I love Star Wars. Deeply, passionately, in the most significant way a human being can love a creative work. The same way football fans love football – the way they obsessive over the sport, watch every game, discuss it with their friends, remember facts and trivia and statistics. In fact, although the geeks and sports fans like to deny it, this is the same mentality, just latched onto different mediums. Star Wars has become a part of public consciousness in a way few films have – even if you haven’t seen it, you know things about it – characters, lines, the Force, lightsabers, jedi, the list goes on. Because of this, it’s pretty common to meet fans of the series. Whenever I’ve met them, there’s always a nice moment, a feeling of community, a realization that this person shares this experience with me. It’s similar to the football fan’s mentality – you realize you’re a part of something bigger than yourself, part of a team. Football fans say “we did well last night;” Star Wars fans have a similar sense of “we,” although we might not use that terminology. But a shared love of something is a hugely powerful thing, whether in sport or geekery. Even Goths or Emos, social groups that pride themselves on being alone and individual, band together. Humans are naturally social creatures – put it down to evolution or whatever you like. We like to bond with each other. And we bond over common interests and shared experiences. And Star Wars, like football, is an experience.
Most people, myself included, were probably introduced to Star Wars from a young age. I spent my childhood watching the films over and over with my brothers, pretending to be Princess Leia, losing to my brothers in lightsaber fights with wrapping paper tubes, pretending a punching bag was R2-D2, going trick or treating as Darth Vader. Even if you didn’t have the same level of obsessiveness, a child’s imagination can do wonders with those films. The potential stories you can create with those characters in that universe is literally endless.
When you watch the films as a child, you watch them through a child’s eyes. I never understood the ending when Darth Vader threw the Emperor down the reactor shaft – Darth Vader was a bad guy. I didn’t understand how he could turn into a good guy. Redemption isn’t really a theme a child processes very well. You see the world in black and white, and Star Wars is great with this, because it’s very clear from the beginning who the bad guys and the good guys are. The bad guys look scary, wear armor or uniforms, and talk funny (in other words, they have British accents.) The good guys look normal and friendly, and talk like me. You watch the good guys win, as you know they will, even though it looks bad sometimes, like when Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite, and you know the bad guys will lose. It’s a film that gives you exactly what you want and expect, because it’s an archetypal good vs. evil quest narrative.
I put the universal appeal of Star Wars down to this archetypal narrative – it’s a very basic story all people can relate to. You can watch it as a child and appreciate it for its simplicity. And I’m not going to argue that Star Wars has some hidden message in it that only students with a Master’s degree in English can understand. But I am about to argue that Star Wars has themes that you can only fully understand as an adult, once you’ve grown up and experienced something of life. It’s a story that grows with you. As you grow up, you relate to different characters and situations than when you were little. And this is its real mass appeal in my view – as with all great works of art, it appeals at both a universal and a personal level.
As I said, when I was little, I didn’t get Darth Vader’s change of heart. Once a bad guy, always a bad guy, that’s the law. When I rewatched them recently, his decision to destroy the Emperor when he saw him torturing his son was incredibly moving to me. When you’re little, Darth Vader being “seduced” by the Dark Side of the Force is something you don’t really understand – you just accept it. But which of us, as we’ve grown up, hasn’t been tempted by the Dark Side, as defined in those films? Living our life in fear, hatred, aggression? I know I have. I know many people whose lives are dominated by fear, which prevents them from living their life to the fullest. Aggression is also incredibly crippling – it’s something I constantly have to deal with, and I know first-hand how damaging it can be to your life to be obsessed by hatred for something or someone. That’s what the Dark Side is. It doesn’t turn you into an ugly monster or make you wear a robot suit, but it does change who you are, it does cripple you, and it does damage you. It’s something you always have to be mindful of, and be wary of, because it is strong, and it can seduce you, and it can dominate your destiny.
When I was little, I didn’t really care about Luke Skywalker. He was a bit whiny, and a bit lame (the evil people were always cooler, and still are), and I only rooted for him because I knew he was the hero, so he was going to win. But again, watching it recently, I really began to relate to his journey and the conflict within himself – the impatience to have what he thinks he deserves and is capable of. Which of us isn’t a little impatient and reckless and think we deserve better? But the most moving moment for me this time was when he confronted his father in “Return of the Jedi,” expecting him not to turn him over to the Emperor because there was still good in him. His refusal to fight him at the end was a really powerful moment for me. Against all odds, Luke still has faith in his father – faith that he will do the right thing. The real faith in this story isn’t about the Force; it’s pretty obvious the Force exists – people can move stuff around with it. It’s about faith in people. Faith in your friends. Han Solo comes back to help Luke destroy the Death Star. Darth Vader destroys the Emperor. Han and Leia and Chewbacca get the shield down so Lando can blow up the second Death Star. And for me anyway, that’s a pretty moving theme. You have to believe in the people you love. That’s as much of a religion as I’ll probably ever have.
There’s also the message about the power and importance of the individual – how one person can change the destiny of an entire galaxy. I think Star Wars also appeals as an underdog story – the little, insignificant Rebellion taking down the seemingly indestructible Empire is a really hopeful message. It makes you think you can make a difference, that nothing is so powerful that it can’t be overcome. Maybe these are pretty naïve beliefs, but I think we all secretly believe them. I know I do. I certainly relate to all those themes at this point in my life, when maybe I really couldn’t when I was little.
Maybe as I continue to grow up, I’ll relate to a completely different character, like Yoda or Obi-Wan or the Emperor – people who have basically given up hope for their generation and look to the training (or corrupting, based on your point of view) of the new generation. But I’m sure I will always find some aspect of those films that speaks to me personally, and I’m sure other people will too. We all go on a quest, we all grow and develop in a similar way. We all relate to that journey, some aspects of it more than others, based on the individual. But I’m guessing no matter who you are, you can probably find some aspect of Star Wars to relate to, because you’re human. My original Star Wars VHS tapes had a trailer for the trilogy before the films started, which we always watched. It advertised the series as being about “a boy, a girl, and a galaxy.” I think that’s a pretty succint summary of why these films are so great, and why they endure. It’s a story about a person trying to find his way in a wider world. And which of us isn’t trying to do that? May the Force be with you.