Star Wars: Epic myth for our time

“That story will never appear on screen again. It’s finished. It’s complete.” So George Lucas told me in an interview 10 years ago: RIP Star Wars. Our meeting was pegged to the release of the saga’s third episode, Revenge of the Sith, and the completion of the so-called prequel trilogy.

Somewhat confusingly, this epic series of blockbusters had begun halfway through a six-movie cycle with Star Wars (1977), later relabelled Episode IV: A New Hope. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) followed, each a box-office sensation.

So was there really nothing, I asked the diminutive magus of the Star Wars universe, that could tempt him to make episodes VII to IX? “No. No. It really is the story of the tragedy of Darth Vader, and it starts when he’s nine, and it ends when he’s dead. And that is the story.”

Scroll forward to December 2015 and Episode VII: The Force Awakens, directed by JJ Abrams, is about to take the planet by storm. In the first 24 hours of tickets being available, sales were reported to be eight or 10 times the existing record. As I told Lucas in 2005, my father took me to see the original Star Wars on the first day of its release. Now it’ll be my turn to take my sons to see The Force Awakens.

I don’t think Lucas was being disingenuous when he declared the party over a decade ago. It really was over for him. When he made the first movie in the 1970s, Vint Cerf and his colleagues at Stanford were still working on creating the internet. The movie director had no idea of the effect digital technology would have on the way hardcore fans collaborated, and the savagery with which they would respond to anything they considered sacrilegious.

As Chris Taylor observes in his definitive guide, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, this loathing is so deep and nonsensical that “true fans hate everything about Star Wars”. Their online fury, especially at the prequels, became fundamentalist in its wrath. What nobody saw coming was Lucas’s decision to sell the entire franchise to Disney for $4‑billion – clearing the path for as many new films and spin-offs as the audience can withstand.

What makes the Star Wars saga fascinating as well as financially successful is the extent to which it has penetrated mainstream culture.

Political columnists make assumptions that readers will have heard of the Jedi, the Force, Darth Vader, Yoda and so on. The assumption is not always made wisely: I once compared British Labour politician Peter Mandelson in an article with the Dark Lord of the Sith. “Who’s Darth Vadder?” he asked his aide, Derek Draper.

On the other hand, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has his own lightsabers, given to him in 2013 by the production company Lucasfilm, which he is obliged by the rules governing gifts to keep at the treasury.

The depth of the permeation achieved by Star Wars is well portrayed in an otherwise undistinguished post-apocalyptic B-movie, Reign of Fire (2002). Dragons having brought civilisation to its knees – I told you it was undistinguished – the survivors must come up with their own folklore and mine their memories for new myths and legends.

So we see Gerard Butler and Christian Bale re-enacting for children the scene from The Empire Strikes Back in which Vader tells Luke that he is his father. The candlelit amateurism of the vignette is the essence of its strength.

To a surprising extent, I think, we are hooked by the naturalism of the better episodes of Star Wars. The setting is a rich mixture of fantasy and science fiction, but the ships and droids are scuffed and worn by the elements. This is a galaxy that is both utterly alien and plausibly rough at the edges: “a used universe”, as Lucas described it.

Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s grandson, told the filmmaker Tony Palmer: “If my grandfather were alive today, he would undoubtedly be working in Hollywood.” No less than Wagner, and for a far greater audience, Lucas and his successors are curators, inventors and re-energisers of myth.

In a fascinating interview with David Letterman in 1986, Alec Guinness – who played the older Obi-Wan Kenobi – described picking up the script of the original movie for the first time. “I didn’t think the dialogue was very good – but it held me from page to page.”

This diffident endorsement captures the paradox of the saga’s enchantment. The writing is passable at best, and often plain wooden (as Harrison Ford famously complained: “George, you can type this shit. But you sure can’t say it.”). But it is the retelling of ancient myths and heroic legends that seizes the  imagination.

Luke Skywalker’s story, for instance, was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the universal story was described by Campbell thus: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” That sentence might be a pitch for what will now become the “middle trilogy” – episodes IV, V and VI.

His father, Anakin (who will become Darth Vader) was the result of a miraculous birth – a supernatural occurrence that is at the doctrinal heart of Christianity, but is also found in the traditions of Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, among other faiths.

The Force itself is a theological Swiss Army knife, identifiable as God by those with religious convictions, or merely as the interconnectedness of living beings. The films are intermittently mystical rather than earnestly preachy.

But the Manichean battle of good and evil between and within people is the heart of the matter: Star Wars leaves no chord unstruck.

As Adam Nicolson writes in his superb book The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters: “What is painfully and marvellously real lies within the embrace of what is profoundly shared and ancient.”

Every era needs its Odyssey, its Beowulf, its Mahabharata. Like it or not, Star Wars is our iteration of these great stories, our version of the tale told around the campfire of history. Humanity can live without God. But without myth? Never. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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