Star Wars: The Rise of Nostalgia

Star Wars and throw-back culture in general present a way of acting religiously without revelation, dogma, or even reality.

Lucasfilm

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.


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About Sean Fitzpatrick 2 Articles
Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania. He teaches Literature, Mythology, and Humanities. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, the Cardinal Newman Society’s Journal for Educators, and the Imaginative Conservative. He lives in Scranton with his wife, Sophie, and their six children.

9 Comments

  1. “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. ”

    Or there are those of us who grew up a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and have decided that the final episode in the Star Wars saga was Return of the Jedi, because everything since then has been a muddled, silly, or imitative mess.

    I watched the second trilogy, and it was okay, sort of (Darth Vader as evil was less annoying than pre-Darth Anakin as sullen pouty teenager). The first movie of the third trilogy did it for me: I haven’t watched anything Star Wars since.

  2. Today’s Star Wars is SJW garbage that serves as propaganda.

    As for nostalgia, this may be a motive, but so is the desire for a temporary escapist fantasy. Both are linked to feelings, but the former is as much by association with other experiences as it is to feelings evoked by the movie itself. This is why some may watch Midway or Ford v. Ferrari for nostalgia, even if they didn’t live in those time periods, because there is a longing for a world that has been replaced by another. Is that idolatry? Not necessarily, if one is lamenting the loss of heritage, culture, and identity. While God must be our focus, nonetheless it is proper to desire secondary goods in a way ordered to God. Indulging in nostalgia instead of acting for those goods may be an understandable weakness, but when nostalgia is coupled with a motivation for action and recovery, it may even be a laudable use of leisure time.

  3. Hope that the effects of media as well as of new age practices ( astrology etc 🙂 and their effects at large in damaging faith would get lots more focus , instead of excess concerns about the personal failures of few in authority in The Church .
    Lord has asked for the Divine mercy Images to be in all churches, homes etc : –
    https://www.divinemercyart.org/ to thus help us to trust in Him more , to possibly also counter the effects of excess false images too , serving as idols , as the article mentions .
    There might even be need to be set free of any curse like effects from them as well, from invoking indiscriminate ‘forces’ .
    A good birthday and Christmas gift for the Holy Father could be donating some of the money meant for such , for good causes as mentioned above .Same could help to also undo the effects of the careless / unwise involvement in the realms of movie industry by those in Church related agencies who possibly got misled into same . That mishap has its good as well , in God’s hands , by helping those who could be misled about ‘the lamb with the two horns that speak like the dragon ‘ ( Book of Revelation ) , to know that , that false figure is closer to home near San Francisco and far enough away from Pope Francis .
    Come , Lord Jesus !

      • Looking up the channel mentioned above, realized that the whole series of good videos and long prayers , with good images , all done in an anonymous manner has been suspended by You tube !
        It could have been of help in many places as a good prayer companion and now seems many questionable alternatives are trying to take its place .
        The issue might have been the prayers against certain elements related to political correctness .
        Having read the article ( G.Wiegel ) about Europe looking for its Christian roots
        again , initiatives to bring access to such good spiritual help as through the above prayer site could have been one means of help to water the common cherished roots in faith .
        Thus , no wonder that those who desire to be the agents of the beast like the leopard , that crawls in with contempt for such , are quick to do their job , hoping that , the hysterical laughter of the un MOther like caricature . portrayed as a cheap , cheap substitute , even almost blasphemously using the name ( El–) with its related characters , having massive influences , having been also the first to promote deviancies at a corporate level , would do its intended job !
        Hope that EWTN or some such good entity would come trough as a good solid alternative to preserve and promote what is good , true and beneficial .
        May the graces of the Immaculate Conception reach far into the generational lines of all involved , breaking all holds of evil, to trust in The Lord and His goodness and power .

  4. But what is considered moral? People don’t see that there’s sexualization throughout these series. Sexual clothing to premarital sex. The “feel-good entertainments”. Maybe I’m a super old fashioned, goody two-shoes bigot..? Then, a label I wear proudly.
    I had to watch those movies because of non-Catholic ex-husband and for confirmation class, where we had to compare these fictional characters to Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the disciples, the devil, and God. Parents had to be present. Thank God I was in a wheel chair due to horse accident that should have killed me, because I wouldn’t have made an excuse to exit that forced hypocrisy and I felt an evil presence I still remember to this day. Bible belt state.
    Movies like Star Wars have grasped people into a fantasy world and they lose the grips of reality and worship those characters instead of God. I rather Lord of the Rings because the author, at least, compared Jesus, Mary, the disciples, the devil, and God with no inclination to sex or immorality. Left with more valuable lessons too.
    Oh Brave New World!

  5. It is interesting to note, however, that apparently most real Star Wars aficionodos consider “The Rise of Skywalker” to be disappointing junk.

  6. This is a good article touching on themes that are very important these days. I wonder if the author is familiar with Owen Barfield and his ground-breaking book, “Saving the Appearances – A Study in Idolatry”? It was first published in England in 1957 and was issued a second time in the US with an additional introduction by the author in 1988. I’m also reminded of a work by Neil Postman called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” We live in strange times for sure!

  7. The word that is translated as lower case g gods in the Commandment against idolatry can also be translated as the words judges or powers. The word is elohim. The gods of pagan idolatry often represent the powers, or forces, of nature. The word can also apply to earthly repositories of human power as well. In the Old Testament we list the ban on idolatry as being part of the First Commandment, in Judaism it is the Second Commandment.

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