The original Star Wars trilogy has just been reissued in the crisp DVD format. I say "original," because George Lucas chose to expand his trilogy into a hexology.
The Star Wars franchise is important as a pop icon and cultural cliché. The Greeks had their mythology, and we have ours. For better or worse, this is a collective mirror of our national ethos.
I saw Star Wars as a teenager, which is no doubt the best time in life to see it. That makes it an interesting point of reference as I write about it at a later stage in life. In watching it again, I'm watching myself watching it. It reminds me of how I felt the first time I saw it, so that I can compare notes between the younger and older versions of me. To some extent, then, I'm looking at it through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia, not that I'd care to be a teenager again, although it would be nice to feel like one! Perhaps this skews my outlook. But, of course, the effect of art lies in the dialectical relation between the object of art and the mood of the viewer--in what we bring to the experience as much as what we take from it.
On the face of it, the cult popularity of the movie is hard to account for. It has a paper-thin plot which it races through at warp-speed. However, the film is deceptively simple. For George Lucas had collaborated with Joseph Campbell on the screenplay. Campbell, along with Jung, Eliade, Frye, and Frazer before them, did much to popularize comparative mythology and the notion of the monomyth. As a consequence, the screenplay is booby-trapped with a number of subliminal tripwires.
The hero is Luke Skywalker. Note the name of the third Evangelist. Luke exemplifies many things at once: rites of passage, the male loner, the reluctant warrior, the holy fool, St. George, the oedipal orphan.
"Old Ben," or Obi-wan, is a mentor, but more than a mentor. He dresses like a monk and lives like a hermit. He bears a patriarchal name. And the shade of Obi-wan bears a nimbic aura.
The desert is a sacred place, a place of law, temptation, refuge, and judgment--the place of Moses and Israel, Jesus, John the Baptist, and St. Anthony. Luke must make a pilgrimage into the desert to meet with him.
The Death Star, with its endless tunnel-system, is like the labyrinth of the Minotaur.
Obi-wan is a knight. And a knight is a crusader. Luke must be initiated into the Jedi knighthood, which is a generic variant on the order of the Templars. The Templars were the military wing of monastic piety. Obi-wan lays down his life to buy time for the escape party.
Han Solo, the crusty, streetwise rogue, is a worldly foil to Luke's holy fool. Despite of, or because of his innocent simplicity, Luke triumphs over all odds. Luke is not only the savior of Leia and the ancien order, but also Han Solo's savior, who is cynical, but not beyond reach of redemption.
Luke must rescue a captive princess. This is the Georgian motif. In Christian iconography, Leia would be the church, and Vader would be the Dragon. So the screenplay unites universal archetypes with distinctive chivalric motifs.
The story itself belongs to the quest genre, which plays on the pilgrim motif.
Of course, the worldview of the movie is far from Christian. The "force" is not a personal God, but a throwback to the anima mundi.
By common consent, The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the trilogy--indeed, the best of the entire franchise thus far.
This is, in part, because Lucas turned the director's chair over to Irvin Kershner, who has a keener eye for visual flow, and the screenplay to Leigh Brackett, a seasoned SF writer.
The Empire achieves much of its dramatic power through the skillful interplay of open space and space enclosed, to foster a sense of claustrophobia and liberation--from the lair of the Wampa, the asteroid, the dark planet of Dagobah, Yoda's hut, the underground cave on Dagobah, Solo's living entombment, and the inner spiral of Cloud City.
The Empire also devotes a fair amount of time unpacking the "force" in light of Buddhist ethics. This will create a problem for Lucas as the franchise continues. To the extent that conflict/resolution is the essence of drama, emotional detachment is antithetical to true drama. This is a key reason why Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones are so flat and static.
Why did Lucas choose to go the Buddhist route? Well, he seemed to feel that his epic vision needed some degree of a transcendental dimension. Pure secularism would be too confining. And for many liberals, religion, or better yet, "spirituality" is fine as long as it isn't Christian. It can be Hindu, Buddhist, Cabalist, American Indian--even Islamic, but never Christian.
Lucas came of age during the Sixties, and eastern religion was part of the counterculture. Its pacifism fit in with the anti-war movement.
Also, film is a mass medium, and Buddhism, which is reputed to be undogmatic, was probably felt to be the most inoffensive form of spirituality.
In addition, there was really no where to go with a character like Skywalker, or the actor who played him. Hamill did well enough at projecting the lust and wanderlust of a young man, but he lacked the star-power and staying-power of a major stage presence, and once your coming-of-age character has come-of-age, what then? Harrison Ford was able to make a real career for himself, because he had more maturity to work with, but not as Han Solo, for Solo is a foil, and the foil is only as good as the lead.
A film like The Phantom Menace is almost a stereotype of everything that can go wrong with a SF flick--a film devoid of plot, passion, characterization, or insight; a film which is strictly a vehicle for the latest line of gismos and gadgets.
Yet that is not quite fair to Lucas, for Lucas is a landscape painter rather than a portrait painter. He has a genuine knack for imagining the unimaginable. But pretty pictures which illustrate absolutely nothing are not enough to sustain a feature-length film. His eyes are bigger than his ideas.
Lucas never had much to say, and he said it all in the first two installments. Even then he was leaning on Joseph Campbell and Leigh Brackett to fill form with content.
He had shot his bolt by The Return of the Jedi, which looks like an outtake reel. He apparently felt the need to round out the trilogy, and this exercise in feature-length padding was the filler. It substitutes sentimentality for sentiment and melodrama for drama. Even his visual imagination falters, for there's no story to inspire the visuals.
In rising to the challenge of the new technology, The Phantom Menace has a few memorable moments, but because there is nothing to attach them to, they fade from memory--like a sunset or a fireworks display.
The Attack of the Clones was somewhat better. The clunky love-story was an effortful effort to recapture the effortless romance of the original Star Wars installment, while the arbitrary plot lacks the linear impetus of the original as well. Yet some of the visuals were really arresting. But this only served to underscore the disparity between eye, ear, heart, and mind. Looks without a commensurate outlook are a feast for the eyes, but a fasting-day for the soul.
Campbell was half-right: there is a monomyth, only it is not a myth, but the Biblical history of creation, fall, and redemption. That is the archetypal story--of which all other stories are lightly disguised versions and variations.