Felicity Jones, playing Jyn Erso, in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” (Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Last week, Io9 ran a quite insightful story by Katharine Trendacosta about Disney’s baleful influence on the Star Wars universe, titled “Star Wars Is All the Same Nowadays, and It’s Becoming a Problem.” Noting some worrisome changes in the direction of the new Han Solo movie, Trendacosta writes:
We’re learning a lot more about what Lucasfillm feels is acceptable within its universe and what isn’t. The problem is that what’s acceptable looks to be very, very narrow.
These anthology films seemed like they would be ideal places to experiment with Star Wars and keep it from getting stale. One of the things that so ignited the imagination of fans was the world-building of Star Wars, which created a universe that could support all sorts of stories. Tragedies, comedies. Stories about saving the universe and more personal, private ones. The fact that all of those things easily fit in the universe makes it feel real.
The anthology films should have been a place to take advantage of that. But instead of the full rainbow, we’re just getting many shades of green.
And here’s more:
The overall quality of the Star Wars universe is better now. Every installment—movie, book, TV show, comic, game—is, at worst, at the low end of mediocre. The old universe’s canon had some truly low lows that are gone now. But it also means that the highs aren’t as high, and the result is the Star Wars universe isn’t as much fun. Even the worst old [Expanded Universe] book felt like it was trying to do something new.
Star Wars feels smaller than it used to, which is a shame when there is literally an entire galaxy to explore. Maybe if Lucasfilm would give its directors, authors, and artists just a bit more leeway, it could see that Star Wars doesn’t have to always revolve around the original trilogy. There’s literally an entire galaxy to explore, and I for one would like to see it.
I’ve been worried about this for a while.
These observations are unfortunately consistent with an essay I wrote last summer (during my sabbatical from this blog) about the death of the Star Wars universe. From my essay (actually a review of Cass Sunstein’s fun book, “The World According to Star Wars“):
It all went wrong with The Force Awakens. (Sunstein says: “It doesn’t have anything like Lucas’ originality, but it’s still awfully good.” (154))
Science fiction and fantasy – Star Wars is both – make their mark by the worlds that they create. That world is part of what made the original Star Wars trilogy great. Watching it for the first time, you felt like you were joining the middle of the story – a story with a rich, fascinating past that you had to both take for granted and slowly discover. But more than that, you were joining a universe. The universe had lightsabers, force-wielding Jedi, elaborate starships and dozens and dozens of planets and alien species each of which (it was implied) had their own rich lives somewhere beyond the movies’ plot. Sunstein tells us that Star Wars “contains a whole world.” (xii) “A whole world” undersells it – Star Wars contained many, many worlds.
This is why The Force Awakens was a disappointment. What the franchise most needed was a plot that captured the vastness of the Star Wars universe – a plot that included things we had never seen before, and nobody named “Skywalker.” Instead, we saw Darth Vader’s family drama continued for yet another generation, and scenes and locations that were lifted right out of the original trilogy. (Even Rey, one of the most heralded new characters in the movie, is likely related to either Obi-Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker.) No moment in the The Force Awakens even approached the thrill of first seeing a lightsaber ignite.
What is more, the new movie physically compressed the Star Wars universe. In the original trilogy, we’re repeatedly reminded of the scale of the galaxy. Some planets are the “bright center to the universe” and others are “the planet that it’s farthest from.” It takes notable screen time for the characters to get from place to place. This contributes to the feeling of a real galaxy, with worlds full of possibility. By contrast, in The Force Awakens travel time is ignored, and even the newest world-destroying superweapon no longer needs to travel anywhere to destroy its targets.
The flatness of the new Star Wars universe is confirmed by the emotional emptiness of the movie’s climax. The good guys, the Resistance, fail to destroy the superweapon before it wipes out multiple planets that house, near as we can tell, much of the Republic’s population. This is a cataclysmic disaster. But in the movie, it passes as an afterthought. By this point the audience has stopped taking seriously the humanity of those off-screen worlds.
Now, unlike Trendacosta, I took a much more favorable view of the more recent, off-saga, “Rogue One.” That movie was surprisingly good on each of the points I just mentioned above: We got new characters, new mysterious force traditions, and a sense of moral ambiguity that was almost shocking by comparison with the vanilla vs. chocolate of “The Force Awakens.” So I hoped that we were going to get more off-saga and interesting movies like that in the future. I now worry that even that won’t happen.
(Unlike Trendacosta, I also took a much more favorable view of the Expanded Universe, though I will leave that debate for the truest Star Wars nerds who want to read the whole essay. And for those truest nerds, if you haven’t read the Mallory/Ma’allory discussion at the Toast, you must read that too.)
Now in one sense, it is too soon to tell what the future of Star Wars looks like. We have a new movie this year, another new movie next year, etc. But in another sense, it may be too late. Diehard Star Wars fans have had to wrestle with betrayal for decades. From the end of my piece:
But maybe there is hope – hope that comes from a minor but ominous episode in 1997. In that year, George Lucas released a “special edition” of the original Star Wars trilogy, with several new scenes and alterations, mostly mediocre but mostly harmless.
There was one very harmful change, however, to one of the first scenes starring Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, who is threatened by a Rodian bounty hunter named Greedo. After a bit of tough talk, Han covertly shoots Greedo under the table, then tosses the bartender some money with the quip, “sorry about the mess.” The scene establishes Han’s character – the quick-shooting scoundrel.
But in the revision, Lucas had Greedo shoot first, and inexplicably miss despite shooting at point-blank range. This converts Han from crafty to lucky, and allows us to think that he’s the kind of a guy who would hesitate to launch a preemptive strike. The revision was so obviously wrong about the real Han Solo that it sparked the rallying cry, “Han Shot First!”—a reminder that there was a truth about the Star Wars universe even when the author tried to take it away from us.
That episode taught true Star Wars fans about the dark side of George Lucas. But it also taught us we could rally around a fictional universe, even when betrayed by its author. Fans could insist that the scoundrel version of Han Solo was really canon, even if the author himself disagreed.
So maybe the real lesson comes back to Sunstein’s “freedom of choice.” (193) Each of us can love our own version of the Star Wars universe. Sunstein is free to love the world of the movies that he recounts in his book. Others of us are free to love what we know to be the real Star Wars, unblemished by its creator – a galaxy far, far away, where the Extended Universe lives, space is still vast and trackless, and Han shot first.
Because these issues deserve special attention beyond what the limitations of a review would allow, and because they are common to all of the films, they are treated at length in this article.
Moral and spiritual issues raised by the Star Wars phenomenon range from the problem of where to draw the line on Star Warstie-in products all the way to the theological problems associated with the concept of "the Force."
Any of these issues may be a reason why at least some parents might wish their children not to see the films; however, none of them makes the films inherently objectionable or unsuitable for children generally, nor do they negate the films’s positive aspects.
This article is intended to help clarify and illuminate the issues for parents and other interested readers, to help them decide for themselves regarding the propriety of the Star Wars films for themselves and their families.
The Star Wars films are the center of an enormous merchandizing effort. Indeed, the first Star Wars film (Episode IV) inaugurated a new age of movie merchandizing. Each new film is the epicenter of a new explosion of tie-in products — more than any family could possibly buy (at least, within the bound of reason).
Consequently, parents must find some place to draw the line in what Star Wars merchandise their children will be allowed to have and what they must pass up. Some parents may choose to draw the line by disallowing any movie merchandise, including the movies themselves. Others may allow a limited number of toys or other Star Wars-related items, but they must draw the line somewhere: Some items (for example, the most elaborate costumes) sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars apiece!
Violence and death
As action-adventure films, the Star Wars movies contain a significant degree of violence — both in the form of military battles and individual fights. As a result of this, characters do die. There are also many situations where dramatic tension is created through menacing situations.
However, a number of factors mitigate the degree to which the on-screen violence might be problematic:
- The violence tends to be stylized — that is, its effects usually are not portrayed realistically. There is not a lot of blood and gore. Either we do not see the wounds at all or, if we do, the wounds tend to be cleanly cauterized by the action of the lasers.
- The violence tends to be fantasy violence — that is, it cannot be realistically imitated. It involves weapons that do not exist — lightsabers, laser pistols, laser artillery. This does not mean that the violence cannot be unrealistically imitated — kids who see the films regularly "play lightsabers" or laser pistols — but since these weapons don’t exist, serious injuries from such play are unlikely. Also because of the fantasy weapons used, virtually no one in the real world is going to pick up a gun or a knife and use it while thinking "Star Wars." If someone irresponsibly uses a real-world weapon, he’ll be thinking of other movies. Not these.
- The good guys do not use violence gratuitously. They resort to violence only when they are attacked first or when a preemptive strike is the only way to guarantee safety. They do not relish using violence, and they seek alternatives before it breaks out. When violence is used, they bring it to a close as quickly as possible and try to take prisoners rather than kill their opponents.
- There is a strong anti-aggression message in the movies. No matter how much fantasy violence the films contain, the anti-aggression point is worked throughout all the films. It is part of the Jedi code of ethics, and is made most explicit in Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, when Jedi master Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that a Jedi uses the Force only for information and self-defense — never aggression.
Despite these mitigating factors, viewers who dislike action-adventure films will want to avoid the Star Wars movies, and parents of children who are especially sensitive to such situations may not wish their children to see them.
Lying and mental reservations
The use of arms and even deadly force can be morally licit in at least some real-life circumstances. However, lying is in a different category. It is never morally licit.
Under certain circumstances, it can be licit to make potentially misleading statements while employing a mental reservation — an unstated qualification about the sense in which or extent to which the statement can be regarded as true — though even a mental reservation, if unjustified by the circumstances, can be morally equivalent to a direct lie.
Most films that are made today are completely oblivious to this fact, and the good guys in most films regularly lie with no moral censure from the filmmakers.
Unfortunately, the Star Wars films are not the exception to this that they could or should be. Still, they are better than many films in this regard:
- The good guys in the Star Wars films probably tell fewer lies than the good guys do in many other films.
- With one major exception, the lies tend to be "tactical" lies — that is, the kind of lies that are told in wartime tactical situations (for example, to sneak into an area in order to pull of a rescue, as when Luke and Han rescue Princess Leia in Episode IV). They are not told for fun.
- The one major exception concerns the deception of the hero — Luke Skywalker — in order to avert a potential tragedy of galactic proportions. This deception is perpetrated by Luke’s mentors — by his uncle and aunt initially and then later by Ben Kenobi and Yoda. When Luke finally discovers that he has been deceived by those closest to him, he confronts Kenobi with the fact, and the latter is forced to acknowledge the deception, though he argues that it was a form of mental reservation - that is, what he told Luke was true "from a certain point of view." Luke is not impressed by this qualifier — nor should he be. Judged by standards of real-world moral theology, the mental reservation employed by Kenobi is not morally licit.
- In addition to the lie just mentioned, two specific deceptions are particular causes for concern:
- In Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda first meets Luke he pretends that he is not Yoda. Cinematically, the motive for this is to highlight the unexpected and unpredictable nature of mentor figures in mythology. It is also not clear that Yoda strays from mental reservation into outright lying, but the incident remains troubling because (setting aside its cinematic rationale) there may not be significant justification for what Yoda does.
- In Episode VI — The Return of the Jedi, the main characters are in danger from a tribe that is inclined to regard the droid C-3PO as "some sort of god." C-3PO objects that "It’s against my programming to impersonate a deity" — as well it should be.
Unfortunately, Luke orders the droid to perpetuate this impression and augments the effect by using his Jedi powers to make it seem as if Threepio has magical abilities. While the life-threatening circumstances are a mitigating factor, and while the whole "god" schtick disappears as soon as the immediate crisis is overcome, the film does not explore possible alternatives, and the relevant scenes are played for comedy, without censuring the manipulation of others’ religious beliefs.
Because of the relatively restrained nature of the deceptions in question (the last being an exception), it is difficult to place the Star Wars films in a more morally objectionable category than most contemporary films — including most children’s films. Still, the deceptions are cause for concern, and parents may wish to discuss these with their children.
"Jedi mind tricks"
Related to the above concern is the use in the film of "Jedi mind tricks" — instances where the (good) Jedi knights of the film give certain characters a mental push that leads them to believe or act in a desired manner. Sometimes mind tricks are used to accomplish a deception (e.g., "These aren’t the droids you’re looking for" — when in fact they are) or to get a character to do something he is otherwise disinclined to do (e.g., "Take me to your master, now").
Interfering in the mental processes of others in this manner could not be morally licit. Still, there are several mitigating factors regarding the use of mind tricks:
- "Jedi mind tricks" are not possible in the real world. Few kids are likely to try them, and those who do will be quickly disappointed.
- The Jedi code of ethics appears to contain restrictions on when mind tricks can be used (e.g., in Episode IQui-Gon remarks to Obi-Wan that they cannot use mind tricks to affect a political decision that will decide whether two races choose to ally with each other). Also, the Jedi use mind tricks rarely and only when there is a significant good to be achieved (e.g., personal survival through self-defense).
- Mind tricks don’t work on everyone in the Star Wars universe; in fact, Ben Kenobi says that they affect only the "weak-minded," and certain races ("Toydarians" and, apparently, "Hutts") aren’t affected by them at all. What constitutes "weak-mindedness" is not clear, but it may mean that those who are strong-minded in the sense of having a strong resolve not to do something will be invulnerable to a mind trick. If so, a person who complies with the suggestion of a mind trick would be at least partly responsible for his actions in that he wasn’t doing something he was strongly opposed to in the first place.
Despite these mitigations, the device of "Jedi mind tricks" is morally problematic.
For some viewers, one troubling aspect of the series is that, in the original trilogy, there is a fleeting romantic entanglement involving two characters who turn out to be too closely related to each other for a romance to be morally licit.
However, the "romance" never gets farther than some goo-goo eyes and two (quite innocent) kisses. Most importantly, neither character is aware of their relationship at the time. By the point either character is aware of their relationship, any question of a romance is long gone — one of the two characters now being romantically involved with another. Further, from an examination of the scripts it does not appear that the romance’s illicit dimension was planned by the filmmakers — it was an accident that arose and that Lucas wrote around.
Because of the subdued nature of the whole issue, few children will pick up on it, and few parents will find it a decisive factor in whether to let their children see the movies. If children do notice the situation, parents can easily put it in perspective by saying something like, "Isn’t it good they found out how they were related? I bet they feel pretty silly about how they were acting before!"
George Lucas is a fan of the writings of mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. As a result, ideas from world mythology are woven through the series. Episode IV itself is a reproduction of the archtypal story given in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Most of the mythic symbols Lucas weaves into the films will pass completely unnoticed by the children in the audience, but three of them might not:
- In Episode I, Darth Maul looks an awful lot like a stereotypical depiction of the devil. In face, in one interview Lucas responded to the question of what he learned in making the film by saying that he learned how many evil characters in world mythology have horns.
Of course, Darth Maul is a thoroughly evil character who opposes the heroes and fights with them; so if children think of him as being like the devil, that’s all right unless they find it too disturbing. At any rate Darth Maul’s appearance reinforces traditional Christian imagery rather than subverting it: The horned, red-skinned man in black is not your friend!
- Also in Episode I, Anakin Skywalker is described in a way that suggests that he had no physical father: that he was the product of a virgin birth. Though the film provides a possible alternative scientific explanation for this fact, many children will notice the similarity to Jesus.
If they do notice this, parents might turn it into an occasion for a genuine spiritual lesson by pointing out that no matter how much someone may be like Jesus, we can never trust them they way we trust the real Jesus.
For more advanced children, it might be pointed out that the film is symbolizing the idea that in order to fall to the lowest depths — like Darth Vader — one must fall from the highest heights — like Anakin Skywalker. In the same way, we must guard the goodness God has given us. We too could fall to low depths if we betrayed our God-given goodness.
- Through all the episodes there is the subject of the Force. Though in Episode I a semi-scientific explanation is added to it, the Force remains a spiritually problematic element deserving a section of its own…
Among all the moral/spiritual problems of the Star Wars series, this is the big one. More Christians will object to the series on this ground than on any other.
According to the rules established in the films, "the Force" is an energy field generated by all living beings, and "binds the galaxy together." For at least some gifted individuals, the Force is a source of both power and guidance, by which properly trained adepts can achieve startling effects: Objects can be made to levitate or fly through the air, and distant locations or the future can be seen.
More problematically, the Force appears to be morally polarized, with a "light side" and a "dark side." The light side (connected with good, peace, and self-defense) is the power of the Jedi, and the dark side (connected with evil, anger, and aggression) is the power of their enemies, the Sith. On a couple of occasions, the study of the Force by both Jedis and Sith is referred to as a "religion" — though only in the first film, and only in a disparaging way, by skeptical individuals.
In Episode V, Jedi master Yoda denies that the dark side of the Force is stronger than the light side; but he does not declare the light side stronger, leaving open the possibility that the two are of equal strength and that the Force is fundamentally dualistic.
Here is the straight skinny on the Force: In interviews George Lucas has explained that the Force is a symbol for all that is unseen in the universe. The light side is essentially a symbol for God — the unseen Power of good — while the dark side is a symbol for the forces of evil.
According to Lucas, the Jedi exhortation to "Use the Force" essentially means "Make a leap of faith" (or "Trust God"). The phrase "May the Force be with you," of course, is clearly evocative of "May God be with you." The connection beween God and the Force (or its light side) was strengthened in Episode I with the introduction of the concepts of "the living Force" and even "the will of the Force."
On the other hand, certain aspects of the way the Force is presented make an application to God more remote and difficult. In Episode IV, Ben Kenobi tells Luke that the Force partially "controls your actions" but also "obeys your commands" — neither of which literally applies to God’s interactions with us. The phrase "Use the Force" as a metaphor for "Make a leap of faith" or "Trust God" is less transparent than other phrases Lucas might have used (e.g., "Trust the Force"; "Open yourself to the Force"; etc.). Also, the series’ lone explicit theistic reference — "Thank the Maker," uttered in the original film by C-3PO — has no connection with the Force.
Of course one must remember that the Force (or the light side of the Force) is only symbolic of God, not a direct allegory>. Still, these clearly non-theistic elements make it harder for viewers to make the connection between God and the Force. The connection may still be obvious to scholars of mythology and to literary critics, but not to the average audience member.
Most unfortunately of all, the films do not establish the light side as intrinsically stronger than (or different in origin from) the dark side, so good and evil can come across as equal in strength and origin. As a result, many people reasonably came away from the first Star Wars trilogy regarding the force as a New-Age mystical energy field balanced between good and evil, comparable to the yin-yang balance of Taoism. (This perception may be strengthened as a result of another development from Episode I — a still-ambiguous prophecy about bringing "balance to the Force" — though the fulfillment of this prophecy seems to involve the triumph of good over evil.)
In any case, all these concepts are likely to whiz over the heads of most children, who will most likely view "the Force" in essentially the same way they would the fantasy magic in The Wizard of Oz and similar stories. Still, some Christian parents may not wish their children to watch a movie series that depicts a Force — whatever its deep symbolic meaning — in such a non-Christian way on the surface.
Those who do choose to let their children watch the series may wish to nudge their children in the direction of a Christian reading of the Force, perhaps asking questions like:
- "When Luke ‘uses the Force,’ he’s trusting in a higher power that he can’t see. What is that like in real life?"
- "Qui-Gon talks about following ‘the will of the living Force.’ Does that sound like the Force is only energy, or is it more like a Person? Whose will does it sound like Qui-Gon is talking about?"
- "Who wins in the end, the good guys or the bad guys? What does that say about which side is stronger?"
Because of the problematic moral and spiritual elements in the Star Wars films, some Christian parents may not wish to let their children view them. However, many of these elements are subtle and ambiguous enough that they will not pose a problem for young viewers, and Christian parents may reasonably allow their children to watch the films. In such cases, parental guidance in understanding the films in a Christian way will be needed when kids pick up on the problematic elements.
For those who are adults and who are secure in their faith, there is little in the films that would stop one from using critical thinking to spot and bracket the problematic elements, while enjoying the other aspects of George Lucas’s outer-space fantasies.