George Lucas spins movie gold out of the oldest of storytelling straw: noble heroes, pretty but spunky heroines, and a simple world of clear rights and wrongs. (It doesn't hurt that the toys are really cool too! What young boy could resist the Force if it came with that nifty light saber?)
But somehow the original "Star Wars" movie (1977), a classic coming-of-age story, went beyond good storytelling. It hit a cultural chord so deep that it has resonated well into the next generation. Why?
" 'Star Wars' is the spear point," says longtime Hollywood story consultant Christopher Vogler. "There's a huge missile behind it, namely the whole world it creates that you can go and live in."
Mr. Vogler wrote Hollywood's screenwriting bible, "The Writer's Journey," using the fundamentals of a hero's journey detailed by Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who inspired George Lucas. He was also in film school with Mr. Lucas. "Star Wars" mania, Vogler says, comes from a great talent (Lucas) mixed with that ultimate Hollywood goal - perfect timing.
"The initial 'Star Wars' was the first refutation of cynicism and irony," he says. The 1970s were dominated by "antihero" films like "Easy Rider" and "Bonnie and Clyde." "This was the first one that said, 'Let's go back to childhood. Instead of being angry teenagers, let's ... go back to that primary experience of just having a good summer.' "
Today, grown-ups who saw the film as children use it to share that experience with their children.
But "Star Wars" has had staying power because it is deeply rooted in the primal human concerns of birth, death, and redemption. Through the maturing of young Luke Skywalker, his father, Darth Vader, is redeemed. "The movie is really the apotheosis of this whole complex of ideas and semireligious feelings people have," Vogler says.
"The best filmmakers use film in the service of spiritual ideas," adds Robert Walter, director of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Campbell was the eminent mythologist whose book "The Hero's Journey" catalogued the stories and teachings of world cultures and showed a universal pattern in them. Lucas has credited Campbell as his inspiration for the "Star Wars."
The filmmaker also has been accused of trivializing these great traditions with the famous line "May the Force be with you." But "it's not trivializing unless we believe the spiritual impulse is less valuable in the common person than in the breast of the official keeper of the flame," Mr. Walter says. He calls movies "the frescoes of the 20th century." These were once painted on walls or in stained glass and told a story. Today, "film is the conveyor of those popular stories," he says.
"Films allow us to dream collectively about who we are, where we are going, and what we value," says Ted Tollefson, director of the Mythos Institute, a cultural think tank in Frontenac, Minn. The "Star Wars" films deal with a distant time and place, which in itself implies the possibility of an ongoing life for mankind. "When there's a school shooting [like Littleton, Colo.], we worry about that."
"Why does anyone willingly choose evil?" asks philosopher Arthur Danto. The professor emeritus at Columbia University says that in the wake of the Colorado shootings, people are looking for answers. "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" introduces an angelic-faced boy who will grow up to be the menacing Darth Vader. "Most of the causal explanations [for the Littleton shootings], 'he was picked on' or 'he needed power,' aren't enough," says Mr. Danto. The "Star Wars" films "give people a powerful myth [with which] to think out questions" they need answered.
Lucas has said that his films are aimed at "a 12-year-old boy." The "Star Wars" films revolve around the coming-of-age of young men, and in particular the impact of an absent or remote father. (It's hard to get more distant than the evil Darth Vader was to Luke Skywalker.) One big surprise in "Episode 1" centers on Vader's own father. As young Anakin Skywalker (before turning to the dark side as Vader) he lacks a human father. With this apparent "virgin birth," perhaps to be explained in Episodes 2 and 3, Lucas tackles two timeless questions: Where do we come from and who are we?
"One of the missing pieces of our time is the father," Mr. Tollefson says. In mythology, the absent father is a powerful motivator. "This seems to be one of the characteristics that launches a hero on his quest for some sort of spiritual father or connection to a deeper organizing principle of life," he explains. In today's society, Tollefson sees many young men with no fathers as having no way to break through to a closer connection to a spiritual sensibility or a more mature connection to society.
In the absence of such a connection, Tollefson suggests, many young men turn to what he calls redemption through violence. Lucas offers an alternative redemption, he says. "When Luke [Skywalker] lays down his light sword and says he will fight no more, he redeems himself and, ultimately, his father, Darth Vader."
A young man's romance with technology is another 'Star Wars' theme that has powerful resonance today, says James Maertens, author and director of the Bardic Institute in Minneapolis. " 'Star Wars' teaches the lesson ... that technology can turn you into a hero, but it can also seduce you into evil," he says. The underlying message is that it's not the machines that make you good or bad, but the choices you make.
Other thinkers are far less charitable about the films. "They address our hunger for mythology, but they don't meet it," says Lewis Hyde, a professor of art and politics at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. The way these films simplistically frame the fight between good and evil contributes to our inability to live with moral complexity.
"Without moral shadings, we become cruel," he says. When people don't fit our pattern of good and bad, it's easy to adopt an aggressive attitude toward them. Often this is what's going on with children who are attracted to Nazi imagery, as were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenage shooters in Littleton, Colo.