Author’s note: I originally published this essay on Dec 17, 2015, the day before the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was a time of anticipation and excitement for Star Wars fans, but although The Force Awakens recaptured much of the magic of the original trilogy, the next two films wound up being as hated as the Lucas prequels, if not more so. This essay has been left untouched; I did not edit it to take into account the problems with the latest trilogy, nor praise the excellence of The Mandalorian, which is Star Wars at its finest.
The themes of this article run deeper than those. It’s about archetypes, the hero’s journey, and the importance of clear delineations between good and evil in a world full of increasingly-popular antiheroes. As such, I think the value of the piece remains, even if its optimism over the Disney-directed end to the Skywalker saga was hopelessly naïve.
To say that I grew up with the Star Wars franchise is no exaggeration; it is a literal statement of fact. I was present in the movie theater for Episode IV: A New Hope, but in utero, the sounds of light sabers, blaster pistols, and the explosion of Alderaan no doubt filtering their way through my mother’s body to be among the loudest first noises to reach my nascent ears. I vaguely remember the snowy landscapes of Hoth from Empire Strikes Back splashed across the big screen as I squirmed across laps and beneath the seats, chasing Jujubes as a toddler. Five months before my sixth birthday, I made myself nearly sick with anticipation as I waited all day for my parents to be ready to take me to Return of the Jedi. Every moment was agony. I just wanted to go see it. That Christmas, I unwrapped portions of that universe reincarnated in plastic — a Rancor monster, a speeder bike that disintegrated in a spring-loaded explosion at the touch of a button, a wampa, Boba Fett.
There was never a time in my childhood where the presence of George Lucas’ cultural epic wasn’t felt. Never a stick in the yard that couldn’t be imagined as a light saber. Never a time when a wise man or mentor might not be compared to Yoda, or speaking too close to the mouth of a cup didn’t make me think of James Earl Jones’ unforgettable vocal performance as Darth Vader.
I grew up in a science fiction-friendly home. My father’s book shelves were lined with volumes from Asimov, Heinlein, Ellison, Zelazney, and others, along with superhero comic book anthologies from both Marvel and DC. We were never fanatical about any particular series, but over the years before I left home for my own adventures, we watched The Twilight Zone, almost every iteration of Star Trek (I preferred The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), the entire nine-season run of the X-Files, Farscape, and Alias, and others. Our favorite movies included titles like Labyrinth, Flight of the Navigator, The Rocketeer, Short Circuit, The Last Starfighter, Willow, and The Black Hole. Nothing, however, ever came close to the appeal of Star Wars. It was a perennial favorite — a classic you could come back to again and again without ever really getting tired of it. My immediately younger brother watched our VHS recording of Return of the Jedi almost daily one summer, until he just about wore out the tape.
So what is it about this ecclectic series of movies featuring unknown actors and setting its stories in “a galaxy far, far away”? What did we see in the fertile imaginings of the unassuming Lucas, who despite a phenomenal gift for world creation demonstrated serious impediments as a director and storyteller? Why is the Star Wars universe so popular with so many people around the world, even now, almost 40 years later, that the franchise is about to launch a brand new installment under the direction of an entirely new crew of filmmakers that will nonetheless undoubtedly become the highest-grossing movie of all time?
I think the answer is simple: beneath the dazzling set pieces and amazing starships and glowing laser swords, which are all fun to look at, Star Wars presents us with a universe where good and evil are clearly distinguishable. Where nobility, virtue, and discipline matter. Where people care enough about doing what is right that they will fight against overwhelming odds in the hope of achieving it. Where rather than rabid individualism (“One Man, With One Mission…!”) a group of the sort of people (and droids. And Wookie.) we might least expect to find success against such an overpowering force come together as a Tolkien-esque fellowship and do exactly that. A story where even some of the most evil villains — individuals who fell into cruelty and darkness through vice and selfishness — can find redemption.
In a word, Star Wars has a decidedly Catholic ethos.
Now anyone who knows anything about Lucas knows that Catholic isn’t a term he would ever use to describe his world view. He grew up Methodist, and as he became more interested in studying comparitive religion, tried to infuse his straight-laced Protestant sensibility with Eastern religious philosophy. His study of Asian cultures is where, in fact, we get the word Jedi — a derivative of the word Jidaigeki, the Japanese cinematic term for samurai-filled period dramas set in feudal Nippon. The concept of The Force — no doubt influenced by the Asian concept of Chi — also derived, in part, from American Indian mythology, and their idea of the Great Mystery — a universal spiritual force that could be found and communed with through nature or by participation in certain rituals and ceremonies. “May the force be with you” sounds an awful lot like the familiar liturgical refrain, “The Lord be with you”; and of course, not a few Catholic eyebrows were raised at Lucas’ ham-fisted dialogic explanation of “midichlorians,” by which the Star Wars anti-Messiah, Anakin Skywalker, was somehow conceived without a biological father.
But if Lucas’ theology is a jumbled mess, the Protestant Christian influences on his thinking remain at the core of his work — and those influences are ultimately derived from the Catholic Christian culture that gave rise to them. In his 1999 book Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas, John Baxter (as cited here) explains something that was on the mind of Lucas as he rose to prominence in Hollywood:
His public pronouncements have come to have overtones of the mesianic. In 1981, breaking ground on the new USC Film School, to which he contributed $4.7 million, he lectured the audience on their moral shortcomings: ‘The influence of the Church, which used to be all-powerful, has been usurped by film. Films and television tell us the way we conduct our lives, what is right and wrong. There used to be a Ten Commandments that film had to follow, but now there are only a few remnants, like a hero doesn’t shoot anybody in the back. That makes it even more important that film-makers get exposed to the ethics of film.’
And it was this sense of ethical behavior that Lucas, then two movies into the original Star Wars trilogy, was seeking, however clumsily, to encode into his films. Baxter relates that
However seductive its technology, Star Wars needed much more if it was to succeed. Artless adventure wouldn’t prevail against the mysticism of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Universal’s reader had been right: understanding ‘the rights and wrongs’ of the story was crucial. Lucas needed a rhetoric, a philosophy, a creed.
Apologists for and interpreters of Star Wars insist that ‘the Force,’ the all-pervasive power on which the heroes rely to defeat the Empire, was there from the start, and provided the primary motive for making the films. Lucas fosters this idea. ‘There was no modern mythology to give kids a sense of values, to give them a strong mythological fantasy life,’ he said later. ‘Westerns were the last of the that genre for Americans. Nothing was being done for young people that has real psychological underpinnings and was aimed at intelligent beings.’
But in fact Lucas had no such intentions at the outset. If anything, the whole idea of religion was alien to him. He had gone to church as a boy [at a Methodist church], and even attended Catholic mass a few times at USC, but the last time he’d been in church was to be married.
Patchwork religious sensibility or no, there was a definitive moral character to his stories and their protagonists. Another of Lucas’ big influences was the late Joseph Campbell. Campbell, an expert in global mythologies, is the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces – a work that examines the recurring themes in the hero-journeys that inevitably appear in myths and stories from every culture around the world. Campbell himself summarized the so-called “monomyth” as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Campbell — who was himself raised Catholic — documented this “Hero’s Journey” in a way that resonated with many artists and writers around the world. Lucas was so profoundly inspired by the theory that he sought Campbell out, and the two became friends. But if the Hero’s Journey is in fact a universal theme found in every culture’s myths and legends, it seems also to apply to the hero par excellence – Jesus Christ. It would not be a large stretch to postulate that every hero who follows this arc is, in fact, a type of Christ, and that this is why they resonate with us – they are in fact resonating with the love of the True God that is inscribed on our very hearts.
There is another aspect of Star Wars that no doubt contributes to its universal popularity: while it follows the traditional and ubiquitously loved model of the Hero’s Journey, it does so with a relative innocence that allows parents to feel safe with the fantasy world in which their children want to immerse themselves.
If pressed, [Lucas] disclaims any personal vision, referring back to the body of myth, the thirty-two basic plot situations enumerated by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, or the accumulation of racial memory evoked by Carl Gustav Jung. ‘I took off from the folk side of things,’ he told the New York Times, looking back on Star Wars from the perspective of a quarter-century, ‘and tried to stay with universal themes apart from violence and sex, which are the only other two universal themes that seem to work around the world. My films aren’t that violent or sexy. Instead, I’m dealing with the need for humans to have friendships, to be compassionate, to band together to help each other and to join together against what is negative.’
Since 1977, every generation of filmmakers and storytellers has sought out the magical recipe behind the phenomenal and unprecedented success of Star Wars. And until Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion, the phrase “the next Star Wars” was only ever seen applied to new, often derivative franchises that fell short of capturing whatever mojo Star Wars effortlessly exudes. Lucas damaged his own brand with endless tinkering and an uninspired and often embarrassing set of prequels that even the most devoted of fans couldn’t watch without flinching. Wooden performances, cringe-inducing dialogue, and characters so annoying and infantilizing that even children wanted to see them killed off made the prequel trilogy a visual feast with nothing for the soul. Perhaps Lucas had himself strayed too far from his Christian roots, becoming more concerned with appearances than with creating characters with whom his audience could connect. Perhaps it was simply that the Anakin Skywalker story was the inverse of the Hero’s Journey — the very journey that made the original trilogy such a runaway hit. Lucas had given birth to a cultural phenomenon, but he proved unworthy of the task of nourishing it beyond its infancy. He had changed, and he wanted his universe to change with him. Like the post-conciliar Church, he was unable to see that what wasn’t broken didn’t need fixing, and he had set himself to the task of constant innovation at the expense of fundamentals.
Disney, on the other hand, got it. Sometimes, the only way to keep the magic of a thing is just to accept it for what it is. To love it, to care for it, and to follow the time-trusted formula. When The Force Awakens — which will be released in American theaters tomorrow — was announced, many fans, still feeling let down by three unworthy prequels, were skeptical. Despite the entertainment value and box office success of the superhero movies put out by Marvel Studios — another Disney-owned company — there was a huge legacy on the line. George Lucas, despite his failure to stay faithful to his vision, gave us that vision in the first place. Could a new director and new corporate oversight bring to bear something worthy of what made Star Wars a household name in the first place? The trailers certainly seemed to capture the old-school vibe:
Early reports from the red-carpet premiere in Hollywood were also overwhelmingly positive. But perhaps most convincing thing I heard came from my friend and 1P5 contributor, Hilary White, who had grown increasingly skeptical in the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere. In Italy, where Hilary lives, the movie was released yesterday, and she saw it on opening day. On Facebook, she posted:
OK, JJ Abrams, I officially forgive you for rewriting Star Trek.
Thank you. Thank you for giving me back my childhood.
If you’re one of the few people left alive who don’t understand why Star Wars is the juggernaut it is, you might scoff at such a statement, or why I’d even devote an entire article to this. But for many of us, Star Wars was the universe we lived and played in all of our lives. It was a universe full of possibilities and imagination. It was also an easy, nearly-universal frame of reference when we were grasping for metaphors about good and evil (“yeah, ever since that guy went over to the dark side…”), about the potency of a person’s potential (“the Force is strong with this one!”), or what it’s like to stand against all odds (“we traditional Catholics just need to form a rebel alliance…”). There’s even an entire Facebook group with over 1600 fans dedicated to Star Wars-related Catholic memes. It is — and I don’t believe this is an exaggeration — the mythology of our generation. It fills a void that Christian culture once did, where we all had reference to the same symbols, idioms, and themes. Where we could all rely upon a common background, a common ethos, and a shared set of beliefs.
It’s a sad thing to contemplate when a work of fiction all-but-supplants something as spiritually and historically significant as Christendom. But it also presents an opportunity: if a universally-loved phenomenon exists that crosses cultural and ideological boundaries, and draws heavily upon the very themes of good and evil, nobility, chivalry, and virtue that were once a fundamental part of the Christian West, it may actually represent a starting point for evangelization. I know it sounds crazy, but where an atheist will argue passionately with me about belief and doctrine, he is far more likely to agree with me about Star Wars canon. He is comfortable within the confines of a made up system of belief and history in exactly the way he is not in a real one. But there are elements of truth in the stories, elements that can be developed and expounded upon.
Han Solo famously quipped, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”
It was a line that represented the ever-growing (and entirely needless) conflict between science and religion, between believing in things one cannot see versus putting one’s faith in only that which is empirically verifiable. It was a line that made you smile and shake your head. You liked Han — you were supposed to — but you knew that on this point, he had it wrong.
George Lucas may or may not have consciously realized what he was saying or the impact it would have, but he touched a nerve in the consciousness of 20th century man. I would argue that the resonance of these stories, far from something merely coincidental, is rather a manifestation of a deeper need for a universe where right and wrong are clearly understood, where antiheros are defeated by actual heros, where faith is a powerful force to be reckoned with, where redemption is possible even at the moment of death, and where in the end, despite everything being stacked against it, good prevails.
If that’s not Catholic, I don’t know what is.