Star Wars: A very modern myth (2007)


Star Wars smashed into screens 30 years ago, changing the course of cinema history and making George Lucas one of the wealthiest men in America. A whole new galaxy imagined in minute detail and presented through special effects, the scale of which dwarfed anything that had ever graced the cinema screen. Brand new matting techniques developed by George Lucas’s freshly minted effects house, Industrial Light and Magic and a revolutionary camera technique pioneered by John Dykstra, enabled space visuals to be realised with unparalleled dynamism. The film’s look inspired dozens of imitators, and its success changed the way films were made and marketed by Hollywood. Star Wars  invented the modern event movie, instilled the penchant in modern filmmakers for effects-driven blockbusters, and established merchandise as a valuable revenue stream for film studios (indeed, it was the almost accidental retention of the toy rights by George Lucas that made him a large part of his fortune). Innovation gleamed on the prow of Star Wars, and success trailed hard in its wake.

But it was not this novelty that secured Star Wars its place in history. It was not entirely the flashy effects that guaranteed its success with a whole generation of children. Its deeper success, its enduring success, comes not from the new, but from the ancient.

It is commonly said that Star Wars is “mythic” in scope, that that is why it enjoys enduring success. But what exactly does that mean?

The human mind is a marvellous thing, capable of processing vast amounts of information. However, the reality we perceive is not the flawless universe we experience. Our brains cheat, they weld things together, bend the truth, show us what we expect to see. Our worlds are not objective or constant, but subjective constructs individual to each of us. The way our brains process our sight, our memories, our perceptions of others, is by constructing a narrative out of fragmentary data. This is why you may sometimes misinterpret a jumper on the floor as your cat. This is why things are remembered differently by different people. We perceive the world through a set of preconceptions we build into narratives. So powerful is this tendency of ours that even when we sleep we join the most unlikely, disparate elements into stories. We love stories – gossip, films, books, speculation about our neighbours – because we perceive the world in the terms of story.

Not all stories are equal. Some are vastly more powerful than others.

The aphorism “There’s nothing new under the sun” is a truism. It has been said that there are but seven stories, something perhaps best described by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots, plots which cut across cultural boundaries. We don’t have the space to go into each of the seven story types here, but suffice it to say, Star Wars is one of these stories – it is number one, “Overcoming the monster.” It is a compelling argument, especially when you attempt to fit a number of narratives to these templates yourself.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) suggested that in all the world’s mythology there is but one plot, what Campbell called “the monomyth”, a concept laid out in his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. George Lucas, as he says in his contribution to Campbell’s biography, was trying to utilise mythology in the conception of his film, as he felt that there was little being done with this ancient art of storytelling. As he read Campbell’s book, he says he was struck by how many similarities there were between the monomyth and the script for his film.

Myths have a strong religious or supernatural elements to them, they are culturally powerful stories that try to explain why the world is. Creators of modern novel and films had turned their backs on the mythic, in favour of storytelling that focusses on the individual (it’s worth pointing out that though nearly all books and movies still follow one of the seven basic plots). The two greatest trappings of mythic storytelling: fate, and supernatural influence on the world, gave way to first modernist narrative – that the world can be objectively and accurately described in a logical manner; and then to post-modern narrative – that the world is not a consensus experience, but a subjective one that has no real end or beginning.

Our hunger for mythic stories remains.  The likes of Tolkien and Lucas might be  systematically pummelled critically for not conforming to current intellectual trends, they are much-loved. In some respects the art establishment sees itself as having moved on from such primitive, didactic fictions. With its fated heroes and meddling gods, myth pits itself against both modernism and postmodernism. The arc-plot of Star Wars – the creation, downfall and redemption of a messianic figure (Anakin) who has been created by a supernatural agent (the Force) to bring balance to itself is antithetic to both. It is naïve in its scope, hearkening back to a time when men cowered in caves while gods hurled thunderbolts at one another across the heavens.

But we love the naïve. We like stories with clearly delineated sides, where the good cowboys wear black hats and the bad cowboys white, or soap operas with caricatured paragons of good and evil roaming loose in the local community. This comes down to human being’s fundamental sense of fairness. It is hardwired into our genes. Without it, we would not be able to live in such numbers, in such proximity with one another or in such relative peace. We enjoy simple tales that accentuate this, that tell us that good will out and that all will be right in the world. When this sense of right/wrong is exemplified, when it collides with story, when it helps explain the world to us in simple terms we find intrinsically not only comforting but just, well, that’s powerful medicine indeed.

George Lucas and JRR Tolkien succeeded because they deliberately sought to explore the mythic. Most importantly, they sought to do this because the mythic appealed to them.

The critics are right to call it simplistic, to criticise the works of both men for their lack of insight into the human condition. But they’re not there for that. They tap into powerful needs bred into us over millennia.

The purity of these tales can, however, be their undoing. If we’ve seen it all before, we tend to get bored. We’re contrary creatures, we like to see the big stories, we enjoy the sweep of fate, but we also want constant novelty. Star Wars gave us both. It was an old, old tale in frighteningly sharp new clothes.

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