From inspiration to politicization, George Lucas’ Star Wars Trilogyis a phenomenal study in film aesthetics, life imitating art intimating life, how politics use pop culture to expand and implement agendas, and how story can shed a light on our desire to glorify God even if we aren’t aware we are doing it.
Inspired by Akira Kurosawa, considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Lucas is known to have been influenced by the Japanese filmmakers’ The Hidden Fortress (1958) in making the first of the Star Wars films. In an interview with the Criterion Collection, Lucas reveals, “it’s really his visual style to me, it’s so strong and unique” (2001). This influence is apparent in the use of juxtaposition to create strong contrasting visual scenes and color to elicit clear and strong psychological responses from the audience (Risk).
In a brief montage of clips showing the obvious scenes that appear to be almost replicas from films of Kurosawa’s like Seven Samurai (1954), Hartwell opines, “Star Wars very intentionally doesn’t take the time to translate really any of those unfamiliar elements” (00:03:35-00:03:50). He goes on to suggest that not revealing the cultural implications or technological advances played into the overall success of the films at large. Perhaps it is the lack of explanation and the use of visual effect in storytelling that elicits such a strong response from audiences for generations.
The use of juxtaposition in art has always been known to have a strong impact on the viewer. In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Lucas uses it effectively to contrast such things as nature with robots, quiet against bustling noisy bars, and even down to the music themes heard between the Dark Side and particularly Darth Vader against the Light Side. Juxtaposition is also used brilliantly in motivations and the personal struggle of individuals, “which creates an altogether richer and even more believable world” (Hartwell).
In addition to the obvious juxtaposition in the use of black and white in the film to indicate the Dark Side (black) and the Light Side (white), Luke Skywalker’s costume change really reflects the fall from innocence to knowledge. In an example of color palette usage, Risk writes, of Luke’s color palette shift, “Originally he was clad in lighter earth tones. This both reflected his ‘farm boy’ upbringing, but his place on the ‘light side’ of the force. Once Luke has gone through his Jedi training, and learned of his true identity as the Darth Vader’s son, Luke shows up in all black” (Risk).
The Fall of humanity is cleverly imitated here even though Lucas does not expressly state that this was his intention, he does ponder in an interview with Moyer in Time, “I’m telling an old myth in a new way.” Although Lucas says “myth” in relation to The Bible, he does not suggest that he does not believe in God. In fact, he states definitively, “I think there is a God. No Question” (Moyer).
It is no surprise that many believe this film (as well as the entire trilogy) to have significantly religious implications. Some of the greatest minds of all time believed that it might be an impossibility for humanity to create art that leaves out God.
Plato and Aristotle spoke of mimesis as the re-presentation of nature. According to Plato, all artistic creation is a form of imitation: that which really exists (in the “world of ideas”) is a type created by God; the concrete things man perceives in his existence are shadowy representations of this ideal type. Therefore, the painter, the tragedian, and the musician are imitators of an imitation, twice removed from the truth (Risk).
Of the three, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is the one with the most spiritual implications. Of course, this is due to the length of time Luke Skywalker spends with Yoda, the Jedi Master. Christian values and belief systems come shining through even in the most subtle ways. Jesus said, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you” (English Standard Version, Luke 17:19). This simple fact of Christian faith can be seen with brilliant statements that have huge implications in so few words such as an instance that occurs when Luke is struggling to use his mind to move the smallest of things, Yoda demonstrates the Force by raising the ship. Luke says, “I don’t believe it,” and Yoda replies, “That is why you fail” (Meyer 102). Belief is faith and faith can work miracles. Audiences, even those with no religious upbringing, are moved by these concepts.
Therefore, it might come as no surprise that politicians have used Star Wars to align and appeal to pop culture. Feeding on human emotion and appealing to its constituents, politicians have used the film to highlight agendas or to insult a president’s plans such as was the case when his political opponents referred to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as “Star Wars”. Meyer, in a very compelling essay on the link between Star Wars and politics states, “Indeed, the disarray of Empire well reflected the political upheaval of 1980” (103).
While art may imitate life imitating God’s art, the implication is that storytellers are compelled to tell stories. How they do it, in this case, as a filmmaker, is important from the perspective of the art (film) as well as from the perspective of the audience from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic.
The importance of the Star Wars trilogy in film and culture cannot be overstated. Lucas encapsulated everything that storytellers do and do well. The use of innovative technology and dynamic colorful shots engaging a return to the use of mattes changed the course in film aesthetics (Prince 295). The social and spiritual commentary has and will continue to influence audiences of all generations. The messaging of faith and belief in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back will continue to tug at the hearts of generations to come and hopefully draw them to the bringer of life. Art imitates life.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Mimesis”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Nov. 2011,
https://www.britannica.com/art/mimesis. Accessed 9 July 2021.
ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway, 2011.
Hartwell, Chris. “Star Wars: A New Hope – Why It’s The Best.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Jan.
Lucas, George. “George Lucas on Kurosawa.” The Criterion Collection, 2001, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3102-george-lucas-on-akira-kurosawa. Accessed 9 July 2021.
Meyer, David S. “Star Wars, Star Wars, and American Political Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 26, no. 2, 1992, pp. 99. ProQuest, http://eres.regent.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.regent.edu/scholarly-journals/star-wars-american-political-culture/docview/195356048/se-2?accountid=13479
Moyers, Bill, and George Lucas. “Of Myth and Men.” Time, 18 Apr. 1999, content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,23298-2,00.html. Accessed 9 July 2021.
Risk, Mary. “50+ Examples of Movie Color Palettes.” StudioBinder, 8 June 2021, http://www.studiobinder.com/blog/how-to-use-color-in-film-50-examples-of-movie-color-palettes/.