The commercial opens with a young man sitting in a high-rise office, alone and working overtime. Desperately bored, his eyes stumble across an old R2-D2 toy displayed on his desk. The familiar score softly echoes as the man sees his childhood flash before him: sleepovers with lightsaber-flashlight duels, Star Wars-themed birthday parties, bicycle rides as Tie-Fighters.
Suddenly, back in the office, the walls begin to shake. Our depressed businessman looks up to see an honest-to-goodness X-Wing, hovering outside his window. His childhood friend, piloting the craft, waves and beckons. A second X-Wing then rises up, cockpit empty. Without hesitation, our hero grabs a chair, throws it through the window, and leaps into his X-Wing, off to face the Empire. The final shots are of the young man, now fully enlivened, engaged in an epic battle.
Thanks to Charles Taylor’s work A Secular Age, I’ve come to believe the most important question about big entertainment is not “what is this movie/videogame/album about?” but “what is it for?” I don’t think we need another article analyzing the nitty-gritty thematic details of Star Wars. It is a simple, well-told tale of good versus evil with memorable characters and mammoth effects.
What I’m interested in is the function of Star Wars. When thousands of fans line up outside of theaters on December 17 to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens (of which I will be one), what will it be for?
Primarily to have a good time, yes. But also, and perhaps more importantly, Star Wars will be helping fans to forget two things: the loss of childhood and the tragic version of adulthood we’ve received in its place.
Loss of Childhood
I was seven the first time my dad put Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band into the tape player. As the sounds of the Beatles drifted into our Toyota Tercel, I had the sense I was being summoned to colorful and brilliant worlds that would extend forever. Life, it seemed, would be a type of patient exploration: there would always be new errands to run with Dad and new Beatles songs to enjoy.
When I was in college, many of my childhood loves came storming back in a wave of nostalgia. My first target, of course, was the entire Beatles catalog. With the help of the student library, I read everything about the Beatles I could find, listened to each of their albums twice, and tried to edit The White Album into one disc. Before I realized what I was doing, the musical land I’d so longed to explore had been gruffly marked off, its boundaries measured, with my flag planted in the middle. As I reached their final song, a deep feeling of sadness overtook me.
C. S. Lewis once defined nostalgia as “our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside.” As great as the Beatles were, I wasn’t just after their music but a sense of the world I had lost. I wanted to remember what it was like to not feel cut off. Lewis goes on to say that to be “at last summoned inside the door would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” Living in a fallen world means realizing we have inherited “that old ache” and haven’t yet been summoned inside.
I think most of us, whether we know it or not, don’t just want to buy tickets to a movie; we want to buy tickets to the back seat of our dad’s old car, Beatles music playing over the dying speakers. To go back to those Saturday mornings we thought would last forever. I don’t want Jedi; I want my childhood back.
Meaninglessness in Adulthood
It may seem like I’m taking this whole Star Wars thing too seriously, which is a reasonable critique. But recall the release of the Star Wars prequels, which rapidly escalated from critical backlash to nationwide devastation. A favorite phrase of the most incensed fans became, with varying levels of vulgarity, “George Lucas ruined my childhood.” What most surprised me was that I found myself agreeing. I was genuinely angry at George Lucas. What was happening?
First, of course, if we rely on these films to transport us to the innocence of childhood, we will certainly be frustrated. We were counting on the machine to work, but it couldn’t pull it off. But, second, the late-modern age has exacerbated the pain of this failure because of the pathetic version of adulthood it offers us.
I’ve covered this in a previous article in more detail, but one of Taylor’s arguments is that the story-arch of the modern person goes like this: when you’re a kid, you believe in God, transcendence, good versus evil, fairies, and everything in between. But eventually you grow up, discover Santa isn’t real, realize the world is a cold, dark place, and accept your generally meaningless life in a place that will never fulfill you.
Those angry Star Wars fans weren’t just lashing out over lackluster cinema; they were lashing out to protect the one time in their lives when they were allowed to believe in something greater than themselves. It feels like Lucas “ruined” our childhood, in other words, because he took one of the primary means we had to return to the world of belief, and tainted it.
Take Me Home Tonight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is going to be awesome. Hopefully it’ll make me feel like a kid again. I don’t accept, however, that seeing our surroundings as an enchanted moral universe must end when we leave the theater. And therefore, we don’t need our entertainment to save us from a colorless adulthood.
As a society, we are asking too much of our entertainment because we ask too little of our cultural narrative for adult life. It’s normal to mourn the loss of our childhood, but it’s devastating when we can find nothing compelling to replace it—nothing to anticipate with wonder or fight for in everyday life. Even more tragic is when the church implicitly agrees with—or at least doesn’t counteract—the dominant narrative: since my life is generally pointless, I must live for the next distraction.
Star Wars is great entertainment. But it is even better entertainment when we don’t absolutely need it to be.