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The Hero’s Journey and Star Wars

Throughout history, from the Greek myths to Star Wars and beyond, there are common threads that run through a majority of humanity’s heroic tales.  Regardless of the cultural context, time period, or which particular hero, there are certain elements that seem to always appear in these myths.  Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist, calls this the “monomyth,” or the “hero’s journey.”

George Lucas’ Star Wars is steeped in myth. While writing Star Wars, Lucas became fascinated with Joseph Campbell’s book on myth and heroic archetypes The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  While not necessarily the basis of his story, he was certainly influenced by his obsession with the monomyth.  You can see elements of this theory throughout the saga, but especially in Luke’s journey from boyhood to Jedi-hood.

Hero

Traditionally, the hero’s journey has 17 individual stages, which we will look at in-depth a little bit further down.  Not all hero’s necessarily experience all 17 stages during their journey, and oftentimes these stages appear in a different order depending on the story.  These events, however, are relatively persistent throughout the history of human storytelling.

Below we will look at each stage of the hero’s journey and how we see this mythological journey play out in the Star Wars universe.  Fair warning, this article is a bit longer than… well, than anything else we’ve put out.  I tried to shorten it, but there isn’t really a spot to split this article into two parts.

  1. The Call to Adventure– The hero’s story typically begins in a relatively normal situation before receiving a call to head off into the unknown.  In A New Hope we find Luke living the life of a typical moisture farmer.  He dreams of bigger things, but is constantly needed by his Uncle Owen to help with the harvest.  This normalcy comes to a halt when R2-D2 arrives on the Lars’ homestead intent on delivering a message to one Benjamin W. Kenobi.  After a run in with a band of Tusken Raiders, we are introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the hero’s mentor.  R2-D2’s message serves as Luke’s call to adventure.alec-guinness-as-ben-obi-wan-kenobi-in-star
  2. Refusal of the Call– In most myths, the hero refuses to leave the normalcy of his/her day to day life, at least at first.  This could be due to a sense of obligation, fear of the unknown, or a whole range of range of reasons.  When Luke meets Kenobi, he is asked to join him on a quest to Alderaan to aid the fledgling rebellion.  But Luke, worried about shirking his responsibility to his uncle and his moisture farm, tells Kenobi that he has no business going out on some galactic mission with an old hermit he just met.
  3. Supernatural Aid– After the hero has committed to the quest, either consciously or unconsciously, the mentor will present the hero with something that will help the hero during the quest.  In A New Hope, Luke is presented with his father’s lightsaber (“An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”), but this is not the only supernatural aid he receives.  Kenobi also introduces him to the ways of the Force, which starts Luke on his journey to his “apotheosis.”  Luke continues learning the ways of the Force throughout the saga.
  4. Crossing the Threshold– When the hero crosses the threshold and begin their quest, they leave their normal life behind and venture into the unknown.  When Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire he joins Kenobi on his journey.  Their first stop is the wretched hive of scum and villainy which is the Mos Eisley Cantina where Luke is immediately threatened by Dr. Evazan and his cohort Ponda Baba.  Evazan and Baba are one of many encounters Luke has with “Threshold Guardians,” whose primary function in myth is to be an asshole that stands in the way of the hero, which is even more appropriate when you consider Ponda Baba looks like he has an ass for a chin.  Luke’s crossing the threshold of the cantina is a physical representation of him leaving his innocence behind and crossing over into the unknown.Ponda_Baba
  5. Belly of the Whale– The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s normal life.  In this stage, the hero faces some sort of peril, and is showing a willingness to change.  This particular stage can be applied to several different events throughout the original trilogy.  Luke is always yearning to leave Tatooine behind, and when given the opportunity literally enters into the belly of the Falcon, leaving behind his previous life.  Other examples include Luke and his cohorts getting pulled into the Death Star via tractor beam, the unfriendly meeting with the Dionaga in the trash compactor, and Luke’s descent into the mystical Tree Cave on Dagobah.
  6. The Road of Trials– The road of trials is exactly what it sounds like, a series of tests that the person must undergo to begin their transformation.  This  stage is probably one of the most common elements of the hero’s journey.  We see this when Luke enters the Death Star to save Princess Leia; when he jumps on the Millennium Falcon’s quad-laser turret to battle incoming Tie Fighters; when Luke trains to become a Jedi on Dagobah, and later battles Vader on Cloud City.  In Return of the Jedi, we see Luke face off against the Rancor beneath Jabba’s throne, and later face Vader and the Emperor.  Luke passes a majority of these trials, but does have his share of failures such as his inability to defeat Vader in Empire Strikes Back, which costs him a hand.
  7. The Meeting with the Goddess– In this stage the hero experiences unconditional love.  This is often represented by the hero finding the person that he/she loves most completely.  This is point of some embarrassment for some Star Wars fans since the Goddess Luke meets and falls in love with is his sister Leia.  This love remains unconditional when it is discovered that they are siblings, although it does develop into a familial love once their family ties are discovered.LukeLeiaKiss
  8. Woman as Temptress–  The hero will often face temptations that cold cause him to stray from their quest.  Luke is not tempted by an honest-to-God woman, instead he is tempted by the power of the Dark Side.  This temptation is most prominent in the finale of Return of the Jedi when Vader threatens his sister.  In a fit of rage, Luke relentlessly attacks Vader, and almost kills him, before finally rejecting the pull of the Dark Side.
  9. Atonement with the Father– This is the part of the journey when the hero must confront whatever holds the ultimate power in their life.  In many myths this is the father, or a father figure, who has power over life and death.  All of the previous events have been shepherding the hero to this place, and it will effect everything that is to follow.  The Original Trilogy is about the maturation of Luke into a Hero, but the inclusion of the prequels re-frames the story, and shifts the focus to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, which is brought about by his son Luke.  At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke is able to call his father back from the Dark Side proving that despite all of his loss and anger, Vader still has the capacity to do what’s right.darth-vader-death
  10. Apotheosis– This occurs when the hero either dies a physical death or dies to the self, the hero moves to a state of divine knowledge, love, and compassion.  One could also look at it like a period of rest and fulfillment before the hero begin their return home.  We can see Luke reach his apotheosis in A New Hope when he lets go of his reliance on technology and trusts completely in the Force, which allows him to destroy the Death Star.  In Return of the Jedi, Luke reaches his ultimate apotheosis when he turns his back on the Dark Side, throws aside his lightsaber, and refuses to perpetuate the continuous circle of violence regardless of the consequences.
  11. The Ultimate Boon– The ultimate boon is when the hero obtains the object of their quest. The ultimate boon in Star Wars is the destruction of the tyrannical Galactic Empire so the galaxy can once again know peace.  In A New Hope, this comes in the form of the destruction of the Death Star, and in Return of the Jedi it comes in the… well, the destruction of the Death Star with the added bonus of the literal fall of Emperor Sheev Palpatine.
  12. Refusal of the Return– Having found enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.  We don’t really see this in Star Wars.  Although he’s very whiny, Luke is pretty selfless.  This isn’t to say he hasn’t changed though.  At the end of Return of the Jedi we find a much wiser, but more solemn, person than the wide-eyed farmboy we first met on Tatooine.
  13. The Magic Flight– Sometimes the hero must escape with his/her prize, and it can be just as dangerous as the journey itself.  This occurs in all three films, but is seen most prominently in Return of the Jedi, when Luke must escape the second Death Star before its destruction.
  14. Rescue from Without– Just as the hero usually needs the help of friends as they set out on their quest, often they need someone to bring them back to everyday life.  At the beginning of Return of the Jedi, we see a Luke Skywalker that appears to be toeing the line of the Dark Side.  He dresses in all black, appears to Force-choke the Gamorrean guards in Jabba’s palace, and is relatively quick to violence throughout the movie.  This reaches its peak when Luke channels his anger and hatred to defeat Vader on the second Death Star.  There is a telling moment, when Luke is standing over the the defeated Vader and stares down at his own robotic hand.  At this moment, Luke realizes just how close he’s come to the Dark Side and makes a conscious decision to turn away from that path.  We could attribute this solely to Luke, but Luke has the love of friends, the teachings of his masters, and the belief that his father can still be saved, that there is still good in him, and this is what brings him back to the good.
  15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold– When the hero returns to everyday life, he/she must retain the wisdom gained on the quest,and figure out how to share this wisdom with the rest of the world.  We don’t see this in the films per se, but it is implied that Luke, having become the last of the Jedi, must rebuild the Order thus sharing his newly found wisdom with the galaxy.
  16. Master of Two Worlds– In this step the hero achieves a balance between the material and the spiritual world, and the person becomes competent in both the inner and outer worlds.  At the end of Return, it appears that Luke has turned away from his old life of simplicity and has taken on the mantel of wisdom and serenity.  He has gone from ignorant farmboy, to Galactic hero, to the last of the Jedi Order.1384290403016267812
  17. Freedom to Live– Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the present moment, and not living in the past or future.  Not to beat a dead Bantha, but again at the end of Return of the Jedi, when Luke casts aside his lightsaber and refuses to give in to the Dark Side, he is no longer concerned with death.  He knows that by throwing away his weapon he most likely will not survive, but refuses to continue the destructive circle of violence by killing his father.

You can see that these stages of the Hero’s Journey occur multiple times throughout the films.  Despite the obvious homages to Cambell’s theory, Lucas does include personal flourishes that give the story additional depth.  For instance, one of the most iconic images in Star Wars is when Luke stares off into the twin sunset of Tatooine.  This imagery conjures up a sense that nothing will ever be the same, that this might be Luke’s last moment of innocence.  Additionally, the score by John Williams  provides us with a sense of awe and urgency – that this journey is increasingly important.

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Another key area where Lucas diverges from Cambell is that in Campbell’s idea of myth, the hero is the sole focus of the story and other characters are merely a means to an end. The side characters are just tools to help in the maturation and growth of the hero. Lucas, however, focuses on how the struggles faced by the hero are just as real to all of the other characters involved. The fate of the entire galaxy is at stake, and all of the characters are vital to the success of the hero’s mission.  This idea can be seen in all of the movies, but especially in Return of the Jedi when the destruction of the second Death Star relies on Han and Leia leading a strike force to disable the shield generator, Luke to bring take on Vader and Sheev, and the entire Rebel Fleet to fight through overwhelming numbers to try to destroy the reactor core of the Death Star.  In fact, it seems that all of the redemptive moments in the saga occur specifically through social relationships, and these in turn help the hero develop. In fact, the only true individualists we see in the saga are the Sith who use everyone as a means to their own end.

Most myths, including Star Wars, are fantasy, but this does not mean it is simply mindless entertainment.  By relegating it to that status, we ignore the potential for learning and growth that myth provides.  The Star Wars universe is alien to our own, but this allows us to view our cultures problems through the lens of our popular culture.  This, in turn, encourages us to reflect on the moral issues presented through the fantasy setting, thus allowing us to think on these issue in a way we might not have been able to any other way.

In Defense of George Lucas

George Lucas.  He was once hailed as a visionary stalwart that was placed on a pedestal for his creation of the Star Wars, but has since become a walking punchline.  The very creation that propelled him to stardom eventually lead to his downfall (if you can call being a billionaire a downfall).  But does he really deserve all the hate?

This isn’t the first time I’ve waded in to Lucas controversy.  One of my earlier defense articles defended Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  I’ve been wanting to write this particular defense article for over a year now, but it just seemed like so much work.  There are just so many detractors that voicing an opinion as extreme as “I don’t really mind the prequels,” or “the special editions really aren’t all that bad” is met with an absurd amount of vitriol.  The people at Fox News have had calmer conversations discussing the pros and cons of President Obama than the anti-Lucas League have had discussing Jar Jar Binks (assuming yelling over each other is considered a conversation).

I get it, everybody loves to hate ol’ George.  It’s easy isn’t it?  It’s become commonplace to bash him whilst talking about things he’s not even a part of!  I was reading a review for the Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies, and there was a quip about Peter Jackson giving his trilogy the George Lucas treatment.  Listen guy, despite your apparent love of the thesaurus, you are not original.  You are using an inaccurate cliche in your attempt to sound aloof and hip.  Please go back to your studio apartment on your street bike (make sure to get mad at a couple of cars on your way) and ponder which craft beer is the most politically correct.  Sorry, got a little carried away.  My point is this – don’t bring him up just to throw him under the bus while talking about something unrelated.

Visual Approximation

Visual Approximation

“But he ruined my childhood.”

No he didn’t.  Despite what you might believe, Lucas is not a time-traveling wizard who went back in time to your childhood and took away the enjoyment you experienced with some new-fangled enjoyment sucking device (which, if you think about it, would be the lamest way to use time-travel).  The whole concept of one thing retroactively making another thing worse is ludicrous when discussing most things.  It’s not like when an iPhone 6 comes out and all of a sudden your 4s sucks, then when you upgrade they take away your unlimited data package that you’ve had for years and make you pay extra for more data (it still hurts, Verizon), the 4s was still a great phone for its time.

We are talking about the enjoyment of entertainment.  If you enjoyed it for x amount of years, then the prequels came out and you were disappointed, you still enjoyed it for x amount of years, and can still continue to enjoy it.  Let me let you in on a little secret using the trusty parenthesis (you can still like the originals despite the existence of the prequels).  If you hate the prequels that much, then just pretend they don’t exist and move on with your life.  Ignorance is bliss.

“Have you SEEN the prequels? They are terrible!”

While this is a pretty subjective argument, I will admit that they aren’t as good as the original trilogy, but keep in mind that the originals literally changed American culture.  There is no way the prequels could live up to the benchmark set by the original trilogy.  That being said, I did like several aspects of the prequels and how they changed the overall tone of the series.  Sure, Episode II is pretty hard to watch, and both Anakins are pretty annoying, and Jar Jar is probably the bane of your existence, but they aren’t a cinematic holocaust that should be tried under the Geneva Convention either.  A friend of mine watched the movie in episodic order with his son who had no idea that Anakin became Darth Vader, as he watched the third film when Anakin finally succumbs to the Dark Side, he wept.  That’s pretty powerful.  Maybe we are just jaded.

"What do yousa mean yousa hate mesa?

“What do yousa mean yousa hate mesa?

While certain additions are frustrating (midichlorians, Watto, Jar Jar, Boss Nass, Gungans in general, Sebulba, etc.), the prequels actually add some interesting dynamics to the overall story, especially between Anakin and Luke.  The lives of the two are almost mirror images of each other. In Episode I, Anakin destroys the Trade Federation’s droid control ship, though somewhat unintentionally, while Luke destroys the Death Star in Episode IV. Both are master mechanics as well as pilots. Both are padawans of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Both are drawn to adventure (and both are incredibly whiny).   Both lose their right hand in a lightsaber duel with a Sith lord. Palpatine tempts Anakin to kill Dooku and join him, and also tempts Luke to kill Vader and join him. These events usually happen in the same order in their respective trilogy as well.

Although their lives are full of similar events, they are also inverted in their outcomes. Instead of Anakin being the saving figure that brings balance to the Force, it is Luke that becomes the New Hope for the galaxy. While Anakin’s victory at Naboo ultimately started a turn of events ending with the organization of the evil Galactic Empire and end of the Jedi Order, Luke’s victory at the Battle of Yavin ultimately leads to the defeat of the Empire and the beginnings of a new Republic and new Jedi Order.  With the inclusion of the prequel trilogy, the story shifts from Luke’s heroic journey to the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.  Sure, he could have done some things better, but that is one hell of a story.  Also, since the fans hated Jar Jar so much, Lucas had him be the catalyst for Palpatine’s final ascension to tyrannical emperor.  He literally gave you a reason to hate him.

"Redemption is a bitch" *heavy breathing* - Darth Vader

“Redemption is a bitch” *heavy breathing* – Darth Vader

Prior to the Disney sale, these movies were wholly his.  As much as I hate cheesy metaphors, he was the artist and these movies were his canvas.  If he felt like he wanted to retouch his work, that’s his prerogative.  I even liked most of the changes in the special editions, despite the obvious CGI.  Was it necessary to make these changes?  Not at all, but as a life long fan I can’t hold it against him for wanting to continue to work on his creation.  Who knows, maybe in another 10 or 15 years they will release another special edition collection where they re-CGI everything from this special edition and the prequels.

I am not saying you have to like the prequels or the special editions, but he doesn’t really owe us anything.  He made several of my all time favorite movies and some of my favorite characters, so if anything I’ve only paid my debt by buying countless toys (for my sons?), movies, cartoons, and comics.  It’s about time we stop burning effigies of Lucas in the streets, appreciate the worlds he created, and look forward to what J. J. Abrams is doing with the property.

Empire Strikes Back Short Film “Black Angel” Rediscovered

The Sword and Sorcery short film that released alongside Empire Strikes Back has been rediscovered. Black Angel originally screened before Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back in the UK, Scandinavia, and Australia before mysteriously vanishing and staying that way for three decades (it wasn’t shown in the US because we had stopped screening short films before the feature film by this time).

In 1979 George Lucas commissioned 20th Century Fox to create a short film that would fit the overall tone of Star Wars (apparently the short film that screened before Star Wars: a New Hope was had a pretty jarring tone).  Robert Christian, the Academy Award winning set designer and the man that made R2-D2 and the lightsaber hilts, had written a script about a knight that was traveling home from the Crusades when he was transported to a fantasy realm in order to save a princess and wanted to get a chance at directing a film.

The script was sent to Lucas who gave it the go ahead as long as Christian was given full creative control and that Lucas would be the first to view the finished product.  So with a $25,000 budget, Christian went to Scotland and started work on Black Angel with an 11 person crew.

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When he completed the film, his editor informed him that there wasn’t quite enough footage to meet the 25 minute requirement so Christian implemented a process called “step-printing,” which is a slow-motion effect.  You’ve probably seen it used because George Lucas liked it so much he used it when Luke met Vader in the Force Cave on Dagobah (Reading that back I realize that if you haven’t actually SEEN Star Wars that last sentence sounded absolutely ridiculous).  After a screening by George Lucas (who showed it to his friend Stephen Spielberg) Black Angel shipped out with Empire Strikes Back in Europe and Australia.  Then it was apparently transported to a mythical realm in order to save a princess or something and was gone for over three decades.

Christian’s original negative was kept in Boss Film Studios, but when it went bankrupt they got rid of everything (instead of, I don’t know, letting everyone know that they should come get there stuff). The same thing happened at Fox’s Studio Rank, which shut down at the same time. 

Somehow, a copy was found at 20th Century Fox’s rival, Universal Studios in 2011 (although no one is really sure how it got there) and the archivist got in touch with Christian.  David Tanaka, a visual effects editor at Pixar, and Brice Parker, a producer at Athena Studios, told Christian that they wanted to digitally restore Black Angel for screening at the 36th Mill Valley Film Festival.  So that’s how Black Angel made it back to theaters 33 years after being lost to the void.

90311390-a493-11e3-91c0-bd443567b9d1_Jorge-Martinez-Restoration-Artist-with-Athena-Studios-works-on-BLack-Angel

“That’s great and all, but how do I get to see it?”

Christian wants to release Black Angel to the general populace later this year either on Netflix or iTunes, but he would really like it to make it back with Empire Strikes Back on a DVD re-release.  “I would like it to be with Star Wars, because it’s history. It belongs there,” Christian said.

I know it’s a late 70’s Sword and Sorcery flick, and the production levels are pretty low due to budgetary restraints, (Christian used the majority of the budget on big horses) but I am definitely looking forward to it’s release later this year, if only for the historical significance with the Star Wars franchise.

Bottom Left: the majority of the budget

Bottom Left: the majority of the budget

 

 

Disney Acquires Rights to Indiana Jones

Everyone’s favorite Nazi-punching archeologist has found a new home (presumably after finally being fired by the university after numerous absences, Federal investigations, and classromm disruptions).

Disney, who already owned the production rights to the Indiana Jones franchise since the purchase of Lucasfilm, bought the marketing and distribution rights as well. The acquiring of the movie making trifecta it is much more likely that we will be on the receiving in of another Indiana Jones movie in the future. Paramount previously owned the rights for marketing and distribution, and will receive a cut of future profits.

A lot of people were less than impressed by the most recent outing of Jones and son, but Disney has been taking once-popular but waning franchises and turning them into money factories (looking at you Marvel), so here’s to hoping they can keep the magic going with both of Lucas’ beloved franchises.

Star Wars Part 2 – How Star Wars Influenced Pop Culture

Last week we looked at the cultural influences that impacted Star Wars in its inception. This week we are going to focus on the impact Star Wars has had on the entertainment industry and American culture.

At the end of last week’s article we were talking about Lucas’ desire to have WWII style dogfights in Star Wars. The norm for space battles pre-Star Wars was two stationary ships firing tiny lasers until one disappeared, but Lucas wanted the ships to be racing around in space and firing on each other.

While making the film Lucas ran into some problems; the technology needed to do many of the special effects, including the space dogfight, did not exist. To solve this problem Lucas brought together a group of special effects engineers who were later dubbed Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).

During this time period if a director wanted a shot of a ship flying through space he would have to combine a variety of pieces of film, all shot separately. Star Wars had about 350 shots that all had seven to eight different film elements. This was impossible to do with the time frame and complexity of the shots that Lucas wanted. Lucas made it known to the fledgling ILM that the status quo of space battles weren’t going to fly (pun intended). To bring Lucas’ vision of ships diving and weaving to fruition, the team built their own camera system called the motion-control camera.

ILM is by far one of the most prominent companies created by Lucas. Throughout the years the company has made huge leaps in technology and has helped changed the way special effects and films are made. As mentioned before, in 1977 ILM revolutionized special effects for Star Wars. In 1978 Lucas set up a Computer Division that would explore new ways to use computers in editing and digital imaging. Lucas sold the rights to the part of the Computer Division that specialized in rendering software to Steve Jobs in 1986; this group became the basis of Pixar Animation.

They are also responsible for the first computer generated sequence in Star Trek II, the first computer generated character in Young Sherlock Holmes, and the first computer graphics main character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Other ILM achievements include its breakthrough work on the movie Forrest Gump where they manipulated archival footage so that Forrest Gump would interact seamlessly with historical figures. Altogether ILM has done work on more than 300 films, including the Hunger Games, the Avengers, and the Star Trek reboot, since its inception and has won countless awards.

While ILM specializes in special effects, Skywalker Sound specializes in sound effects. It also came out of the development of Star Wars and has changed the industry. It has also changed how we watch (and hear) films. Skywalker Sound won two Academy Awards for its sound effects in Saving Private Ryan. The first sequence in Saving Private Ryan is said to have set an incredibly high standard for sound design in film. Besides films, Skywalker Sound has also been a part of video games and other entertainment avenues. Overall Skywalker Sound has been credited on almost 700 movies, and video games including Wall-e, and the Indiana Jones series.

THX was also developed by Lucas. You are probably most familiar with their Bwwwaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh sound effect that plays in the movie theater before your high expectations are mercilessly shattered (not to be confused with the soundtrack to almost every Michael Bay movie, but the end result is the same).

"Motivation? Picture the hopes and dreams of a lifelong Transformers fan, and then blow it the hell up!"

“Motivation? Picture the hopes and dreams of a lifelong Transformers fan, and then blow it the hell up!”

Lucas believed that the movie theaters of the time did not have the sound technology to be able to fully realize the filmmaker’s vision, so he started THX as a type of quality control standard so the theaters would deliver a consistent level of performance. THX developed a standard for how theaters should be designed, and how sound quality should be delivered to the audience.

Star Wars has also affected the world of literature. There have been well over 250 books written about the Star Wars universe. While not all of these are official canon, most of them are. These books take place in the Extended Universe (EU). The EU extends well beyond the timeline of the movie. Some stories go back thousands of years in books like Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, while others tell what was happening in between the films. Shadows of the Empire, for instance, explains some plot points that happened in between Empire Strikes Back (ESB) and Return of the Jedi (RotJ). These books even continue the stories of the heroes for decades, even centuries past the events in the movies. Hundreds of writers have contributed to the series, and newer books even follow a timeline similar to ours. This timeline is separated into two parts BBY (Before Battle of Yavin) and ABY (After Battle of Yavin).

The companies Lucas started to complete his vision have been powerhouses in the entertainment industry. But the house that Lucas built has not only affected the entertainment realm, but also pop-culture in general.

If you follow Star Wars at all, you have probably heard of the 501st Legion. The 501st (Vader’s Fist) is one of the premiere costuming groups in the world. The 501st Legion, which was founded in 1997, is also a nonprofit organization. You can request them to come to promotions or events. They will not receive payment, however, if you wish to give money to them they encourage you to give a donation in the name of the Legion to charities such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation. One of the interesting things about the Legion is its inclusion in official canon. The 501st was made official canon in the book Survivor’s Quest and also in the novelization of RotS (Revenge of the Sith) as the group assigned to Anakin Skywalker during the destruction of the Jedi temple. The group was even given its own story in the LucasArts game (and my personal favorite) Star Wars Battlefront II.

The 501st is pretty well known, but have you ever heard of the Temple of the Jedi Order? The Temple of the Jedi Order is an actual religion that follows Jediism. The Force, the mystical energy (or blood disorder), in the Star Wars universe is considered the Force of Living Creation in Jediism. Jediism, to its followers, is not the same as the Jedi in the films or EU. Instead, it is considered to be a living, breathing religion that can be seen at work throughout history. The Temple of the Jedi Order even has a charter as a religious institution in Texas.

According to their website, “Jediism is an interfaith initiative and a syncretistic religion – a faith involving elements from two or more religions including Taoism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Mysticism, and many other religions’ universal truths, a combination of martial arts and the Code of Chivalry.” Jediists claim to be more about these religions than the actual films. Also they say that Jediism is just another name for the ancient religions and that Jedi have been around for 5,000 years under many names including Buddha, Jesus, Martin Luther King, etc.

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You’re welcome.

They believe that a real Jedi can be a part of any religion, and they have 5 Rites or Traditions: The Jedi Rite, which is only Jediism, the Judeo-Christian Rite, the Buddhist Rite, the Pagan Rite, the Spiritual Humanist Rite. Jedi believe in the inherent worth of every person, in a culture that is free of discrimination, the sanctity of the human person, and in a just society among other things. They believe that since these things are inherently good that one could be a Jedi and a part of another faith. The Jedi Creed, which is their statement of belief, is an adaptation of St. Francis of Assisi’s Prayer. Their three central tenets are Knowledge, Focus, and Wisdom.

Lucas has created a saga that has combined myth, westerns, soap operas, science fiction, and fantasy. The companies he created to make Star Wars have left a huge mark on the entertainment industry, and have made some of the most important improvements in technology for filmmaking. Religions and fan clubs have been formed out his ideas, and his influence on American culture is immeasurable. Even if you hate the movies and anything else Star Wars you cannot deny the power it has over the minds of people of all ages.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds now that the rights to this juggernaut of a franchise rest in the hands of Disney. Next week we will look at the speculation surrounding the upcoming sequels, TV shows, and video games, as Star Wars is gearing up to make another pass at our cultural conscience.

Star Wars Part 1- How Pop Culture Influenced Star Wars

It has been a while now since Star Wars was originally released in 1977. Several generations have grown up pretending to have the Force, and playing with Lightsabers. I can’t even walk through an automatic door at a grocery store without subtly moving my hand to pretend that I opened it (seriously, just ask my wife). Few movies have affected American pop culture more than Star Wars, even after thirty-five years the franchise is still going strong.

Unless you have been on sabbatical from the internet for the past few months you have probably heard that Disney now owns the rights to the Star Wars franchise, and that they are gearing up to release several new movies, TV shows, and video games.

What this means for Disney? They paid quite a bit up front ($4.5 billion), but they have laid the foundation for their money-printing factory, and it’s about to be open for business. What this means for us? We will have more than enough Star Wars for the foreseeable future.

Taking a page from the Star Wars playbook, this will be a trilogy of articles (I might even revisit them in a few months, edit them, and make people lose faith in me and my artistic vision). This article will cover the influences of the original film, the second article will take a look at Star Wars’ influence on American pop-culture, and in the third article we will look at the future plans for the franchise.

Star Wars was written during a time when gritty, dark, films like Dirty Harry were popular. George Lucas decided that he wanted to make a film that had its roots in myth and legend. It was 1973 and George Lucas had just made millions on his first big picture, American Graffiti. He was the hot new talent in Hollywood, and had decided that he wanted to pay respect to the old sci-fi serials from his childhood like Buck Rogers. Science fiction was really out of style during this time period, but Lucas wanted to bring back the simplicity and the adventure from this genre.

For the main storyline Lucas borrowed certain plot points from Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Hipsters will tell you that Star Wars is a complete rip-off of Hidden Fortress, but hipsters really love generalizations and asshattery mixed with a smattering of condescension so we won’t really worry about their opinion right now. That being said, it is easy to see where certain parts influenced Lucas while creating Star Wars.

"I liked Star Wars better the first time, when it was called Hidden Fortress... you've probably never heard of it.

“I liked Star Wars better the first time, when it was called Hidden Fortress… you’ve probably never heard of it.

Star Wars saturation into pop culture has led many people to refer to the saga as an “American Myth,” which is appropriate since the movies are steeped in mythological archetypes and story plots. While writing the third draft of Star Wars: a New Hope (ANH), George Lucas became fascinated with Joseph Campbell’s book on myth and heroic archetypes called Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is probably one of the most obvious influences on ANH.

Joseph Campbell believed that all heroes throughout culture and history contain similar elements; he calls this the monomyth. While there are variations from story to story, each myth has similar elements such as the call to adventure, trials, supernatural aid, and in the end the hero reaches an “apotheosis.” We won’t go to in-depth into this concept, but this is one of the reasons the story resonates so well for so many people. Side note: if you would like to know more about monomyth you can read about it in Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I will warn you… it’s really dry.

Luke: seen here reading over Hero of a Thousand Faces

Luke: seen here reading over Hero of a Thousand Faces

Star Wars also had elements of westerns and WWII dogfights. When you look at Han Solo you get the feeling he is a cowboy; he wears his gun low on his hip like a gunslinger, struts around like John Wayne, and depending which version you are watching, is totally at ease shooting someone under the table and tipping the barkeep for his troubles.

One of the Lucas’ key visions for this film was the idea of two ships flying through space shooting at each other, which was unheard of at the time – think Star Trek: the Original Series with stationary ships firing at each other. So while Lucas was working on his script he began to watch, tape, and edit dogfight sequences to get a feel how space ships would move.

This desire to have a WWII style dogfight would eventually lead to the creation of the special effects juggernaut, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Next week we will take a closer look at ILM, as well as the other companies Lucas started to create his vision, and how these affected American pop-culture.

In Defense of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

So far in the “In Defense Of” series we have looked at why Lando Calrissian was the most morally astute character in the Star Wars saga, and the necessity of the over-the-top Batman voice in the Dark Knight trilogy. Today we look at a more controversial topic. One that I am sure will draw some ire from friends and enemies alike – a defense of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull takes place nearly two decades after the events of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade during the rising tensions of the Cold War. Indy gets entangled with Russian KGB, that kid from Holes, and SPOILER ALERT – Aliens (two of these things makes sense, the other was in Transformers).

To be fair, my argument is not that this movie is a great movie that stands toe-to-toe with the originals, but that it is a fun adventure movie that pays homage to the originals while attempting to introduce Dr. Jones to a newer audience. For some reason or another, this movie drew an inordinate amount of fury from several groups of people. This would be the third time Indiana would face off against a large group of hateful fanatics (not counting the books, video games, and the Young Indiana Jones series).

From what I can tell, there are two primary reasons fans rejected this film: Aliens and Absurdity. We will look at each of these “problems” individually.

The previous films in the series all dealt with the power of religious artifacts. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark we follow Indiana Jones trying to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazi’s are able to. In the Temple of Doom we see him trying to recover the Sankara Stones, powerful stones that burst into flames when placed together, much to Mola Ram’s dismay. The Last Crusade follows Indy as he tries to locate the Holy Grail. These artifacts are based on Judaism, Christianity, and possibly Hinduism.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, BOOM, aliens! With this decision Stephen Spielberg Kali Ma’d the collective heart of fanboys everywhere.

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Spielberg: Bottom Left.

How could aliens possibly fit into the narrative after the focus has been primarily on religious artifacts? Well, if you have watched History Channel at all over the last few years, or are a fan of Internet meme’s, you will know exactly how they fit.

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Ancient alien theory, also known as the paleocontact hypothesis (this is possibly the name of a Big Bang Theory episode as well), suggests that in prehistoric times aliens made contact with humanity. This contact not only affected our cultural evolution and technology, but also our religions. This theory suggests that most, if not all, deities were actually extraterrestrials whose advanced technology was mistaken by primitive man as evidence of their divinity.

Regardless of the plausibility of the theory, it certainly provides the necessary context for the use of aliens in the film.

Does it work? Yes. With the use of the ancient alien theory, they were able to stay true to the franchise and use a “religious” artifact, while not having to resort to another Judeo-Christian artifact, which would have undoubtedly led to just as much criticism.

Now let us look at the second criticism – the absurdity.

“You know why this movie sucks? Indiana Jones survived an atomic blast in a REFRIGERATOR! People used to die in those WITHOUT nuclear holocausts!”

I have heard this argument frequently over the years. Detractors point to this particular scene to show just how ridiculous the series has become, and they appear to have a point. Except they totally don’t.

The Indiana Jones films grind their teeth on ridiculousness, and that is what makes the series so enjoyable. If you are the person who felt that the atomic refrigerator was so unrealistic that it was a departure for the series, then how do you feel about the scene in Temple of Doom when Indiana Jones and company jump out of a plane in an inflatable raft? The Mythbusters covered this myth, and you know what? They totally would have died, and that’s without sliding down a treacherous mountain and going over a Niagara Fallsish type waterfall after the fact.

The absurdity doesn’t stop there though!

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There is Indiana Jones hanging out with a knight that is over 700 years old, and no one bats an eye!

Out of those three scenarios guess which one is actually possible? Surviving the nuclear blast in a lead-lined refrigerator is totally doable. The guys over at Reel Physics break down how it is possible that Indiana Jones survived the blast in the refrigerator using some sort of witchcraft known as “mathematics,” and the only part of that scenario that is completely impossible is the refrigerator flying over the car.

Think about that for a second. The one scene that has literally generated a term for how ridiculous something is (“nuking the fridge” is now the same thing as “jumping the shark” from Happy Days), is physcially possible.

I think the problem with the film isn’t the film itself, but how freaking cynical we have become. We don’t want fun action/adventure films; we want hyper-realistic films. Think about our superhero films. Those are impossible stories, and we want them to be as realistic as they can be. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Dark Knight trilogy, but not all movies have to have that sense of realism, and not all movies have to be Oscar worthy.

The Indiana Jones movies are not supposed to be a realistic look at the exploits of an academic archeologist, they are supposed to be light-hearted adventure tales, and we used to get that. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is cut from the same cloth as the originals, we are just too cynical as a society to be okay with that anymore.

So what do you think? Have I drank too much of the Blood of Kali? Am I now in need of a torch to the side to snap out of it? Sound off, nerds!