One of the reasons that Star Wars has made it 40 years, and will make it 40 more at the very least, is that it does what every great mythology does. It speaks to the human experience. Not simply waking up, going to work, doing your job, hugging your kids and going to bed. No, it speaks to the human experience on a much deeper, loftier, level. Our hopes, our dreams, our goals. It speaks to what all adds up to finding purpose.
This is an idea that is swiftly changing in our society. With the continual rise of social media platforms, internet marketing, and the collective connection we all experience in the internet age, the days of business suits and brief cases are slowly, or maybe not so slowly, fading away. T-Shirt CEO’s are in, black ties and handkerchiefs are out.
Yet Star Wars remains. It still speaks to young and old, even though the technology in the films, like droids and data pads, are no longer a thing of imagination. They are a reality. It begs the question of why? Why does Star Wars matter so much to our experience as people.
The simple answer: It is about finding your purpose, your calling, in a messy and scary world.
The longer answer. Well for that answer let’s take at each set of films….
Much like the T-Shirt CEO’s, the prequels are gaining more and more traction in the fan community. People of the prequel generation (a generation yours truly is admittedly a member of) are finally standing up and letting their voices, or tweets, or snaps be heard across the galaxy. The prequels matter. The prequels speak to our experience as humans trying to find our purpose.
Anakin is an obvious example of this. His journey starts as a slave, a piece of property. He has no purpose because things do not have purpose. Things are things.
Wait, what was that? You’re a person and you’re name is Anakin. Oh, well that changes things a bit then, doesn’t it?
It’s true that Anakin does start of as a piece of property, but there is within him that hope for something more. There is a goodness established in him by his mother, who says of her son, “He knows nothing of greed.” Instead he knows compassion and love. He has within him a desire to help others. He knows that to be his purpose, which is why he helps Qui-Gon and Padme. It is why he speaks of his dream of freeing all the slaves, and it is why he wants to help his new friends by racing in a race that could kill him. To him, what is life without helping others?
What makes this all the more amazing is that he is a slave. He has never been treated as worthwhile. One thing that is present in a lot of survivors of emotional abuse, although it may not make the nightly news, is a desire to make the world a better place. A desire to make sure that no one ever has to suffer the way they suffered. This is where we meet Anakin in The Phantom Menace.
Some ten years later, in Attack of the Clones, we see not a young man as naive as his nine year old predecessor, but one who has seen what the galaxy has to offer and is a a bit, as teenagers always are, disenfranchised. He doesn’t understand why things are not the way he would want them. Obi-Wan is holding him back. They Jedi are supposed to be his family, but they are holding him back. Pulling him away from his purpose rather than pushing him to it.
Part of this comes from that young child that still lives within everyone. Even through all the things he has been through training for the past ten years, we see the glimmer of that little kid in his eyes when he is going to see Padme. She is the one who reminds him of that time, when all was good in the world (or as far as Anakin’s perspective goes). When he was on Tatooine, he knew his purpose but did not know how to fulfill it. Now, though, it is all in question. Except when he is with Padme.
This idea pulls us through the rest of this film and all of the next one. Anakin is battling between who he is expected to be, “The Chosen One,” and who is heart is telling him to be, a lover of Padme, a helper of people, a builder of a stronger, safer galaxy. When this becomes the norm, it, like a communications disruption, can mean only one thing: invasion.
In this case it is not the invasion of a planet by a platoon of clankers, but rather the invasion of Anakin’s heart, mind, and very soul. Palpatine assures that these two sides continue to tug on each other, until the point that Anakin has to choose. He has to choose between those he feel failed him, pulling him away from his purpose, or the two people he feels have never betrayed him, Palpatine and Padme.
Like most things in life, what the situation actually is matters not. Perception creates reality, in our life and in Anakin’s. So many of us have had to choose between what a parent, or spouse, or family member wanted us to do, thought it was right for us to do, and what our heart tells us to do. While unfortunate, this is what makes Anakin’s struggle so real, so lasting. It is why the prequel generation has finally begun to step up and demand that these movies get the respect they deserve. Like Anakin, the prequel generation is tired of being told who they are supposed to be and what their purpose is; it is their future to decide.
And if they fall to the dark side… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Original Trilogy
The Star Destroyer coming over the screen, taking over the theater, is the moment many knew that their life would never, ever be the same. Star Wars had come, and it was about to change the game by doing something many movies of the time were not doing: speaking to the human experience, and within it the search for purpose.
George Lucas himself has supported this idea, at least in a tertiary way, by saying that Star Wars was always meant to be a fairy tale, a good and evil story, for 12-year-olds. Also take notice that he did not say 12-year-old boys. Rather he said 12-year-olds, period, thank you very much, tip your waiter on the way out. Star Wars is for every kid, because it is about life experiences we all go through. It is why Anakin’s story and Luke’s story matter so much. Switch their gender, and the story is very much the same. It is about life, in all its trials and tribulations.
What makes Luke’s story so special in particular is how it is so much a story like that of his father, and at the same time very much different from the story of his father. Luke starts out, like Anakin, a hopeful youth. Like Anakin in Attack of the Clones, Luke has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He sees the elders in his life as the ones holding him back from realizing his full potential. However, unlike Anakin, he does not know his real purpose. He just wants to get off Tatooine. Anakin, conversely, would have been fine staying on Tatooine if he could help people. Luke wants to get off the dust bowl and add some color to his life. He speaks of going to the Imperial Academy, gets excited hearing about the Rebellion, and even whines about not even being able to get off the farm long enough to go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.
Whereas we might not all have grown up on a farm, we know what it is to be wrangled by our elders. A parent who makes you go to medical school when you wanted to do art. Having to take over the family business because of its history and heritage. Being forced into a dead end job because you have bills to pay and mouths to feed. It is all very much the situation we meet Luke in.
As he ventures on, though, and is able to get off the farm, albeit not in the most fortunate of circumstances, a whole new world opens to him. This part is critical, because it is this part that shows why Anakin and Luke have such different end points to their arc (a least to date). Where Anakin got away, chased his dreams, and became let down, Luke gets away, chases his dream, and sees the potential. He is not foolish enough to believe that the galaxy is pure. Maybe that’s what growing up in the Empire does to a kid, or maybe it is what the extra 10 years of slugging through whatever life provided him. Nonetheless, it is the reality.
This drives Luke through his story. Call it hope, call it dreams, call it what you will, Luke, unlike his father, holds onto the idea that the galaxy can be a better place. He has many of the same pressures that were placed upon Anakin (being the hope for peace and justice in the galaxy), but he responds differently. He learns from his mistakes, where Anakin blamed it on other people. More importantly, however, is a singular choice made by both Anakin and Luke. Where Anakin was pulled in two directions (be a Jedi or be a husband), he broke and chose the path of least resistance. Luke, on the other hand, is told by his mentors to fight, and kill, Vader, but creates his own path. He finds the third way.
So many of us live a life of a dream deferred. Our alarm clock goes off on Monday, and we start off complaining about having to do the same thing day in and day out. This is exactly what Anakin faced with the Jedi, having to face the problem of choosing between the Jedi and Padme, feeling like he had to live up to an expectation he was not even sure he believed in. This is the same problem Luke faced for years on the moisture farm. In the end, for them and for us, it comes down to choices. Our life is defined by choices.
Luke is an inspiration, and a lasting character, because he made the right choices at the right moments. On Tatooine, he chose to become a Jedi because he saw the travesties the galaxy had to offer. On that path he most certainly makes mistakes, like leaving his training on Dagobah to go rescue his friends, but when the chips are down he goes all in with what his heart tells him is right. He leaps from the terrace in Cloud City because he would rather die than become the next Vader. Likewise, he throw away his lightsaber because he sees the dark side creeping in, and chooses a different way, a new way, a love above fighting way to live his life. He finds his purpose because of how he responds to the choices before him.
Thirty years pass from that moment on the second Death Star until the moment on Ach-To in The Force Awakens. Not much is revealed in the film about Luke’s pursuit of his purpose training a new generation of Jedi. Without a doubt, though, the final scene promises us that Luke will once again have to make important choices that will shape his life, and the galaxy’s. And will probably shape the life of a particular scavenger…
The Sequel Trilogy
Speaking of the sequel trilogy is a little bit like trying to to bowl with four pins. We just do not know enough to come to full conclusions because, unlike Luke and Anakin, we do not have the full story of Rey.
Nonetheless, we can see parallels to her predecessors. Like Luke and Anakin, Rey has to make choices, one major one being whether to stay back and let things happen to her or to make things happen herself. For Anakin it was choosing to leave his mother to become a Jedi, for Luke it was the burning homestead, and for Rey it was calling the lightsaber to her, past Kylo Ren, and stepping into her destiny.
Year upon year, Rey chose differently, though. Anakin and Luke always knew their destinies lied somewhere beyond the sand planet they called home (even though, yes, it is arguable that Anakin would have been better off staying home). Those two young men were stuck there because of others, be it Watto or Uncle Owen. Rey, however, stays on Jakku by choice. Finn even points this out, reminding Rey that she is a pilot and can go anywhere she wants. So why go back to Jakku?
For family. For home. For what she sees as her purpose.
This is certainly not a theme that Star Wars has ever been devoid of; Anakin became a Jedi and spent the rest of his life searching for the family that he lost in Shmi, hoped for with Padme, and eventually found in Luke, who went on his own venture to find his family of Leia and Han. Rey’s case is different, though, because she does not know her biological family. Anakin had Shmi, and it might not have been perfect but it was home. When he left that he found a void. Luke had Owen and Beru, who might not be “blood” but were certainly family. When they were taken from him, he also had a void. Rey has lived with that void for as long as she can remember. To Rey, purpose in life means filling that void.
Rey became a critical, and beloved, member of Star Wars lore not because of her complete journey, but because of her relatability. Again we find a hero we can relate to, a hero trying to fill a void. Rey cannot, however, pursue that goal, fulfill her purpose, until she breaks away from the reality that entraps her. For a scavenger on Jakku, life comes down to one thing: getting enough food and water to not die before being able to go find more junk to sell to get enough food and water not to do before… well, you get the picture.
Rey, however different she may be from Luke and Anakin, is similar to them the same. Anakin and Luke both suffered from living in a reality created for them by others, and it took a mentor to break those chains. For us in the real world, it may be a teacher, a therapist, or a friend, but for our heroes it was Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Han Solo, respectively. That freedom allowed them the possibility to pursue their purpose, to fulfill their full potential.
For Anakin it took some 30 years for that to be fully realized. For him to realize that loving his family was the truest reality he would ever know. For Luke it happened a little quicker, albeit no less perilously. For Rey we will have to wait and see. One thing we do know… actually maybe I should let Maz take it from here.