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YOU ARE HERE:   Home >  Articles >  New Age >  The Gospel According to Lucas, Part I

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The Phantom Menace

The Gospel According to Lucas, Part I

Fantasy Movies or Phantom Menace?

By Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

“With Star Wars I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs. I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today. The more research I did, the more I realized that the issues are the same ones that existed 3,000 years ago.”1

So explained George Lucas regarding his incredibly successful series of Star Wars films, the fourth installment of which was released on May 19, 1999. Entitled Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (hereafter Phantom), it is the beginning of a trilogy of “prequels” to the trilogy of films released from 1977 to 1983 (see inset). The four films all rank in the top ten box office hits of all time, totaling $1.5 billion in ticket sales. Sales of the videos of the first three films and of other Star Wars merchandise (toys, clothing, and the like) have exceeded $5 billion. It is difficult to exaggerate the success of the films. (The films rank in the top ten of box-office hits whether or not the figures are adjusted for inflation; see for the figures for the first three films. The film Titanic surpassed the original Star Wars (New Hope) in box office revenues, but adjusted for inflation both New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back were bigger box-office successes.)

Episode Title Year Story
I The Phantom Menace 1999 Anakin Skywalker becomes a Jedi pupil
IV A New Hope 1977 Luke Skywalker becomes a Jedi pupil
V The Empire Strikes Back 1981 Luke learns that the evil Vader is his father
VI Return of the Jedi 1983 Luke tries to turn his father back to good

As entertainment goes, the Star Wars films seem remarkably unobjectionable to Christians in comparison to most other movies not aimed at preschoolers: the violence is mostly of a make-believe quality (and perpetrated mainly against machines), there is virtually no coarse or profane language, and there is no sex or nudity. Moreover, rather than mindless entertainment, the films have been exceptionally thought-provoking, especially considering their popular appeal and simple story lines. But the provocative nature of the films is precisely what has brought them under fire from many Christians who are concerned that Star Wars is really a form of propaganda for non-Christian religious ideas. Many Christian critics of the movies have alleged that in drawing upon mythologies and religious ideas from various sources, Lucas has created a dramatic introduction to the New Age movement.

Is this right? How should we regard the Star Wars films? What is their message, and how should Christians respond to it? In this article we will consider the complex elements of different types of stories that Lucas combines to create the Star Wars saga. In the next issue of the VANTAGE POINT, Part 2 will consider the specifically religious and mythological dimensions of the Star Wars films.

Star Wars as “Only Movies”

Lucas tries to walk a fine line in his own characterization of the Star Wars films. On the one hand, he is adamant about their having a message, and is unhappy when critics dismiss them as mindless entertainment. “But because I don’t come out and say MESSAGE in big red letters, it goes right past everybody,” he complains. On the other hand, Lucas is also sensitive to the fact that some of the fans take the movies far too seriously. To those who have made the films the center of their own lives, treating them as the basis of their own religion, Lucas has protested, “Come on, they’re only movies.”2 Lucas insists both that Star Wars deals with serious religious and moral issues and that it should not be viewed as a religious vehicle itself. “I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience.”3

If we are to be fair to Lucas, both sides of his own view of the films must be respected. Star Wars does have a message, and it does have something to do with religion; but the movies are not themselves teaching a specific religious doctrine. On the other hand, Lucas himself has his own religious beliefs, whatever they may be, and those beliefs are undoubtedly reflected in the Star Wars movies (and in his other movies as well). But we should be cautious about equating or identifying in direct and simple fashion Lucas’s own beliefs with the beliefs expressed by fictional characters in Lucas’s movies.

Star Wars as Science Fiction

A key to interpreting any piece of communication, whether it is a book, song, television program, or movie, is to identify its genre – its literary or artistic type. It is a mistake to listen to a love song as if it were a technical scientific lecture, or to watch a television sitcom and expect it to depict a typical day in the life of the average American family. Different genres function according to recognizable patterns and conventions, or “rules of the game,” by which the many features of the whole are to be understood.4

Genres, it should be noted, can be integrated together in a single work, which then functions in a more complex fashion. Such is the case with Star Wars. One genre that is unmistakably represented in the movies is science fiction. The fictional story of Star Wars takes place on several planets scattered across space. The characters, which include both humans and aliens, travel from planet to planet in space ships that can travel faster than the speed of light. The general technological level of the society in the story is far in advance of our own. These features clearly mark the films as belonging to the category of science fiction. Lucas has acknowledged that the films are based in that genre. In preparation for making the first Star Wars movie, Lucas read extensively in science fiction literature and drew heavily on his own childhood love of the sci-fi adventures of such characters as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.5

Moreover, various elements of the Star Wars stories are borrowed or adapted from earlier science fiction stories. For example, Frank Herbert’s novel Dune centers on a galactic hero who arises on a desert planet; likewise, in Star Wars both Anakin and Luke Skywalker originate from the desert planet of Tatooine. Dune also features a galaxy-wide religious movement and other elements of apparent influence on the Star Wars story. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of novels offers a sweeping account of the history of a galactic Empire, featuring both humans and robots, as in Star Wars. The capital of the Empire in Asimov’s novels, Trantor, is a planet that has become a single city covering the entire globe, like the planet of Coruscant in Phantom.

If there is a theme that dominates science fiction, it is the question of the relationship of man and machine. The proliferation of machines of ever increasing power and importance to modern life worries many people who feel that mechanization threatens man’s connections to nature, to one another, and to the spiritual. Lucas explores this theme throughout Star Wars, presenting an optimistic picture with a strong cautionary message. The use of space ships and advanced weaponry by both the evil Empire and the Rebel Alliance in the original trilogy suggests that technology can be used for good or evil. Humans can be dehumanized by machines (Darth Vader, says Obi-Wan Kenobi in Return of the Jedi, “is more machine than man”), but machines can also be humanized (as are the robots C3PO and R2D2).

The Death Stars in A New Hope (hereafter Hope) and Return of the Jedi (hereafter Jedi) represent the dangers of giving too much power to machines. At the same time, both films present the belief that ultimately man, with his moral and spiritual resources, is greater than machine. The evil Darth Vader is even allowed to make this point when he tells a general in the Imperial Army, “Don’t be too proud of this technological wonder you’ve constructed. The power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force” (Hope). Man is to use machines, but not trust them: thus, at the climax of Hope, Luke turns off his targeting computer and fires his missile into the Death Star relying on his instinctive sense of the Force. The message is clear: the machine is useful, but it cannot replace or compete with the human spirit. The trappings of the story may be questionable, but the message is positive and admirable.

One of the primary conventions of science fiction is an emphasis on verisimilitude – on making the story and all of its elements as plausible, even scientifically explicable, as possible. From Jules Verne, author of From the Earth to the Moon (1866), to Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek television and movie series, science fiction writers have sought to project into the future possible technological advancements and scientific theories that might make the seemingly impossible possible. At the same time, in the mediums of both television and film, science fiction inevitably compromises verisimilitude to some extent for the sake of dramatic effect. So, for example, it is notorious that nearly all sci-fi films present space ships making a variety of sounds as they move through space and as they fire on one another in battle, despite the fact that in the vacuum of space no sounds would actually be made.

This balance of scientific verisimilitude and artistic license is evident in Star Wars. Lucas and his artistic and special-effects teams invest tremendous energies in theorizing exactly how the space ships, lasers, blasters, and other technological features of the Star Wars galaxy would work, but also employ characteristic sci-fi artistic license. For example, the small fighter ships in the films turn by banking at angles, even though such maneuvers would be pointless in space,6 because Lucas deliberately models the space battle scenes on the aerial dogfights of the Second World War. Doug Chiang, the head of the art department at Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), commented on the Queen’s ship in Phantom, “Part of my phony-baloney research was to watch a lot of educational TV. But this is film reality, not reality. Put my plane in a wind tunnel and it would fall apart.”7

It was likely a desire to affect scientific verisimilitude that led Lucas to introduce the notion in Phantom that the Force operates in human beings through microscopic organisms called midi-chlorians. Anakin’s extraordinary prowess in connecting to the Force is given the “scientific” explanation that the midi-chlorian count in his blood cells is 20,000, even higher than that of Yoda. In the novel based on Lucas’s story Qui-Gon tells Anakin, “Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that reside within the cells of all living things and communicate with the Force. . . . Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. Our midi-chlorians continually speak to us, Annie, telling us the will of the Force.”8 Sci-fi authors commonly employ such fictional, pseudoscientific concepts of physics or biology, as well as “technobabble” explanations of faster-than-light travel and other features essential to the story, to create the illusion of realism.

Star Wars as Parable

While science fiction attempts to balance scientific plausibility with dramatic and artistic considerations, its main goal is typically not to suggest that any of its futuristic elements could literally be true. Many sci-fi stories function like parables – stories in which an issue of concern in one’s community is explored in a different setting. The purpose of such sci-fi parables is to enable people to see a truth to which they might be blind if it were presented directly in their own environment. Star Trek offers many useful examples, such as the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in which a story about a tentative peace between the Earth-based Federation and the alien Klingon Empire is a parable about the end of the Cold War. The point of the story has nothing to do with whether alien races like the Klingons exist or even could exist; rather, it illustrates, as the character Captain Kirk puts it at the end of the film, that “some people can be very frightened of change.”9

Likewise, Star Wars can be understood as a parable about the need for people in our increasingly materialistic and secular culture to find a sense of purpose and destiny and to take personal responsibility for their lives. When Lucas explains the message of the Star Wars movies, it is invariably not about learning to master occult powers or attaining a mystical experience. The Force is really not about levitation, precognition, or other paranormal powers; it is about two different ways of living, two different motivations in life, as Lucas himself explains:

The film is ultimately about the dark side and the light side, and those sides are designed around compassion and greed. The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things, is the opposite of compassion – of not thinking of yourself all the time. These are the two sides – the good force and the bad force. They’re the simplest parts of a complex cosmic construction.10

Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructs Luke in The Empire Strikes Back (hereafter Empire), expresses this moralistic understanding of the Force when he counsels Luke, “Anger, fear, aggression – the dark side of the Force are they.” Ultimately the Force is about good versus evil, not about mastering occult powers. When Luke fails to raise his ship out of the swamp using the telekinetic power of the Force and then Yoda succeeds in doing so, the intended lesson is not that we need to learn to levitate objects, but that we should not give up in the face of difficulties. (While the idea that human beings have an innate power of levitation is an occult notion, in Star Wars it functions merely as one of the make-believe elements of the story.) So, when Luke shakes his head and says, “I don’t believe it,” and Yoda replies, “That is why you fail,” the point is that we cannot expect to succeed in life if we don’t believe we can accomplish our goal.

Part of the reason why people may misunderstand Lucas’s intentions in Star Wars is that he is deliberately combining many messages or lessons that he wants to convey. This makes Star Wars a complex, rather than a simple, parable:

Star Wars is made up of many themes. It’s not just one little simple parable. One is our relationship to machines, which are fearful, but also benign. Then there is the lesson of friendship and symbiotic relationships, of your obligations to your fellowman, to other people that are around you. This is a world where evil has run amuck. But you have control over your destiny, you have many paths to walk down, and you can choose which destiny is going to be yours.11

Star Wars as Fairy Tale

Another genre present in the complex structure of the Star Wars films is that of the fairy tale. A fairy tale is essentially a moralistic tale involving a make-believe world of enchantment. While the earliest fairy tales were generally not composed for children, the most enduring have evolved into children’s stories. Significantly, George Lucas has stated explicitly and repeatedly that he created Star Wars primarily for children.

In the twentieth century the best-known fairy tales have been made into movies, notably by Walt Disney: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast are all instantly recognizable examples of fairy tales. The stories are sometimes set entirely in imaginary, far-away lands; in other modern fairy tales the stories begin and end in a real place, with the main action occurring in an imaginary place. For example, Peter Pan begins and ends in London but takes place primarily in “Never-Never-Land”; The Wizard of Oz begins and ends in Kansas but takes place mainly in the Land of Oz “somewhere over the rainbow.” The stories are also often said to have taken place in an unspecified past: “Once upon a time, in a distant land. . . .” Lucas makes the fairy-tale setting of Star Wars explicit, then, with the opening crawl, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . .”12 Despite the futuristic technology and sci-fi elements of the movie, its story is set in the distant past, not in the future as in standard science fiction stories.

The typical fairy tale is a story about people in a strange land where things happen that are impossible in the “real world.” Scarecrows and animals talk (at least to those who listen), people fly in the air or swim under the sea at will, and magic generally abounds. None of this is supposed to be taken as literally possible, of course: it is utterly irrelevant to the point of The Little Mermaid to ask whether mermaids actually exist. The human characters are usually idealized figures from a romanticized, typically medieval past, especially princes and princesses, commoners who become royalty, white and black knights, and damsels in distress.

Most of these elements are easily discernible in Star Wars. Instead of talking animals, the galaxy is populated with Wookiees, Ewoks, and other intelligent beings that look like animals. The planet of Naboo is populated under the sea by a race called the Gungans, who are just as wary of the surface-dwelling Naboo as the merfolk are of humans in The Little Mermaid. The main heroes of the movies are the Jedi Knights (and the evil ones do wear black), who do battle with lightsabers instead of swords. The princesses, in keeping with the times, are not exactly damsels in distress – the Jedi do come to rescue them, but they generally seem to be able to take care of themselves. Thus, Luke rescues Princess Leia in both Hope and Empire but finds her more of a comrade-in-arms; Qui-Gon and Obi-Won, the Jedi in Phantom, help Princess Amidala to escape from the Trade Federation, but at the end of the film she is leading the charge to retake her planet.

Fairy tales come with varying story lines, but the most common seem to center on an humble, seemingly weak individual’s triumphing in some difficult situation. In many cases the real point of the conflict or experience is the character’s discovery of his or her true identity or place in the world. Rose, the “sleeping beauty,” learns that she is the Princess Aurora; the Darling children learn that they belong with their parents; likewise, Dorothy learns that “there’s no place like home.” Typically in these stories, the quiet, unassuming hero or heroine emerges victor by strength of character over intimidating amoral or immoral forces. The young Snow White is saved from the evil sorceress Queen by seven protective dwarfs; the gentle Prince Philip slays Maleficent when she turns into a dragon; Dorothy, who at one point even calls herself “the Small and Meek,” destroys the Wicked Witch with a bucket of water.

Such themes are laced throughout the Star Wars films. Luke is a farm-boy from a remote planet but discovers his destiny to be a Jedi Knight. His father, Anakin, grew up as a slave. Comparatively tiny fighter ships assault the moon-sized Death Star and win. The Ewoks, a race of small teddy bears, defeat the Imperial army on the moon of Endor. The idea of humble figures rising to prominence reflects Lucas’s sense of his own identity and destiny: his appearance is so slight and unassuming that until after Star Wars was made people who encountered him on the sets of his films often thought he was a gofer or janitor. The idea even illuminates his hiring practices: for Star Wars, as for his earlier hit American Graffiti, Lucas sought virtually unknown actors to play the major roles.

The influence of fairy tales on Star Wars extends even to the specific characters that populate the films. For example, consider the close parallels between the line-up of characters in the first Star Wars film (Hope) and the classic American fairy-tale The Wizard of Oz. Both films feature a young person from a farm (Luke, Dorothy) who goes on a journey with a surprisingly wise man (Obi-Wan, the Scarecrow), a man made of metal (C3PO, the Tin Man), a large and sometimes cowardly beast (Chewbacca, the Cowardly Lion), and a small, non-talking creature (R2D2, Toto).

Lucas unapologetically drew from an astonishing variety of other films of different genres to construct his story into the quintessential fairy tale. The love triangle between Luke, Leia, and Han is modeled on the love triangle of Ashley, Scarlett, and Rhett in Gone with the Wind (1939). In the John Wayne film The Searchers (1956), an old man and a boy journey to rescue the boy’s sister from Indians (compare Obi-Wan and Luke going to rescue Leia, who turns out to be Luke’s sister). The pod race in Phantom is a dazzling updated version of the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959). The battle of the Naboo and Gungans against the droid army in Phantom is clearly reminiscent of the final battle between the slave and Roman armies in Spartacus (1960). Like D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (filmed many times, including 1974, three years before Star Wars), Luke joins his (supposedly dead) father’s order and collaborates with three male comrades to protect a royal individual, and eventually duels with the man who, he thinks, betrayed and murdered his father. (The later 1993 Disney version of The Three Musketeers in turn affects several clear allusions to Star Wars.) Somehow Lucas wove all of the elements borrowed or adapted from these and other films into the entertaining Star Wars stories.

Star Wars as Myth

Lucas did not limit himself to science fiction stories, fairy tales, and classic films in his search for themes and elements to be included in Star Wars. Had he done so, the movies would probably have been fairly uncontroversial among Christians. Instead, by his own account, Lucas drew heavily on religious myths and motifs from a variety of sources:

“I was trying to get fairy tales, myths, and religion down to a distilled state, studying the pure form to see how and why it worked. . . . I wanted to make a kids’ film that would strengthen contemporary mythology and introduce a kind of basic morality.”13

In Part 2 of this article, we will examine Lucas’s use of mythology and religion in Star Wars, and offer some conclusions about the way Christians should view these films.

Robert Bowman is a former staffmember of Watchman Fellowship, and he can be reached by contacting our office.

This article was excerpted from the Fall 1999 Vantage Point magazine.

For more information on the New Age and Postmodernism movements, please visit our web catalog; or click here to order a free information packet.