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Friday, 6 May 2016

The Force will be with you: Star Wars' own religion

Vader chokes Motti: Just one of the things
the Force can help you do in Star Wars

It was Star Wars Day this week – surely the only fan event which owes its date to a pun: "May the Fourth be with you."

What better time to examine the Force, the "energy field created by all living things"? Is it George Lucas's unique and personal take on religion and spirituality – or just a lot of New Age mumbo-jumbo?

Star Wars and religion

"Vader was seduced": Obi-Wan Kenobi
explains the Force in Star Wars
Quite a few films of the 1970s dealt in new ways with religion – from the intense diabolical thrill ride of The Exorcist to popular-at-the-time fluff like Heaven Can Wait and Oh God. It was easy to speculate that a lot of people wanted the reassurance of religious faith, even if they didn't want to let its strictures rule their lives, or to go to church.

Star Wars, of course, invented a religion of its own – one ideally suited to the increasing number of people whose theological stance amounted to “I don’t know what I believe, but there must be something out there”. 

That seems to be pretty much George Lucas’s philosophy too. In the 1999 TV special The Mythology of Star Wars, he told how "the conclusion I’ve come to is that all the religions are true, they just see a different part of the elephant. Religion is basically a container for faith.”

What is the Force?

Luke stars his Jedi training in Star Wars

What do we know about the Force from the original film? Surprisingly enough, the first thing we learn is about its capacity for evil. Obi-Wan Kenobi tells the story of how Darth Vader murdered Luke Skywalker's father, adding: "Vader was seduced my the dark side of the Force." When Luke indicates that he doesn't know what the Force is, Kenobi says brightly that it's "an energy field created by all living things". 

This might seem a slightly odd way for the old man to handle the subject. He seems to be saying that the Force is responsible for Skywalker Senior's murder, but not to worry, because it does a lot of good in the galaxy as well. And after telling us that the Force "surrounds us, penetrates us ... binds the galaxy together", the subject is closed for now.

Throughout the rest of the screenplay, however, Lucas deftly introduces quite a few moments that illustrate what the Force can do. On the Death Star, Darth Vader uses it to half-throttle General Motti (Richard Le Parmentier) without touching him. Vader can also sense when Kenobi is on board the Death Star, although he can't find him. Kenobi, meanwhile, uses the Force several times: to make a stormtrooper do his bidding, to sense the destruction of Alderaan and finally, apparently, to disappear from the physical world on the point of death.

Luke, meanwhile, has learned that the Force can improve your coordination, even when you're blindfolded, and of course at the end of the movie, he is able to fire a torpedo into a small target without the aid of a computer. 

"These aren't the droids you're looking for":
Kenobi controls the weak-minded in Star Wars

So that's the kind of thing the Force can do, but what actually is it? Kenobi says it's an energy field. Beyond that, the Force seems to be a series of paradoxes. Living things create it, but it penetrates them. It controls your actions, but it obeys your commands. It binds us together, but it has a dark side that can seduce us.

It's unclear how widely the concept of the Force is known or believed in the Star Wars galaxy. Luke has apparently never heard of it. Imperial officers seem to know of it but not set too much store by it; so Motti feels bold enough to mock Vader as a "sorcerer" with a "sad devotion to that ancient religion". The Rebel Alliance have sufficient reverence for the Force that General Dodonna bids goodbye to the departing pilots with the words "May the Force be with you" 
 yet apart from Luke, no one in the Rebellion tries flying a ship with the aid of this mystical energy field. Presumably the Rebels believe in the Force but only a Jedi can use it properly. Or maybe the Rebels are wary of dabbling with it, given what its dark side can do. 

Is the Force based on any religion?

The late critic John Brosnan, in his entertaining survey of SF movies, The Primal Screen, mocks the Force as “cheesy, California-style, New Age mysticism … a safe religion that doesn’t step on any theological toes and is just as absurd as any of the existing religions in the world”. This certainly chimes with Lucas's declared intention to crystallize all kinds of myths and religious stories.

As for Kenobi's assertion that the force is "created by all living things" and "binds the galaxy together", he writes: "What was binding the galaxy before life evolved? And if there was nothing to keep the galaxy bound together how did life evolve?" 

The Force can enable you
to do this: Luke's torpedo
shot in Star Wars
He's got a point, of course, but the Force works if you accept it in the right spirit. The fact that Vader is called a "sorcerer", and that Han Solo derides the Force as "simple tricks and nonsense", is significant. The Force is like the sorcery in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Let's not forget that early drafts of the script featured that old fantasy staple, the hunt for a magic crystal. The Force is the premise that allows magical things to happen in the story, as well as giving it a bit of mythological resonance. In this first movie, we didn't need to know much more about it than that.

What's more, the disciples of the Force don't achieve everything on their own. Luke may destroy the Death Star with the aid of a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi, but it's only the last minute intervention of the unbeliever Han Solo that saves his behind and allows him to take that Force-aided torpedo shot that saves the whole galaxy.

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