Faith, Myth and Star Wars

Liel Leibovitz writes in the Tablet why George Lucas' new film Red Tails is forcing him to look at the original Star Wars trilogy in a new light, reflecting on the difference between faith and myth.

From faith stems nuance. From myth, generalities. And, sadly for us, the spirit of myth is winning: We revere Star Wars because to our minds—modern machines that equate religion with superstition and are willing to disregard imperfections in science but never in dogma—the movies represent transcendentalist humanism at its best, a perfect manifestation of that noxious label, “spiritual,” that people use to describe themselves when they’re too dull to believe in religion and too dim to understand science. This is why the Force has become the organizing metaphor of our time; there’s no better one for those who believe that if we only open our hearts and understand people are all the same and all good we’d be enlightened enough to lift rocks with a tilt of our heads.

Just how idiotic is this logic will become evident when we examine the controversy known in geekdom as the “Han Shot First” incident. In the original release of Episode IV: A New Hope, Han Solo is seated across a table from Greedo, a reptilian-looking bounty hunter who’d come to collect a debt Han owes to galactic mobster Jabba the Hutt. Greedo points his laser gun at Han, indicating his intention to shoot the dashing smuggler dead, but Han stealthily readies his own weapon under the table, blasting Greedo first and killing him. When the movie was re-released to theaters in 1997, Lucas had edited the scene. In the new version, Greedo shoots first, somehow missing the man seated about three feet away from him and absolving Han of any moral ambiguity. The fan community was outraged, but Lucas was adamant; he had to make sure, he explained, that kids believed Han had no other choice but to kill Greedo.

Call it monomythic morality: If you believe we’re all bound by structures of sameness, you’re bound to ignore what makes us different, which means that you’re eventually left seeing nothing but bold smears of black and white with no substantive shades anywhere in between. It’s fine, perhaps, when considering the origins of the clone wars, but not so much when the conflict on screen happens to be World War II—Red Tails, a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen financed and produced by Lucas, is another literal-minded study in black and white with a heavy-handed egalitarian message and an inevitable happy ending. The intricate roots of racism and its devastating effects on American society all vanish with a few easy, CGI-enhanced midair dog fights, and it takes a particularly curmudgeonly viewer, or an especially sober one, to recall that black Americans currently comprise 12.6 percent of America’s population and 39.4 percent of its inmates.

But Lucas is largely unburdened by details. He obeys Campbell’s mantra, “follow your bliss,” and presents us with a menagerie of uncomplicated heroes who had followed theirs, urging us to do the same.

We must refuse. Bliss is a terrible guide to follow. Unlike the rules set forth by organized religions, designed, however divergently or effectively, to shepherd the frail species to something approximating goodness, bliss is gauzy and fleeting. If we’re ever to become heroes, if we’re to undergo the sort of noble quests that Campbell and Lucas valorize, we should first find something grander, and more specific, to believe.

Comments (3)

Leibovitz puts his finger on the nagging dissatisfaction I've always felt with the Star Wars story, much as I have enjoyed its mythic proportions over the past thirty-five years.

Oddly enough, I found Lucas flirting with nuance, with moral complexity more in the prequels, particularly with the devolution of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, but it never quite hit home.

We live in a time now where a milk-toast egalitarian morality or a simple fairy tale of darkness versus light does not embrace the enormous complexity we face together.

And then I wonder why our parish and parishes around us are suddenly seeing a rise in Sunday attendance. . .

One should keep in mind that the Star Wars mythology was assembled through the sophisticated process known as "talking off the top of his head." The second set of movies shows that the whole "nine movie" claim he made back when he started to write the second one was more or less total malarkey, and that when he started the fourth movie, he was actually working all this stuff out for the first time. Likewise, for all that he talks about the monomyth (which I agree is more or less crap: get past the basics of telling a heroic story, and religions won't fit with each other much further than endorsement of the second great commandment), it's obvious (and I think that Liebovitz is saying something of the same thing) that he wasn't thinking in those terms when he did the first movie. In fact, like a lot of people who go back and revisit their old works, after he made the third movie, he couldn't touch any of the stuff anymore without marring it.

Gee, I think most of us who love Star Wars do not use its mythology to fill the hole that faith should fill. There is such a thing as reading too much into a piece of entertainment. Lucas may be guilty of this, but then any fan of Star Wars who has seen I-III know that he not only lost his sense of humor after Return of the Jedi but also lost his mind (as well as concepts of character continuity, dialogue, pacing, and editing....).

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