The blockbuster series carries on a story-telling tradition, revolving around resistance to evil and the redemption of that evil, says Dr Joel Hodge.
"I can't kill my own father ..."
These are the anguished words of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.
As the father-son relationship was pivotal for the original Star Wars trilogy, so it is for Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
It was pivotal for the original trilogy, as it was the axis around which it told its unlikely story of heroism and redemption. In doing so, Star Wars touched on something deep: the good and evil in each of us, the relationships that define us, and the larger spiritual and divine mystery at the heart of it all.
The Star Wars mythology seeks to carry on a story-telling tradition. It revolves around resistance in the face of the worst evil and the redemption of that evil. As its creator George Lucas put it:
"I see Star Wars as taking all of the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and more easily accessible construct that people can grab onto to accept the fact that there is a greater mystery out there."
The mythology centres on a particular type of faith: in transcendence (the Force) that connects us to the wider universe in an intimate way and gives us the capacity for good or bad. Again Lucas:
"Faith is the glue that holds us together as a society ... to remain stable. Remain balanced."
In Star Wars, the galactic battles are the setting for personal battles: between the temptations of greed, anger, power and absolute control, and the faith in goodness, compassion, hope and spiritual integrity.
In the original trilogy, Darth Vader, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker each had to face their own temptations and find faith. Leia, on the other hand, had a general faith (in the Rebellion), but came to ground it in loving relationships and discover the Force. The new film presents these challenges for a new generation.
Luke and Vader found their faith in relationship to each other. This displayed the centrality of the father-figure or parental model in the journey of the hero to maturity. Luke had Ben and Vader, while the new film revolves around Han as model for its main characters.
However, the new film also challenges this faith, and in so doing, is taking Star Wars into new and interesting territory.
At the heart of the Star Wars narrative is the journey of the unlikely hero. It is a motif drawn by George Lucas from the mythology expert, Joseph Campbell. Luke and Rey (in The Force Awakens) personify this role in ways that are deeply appealing. However, in traditional myths, the hero's journey often ends in violence. For example, in one of the most famous ancient Greek myths, Oedipus journeys to become king of Thebes, killing his father and a mythical creature (the Sphinx) along the way. Instead of a glorious reign, Oedipus ends up being expelled from Thebes as a scapegoat in order to end a mysterious plague.
Yet, the hero in the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker, does not meet a violent end, nor does his father-enemy, Vader. This is, in fact, a very significant departure from traditional mythology and it shows the redemptive vision of Star Wars.
The original trilogy centred on the redemption of Vader by his son. It was the Christian story re-worked and re-told. Vader was a fallen Christ-figure. His was a virgin birth (through the Force). He was prophesied as the Chosen One, but instead became the evil villain par excellence.
Like Jesus's love for and confidence in humanity (despite the violence done to him on the Cross), Luke had faith that Vader still had "good in him." Luke's faith became a model for Vader, flipping the father-son dynamic. Luke's faith and love, like Jesus, were tested to the death. He was willing to die for his enemy-father, rather than kill him. The outcome was redemptive: Vader was saved spiritually, and Luke was saved from death by Vader.
The redemption of Vader and the defeat of the Emperor by Vader and Luke show how love and faith can defeat evil. The Emperor personified evil as a satanic figure. He manipulated his way to absolute power and was only interested in his evil, totalitarian vision. These same characteristics are found in the villainous First Order and its leaders in The Force Awakens. Totalitarian order comes through violence, manipulation and mass destruction.
In Return of the Jedi, Vader ultimately rejects this dark totalitarianism when faced with the full personal consequences of it: the killing of the son who loves and believes in him as a person and father. The act by Vader that results in the Emperor's death is to not intended to kill, but to defend his innocent son, whose love has re-awakened his good character. Vader's act is selfless in that it results in his own death.
Lucas's vision for Star Wars is a radically redemptive one, with the worst villain being converted back to goodness.
The latest instalment, The Force Awakens, explores and tests the redemptive vision of Star Wars, as it should, in order to advance the film franchise. As Lucas did, J.J. Abrams explores the roots of evil, but with his own twist on the original trilogy. He asks: how far can one go into the dark side before one can't turn back? And what would drive one to do so?
Answering these questions in a way that is both subtle and satisfying is a tall order. But there are positive signs that the new trilogy is equal to the challenge, and will intelligently bring the promise of the Star Wars tradition to a new generation.
Joel Hodge is Lecturer in the School of Theology at Australian Catholic University. He is author of Resisting Violence and Victimisation: Christian Faith and Solidarity in East Timor, and co-editor of the book series Violence, Desire, and the Sacred.
This article was first published on ABC’s Religion and Ethics website.