For those who grew up a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the final episode in the Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker, promises an emotional conclusion to what was a stirring part of childhood. With these emotions, the Star Wars sequel trilogy follows a trending nostalgic mode. As a longing for a love lost, nostalgia is easily taken and mistaken for something far more meaningful than it is; and, as such, nostalgia is given quasi-religious emphasis in a culture disconnected from religion.
When Star Wars was first released in 1977, it was intended, in part, as an exercise in nostalgia for the 1930s Flash Gordon serials. But it was more than that, with cutting-edge special effects and a pseudo-mythic epic structure, Star Wars brought ancient themes to new life. With this era-changing movie, the American cinematic focus shifted from heavy, sophisticated dramas—like The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Taxi Driver—back to a pre-60s golden-age trope where exhibitionism and carnival capers made motion pictures make money. Some say that George Lucas effected a return to what the movies were meant to be, while others argue his swashbuckling space opera was a backslide that cinema hasn’t recovered from.
Star Wars was the flagship film to sell itself as a franchise, driven by mass marketing, grand spectacle, action sequences, and cornball dialogue. Gaining the rank of highest-grossing film of all time, Star Wars solidified the summer blockbuster, conceiving movies as commercial events, copiously thrilling people with escapism, fantasy, romance, and uplifting themes of self-sacrifice and redemption. Four decades later, the original trilogy has become our Flash Gordon, but there is too much cynicism in the world to stomach such a classic tale without a strong dose of nostalgia—that forceful drug of wistful distraction from a life devoid of defined purpose.
In The Restoration of Christian Culture, Catholic educator John Senior wrote,
It isn’t necessary to document how much our music, architecture, poetry, art from Picasso, Stravinsky, and the Bauhaus to the popular stuff like Star Wars, are idolatries of force.
The force may be real, after all. While it’s interesting to see Star Wars ranked with Picasso and Stravinsky, it’s more interesting to think of Star Wars as part of an idolatry of force, the destiny of a generation of souls lost in space. Dr. Senior suggests that boundary-breaking trends in art, from Picasso to Star Wars, reflect that the world is drawn to false gods of distraction and raw emotion that make people long to rediscover truth, a home in a galaxy far, far away.
To be clear, idolatry isn’t limited to actually worshiping false gods. The word and the practice also apply to anything that distances or obstructs man from God, in the divinization of things not divine. The sentimentality of Hallmark holidays and generation-spanning entertainments like Star Wars are hailed with a platitudinal importance, and even a reverence, that is misplaced. As in any form of idolatry, there is an inapt fervor, and even faith, toward something unworthy of that fidelity and feeling that postures as a fitting recipient, a fitting end. Feelings are everything these days, just as they are something in the original Star Wars trilogy—from Obi Wan Kenobi’s, “Stretch out with your feelings,” to Yoda’s, “You must feel the force,” to Darth Vader’s, “Search your feelings.” But the new trilogy looks back to the solid freshness of the old films with thick cinematic nostalgia, with those feelings that tend to pull people away from their true end, for they are looking backward, not forward.
The Star Wars awakening and the myopic nostalgia it elicits—even about itself—is central, even integral, to American leisure, which is arresting if Josef Pieper’s theory about the basis of culture is correct. Where would society be without their feel-good entertainments and cheesy rituals? Nostalgia has become something like a new religion, a fluttering nicety for people to release into the void. Whether in movies, music, or social exchanges, the tendency towards nostalgia is rooted in an addiction to nothingness, a placebo against the emptiness of the times.
To say that popular, nostalgic stuff like Star Wars is observed like a religion is not to say that it is religious. No one looks to George Lucas to fill a hole in their soul, but Star Wars and throw-back culture in general present a way of acting religiously without revelation, dogma, or even reality. There is a weird “devotion” in nerd-dom, and the obligation to go to the theater in homage to that iconic opening crawl is all but sacred. Hearts still swell to John Williams’ sweeping scores. Old friends appear on the screen to say, “May the force be with you, always.” Modernity’s emotional enchantment and attachment with everything that Star Wars hearkens to is rooted in a religious yearning for transcendence, a return to innocence, for the truth that actually surrounds us, that penetrates us, that binds the galaxy together.
Again from Dr. Senior,
I have found a large plurality of students who find, say, Treasure Island what they call “hard reading,” which means too difficult to enjoy with anything approaching their delight in Star Wars.
Therefore, the studios spend millions upon millions to produce high-voltage nostalgia to distract and delight the masses. The box offices collect millions upon millions to provide a swirl of superficial emotion. People who hunger for fact feed on fantasy, coming away confirmed in confusion and reinforced in malady. All the same, the new Star Wars is still enjoyable, moral fun as it always was, even if today’s entries celebrate and perpetuate the focus on warm-fuzzy feelings. Like so many movies and movements, Star Wars has become an icon of the idolatry of nostalgia, and moviegoers are lodged in its tractor beam.
Whether reveling in nostalgic reminiscences or not, cultural representation through imaginative creations should not be taken lightly—even if they are wielding lightsabers. Societies have ever established catalogs of heroes, and their mythologies have ever been diagnostic and didactic. Our mythology reflects our world. Star Wars and its ilk may be the closest thing that we have as a culture to the classical myths; but truth be told, they are representative of a people that have lost the fullness of truth. The hero Luke Skywalker is not the same hero as Achilles. Neither is the saint of today the same as the saint of old.
There remains a need to encounter the world as it is. Whether or not films like the Star Wars trilogies hold a key to redemption is to be seen. There is cause, however, to be cautious as the Skywalker saga concludes. The concepts of right and wrong—of heroism and anti-heroism—of good and evil, for that matter—are growing confused in the galaxy because they are confused in society. But the nostalgia of a better time, a purer time, remain vaguely valued. Part of the crisis of The Last Jedi was that, in some way, it seemed intent on burning down, or restructuring, the archetypes of the past. The conflicted villain, Kylo Ren, articulated this threat when he said, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” Cue Luke Skywalker’s famous “Nooo!” and the catharsis of nostalgia.
Feel the force—that growing sense of un-fulfillment, that pull for affirmation in a culture that has lost touch with those realities that are intrinsically meaningful. Thus, has the power of nostalgia become like a religion in its free-floating reverence and seeming significance. It is an idolatry of force, and that force is with us. There is an eschatological question that this last leg of the Star Wars saga flirts with along with a cynical, nostalgic point of view. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the hero never failed to dare and never failed to succeed—a plot that has satisfied the ages, especially when it is the daring in and of itself that many cultures have hailed as victorious. It is the nostalgia of the present age that finds it poignant when the hero fails to be a hero or denies his heroism. Where is the old hope in that, let alone a new hope? The Rise of Skywalker has much to answer for as the saga comes to an end. I have a bad feeling about this.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!