Posted by: cctracker | January 31, 2012

Of ‘The Force,’ Fiascos and Faith

A friend shared an article about “Star Wars” with me this morning. He said it had to do with the inadequacies of the mythology of ‘the force’ in the films.

Usually I’m in a “listen first” mode when somebody comes to see me in my office. But this time within a few seconds I was rushing through a speech that sounded as if I’d  been rehearsing it for weeks. The pitch and volume of my voice rose as some argument I was making gathered momentum. Was my pulse even racing?

I haven’t read the article yet, but I thought it might be a good exercise to try to get a bit of whatever set me off out in the open. Maybe figure out where all that energy came from. I’ll let you know what I think about the article after I get this out of my system.

Image from Wikipedia

I’ve tried to capture for my three grown sons what it was like to see the first Star Wars film as a senior in high school in the summer of 1977.  A quirky, intellectual pal of mine had seen it and was actually laughing out loud when he said something like: “You’ve just got to see this thing! It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. It is a total blast! Just trust me!”  My only expectation was for fun. And did the movie ever deliver!

I was giddy on the parking lot afterward. Yes, the special effects had been jaw-dropping. There was real surprise when the rebel destroyer came through the first frames, glowing with those lustrous, pale, lunar-dust colors and eye-poppingly intricate futuristic, industrial detail. And when the Imperial Cruiser came right behind in pursuit and the shot went on and on and on, there were audible gasps in the theater. I felt like something new was happening, not just in movies, but with machines and people and culture…and me!

But it wasn’t just the visual effects. In fact, it wasn’t even mostly that. It was the romance! Han Solo was a smug but endearing swashbuckler with the wit of a James Garner cowboy and Cary Grant’s good looks and humor.  Leia was a totally irresistible combination of sassy Bogart-broad and  vulnerable, doe-eyed princess, melting Luke’s heart with “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope!”  one minute and lashing out at her bumbling would-be rescuers with a withering  “Would somebody get this walking carpet out of my way!” the next. And when young Luke Skywalker stepped out at dusk and gazed off at that double-sunset horizon, I was staring out though his eyes at the limitless possibilities and adventures that lay just ahead, but still out of reach, for me.

Image from Softpedia

But the main point is that this movie–and the next two– were a lot of fun to watch. The effects and visuals got better  and better of course: Degaba was by far my favorite setting but you had to love the forests of Endor on flying scooters. Given the primary mandate for fun, the overall narrative arc of the trilogy and the sub-plot lines couldn’t have been more traditional or more satisfying: the old passing wisdom and vision to the young, desire and altruism dancing apart then coming together  again as true and generous love, the  battle between good and evil literally set forth in black and white. Luke’s temptation to power and eeevil was full of drama, but the outcome was never in doubt. The characters and the story  were the sustaining force of these movies.

And as for “The Force” itself?  Again, it  was all about the fun! Settling into our seats when those next two movies at last came out, none of us were waiting for  a movie about religion, spirituality or “meaning.”  This was going to be a blast! These were new kinds of movies laid over good old-fashioned serial melodrama. “The Force”  was a great, campy way to to give these sci-fi knights some really cool powers and plenty of occasions for high-sounding speeches. Yes,  Joseph Campbell did cast a spell on many of us about  how the films mapped out “the hero’s journey” through the “darkside” within us all.  I entertained quite a few of my theology students over the years with light saber sounds and my Yoda impersonation: “Oh you will be, you WILL be!”

But we’re talking broad, broad “spiritual” territory here!  A landscape for entertainment and escape much more than a context for serious spiritual reflection.

Then we all waited for the next three films and the chance to bring our own kids to the theater for another 10 years or so of more epic fun. What we got was an epic fiasco.

Image at blogs.starwars.com

And this, I think, is what set me off when my friend came in with the article. (I still haven’t read it!)

I think there are whole websites dedicated to ripping these films and I won’t try to match the real cultural comedians out there in cyberspace.  My sons tell me some of them are hilarious and I know you can see some of their rants on You Tube.

But here is the short version of my own rant: How, in the name of heaven and earth, did the people associated with these films take this legacy and turn it into such overblown, nearly unwatchable drivel?  What were they thinking?

Here is my theory: They were thinking far, far too much about “The Force.”  They forgot that it was all for fun! They forgot the Force was just a device to create a little extra magic around our beloved heroes. And they actually began to treat it as if it referred to something genuinely religious or spiritual! By the time they sucked us into this mess and realized how god-awful it was, they tried to bail themselves out in the second movie with scenes so tech-loaded they made your head spin.

Now I’m a big Liam Neeson fan and he does battle gamely to bring some dignity and interest to the role of Qui Gon. But that’s  the problem! So much solemnity… and about what?!  “Mitochlorians?”  You’ll have to check my spelling, but the first film has some mumbo jumbo about how your degree of power with the force depends upon these microscopic beings that live in your bloodstream and somehow…. I can’t go on. It’s too boring to waste another sentence trying to explain whatever it was they were trying to say.

Yes, there’s a vaguely zen-like reference to training and practice and that’s fine. But the Degaba sequences were a thousand times better, much more fun and freighted with no pretense about religion. And while I’m all for seeing some awareness about the dangers of anger and violence taking over your life in popular movies, sober explorations of those those issues are best left to the traditions and practices that are worked out one ordinary day at time in the presence of a loving community and your own steady, quirky, flawed, funny and real Yoda. I will admit the Yoda fight scene did make laugh.

Let me end with some good karma. The first three Star Wars films do actually celebrate something genuinely spiritual: the glorious fun and reenergizing, restorative power of storytelling.


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