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Star Wars Episodes IV–VI

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Star Wars: A Cultural Phenomenon

Themes

The Mystery and Power of the Force

As Ben and Yoda explain it to Luke, the Force is an energy field created and sustained by all the life in the universe. The Force is omnipresent, binding the universe and everything and everyone in it together. It can be manipulated and controlled by a trained Jedi (and by their evil counterparts, the Sith) and is the source of a Jedi’s remarkable powers. The Force can also take a more active role, guiding a Jedi’s actions, as when Luke allows the Force to guide his aim and destroy the Death Star. The Force is largely represented as nurturing and benign in nature, but it has a dark side as well. This dark side, the side of aggression, anger, and hatred, empowers the Emperor and his apprentice, Darth Vader. The Force provides a spiritual dimension to the action of the trilogy and has been the subject of much speculation and theorizing by fans of the films. George Lucas is careful not to spell out in any specific way what the Force is and what, exactly, the Jedi believe.

As Lucas presents it in the Star Wars series, the Force is a rather vague entity, serving primarily as a vocabulary for good and evil and as a way to explain the “magical” powers of the Jedi. Clearly, however, the Force cannot be identified with the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, as it is impersonal, created by life and not the creator of life. Rather, the Force is a new-agey amalgam of various eastern religious and western philosophical sources. One such source is Taoism, an ancient, nontheistic (without a personal deity) Chinese religion that teaches simplicity and conformity to the Tao, or “Way,” of nature. In the concept of “light” and “dark” sides of the Force, there is an echo of Manicheism, an ancient near-Eastern religion that claimed the physical universe was the result of the combat between two equally matched spiritual forces, one good, the other evil. There are also elements of Romantic nature worship (as in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson), Pantheism (a belief that the universe itself is God), and Western-influenced Buddhism in the way characters speak of the Force. Yoda’s lecture to Luke on the importance of mindfulness in Empire is reminiscent of Buddhist teaching, for example. These are just a few interpretations, and though the Force is clearly central to the action of the Star Wars films, it ultimately remains mysterious. Lucas seems to intend a general life force with which one can be in harmony or conflict, and the details can be safely left to the imagination.

The Superiority of Nature over Technology

The Jedi strive to live in simplicity and in harmony with nature. They are not averse to technology, but they do not rely on it alone, at the expense of their own senses and feelings. When Luke encounters Ben and Yoda in their homes, he finds these Jedi masters living austere lives, close to the land. And when Luke must destroy the Death Star with one shot, Ben’s voice encourages him to shut off his targeting computer, relying on his own senses, his intuition, and his connection to the Force. A stark contrast to the way of the Jedi is the behavior of their dark-side counterparts, the Sith. Darth Vader is, as Ben puts it, “more machine than man,” a walking hybrid with robotic limbs and built-in life support. The Emperor’s deformed body seems to be in revolt against life itself, and he is seen exclusively in an overwhelmingly manmade, technological environment, the new Death Star. Clearly then, there is something soul destroying in an over-reliance on technology. Significantly, Darth Vader’s last request is for Luke to remove his mask, so that Vader may see Luke directly, without the technological filter.

Nature proves to be superior to technology when the Ewoks rise up against the Empire on Endor. Despite the primitive nature of the Ewoks’ weapons—sticks, stones, arrows, and spears—they are able to defeat the technologically advanced Imperial troopers, with their walking tanks and laser blasters. Lucas himself has said that he intended this sequence to be reminiscent of the Vietnam War, in which the less technologically advanced side was ultimately victorious. Again, Lucas is not trying to say that technology is bad in itself. Indeed, this would be an odd thing to claim in films that are themselves the product of the most advanced technology available at the time (some characters are completely computer-generated in certain scenes). After all, R2-D2 and C-3PO, two of the best and most beloved characters in the films, are, by their very nature, completely products of technology. Lucas’s point is that we must not allow the machines that surround us to make us less than human ourselves, as Darth Vader does but Luke does not.

The Myth of the Hero’s Destiny

Joseph Campbell, in his classic study of world mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, makes the case that all mythology about heroes is really a symbolic retelling of a basic “monomyth” about the growth and personal development of the individual. Drawing on the work of psychologists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, Campbell argues that the hero of myth must struggle against society and culture as he finds them in order to define himself both outwardly and inwardly. Outwardly, the hero struggles to find his place and role in society even as he struggles inwardly to understand his own nature. Symbolically, these struggles take the form of an orphaned hero who discovers the secret of his birth (often that he is of royal blood) and must make his way in the world. Along the way, the hero encounters resistance in the form of monsters he must battle (which symbolize his own fears or failings), and he receives aid from wise older counselors. Ultimately, the hero aspires to rise to full maturity by taking his place as a figure of patriarchal authority, often by displacing or destroying a faulty father figure who occupies the hero’s rightful place. Classic examples of heroes who fit Campbell’s pattern include King Arthur and Oedipus, though in each case the specifics and outcomes of the hero’s quest will vary.

The case of Luke Skywalker can easily be seen to fit this mythic pattern. Luke is an orphan, uncertain of his place in the world and even of his own identity. He is cast adrift but is guided along his path by Ben and by Yoda, who share the wise elder counselor function. Luke faces many adversaries, but his greatest challenge is in learning self-mastery, and with each battle Luke grows in wisdom and self-understanding. In the end, however, Luke must face his own father in order to take his father’s (abandoned) place as a Jedi Knight and as the symbolic head of his family. Note that Luke fights Vader in the end primarily to defend his sister, Leia. Ultimately, the son overthrows, and saves, the father, achieving the full maturity and goodness that the failed father figure could never achieve himself. In this sense, then, the story of Luke Skywalker is the story of any man’s maturation and self-definition, told symbolically through the structure of myth and adventure.

Lucas himself claims to have been influenced by Campbell’s ideas as he wrote. However, according to Campbell’s theory, such influence would not have had to have been conscious, as he claims that all mythic stories work in essentially the same way. Incidentally, later editions of The Hero with a Thousand Faces have featured a picture of Luke Skywalker prominently on the cover.

Motifs

Color Used for Characterization

Certain characters in the Star Wars trilogy are closely identified with certain colors, with Darth Vader’s all-black outfit being the most obvious example. Vader’s black makes a stark contrast with Luke’s all-white clothes in A New Hope, hearkening back to the serial westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, in which the good guys had white hats and the bad guys wore black. Leia wears an all-white costume in A New Hope as well, signaling the goodness of her character and linking her visually with Luke, her (unknown) brother. The Jedi Masters Yoda and Obi-Wan favor brown, a warm color recalling a monk’s robes and the earth itself. Han Solo, meanwhile, wears a white shirt with a black vest for much of the trilogy, in an apt reference to the initial ambivalence of his character. Luke’s outfits continue to emphasize his characterization in this way throughout the trilogy. In Empire, for example, when Luke journeys to Bespin to rescue his friends, his fatigues are a light gray, showing that Luke has traveled a bit from the innocent idealism of his youth and that he has placed himself in peril of straying to the dark side. By the time we get to Return of the Jedi, Luke has adopted an all-black wardrobe, though this does not mean that he has gone over to the dark side. Instead, the black robes he wears recall a priest’s garb and link him visually to his father, with whose fate he is so deeply concerned.

Orchestral Soundtrack

John Williams’s thematic compositions for the Star Wars trilogy have been justly acclaimed, and the films use the soundtrack expertly to heighten the drama and intensify the mood. In many ways, the full orchestral accompaniment provided by Williams and powerfully performed by the London Symphony Orchestra is a throwback to the symphonic scores of classic Hollywood films, at a time when pop music was being used more and more in film soundtracks. There is an intensity and excitement in the Star Wars music, especially in the heroic opening theme, with its instantly recognizable fanfare, which contributes greatly to film’s overall effect. Another dramatic musical moment is the Imperial march introduced in The Empire Strikes Back as the theme music for Vader’s pursuit of Han and Leia. The march’s rhythm is driving and relentless, capturing Vader’s own relentless progress through the story. Williams’s score can also be delicate and humorous, introducing themes for tender moments and minor characters and mixing in passages from the main themes in minor keys to emphasize crucial moments of dramatic tension.

Speed

Although it may be hard to believe now, one of the things that set the Star Wars movies apart from the very beginning was the speed with which the stories moved and the speed with which certain scenes took place. Each of the films has at least one set-piece moment that is meant to make the audience members grab their armrests to steady themselves. In A New Hope, it is the trench runs during the attack on the Death Star—this scene was like nothing else that had come before, and it had theater viewers swaying as if they were on a roller coaster. Though this scene is comparatively slow by today’s standards, it is the reason no action movie seems complete now without one super-fast air trip shot from the pilot’s point of view. The Empire Strikes Back featured Han’s vertiginous flight through the asteroid field, while Return of the Jedi sent Luke and Leia zooming through the forest of Endor on speeder bikes. Such scenes had many critics comparing the films, disparagingly, to amusement park thrill rides, but for George Lucas, such a comparison was hardly a criticism—more like an indication that he had achieved the effect he was after.

Symbols

Luke’s Cybernetic Hand

At the very end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s right hand, sliced off by Darth Vader during their duel on Bespin, is replaced by a cybernetic prosthesis that looks, on the surface, just like a real hand. Symbolically, however, Luke’s mechanical hand moves him one step closer to being like his father, a full-fledged hybrid of man and machine. Early in Return of the Jedi, we are reminded of Luke’s hand when it is damaged during the fight on Jabba’s barge. Rather than having the hand repaired, Luke simply pulls a black glove over it, and from then on, the glove serves as a reminder of Luke’s connection to his father. At the climax of Jedi, Luke beats Vader to the ground and slices off Vader’s own right hand in a flurry of blows. Vader cries out in pain, but only wires and circuitry dangle from the wound. Luke looks in horror at his own right hand and back to his father, making the connection once again and realizing that he too has the capacity within him to turn to the dark side. With his father’s example before him, however, Luke abstains from revenge, becoming a true Jedi Knight.

Lightsabers

The lightsaber is, as Ben teaches Luke, the traditional weapon of the Jedi. In contrast to a blaster, Ben tells Luke, the lightsaber is elegant and precise, an eminently “civilized” weapon. By passing Luke’s father’s lightsaber on to Luke, Ben is beginning Luke’s initiation and symbolically placing him in his father’s footsteps. When we add in the fact that the final stage of a Jedi’s apprenticeship is the creation of his own lightsaber, the symbolism of the gift becomes even clearer. In order to attain full maturity, Luke will have to release his father’s lightsaber and take up his own—symbolically moving from a position of dependence on the father to a position of independence. Of course, Luke doesn’t relinquish his father’s lightsaber willingly, as it is literally severed from him by Vader, who is, of course, the very father Luke wishes to replace.

A Freudian interpretation would read the lightsabers in this scene as phallic symbols and Luke’s amputation as a symbolic castration by his father, but one needn’t go quite so far to see the symbolism. Once again, Luke’s two father figures are placed in opposition, with Ben as the giving father and Vader as the domineering, taking father. Ultimately, Luke does create his own lightsaber to replace the lost one, and this is a major step on his path to becoming a Jedi and his own man. Note that another example of the expressive use of color involves the lightsabers: Jedi lightsabers are cool blue, whereas Vader’s Sith blade is angry red. Luke’s own blade is green, perhaps in allegiance to the green-skinned Yoda who trained him.

The Death Star

The exact symbolic meaning of the Death Star is ambiguous, though it is certainly a symbol of evil. On one hand, the Death Star is a virtually blasphemous instance of the worship of technology over nature. The station is the size of a moon, an artificial world with enough firepower to obliterate a real planet with one shot. When its commander makes the mistake of calling the station “the ultimate power in the universe” in Darth Vader’s presence, however, Vader swiftly corrects him, first by reminding him that his “technological terror” is nothing compared to the Force, and then by force-choking the man into submission. On the other hand, Vader himself is something of a “technological terror,” and the Emperor, the ultimate voice of the dark side of the Force, seems quite fond of his new Death Star, so the opposition is not complete. In the end, the Death Star represents the innate fragility of even the most potent technology. Just as the Ewoks are unexpectedly able to defeat the Emperor’s legion, so are the Death Stars destroyed by unsuspected forces technology could never prepare for.

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Did Han shoot first?

by haysforhroses, July 11, 2012

So the overview says the Han blasted his way out of his confrontation with Greedo - but - did he shoot first? Anyone know for sure?

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1 out of 2 people found this helpful

Revenge of the Sith in Plot Overview

by bjimenez5, January 02, 2013

Dear Sparknotes,
You should include Revenge of the Sith in the plot overviews. I also recommend you update your film list to include other famous classic films and movies that came out over the past ten or twenty years. Thanks.

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2 out of 5 people found this helpful

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