What to make of the Star Wars phenomenon? Nostalgia, yes. By parroting George Lucas’ original A New Hope plot and populating it with familiar characters played by familiar actors, J.J. Abrams and the other writers invite us children of the ‘70s and ‘80s back to our days of innocence. Even the new title, The Force Awakens, signals the next chapter in a story we’ve been awaiting for 30 years.
But to have nostalgia, you need to have loved the thing to begin with. Sure, Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and company showed us deep space and sci-fi battle scenes like no one ever had before. But it’s 2015, and we’ve spent a lot of movie time in outer-space at this point. What makes Star Wars persist in our cultural imagination is the characters.
Your typical action/adventure fare, as a genre, requires a simplistic moral universe. There are good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, white hats and black hats. If a movie gets caught up in psychology and motivation, there won’t be much time left for blowing stuff up. The truly great stories, the ones that endure, offer complicated characters.
From the very beginning, we could relate to Star Wars, because in the characters, we could see ourselves. The battle between good and evil was not between flawless heroes and devilish villains; it was within Darth Vader’s own soul; it was in the naïve Luke Skywalker, thinking he could fix his broken father, only to end up teetering on the edge of the Dark Side himself. In Star Wars, the real fight is a spiritual one.
This, we know intimately, because this is also our fight. Our police and military keep the “bad guys” at bay; most of us don’t encounter any real violence; what we have to deal with are the moral consequences; every day, if we are willing to face it, we live with the question of how much violence to permit our government to wield on our behalf.
In the films’ religion, the monastic Jedi knights work to balance the Light and Dark sides of the Force. They aim not to vanquish the Dark but simply to maintain the Light against the Sith, the Empire, the First Order and all servants of darkness. In this way, the Jedi most resemble Chinese Taoists, religionists of the yin and the yang, the co-existence of good within evil and vice versa. You can find parallels, though, in most of the world’s religions. The Jews’ Creation story narrates The Fall of humans who were originally made in the “image of God.” The galaxy-far-far-away is like the Garden of Eden, in that there is good but also freedom to do evil. The Hindu Trinity has Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. The central Christian story is one of holiness coming through sacrifice, resurrection coming through crucifixion, new life only after death.
In this kind of spirituality, there’s room even for an anti-religious anti-hero like Han Solo. Think about it: No one, perhaps not even Lucas and Spielberg, gained as much cultural traction from Star Wars as Harrison Ford. Whether he was that good, or the script was that good, no one can deny that Star Wars launched the actor’s career. Luke is the protagonist that makes the plot go, but Han Solo is the character that represents our moment in history. Darth Vader might be the bad guy struggling for the Light, but Han Solo is one of the good guys struggling to believe there might even be a Light or Dark, a metaphysical good or evil beyond self-preservation. Han is the one asking, in the face of nihilism, what is the point of sticking around to fight for the Light? Why not just get mine and get out of harm’s way? Han Solo is trying to figure out whether there is such a thing as love.
We all are.
When we first meet him in A New Hope, Han is Nietzsche’s “Overman,” Marx’s bourgeois, the embodiment of Sartre’s “hell-is-other-people,” the end of love. Han lives solo, alone, beyond society’s limitations or expectations. He is the secular, modern materialist, unbound by medieval superstition. He survives by his wits and skill, his truest connection only with nature in the form of the wookie Chewbacca, man’s best friend on two legs. Han is existential man, with no use for tradition, myth, institutions or anything else that might limit his individual, free choice. His classic advice to Luke in A New Hope sums up Han’s will-to-power, his Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest wisdom: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”
But the original trilogy slowly eroded Han’s confident exterior. Enveloped in Luke’s friendship and especially Leia’s affection, Han turns out to be the guy who goes out into Hoth’s frigid snowfields, to almost certain death, to rescue Luke. There’s something worth living for, worth dying for; life is not mere physical survival. While he initially gives voice to Western thought’s great “Masters of Suspicion,” Han Solo becomes a picture of a man changed by love.
Now, in 2015, we meet Han Solo in his 50s, and he’s found religion. “I thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo,” he says, “A magical power holding together good and evil? The Dark Side? The Light? The crazy thing is, it’s true. All of it. The Jedi? They’re real.”
Star Wars has always been a postmodern story. It gives voice to our skepticism, our suspicion that talk of The Force or of God or of Good and Evil is just another way for the powerful to control the weak. If you set aside the sci-fi fantasy setting, Star Wars rings true to the world we live in, the world where it looks like violence is the only way to survive. But in the symbolism of complex characters like Han Solo, we also get hints of hope that there might be another way.