There is a tidal wave of excitement over the seventh installment of the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to be released in a few weeks. Tickets for opening day are nearly sold out, people will camp out to get first dibs on good seats, and costumed movie-goers will drag entire families to watch what some are calling the event of the century.
This is no exaggeration. For many, Star Wars is the ultimate science fiction movie that shaped childhoods, established cultural icons for generations, and set an example for cinematic heroes and plots since 1977.
The franchise’s momentous history was not always as prominent and positive. Few people remember, for instance, that some faith leaders refused to see the movie because of the eastern philosophies and world religions that influenced the plot.
I remember vividly my father’s warning that the film was too “New Age” to take seriously and that the “Force,” an energy that defines and holds the entire Star Wars universe together, is none other than a pantheistic idol in disguise. He might as well have quoted Han Solo in referring to the Force: “It’s a whole lot of simple tricks and nonsense!”
The truth is that the franchise’s religious and spiritual undercurrents are what inspires its staying power. The subplots of call, conflict, redemption, death and rebirth, baptism, rites of passage, and victory through sacrifice or self-denial communicates a message that transcended time and place unlike any movie before or after its release.
The evangelicals were actually on to something. The father of the franchise, George Lucas, admitted that eastern and New Age spiritual mythology set the stage for the narrative arc. This was not to exclude western worldviews, but to connect people with the larger themes all of us–and every religion–have in common. It is parabolic in its power to express the human struggle through images and metaphors.
Lucas also relied on comparative religious studies that his good friend, Joseph Campbell, perpetuated in the book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, which outlined common threads that messiahs, villains, and saviors from every religion and mythology share.
Star Wars is popular not only because of its award-winning affects, marketing, and music score, but because the basic story appropriated Campbell’s findings for a new, contemporary audience that sat squarely in an age that valued spirituality and postmodern storytelling.
Of course, the first three Star Wars movies were not the only ones controversial. The three prequels, released years later, were controversial too, but for different reasons.
Fans and movie critics lambasted the prequels for an over-reliance on computer-generated special affects, a thin plot and flimsy script, and actors that did not seem to replicate the movie magic of the original films.
Even today, when one thinks of Star Wars, images of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo come to mind rather than Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker or Samuel Jackson’s Mace Windu. Some people would pay good money to lobotomize memories of Jar Jar Binks from their brains once and for all.
But I think the prequels flopped because of something more primeval: Lucas failed to engage audiences on a cerebral, spiritual level so aptly achieved by the first three Star Wars installments. Somewhere along the way, he neglected Campbell’s work for the sake of action, adventure, and campy lunchboxes.
That Lucas is not directing the forthcoming movie is a relief for many. The new director, J. J. Abrams, has a formidable resume, and anticipation remains high.
Can Abrams muster a film as significant as the first three? If it taps into the spiritual longings of a people who still yearn for a savior, then it just might do. If it only seeks to tickle the senses of audiences by having big explosions and fight scenes, then it may as well fall into the same forgettable category as the prequels. Only time will tell.