In 1962, as the story goes, George Lucas damn near killed himself in a car wreck. Flipping his Fiat five times, the aimless high-school senior from Modesto, CA — whose interests till then were confined to television and auto racing — was saved by a seat belt that snapped, throwing him clear of the final collision of car and tree. Two weeks in the hospital and months of rehab later, he'd emerge a new man, filled with the purpose and direction that is the near-death experience's special province. Determined to make the most of every day from then on, he enrolled at USC, dove headlong into film, and the rest is history.
Like any creation myth, this tale should be taken with several grains of salt. The boy Lucas's love of Republic serials and dogfight-choked WWII films is old, well-documented news. And a terrific article in this month's Wired, by Steve Silberman, makes an excellent case for his previous exposure to world and experimental cinemas in San Francisco and LA. But these qualifications don't make the phoenix-like myth any less compelling. Nor do they leave you less curious about what kind of scars George hides under his turtlenecks.
Silberman credits Lucas with authoring this story, which isn't much of a stretch. After all, mythmaking has always been his whole shtick. THX 1138, his first film, was present-day allegory disguised as future dystopia. American Graffiti, his second, forged the durable, 50s-era youth-culture imago that looks unlikely to go away anytime soon. And then, of course, there's the space opera that changed filmmaking forever.
Despite all the resulting high-geek minutiae, the basic myth at the heart of Star Wars — by which I mean both trilogies in sum — is very simple. It's the story of the transformation, by an evil necromancer, of a decaying republic into a militaristic autocracy; the messiah-like hero he corrupts and makes the principal tool of this transformation; and the subsequent defeat of both by the true messiah — the corrupted hero's son. Such an archetypal odyssey naturally admits innumerable interpretations, but perhaps the most obvious real-world reading of the symbolism — which maps the timeless generational conflict onto 60s counterculture and 70s backlash — often goes unexamined. It's an unfortunate, oft-repeated oversight, as Lucas's alleged pro-war cheerleading is far less easily dismissed if you realize The Emperor was first and foremost a Nixonian surrogate. Or that Lucas chose to film the second, "redemptive" half of the saga first because its "New Hope" was what he felt the damaged counterculture needed at the time — not another fatalistic tragedy.
Lucas's far-flung, half-baked plans likely would've remained just that had the first film tanked in 1977, but the record-setting success of the rickety tour-de-force ensured the story's continuation. Handing the second film off to director Irvin Kershner produced the mood-driven masterpiece of 1981, The Empire Strikes Back, whose grim poetics made a perfect match for the contemporaneous American slide from brief Carter-era optimism to "national malaise" to angry cowboy diplomacy. In a spooky side development, Mark Hamill, the golden-boy Lucas surrogate that played his redemptive hero, Luke Skywalker, brought new gravitas to the role thanks to — that's right — a horrible car accident between Star Wars and Empire that necessitated the reconstruction of much of his face. Perhaps this is where a darkness beyond Lucas's control began to infect his speculative epic; regardless, the first trilogy concluded on a disappointing note in '83 with Return of the Jedi. (One word: Ewoks.) Though financially a success, the aging, increasingly skeptical character of the kiddie fan base that was around 10 in '77 — and the ever-louder drumbeat of licensing and marketing the fuzzy little half-Wookie critters (get it?) represented — suggested the saga had exhausted its relevance, and would never be continued all the way to its beginnings.
But by then the universe forming the backdrop for the tale had expanded far beyond its creator. The filling in of the vast expository spaces left between the sketchy, narrative-driven signposts Lucas had laid down as alternate-reality blueprint raged on with a viral life of its own, in official and unofficial novelizations, comic books, and prototypical forms of fan fiction. The recombinative fusion of Taoist, Zen, and Native American spirituality that comprises the Jedi "religion," as well as the "eternal champion" that Luke Skywalker represents, was meanwhile picked up by the persona and alcolytes of Joseph Campbell — an exegetic mouthpiece so ideal you really have to wonder about never seeing him in the same room with big George. And finally, John Williams's nicked-from-Holst theme music, the voice work of James Earl Jones, some amplified respiration, and an unforgettable costume and mask had combined to propel the figure of the corrupted, Fallen Hero — Darth Vader — further into the collective unconscious than anybody since Hitler.
George is due credit here too, of course. No story could strike chords so numerous and deep if there weren't actually something to it. And the parlor game of fitting various thematic frameworks to it wouldn't be half so fun if the story weren't so good, or drawn from such excellent sources. Vader's turn to the dark side is ultimately the result of fear joined to ambition ala Macbeth. The Arthurian echoes are even better: Anakin/Vader maps onto Uther Pendragon, the failed, close-but-no-cigar savior whose fall is tied up in the siring of the true one: Luke/Arthur. Lucas's life-changing encounter with physical ruin and synthetic repair, as well as his overarching ideas about living with technology, find a cautionary expression in Vader, who's "more machine than man now, twisted and evil." But the most fascinating take on Star Wars mythology, for my money, is the Gnostic reading.
Lucas as Demiurge
Briefly, Gnosticism recasts the Christian "God" as the "demiurge" — one extremely mighty demigod, or "aeon," among many, perhaps approaching omnipotence, but falling far short of omniscience. In truth, the demiurge is almost blind, not to mention petty, vindictive, and cruel, which is why he was expelled from "heaven," and also why he becomes convinced he's the only "God." Angry and alone, to prop up his adolescent power trip, he sets about constructing a world to lord it over. Stealing the essence of his demigod mother, Sophia, he fragments the pure energy — or "light" — of her being into a million tiny points, the "skeleton" on which he hangs the fabric of matter.
Gnosticism defines the origin of everything as the progression from nothingness to pure energy to matter, and characterizes this progression as diseased and corrupt. To create life and the land it lives on — none of which is really real — the demiurge had to trap the million points in a million corporeal jail cells, paradoxically all that's really real and the energy source for the illusion of reality itself. The points are human souls. The jail cells, human bodies. The penitentiary, the entire cosmos.
The principal appeal of Gnosticism lies in its explanation of the problem of evil. Life is suffering because "God" isn't God — he's an anger-management case that thinks he is. The Old Testament "God" throws tantrums like a three-year-old with a bazooka because he is one. According to this system, Jesus is a secret agent, sent down by the other aeons to rescue our "light" from the demiurge's self-serving gulag, and return it to knowledge of "pure" (noncorporeal) being. Weaving in and out of existence, forever eluding the cruel "archons," human and otherwise, that the demiurge rules through, the Gnostic Christ — who carries no promise of apocalyptic overturn, only real-world amelioration of suffering and despair — has always struck me as a metaphysical version of the Robert DeNiro character in Brazil.
In any event, Gnosticism has proven a durable metaphor for political as well as existential distress, especially in the realms of fantasy and sci-fi, sometimes both, as in The Matrix. Philip K. Dick's literally Gnostic Valis, of course, is the superlative contender in this category for its ingenious imagining of — that's right — the Nixon administration as the direct descendant of the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire and its ambitious Catholic ghost as the direct agents of the demiurge, all imposing an orthodoxy of control over the human spirit. "The Empire Never Ended," sermonized Dick; you still live in a "Black Iron Prison." But the way you can map this stuff onto Star Wars thrice over is something else.
Viewed through a wide-angle Gnostic lens, the Emperor represents the demiurge, the Empire the world, Darth Vader its supreme archon, and Luke Skywalker the Christ. Viewed through the Gnostic zoom, however, Vader himself — again, the "chosen one," or rather the "thinks-he's-the-chosen-one" — represents the demiurge. But as the redemptive moment in the saga remains Vader's tossing the Emperor down a shaft — with the help of his son — the Darth/Luke relationship is more complex than that: a blazon of the blind demiurge actually wielded by the perfected Christ to undo his own damage. And given that it's probably only possible for Vader to be so used because he is damaged — his robotic limbs being the only things that could hold the electrified Emperor long enough to hurl him down — the tale is a staggeringly circular conceit.
Beyond the Ewok problem, most fans agree that Return of the Jedi provides a good template for where series and creator have since gone wrong. The opening chapter, set on Tatooine at Jabba's court, is probably the best part, maybe because the jury-rigged genius of A New Hope shines through in the second-unit amateurishness of the animation and effects. (The A team was entirely devoted to the flattened-by-overkill mega space battles around the second Death Star). The vast, technically sounder middle of the movie is pretty bad. And while the aforementioned climax in the Emperor's throne room justifies much of it, no one really wanted to see Darth Vader turn into a sissy anymore than they wanted to see Luke lose his looks. But most of all, time seemed to have passed the story by. Nixon- and Carter-era politics had given way to the trickier model of Reagan-era conservatism, and the phenomenal success of the trilogy as a whole had rendered Lucasfilm Ltd. as monolithic as his fictional galactic Empire.
And so both author and audience drifted away from the saga through the late 80s and early 90s. Occasional rumbles of preprepreproduction preparations for a prequel trilogy would make fans prick up their ears — then George would repeat his mantra about waiting for years-off technology to arrive. Lucas worked on other projects, but his postfranchise track record (think Young Indiana Jones) wasn't much better than his earlier nonfranchise stuff (think Howard the Duck and Willow). And then came the special edition reissues.
In retrospect, this clearly marked the very beginning of the push toward the second trilogy; it also bode ill for how the "tragic" part of the cycle would play out. In addition to his media empire, Lucas had two arguably perfect movies — in different ways — to his name after the first saga was completed: A New Hope (Star Wars) and Empire. But inexplicably, in addition to the routine remastering and THXing everyone was expecting, Lucas chose to "touch up" these masterpieces with new dialogue, voiceovers, and even altered action. Now Greedo shot first, lopping off a huge chunk of Han Solo's pirate cool. And Vader's best, most steamed line ever — "Bring my shuttle!" — was replaced with something stupid and prosaic. Worst of all, though George Duchamp seemed perfectly happy to scrawl moustaches all over his own paintings, the scourge of his galaxy — those fucking Ewoks — remained untouched.
What was George doing? It seemed almost like he'd been replaced by someone else. And the bonus interviews included in the special editions did nothing to dispel this notion. Gone was the lanky, hands-on man striding purposefully around the sets of the first movie; in his place sat a bulky neckless creature, apparently immobile, reaching for the names of his own mythical creatures and often coming up with nothing better than, say, "the pig guy."
But despite these gathering clouds, the announcement that the second trilogy had in fact entered production was met with joy in the Star Wars fan universe. The first film, The Phantom Menace, hit the theaters as America teetered on the brink of the second Bush presidency; the second, Attack of the Clones, was released in the thick of the post-9/11 slide toward empire. Suddenly Lucas's Nixon-era backstory — of a noble republic destroyed by its despotic ruler — was more relevant than ever as the U.S. war machine literally slouched toward Bethlehem, appropriately despairing.
But the early indications were sadly on the mark. Though visually sumptuous and metaphorically dead-on given contemporary events, the movies just weren't very good. The static quality of Menace was understandable — Lucas needed to establish some relatively placid state of grace to set up the fall — but the Byzantine talkiness of Clones seemed almost perversely boring. The actors in both were on the whole awkward and wooden, unable to quite cope with the all-bluescreen method to which Lucas had graduated or the frequently atrocious dialogue he stuck in their mouths. The Ewok problem persisted, most notably in the person of the universally reviled Jar-Jar Binks. And in the course of their five hours, almost nothing everyone was waiting to see happened, the final insult being the relegation of the much-anticipated Clone Wars action to an insanely unwatchable series of five-minute cartoons.
It didn't take long for the disappointed fan base to make its displeasure felt; and thanks to twenty-some years of cultivation, plus the miracle of the Internet, it was felt far and wide. Untold thousands of self-appointed Star Wars experts railed in print and on the Web at the mess Lucas was making of the second trilogy. Why oh why had he parted ways with Ralph McQuarrie, the visionary illustrator responsible for at least half the first series' all-important design? And why had he rejected the generous offer of Kershner, whose sympathetic camera was responsible for Empire, to direct the second installment of the second as well? Lucas still seemed to have it as a producer, but had clearly lost it as a filmmaker — and yet he insisted on staying in the drivers's seat. Turning a deaf ear to the million little pleading voices echoing from within his cultural universe, it was as though Lucas had himself become, in short, some kind of tyrannical demiurge.
Indeed, as Lucas now sits astride his virtual empire, and the marketing and licensing juggernaut of Revenge of the Sith is unleashed, he bears more than a passing resemblance to the deluded "God" of the Gnostic cosmos. The various Darth Dew Slurpees, Dark Side M&Ms, and Jedi Saber Spoons continue to pile up around him, cutting him off from the very fans that are the lifeblood, or light, if you will, of his world. Lucas himself admits to the likeness in the Silberman article: "I'm not happy that corporations have taken over the film industry, but I now find myself the head of a corporation, so there's a certain irony there. I have become the very thing that I was trying to avoid. That is Darth Vader."
It's a remarkably self-aware statement, and especially resonant when viewed in the combined context of Lucas's "extreme" motivational auto-wreck experience, Hamill's similar vehicular injuries, and the on-screen Vader's cybernetic, living-death experience. Sith will introduce a fourth element to this chain of equivalences, the fearsome General Grievous, a proto-Vader piece-of-protoplasm commanding a deadly, 99% robot body, positioning Lucas himself as the middle term amidst these three.
But luckily for George, the stars may finally be back in alignment for him on Revenge of the Sith; and his conscious or unconscious embrace of a demiurgic role could just be part and parcel of this great conjunction. This is, after all, Vader's story; so the wiser, more collaborative filmmaking strategies employed in the first, redemptive trilogy find their perfect counterpart in the relatively dictatorial approach of the second. Sith will unquestionably be a much better movie than the first two, if only because the clock has run out: Most of what everyone's been waiting for can't be put off to the next movie this time. And so at last the foreordained money shots of the reverse revenge tragedy await us.
We'll see Anakin corrupted by the soon-to-be Emperor, hacked to pieces by Kenobi, and rebuilt as the black-masked archon we've come to know so well. The infant Luke and Leia spirited away by Kenobi, just as the baby Arthur was by Merlin. And the transfixing train wreck of the apocalyptic moment when the Republic falls — which to many may feel like looking in the mirror. This is where George shoots his whole wad, and it's impossible to discount the possibility that he means to mythologize its shooting as he's compulsively mythologized everything else. He may just want us to reimagine the dream-battle between Luke and Darth in Empire with a climactic reveal of his face, not Luke's, behind the shattered mask. Though again, all such mythologizing, mine included, should be taken with those grains of salt. As George peers back at us, he may, in fact, be winking.
Text Copyright © 2005 Brian Nemtusak