On Star Wars Day we take a look at some of the things that keep us coming back to one of the most famous science fiction epics of all time.
Millions of nerds, like me, will be celebrating all things Star Wars this May the 4th.
And for good reason; whether it be the never say die attitude of the fuzzy, bear-like Ewoks who repelled the might of an evil empire using nothing but bows, spears and logs, addictive space jazz or delicious blue and green milk, there’s so much to delight and surprise in the world created by George Lucas in 1977. Except, Jar Jar Binks; there’s something really off about that guy.
On such an auspicious date, it’s only appropriate we chat to another self-confessed Star Wars “nut” and ANU science communication guru Dr Rod Lamberts about why fans love a galaxy far, far away.
So strap in Nerf herder – we’ll be making this ride faster than the Kessel Run.
The Force is the single most important element of the Star Wars galaxy.
It’s an energy that binds all living things together. By tapping into it, the Jedi, the self-proclaimed peacekeepers of the galaxy, and their sworn Sith enemies are able to see the future and make objects levitate.
But the amazing thing about the Force is that it’s not just open to Jedi and Sith – anyone attuned to it can use it. Lamberts says that despite the Force being ‘magical’ it can also guide our own lives.
“For me, the Force is one of the most important ‘life lessons’ we can take away from Star Wars,” he says.
“And I don’t mean how I can grab things with my mind. What I mean is that there is real benefit from being more attuned and mindful to what is going on around you and the strong connection between things and people in our lives.
“When you really think about it, the idea of the Force is mimicking religions and philosophies that we have been developing for millennia. It is spiritual. It is about grounding yourself in the moment and where you are. It is about living in harmony (or not) with the world.
“The Force wraps up these ideas in a popular and digestible way that we can all get excited about.”
So, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or taking on a new challenge (like destroying a flying battle station that can kill whole planets with a single laser blast), take a leaf from Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi’s book and “use the force”.
Sure, Star Wars is a story built on spaceships travelling at light speed and wizards using laser swords, but it’s also a very human tale.
The original film, A New Hope, introduced generations of fans to Luke Skywalker. Our main protagonist in the series’ first three films (of nine) is called upon to stand against the might of the evil Emperor and Sith Lord who has held the galaxy in his thrall for 19 years.
But while Luke’s story is one of discovering his own Force abilities, it’s also a classic Bildungsroman – a tale about the psychological and moral growth of a protagonist.
As Lamberts points out, Luke grapples with his place in a wide galaxy and his family’s dark history. He grows from being a simple farmer on a desert planet to a leader in a major rebellion. And that taps into the audience’s own sense of meaning, daily struggles and development.
“Star Wars is all about the hero’s struggle and the hero’s journey and that is why it is so iconic,” Lamberts says.
“In this way, Star Wars is the classic ‘resonance’ story we have in many kinds of film and literature. And there’s been a lot of scholarly work on this.
“As humans, we have a tendency to retell the same stories to ourselves over and over again. Because these stories are the ones that matter most to us and also tap into what it means to be human – even when you’re surrounded by aliens that look like seven-foot walking carpets or giant slugs.
“Star Wars shows us that daily life can be a struggle; we have our victories and we have our setbacks. It’s a reminder that sometimes we have to go back to square one, learn something new and try again.
“And it shows us that sometimes we can go on to achieve incredible things that seem almost impossible.”
Star Wars also shows us that when things go wrong they go really wrong. Kissing your sister level wrong. To be fair, Luke only knew her as a princess at the time.
Star Wars does what it says on the can; it’s the story of a plucky band of rebels who are trying to take down an evil galactic empire. But while the fate of a galaxy rests on the shoulders of one reluctant student of the Jedi Order, it is a fight that cannot be won without a little help from his friends.
In fact, some of the most heroic deeds in the films are achieved by some very ordinary creatures – and even robots. If there was no R2D2, a quirky droid with a penchant for quick thinking and practical jokes, they’d be no rebellion and no ‘Star Wars’.
“One of the best things about the Star Wars stories is that they make clear that we all have the chance to be heroes – and that being heroic actually comes in lots of different forms,” Lamberts says.
“And in one of the most famous storylines in this galaxy, we also learn our heroes can easily fall from grace. For example, the prequel trilogy tells the story of how an innocent young boy becomes one of the most notorious villains ever. The next three films tell the story of his redemption.”
That’s one of the other most compelling elements of the Star Wars films; sometimes the line between hero and villain is blurry and our heroes can unwittingly become the bad guys.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Jedi, who through their own hubris and short-sightedness help plunge the galaxy into a catastrophic civil war between the Republic and the Separatists.
“The Jedi were extremely flawed,” says Lamberts. “They are the ‘good guys’. But they also lose their way.
“In the original trilogy they are presented as this mystical, amazing, perfect order. But in the next series of films we see how they go from being so-called custodians of peace to the frontline of a war that allows the Empire to rise.
“In many ways they are the architects of their own demise; victims of their own sense of purity and eventual stagnation.”
A quirky fact about the nine core Star Wars films, what are today known collectively as the ‘Skywalker Saga’, is that Episode IV, A New Hope, was made first. This, and the following two films, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, were released in 1977, 1980 and 1983 respectively.
Lucas, the franchise’s creator, then propelled the storyline back 19 years with the release of Episode I, The Phantom Menace, in 1999.
It went down with fans and critics like a TIE fighter hitting an asteroid. Many hardcore fans — seeing Star Wars film on the big screen for the first time — hated it and the two follow up episodes.
But today, there has been a newfound appreciation for the prequel films and the sophistication of their storytelling. Lamberts agrees that the Star Wars galaxy and story is richer with them.
“When those films came out, there was a lot of general discontent among hardcore fans,” Lamberts says. “But they have their place; especially as a story that gives the Star Wars galaxy a lot more complexity.
“Here we have a trade standoff that leads to a galactic civil war. This resonates with a lot of our own geopolitics and history – it is not unimaginable.
“In many ways, Lucas also made Hollywood get a little deeper with the prequel films – especially as we consider that the so-called good guys in this civil war have also been manipulated to become the baddies.
“He made a story about lasers and aliens all about politics, the decay of a cumbersome bureaucracy that no longer serves its citizens (Max Weber anybody?) and the failings of a staid democratic system.
“And that’s quite an unusual storytelling path for a blockbuster science fiction film franchise to take.”
That’s deep Rod – as deep as the Great Pit of Carkoon, home of the notorious Sarlaac.
Errr, first question: why haven’t you watched the Star Wars films already? Have you been trapped in a Wampa cave on the ice planet Hoth?
But for the uninitiated, the good news is the random release order of all nine films in the Skywalker Saga means that you can slice them any which way you like.
Some people like to watch them in chronological order. You can also add in the spin-off films and TV series to your timeline as well. Some people like to watch them in release order.
But if you want to take your Star Wars viewing from apprentice to Jedi master level, consider the Machete Method: IV, V, II, III, VI and skip I altogether.
It provides one of the best cliffhangers in modern pop culture. And for added incentive, you even avoid Jar Jar.
For those who celebrate, we hope you have a wonderful May the 4th. And as always, may the force be with you.
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