May the Blinks Be With You: Insights from The World According to Star Wars
There is no denying the Star Wars universe’s hold on our collective cultural imagination. The films, video games, action figures, books, and Hallowe’en costumes have provided years’ worth of entertainment. Every generation of moviegoer seems to have found a way to pass these stories down.
The phenomenon could just as well have flamed out after 1977, yet here we are forty years later, awaiting the release of The Last Jedi. But why? Perhaps its the combination of moral seriousness, gee-whiz space adventure, screwball comedy, and rousing John Williams music. Whatever the reason, there is no denying the broad appeal and impact.
To help answer this question, Harvard professor Cass Sunstein’s book, The World According to Star Wars, explores the backstory and themes of the now-eight-film saga to discover why it is we continue to rewatch the adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie and now follow the journeys of Rey, Kylo, Finn, and Poe (and BB-8).
1. Universal Themes
George Lucas has stated in the past that the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell heavily influenced the stories told in the Star Wars films. Luke’s journey from farmhand to Jedi knight and Vader’s downfall and redemption can be found in one form or another in the stories people have told one another for millennia. The trailer for The Last Jedi shows Rey wrestling with questions of her place and purpose in the world. Through Luke and Han, Poe and Finn, or C-3PO and R2-D2, among others, we can explore what it means to be a friend. So, for those willing to dig beneath the surface, the films offer a rich trove of character studies beyond their entertainment-value.
Part of Star Wars’ initial success came from its arrival in a specific historical moment. By 1977, the USA had recently pulled forces out of Vietnam, Watergate had shaken confidence in the presidency, and the economy was slowly emerging from a downturn. Star Wars’ message of the pursuit and triumph of good appealed to a dispirited public. Throughout the subsequent 40 years, in the course of individual and national ups and downs, Lucas’s bright-eyed vision speaks to our desires to strive for a better world. And sometimes that speech with inverted syntax comes.
3. The Creative Process
Scholars (both of the degreed and armchair varieties) have spent years taking a loupe to the various influences on Star Wars from film and television and literature. Lucas undertook several drafts with feedback from his friends to wrangle these disparate elements into just the first film. From there, the story and borrowings only continued to grow as the series was further developed. Those creatives inspired by Lucas can take solace in the fact that even their heroes struggled to create the works we now hold in such high esteem.
4. Self-determination and Consequences
Pretty much all the characters in the Star Wars movies make hard choices. In A New Hope, Luke has to decide whether to help his aunt and uncle as a moisture farmer or pursue learning about the force. The Force Awakens showed us that Han Solo continued his escapades throughout the galaxy rather than raise his son. Though the whole Star Wars series advocates for the individual’s ability to make choices in his or her own life, the films also do not shy away from characters grappling with these decisions as well as the consequences they face as a result. These struggles bolster our investment and keep us interested.
Whether you prefer the classic trilogy, the prequels, or the new films, the Star Wars saga has managed to tap into our collective imaginations. The themes (philosophical, metaphysical, musical) beckon us back to the stories set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. As time goes on, we’ll only continue to discover more treasures packed within the celluloid frames. Indeed, it seems like the force will be with us, always.