The Lost Spirituality Of The New 'Star Wars' Films

by Michael Arbeiter

It first dawned on me that there was more to the Star Wars film franchise than I had previously appreciated when it was announced that we’d be watching it in Hebrew school. Thinking about the film in the context of religious education, I recognized new weight in Luke and Han’s conversation about the veracity of the Force. I can’t exactly manage a better excuse for having missed this admittedly heavy-handed translation than the fact that I discovered Star Wars at a pretty young age. So there’s a good chance that any fan, casual or adamant, of George Lucas’ 1977 space opera know it to be a proudly spiritual testament to the powers of faith and possibility.

Granted, the institution of Midi-chlorians in the Prequel Trilogy kind of tossed the theistic characteristics of the Force out the window, relegating the mysteries of the universe to the whim of a designated race’s genetic coding. A point on the card for evolutionism, perhaps, but a real blow to the Star Wars mythology.

Casting out of mind the Prequels, as we are so often inclined to do anyhow, we have a franchise wholly engaged with its spiritual reasoning. We find as the virtual spine of the first three Star Wars movies a self-contained religion founded more on viscera than definitive logic. We were never initially meant to understand the “rules” of the Force, but instead to embrace its emotional manifestation in characters like Luke, Darth Vader, Obi Wan, and Yoda. (Leia had it too, but she kind of got the short end of the stick in terms of opportunities to perform cool space magic.)

We’re inclined to wonder what attitude the new set of Star Wars features will have in respect to this spirituality: whimsically spiritual like the Original Trilogy or unromantically scientific like the Prequels? We can’t say exactly how the Force will be treated in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, but we have gotten a glimmer of what standalone Rogue One movie is going for: resolute atheism.

As the franchise’s Twitter account revealed on Sunday, Rogue One will paint a picture of a universe lacking in Jedi magic, and embrace a “God’s not coming to save us” attitude in the direction of its mortal fighter pilot heroes into action and adventure. Effectively, a rejection of the omnipresent touch of a benevolent Force, with drive and responsibility overpowering faith as the chief trait of heroism.

Once more, it’s easy to take something like this for a reversal on what we loved in the original Star Wars movies: the nebulous nature of the Force and its institution in character (and viewers) of a newfound trust in the likes of possibility and cosmic balance was without question one of the ’77 film’s most inspiring aspects.

But 38 years later, maybe we’ve come to a point where we cannot help but see the problems in a “Force.” In 2015, audiences and writers might not want to root for an undefined property that chooses the destinies of the individuals in its path, by some choice mystery or (worse yet) cellular makeup. As the very idea of faith might carry a ton more baggage today than it did upon the release of Star Wars, the advertisement of its enlightening power in a post-2015 movie could strike a few nerves.

The recognition of public attitudes in the machination of the Star Wars mythology is isn’t too farfetched. In the late ’90s, George Lucas adjusted the design of the Force seemingly to reflect a growing devotion to science over faith. Now, when that faith is not only meeting a philosophical rival but has been assigned a wealth of controversial connotations, his universe is looking to embrace self-made fate over one written by a cosmic party.

Of course, we won’t see the Force going anywhere in Star Wars VII . Hell, the very title (The Force Awakens) suggests that it’ll be back in full force. But maybe the news about Rogue One suggests the inception of a new means of handling the Force in each movie yet to come. It’s tough to imagine a Star Wars in which the Force doesn’t feel like an institution of divine intervention, but it looks like the new generation of movies won't be handling the almighty power in quite the same way as we're used to.

Images: 20th Century Fox (3)