STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE
THE GREATEST MYTHOS OF OUR TIME
To remember the Seventies is to remember a decade full of pessimism, sarcasm, and paranoia. How could we forget the gigantic fall of a President, the disillusionment from the Vietnam conflict, the energy crisis, the economic instability and, the cherry on top, the fear of a nuclear hell? Hollywood was no help either; they fueled us with more visions of grief and paranoia, from “The Panic in Needle Park” to “The Midnight Express” and so much more despair. We were slowly becoming the society that George Orwell envisioned in his “1984” novel. Everything culturally seemed to be heading towards this negative direction until George Lucas, too, realized the gloomy road that we were culturally heading into. He understood that our generation needed new heroes and new adventures. Thus his greatest contribution to our modern mythology was appropriately titled “Star Wars: A New Hope.”
Perceived by many to be silent, non-articulate and somewhat lacking as a screenwriter, Lucas’ faith in his stories fueled him as his vision surpassed any writing inadequacies that others saw in the self-admitted reluctant writer. Lucas explained very simply his goal in Douglas Wright’s 1977 “The Making of Star Wars,” “The reason I made 'Star Wars’ is that I want to give young people some sort of faraway environment for their imagination to run in.” And with this so-called environment, Lucas was able to create the rich mythology that we so desperately needed to save our imaginations.
Upon the film’s arrival to theaters it became a phenomenon that was loved by audiences everywhere. Despite an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, its box-office endurance and the tale’s sincerity, there are plenty of skeptics that dismiss the movie and its influence as the beginning of the decline in motion pictures. Richard Corliss, a critic for “Time” magazine, described the film’s story as simply “a video game.” In the December 1996 issue of “Esquire,” journalist David Thomson listed Lucas (along with Steven Spielberg) as the answer to the question, “Who killed the movies?” But what both critics failed to notice was that “Star Wars” became a pinnacle that every filmmaker and storyteller after it wanted to achieve. It’s the misguided efforts of the last thirty years that have grounded many in their constant failure to redo what “Star Wars” did right. That’s why we get the clichï¿½d, prepackaged, soulless summer movies from the Michael Bays and Brett Ratners of the Hollywood world. I know no one ever intends to do bad work, but when the financial stakes are so high, there are many that refuse to challenge not only the audience but themselves in the process of looking for the easy way out. When you play it safe by thinking you know what the audience wants, you’ve already beaten yourself.
What “Star Wars” really proved was that audiences were more than ready for new ideas, no matter how farfetched they may seem, as long as there is depth, sincerity and some emotion beneath them. “Star Wars” was a radical movie to make in the 1970s. Despite the buzz from his triumphant “American Graffiti,” Lucas had been rejected by virtually every studio until Alan Ladd Jr., the then-head of an ailing 20th Century-Fox, basically took a big risk merely because he felt the young filmmaker was more passionate for “Star Wars” than “Graffiti.” Lucas’ desire to control his story ï¿½" particularly the manner in which it was told and sold ï¿½" led to him getting the rights to his creation despite less monies upfront. Although the germ of the idea had been in his head for years, it wasn’t until he had a firm deal that he proceed to spend more than two years expanding it into a screenplay. His story was about an alien universe that wasn’t very alienating. It’s a story that was designed to appeal to our subconscious more than our intellect. This would be the film that critic Roger Ebert described as, “The 'Citizen Kane’ of our time in terms of impact.”
It’s obvious that Lucas’ inspiration drew heavily from his love for science fiction, especially Flash Gordon (the project he initially wanted to film) and the themes of Akira Kurosawa’s films, but the function of sci-fi in his script is more metaphorical, which usually the best science fiction is. Great science fiction, like “Planet of the Apes,” can undertake our human behavior into seemingly new worlds. They present our lives and issues from a different point of view. Despite all this, science fiction remains a genre that only a mother could love… yet, it also is what makes “Star Wars” unique.
“A myth contains the story that is preserved in popular memory and the helps bring to life some deep stratum buried in the depths of the human spirit.” -- Nicholas Berdyaev, philosopher
The nucleus of “Star Wars” is mythology, pure and simple, from all cultures and all generations. In the vital book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Mythos expert Joseph Campbell noted that the story of a hero is universal. It changes very little through translations and generations. All these heroic stories are essentially the same: the call to adventure, the departure from home, and the venture into the unknown to fulfill a purpose that ends a struggle. From the “Bible” to “The Wizard of Oz,” all these stories have taken elements that are eternal and ever-present in good storytelling. Perhaps the strongest reason why “Star Wars” was needed to fill a void was because we had no legends of our own. No Thor and Odin; no Hercules and Zeus. No modern legends to share with our children until Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” -- George Lucas
You know those are the words that begin this fairy tale as the stars cross the universe. Before we can take in the galaxy, we’re told that this story takes place somewhere that is as timeless as any myth. This is not our ticket to the future (as many critics still get wrong), but of a universe where good and evil are clearly defined as black (Vader, The Death Star and The Empire) and white (Luke Skywalker and The Rebellion). The keys are the plans to defeat the quasi-dragon, Death Star, and its destruction, our only goal. The keys are a standard device in mythology because they are the passage to victory and adulthood. In his book, Campbell described, “Keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of self.” The quest to victory is a long road with adventure inevitable. This is the classic set-up between good and evil, because as Campbell points out, “Good and evil cannot co-exist, both are mutually destructive.”
When we first meet our heroes, destiny has yet to play its hand. The Princess Leia Organa has been captured by Darth Vader, who hopes to retrieve the Death Star’s plans from her and the rebels. Unfortunately for Vader, the plans are being carried away by two escaped droids (R2-D2 and C-3PO, who are perhaps the most human element in the story). It’s their job to find an old weathered hero named Ben Obi Wan Kenobi. The droids carry the keys of defeat into the hands of their unsuspecting master and the universe’s rising star.
Luke Skywalker is the catalyst to this entire journey, our gateway to any emotion that the story might spark. When we first encounter the young hero, he’s feeling trapped and alone on his uncle’s moisture farm. All of his friends have moved on. Luke wants nothing more than to leave his home planet of Tatooine, a desert deathtrap that isn’t unlike New Jersey. Much like Bruce Springsteen, he was born to run. His name alone is indication that the stars are his destination. The arrival of the droids changes the tides in his life. Much about Luke is not even known to him. The mere mention of his mysterious father and Kenobi are a sore subject with his uncle. As Campbell as said, in myths, “the father is the invisible unknown.”
The droids lead Luke into the hands of Kenobi -- the most influential person the boy will ever meet -- to begin the adventure of rescuing Leia and his journey into a quasi-religion called “The Force.” Kenobi, a Jedi Knight, is what is referred to as “The Guide of Souls.” Campbell noted in his book, “His role is precisely that of the Wise Old Man of the myths and fairy tales whose words assist the hero through the trails and terrors of the weird adventure. He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword.” With Luke accepting the call to duty, he’s completed the first phase of Campbell’s mythological adventure equation, “The Separation.” The other parts of the equation are “The Initiation” and “The Return.”
Upon the voyage to their destiny (with the anti-hero Han Solo as their pilot), our heroes find their way to their dragon, the world-eating Death Star. The space station is the traditional castle that holds the abducted princess who awaits her rescuer. She is every hero’s reason to fight. About someone like her, Campbell said, “The bliss-bestowing goal of every hero’s earthly and unearthly quest.” This is Luke’s initiation. There’s no turning back for him at this point.
The final conflict between Ben Kenobi, the teacher, and Darth Vader, his corrupt disciple, is a confrontation that had long been avoided, because “Their legends are rehearsed.” To Kenobi, Darth is his biggest failure. For Vader, Kenobi represents part of a past that he wants so much to destroy. Vader’s soul has fallen so far into evil that his allegiance to his false prophet, The Emperor, is unbreakable. Although Vader is seemingly the victor as he strikes Kenobi’s body with his sword, the villain’s faith is shaken with Kenobi’s last words and the disappearance of the old Jedi’s body into a metaphysical plane. Ben’s sacrifice allows Luke and his friends to escape the Death Star and accomplish the last part of the mythology equation, “The Return”, with the evitable destruction of the dragon in typical David vs. Goliath fashion. A true mythological hero always rises to the occasion. Heroes like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are not born; they are made out of necessity.
With the completion of Luke Skywalker’s first adventure, we see the beginning of a leader and his transformation from adolescence into adulthood. It really is his “first step into a large world.” He is the essence of a hero. His goodness like Dorothy Gale in Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” benefits all around him. In befriending the sinner Han Solo, he’s given his life some purpose. For Leia, Luke has helped her revolution gain momentum. For Vader, his faith in the dark side is shaken. Vader’s mythological future had already been foretold by Campbell as “The hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow unless he crucifies himself today.”
George Lucas is not the first person to use the mythology structure within a story -- T.S. Elliot, Franz Kafka and James Joyce have all employed it within their work. These are the same story devices that you see in Jeff Smith’s “Bone,” “The Matrix,” “Dark City,” “Lord of the Rings” and so many epic tales. These themes will constantly be with us until the end of time.
The true key to “Star Wars” is The Force, this metaphysical element which Kenobi idealistically described as an “energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In the very first “Star Wars” film, Lucas was giving us optimism in his allegory; he was telling us that within us was a potential to do whatever we wanted to do. To quote Jules Verne, “My power is in my own hand.” If you think of this idealism as too idealistic, than perhaps you’re only fooling yourself. To succeed and to do “good” is universal in all men and women, such is the will of human spirit that “Star Wars: A New Hope” captures perfectly: To live our lives to their fullest potential and always reach for the stars.
[Special Thanks to my good friend, Modern Masters’ Eric Nolen-Weathington, for his invaluable help and critic on the “Pop!” articles. Merci Eric! And special thanks to Spike TV for use of the photos.]