Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.
99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. Yesterday I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal (some would claim that the philosophical depth of all of Star Wars is minimal; even by their standards, A New Hope is lacking). Seriously. Go take a minute to watch it again.
The spiritual depth of the entire film consists of an old wizard/sage/priest giving our young hero a brief description of the Force, telling him that legions of warriors who harnessed it once roamed the galaxy but are now nearly extinct, and that he should trust his feelings. That’s it, in the entire movie. Even in the lightsaber scenes (not just the duel, but also when Luke is training aboard the Millennium Falcon), the use of the Force is minimal. The only truly strong uses of it in the entire film are Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick and Luke blowing up the Death Star.
The philosophical depth of the Star Wars saga comes from three sources: The Empire Strikes Back (which, as we will see in a minute, was not truly Lucas’s film), the Extended Universe, and the collective imagination of the fans. Seriously – almost all of it comes from these sources.
First, Empire, which was the root of it. Notice that the Force gets a big upgrade in this film. We see people manipulating objects with their minds, performing athletic and acrobatic feats far beyond normal human ability, using it as a kind of “spider sense” for defense, and even using it to glimpse into the future. This is a big jump from the first film.
Then we get Yoda, who brings with him some pithy, vaguely Zen, deep sounding aphorisms: do or do not, unlearn what you have learned, much anger I sense in him, etc. To be honest, the depth even here is… modest. The speech of the movie puts forth a somewhat facile pseudo-Zen philosophy. As a child, I thought it was somewhat deep. As a 37 year old man with a philosophy degree, I find it fun but lacking.
What it did do, however, was present a surface facade of real depth – while remaining extremely vague. The vagueness is critical. It allowed the viewer imagine a lot more depth than was actually there. And for decades, that’s exactly what we did. Those of us who grew up with the movies made up stories in our heads, or while playing games with each other. We traded theories and rumors – rumors that were often so full of BS that they were literally made up by one of our own friends, who had no source.
Importantly, Empire is the film (until this week) that had the absolute least input from Lucas himself. The film was directed by Irvin Kirshner, and the screenplay was by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Numerous documentary evidence confirms that Lucas himself had little input into the script, and at one point during production he literally told Kirshner that he was “ruining my movie.”
Thus, the first burst of true depth and genius of the overall saga came not from Lucas himself but from his collaborators. And the reports of Lucas’s feelings about Empire confirm that he didn’t truly understand what made it great. The prequels only confirm that he still doesn’t – the beauty of the saga was just more accidental genius.
Tomorrow: the Extended Universe.