So Star Wars: The Force Awakens is out now, and the reviews are in. And people love it. According to Rotten Tomatoes it's actually scored higher than the original Star Wars and even the phenomenal The Empire Strikes Back.
As someone of faith, the Star Wars movies are special to me in way that they might not be to others, even though I note, dryly, that "Jedi" is a possibility as "religion" in many a census these days.
I draw my ideas about the 1970s from That 70s Show and history books as opposed to direct personal experience, and I am personally open to noders old enough to have such recollections correct anything I get wrong here. But the movie came out at a time when America's zeitgeist had gone through a large, whole-scale rejection of traditional religion and the growth of cult and mystical spiritualities into a materialist frenzy of disco balls, custom engineered fabrics and cocaine. There had not yet been a snap-back to fundamentalist zeal in the Reagan 1980s, and I'm exaggerating to make a point. But The Exorcist was released around the same time, and it dealt with the issues of disbelief and the fight for a soul at the same time. To be very brief, the Exorcist was about a Catholic priest unsure of his faith anymore suddenly butting up against a demon inhabiting the daughter of a jaded, atheist Hollywood celebrity. The mother sees him as a sort of exterminator, the young priest tries to be analytical and empirical about the situation, but the old priest has seen this before and knows there's only one dark power at work here, and knows what it wants.
What on earth does this have to do with Star Wars, dear reader? Please indulge me.
The story arc through Star Wars through to the Return of the Jedi is well known to be based on mythos. The script from Star Wars follows the Campbellian hero cycle to the letter. The Empire Strikes Back, not written by George Lucas, ran with the ball and went into some seriously heavy territory, before the action packed conclusion (and horrible Yub Yub/Teddy Bear denouement of the Ewoks).
But think for a moment about what Luke Skywalker's story is really about. He starts out, accompanied by a haunting French Horn leitmotif as he stares out over miles and miles of certain death amongst arid sand dunes - as a farmer. Not a farmer for some commercial good, but producing water, which is key to survival for just about every carbon-based species inhabiting the backward planet he's in. He's involved in the production of a good crucial to the production of everything else, badly needed, and badly wanted. But to him there has to be more to life than this. Initially, he's thinking about running away to join an army. Not the government army, with benefits and the blessing of the state, but rebel forces, where he risks certain death, possible torture and execution. But that doesn't matter to him at all. In short, he's like every proto-ISIS terrorist, in the sense that he's looking for something larger to fight for and even die for. (And it's established that the Empire is evil and worth fighting against.)
What he finds instead, in a quirk of fate, is instead a long-dead, long-forgotten religion. The universe he lives in is so jaded about it that even though the Black Knight himself, Darth Vader - can read minds and choke people to death telepathically, they still mock the idea of the religion at all (even though there's empirical proof it works). A forgotten monk of an old order finds himself needing the young man who meets him to help him get off the planet. Intrigued about his distant connection to it, the young man (who previously wanted nothing more than to join his friends at the rebel academy) pledges to the older man to learn his ways and carry the torch of that legacy as a Jedi knight himself. Obi-wan Kenobi is nothing more than an evangelist to Luke, he has little time to explain "The Force" to Luke before he is killed in a heroic sacrifice. It is left to another hermit elsewhere to teach him more fully, although he taps into something larger than himself to survive a dogfight and destroy a horrible satellite-cum-planet-destroying weapon.
The movie worked because it tapped into story ideas that are practically wired into our DNA. The hero goes up against "The Black Knight". The young kid from outer space's version of rural Mississippi wants to get out beyond the local regional dive town and see the world. A young kid sees an old man pull off martial arts moves, becomes his disciple, and starts training. A ragtag band of motley heroes fight the Sheriff of Nottingham and get away having smashed the state. Sure, it's a space opera, but it drew on some really meaty ideas, thanks to Lucas' tutoring by Joseph Campbell.
The second film, which Lucas could NEVER have pulled off, is some esoteric stuff about ideas about reality, and it's my fave movie of all. If someone wants to confide in me and/or talk about faith but gets hung up on Christianity or The Bible because of previous abuse at its hands (or they think it uncool or "hokey") I can certainly use metaphors from The Empire Strikes Back. "What's in there?" "Whatever you take with you." "I don't believe it!" "This is why you fail." "Size matters not." Or of course, the "some have entertained angels unawares" lesson where Luke tries to dismiss the annoying little creature, having in his mind a great, powerful warrior - only to find the tiny floppy-eared green creature he'd been trying to get rid of is the person he was seeking the whole time.
The part where Luke thinks he's killing Vader but only ends up killing himself is profound. I've used that metaphor on many, many, many occasions in trying to explain what religion is all about.
And of course, an image that moves me almost to tears is Yoda explaining to Luke that it's no big deal that his X-wing class spacecraft has sunk into the swamp - he's lifted rocks with his mind, why not the X-wing? When Luke puts in a token effort and sees the craft rise momentarily, then sink fully under the murk, Yoda steps forward and with a beautiful expression of sagacity and openness to the universe on his face simply asks the universe to move the craft onto drier land, and it floats like a feather on to firm territory. There is something in the magic of Frank Oz's puppetry and the slight graininess of film that makes the scene physically beautiful as well as spiritually uplifting. Lucas would later on ruin it by having the use of the Force in some instances look like an exertion of a muscle - grimacing and flexing as if it's some reflection of the personal strength of the wielder.
But we knew that - the first thing Lucas did in the second series of films in the 1990s was handwave it all away as the work of cellular structures called "midichlorians" and that this was no magic or faith but simply the application of a science. Quick, whip out your midichlorian detector and run a blood test. So it really did become a function of the personal structure of the user, which completely craps all over the beautiful mysticism of Empire.
Return of the Jedi has all manner of awesomeness going on from an adrenaline standpoint - speeding rocket bikes doing a car chase in a Pacific North West redwood forest, dogfights, guerilla warfare and so forth, but the real meat of it takes place with very, very little actual action with three men standing on the deck of an Imperial craft, watching the fates and fortunes of two adversarial air forces killing each other in front of them. Excepting of course the bit at the beginning with the rescue of Han Solo, the bulk of the film is a battle for souls - the Emperor trying to corrupt the soul of Luke Skywalker, and Luke having abandoned fighting, simply arguing for the soul of Darth Vader. The entire scene ends in redemption and Vader returns from the grave in holy blue light, having ascended, forgiven his trespasses against his fellow dead Jedi.
I've already touched on the disaster of the "midichlorians". Lucas once again tried to throw together bit pieces from mythos: the slave-born, the prophecy, the Chosen One. But The Phantom Menace was nothing more than one boring set-piece after another, not of storytelling trope but merely of genre - a sort of galactic Kill Bill without the directing genius of Quentin Tarantino. We got to see 10,000 leagues under the sea, Ben-Hur's chariot racing and so forth, along with the prince putting on the clothes of a commoner to see how the real people live. Thrown into the mix were some disturbing other re-use of tropes, such as the klutzy Stepin Fetchit black man (yess-a, mee-sa massa!), a story telling device that should have stayed dead and buried - and of course the tiny winged "space Jew" (as one reviewer scathingly put it) who talks like an ethnic shopkeeper stereotype and whose character should also have stayed in a different garbage can of history. And shall we forget the conniving "Space Chinese", literally inscrutable aliens in Mandarin robes? Lucas was excoriated for that one.
But the glue that held this stupid exercise in story-telling together was even worse. The Jedi, framed in the previous three movies as mystical guardians of justice and order, proved to be bureaucratic, stubborn, stupid - and worse, of low moral character. Qui-Gon Jin had no qualms whatsoever fixing a dice game psychokinetically to get what he wanted out of Watto, for example. "Let's split up and meet together on the planet's surface". Dear God, WHY?
By the time we got to the last saber battle between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the outcome of which we knew decades ago, for the record, making any attempt at suspense moot - it was nothing but spinning CGI and collapsing lava pools - and by that point the whole thing had become boring. A reviewer correctly noted that the original saber battle between David Prowse and Alec Guinness - playing the same two characters, even though one was blinded by a black crash helmet and the other was very advanced in age - was far more interesting, even though very little action actually happened. And it was because the whole point behind the saber battle - indeed, any saber battle in the original series, apart from the de-limbing of a belligerent alien in the Mos Eisley cantina and the swashbuckling fight at the Sarlacc pit - was to act as a storytelling device to show physically the struggles going on between what the two sides represented.
J.J. Abrams is noted for completely re-writing history and re-casting story as he sees fit. With regards to his treatment of Star Trek - There were howls of outrage at Spock's intimacy with Uhuru - not because of the interracial aspect, but because she was a Starfleet officer making that conduct completely unbecoming (implying she's a terrible officer) and he was a Vulcan, supposedly NOT prey to human passions. He killed off characters whose appearance later in the canon were important, and he rewrote the backstory of Khan completely screwing over Trek continuity. In short - whereas Lucas is simply incompetent, Abrams is very deliberate when he steps in and completely changes characters, events and circumstances around.
There are some misogynists out there complaining that the new Jedi is a woman. That doesn't bother me one iota - that it's taken the franchise almost 40 years to have THREE major female characters is pathetic, given a saga that's already spanned six films. But what does bother me is the detail that she hasn't had to learn anything. She's just simply able to do what she wants with the Force, can take down a trained Jedi fighter, and her supernatural abilities come absolutely effortlessly. In fact, you're rather upset that since what she can do is so cavalier, you hope the girl would apply herself and rebuild Alderran from its component atoms, including the folk who were incinerated at the beginning of Episode 4.
I haven't seen the film, of course, and this is conjecture. But as I said, if the Force has gone from something mystical and open to anyone who opens themselves to it, to the equivalent of the Russians finding good stock amongst its citizens and subjecting them to 16 hours a day of Olympic training to get a medal some years from now, to being like something out of a Johnson and Johnson cleaning product commercial - "it was easy! I just snapped my fingers, and things just did what I wanted them to do!", then we've lost a truly, truly beautiful metaphor that captured generations of kids from the 70s through the 90s (e.g. when The Phantom Menace came out).
Every time materialism and science threatens to snuff the spark out of wonder and the humanity in us that makes us ponder the bigger questions that can't be answered with a microscope or a slide rule, someone comes out with a story to re-ignite that imagination. The strong atheist on Reddit scoffing at the idea that there is anything beyond atoms and the Big Bang was upset when Harry Potter ended. The characters of The Big Bang Theory love the superheroes in their comic books, whose abilities defy rational explanation. And J.R.R. Tolkein and company deliberately held a salon to come out with books like the Narnia Chronicles and the Lord of the Rings trilogy explicitly to combat the world becoming grey, industrialized, and only about the material and the rational.
I don't know where this franchise is going, but if turns into another space opera riding on its reputation, I'll go back to re-watching The Empire Strikes Back again.