On DVD: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi

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by Steven D. Greydanus | Source:
As The Wizard of Oz is the quintessential American fairy tale, Star Wars is the quintessential American mythology.

If The Wizard of Oz is Snow White re-imagined in a land of cornfield scarecrows and sideshow hucksters, and repackaged as a Hollywood musical, then Star Wars is The Lord of the Rings re-imagined with saloon shootouts, WWII dogfights and 1950s hotrods — and repackaged as a space-opera swashbuckler in the tradition of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon stories.

Critics have derided George Lucas’s stereotypical characters and situations, his B-movie dialogue, his simplistic morality-play vision of good and evil. Pundits extolling the first three-quarters of the ’70s as the apex of Hollywood sophistication have blasted Lucas for ruining American cinema, turning it away from mature fare like The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Annie Hall toward the romanticism and spectacle of the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings.

But this is unfair, not to say misguided. To begin with, Lucas’s characters and situations aren’t so much stereotypical as archetypical — deliberately so, as Lucas consciously drew upon Joseph Campbell’s analysis of common patterns and structures in myths and mythic stories in his influential The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Stereotypes work by exploiting popular cultural prejudices and assumptions. For example, Titanic exploited stereotyped notions of the rich as snobbish, repressed twits, of the poor as life-loving free spirits, of passionate love as transcending moral or social rules, and so on.

Archetypes, by contrast, work by connecting with primal or basic categories. Archetypal figures and situations in the Star Wars movies include the hero (Luke Skywalker), the wise old man (Obi-Wan Kenobi), the call to adventure, the “belly of the whale” (the heroes are “swallowed” by the Death Star) and so on.

Lucas breathed new life into these familiar patterns by relocating them in a galaxy far, far away — a galaxy of laser swords, landspeeders, remarkably non-anthropomorphic aliens and other super-cool sci-fi conceits. He also played with his mythic patterns; for example, the “rescue of the maiden” motif is modified by making Leia not a helpless maiden in distress but a pistol-packing, take-charge Rebel leader.
Best of all, Lucas invented a new vocabulary of action cinematography predicated on a breakthrough computer-controlled camera technique. This allowed him to put the camera inside the attacking Rebel X-wings as they dive toward the Death Star and zip along that narrow trench — an exhilarating effect previously matchable only with real aircraft in real locations, not in fantasy settings created with miniatures and models.

The Joseph Campbell influence in the Star Wars movies can be seen not only in its mythic archetypes, but also in the vague mysticism of the Force. Taken literally, the idea of the Force would clearly imply a pantheistic worldview. The Force is said to be an “energy field” generated by living things and binding the galaxy together. It has a good side and a dark side, and while it’s established that the dark side isn’t stronger, it’s never stated that the good side is stronger either, allowing for the possibility of a yin-yang balance of good and evil.

Yet the films’ moral outlook — including the climactic triumph of good over evil, especially in the daring redemptive twist at the end of Jedi — suggests that evil isn’t really on an equal footing with good. On a literal level, the Force is make-believe, like the fantasy magic in The Wizard of Oz; taken metaphorically, the Force is a symbol of the unseen, of mystery.

This long-anticipated DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy is controversial due to Lucas’s deeply disappointing decision to release only his most recently tweaked special editions, depriving fans of access to the original versions. But this is unlikely to be permanent. Sometime after next year’s release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, I predict another DVD release of the original trilogy in its original form.

Content advisory: Stylized sci-fi combat violence and menace.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register

To read more of his movie reviews, please visit his website at DecentFilms.com.

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