I plan on being in the movie theater this December 18 for the debut of The Force Awakens with my 12 year-old son. This will be a rare occurrence. I don’t make it to the theater as much as I would like, and I often don’t feel like braving the crowds for anticipated blockbusters. My son usually doesn’t push me because he hates the crowds and noise even more than I do. Star Wars is different though. Not only are we tired of waiting for the movie itself, but we also want to experience the shared excitement that will surely be flowing through the multiplex.
Born in 1967, demographers say I am a member of ‘Generation X.’ A decent alternative moniker for my era would be the Star Wars Generation however. It is inarguably the most successful movie of my generation, but it may also be the single most defining symbolic event of its time.
My scholarly research focuses on the movies that have been important to people over the course of their lives. When I talk to people, they often ask, “Which movies do people most commonly mention?” It’s a good question, but I don’t have much of an answer. Because everybody’s life is so different and because there are so many movies, there is great variety in people’s special movies—there are very few ‘typical’ responses. The exception to this rule however is Star Wars, particularly for Americans of Generation X. It comes up frequently for men in their 30s and 40s and is not unusual for women of the same age either.
In the final chapter of my book, Psychology at the Movies, I use my personal Star Wars story as an example of the power that movies can have in people’s live. Going to see Star Wars was one of the first things my military family did when we arrived back in the U.S. in 1977 after living in Germany for most of my childhood. The movie had been released for months at that point, but we still stood in line for an hour to get in. From the opening notes of John William’s score, my 10-year-old heart and mind lit up.
Through Star Wars, I found myself making first contact with all sorts of ideas that would be important to me later:
1) Good vs. Evil: Star Wars starts out simple enough but becomes more complicated as we learn more about the tragic background of Darth Vader.
2) Religion: I had a revelation in Sunday school one day in my tweens that the Force and the Holy Spirit were kind of the same thing.
3) Feminism: I was fascinated yet a little perplexed by Princess Leia, a female movie character who back-talked and impatiently grabbed blasters from the supposed heroes.
The journey didn’t stop with Star Wars: A New Hope. Not only were there sequels, but there were comics, novels, video games, television series, etc. The stories, characters, and images went on and on, seemingly endlessly. The only model for such an extended multi-media “alternative universe” before Star Wars was Star Trek. But Star Trek was genuine science fiction whereas Star Wars was grounded in the fantasy genre.
Science fiction tries to imagine future technologies and how people are likely to adapt to these new possibilities. Fantasy on the other hand looks to the past to identify ancient fears and wisdoms that we are still wrestling with in the present. The fact that Star Wars took the fantasy mindset and stuck it in a technologically advanced setting (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) was in some ways the most revolutionary thing about it. That move grounded the movies in older traditions, but it also freed the imagination by allowing magic and advanced technology to intermingle.
My son’s generation has seen a number of phenomenally successful cinematic franchises (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc.) that have followed the fantastical model established by Star Wars. But Star Wars was the first however, and judging from the advanced buzz about The Force Awakens, it remains perhaps the biggest of them all.
There is a type of criticism that sees movies and other products of pop culture as products of their time. From this perspective, one can look at popular media and make parallels to what is going on in the larger society at that historical time period. While I am weary of taking this line of thinking too far, I have always been intrigued by the interpretation that Star Wars was so popular because it acted as a salve for the cultural malaise of the 70's (especially the Vietnam War and Watergate).
Heading into the opening of The Force Awakens, I can’t help but reflect on what special significance it might have for this age of recession and global terrorism. Some commentators make the reasonable argument that immersion in fantastical worlds like the Star Wars Universe pulls people out of the real world, thereby distracting them from the serious problems confronting society. The other side of the argument is that some time spent in this fantasy world will help both children and adults identify with those parts of us—heroic, wise, dark, etc.— that also exist in the real world and maybe allow us to handle them a little better.
Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770