What Does Star Wars Mean?by Todd King, contributing writer
A Family of Sagas
James Cameron recently announced that the sequels to his 2009 record-breaking film, Avatar, would not only continue with the struggle the inhabitants of Pandora have against humans, but would also be a "family saga." At its core, a saga is a long complicated story that is rich with details. In its history, Icelandic and Nordic sagas share those elements of a large story but they also include heroes, usually from the past.
Fans of Star Wars will immediately recognize Cameron's intentions for his sequels; the Star Wars story is, too, a family saga. It involves the Skywalker family, and is a rich and complex story, with heroes from "a long time ago." The Avatar franchise is expanding its vision to become a much larger cultural touchstone. Having the Pandora theme park inside Disney's Animal Kingdom will certainly help in this regard. Cameron was influenced by Star Wars creator George Lucas and is likely to follow similar steps of the galaxy far, far away because Star Wars has already achieved what Avatar is aspiring to be—and it, too, is getting a theme park at the hands of Disney.
But why is this even happening? Why are we getting a Star Wars land? Why do we want it? How are the ideas of Star Wars and its stories ingrained so deeply in our culture that Disney's Hollywood Studios is expanding to include it and that Disneyland is having its largest expansion in its history? Is it because Star Wars is a saga like the ones from centuries ago? Is it merely because of its popularity?
I believe the purpose of creating a Star Wars land goes beyond the ideas that it is just popular. Even though Star Wars is a saga and it is vastly popular, but it is also so much more. What it is is not easily described. It is fairy tale, science fiction, mythology, a hero's journey, magic, and even folklore. It doesn't just take us away on an adventure, it is our own adventure. It is the adventure of the human race, it is the personal struggles we deal with, it is the struggle against tyranny, it is the fight for freedom, it is the awakening of our own potential, it is the growth of our talents, it is the changing of our world views, and it is the value of our relationships. It isn't one single thing, especially after much time has passed since it began. But now today its images continue to be a part of our popular culture. It's popularity alone isn't the reason for its longevity; it is because the franchise reflects our history and humanity and because of that, people continue to find value in its stories.
A Modern Archetype
But aren't they just movies? How do movies about spaceships and lightsabers do all that? I believe it is precisely because Star Wars is greater than the sum of its parts. It isn't just props and effects, it is characters and theme. The characters aren't just symbols or allegories, they're people with jobs and ambitions. They're like us.
We may label Darth Vader as a symbol of evil or put him on a list of the greatest movie villains of all time but he is, of course, more than just some bad guy. He is a father, a man who wasn't always evil, and a man who had an internal struggle that broke down the trappings of an arch enemy and therefore made him a much more human character. But it is hard to shake off his image as the mysterious masked lord of darkness because that was our first impression of him. He struck a chord with audiences in his first appearance; he was this faceless machine-like character who cared nothing about others. He choked his enemies, his officers, and even killed our hero's teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Vader's presence was a strong and straightforward one-sided event at first.
Those of us expecting a story of revenge in Star Wars' first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, got something different—something we didn't know we would love. We dove deeper into the character of Darth Vader, and even early on in the film, caught glimpses of his humanity. We learned his mask wasn't just for show, it was for keeping him alive. For a split second we saw his damaged scalp while his mask was off as he sat in his personal chamber. That moment reminded us that this monster wasn't quite a monster but a real person behind the facade. Behind it all was still a human. Being a human and still doing these terrible things made it even more frightening than just some monster running amock.
From there, we found out the secret that made the whole story of Star Wars take a turn when Vader revealed his true connection to Luke. When that happened the saga ceased to be about good guys versus bad guys in space. It became a family saga about the need to drive away evil versus the need to reconcile relationships.
In this world today, we see evil trying to spread its destruction over the world and at the same time we have personal difficulties in relationships with others in our own lives. In these situations, there are people reaching for power who could ultimately be consumed by it—and there are those who witness corruption while feeling powerless against it.
These are very real concepts that have been happening since "a long time ago." These ideas remind us of our place in the world and what we can do to help that world and to also find meaning and fulfillment for ourselves. We've read about struggles such as these in works like The Odyssey and Beowulf and endured struggles of the highest discord in real events like World War II and September 11th. These conflicts are woven into our lives and our culture. Conflict is part of our humanity and sagas replicate it in order that we may learn from it.
George Lucas tapped into archetypes of conflict when composing the story of Star Wars. It was important to him to present these concepts from mythology and fairy tales into a new setting, a seemingly futuristic setting, that would make us sit up and notice and buy tickets for. And it wasn't a flash in the pan, nor did it fade away over time. Star Wars stuck with those who saw the original theatrical releases forever. Since then it has been quietly passed down to the next generation; we wanted to share the experience and perhaps even relive it. It continued to speak to these new generations because the story is universal like a myth and speaks truth like a fairy tale.
New generations like it because it is both for and about all generations. We see these movies as experiences to share but in our collective consciousness we continue to be attracted to it, even in our individual consciousness, because it presents the struggles of society as being just as important as our personal struggles. We as a species will always be in the midst of conflicts with oppressive governments all the while pursuing our own potential. Movies like Avatar and others in recent years return to these archetypes because these struggles will remain in the world. Sagas like Star Wars, thanks to Disney's acquisition, will continue to grow in its scope of storytelling in order to both entertain us and to present us with characters having their own troubles and triumphs that reflect parts of our lives and guide us in our own pursuit of truth. These are the reasons why archetypes exist and why storytellers often cannot avoid including them.
A Far-Reaching Impact
If you're not too sure that Star Wars hasn't truly made such impacts in our culture, let me share a recent event in my life where some fellow parents made a great gift. Last month, they put together a Star Wars-themed birthday party for their son. At first, that may seem innocuous since this is a pretty common thing. You would probably imagine a party with Star Wars paper plates and napkins, C-3PO balloons, cupcakes with TIE Fighter rings… and all those sorts of things were there, and they had their place in the theme.
But these parents went one step beyond. They set up tasks for the son's friends to accomplish. These were not just party games, but endeavors that would change the participants from padawans to Jedis. They had to complete three tasks in total. The first was an egg-carry game to show them a Jedi's gentleness and agility. Another task had them earn their lightsabers only after they figured out that they needed to use the Jedi mind trick to obtain them. Finally, one by one, the guests had to take the path through some woods in order to "face their fear." What met them on the trail was none other than Darth Vader himself. If they met this task with courage and faced Vader with their newfound skills and with their acquired lightsaber, they could defeat him and pass on to knighthood… and cake.
In the end, they all celebrated together for having each faced the trials and for having come out on the other side with a sense of accomplishment and togetherness.
When congratulating each other on passing the tests, they were telling their own stories of what they thought would be waiting for them in the woods, and what transpired for them in order to conquer it. In this small, and fun way, Star Wars wasn't just decoration for these kids. The father and mother knew that the theme of Star Wars could be an enriching experience and an unforgettable party.
For those of us who helped, including our tall friend who was Darth Vader, it was easy to keep the theme alive for the kids since the whole idea was already so familiar to us. We knew what it meant to train as a Jedi and face your fears. We saw it as not only a wonderful story that we enjoyed as kids but also as a story we've experienced in our lives. For us it was another way to pass these ideas onto a new generation. Star Wars helps us put complex ideas into simple images. The images and characters are the archetypes that have been around since the first movie and since the early epics and sagas that told of the same ideas from "a long time ago." We pass on a kind of wisdom when do things like this. The kids were already passing on what they learned to each other right after it took place.
It is for these reasons that Star Wars continues and grows. In Disney parks, we will soon walk into a physical land based on those stories. It isn't just because it's popular and sells merchandise, it's because the core ideas of Star Wars are about our most basic need to find order and peace and to set us on the path to self-discovery. These are intangible ideas but Star Wars land will be a tangible place and all these ideas are a lot to expect of a theme park to represent. But the sights, sounds, and experiences are already based on the things we're familiar with from the movies and therefore it will, in some way, tap into these same ideas that make Star Wars the modern saga.