Warning: Spoilers abound in this article. If you haven’t seen Episodes I – VI, beware!
When I was a kid, I was completely captivated by the original Star Wars films. In addition to the escapist, fantastical elements that ushered my young mind out of the den and into deep space, there’s something so universal and lasting about the story at its center that continues to appeal to a loyal and growing fan base almost forty years later. After all, history– or rather, Christopher Booker– tells us that there are really only seven basic archetypal plots that recur in their various forms throughout literature and film. His book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, outlines these archetypal plots from “overcoming the monster” to “the quest” to the classic “rags to riches” tale. Its universal appeal comes as no surprise when you realize that Star Wars is the epitome of the archetypal quest story.
We are presented with a hero, in the form of Luke Skywalker, who is called to embark on a greater journey to save the galaxy from the evil Empire; the lovable sidekicks take the form of anthropomorphic droids and saucy smuggler pilots who contrast and balance out the qualities of our innocent young hero; the trials and ordeals of becoming a Jedi fill out the “obstacles” section of the plot as the hero must confront the ultimate enemy, Darth Vader; plot twists and intrigue abound with the unforgettable words, “No, Luke– I am your father”; and finally, the world is put right and the evil Empire has been cast out.
It’s all so gooey and warm and emotionally fulfilling at the end that you can’t help but smile and dance along to that cheesy new tribal soundtrack Williams added in to the final sequence. (You know exactly what I’m talking about).
In essence, there is a reason why we continue to adore the quest story in its many interpretations– just think of all the stories that fit the mold, from The Wizard of Oz to Finding Nemo. In the end, we are left with a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that appeals to our sense of optimism and hope. This, at least, makes complete sense when considering human nature.
If It’s All So Wonderful and Fulfilling… Why the Prequel?
If the reason behind our thirst for the quest story is that it is so conclusive and satisfying, why do we crave the prequel– especially in the case of Star Wars? Why go back and unravel the plot threads that have been so neatly tied together, knowing full well that we will only see a character who has been redeemed turning into a character in desperate need of redemption?
Consider this: the final movie in the original trilogy, The Return of the Jedi, earned $475 million at the box office. In contrast, the finale of the more recent trilogy of prequels, The Revenge of the Sith, brought in a walloping $848 million. Even accounting for inflation and the rising cost of movie tickets, it would be fair to say that audiences were at least equally– if not more– interested in seeing the culmination of a plot that they knew fully well would end in misery. So it begs the question: why? Doesn’t it all seem a bit pessimistic?
There are obvious answers here that the marketing department considers when doling out the budget for a prequel. To begin, the prequel draws on a vast and loyal fan base that is hungry for another run with characters they have come to love. There’s something to be said for a romp through familiar settings with old “friends” who practically wink at the audience with their inside jokes and heavy-handed references to the old films. (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”). In addition, less time has to be spent on exposition and filling in the mundane details of characterization and backstory when filming a prequel, and so the action can begin without much hesitation.
The less obvious answer, however, is a bit darker: there is something in the human race that clings to a fatalistic view of the world and craves to see it fulfilled.
What is fatalism?
According to Professor Norman Schwartz of Lander University, fatalism is “the philosophical and sometimes theological doctrine that specific events are fixed in advance (either by God or by some unknown means) although there might be some free play in minor events.” It is our obsession with fatalism that drives us to watch movies such as Final Destination, knowing perfectly well that no matter what the characters do or attempt to do, fate is going to get them in the end.
For example, let’s say that I had a dream last night that warned me of my impending death by drowning. If I decided to run away from this fate and seclude myself in an abandoned warehouse, it is inevitable that one of the pipes would burst, flooding the building and leading to my death by drowning. However, if I did nothing and continued on with my day, I would encounter a freak flood on my way to work and drown in my car anyway.
You see, fatalism is so alluring because it offers the illusion of free will and choice while maintaining that there is such a thing as destiny– events that are meant to happen, and a purpose for life that we are meant to fulfill. It’s a darker sense of fulfillment than the one offered by the quest story, it’s true, but it provides satisfaction on a grim and somewhat pessimistic level.
Fatalism, Star Wars, and Us
When Anakin Skywalker has a premonition that Padmé will die in childbirth, he is being offered a view of a fixed event in fate. It is likely that, had he done nothing, she would have died of the natural risks associated with childbirth (clearly, at least, this is what Anakin believes would have happened). However, when he chooses to try to stop fate, he essentially sets in motion a series of events which will lead to Padmé’s death in childbirth. Sometimes called a self-fulfilling prophecy, Anakin’s actions end up becoming the cause of the very thing that he hopes to prevent. We, as an audience, know how it will all turn out, creating a sense of dramatic irony (the reason that the self-fulfilling prophecy is sometimes known as the “Oedipus effect”). Yet we continue to sit and watch, mesmerized.
This minor example is a reflection of the fatalism that encapsulates the entire prequel trilogy of Star Wars. Before the story even begins, we know that it will result in the innocent, childish Anakin Skywalker turning into the cold, mechanical monster of a man, Darth Vader. We are provided with this fixed event through the plot of Episodes IV-VI, which cannot be undone in the canon of the story. (Unless we’re talking about the new Star Trek revamp, of course, which breaks all the rules. But we’re not.) However, the part of us that gets a distressed sort of pleasure from Final Destination and even Oedipus Rex longs to see Anakin exercise his free will while knowing that he can never escape his fate. It’s sort of like watching an ant running from the magnifying glass, knowing that no matter which way it runs, it can’t escape the impending doom that awaits.
Does it make us cruel to take such tormented satisfaction in watching this deterministic scene play out? I don’t think so. After all, we are all just ants in the great scheme of things, trying to grapple with our own sense of purpose against the great magnifying glass of fate. Perhaps coming up against such an unconquerable foe as destiny from the comfort of our own living room, watching vicariously as the characters play out our own hopes and fears, is easier than having to confront it for real.