Star Wars Phenomenon

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - late 1970s California - the known universe of George Lucas came into being.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 24, 1999

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - late 1970s California - the known universe of George Lucas came into being.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 24, 1999

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - late 1970s California - the known universe of George Lucas came into being. In the beginning, George created Star Wars. And the screen was without form, and void. And George said, Let there be light, and there was Industrial Light and Magic. And George divided the light from the darkness, with lightsabres, and called the darkness the Evil Empire. And George remade the Hollywood firmament, and said, Let the revenues be gathered together under one place. And he called it Skywalker Ranch. And George said, Let the revenues bring forth abundant special effects. And George (or his minions) created every living creature that moveth, the Wookiees and Ewoks and Jawas in Star Wars, the beasts of the earth in Jurassic Park and every digitally drowned man, woman and child in Titanic. And George saw that it was good.

So he did it again, as it was in the beginning. You could see it coming a long way off, like a meteor the size of Texas on a collision course with Earth in a Hollywood disaster flick. And now it is upon us: the Second Coming of George Lucas.

By now, everyone knows that Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is not just a movie. It is The Movie, the most monstrously hyped piece of entertainment in history. In the end, like an avuncular prophet hedging his bets, Lucas tried to soften the expectation, suggesting that his movie, in fact, is just a movie, "a Saturday afternoon serial for children." Who is he trying to kid? Even if The Phantom Menace does not sink Titanic's record in the final wink of the millennium - even if its worldwide box office fails to top $1.8 billion (U.S.) - it has already generated more belief than any picture before it.

The Star Wars franchise - with its ever-expanding universe of videos, toys and merchandising - is so big it is almost beyond money. To hear Lucas talk, it sounds as if nothing less than a holy covenant is at stake. "I put the Force into the movie to try to reawaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people," he has said. "I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents, and trying to distil them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct."

Can a movie marketed through multibillion-dollar licensing deals with Pepsi and Hasbro have religious value? Why not? Advertising, after all, is a huge act of faith. Perhaps the Star Wars franchise heralds a new kind of merger between money and religion - a fast-food adventure in divinity for those seeking easy answers to eternal questions. And Lucas is not the only one packaging spiritual issues into a "construct" for mass consumption. Pop culture has, in essence, become the new religion. Movies, music, television, the Internet, video games, self-help books - the all-pervasive halo of media culture - illuminates North American lives with a candlepower no moral authority, church or state, can hope to compete with.

The phenomenon is not entirely new, of course. In 1966, John Lennon created an inadvertent scandal when he casually observed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Now, in a world of millennial chaos and shattered attention spans, celebrity worship is fetishized beyond belief. Pop culture produces its own saints and martyrs, with their own relics and sacraments. From Marilyn to Elvis to Diana, there is a direct line of ascent: all became sacrificial stars, victims of fame. And in vigils of global mourning - whether for the Princess of Wales or the victims of the recent massacre in Littleton, Colo. - pop culture blithely converts sorrow into spectacle even as that same culture is demonized as the cause of death.

With attendance in churches and temples declining by more than two-thirds in the past 50 years, people look to pop culture for what religion once provided - mass ritual, the comfort of a universally shared experience, and a sense of awe. "We don't look to anything except sports or entertainment for the genuine collective experiences of our world any more," says Mark Kingwell, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and author of Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac. "There are very few things that rise to that level, to the Super Bowl or the release of this movie. Those are the spectacles and large-scale rituals of our culture." What Star Wars provides, adds Kingwell, is "a bland, generic spirituality - it's the model of what people mean when they say, 'I'm not religious but I am spiritual.' "

For those who specialize in issues of the soul, the spiritual aura of movies like Star Wars and The Matrix is a mixed blessing. "You get an impression of spirituality," says Marc Gervais, a Jesuit priest and film professor at Concordia University in Montreal. "And Lucas seems sincere, but there's a whole other side that makes me uneasy. You get lost in the noise and speed of images. The big message is one of glorifying power and annihilation with no room for reflection." Adds Gervais: "This is kiddie pop culture as the terrorizer of everything. It's like the Children's Crusades in the Middle Ages. The violent hero becomes the epitome of the religious warrior in the Holy Wars."

Muslim Imam Ezz Gad, host of Vision TV's Reflections on Islam, has his own doubts. "The moviemakers are trying to fill a gap, a spiritual vacuum created by shortcomings of clergy in organized religions," he says. "But they can never fulfil or replace a church or synagogue or temple, because they entertain and cannot teach. The movie industry exists not to guide, but to make money." Jim Gimian, the Halifax-based publisher of the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun, is equally skeptical. "I don't get anything from those movies," he says. "Lucas may have a message, but it's certainly not about spirituality."

However, Mary Jo Leddy, a theology professor at the University of Toronto, believes that movies like Star Wars are tapping into "a deep hunger" for spirituality. "The 19th century was an era of sexual repression, and the 20th century is a time of spiritual repression," she says. "What is now being marketed is a cheap grace. You can get a spiritual high that's instantaneous. What is astonishing to me is the number of people who know the Star Wars script by heart, as opposed to any form of the scriptures." But then Leddy adds: "People need stories to make sense of the universe. That has been the function of the great religious narratives, and as they become less compelling, movies like Star Wars can provide people with an entire theology or world view. What is profound in Star Wars is when Luke Skywalker discovers that Darth is his father. There's the sense that the evil is not out there but within us."

Amalgamating everything from Christianity to Buddhism, from The Wizard of Oz to Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, Lucas has concocted a story-cum-superstore of myths and archetypes. A major inspiration was mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), who suggested that basic narratives are hardwired into the human psyche. According to Campbell, all mythologies essentially tell the same story of an archetypal hero being transformed by a return trip to a supernatural world - and finding an identity with God.

After being discovered by Lucas, Campbell saw his theories become gospel for Hollywood screenwriters. And before his death in 1987, he conducted a book's worth of interviews with PBS broadcaster Bill Moyers at the Skywalker Ranch. Star Wars is "good, sound teaching," Campbell told Moyers, explaining that the Force is not portrayed as a "higher" power. "That old man up there has been blown away. You've got to find the Force inside you. This is why Oriental gurus are so convincing to young people today. They said, 'It is in you. Go and find it.' "

Kingwell, however, calls the Force "pantheism without cost - a spiritual belief without any ritual or commitment required." And although Star Wars is often seen as an ecumenical mix of mythologies, he maintains that "there's a clear bias in favour of Christianity, of personal salvation, sacrifice and redemption from sin. It's almost as if the wash of pantheism is a deflection from the traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs that are there. In The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke is hanging upside down from the antenna below the cloud space station, it's clearly a crucifixion theme."

In The Phantom Menace, evil takes the form of a souped-up Satan: Darth Maul is a demon with horns, bad teeth and red-and-black face paint. This vision of Lucifer as a demented sports fan plays into the deepest fears of a fundamentalist America. And as Kingwell points out, while church attendance is in decline, belief is on the rise. "More and more people in America - about 85 per cent - call themselves Christian," he says. "The really interesting possibility, and the scary possibility, is not that pop culture has become a substitute religion, but that it has become an annex to traditional belief. You can find elements that reinforce those traditional beliefs in a new form that allows this kind of mass ritual."

The very nature of motion pictures, these larger-than-life illuminations, invites religiosity. As Campbell observed: "There is something magical about films. The person you are looking at is also somewhere else at the same time. That is the condition of a god." Brian Walsh, a Christian Reformed chaplin at U of T, maintains that movies can have profound religious significance. "Lucas is an incredible storyteller," he says. "He tells us a myth, a story of redemption and fall, of virtue and vice. Religions are fundamentally narratives, but Western religion often forgets that we tell a story. Instead, we come up with doctrines. We - Christians, Muslims and Jews - have to unleash the power of storytelling again."

Recently, Walsh was driving along a highway north of Toronto when he saw a huge dome looming on the horizon. He assumed it was a temple. In fact, it was a freshly constructed cinema complex. "It used to be the big banks that took on the neo-classical architecture and looked like Roman temples," he says. "But now it's these huge movie megaplexes." If the script is the new scripture, the megaplex is the new temple. It is the kitsch cathedral off the exit ramp, where bigness is the most hallowed of virtues. Big screen. Big sound. Big stars. Big popcorn. A big piece of Hollywood heaven on earth.

That, of course, has been the idea from the beginning, when Hollywood's early movie palaces, such as the Egyptian, drew their inspiration from the pharaohs. Stories of heavenly faith, meanwhile, have flickered throughout the history of cinema, from It's a Wonderful Life (1946) to The Ten Commandments (1956). But in the 1960s, as America explored outer space, and the drug culture explored inner space, heaven began to acquire a new meaning in the movies. The slow-motion rapture of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had hallucinating fans going back again and again to ponder the cosmic riddle of a black monolith. By the early '70s, spirituality had taken a dark turn in American cinema, with operatic visions of bloody redemption - from the crucified outcasts of Easy Rider (1969) and Taxi Driver (1976) to the holy wars of The Godfather (1972). Then in 1977, Star Wars marked a watershed - the point at which the renegade visions of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman began to be eclipsed by the blockbuster amusements of the Lucas-Spielberg generation. It was the dawn of the special-effects extravaganza, but there was more to it than that. In 1987, when Sidney Sheinberg was president of MCA, he sat in his office atop Universal City's famous Black Tower and recalled Steven Spielberg walking into that very office with a script about an alien Christ figure called E.T. When E.T. was first previewed in Houston, remembered Sheinberg, "it was not a preview in any motion-picture sense of the word. It was as if one had experienced a kind of communal-dramatico-religious experience. I've never seen anything like it."

Back then, MCA was known as the Octopus, the most soulless of Hollywood's studio machines. But that did not prevent Sheinberg from seeing the selling power of faith. "The ads for E.T." he said, "were very controversial - why were we selling this picture with a kind of Sistine Chapel? But I liked the religiosity." What distinguishes a megahit from a mere blockbuster, he added, is the spiritual element: "The megahits have to really touch people deeply, and sometimes it isn't even knowable how they touch people. It is knowable in E.T.; it's much less knowable with Star Wars."

In the 1990s, the business of touching people deeply has taken off. With New Age missionaries serving as personal trainers for the human spirit, inner peace has found a home in the consumer society. Self-help books draw celestial equations between affluence and holiness - preaching a philosophy that could be called transcendental accumulation: pop guru Deepak Chopra goes so far as to suggest that "money is life energy ... " Meanwhile, pop goddesses, from Madonna to Alanis Morissette, have learned to undercut the crassness of stardom with the movements and mantras of Eastern religion. And the success of hip-hop sensation Lauryn Hill seems literally powered by spiritual conviction - as if nothing else could cut through the commercial din of the music industry.

Has celebrity worship in fact become America's highest sacrament? For millions of people to feel close to a total stranger requires a massive leap of faith - a belief sustained by the devotional rituals of the media. In Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, American author Neil Gabler writes: "When people say, as many did after the death of Diana, that they feel they have a 'personal relationship' with a celebrity, they are invoking the same term that evangelists use to describe their relationship with God ... As Diana confirmed, celebrity is the modern state of grace - the condition in the life movie to which nearly everyone aspires."

The Internet, meanwhile, serves as a global altar for the most personal acts of devotion. In the reaches of cyberspace, pop culture has found a virtual congregation, a church where there is enough room for the smallest offerings. And the Net has acquired a quasi-religious mystique - as technology's collective soul, a sea of disembodied consciousness that can be freely surfed by the most lowly parishioner. Of course, one of science fiction's favourite nightmares is that artificial intelligence will fall into the wrong hands, or fall out of human hands altogether.

In The Matrix, machines destroy civilization and enslave the human race, keeping it wired to a digital dream world - virtual reality as the opiate of the masses. With Keanu Reeves cast as the Saviour, the One chosen to deliver humanity from bondage, The Matrix is full of biblical allusions. In fact, Rev. Joel Crouse, a Lutheran pastor in Pembroke, Ont., was so taken by it that he announced he would work it into his sermons and confirmation classes. "You have all the elements there," says Crouse, "the Messiah, the betrayer, Mary Magdalene. There are many layers. If you're a Zen Buddhist, it's about personal enlightenment."

The Matrix, with its hero in a black trench coat and its baptismal fountains of gunfire, has also been cited as a possible influence on the teens responsible for the Littleton massacre. But blaming a particular film, or films, for such deeply deranged actions seems dubious at best. The romance of the righteous avenger cleansing the world with firepower is one of Hollywood's most durable myths, stretching from The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Pulp Fiction (1994). In a Christian culture so enamoured of violent salvation - and armed to the teeth both on- and off-screen - Antichrist cultists dreaming of violent destruction may simply be the other side of the coin.

Star Wars is a saga of warrior priests - evangelical knights in monks' robes. And evangelism was one of the earliest forms of American show business. With the spiritualization of pop culture, the business of selling rapture may have found its ultimate incarnation. Lucas, meanwhile, works to complete his creation with the puttering devotion of a Renaissance artist happily employed by the Pope. With effects layered like digital brush strokes, making movies, he says, is becoming more and more like painting. But his Sistine ceiling is spread across thousands of screens, and refracted through the stained glass of countless media, as unavoidable as the sky. The Force is with us whether we like it or not.

Maclean's May 24, 1999