How the ‘Star Wars’ franchise lost its way
I fell sound asleep for about ten minutes during the most recent installment in the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi. This was not only because the narrative had wandered down a very tedious alleyway, but because Star Wars in general has lost its way. What began as a thrilling exploration of the philosophia perennis has devolved into a vehicle for the latest trendy ideology—and that is really a shame.
Like so many others in my generation (I was seventeen when the first film in the series came out), I was captivated by George Lucas’ vision. We all loved the explosions, the spaceships, and the special effects (corny now, but groundbreaking at the time), but we also sensed that there was something else going on in these films, something that excited the soul as much as it dazzled the eyes.
Lucas was a devotee of Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative religion and mythology at Sarah Lawrence College, who had spent his career exploring what he called “the monomyth.” This is the great story which, despite all sorts of different accents and emphases from culture to culture, remains fundamentally the same and which conveys some pretty basic truths about nature, the psyche, human development, and God. It customarily unfolds as a “hero’s quest.” A young man (typically) is summoned out of the comfort of his domestic life and compelled to go on a dangerous adventure, either to secure a prize or protect the innocent, or subdue the forces of nature. In the process, he comes to realize and conquer his weakness, to face down enemies, and finally to commune with the deep spiritual powers that are at play in the cosmos. Usually, as a preparation for his mission, he is trained by a spiritual master who will put him quite vigorously through his paces. Campbell was particularly intrigued by the manner in which this story is concretely acted out in the initiation rituals among primal peoples. Lucas’ mentor was Campbell, and Campbell’s teacher was the great Swiss psychologist, C.G. Jung, who had spent his career exploring the archetypes of the collective unconscious that play themselves out in our dreams and our myths.
Now one would have to be blind not to see these motifs in the original Star Wars films. Luke Skywalker is compelled to leave his mundane home life (remember Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru?), and under the tutelage of Obi-Wan and Yoda, he overcomes his fears, discovers his inner strength, faces down the darkness, and learns to act in communion with the Force. Attentive Star Wars fans will notice, by the way, that Yoda pronounces a number of the well-known sayings of C.G. Jung. I referenced the philosophia perennis (the perennial philosophy) above. This is a standard set of philosophical and psychological insights shared by most of the great spiritual traditions of the world, and it provided the inspiration for Jung, Campbell, Lucas and hence the Star Wars films.
Certain elements of all of this remain, of course, in the most recent episodes, but the mythic and archetypal dimensions are all but overwhelmed by an aggressively feminist ideology. The overriding preoccupation of the makers of the most recent Star Wars seems to be, not the hero’s spiritual journey, but the elevation of the all-conquering female. Every male character in The Last Jedi is either bumbling, incompetent, arrogant, or morally compromised; and every female character is wise, good, prudent, and courageous. Even Luke has become embittered and afraid, bearing the stigma of a profound moral failure. The female figures in The Last Jedi typically correct, demote, control, and roll their eyes at the males, who stumble about when not provided with feminine instruction. I laughed out loud when Rey, the young woman who has come to Luke for instruction in the ways of the Jedi, shows herself already in full possession of spiritual power. No Yoda or Obi-Wan required, thank you very much. The movie ends (spoiler alert) with all of the men off the stage and Leia taking the hand of Rey and saying, “We have all we need.”
Contrast this overbearing and ham-handed treatment of men and women with the far subtler handling of the same motif in the earlier Star Wars films. In accord with Jungian instincts, the twins Luke and Leia—both smart, strong, and spiritually alert—represented the play of animus and anima, the masculine and feminine energies, within every person. And the relationship between Leia and Han Solo was such a delight, precisely because they were evenly matched. Leia didn’t have to dominate Han in order to find her identity; quite the contrary, she became more fully herself as he pushed back against her. Whereas a sort of zero-sum game obtains in the present ideology—the male has to be put down in order for the female to rise—nothing of the kind existed in the wonderfully Tracy and Hepburn rapport between Leia and Han.
Now don’t get me wrong: I fully understand why, in our cultural context today, women are feeling the need to assert themselves and to put powerful men in their place. I even see why a certain exaggeration is inevitable. It’s just disappointing that this concern has hijacked a film series that used to trade in more abiding truths.
Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.