Star Wars: Another Point of View
by Lev Puhalo; originally published in 1983
It seems that every time a new fantasy movie appears, we see a rash of “yellow journalism” excoriations of it in various Orthodox publications. If you ask the editorialists if they have actually seen the film, the reply will usually be, “Most certainly not!” Their reviews, alas, are often based on something they have read in the standard sectarian “doom and gloom” press. Often, the extravagant outcries of “demonic,” “perverse,” “antiChristian,” etc. are merely the automatic reflexes of a bleak, morbid religious negativism and many writers in Orthodox journals simply quote or rewrite articles from some sectarian publication. For this reason, when several young people asked this editor about the usual rubberstamp reviews of the Star Wars series, I viewed them on videocassette (except for Return of the Jedi, which I saw in a theatre with some young friends).
Personally, I was deeply impressed and moved with this series of films by director George Lucas, and I felt that his Greek ancestry was at least evident in his handling of the material. Return of the Jedi is positively Dostoevskian in its moral content, and I am convinced that Lucas is familiar with Orthodox teachings and lives of Saints. The basic plot of the Star Wars series is simple: an evil dictator has conquered a small galaxy and abolished its former pan-galactic democracy. He is proclaimed emperor, and his forces are attempting to destroy the remaining resistance to his rule. While the general battles are fought with standard science fiction weaponry, this is only the superficial part of the story, because the actual battle is being fought in the human conscience and will.
Surprisingly, delightfully, the real story is one of the immense struggle between the dark and the good side of that universal nature of which man is a part – the fallen nature of man and the universe. In the movie series, this nature is called “the force.” In many reviews, “the force” has been interpreted as an unsavoury parody of God. After a careful examination of the real plot of the Star Wars series, however, I was led toward the conclusion that “the force” is that universal nature, and that the whole theme of the movie and the energies of the plot line are directed at the struggle within the fallen nature between co-operation with the dark side of that nature or with its “light” side that law of contradiction which Apostle Paul speaks of as warring within us, and upon which Orthodox monasticism is based. The hero of the series is Luke Skywalker, a pure, highly moral young man who is a true hero, rather than the modern anti-hero image so often lauded in contemporary films. He remains a virgin throughout the film and his growth in spiritual leadership and strength is directly linked with this. The main hero-anti-hero of the series, Han Solo, is reformed and gradually converted to nobility by the direct influence of Luke Skywalker’s moral purity and self-sacrificing love. This is almost a text-book case from the pages of Metropolitan Antony’s “Dostoevsky’s Concept of Spiritual Rebirth.”
Aside from Princess Leia (Luke’s equally moral and self-sacrificing sister), the two most dominant “good” characters are, first, the great wilderness elder Yoda, the “yeronda.” This gentle, love-filled creature is absolutely a reproduction of some Transvolga elder from the Northern Thebaid. He could as well be Sergei of Radonezh, Kyrill of the White Lake or Paul of Obnora. He is the main spiritual catalyst in the whole development of the fundamental theme of this wonderful movie series. The next central character is the hesychastic Obi-Wan-Kenobi. From his role, it is clear that he is a monastic, and I strongly suspect that his last name is a play on the word Koenobia (though I am equally aware of the more oriental play of words with obi-wan). He is a monastic saint in the movie. He carries on the teachings of the Elder (yeronda) Yoda and directly guides the strong spiritual development of young Brother Luke. Throughout this whole series, we are shown the contrasts between good and evil, the spiritual development of Luke and the transformation of Han Solo from adventuresome bandit to noble soldier.
Most striking in this journey is the episode with the character Jabba the Hut. Jabba, a gross, hideous blob of a being is an utterly depraved personality. He lives in a dark semi-subterranean fortress from which he directs a host of criminal activities. Although he is independent, the emperor does not consider him a threat because he is already a servant of the darkest side of the human nature. Jabba is surrounded by bizarre, deformed minions whose greatest entertainment, after the practice of gluttony, is to watch a hideous beast devour hapless slaves and prisoners. Jabba himself, a veritable symbol of gluttony, is a page from The Ladder of Divine Ascent. St John of the Ladder described him well, and accurately predicted his ultimate condition. This gross degenerate enslaves shapely women and forces them to dance nearly nude on the end of a chain. Then, instead of taking sexual advantage of them, he fulfills his passions by casting them through a glass top trap door and watching in lascivious delight while the monstrous beast devours them in a most agonizing manner. The close relationship between gluttony and inner depravity is clearly portrayed, the link between unbridled passions and hideous sadism, sexual passions and death and torture are dramatically set forth. Jabba the Hut is the very personification of the passions of the fallen nature. He and his minions are practically a summary of the teachings of the desert fathers, and particularly of St John of the Ladder, on the subject. At last, Raithau, the troublesome “Step 5” of The Ladder of Divine Ascent seems supremely reasonable. Jabba and his domain of depraved passions is finally destroyed by Luke Skywalker. Brother Luke ascends another stage toward true monasticism, toward becoming a true Jedi – receiving the spiritual schema. I cannot review the whole movie step by step, but the closing scenes of Return of the Jedi, in which Luke finally attains to the status of a “Jedi” (or, warrior of good and light) is utterly profound.
The two main evil characters in the movie are Lord Darth Vader (a corrupted Jedi who, having fallen into delusion (prelest; plani) has become enslaved to the dark side of the force by having yielded to his passions. The emperor, an evil old man who has sold his soul to the darkest forces for the sake of worldly power, behaves like one of the Pagan Roman rulers or Popes of the inquisitions, trying to pervert the martyrs and victims first by kindness and flattery, then by threats and cunning. Luke is convinced that Darth Vader, the deluded and corrupted former “Jedi” has enough of a moral conscience left within him to be redeemed. The sense of the value of rescuing and healing this cruel, unyielding enemy totally overcomes any feelings vengefulness or hatred which might have been lurking in Luke’s own soul. When the dying Elder Yoda, in his cell deep in the northern forest, reveals to Luke that Darth Vader is actually his father, and that he and the emperor have planned to trap Luke and pervert him to the service of the evil force also, Luke is filled not with hatred or a sense of physical self-preservation, but with a wave of compassion and love. He is told that he must fight Vader to the death, but his response is to offer his life to redeem his father from bondage to the evil side. Luke surrenders himself to Vader and is taken before the emperor. The tense scenes that follow are magnificent. How can the emperor enslave Luke to the service of the dark force? By causing him to yield to his passions, by leading him to transform his love for his companions in the resistance to an act of hatred and vengefulness. The emperor, like his master, the evil-one, can afford to be hated, since one who yields to hatred and vengeance is already his servant even while he hates him. The emperor tries to provoke Luke to take his weapon (a “light sabre” – a kind of laser device) and either attack him or Vader. Finally, when Vader attacks Luke in a fury of frustration, Luke dispassionately defends himself, being careful not to injure or take advantage of Vader. During the fight, he attempts to awaken in Vader the hidden moral conscience that he instinctively knows is there. Though we cannot at first see it, Luke does not fail.
The fight ceases. It has no advantage to the emperor because Luke is only defending himself without passions. Now, Vader and Luke are out of earshot of the emperor. He does not hear Vader say, “If we cannot corrupt you, then we will easily be able to corrupt your sister. Hearing this, Luke lunges into renewed battle with great strength. The emperor who did not hear the conversation, beams in lascivious delight. “Ah, young Skywalker has yielded to the passions,” he thinks “He is fighting from anger and vengefulness. He is ours now!” But the emperor’s defeat is sealed. He does not understand that Luke is fighting now from co-suffering love – he is laying down his own life for the moral safety of his sister – not for her physical life, but for her spiritual life, for the sake of her soul. Darth Vader does realize this, and the overwhelming moral force of the fact finally converts him. When the emperor comes to realize what is taking place and steps in to kill Luke, Darth Vader once more becomes a father, and gives his own life to save Luke. He kills the emperor, but is mortally wounded. All during the movie series, Vader has worn an ugly, inhuman, mechanical looking mask. Now, as he dies, he asks Luke to remove the mask so he can see his son face to face. When the mask is removed, Vader becomes “human” once more. His countenance changes. As he looks at his son, hard, remorseless eyes melt to tenderness, the tension of the face moves to serenity, as he makes a final, fully conscious repentance and choice for the good. With this, Darth Vader peacefully reposes.
Meanwhile, Luke has been pressed to flee from the emperor’s throne room, which is under attack from the resistance forces. He must evacuate from the “death star” which he is on, or be inadvertently killed by his own friends. But he has risked his life again, to save his father. Only after the father is dead does he give thought to his own safety. In the closing scene of the film, the allies are celebrating their final victory – not entirely aware that the victory was actually won by Luke Skywalker’s defeat of the passions in his own life, and his ultimate choice of co-suffering love over the temptations of power, anger and malice. Luke observes the worldly celebrations from a distance – he is disconnected from all this, dispassionate, already on a higher plane, his moral grandeur and virginity intact, he has become a “Jedi”, a true monk. He has received the Skhema and the real victories in his galaxy will be won by him, and those who may follow him. He is now the Elder. As he turns his back on the festivities, he sees in an aura a vision of his sainted Elder, Yoda, his spiritual father Kenobi who, after his own self-sacrificing death, became Luke’s patron saint, and Luke’s father, Darth Vader – all smiling benevolently. Darth Vader with the two saints? Of course, for such is the power of repentance, such is that love which grants to him who wrought from the eleventh hour together with those who wrought from the first.
I can already hear the outrage of some of my yellow-journalism colleagues at my interpretation of this movie series. But young people are going to see films, whether we like it or not, and Star Wars will be on T.V. It is one of the only movies I know of from the last two or three decades where we witness an actual triumph of virginity and morality over the dark forces of the passions. The problems one might have with the interpretation of “the force” are minor compared to the positive beauty of the movie. Rather than foaming and howling at every production that appears, it might be better if we try to look at the positive aspects of some of these things and use them as starting points to teach our young people. We can only turn them away and make them regard us and our Orthodoxy as a stream of morbid, Victorian negativism by constantly attacking everything and seeing evil in everything. Ultimately for those who see such bleak, doom and gloom morbid evil in so many things, the question might well be asked: on which side of their eyeballs does all this perversion and evil exist?
I came away from seeing Return of the Jedi with a feeling that bordered on joy. It was a deeply rewarding experience, and if our young people are going to see movies, then let us have more movies like this for them to see. And when we review them, let us use their positive aspects to instruct our youth, rather than trying to cast them into some kind of despair with our own narrowness and self-created hangups.