YES, I sat there with a huge smile on my face, all the way through. No doubt many of you watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens this weekend will be suffering exactly the same face-ache afterwards.
The reviews (including yesterday’s excellent piece in these pages from Ross Miller) are generally agreed on director JJ Abrams’ achievement, in particular his blend of the past and the coming future of the Star Wars mythology. The vigour and skill of the actors playing the new heroes bodes well for the next few films.
I’ll also confess to a few uncontrollable emotions while watching the new movie’s encounters between Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. I’m sure that many can easily measure forty years from the first time they sat, enraptured in the darkness, as the dusty universe of Star Wars enveloped us.
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That’s a lot of growing-up, change, gain and loss. Ford and Fisher are given enough screentime (and retain enough acting chops) to embody all that, in a slightly creaky but mostly elegant and poignant way.
But four decades also allows you to ask different, deeper and wider questions about a beloved movie franchise. When you’ve been caught too many times by the real world, escapism like this can’t hold its spell for long. You’ll have your own topics rumbling away inside.
The obvious one comes in the very title of the new movie: what is “The Force” supposed to be, anyway? The original inspiration for George Lucas – remember, a prime product of sixties California – is by now exhaustively documented.
In a 1999 interview in Time, Lucas explained: “I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct – that there is a greater mystery out there...
“I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.”
It’s intriguing the way Lucas brings God into the picture here – given how essentially Buddhist are the workings of the Force (yes, I noticed that sounds a little Yoda-esque…). In A New Hope, Obi Wan-Kenobi calls The Force “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
This is a precise description of “ch’i” in Zen: and ch’i makes its presence known in the universe through yin and yang, or what is called in Star Wars “the light side” and “the dark side”.
The Zen masters say that the human struggle, and the point of spiritual practice is to harmonise these absolute forces – thus the famous black-and-white Zen symbol, with a drop of each in each. It’s not that one should vanquish the other – that would be unrealistic to the complexity of our lives.
When you get this (and I’ve hung out with enough Buddhists to eventually get this), it’s amazing how integral it is to Star Wars, and particularly to the new movie. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but there are certain moments to watch out for in The Force Awakens.
Those protagonists in whom “the Force is strong” do an odd thing before they successfully resist their opponents. Their faces fall into repose and calm, as if they are abandoning their very selves.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker asks,”How am I to know the good side from the bad?” Yoda answers: ”You will know. When you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack.”
Anyone who’s done martial arts, particuarly aikido, will recognise this as “accessing ch’i” – but it’s not done through egoistic aggression, indeed the very opposite.
I’ve always enjoyed the titanic crash-bang of Star Wars’ battle sequences – always with the proviso that we have enough “Earth Wars” to deal with, never mind ones “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. But the etymology of the term Jedi makes it clear what the spiritual function of these battle sequences are, spurred by each new wave of totalitarian menace (this time, they’re called the “First Order”).
In ‘The Far East of Star Wars’ by Walter Robinson, he notes that Lucas derived “Jedi” from the phrase “Jidai-geki” (‘the era of play’), the name for samurai-inspired settings or themes used in Japanese drama.
So, enjoy the extraordinary action, the X-Wings and the planet-sized killer weapons, this weekend. But at least keep the possibility in mind that it’s all ultimately being deployed as a means towards your spiritual enlightenment – in particular, the need to master the enduring polarities of existence. (If it was called “Star Peace”, would it get you through the door? Exactly.)
The other deep pulse I noticed in myself, which watching The Force Awakens, is that even bigger cosmic question: Exactly where are all these aliens, anyway?
Before he blasted off into space, Britain’s latest astronaut Tim Peake asserted that “I would be very surprised if there wasn’t life elsewhere in the universe…There is a high chance we will soon discover there was – or is – life in our solar system.”
Compared to the elaborate bipeds, quadrupeds and teeth-bared tentacular monsters of the new Star Wars movie, the discovery of a viable microbe (alive or fossilised) on Mars could seem bathetic. But there are civilisation-bending consequences whether we do, or whether we don’t.
If we do, then it’s a clear indication that biological life is a much more likely possibility throughout the universe than previously estimated. If the laws of biological emergence hold true even in our own tiny solar system, then it may only be the vast distances between sentient, technological species that stops us communicating with each other.
Or it may be that physicist Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox holds: as soon as any civilisation gets to the weapons stage, it blows itself up before it can go interstellar. Are we going to defy that? Maybe Star Wars, as spiritual education, is even more useful than we know.
If we don’t discover evidence of biological life in our solar system, or in any other one, then the implications are even more stark. That fact that we are here at all may be one of the rarest events in the universe.
The Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery tries to bend this towards the biggest possible picture of human destiny. If we really are alone, he writes in Here On Earth, then our ultimate task is “to nurture the spark of life on one dead sphere after another”.
And to enact that ultimate task, we probably need to stop choking ourselves to death by means of our own industrial filth and inefficiency, and apply our evident ingenuity to the longest of long-term goals. Alfred Russell Wallace called it “perfecting the human spirit in the vastness of the Universe”. That’ll do for me.
Space Cadets For A Sustainable Earth, And A Lively Cosmos! Nope, I can’t see that banner flying over the heads of an environmental march anytime soon. But we should give thanks to George Lucas, JJ Abrams, or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – indeed, to much of the science-fictional output of Hollywood.
They sit us down with our fizz and hotdogs, and point us towards some powerful questions, under the guise of swashbuckling space-opera.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that, in The Force Awakens, Han Solo gets to say the line that has appeared in every Star Wars movie so far: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
The ethical implication is: should we suppress these bad feelings about our collective direction – or should we act? Something else to ponder, as you pop the popcorn.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in movie theatres now. Pat Kane is a writer and musician (www.patkane.today).