Is Star Wars more than an entertaining space opera meant to relax us after the daily grind of post-industrialized life? To answer that question, we must consider the possibility of depth in cinema—that cinema is itself the vehicle for our post-technological mythology, manifesting our deepest fears as well as our subconscious and unconscious struggles. While it is undeniable that some films are entertaining consumeristic products meant for mass consumption or, alternatively, works of propaganda moved solely by the political zeitgeist, other films seem to be representative—oftentimes unconsciously or subconsciously—of our contemporary fears contained deep in the id of human existence. The Star Wars saga, I will contend, is among those films.
I acknowledge that I am a Star Wars fan. I would not venture to say I’m a geek; I do not read the books or comics associated with the Star Wars universe. But I do love the first six films and some of their spinoff cartoons. I find them enchanting and instructive in certain forgotten realities of life—especially the importance of friendship and sacrifice in an increasingly isolative and individualistic age.
If the gentle reader permits me I wish to deconstruct the archetypes, imagery, and narratives employed in the original Star Wars trilogy to bring out what I see as the deep currents that govern the film and its development from the pursuit of the Tantive IV to the celebrations on Endor after the destruction of Death Star II. This concerns itself with the finished films as they are and not with novelizations or original drafts. As such, this deconstruction of Star Wars and its place in the science-fiction and fantasy artistic arc concerns itself with the original films as formally completed and in the time they were produced.
Isaac Asimov defined science fiction as “that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” Star Wars is a shining example of science fiction because it deals with the ongoing struggles that humans face in a world dominated by science and technology. The opening scenes of A New Hope visually represents this for us in the pursuit of the Tantive IV.
One of the most identifiable archetypes of science fiction is the dialectic between two worlds. One world, often the dying or threatened world, is the world of organic eroticism and naturality. This world is often shown teeming with life, pathos, and sublime vegetation; an imperfect and messy world, but an undeniably sublime and often beautiful world which recaptures our desire for an Edenic paradise. This organic and natural world is often threatened, or contrasted, with the sterile, dark, and mechanical world of science and industry. The second world is the ascendant reality which we ourselves, as homo sapiens, are slowly gliding into. The cold, mechanical, and scientistic world is one where corporations, industry, and machines dominate and often threaten to wipe out the former world of organic naturalism with the promises of progress, peace, and security.
Star Wars depicts for us this dialectic between worlds and how the emergent technological world severs the Erfahrung of natural, organicist, existence. The world of Alderaan, of Mos Eisley, of our heroes, indeed, the whole galaxy far, far away—is the organic and natural world threatened by the mechanical monsters of the new scientific age. In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is the incarnate hero of the organic world threatened by the ascendant, and tyrannical, world of scientific and technological power. It is important to remember that Luke’s foster parents are (moisture) farmers, an ancient profession that once served as the life common to most humans. Of course, this noble life of the land is extinguished by the forces of technology, science, and progress—manifested for us in the most starkly brutal way when Luke returns to his farm only to see the charred bodies of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.
The destruction of the moisture farm orphans Luke. He is now an uprooted and displaced human being in search for himself and his destiny. Luke is meant to be a common man hero in his first instantiation. We are meant to identify and sympathize with Luke because he is us. Luke is the in situ man at large, displaced by the modernity of progress, technology, and science, now struggling to find himself in the midst of a rapidly changing cosmos while coming of age and losing his innocence in the process. (I should note, here, that there is a wonderful coloration to Luke as he undergoes this search for identity and coming of age wherein he is dressed in white in A New Hope, becomes a murkier grey in the Empire Strikes Back, and comes of age dressed in black in Return of the Jedi, altogether symbolizing his loss of innocence and discovering the dark side of his family lineage as a son conceived in the sins of his father.)
With Luke we begin to see the formation of the first storyline in Star Wars: The struggle to find an identity, to know thyself, in a world ripped apart by the dark side of technological tyranny. For that is what the Dark Side is in A New Hope (and the original trilogy more generally). At the superficial level, the Dark Side is the negative manifestation of the mystical conception of “The Force.” It leads to unlimited power, which, when wielded, serves the purpose of domination. But getting beyond the superficial and verbatim explanation of the Dark Side helps us realize, more powerfully, what the Dark Side is in the Star Wars universe. To understand the Dark Side, we must realize where Dark Side aligns. In A New Hope, the Dark Side is manifested on the side of technological tyranny—visually represented to us by the Death Star and Darth Vader (who is, in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Empire Strikes Back, “more machine now than man”). The Dark Side belongs to that second world of scientific, technological, imperialism which kills Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, orphans Luke, destroys Alderaan, and threatens to wipe out natural, organic, biological life throughout the galaxy. At the interior level of our oscillation between the two worlds, Luke is likeable and sympathetic because he experiences the very struggles we ourselves are facing in a world caught in transformation between that messy but natural past and suffocating and displacing future wrought by the power of science and industry.
In Luke’s search for his identity, which is necessarily a search for his destiny, we begin to meet the imperfect cast of heroes who defend the old world in all its glorious imperfections: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Princess Leia, the rebels of the Rebel Alliance. Each of these heroes are instantiated manifestations of an aspect of the natural world in its eclipse: the old mystic sage (Obi-Wan); the self-centered ruffian and troublemaker (Han) and his partner in crime (Chewbacca); the beautiful sumptuous woman who is, upon closer inspection, headstrong and defiant (Leia); and the idealists (the whole array of rebels).
This world that our heroes archetypally represent are also contrasted by the emergent world of technological and scientific darkness: the apostate (Darth Vader); the tyrannical bureaucrat (Tarkin) and his partners in crime (the careerist imperial officers); and the impressed soldiers of technological domination (the stormtroopers). Interestingly enough, in this sterile mechanical world that the Empire represents we find something noticeably absent: the beautiful woman who, in her womb, carries the miracle wonderwork of life. It is not accidental that the grey and black world of the Dark Side have no women (in the film)—for the world of technological tyranny is sterile and mechanical, it represents the triumph of transhumanism and the supposed dawn of a new beginning where love, in all its pathological complexities, is wiped away and the fully rational, mathematical, and passionless man takes his place at the head of the cosmos.
We know what the agents of the Dark Side fight for: power and destruction. We remain unsure what our heroes fight for. At the cursory level, our heroes fight for an abstract sense of good and justice. They fight to save the galaxy from the evil of the Death Star. But as this story develops for us, we start to see more clearly what our heroes fight for: love. For love is also bound up with one’s identity. What makes us human is our innate heart for love and capacity to love.
Love, of course, is something relational and demands self-giving and sacrifice. Two characters embody the current of love in A New Hope more than any other. The first is Obi Wan, perhaps somewhat naturally, who sacrifices himself for the sake of Luke and the rest of the cosmos. The other character is Han Solo, the self-centered ruffian bad boy who fights for himself. As he repeatedly says throughout the film, he is merely intertwined with the rebel cause simply to rescue Leia and receive his handsome payment for his services. Yet it is Han who grows the most in the film as the reality of love, demanding relationships and self-giving, transforms him into an unlikely crusader for cosmic chivalry and virtue. After all, we thought him departed before the rebels make their last ditched attack on the Death Star only to return in heroic fashion—having put his own self-centeredness aside—to help Luke and therefore play an integral role in the Death Star’s destruction. Han is literally transformed, inwardly at first, then outwardly by film’s end, into an agent of love (as becomes manifestly clear in the Empire Strikes Back).
While Luke comes of age in A New Hope, he has yet to find his identity and destiny. He has been given clues all throughout, but in the Empire Strikes Back we join Luke in his search for himself, and his family lineage, to dark caverns and crevices which sends shivers down our spines. The Empire Strikes Back carries forward where A New Hope left off. As such, we see the search for identity in the midst of the conflagrating cosmos breaking into two streams which, as we shall see, are nevertheless intertwined and related: the search for the self and the struggle to find refuge in love.
The search for his identity, and by contingent necessity, destiny, is the story of Luke. While he has come to find a part of himself in the struggle for love, he has yet to fully know himself which requires his retreat from his friends and love-interest, Leia, to complete the path of Jedi initiation which Obi-Wan started him on. In Luke’s flight to Degobah to train under Yoda, Luke is following the path set out for him by others. It is not, upon a close inspection, Luke’s own path. Luke’s identity is not, per se, to be a Jedi. It is to be a Skywalker which is far more burdensome than being a mere Jedi. He is a son and a Skywalker, which is something deeper than being a mere Jedi.
Luke’s search for himself is the quintessential recapitulation of the seminal question laid out by St. Augustine: mihi quaestio factus sum. Who am I? or what am I? This journey to find the self is also a journey to find the Father. Thus Luke’s path of self-discovery runs through Darth Vader, the shadowy and powerful villain of the first film who was said to have “betrayed” and “killed” Anakin Skywalker according to Obi-Wan.
Luke’s call to self-introspection and discovery is his call to adventure. For the quest for self-understanding and identity is the ultimate pilgrimage that a human can partake in. And Luke’s journey from the sands of Tatooine to the forests of Endor moon is nothing less than a grueling pilgrimage of self-discovery which culminates in the seeing of the Face of his Father, his god.
This journey to self-discovery and encounter with the Father plays on all the traditional archetypes of religion and mythology. Luke journeys to a secluded and murky world to meet with a wise guardian and teacher. He descends into a cave and meets the demons of his psyche, a hallucinogenic version of himself in Darth Vader’s armor which prefigures the revelation of his identity as the son of Darth Vader. The journey leads him to venture into the heart of darkness, the bottom of the abyss, a literal hell—the dark crevices of Bespin, a planet that is otherwise a shining paradise—and duels Darth Vader only to lose an arm and receive the soul crushing news that Darth Vader is, in fact, Luke’s father.
The concurrent storyline to Luke’s pilgrimage to self-identity is the love that grows between Han and Leia over the course of their trials and flight to escape to the clutches of Vader and the Empire. The romance begins, naturally, in turmoil and turbulence but gives way to serenity in the midst of chaos, darkness, and death. So important is the love between Han and Leia that an entire leitmotif, the love leitmotif, is dedicated to it in the film.
Love brings forth transformation, an inward transformation that has outward ramifications. This is seen subtly, at first, then manifested in full splendor when Han is frozen in carbonite on Bespin. Leia, if we remember, is the beautiful but headstrong princess we met in A New Hope. In this respect, not much has changed over the time elapse between films. She is still beautiful and headstrong in the beginning of Empire. Han, if we recall, was the self-centered ruffian tough guy—indeed, “bad boy”—in the first film. Now, however, he has friends whom he devotes his time and energy to helping. Yet he is still something of a renegade in the beginning of Empire (and, frankly, never stops being something of a renegade even through Return of the Jedi). But over the course of Empire, Han undeniably transforms into a chivalric knight of sorts who freely allows himself to be sacrificed with the promise that Leia would be safe from Vader’s schemes.
The love that blossoms between Han and Leia is more the guiding and governing force in their journey than mere escapism from the sinister hand of the Vader and his minions. From estranged quarreling individuals to intimately intertwined persons, the metamorphoses of Han and Leia is one of the great triumphs of the film and an enduring testament to the realities of the metamorphic power of love. After all, the headstrong Leia becomes undeniably more feminine in her acquiescence to Han’s love—submissive but still powerful, enchanting but still seductive, receptive but still willful. Meanwhile, that “scruffy looking nerf herder” and “scoundrel” is entirely transformed into a man willing to sacrifice for others instead of being preoccupied with excuses and protecting himself. In short, Leia matures into a woman over the course of the film and Han becomes a true man when he is frozen in carbonite in an act of sacrifice on behalf of the beloved. Their liveliness and personality is drawn out for us in more personal ways than before; additionally, the headstrong and apoplectic Leia from A New Hope is now filled with a spirit of joy and compassion heretofore unseen which manifests itself alongside the self-sacrificial and chivalric spirit born in Han.
The love arc of Han and Leia also intersects, in Bespin, with Luke’s self-discovery. After Luke is wounded in his confrontation with Darth Vader and nearly falls to his death, he uses the Force to communicate his distress to Leia who has escaped with the traitor turned rebel Lando. The testimony of love’s power to unite in a cosmos rapidly devolving and giving way to technological tyranny is witnessed in these moments. While training with Yoda, Yoda informed Luke about the nature of the Force, that the Force is “around you: here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere!” While undoubtedly New Age in intention, the definition that Yoda provides of the Force is actually intellectually Christian in roots for anyone with a deep knowledge of Christian theology and cosmology. St. Thomas Aquinas, after all, in the Summa defined love as “the unitive force” which binds all things together. This reality is manifested when Luke uses the Force as the communicative unitive force that brings Leia to him in his moment of need and rescues him from certain death.
But what do we make of the Empire, of Vader—in particular—over the course of the story? If the Empire Strikes Back focuses on the pilgrimage of self-discovery and love for our heroes, then the antagonist’s narrative arc certainly has something to tell us, doesn’t it? It most certainly does.
Continue reading here: “Star Wars”: Identity, Love, and Redemption (4 May 2020)
*This was part of my regular monthly column at TIC.