If you adjust for inflation, the first Star Wars film is the second highest-grossing movie of all-time. This means more people saw it in theaters than any other film in history, other than Gone with the Wind. And, thanks to successful sequels and merchandising – I don’t think anyone is asking for a Scarlett O’Hara action figure this Christmas – Star Wars has far more permanence. Those who saw it in theaters in 1977 could be buying their grandchildren BB-8’s this holiday season.
Its commercialization is fine and insanely lucrative, I’m sure. But what really makes it last – what really makes anything last – is story.
The Farm Boy, The Hero, and the Myth
At its heart, the original Star Wars trilogy is the story of Luke Skywalker. The prequel trilogy, released from 1999-2005, shifted the narrative to his father and attempted to give all six films an arc of tragedy and redemption. But the new sequel trilogy’s first installment, 2015’s The Force Awakens, shifted the center of the Star Wars universe back to Luke. And, as The Force Awakens was far more successful than the prequels both critically and commercially, Luke seems most likely to be atop the leaderboard when this nine-film epic comes to an end.
After serving as the protagonist in the first three movies, Luke was the plot device in The Force Awakens. Two years ago I wrote how the exhilaration of watching that movie in its opening weekend felt a lot like Tennessee football: Here’s something I care about a great deal, something that has a way of bringing people together…and (unlike the prequels) I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen! And there’s nothing I can do to directly affect the outcome! But we’re here, and we’re emotionally invested, and we’re a little nervous and a lot excited for what might happen next.
Thirty-two years after Return of the Jedi, the first words of The Force Awakens’ opening crawl were manna in the desert: LUKE SKYWALKER HAS VANISHED. Two hours and 18 minutes later we’re still not entirely sure of the why. But we do learn of the where. And this week, The Last Jedi will answer some of those questions as it reintroduces Luke, not as the hero, but the guide to the new trilogy’s protagonist.
(…at least, I think this is what’s going to happen. It’s noteworthy that almost every trailer for this film includes Luke saying, “This is not going to go the way you think!” This may be a warning for the viewer as much as anyone.)
Every hero needs a good guide. Luke had two in his journey through the first three films. Obi-Wan Kenobi sets his story in motion, then points him to the 900-year-old Yoda to complete his training.
While learning the ways of the force with the diminutive Jedi in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke approaches a cave. Yoda tells him the cave is strong in the dark side of the force, and when Luke asks what’s inside, the Jedi replies, “Only what you take with you.”
What he finds in the cave is an apparition of Darth Vader. Luke defeats it in battle, only to see a vision of his own face beneath Vader’s mask.
Yoda speaks of the dark side as being attached to anger, fear, and aggression. It’s noteworthy, then, that Luke is the one who brings aggression into the cave: Yoda tells him he will not need his weapons, but Luke takes them in anyway. Here, and in both of his duels with the real Darth Vader, Luke is the first to ignite his lightsaber.
Fear is certainly present in the cave, most specifically in what he sees beneath the mask. While he vanquishes Vader’s image, we are left unsure of his response to seeing himself in that image. Perhaps Luke is more afraid of becoming Vader than he is of Vader himself. On this point in particular, there is much The Last Jedi could play with.
In our greatest stories, the hero carries a sense that even they could find themselves going down a different, darker path. The hero will always face temptation. As will we.
The Force in Three Dimensions
Even our greatest stories sometimes paint with a two-dimensional brush: these are the good guys, these are the bad guys. But the truth is, for us, we are always capable of being both.
In our oldest story, we are both the people who are created good, and the people who are going to eat of the fruit of that tree. All of us are capable of becoming the hero. And all of us are capable of being in that mask. Yoda speaks of the dark side as a path, a series of choices. And fear, anger, and aggression are often an easier choice.
What do we bring into the caves of our own lives? What are we afraid we might find there?
Into this world of people and their choices comes a baby in Bethlehem. Sent from a God who sees and knows all that people have been, all that they are, who we are becoming and who we might be. A group of people who are capable of such amazing things. And a group of people who are going to need him very much.
This is the story. It’s our story. And there is no better time for the childlike belief it asks of us than the month of December.
Whatever we might find in the caves of our lives, may we also find God is with us. When we are tempted to act out of fear, anger, and aggression, may we also find grace and peace ready for the choosing. Thanks be to God for the one who comes to not only redeem our own story, but walk with us in all of its steps. For the stories we get to tell and the story we get to live find their place in the story: a manger, a child, a cross, a tomb.
A new hope.