This week marks a thrilling time for us pop culture enthusiasts. We who are old last experienced these same feelings of excitement on that day in May of 1999, when the Phantom Menace first opened. While those prequel movies ultimately ended with a sense of disappointment, we hold out hope that these next chapters will faithfully return us to that fantasy of a long time ago.
Fondly I remember the drive-in theater which in 1977 blasted Luke Skywalker forever into my heart. From that moment my backyard was never the same again. The sandbox and the swing set were overrun with endless battles between the rebels and the Empire. A few years later my friends and I tried to recreate the Hoth ice world on the picnic table. To our dismay, all of the ice cubes melted in the hot South Florida sun.
Decades later, with the opening of The Force Awakens, even despite the numerous gray hairs, I find these childish emotions returning. My heart is thumping. My pulse is racing. I ask myself why. Why did I not feel this way when the Avengers debuted? Why did I not feel this way when TMNT debuted?
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. My man cave, along with its throng of memorabilia is certainly a testimony to that. But there is something more to this than simple nostalgia. There is something about Star Wars which has captured the heart of America in a way which no other fantasy universe can claim. George Lucas’ creation transcends the normal euphoria of everyday fandom.
I would suggest that the magical element thus far has been the clever use of ritual. Star Wars embraces ceremony and tradition in away which no other franchise has. For example, when Luke first learns of the force, Obi-Wan conveys the depth of this ancient order. “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” Also, following the destruction of the first Death Star, Princess Leia bestows medals upon our heroes in dramatic ceremonial fanfare. Even the villains embrace the concept of ritual when Darth Vader clings to his “sorcerer’s ways,” despite the ridicule of Admiral Motti. And the very atmosphere of Emperor Palpatine’s throne room has an aura of irreligious reverence.
Ritual in the Star Wars franchise is staggering. Nearly every scene throughout the six movies encompasses it to some degree. Whether it is ceremony, costume or practice the theme of ritual is flows through Star Wars like the force through a young Padawan. But why does this ritual appeal so strongly to the American public? What is it about this concept that resonates so strongly?
Simple rituals, such as brushing our teeth, eating lunch, or setting the alarm clock mark the hours of the days. Civic rituals such as baseball game hot dogs and Fourth of July fireworks mark our cultural identity. Religious rituals such as weddings and baptisms mark our hearts and souls. But, while we obviously continue to hunger for ritual, religion in American society has become somewhat sterile. Many faith traditions are declining in numbers and participation. Other faiths, in an attempt to appeal to a younger populous are abandoning traditional rituals in favor of more contemporary styles of worship.
Perhaps without quite being aware of it, Star Wars, at least temporarily fulfills this need we have. So beyond the excitement of the adventure and beyond the drama of good verses evil we are finding within this galaxy far far away food for our souls. In a recent article The American Utopia, I hypothesized that we as a people have abandoned the development of personal virtue and substituted it with the modern American political system. Now I surmise that we have also substituted our need for ritual with great fantasies like Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. Perhaps we are reaching into these worlds to, at least briefly, fill something inside of us that is wanting.
On December 18th our large army of sci-fi fans will converge upon theaters across the country filled with hysteria. But in the next few days the excitement will fade. The euphoria will pass. We will return to the humdrum of our normal lives. The wanting with our hearts will re-emerge. It is then that the opportunity for true ritual will be available. It is then that we will each have the opportunity to walk into a church, genuflect before an altar, and quiet our souls. It is in these rituals that the wanting finds fulfillment. It is in these rituals that the desire is satisfied. It is within the Church where rituals become reality and we are truly transformed.