One of my favourite films franchises – both as a kid in small town New Zealand, and today as an adult – is Star Wars. There has always been a stigma around Science-Fiction; that it only interests nerds or geeks or social outcasts. As a kid, I was never the most popular or most liked kid, but I was always the most passionate. Something in Star Wars spoke to me then, and still speaks to me now: The story of an unlikely hero, battling an oppressive force, for the betterment of all. Times have changed, and that stigma I mentioned is disappearing, but I think that what those fans of science fiction, and specifically Star Wars, can see better than most, is that the films that George Lucas first created had a purpose beyond just entertainment. The narrative that was started back in 1977 and continues to this day has an underlying moral framework which transcends film, and its inclusion has not only produced a successful franchise, but a way of living as well.
Star Wars Celebration is an annual event in which fans of a franchise share their love for the iconic and beloved films, TV Shows and associated media. Held in a different location each year, 2017 marked the 12th time the event has been held, and the 40th anniversary of A New Hope, the first entry in the series. Many of the franchise’s biggest stars turned up to speak, including series creator George Lucas. During the 40th Anniversary panel, Lucas was asked when he came up with the idea for Star Wars, and his thoughts on whether he felt it would have ever been the success it is today. What interested me was what he noted about the core audience or demographic for the films;
“It’s a film for 12-year-olds.”
This should of course, surprise no one. Star Wars has always appealed to children – to families – it’s content is non-threatening, its dialogue and characters are accessible to younger audiences. And yet, it was what Lucas mentioned straight after this that got me thinking;
“This is what we stand for. You’re about to enter the real world. You’re moving away from your parents. You’re probably scared, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Here’s what you should pay attention to: Friendships, honesty, trust, doing the right thing. Living on the light side, avoiding the dark side.”
What I hadn’t considered in all my years as a fan were the impacts that this film series would have on the development of young minds. In the case of Star Wars, was the content displayed positively impacting the way we perceive the world, and the attitudes that we take into our adult lives?
I find it hard to believe that their are people who have never seen Star Wars. The whole franchise, every bit of media and story that it holds, is so prolific that not having viewed at least one part of it seems completely impossible. And yet I do encounter those who have not – or those who do not understand the appeal .”It’s just not that interesting” is a common complaint. “I don’t really get it” is another.
A recent conversation with my girlfriend around her lack of fandom for Star Wars again surprised me. As a fan of Harry Potter, surely she would enjoy Star Wars? No, “boring” she said. It got me thinking about why I love the stories of S.W so much. Maybe it was the characters? The epic, sweeping nature of its story?
But what I realised recently is that while these are factors, it’s the moral choice at the heart of the saga’s narrative that plays a critical role in its impact on popular culture.
A franchise like Potter is centred – for my money – on Wish Fulfillment. That is to say, everyone wants to be a wizard or a witch. It’s characters are heroic, and its battle of good versus evil does go some way to focussing on moral choice, but it’s all too cut and dry. There is a lack of anguish in the choices the protagonist(s) make. What about Game of Thrones? That is a series centered around danger, a lack of safety, an absence of firm and solid ground – it appeals the sadomasochism in all of us, and for many, the need to root for the underdog. There are so many shades of grey for Game of Thrones, even those who might seem heroic make questionable moral judgements.
Star Wars then, is unique in the way it handles moral choice, and was one of the first film franchises to do so with meaningful effect. Long before ink went to paper for either Potter or Thones, Lucas showed that yes, good and evil forces exist, but the choices we make and the path we follow is at the heart of our existence. It is the choice, the moral choice, that dictates the way we live our lives.
Here’s an example: Luke Skywalker is a young man, on the cusp of adulthood. His attitudes are brash, and he has a tendency to be selfish. Like many teenagers, he dreams of something bigger for himself, away from the mundane existence of moisture farming on Tatooine. Luke represents all of us at that age – quick to judge, too focused on the big picture, not checking the small details and the impact of our actions.
As we follow Luke’s journey, we find that he is gifted. He is imbued with the power to control the world around him, but that power can be used to help others, or to enslave them. His friends and the commitment he makes to their well being drags him to the light, the temptation of greater power and control drag him to the dark. Again, this speaks to the internal struggle that all young adults go through. Do I pursue avenues for the betterment of others, or do I look inward and seek only for myself?
In the end, Luke chooses to pursue the light, helping his friends against evil, and finding happiness and peace in the process.
It’s the moral lessons – helping others, being selfless and humble, never allowing your ego to control you, pursuing the greater good – which permeate not just Luke’s story, but the entire Star Wars narrative. And it is the way in which their moral choices are presented that creates impact, not as black and white decisions, but as difficult choices, choices which we agonise over. Only with a strong moral compass can we be sure that we are making the right choices, and it is my belief that the narrative and story that Lucas devised aims to show us what a strong compass looks like.
The lessons that Star Wars teaches are probably more important today than when A New Hope first appeared in 1977. We live in trying times, filled with displacement, poverty and war. But through all the flack, you can always identify a Star Wars fan. Ever the optimist, promoting the achievements and betterment of others, wanting to make the world a greater place for all. The popularity of this series is not because of the spaceships, the lightsabers or the wookies, but its moral undertones which have created a community millions strong, who all share a common goal – follow the light, never the dark.