The stories we tell ourselves matter – a lot. George Lucas knew this, which is part of the reason he wanted to make the original Star Wars in the first place.
Back in the mid-1970’s the United States was in a post-Vietnam funk. Lucas, who had studied a little anthropology and sociology, was worried about the impoverished imaginations of his country’s pre-teens and teenager. In a 1977 interview with Rolling Stone, he said:
I became very aware of the fact that the kids were really lost, the sort of heritage we built up since the war had been wiped out in the Sixties and it wasn’t groovy to act that way anymore, now you just sort of sat there and got stoned … I saw that kids today don’t have any fantasy life the way we had – they don’t have westerns, they don’t have pirate movies, they don’t have that stupid serial fantasy life that we used to believe in.
And so drawing on comic books and serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, along with some knowledge he’d picked up about the role of myth in society, Lucas (with the help of an awful lot of very talented people) unleashed Star Wars on the world. Turns out he’d concocted something millions of imaginations were hungry for.
Much like the Force Awakens, the first Star Wars in 1977 was one hell of a ride. But the saga’s next installment, 1980’s Empire Strikes Back, gave the series some gravitas that solidified its place in our culture. By making Darth Vader Luke Skywalker’s father it complicated what had been up until that point a simple battle of good versus evil.
Now suddenly we had a situation where evil, in the form of Darth Vader, can spawn good (Luke). And since Luke’s father was presumably also a good guy once upon a time, we learn that people who are good can turn evil. Vader’s redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi then told us that evil people can become good.
The complicated relationship between good and evil was further explored in the prequels. You just have to get past the tedious scripts, wooden acting and Jar-Jar Binks to see the important ideas that are at the core of Episodes I-III, as well as the Clone Wars animated movie and TV series.
The stories of the prequel era show us how the Republic that the Rebellion of the original trilogy was desperately trying to restore was in fact a terribly flawed government. It was rife with greed, incompetence and corruption and in the end the senate that was supposed to safeguard democracy voted to hand all power to an overlord who promptly turned it into a dictatorship. What’s more, the supposed heroes of the entire saga -the Jedi- turn out to be incredibly flawed too. The Jedi council’s arrogance, ignorance, and bad decisions were major contributors to the Emperor’s rise and Anakin’s fall. It turns out Princess Leia and her band of Rebels had a pretty doe-eyed view of the institutions they were trying to reinstate.
Then there’s Anakin Skywalker’s fall and resurrection as Darth Vader. The result of a virgin birth and identified as “the chosen one” who was prophesized to bring balance back to the force, Luke Skywalker’s father ends up being misunderstood and mistreated by his Jedi friends while falling under the influence of an evil Sith lord who eventually manages to get him to commit incredible evil while thinking (and feeling) that he was doing good.
So now instead of giving us a universe with clearly defined good guys and bad guys, Star Wars was taking us to a place where everyone and everything is a constantly evolving mix of both. We were being warned to view any claims of absolute goodness or absolute evil with deep skepticism. As for trying to make ancient prophesies come true, we are shown how this is a path fraught with risk.
Interestingly, it was only adults who were dismayed by the prequels and thought they were an assault on their childhoods. People who were actual children and teenagers when the films came out between 1999 and 2005, by and large loved them. These fans after all were coming of age during the George W. Bush presidency, the War on Terrorism and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve come to wonder if it was more than just the prequels artistic failings that triggered such visceral negative reactions in fans of the original trilogy. Perhaps part of it was an unconscious defence against an attack on our most deeply held beliefs. They were under siege in reality, did they really need to be under siege in our cherished fantasy world as well?
Now we have The Force Awakens. Director JJ Abrams said that when he and his screen writing collaborator Lawrence Kasdan were working on the script they had only one requirement. “The movie needed to be delightful,” he told Wired Magazine. Well, mission accomplished on that front.
The new movie is a fantastic palate cleanser and set-up for a new trilogy. It rinsed away the bitter aftertaste of the prequels, reunited us with old friends we’d been missing for the last 30 years and got us to fall in love with a group of new heroes. I’m pretty sure most people who have seen Episode VII are already committed to seeing Episode VIII when it comes out in 2017. But just being delightful won’t cut it next time around.
For Star Wars to continue holding its preeminent place in our collective imaginations it needs to tell stories of good and evil that resonate with young people who are trying to find their place in a shaky global economy that appears to be tilted in favour of a few elites, who have to live in an environment that appears to be on the precipice of collapse, and who feel they can’t trust the world’s business and political leaders.
We all need to escape reality sometimes. But the most satisfying escapes are the ones that return us feeling more able to cope with the world we actually live in.