How 'Star Wars' Changed My Life

After I became a Christian, in 1971, at age 17, I began to notice something: The social turmoil of the 1960s had resulted in movie content becoming artistically daring while turning darker in tone. Sex was now featured in theaters at its most explicit, and screen violence was brutal and shocking, even by today’s standards. Even the mainstream magazines that covered the films depicted the once-unthinkable images in their feature coverage.

Though I had been interested enough in movies as a teenager to sometimes see noted films by myself, I decided I couldn’t handle what this put in my brain and still maintain my focus on following God, and adopted a mostly separatist stance regarding popular culture. For years I followed film releases from a distance, only occasionally seeing “safe” films.

By 1977, I was on a Middle East field trip as part of a Youth With a Mission. While staying in the American-British section of Cairo that spring, I bought the regional edition of TIME with a blurb in the top right corner about “the movie of the year.” Intrigued by pictures from the forthcoming “Star Wars,” I nevertheless waited months before seeing it.

It did not disappoint. Inventive and yet deeply steeped in classic Hollywood storytelling, “Star Wars,” marvelously synthesized mythic narratives and Hollywood archetypes. At a time when the United States had endured years of depressing events, including losing a war and seeing a president resign, “Star Wars” offered “a new hope” that movies could not just be a place for downbeat adult dramas, but could return to the entertainment values that had made American film dominate box offices around the world. Cheering returned to the multiplex. And I re-engaged with movies and culture generally, leading eventually to pursuing graduate film studies, a Ph.D., and a career as a college professor endeavoring to transmit my love of film to my students.

As the gateway drug for getting me and others hooked on film, “Star Wars” succeeded because George Lucas found a way to tell the sprawling space epic in his head by shaping it according to Joseph Campbell’s universally found “Hero’s Journey.” Luke Skywalker was the callow youth called from obscurity to adventure to discover his extraordinary gifts and face down an evil empire. This resonated powerfully as audiences recognized not only Luke as a new yet familiar representation of the “hero with a thousand faces,” found in all times and cultures, but also Leia, the brave princess, and the roguish Han Solo, archetypal characters made alive again after years of Hollywood hibernation.

Lucas’ secret was recombining these and other myths and legends into a science fiction fairy tale committed to reviving the bright lines between good and evil, with a twist of Force-ful New Age spirituality and amazingly fresh production design that, though “alien,” felt grounded in reality. The next two films built on the legend to tell a complete tale of brave companions working together to defeat the Dark Side.

But when Lucas tried to return to his saga with a new trilogy of prequels, Episodes I-III, the Force was not with his telling of a convoluted political story of a failed messiah, Anakin Skywalker-cum-Darth Vader. Empty spectacle and flat characters deflated many a fan who had to wait until Lucas sold his studio to Disney for a promised completion of the originally forecast final three chapters.

In the months leading up to “Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” I have wondered how the new film would handle the next portion of the story. It was reported that the screenwriters, including director J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan (co-scribe of “The Empire Strikes Back”) would write a fresh new take rather than use any ideas that Lucas had planned before selling his franchise. But once you have told the Hero’s Journey once, spectacularly well, how do you follow it up? After all, was there a sequel to “The Odyssey”?

For my thoughts on how “The Force Awakens” turned out, you can read my full review here.


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