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'The Force Awakens' And The Flagging Cult Of Star Wars

31/12/2015 8:29 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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"Star Wars" fan Danny Fitzgerald of Staten Island, in Darth Vader costume, poses in front of Loews Astor Plaza movie theater in Times Square in New York, May 25, 1983, where fans are lined up for the premiere of "The Return of the Jedi," the third in a series of the "Star Wars" saga. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

I was there when the Force first awakened.

This was in 1977, of course, when the first ever Star Wars movie (now called Star Wars 4: A New Hope) first hit the silver screen and took our breath away. Just as some of those of the generation preceding mine can boast about being there at Woodstock, or watching the Beatles rise to fame, I can similarly say I was there when the world first saw Darth Vader striding into a Senate Starship with the Storm Troopers and menacing the beautiful, rosy-cheeked Princess Leia.

I was all of eight years old at the time and, like so many others, became inexorably pulled into the vast and wonderful Star Wars universe. The hyper-drive space travel, lightsabers, X-Wing Fighters and hooded Jedi masters held so much more appeal than the world of middle school! The backs of my notebooks and the margins of my textbooks began filling up with sketches and doodles of X-wing fighters, Darth Vader and the Death Star, much to the exasperation of some of my teachers. I even practiced writing in the style of the opening crawl and perfected the space-age "Star Wars" title font.

If you are looking for the psychic fulfillment that A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi provided... you may not find it here.

George Lucas's juxtaposition of ancient religion with space-age technology, lightsabers with monastic robes, and X-wing fighters with Zen thought ("Do or not do, there is no try") had done the trick. The master storyteller had managed to simultaneously appeal to our modern fascination with space-age technology and to our mystic longing for a deeper transcendence.

And so, 38 years, two sequels and three prequels later, it was with a sense of pilgrimage that I entered the multiplex to see Part 7 of the saga. (It has, after all, been a whole decade since the last Star Wars movie was made.) I selected a seat in the cinema with great care -- dead centre of the hall, seven rows from the front. Basically, I was ready to have a spiritual experience!

Perhaps it was the title, "The Force Awakens" that had led me to expect that the most awaited movie of 2015 had something to do with the genesis of the Force. A primordial, cosmic awakening of some kind, a harking back of sorts to the Biblical "...and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God (or the Force, as it were) moved upon the face of the deep...." etc. (Genesis 1:2) Perhaps I had gone in with a deeper expectation than I had realised.

The movie picks up where Part 6, The Return of the Jedi, left off. Han Solo is much older. So is Leia Organa. Chewbacca miraculously looks the same. There are new characters, of course, such as Poe Dameron, the best fighter pilot in the Resistance and the intriguing Maz who fills Yoda's shoes just a bit.

The movie cannot be faulted for its special effects and cinematography... But... The Force Awakens is a promise that stops just short of the Promised Land.

I won't spoil the rest of it for you and your experience of the movie may be completely different than mine, of course, but I will say this: if you are looking for the psychic fulfillment that A New Hope, and then The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi provided in abundance, you may not find it here.

As someone who has loved (and lived in) the world of Star Wars, I will hasten to say that, technically speaking, Part 7 is flawless! The TIE and X-wing fighters fly faster than ever, the 3D production is brilliant, the visuals are stunning and the humour is understated and effective. The movie cannot be faulted for its special effects and cinematography.

But as is the case with all things cult, The Force Awakens is a promise that stops just short of the Promised Land.

This is not surprising.

The thing one has to remember about cults is that they actually work! But only for a while. The reason they work for as long as they do is because they fulfill three basic psychological needs:

1. Clarity: The world is a confusing place but cults provide remarkable clarity to their followers. They do this because they explain things in absolutes and are essentially binary in their thinking. They clearly divide the world into the good guys and the bad guys, Us vs. Them. We can do no wrong and They can do no right. There is little room for nuance in a cult. (If there was, it wouldn't be a cult.) Cults provide order and structure to reality. They provide an unambiguous narrative. Star Wars is no different. There is the Empire and there is the Rebellion, the good guys carry the blue lightsabers and the bad guys carry the red ones, the Resistance is always right and the Empire is not just wrong, it is downright evil.

2. Numinosity: The word numinous means "arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring". There is something in every human heart -- especially the more disenfranchised ones -- that longs for the transcendent. That is why cults are so successful in the short term. They hold out the promise of a better world. I am, of course, not arguing the existence of that world, but for the sake of the parallel, Star Wars' appeal to transcendence, to a Force that binds all living things together and flows through all things, sets it apart from all the other films preceding it in the sci-fi genre.

3. Belonging: Cults provide a safe haven for like-minded believers. Similarly, if you are a Star Wars fan, you will likely feel a strange, happy bond with other fans. While travelling up the elevator in the mall where I had gone to see the movie, I struck up a conversation with a young couple. The young lady explained with some amusement that her boyfriend, also present in the elevator, had actually made her memorise the order of the movies in the series! The boyfriend, of course, saw absolutely nothing unusual about that.

Then, during the movie interval, I saw a chap in front of the wash basin next to mine trying to figure out how to get the water flowing in one of those infrared, hands-free faucets. I joked, "Use the Force, Luke". He smiled, moved his hand in a Jedi-like wave and in doing so, managed to activate the infrared mechanism in the faucet. We burst out laughing, as did others who overheard the exchange. An instant community had been formed.

A cult provides great satisfaction for a while... but then as its members grow older and their psychic needs change, it ceases to be magical...

But here is the thing about cults. They all have a shelf life. A cult provides great satisfaction for a while, sometimes for a very long time, but then as its members grow older and their psychic needs change, it ceases to be magical and becomes tautological and eventually, redundant.

As Carl Jung wryly remarked, "One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will have diminished in importance in the evening."

And so, if The Force Awakens leaves you feeling just a little bit empty that's probably why. There's nothing wrong with the movie or with you. It's just that it's been a long time and you've most likely outgrown the cult. Don't feel too bad. The Force is still with you.

It's probably just slumbering a little bit.

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