“Why did the TIE fighter crash into the asteroid?” My 4-year-old nephew has asked me this question literally a thousand times ever since my brother-in-law and I showed him Empire Strikes Back last year. No matter how many times I cite the failures of the Imperial Naval Academy or the cruelty of Admiral Piett’s orders, he still wants to know more.
Don’t we all want to know more? Maybe not about the dangers of space travel, but don’t we all want to know more? To probe the unknown and to eventually find hope on the other side of that search?
I like to think my nephew’s question comes from concern for the TIE pilot, but the way he has since turned every stick, Lego, and piece of food into a TIE fighter and smashed them into pieces, well, his interest probably dwells more on the spectacular nature of explosions. But whether it’s the terrific explosions, the fantastic creatures, the mysteries of the galaxy or the drama of the civil war that engulfs it, generations of fans have been drawn into the Star Wars series. For more than 40 years, this story has been unfolding and inviting us to discover more.
As this final installment of the “Skywalker Saga” offers lifelong fans a conclusion to a captivating story arc, it will also undoubtedly beckon new fans, young and old. That draw is mysterious, but that’s precisely the point. Something in Star Wars gets at our primordial curiosity in what is beyond us, at our desire for adventure, a quest for justice, and coming of age — somehow, it touches themes that are so human and at the core of our personal journeys, no matter where we come from or where we’re going.
Plenty of ink has been spilled demonstrating how Star Wars falls in line with Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” template of stories and myths. I’d like to focus on something else that comes out of these films — especially in the very first one, Episode IV, from way back in 1977.
Mistrust of government officials, volatile markets, global powers jockeying through proxy wars. Sound familiar? It was just as much the scene in the 1970’s as it is today.
Mark Ramsey recently created a podcast series called Inside Star Wars, which looks at the facts around the creation of the saga and imagines the details of how it took place. There’s a lot of good stuff in here for diehard fans, but what I loved the most about this series is that it gets right at the core of what pulls us into this story like a Death Star tractor beam.
Ramsey surfaces the importance of hope in the midst of a seemingly dark and meaningless world. “What we need — what audiences need — is optimism,” he said. This is “an adventure that will give kids hope and inspire their dreams, something bigger than life that can make their lives bigger, too.”
When it seems like the project will never get off the ground, the podcast pictures George Lucas pouring out his heart to the 20th Century Fox executive who holds the future in his hands. In the imagined dialogue, Lucas makes the case for feeding the imaginations of kids and giving them space to “dream about exotic lands and strange creatures and great adventures. A whole generation has grown up without fairy tales,” he says. “That’s what Star Wars is about. Not a golden robot and his little beer-can friend.”
We can use art to hide from a dark world. But the stories that resonate deeply — like Star Wars — don’t help us flee to a galaxy far, far away. Instead, we dive into story worlds so we can bring some of what we find there back to our lives, our careers, our studies, our relationships, and our dreams. If it’s a good story, we return covered with heroism, dripping with adventure and the victory of goodness. We want to be Luke and Leia and Han in whatever job or vocation awaits us after the final credits, when John Williams’ “End Title” gives us chills and makes us jump into the car on the drive home pretending we’re in the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter.
We all need that hope — now more than ever. It’s a hope that’s rooted in goodness, in loving one another and fighting for justice. As an educator, I find that hope in my students who unite with friends and mentors to get through the darkness of anxiety or self-doubt and move on to graduation and a satisfying career. As a Catholic priest, I find that hope in communities that bind together to defend their undocumented neighbors and protect the dignity of the elderly and unborn. I find that hope in a God who knows each of us deep down and as we truly are and still loves us — who actually loves us precisely because of our imperfections. That’s a hope that makes you feel like you can take on the whole Empire yourself (RIP, Dak Ralter). It has inspired saints to end wars and sinners to find redemption in a love that will never fade.
When we watch Star Wars, we remember that kind of hope. We allow ourselves to dream again — not dwelling on the darkness, but refocusing on what is possible.
St. Pope John XXIII sums it up well: “Consult not your fears, but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your yet unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”
For the detail-oriented and concerned parents: I do realize the asteroid actually crashed into the TIE fighter. And yes, we skipped over the terrifying scenes on Degobah and Bespin, easing the 4-year-old into it. But look out, Galactic Empire and every injustice — the kid is full of hope.