“Star Wars” fans are among the most obsessive cultural devotees out there. We’ve suffered through revisions to our original scriptures and the introduction of new texts that make our initial dedication seem silly. Some puckish fans have even made it a matter of official Census record that their religion is “Jedi.” And, as Chris Taylor writes in his delightful “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe,” “Francis Ford Coppola suggested to [‘Star Wars’ creator George] Lucas that the two of them actually start a religion using the Force as its scripture. Lucas feared for his friend’s sanity.”
But for all that faith is a metaphor for the level of dedication “Star Wars” fans bring to the franchise, it’s worth looking beyond that idea (which contains a kernel of contempt for anyone who loves pop culture that much) to the bigger question of how “Star Wars” treats religion.
“Star Wars” is a space opera and a rollicking good time, but anyone who ignores just how central religion is to the first three movie installments of the franchise can’t claim to be paying attention. From “A New Hope” through “Return of the Jedi,” the “Star Wars” movies are fundamentally a story about how a dead and discredited religion reasserted itself and proved the truth of at least some of its tenets to unbelievers. And while Lucas retroactively tried to introduce a scientific explanation for the Force and Jedi Knights’ abilities to manipulate it in the prequel movies, his mumbo jumbo about midi-chlorians never quite added up to the mysterious power of the Force in the original trilogy.
One of the fascinating tensions in the multiple storylines of “A New Hope” is the way the people allied with both Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) treat faith in the Force as if it’s some sort of cultural artifact.
Han Solo (Harrison Ford) tells Luke that “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” His faith is in the material world and in modern weapons. Admiral Motti (Richard LeParmentier), to his ultimate disadvantage, mocks Vader’s faith, sneering at him that “Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels’ hidden [fortress].” He ends up getting Force-choked for his trouble. And while Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) recognizes Vader’s abilities, he’s skeptical of the larger theological apparatus behind Vader’s abilities. “The Jedi are extinct, their fire has gone out of the universe,” he tells Vader at one point. “You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion.”
Considered from this perspective, there’s something particularly tragic about both Luke’s and Vader’s faith journeys. In the Force, Luke finds confirmation that he’s special and that he’s meant for bigger things — until he learns that his destiny means a confrontation not with a man he understood to be an easily opposed ultimate evil but his father, and a man he believes to be capable of redemption. Vader, after years of holding steadfast to his belief in the Force in the face of constant mockery, is confirmed in his conviction that he’s not alone in the universe. But his son wants nothing to do with Vader’s vision for purifying the Force by killing the Emperor so that Vader and Luke can “rule the galaxy as father and son.”
In “Return of the Jedi,” each man sees part of his vision fulfilled. Luke does manage to redeem Anakin Skywalker, though his father dies in the process. And Vader takes on what he believed was his son’s destiny, killing the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), removing a pollution from the Force and sparing Luke from killing a man.
“Return of the Jedi” leaves us in a fascinating place. From the beginning of the original trilogy, we know, even if other characters do not, that the Force is real, rather than a legend. We’ve seen Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) change men’s minds and transcend his physical form when Darth Vader strikes him down. We’ve seen Luke push away his targeting software and score a direct hit on the Death Star with the superior GPS of the Force. We’ve witnessed the Emperor’s Force Lighting and Luke’s visions. But while we’ve been witness to these events, and a few other people like Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) have been convinced of the power of the Force, most of these miracles have taken place when the characters were alone or when very few other people were around.
If the prequels ended with the downfall of the Jedi as a moral authority and the destruction of their claims to spiritual power, the original trilogy ends with that power ascendant but as yet unacknowledged. And while it’s too early to tell how “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” will handle the Jedi’s transition back from the realm of myth into an active force in the New Republic, the trailers suggest we might see a few more characters come face to face with the full power of the Force. Even if the Force is not particularly theologically sophisticated or detailed — Taylor describes it as “a religion for the secular age that is so well suited to our times precisely because it is so bereft of detail” — one of the reasons “Star Wars” is so appealing is that there’s true wonder and delight in watching someone recognize that the miraculous is possible.
The “Star Wars” treatment of religion isn’t limited to the Force. There’s a great, silly subplot in “Return of the Jedi” where C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), who always had the accent and fussy demeanor of a British colonist, manages to convince the Ewoks, the fuzzy-but-fierce inhabitants of Endor, that he’s divine and that they should let his human compatriots go. It’s a bit of a throwback that might prompt cries of racism today, borrowed as it is from self-serving stories about conquerors who wanted to believe that they were worshiped as gods. But it’s a moment that gently mocks C-3PO as much as the Ewoks (who prove themselves a dab hand at killing Imperial war machines). After three movies in which he’s a forlorn joke, C-3PO is just as stiff and protocol-oriented when he finally lands on top for a change.
Then, the Star Wars Expanded Universe gave us the Yuuzhan Vong, an alien species from outside the Galaxy that invades in a series of books set decades after “Return of the Jedi.” The Yuuzhan Vong exist outside the Force, posing a tactical and theological challenge to the resurgent Jedi, and they have a highly sophisticated theology of their own, based around a worship of pain.
“They killed Chewbacca, looked like Darth Maul on meth, and had sticks made out of live wooden snakes that could stop a lightsaber blade,” wrote Gus Spelman in an A.V. Club article praising them as a truly distinct creation. “They were an endlessly fascinating force of evil precisely because our heroes could never come to any easy understanding of them, a smart choice for the primary antagonists of the EU’s longest series, ‘New Jedi Order.’ ”
Something like the Yuuzhan Vong are a reason it’s a shame Disney has so thoroughly scrapped the Expanded Universe, creating space for new movies to carry on the story begun in the original trilogy. While there was some bloated, silly storytelling in there, the Yuuzhan Vong story arc was worth keeping, not least for the way it expanded on the religious themes of the first three movies. And while the “Star Wars” movies have endured as a metaphor because they’re vague enough that they can be applied to almost any political or foreign policy scenario, a story about extremists like the Yuuzhan Vong might have given “The Force Awakens” or subsequent movies a hook into the current struggle against the Islamic State that wouldn’t have been tied strictly to that conflict.
In the meantime, we’ll probably continue telling each other “May the Force be with you” as shorthand for good wishes, and people will continue to identify themselves as Jedi on their Census forms. But among my hopes for this renewed wave of “Star Wars” discussion and debate is that we’ll remember at least the original movies as films about faith and the struggle to hold onto it. Reducing the Force and the Jedi to luck has a way of making that epic struggle from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away look smaller than it actually was.