As the Star Wars premiere (December 26th) draws closer, more and more people ask me in puzzlement: “Why do you people like Star Wars so much?”
Let me try and explain. (This may turn out to be an unsatisfactory explanation, so if you’ve got a better one, please comment).
Sri Lanka, where I (and the majority of my readers) come from, is not what I’d call Star Wars country. Save for a handful of people, my parents generation grew up entirely devoid of Luke Skywalker and the Force. I spent my childhood avoiding Star Wars; the closest I really came was an old TV show called Space Cases.
But despite my caustic writing, I am a boy at heart. I think a lot of us are. Some part of us wanted to grow up and be a Knight at King Arthur’s Round Table. Star Wars taps this boy on the heart and says look, we’ve got something even cooler: you can be a knight…in space!
It’s cosmic in magnitude, but also deeply personal; you can marvel at massive space battles, and at the same shrink yourself down to one Jedi knight cutting down one droid at a time with a humming sword made of light. How cool is that, eh? It’s a direct sell that taps into that part of you that forever wants to swing a sword and save the world. Scientific inaccuracy? Pah. Toss that out of the window.
Or it gets tossed in; people fall in love so hard that men of hard science, like theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, have come along fifty years later to discuss how a real-life lightsaber might – might – just be possible.
If that doesn’t sell you, then there’s the sheer tapestry of the story itself: a larger-than-life universe woven out of so many archetypal stories that there’s something for everyone to latch on to. Fancy yourself rising out of obscurity to greatness? Meet Luke and Anakin Skywalker. Bitter, brooding, angry? Darth Vader. Power-hungry? Palpatine. Fancy yourself angry and curt, but still a good guy?
Samuel L. Jackson Mace Windu is here.
Oh, and are you female and empowered? Meet Princess Leia Organa, who led the Rebel Alliance. Yes, the same ‘Slave Leia’, who feminists are riffing on these days, was the one leading the Star Wars equivalent of a terrorist cell. Then there’s Senator Padme Amidala, a sort of intergalactic Malala Yousafi whose words ‘So this is how democracy dies … with thunderous applause‘ has the markings of prophecy even today. It’s hard not to crush on them.
Strong characters? Definitely.
But that really isn’t enough to sell a story. For me, what’s special is this neat trick Star Wars also has up its sleeve: it seems every character can be viewed with different eyes. A conversation I had with Natalie Soysa, one of the most avid Star Wars fans I’ve met, turned into an argument over Obi-Wan; I saw him as a classic Jedi, a samurai-knight character all the more honorable for his unflinching obeyance of the Jedi code; she sees him as an overbearing, monotonous father figure, heartless and bound to a heartless code.
This extends well. Yoda is either a quirky, wise Gandalf analogue or an old relic too mired in his ways to realize the world has changed. Anakin is either a weak, unbalanced fool, representative of the worst parts of us – or a rebellion against everything we rebel at as we grow up – authority, corruption, order. And Count Dooku, Sith Lord #2? He’s either an evil underling – or, by gum, the ultimate Bond villain, the sort of bad guy with so much class even Sean Connery would applaud.
In every other major fiction, these lines are penciled in. Sauron and Voldemort are evil. Gandalf and Dumbledore are fundamentally good. The Hobbits are lazy, but they really are the simple heroes. And when the chips are down, you can rely on MacGonagall.
Star Wars doesn’t do this.
Take the iconic Darth Vader; depending on who you ask, is either evil, or lost, or bitter, or a good man dealing with bad life choices (where have I heard that one before?). For a figure that’s supposedly on the bad side, that’s surprisingly … complex.
Some particularly weird people, like me, see him as a cross between a samurai and a priest of sorts. There’s a scene in the first movie where they mock him for his belief in the Force. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, says one character – strangely mirroring a present-day atheists’ mocking of the overly religious (something I’m increasingly guilty of, by the way. I hope no-one Force chokes me).
But I digress. You get the picture: here is a universe almost anyone can relate to. Look close enough, and, just like in real life, good and evil dissolves, with just a very few people left on either end of the scale. The first time I watched the movies, I spent hours debating with my better-versed friends (thanks, Nisansa!) as to the ins-and-outs of the characters. Is Vader really Sith? If he has some good in him, isn’t he more of a Lucifer analogy – a fallen Jedi?
How does Star Wars do this? I think it’s something about those first three movies – the ones from the 70’s and 80’s. They gloss over a lot of stuff. The Force is never elaborated on. The Clone Wars? No. The fact that Obi-Wan taught Vader? That’s something you pick up from Vader’s comments; you never find out why or how. Why Sith lightsabers are red? Nope, no explanation. Whether by accident or by intention, Star Wars left just enough empty space to let you fill in these meanings yourself – and that sort of let a growing wave of geeks and storytellers immerse themselves in this new universe and do just that.
As time went on, with every generation, with every comic and book and movie release, new fans like myself wondering just what the hell happened would stumble across this sprawling netherworld of fandom. And it would either terrify us or intrigue us. Why are Sith lightsabers red? Artificial crystals, of course. Obi-wan and Vader? Anakin Skywalker, of course. Aha.
Figuring out the story is like a series of ‘lightbulb!’ moments strung together: by the time you’ve got to the end of the chain, you’re sold. These moments aren’t part of the movies anymore. For me, at least, these moments are now the property of the fans – a hundred forums, a million imaginations and whoever the heck managed to distil all of that into Wookipedia. The movies are now just … George Lucas’s way of telling the story.
Many people will never get here, because let’s face it, few of us are weird enough to go on these wild-goose-chases by ourselves. But look: the first movies bred an entire generation that buzzed off each other enough to start looking for these answers. It’s happening again. Just like Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is kindling interest in comics, Disney’s marketing machine is bringing together people. People with questions. People who want to know why the hell everyone on their Facebook is obsessed with this light show.
A new generation of fans are being bred (I include myself among these newbies). We are people who may, in searching, become a new breed of Jedi.
So why do we like Star Wars so much?