenced by different desires.

We all have the same kind of desires floating around within us that are enticing us to take steps that lead down certain kinds of paths.  The paths we travel mold us in certain ways: some good, some bad.  Some things that at first seem innocuous begin journeys down decidedly NON-innocuous paths.

The take-home message from the conclusion of the original six movies, “Return of the Jedi,” is that none of us are beyond redemption.  This is a deeply Christian theme that is at odds with other moralities.

Darth Vader, for all the evil he did, eventually saw the error in his ways and repented because of the influence of his son’s love for him, which was a genuine love unlike the kind he had previously known (controlling).

Thus “Star Wars” attempts to teach us that it’s never too late to do the right thing.  It’s never too late to be saved, no matter what you’ve done, if your heart can repent of its mistakes.

So it is that “Star Wars” is America’s grand mythological morality tale, teaching us ethical lessons that ultimately would be at home with those of the different Christian groups that influenced the nation’s formation.

For a nation that has no defining cultural mythology, “Star Wars” attempts to be just that, just as Tolkien intended “The Lord of the Rings” as a tale for his England.

Hopefully that will allow you to at least appreciate, even if not enjoy, what “Star Wars” is.

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