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In Defense of Star Wars
The story of a boy, a girl, and a galaxy
There’s a saying on the internet that nobody hates Star Wars like a Star Wars fan, and that’s true. What puzzles me is why people assume that fans will swallow any bullshit corporate product churned out with a franchise name attached to it. I know that’s what the people who produce this crap think, but that’s not how fandom works, as detailed in my last post. If you love something deeply, you’ll also hate those that try and bastardize the thing you love deeply – these are two sides of the same coin. So it’s not surprising that fans of something will be the fandom’s harshest critic – it’s honestly to be expected.
My older brother coined the potentially offensive term “Star Wars Jew” to describe those of us who only acknowledge the original Star Wars trilogy, and I think it’s accurate. My last post detailed how fandoms can take on a religious quality, so there’s that aspect, and the three types of Star Wars fans craft very well onto the Judeo-Christian framework – the Jews believe solely in the Old Testament, the original trilogy. The Christians believe in the Old Testament and New Testament, the original trilogy and the prequels. And the Mormons believe in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon, so the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, and the Disney trilogy. And like Mormons, these last fans are often the butt of the other denominations’ jokes for subscribing to some poorly thought-out pseudo-religion tacked onto the framework of the canon. No offense to Mormons, of course, and I’m sure the Book of Mormon makes much more sense than the Disney trilogy. It’s certainly better written.
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There have been scores of people on the internet listing the shortcomings of both the prequels and the Disney trilogy (by far the most disappointing thing about the latter is how people have come to embrace the prequel trilogy as a work of art, when everyone knows it’s hot garbage.) Just because something is terrible doesn’t make another terrible thing good by comparison – it’s still terrible.
But I’m not here to add to the chorus of voices criticizing the two later trilogies, because it’s been done before by people much wittier and more perceptive than I am. I’m here to defend Star Wars, my Star Wars, and to convey why it still matters, despite what’s been done to it in recent memory.
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, the Force, lightsabers, jedi, the list goes on. I was lucky to have seen it in childhood, because my experience from people who saw it as an adult is that they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Star Wars is often derided as a “kids movie,” and the same people on the internet who are baffled that people hate when crap is released in the name of something they love are also baffled as to why grown adults get so invested in something made for children. But just because something has a simple narrative doesn’t mean it’s made for children. Star Wars has got fairly dark moments, people getting tortured and strangled and having their hands cut off, and Luke’s aunt and uncle getting vaporized. It’s for children the same way that fairy tales are for children – they’re not really, but they’re dismissed as such because they’re deceptively simple stories with universal themes. Having said that, I think it’s important to see Star Wars through a child’s eyes first, as this was my route to loving it.
I spent my childhood watching the original trilogy 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, which is why it’s so disappointing seeing what terrible imaginations Hollywood writers have, when five-year-olds can come up with hundreds of better stories than they manage to churn out.
When you watch the films as a child, you watch them through a child’s eyes. I never understood the ending of Return of the Jedi 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. Many of the problems with the Disney trilogy involved writers thinking they’re too clever for Star Wars, and trying to overcomplicate its simplicity by subverting your expectations. And honestly, my beef with “The Last Jedi” wasn’t Rian Johnson trying something new by suggesting that these concepts could be more nuanced – it was that he didn’t do anything with that idea. He used the modern writer approach of trying to be clever by deconstructing something good which came before, and then replacing it with literally nothing, leaving only disappointment and frustration to fill in the gap.
I’m not going to argue that Star Wars has some hidden message in it that only people with a PhD 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 understand Darth Vader’s change of heart. Once a bad guy, always a bad guy, that’s the law when you’re a kid. When I rewatched the original trilogy recently, Darth Vader’s 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 the movies 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, because it’s pretty obvious the Force exists – people can move stuff around with it, and choke people 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 very 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 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 get older, 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 succinct 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.
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