Sure, you might know how to pronounce Chewbacca’s home planet. You may even know how to speak Wookie. But do you understand the mythological roots of George Lucas’s influences? Can you attribute the philosophical concepts of good, evil, and utilitarianism to the Empire and the Rebellion? Do you know how Nietzsche’s Übermensch is characterized in Emperor Palpatine? If not, then you need to read on.
Luke Skywalker and the Hero's Journey to Star Wars Success
It's widely accepted that for Star Wars, George Lucas borrows from the concept of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey—the one story representing a culmination of every primordial myth, based on the idea that all human brains share a deep story language made up of universal archetypes.
Yet, here’s the problem: Hollywood has commissioned thousands of “Hero’s Journey” films and writers have produced millions of “Hero’s Journey” scripts—very few of which have received the same level of success as Star Wars.
Further, neuroscience had utterly debunked the idea that the human brain shares a story. There are no eternal archetypes or universal myths.
And even further, well, let’s face it: Star Wars is almost comically simplistic in its plot, storyline, lack of moral ambiguity, and one-dimensional characters.
Somehow, however, Star Wars hit exactly the right notes and became a beloved classic with a tremendously dedicated fan base that has endured for 40 years and counting.
So, what made the difference?
Dr. Angus Fletcher, a screenwriter and professor of English and Film, argues in his online video course Screenwriting 101 for The Great Courses Plus that the difference was made by the tone and emotional resonance that Lucas captured. Dr. Fletcher showcases the tonal and emotional devices Lucas used to draft Star Wars, and highlights the influences he pulled from, including Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa. As he breaks down the script, he demonstrates what set Star Wars apart from a thousand similar stories, taking what could have been considered a clichéd and trope-laden storyline and delivering a final product that was out of this world.
The Empire is Excellent; the Rebellion is Repugnant
Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance are obviously good. Darth Vader and the Empire are obviously bad. Upon a superficial viewing, Star Wars is painfully black and white, even quite literally embodied by Luke and Vader’s costumes in the first film. But when you watch the Star Wars series through the lens of philosophical questions around good, evil, and utilitarianism, it’s as if you are watching a completely different movie.
Dr. David Kyle Johnson, a Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, unpacks the ideas of famous philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and applies them to the Star Wars universe in his online course Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Viewing Star Wars through this lens creates a more complicated view of morality. Most importantly, he poses the question: Could the Jedi be the bad guys?
Turning your concept of good and evil on its head, Dr. Johnson demonstrates:
- We can compare the Jedi to modern-day ideology-based terrorist organizations (ISIS, the KKK) in that they believe in a mystical energy—the Force—which is on their side and gives them power.
- The Jedi attempt to overthrow Palpatine who, though he is certainly not the embodiment of everything good and innocent, was duly elected and granted power by democratic vote.
- In the later-released prequels, Mace Windu even tries to deny Palpatine his day in court and attempts to assassinate him instead.
Applying these deeper questions can bring you a much more nuanced and philosophical view about the lack of moral ambiguity in Star Wars. And once you’re familiar with the Big Questions of Philosophy, you can apply your own views to how Star Wars addresses them.
Take Your Star Wars Fandom to a Deeper Level
Being a true fan is more than knowing where to find hidden Easter eggs or quoting your favorite lines at will. True fans understand the links between the story and reality, the dialogue and the message. They can unpack the big philosophical questions, the historical references, and the underlying significance and meaning. Experiencing Star Wars in the context of the reality that shaped it brings you a richer and more distinct context to love.
Expert-led and cutting-edge courses such as Screenwriting 101, Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy, Big Questions of Philosophy, and hundreds of others will enhance your passion, whether it’s Star Wars or star gazing. With a FREE trial to The Great Courses Plus, you will find there are entire worlds of fandom you still need to uncover.