In our look at prominent anniversaries in 2017, the 40th anniversary of Star Wars bears noting as a significant cultural moment. The series is the most commercially successful movie franchise ever. Later this year, four decades after the first film was released in May 1977, the ninth major motion picture will be released. It’s called Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. In any case, it won’t be the last film, not by a long shot.
Why has it lasted so long, this series which for generations of children has provided the fantastical architecture of their imaginary play? Despite mediocre writing, it has hosted enduring stars – James Earl Jones, Sir Alec Guinness – and launched others, such as Harrison Ford.
From the beginning, many fans noted the religious imagery in Star Wars, far too abundant to be accidental. Sir Alec Guinness wore the garb of a monk in his turn as the elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi; Luke Skywalker, when he finally makes it as a Jedi, dresses like a young priest. Darth Vader’s helmet is a stylised mitre, all the better to evoke the corrupt bishop he has become. The wicked emperor carries a staff and is attended by a court that includes attendants decked head-to-toe in cardinalatial red. The Jedi “temple” is a mosque-and-minaret construction. The Force itself is pantheism made palatable for a secular generation that likes to pretend that it is spiritual but not religious. Now, as the saga nears its (supposed) end, the physical setting is actually Skellig Michael, the redoubt of the Irish monks who saved civilisation.
Star Wars endures because it is an ancient story about the deepest human dramas – a tale of love, sacrifice and fatherhood on the one hand, and the tragedy of hate, domination and tyranny on the other. It tests which account is a more authentic description of the path to human flourishing.
The central character is Anakin Skywalker, a young boy of preternatural abilities who has no father. The mystery of fatherhood, natural and spiritual, therefore marks the entire saga. The Jedi present the boy with the ideals of honour and duty and sacrifice in which those who have been given much are required to serve the good of all.
As a young man, Anakin rejects his Jedi masters, and the evil Emperor Palpatine offers a different vision to Anakin: those who have been given much have the power to seize more – even the ultimate power to create life and cheat death. It is the way of domination, not sacrifice.
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