Greetings from Echo Base, my fellow Earth people. In honor of Star Wars Day, I’m posting Chapter 41 of my new book – SACRED FILMS – for your reading consumption. May the 4th be with you.
The Empire Strikes Back
I was about a year and a half out from making my entrance into this world when the original Star Wars film was making its entrance into theaters during the Spring of 1977. As such, I was first introduced to the legendary saga through its second film The Empire Strikes Back that landed on the scene in 1980. Because the sequel was such a massive success it was re-released a few more times, and during one of these subsequent theater runs in November of 1982 my dad—through what can only be described in retrospect as divine inspiration—drove me to one of the small movie theaters in his home neighborhood on the south side of Indy. It was a crucial parenting move on his part, and it insured that my fledgling four-year-old brain would henceforth have all the creative fuel it would ever need to see me through the rest of my childhood and beyond. The film had a monumental impact on my development as a human being. I know that sounds quite dramatic, and maybe even a little disturbing, but there’s simply no denying it. I don’t have many clear memories left from when I was four, but I remember, most vividly, the experience of sitting in that theater and witnessing a green, two-foot-tall puppet raise a man’s spaceship out of a swamp using nothing but its mind. I had seen puppet shows at Vacation Bible School, to be sure, but all they did was talk about things I was too young to understand. Yoda, on the other hand, showed me something awesome, something powerful, something I would never forget. Even though he was only a puppet, he became real to me on that day.
That was only the very beginning of my own personal Star Wars adventure. A week or so later, I received my first action figure—a 4-inch imperial snowtrooper—as a gift from my parents. That was only a preview of the influx of Star Wars toys I was to receive a month later on Christmas morning. What followed in the next few years, with the release of the original film on television and VHS, the release of the third film Return of the Jedi in 1983, and the wave of merchandise that accompanied all of it, was a cornucopia of psychological building materials for my imagination. By the time I was ten I had the original trilogy memorized line by line. Every Christmas, birthday, and trip to the Greenwood Park Mall, saw my collection of Star Wars toys continue to grow. Mr. Rogers had taught me the basics about how to conjure up the “land of make-believe.” My Star Wars toys gave me the raw materials to actually do it. My imagination was constantly running free with new adventures that I made up in my mind, given life through massive toy battles that spread across the house, often spilling out into the backyard. Even in deep snow I would haul my figures out into the yard and re-create the Battle of Hoth in front of the whole neighborhood (who were nestled warmly in their homes and didn’t care of course). By the time I was a teenager the mythological bedrock of Star Wars, and the story that unfolds through The Empire Strikes Back in particular, had helped to shape a great deal of my view of the world. The only influences that rivaled anything close to the profound effect it had on me were the love of my parents, and their devotion to Christ, the Church, and the Bible. My parents were never the type of people to be overly critical of things, and they definitely didn’t analyze and scrutinize movies the way I do—but still, their intuition concerning what was truly good or bad was always spot on. They could sense whether something would have a positive or negative effect on us kids, and whether or not the messages we were absorbing through the movies and the shows we watched, as well as the books we read, would conflict with the truth they were instilling within us through God’s word. And they did adjust what we were exposed to according to their perceptions. They were much stricter in this way when we were really young, but as we grew older they allowed us the freedom to discern these kinds of things for ourselves. I’m grateful for their parenting skills in this regard. Many of the other kids in our church had parents who tried to teach them that anything that wasn’t produced by Christians was inherently evil and should be avoided and shunned. My parents never bought into this unfortunate fallacy. Instead, they taught me to look deeper when it came to movies, shows, books, and music. They taught me to dig for the meaning inside these things, and then to judge for myself whether something was beneficial, uplifting, and had redeeming qualities to it—or not. Instead of teaching me only what to think, they taught me how to think. And I’m continually grateful for this, especially in regards to Star Wars, and the messages it contains within its depths. Because the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized how much of the Star Wars story is timeless, how much of it reflects the deeper truths of humanity, and how it depicts a spiritual realm that, through fantasy, provides a symbolic abstraction of the reality we actually live in. More on that in a bit…
When George Lucas brought the original film to life in the late 70s, no one knew it was going to be the massive success that it very quickly became. When it was clear that the film was well received and profitable, the corporate tycoons came for their piece of the action. But Lucas had the foresight to side-step their attempts to own him, and to control his decision making for the next two movies. He broke from the Hollywood machine, established his own production company, and proceeded to make The Empire Strikes Back with his own money. His deft maneuvering paid off, and the result has gone down in history as the most successful independent film ever made. We can’t fault the man for building one of the most successful brands ever, and then cashing it in for 4 billion dollars a few decades later. But, for those fans like myself noticing the differences between the Star Wars that was, and the Star Wars that is—this is the reason. Individual creativity, ingenuity, and hard work produces different results from corporate greed, political agendas, and lazy writing. If the Star Wars fan base is truly as divided now as the internet would have us believe, this is why.
Alright then… enough about all that. On to the important stuff.
The Empire Strikes Back is a powerful story. It’s not just the greatest of all the Star Wars films that have been made, and it’s not just one of the greatest epic fantasy movies ever made, but it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It takes the viewer through a vicarious journey with its heroes that has been described by psychologists, philosophers, historians, and sociologists as a “monomyth.” Many of the films I’ve written about in this book, and countless others that I haven’t written about, make use of this formula to some extent. The Empire Strikes Back is a nearly flawless depiction of it. This formula, sometimes referred to as “The Hero’s Journey,” was popularized by the late literature professor Joseph Campbell through the publications of his research. His ideas were studied, surveyed, and adapted by Lucas when he began constructing the backbone of the Star Wars myth. The main theory underlying the existence of the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, is that the human race, since its earliest beginnings has been telling and re-telling the same general story throughout time. This general story takes on new characteristics, produces tributaries that spin off of the main tale, and is clothed in different guises depending on what era it’s being told in, what culture is telling it, what the religious beliefs of that culture are, and where, geographically speaking, these cultures reside—but it’s still all the same story underneath its external trappings and layers. If understood correctly, that same general story (or the things about that story that are always the same across time, culture, belief, and geography) can be extrapolated and clothed in an infinite number of ways to produce “new” stories on top of the original monomyth. The result is that we end up with The Lion King, The Matrix, Robin Hood, and of course Star Wars (to name some recognizable examples). All of these stories tell the same general tale with different outward appearances. Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien made use of this formula in their writings as well, but they also believed, as do I, that the common general story, or source of the one great monomyth at the heart of all stories, is the one that God has been telling since the beginning. In other words, the main story that the human race cannot help but keep trying to tell comes from the one original story that’s shared by all—the true story that has been given voice and form and finality in the word of God.
Think for a moment, about the journey that Luke Skywalker takes through A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Luke’s main goal is to answer one simple question—who am I? His search for the answer to this question leads him to discover many other things about himself, about his family, and about his environment. He learns the nature of good and evil, he learns how to cope with loss, how to recover from being wounded physically, how to recover from being wounded emotionally, what it means to sacrifice your own needs and desires for the needs and desires of those you love, how to deal with power, how to stand against injustice, and how to speak the truth. The main lessons that Luke learns in The Empire Strikes Back revolve around how to overcome temptation, and how to connect with the invisible, unseen “force” behind the creation, cohesiveness, and sustenance of the entire universe. The Force is a nebulous, undefined, impersonal deity of sorts, but it’s this vagueness that allows it to be appreciated and understood by many different kinds of people who believe in very different deities—including the Christian God that we recognize through the person of Jesus Christ. After all, we’re talking about a fictional movie narrative. It’s not meant to communicate truth to us directly, but only to provide us with a backdrop upon which we can shine our own beliefs in a neutral way. All art does this to some extent.
When Luke goes about connecting himself to the power of the Force, it requires him to develop faith and discipline. He has to learn how to see past the physical realm, and into a spiritual world that is invisible, yet ever present. This is something that Christians should be able to understand and relate to in some way. Overcoming temptation is another thing that Christians can find resonance with. For Luke Skywalker, overcoming the “dark side” requires him to face temptation in the most visceral way possible. When we catch up to him in the climax of the film he’s a broken man. He has nothing. He stands completely alone, backed onto the edge of an abyss, beaten down, maimed, and compelled to accept a truth about himself that cuts through him more painfully than Vader’s lightsaber. And the only way out is to accept Vader’s offer of power and authority and become evil in the process, or to plunge to his death and remain good. Luke’s choice to fall to his death rather than betray his conscience opens the doorway to redemption. He experiences grace in an immediate way, being rescued by his sister Leia, which enables him to extend grace and rescue his father in the next film. It’s a brilliant story of redemption.
And while I’m mentioning Leia, I should also point out that her character is proof that strong female leads can be portrayed in movies with grace, dignity, power, and intelligence—without resorting to militant feminism—and while still sharing equal screen time with the male leads. Just look at what Leia does in this movie: At the beginning, she’s running the entire Rebel base, bossing orders to the squadrons of pilots, organizing the defenses, planning the retreat, and putting herself in danger by not leaving until everyone else has gotten out of harm’s way. At the end, she’s engaged in a direct firefight with imperial troops, piloting the Millennium Falcon and rescuing Luke from certain death. Throughout the movie the Rebels are getting their rear ends handed to them the entire way, and Leia is the one holding them all together. And, just to top it all off and make my point—she does all this without sacrificing an ounce of her femininity, and while falling in love in the process. Leia’s strength and leadership are natural to the flow of the story. Everything she does makes complete sense, because her character is still serving the story that undergirds all of the characters. This is how to write a strong female character. In today’s over-politicized, movie making climate, this is becoming a lost art form. These days, it seems that people don’t know how to write strong female leads that fit within a good story. Crafting female heroes to fit the monomyth and serve a good story is entirely possible, as George Lucas and James Cameron showed us back in the 80s through the characters they wrote for Carrie Fisher and Sigourney Weaver. There are too many writers in Hollywood today that don’t understand this, and they instead alter the story to serve the female characters, functionally turn the females into men (so to speak), and then turn the men into complete morons. The male characters in the new Star Wars films are all one of four things: They’re either incompetent, evil, angry, or immature, and they all need women to show them the right way to be men. Anyway, I guess I just yearn for simpler times.
Most of these motifs, symbols, story structure, and underlying themes sailed completely over my four-year-old head that day in the theater back in 1982. I was too young to comprehend all these things. But the images and the story stuck with me. And in time, I began to understand why this movie was so important to me. It taught me truths about life; that good and evil are real, that they actually exist, that they are constantly at war, that our decisions are important, that the choices we make every day cause us to land in real places on the battlefield of life, that pride in our own abilities and knowledge can send us down a path that will corrupt even the purest of hearts, and that conversely, those who are enslaved to the darkest evils are never beyond redemption.