Star Wars and the Future of Mythology


 

Star
Wars
has always been a complicated subject
for me. The half-hearted First Baptist Church of my youth failed to captivate
me, and the journey of Luke Skywalker became the myth that really explained the
universe. I was no less devoted to Star Wars than any of the strictest
adherents to any religion. I meticulously arranged my collection of toys,
numbering in the hundreds, into a well-maintained shrine charged with a
spiritual undercurrent I couldn't have explained at the time. Ultimately, to my
12 year old unconscious self, the three movies were a closed loop tracking the
life, death and rebirth of the Cosmic Sun God.

"It
wasn't just the production value that made that such an exciting film to watch,
it was that it came along at a time when people needed to see in recognizable
images the clash of good and evil. They needed to be reminded of idealism, to
see a romance based upon selflessness rather than selfishness
." –Bill Moyers

"Star Wars is not a simple morality
play, it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or
broken and suppressed through the action of man." –Joseph Campbell

George Lucas only wanted to
make a Flash Gordon movie. He couldn't get the rights, so he made up his own
characters instead. Although Lucas himself had read plenty of Joseph Campbell
and understood the spiritual component of the story, it's likely that the bulk
of his motivation lay in capturing the boyhood wonder of the Saturday Morning Serial
Adventures. Lucas didn't want to create the first Geek Religion. He just wanted
to make some crazy aliens that made weird noises and funny robots and exploding
spaceships. There is an innocent kind of purity in this motivation that the
muses smile upon. Lucas's youthful enthusiasm for exciting and strange
adventures attracted (almost unwittingly) a far more profound ancient paradigm
of myth. The solemnity of the Cosmic Drama, acting on its own agenda, injected
itself into the whimsical swashbuckling extravaganza. Thus, in 1977, movie
screens around the world became primitive campfires, with Lucas as the Raving
Shaman receiving transmissions from the Gods.

"Certainly
Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine
and asks ‘Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?' Humanity
comes not from the machine but from the heart." –Joseph Campbell

The phenomenal success of Star Wars speaks to a spiritual hunger,
particularly in the context of America's cultural ambiguity. Unlike the Old
World, which had thousands of generations of matured tradition and myth to
provide a bedrock of identity, America was and is, collectively, an uninitiated
child. With no visceral rites of passage to provide a spiritual transition into
adulthood, a certain portion of American youth reach for the powerful yet
ultimately impoverished substitute of the cinema. Star Wars dances on the line between gaudy commercial spectacle and
indispensable world-explaining myth. As far as the Cool Kids Table is
concerned, Star Wars is just a weird
movie about aliens and robots. To the Loner Geeks, Star Wars is proof that
there is a transcendent narrative embedded in the fabric of reality.

By devoting himself to the
minutiae of memorizing the names of supporting characters and the serial
numbers of the Death Star's garbage compactors, the geek is feeling for the
material contours of some ungraspable magnetic energy that has inexplicably drawn
him to the story. He knows Star Wars
is important, but he can't really tell you why. It's easier for him to wrap his
head around whatever secret knowledge he can find. Luke is playing with a toy
model of a T-16 Skyhopper in the oil bath scene. One of the asteroids is
actually a potato. You can see the cameraman reflected on C-3PO's helmet in the
Ugnaught recycling facility. This is the equivalent of studying one's
scriptures, expecting to find meaning in every word.

"Society
has provided them no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the
community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally
in the present world, leaving childhood behind." –Bill Moyers

The inability of the
"Entertainment Industry" to truly replace the culture-unifying, existential
certainty of religion is best exemplified by the bloated and protracted life of
the Star Wars franchise. The goose,
having laid three golden eggs, was locked in a cage, poked, prodded and
squeezed. Expecting a reliable source of golden eggs to continue indefinitely,
the Industry instead gets a mixed batch of silver and brass. Ecstatic cinematic
myth-making devolves into the cynical production of narrative as product. The
preacher recites and gestures with fervor, but he no longer hears the voice of
God. Muses can be flighty and easily offended.

Such is the case with Star Wars. A finite three-part Sun God Myth
is transformed into an infinitely realized parallel universe full of quirky
exposition, intergalactic logistics, and mundane concerns. A quick browse of Wookiepedia shows that no stone has been left unturned by detail obsessed
fan-creators. Novels, comics and videogames have been extrapolating galactic
events well beyond the films. As if the Sun God has anything to do after he has
triumphed over Father Darkness and brought the Light of Life back into the
world. But what would it be like if Han and Leia got married and have kids?
Does Luke found a New Jedi Order? Does a New Republic emerge to bring Peace and
Justice to the galaxy? These questions are ultimately meaningless. The story
was finished in 1983. The heroic cycle was closed, and it was time to move on.
Unsatisfied, we couldn't bring ourselves to move on. Enter the Prequels.

The excessive quality of
the ‘Expanded Universe', including the Prequel Trilogy, shows how desperate we
are for a modern myth to make sense of the modern dilemma. The tribe beseeches
the Shaman, "Tell us more about the Sun Hero!" The Shaman, drunk on praise yet
bereft of his Muse, is forced to placate the tribe with whatever comes to his
mind next. If you honestly believe that George Lucas had the details of
Episodes 1, 2 and 3 ready to go back in the late 70?s, much less the newly announced 7, 8 and 9, I advise you to read the
early drafts of the scripts, "Luke Starkiller and The Journal of the Whills"
and so on. The George Lucas responsible for the Prequels is not the George
Lucas of 1977-1980. Age, divorce, fatherhood and unfathomable financial success
have a way of shifting one's perspective. The goose was never meant to lay
golden eggs forever.

"We
have a large group of ideas and characters and books and all kinds of things.
We could go on making ‘Star Wars' for the next 100 years." –George Lucas

The key question in this
moment is the responsibility of the writers and directors who will be making
the next feature films. Lucas is returning to his rightful place, creating only
"story notes" as in ESB and ROTJ. Gone is the Lucas as helicopter parent, insisting
on writing and directing his prequel "babies" despite his near complete
inability to write dialogue or motivate actors. Is it even possible to make
episodes 7-9 a story worth telling, a story that will stir the same primal
forces of the original trilogy? I personally doubt it, even if the geek masses
were capable of electing their saviors J.J. Abrams and/or Joss Whedon to
squeeze more golden eggs out of their withered goose. I'm willing to be proven
wrong. The world has changed much since the 1970?s. More than ever, we need
the power of myth to breathe spiritual conviction into our chaotic
circumstances. Harry Potter gave us
"spiritual journey as scavenger hunt", and Avatar
merely danced on the surface spectacle, delivering an empty gesture of stilted environmental
politics. We need a new myth that cracks open the spirit of our children.

I worry that cinema as a
whole has become far too corrupt and profit-driven to achieve the maturity
necessary to fully inherit the role of Shaman Storyteller. Has any Star Wars fan, myself included, actually
derived any truly valuable spiritual teachings from six hours of rapid-fire
imagery? Can we really depend on film writers and directors to help our
children understand their place in the Cosmic Drama? If the religions of our
parents have failed us so completely, and film-myths have proven so fragile and
hollow, are we left with anything solid upon which to build a new spiritual
culture that can endure for future generations? Perhaps we need to step out of
the theater and return to the campfire.

 

Image by pasukaru76, courtesy of Creative Commons license.