Like the invocation of Hitler or the Nazis in an argument, the mere mention of Star Wars in a good vs evil pop culture debate is all but facile. But, as a cultural touchstone, the sci-fi film franchise has its roots dug deeply into the soil of our collective consciousness; its geist is very zeity.
But, has Star Wars become bloated with mythology?
Part of the success of the first Star Wars movie was owed to the striking visual elements of its world. And, when it came to the production design, the devil was in the details.
Sorry, did you say… greeblies?
Greeblies, greebles or nurnies. It doesn’t matter what you call them: they’re small and sometimes intricate details added to models and sets. Their aim is to make everything more visually pleasing and to add scale. Star Wars is particularly good at this – indeed, the group of FX boffins who later became ILM coined the term ‘greeble’ when working on A New Hope.
On a recent rewatch of Episode IV, I couldn’t help but notice one such greeblie stuck onto a wall in a Death Star control room. It was obviously an engine part (a Rolls Royce exhaust elbow as it turns out) from our world, repurposed as a doohickey in the Star Wars universe.
When Star Wars cemented itself in the annals of our modern culture in 1977, I’m certain that many people who watched the first movie noticed something which was clearly taken from an engine or machine. Other than noticing the greeblie, there was presumably little to otherwise remark upon. It’s a bit of an engine used to make the set more visually interesting – that’s fine.
In today’s pop culture climate Star Wars is ubiquitous. Its universe, mythology and lore present themselves everywhere from pencil cases to PhD theses. The modern audience for the franchise – especially those most passionate about it – is obsessed with the Star Wars mythos. It’s practically a real history as much as Klingon is a bona fide language.
What was once an engine part used as set decoration is now more likely to have its own in-universe name, serial-number and fictional factory in which it was built. The obsession with lore in our media and fiction has reached fever pitch: nothing exists without being its own ‘thing’.
Would We Miss the Myth?
Is lore always a bad thing, then? Do we constrict our cultural works by making them slaves to their own mythology? Should works of fiction be beholden to those that enjoy them – kowtowing to those who know the universe of each work inside and out?
Let’s ask ourselves: what does mythology give us? In the real world, it lends itself to defining traditions, culture and even social norms. We are strange creatures: setting and obeying our own lore.
Without mythology, I’d imagine that we would have little to no culture: Americana and the American Dream would not exist; Stonehenge would just be a few piled stones to us; Lord of the Rings would just be a story about a man who goes on a long and difficult walk.
A Modern Marvel?
Marvel and Disney have done an objectively amazing job overall with their cinematic universe. I can’t profess to be their biggest fan, nor a fan of all their movies. I can, however, say with no sense of irony that the journey from the first Iron Man movie to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War was enjoyable, entertaining and fulfilling.
I was taught in English class at school that every story should be told as if the audience has no previous knowledge of it. Marvel’s movies generally do stand alone quite happily but they are wrought inside and out with their own lore – some from the comic books themselves, more besides from the films’ own mythology.
One of Infinity War’s strengths is its substantial lore core (that sounds horrible but I love it). The history of each character, the places they’ve been to; the events – both good and bad – they’ve had a hand in – all of that adds up to give more weight to what happens on screen.
When did it all go pear-shaped?
Star Wars suffers from slavish devotion to its own lore and mythology. ‘People love Darth Vader: let’s do 3 whole movies explaining how that guy ended up as that villain!’ ‘People love Han Solo: let’s give him his own standalone movie!’
‘Darth Vader built C-3PO!’ ‘Han Solo was so named because he had no friends or family!’ Wow! I literally don’t care, though. In my mind, C-3PO was just an interesting, if slightly annoying robot. ‘Solo’ to me was just a surname in the Star Wars universe that had no connection to our real-world definition of the word itself. He might as well have been called Glarb Blarfle-Sharpler.
This type of lore is retrofitted to a work. It is cynical and pandering in its obvious desperation to make everything – no matter how big or inconsequential – part of the mythology.
Infinity War’s villain Thanos had a little build up in two previous Avengers movies and Guardians of the Galaxy. It wasn’t until Infinity War that his true character motivations were laid bare on screen.
Thanos is a character who makes his own mythology. Every moment spent on screen with good dialogue and believable motivations is time spent cementing his weighty lore and mythology.
Meanwhile, the studio execs in charge of Star Wars are clearly terrified of presenting much new mythology in favour of treading – and laboriously retreading – old ground. Ground so old and well-trodden that it has been carved into a canyon with steep and forbidding walls.
I fought the lore…
What happens when every character, object, vehicle and location has reams of background mythos forcibly attached to it? When everything’s special, nothing is special.
For all its abstraction, lore is organic. Mythology is a natural process. Just like when you try and focus on the squiggly thing in your eye – which inevitably only makes it harder to see – trying to grab hold of the mythology of your own work is foolhardy and will only force it further away.
Mythos is earned, not demanded. It is given, not taken.