As Skywalker saga closes, a chat about values of ‘Star Wars’

Why We Wrote This

Perhaps the world’s biggest movie franchise, “Star Wars” serves as a modern-day myth – complete with implicit spiritual and political values – for millions of fans globally. Note: this chat is spoiler-free. 

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the jam-packed conclusion to the nine-film Skywalker saga that kicked off 42 years ago, is out today. For this chat, which has been edited for clarity, we gathered three of the Monitor’s biggest “Star Wars” fans – culture writer Stephen Humphries, politics writer Jessica Mendoza, and science writer Eoin O’Carroll – to discuss some of the values that permeate the franchise. Though Eoin, Jess, and Stephen were raised in three different countries, all three became utterly captivated by the ”Star Wars” universe as children.

Eoin O’Carroll: One of my earliest memories is of my dad telling me that we were going to go see “The Empire Strikes Back,” which is now my favorite all-time movie. What is your first memory of “Star Wars”?

Jessica Mendoza: I have two – I’m not sure which came first. There’s me at age 10 or 11, at some California theater, seeing “Phantom Menace” for the first time and thinking how cool podracing was. Then there’s seeing “A New Hope” at home, in the Philippines, age unknown.

Stephen Humphries: My dad took me to see “Star Wars” when the first movie was released in 1977. We bonded over that movie in a way that, I imagine, other fathers and sons grow closer over a fishing trip. But instead of fishing rods, we were geeking out over lightsabers.

Jess, what is it about “Star Wars” that makes it something that resonated in our respective home countries of South Africa and the Philippines – and the rest of the world?

Jess: George Lucas always said that while he wrote the films for himself, he also had universal mythologies in mind. The plot and character archetypes touched something human in us – values, maybe, or desires. It didn’t really matter where we came from.

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the jam-packed conclusion to the nine-film Skywalker saga that kicked off 42 years ago, is out today. For this chat, which has been edited for clarity, we gathered three of the Monitor’s biggest “Star Wars” fans – culture writer Stephen Humphries, politics writer Jessica Mendoza, and science writer Eoin O’Carroll – to discuss some of the values that permeate the franchise. Though Eoin, Jess, and Stephen were raised in three different countries, all three became utterly captivated by the ”Star Wars” universe as children.

Eoin O’Carroll:  One of my earliest memories is of my dad telling me that we were going to go see “The Empire Strikes Back,” which is now my favorite all-time movie. What is your first memory of “Star Wars”?

Jessica Mendoza: I have two – I’m not sure which came first. There’s me at age 10 or 11, at some California theater, seeing “Phantom Menace” for the first time and thinking how cool podracing was. (Will I ever live down how much I loved that movie now that I’ve seen it as an adult? Probably not.) Then there’s seeing “A New Hope” at home, in the Philippines, age unknown – except that I know the movie came in a LaserDisc my parents owned. (For our younger readers: That’s like a DVD, only much, much bigger.)

Eoin: I remember that month when LaserDisc was popular in the U.S. It really is the most “Star Wars”-sounding video format.

Jess: Isn’t it? The giant photo of Vader on the sleeve made it seem even cooler to my kid self. 

Stephen HumphriesMy earliest childhood memory is of outer space. My dad took me to see “Star Wars” when the first movie was released in 1977. We bonded over that movie in a way that, I imagine, other fathers and sons grow closer over a fishing trip. But instead of fishing rods, we were geeking out over lightsabers.

Jess, what is it about “Star Wars” that makes it something that resonated in our respective home countries of South Africa and the Philippines – and the rest of the world? 

Jess: George Lucas always said that while he wrote the films for himself, he also had universal mythologies in mind. The plot and character archetypes touched something human in us – values, maybe, or desires. It didn’t really matter where we came from. 

Before we get too far afield – Eoin, what was your first memory of the films? 

Eoin: We were in the United States. I had just turned four years old, and my dad was telling me that we were going to go see a film about rocketships and laser swords, and I kept forgetting the name and asking him again. So, yes, one of my defining memories as a child is of me forgetting the name of my favorite film.

But I wanted to get into that universality that Jess was talking about. The whole franchise seems to be saying something very big and deep about...something? Our relationship to technology? The existence of a transcendent order? Our political nature? You get the sense that its very important, but when you try to really grasp it, it slips through your fingers like so many oppressed star systems.

Stephen: Lucas drew inspiration from the “hero’s journey,” described by mythologist Joseph Campbell. It’s a classic paradigm that has a universality to it – how a journey transforms oneself.

“Star Wars” wasn’t dark. But it did deal with dark times and a belief in a resonant presence of goodness winning out. In an interview, Lucas admitted that his aim was to awaken young people to spirituality, a belief in God more than any particular religion.

Eoin: Campbell was also an admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and Ezra Pound, figures who believed that Western civilization was decadent and needed to be reinvigorated with the heroic values of ancient societies. 

This kind of Carl-Jung-meets-Conan-the-Barbarian mentality is a common theme on the far-right, and we see it moving more mainstream thanks to thinkers like Jordan Peterson. I sometimes worry that this aspect of “Star Wars” can attract some pretty extreme reactionaries in the fanbase. Just witness the racist backlash against Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega and the misogynist backlash against Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones.

Jess: That reaction was hard to watch, if not entirely unsurprising.

What to me makes the franchise special – and this is true of any great story – is that people find what they’re looking for in it. Objectively, the spiritual message in the films exist, because Lucas said he put it there. And also objectively, maybe he was inspired by a man with fraught beliefs. That doesn’t mean that people can’t look at those characters, these stories, and discover truths that they recognize, even if Lucas didn’t necessarily mean for them to be there.

Eoin: There is this great theme of spiritual growth and change throughout the films. George Lucas calls himself a “Buddhist Methodist.” Both faith traditions emphasize humanity’s ability for spiritual improvement.

Stephen: Here’s why that hero’s arc works so well. In “Return of the Jedi,” that moment of Luke’s final transition to becoming a Jedi and Vader’s redemption is such a powerful one. And I love how the two are connected!

“The Rise of Skywalker” also asks if anyone is beyond redemption and, if so, asks what that looks like.

Jess: The Disney trilogy, to me, lacks the cohesion of the other two trilogies. One thing that kept bugging me throughout the movie – which, by the way, critics have savaged so far – is the question of how this all would have turned out if only one director had been tasked with all three. 

What could J.J. Abrams, who directed both “Force Awakens” and “Rise of Skywalker,” have done with character development toward those themes, if he’d gotten the chance to build a through-line? And it might have been even more fascinating to see what Rian Johnson could have created with that same opportunity. 

Eoin: Does the film close the saga’s spiritual arc?

Stephen: In a sense. One of the few things I like about “The Last Jedi” is that it ended by showing that the Force is accessible to everyone – even stable boys looking after space horses. Anyone can be a hero. Anyone can access the Force.

Indeed, there are a few moments in the new movie where characters other than Rey talk about feeling an impulse toward good. We even hear an anecdote about a whole company of Stormtroopers putting down their weapons and mutinying rather than shoot unarmed citizens. The message is clear: that impulse toward good is universal, available to those who heed its call.

Jess: Yeah, the best part about “Last Jedi” was its upending of some of those tropes we’d settled into with most of the “Star Wars” movies, especially around someone needing to be special to be trained to use the Force. When in reality, it’s for everyone who chooses to reach for it. But there was a disconnect for me, in terms of how that idea was presented.

Eoin: That strikes me as a welcome shift. The idea of spiritual awareness having a bloodline – that the Force runs strong in certain families – always struck me as vaguely eugenicist. The midichlorians didn’t help.

Jess: I was really hoping we could get through this chat without mentioning midichlorians.

Stephen: Are midichlorians the reason that the milk in the galaxy is either blue or green? Ugh.

Eoin: All of this raises the question: Was the Jedi Order actually good? I’ve long harbored misgivings against violent unelected religious orders that wield massive state power.

Stephen: There’s definitely a political theme about the dangers of concentrated political power, especially in Episodes 1 through 3. The best line is when Queen Amidala, who’d been manipulated by Palpatine, says, “So this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause.”

Eoin: But unlike, say, “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” “Star Wars” has typically avoided political specifics.

Stephen: Indeed, the great weakness of the last three movies is that we have no idea how the First Order rose up or what they really stand for. But then there’s a lot of stuff that’s left unexplained – like how do capes remain fashionable for three generations?

Eoin: The First Order reminds me of Karl Marx’s observation that certain revolutionaries like to dress themselves up in the costumes of past eras, but that they can never quite live up to the glory of those eras. Marx was comparing Napoleon Bonaparte to Napoleon III, but he could have been comparing Darth Vader to Kylo Ren.

Jess: That’s why “Rise of Skywalker” feels rushed, I think. There’s a lot of background that doesn’t really get tackled, it’s less explicitly political than the prequel movies, and there’s so much action and quippy lines that I was left feeling a little ... whelmed. But it does try to strike some kind of balance toward the end, in terms of answering those questions about who can wield power, how, and what good it could bring to the galaxy.

Stephen: In “The Rise of Skywalker,” there are numerous scenes that powerfully underscore one of the other important themes that Lucas intentionally embedded in the series: the value of friendship. (Recall that even at their most adversarial, Ben and Vader refer to each other as “old friend,” which brings to mind the saying, “With friends like this who needs enemies?”) Everyone has a buddy – even the BB-8 droid in the new movie. Kinship encourages these individuals to overcome selfishness even if it means sacrifice.

Jess: That seems to me part of that larger theme of choice: Sure, there may be some huge, invisible power in the universe. But it’s not just for a select few. Anyone can access it, if they choose to. They can choose to use it for good or for evil. In the same way, each of us is born with a particular bloodline, a particular family. But we can choose who we side with. We aren’t bound by blood. We can choose our destinies.

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