A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - Elstree Studios, London, to be exact - George Lucas created the most successful film franchise of all time. In Kevin Burns' documentary "Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy", George Lucas is painted as a mythic hero, a maverick outsider who forever changed the face of moviemaking. With the release of "Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith", the story has come full circle and the tragedy at the centre of the story is complete.
The classic tale of good versus evil in the "Star Wars" films has been compared to both heroic myths and organised religion. An entire generation of fans has managed to keep abreast of the twists and turns of the characters and their stories. The mere mention of Luke, Leia, Han and Obi-Wan (among many others) will trigger childhood memories among even the most down-to-earth of people.
Here we try to understand some of the cultural significance of the series, including a look at the new film and information on the background from the creator, George Lucas, himself.
We begin with a brief look at the latest movie: The Revenge of the Sith
As the final episode in the trilogy of prequels to the original movies, it was up this episode to show how the story arrived at the events portrayed in the original series begun in 1977. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becomes Darth Vader, the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) reveals his plot and executes a stealthy coup d'état, the last remaining Jedi go into exile and we discover the true origins of Leia, Luke, Yoda and Chewbacca.
The weaknesses of the two previous films; Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are over. Revenge of the Sith manages to balance a complicated plot onto non-stop action with extremely impressive visuals to match. The first 20 minutes - including breathtaking space battles, lightsabre duels, explosions and acrobatics - is as good as anything in the entire series.
As Anakin inevitably turns to the dark side of the Force, a dark and violent atmosphere that's both shocking and moving pervades.
Even those traditional failures of the series, such as dialogue famously criticised by Harrison Ford who could read it but not speak it seriously, have improved. Christensen has matured into a convincing lead, and Ewan McGregor as Anakin's mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi finally seems to be relaxing into his part.
As far as the much debated cultural significance of the series is concerned, it's no secret that George Lucas was inspired by author Joseph Campbell and his book, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces".
The book is an analysis of various Hero's Quest myths from around the world and points out common elements which see the hero pass through a crisis or conflict to emerge a changed person. Using this template, Lucas followed the tradition and created his own hero and universe within which he functioned. The quest he devised also made the producer millions of dollars in the process.
Star Wars was intended to be one movie, the tragedy of Darth Vader. It began with this violent monster appearing, and then halfway through the movie it became clear that this villain was actually a man and the previously supposed hero was his son. Finally the villain turned into the hero inspired and redeemed by the son. Not having enough money to make what would have been a six hour movie Lucas broke it up into episodes. Gradually the image and icon of Darth Vader took over during the course of the original series and the human tragedy was lost.
George Lucas grew up with Westerns and Saturday morning movie theatre shows like Flash Gordon. These were like "heroic soap operas", long-running series ending each week with a cliff-hanger such as the hero in imminent danger or inevitable victory for the enemy and beginning at the same point exactly the week after. Such influence can be clearly seen in the "Space Opera" universe of Star Wars.
At the beginning Lucas created a biography of every character, what they were, who they were and where they came from, and an explanation of where the Empire came from. However these were background stories and as such they weren't written as a movie
Many observers have also drawn parallels between "Star Wars" and major religions, particularly Buddhism and Taoism, and Lucas himself has said in interview that he has indeed referred to the mysteries of the orient as source material for the current trilogy. This is of course clear with the presence of the "Force". This is a clear reference to a higher power, the idea of cause and consequence, karma and a black and white dichotomy of good and bad.
But how much of this is hype and Lucas revising his original plans to fit into the significance attached to the films by others?
Maybe we should try to maintain some sense of perspective by recalling the initial doubts that the film received in pre-release executive screenings. George Lucas was still young and relatively unknown, having really only the film "American Graffiti" previously to his credit. The doubts of the film's stars were echoed when he presented this entire science fiction universe and story on a scale previously unknown. We can only assume that those executives decided against their better judgement to take a risk on this project.
Of course the rest is history, the blockbuster movie was born and special effects took a great leap forward.
With several thousand people in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand believing (however incorrectly) that by writing 'Jedi' as their religion on last year's census forms it would become a recognised religion, there's a light hearted side to the issue. However, could claiming that Luke Skywalker is the messiah with a lightsabre be going just a bit too far? Even allowing for a healthy element of intellectual film critique, there's a point when you have to agree with Carrie Fisher and declare, "It's only a movie!"