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In which John (WITH NO SPOILERS) discusses the new Stars Wars movie , The Force Awakens, in the context of the original Star Wars trilogy. Also discussed is Joseph Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which heavily influenced George Lucas while he was writing the first Star Wars films. And I talk about mythology, shared myths, how we assign personhood, whether wookies are people, etc.


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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

I want to begin by saying that this video contains absolutely no spoilers whatsoever.  Well, except insofar as just being alive is a minor spoiler, on account of how you're connected to every other person on Earth, a growing number of whom have already seen the Star Wars movie.  And, you know, they're now very slightly different for having had that experience, and they're slight differences are causing very slight differences in you, and et cetera, as the Force ripples through the universe, which is actually what I wanna talk about today.

So, Hank, I've now seen the new Star Wars movie twice, and I really, really like it, and I'm trying to figure out why.  Alright, this is Joseph Campbell, who wrote a famous book about shared mythologies across cultures and historical eras called The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Basically, Campbell pointed out that a lot of our most important stories all involve a plot where, I'm just gonna quote him, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder, fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won."  Of course, it can't be too decisive, because, you know, these are movies, and they need sequels, but you get the idea.

Campbell's writing about shared mythologies and mythological structures was extremely influential to George Lucas when he was writing the original Star Wars movies, and it shows, I mean, Luke Skywalker follows the heroic journey that Campbell laid out step by step.  So, Hank, I think the original Star Wars trilogy is seen as important today, not just because they're good movies or because the special effects and music are amazing, but because as myth, they are brilliant.  Luke Skywalker gave the hero of a thousand faces yet one more face, and in his story, I got to experience that intoxicating mix of awe and recognition that we seek from myth, right?  Like, recognition because I too have been a petulant ne'er do well in a boring hometown harboring a dream of going to space, and all because like Lord Vader and the Death Star were intensely awesome in the old fashioned sense of the word that involved fear, but it's also more than that.

Like any good myth, Star Wars helps us to understand and identify ourselves as people.  Consider, for instance, how much the assigning and signaling of personhood matters in the original Star Wars movies, I mean, we feel bad for R2-D2, who is a droid when he is damaged.  We also deeply empathize with Chewie, even though he is not a human and speaks incomprehensibly.  But we don't empathize with the Stormtroopers, even though they're humanoid and speak English because they're not people, they're--actually, we didn't know what they were back in 1977, but we knew that they were not proper people like us and Chewbacca.  

Now, of course, the original Star Wars movies did get their fair share of criticisms.  People pointed out that the dialogue was hokey, that the galaxy was astonishingly small and given over to unlikely coincidence, but for me, all that stuff was totally irrelevant.  I mean, the dialogue in Jonah's encounter with the whale also leaves a bit to be desired, but that is so beside the point.  

And then the prequels came out, and they did not have the same mythic resonance.  In fact, for many people, they were just, you know, movies.  And as movies, they weren't particularly great.  Honestly, Hank, after those movies, I felt like there couldn't be another good Star Wars movie, because Star Wars had just given to the common myth what it had to give.  But I was wrong, The Force Awakens is so great!  The Force Awakens honors the myth of the hero's journey from the original Star Wars, but it also expand and deepens it.  Along the way, the movie pushes us toward a broader understanding of personhood, of what constitutes us.  In fact, Hank, we saw this in the first teaser footage released months before the movie.  A Stormtrooper removes his helmet and proves to have a very human face.  Those we could dismiss for the first six movies are suddenly inarguably people who are connected to us, and in the movie itself, there's much more.  For instance, we see that the hero with a thousand faces need not be male, or white, or even a petulant ne'er do well.  It's not a perfect movie, of course, the galaxy is still astonishingly small, the dialogue still sometimes clunky, but it's a very effective myth.  

Hank, to be honest with you, I've been worried lately that I've grown too old to properly love a movie.  I mean, they're just movies.  But I haven't!  I can still nerd out about a movie I love!  Yes!  Hank, I'll see you on Friday, in the meantime, I'm just gonna say it, may the Force be with you.