Star Wars is a big deal for me. I say that honestly, as literally any nerd born in the last 40 years will.
I first saw the original trilogy as a little kid in the 90’s, when the prequels were still just a glimmer in George Lucas’ crazy eye, and I fell in love straight away. As a child, the fairy-tale tropes of the chosen one, plucked from his life of ordinary blanditude by a mystical mentor and sent off on incredible adventures… It drew me right in. My little brain drank up the giant monsters, the epic space battles, the underdogs who won because they had good on their side, against all the odds.
I couldn’t know it at the time, but they were teaching me, too. They were teaching me (along with every other geek in a Han Solo t-shirt) the importance of standing up for what you believe, even when the opposition is a giant walking tank or your evil cyborg Dad. The Rebels know they can’t win against the Empire; it will utterly smash them. But they fight anyway. The choice between fighting a doomed battle for what’s right or allowing evil to reign isn’t a choice for them. I can’t imagine how many teachers, coaches and parents got put through hell by their Rebel children as a result of those plucky underdogs.
They were also teaching us that everyone is human, in the end, and often the baddest guys are the ones who have been hurt the most. Darth Vader, the unstoppable monster haunting Luke for three films, is revealed to be a broken old man, who betrays his Master for his son. He’s the baddest ass around, but only because he is in a dark place, and can’t escape. It encourages us to think about our own enemies in a different light. No matter how red that lightsaber, they are people, like us.
Perhaps most importantly, they were teaching us that doing the right thing is hard. How many times over those three films do we see the right path as the hardest one, requiring the most sacrifice?
Luke loses his family, his mentor, one of his hands and dozens of his friends. He secludes himself in a remote jungle for nineteen years, trying to find enlightenment. He won’t kill the man who hunted him like an animal for years, and only wins his final conflict when he refuses to fight altogether, enduring a brutal electrocution at the hands of his ultimate enemy. In the end, violence, pain and hatred feed one another, and to fight evil with its own methods will only make it stronger. You can’t kill anger, or vitriol, or prejudice. You have to destroy them by being better than them.
This is what Star Wars means to me. It’s an example, in badass laser combat and spaceships, of how to be a better person. And if that sounds stupid, just remember that 39,000 people in the UK listed their religion as ‘Jedi’ on the most recent census.
When the prequels arrived, I was still a little kid, and I watched them and thought they were awesome. Not for me the horrified reaction of the nostalgic Star Wars purist. This was because it strengthened the lessons the original trilogy held so sacred, and built on them (it was also largely because of Darth Maul). Fighting for what is right is good, it says, but it is possible to become too set in your ways, to believe that your “good” is the one true way, and that you don’t need to change or consider anyone else. This is the plague that sickens the Republic and the Jedi Order seen in the prequels. It is the reason the Sith Emperor was ever able to take his throne. The heroes can’t rest on their laurels: the villains sure aren’t going to.
Similarly, we see how the path of the hero is a hard one. Our tortured protagonist gives in to perfectly normal anger, grief, and pain, and develops a natural fear of loss and feeling of helplessness. Instead of working to free himself of his fear, however, he indulges it, and opens himself up for the long, slow slide into the Dark Side. Doing what’s right is never easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.
Star Wars is a fairy tale, at its heart. And like all good fairy tales, it sometimes ham-fistedly instills a message in the audience. We who walk the path of least resistance are not heroes. A hero is someone who sacrifices their comfort, their ease of living, and sometimes their right hand (it’s ok, they’ll get a robotic one in the next scene) to make the world a better place.
That’s something to aspire to. If anyone needs me, I’ll be meditating in my starfighter.
(Joking obviously, I don’t have a starfighter and will therefore be weeping bitter tears about that on my bike).
All 6 Star Wars films, plus The Clone Wars animated series, are now available on Now TV.