It doesn’t quite carry the same dramatic weight as an evil intergalactic empire, but the forces of the Jedi have been vanquished…by the Charity Commission; that august institution may not be headed by a heavy-breathing psychopath in a black cowl and cape, but it has successfully rejected desperate appeals for Jediism to be registered as a religion. And this is despite 177,000 people listing that as their faith on the 2011 Census – more than listed Rastafarianism, which itself took decades to be accepted as a religion (something many still dispute).
There are many ways of looking at this demand on the part of ‘Star Wars’ devotees. It could be viewed as one more dispiriting example of ‘Kidult-hood’ and the clinging to the totems of childhood in a wilful reluctance to grow up rather than finally stashing the toy-box in the parental attic; it could be viewed as a characteristically quirky prank on the part of agnostic Brits refusing to take such a question seriously; or it could be viewed as evidence that even if orthodox religion has been rejected by vast swathes of the population, the need to look up to the stars for some form of salvation still exists; just as the mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Norsemen, Christianity and Islam provided comfort in the past (and continues to in the present where the latter two are concerned), the craving for celestial beings to worship seems to be an instinctive human desire.
Prior to the release of ‘Star Wars’ in 1977, science fiction as a cinematic genre had, as with most others in that last Golden Age of Hollywood, a distinctly adult feel to it. Movies from the first half of the 70s with a futuristic or sci-fi slant, such as ‘Soylent Green’, ‘Rollerball’, ‘The Omega Man’, ‘Westworld’ and ‘Logan’s Run’, reflected the maturity of sci-fi that came in the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Even George Lucas himself had followed the trend with his 1971 directorial debut, ‘THX 1138’, another in a long line of Ballard-esque Dystopian views of the future that bore little relation to Lucas’s wish to revive the ‘space opera’ serial of the 30s, ‘Flash Gordon’.
Lucas’s failure to acquire the rights to ‘Flash Gordon’ resulted in him developing his own equivalent over a three-year period, and when ‘Star Wars’ finally arrived at cinemas, the absence of competition in terms of big-budget adventure films for all the family enabled the movie to clean up at the box-office. In the mid-70s, it was only really the ‘disaster’ strain of cinema that pulled in the punters, with the likes of ‘Earthquake’, ‘The Towering Inferno’, ‘Jaws’ and the ‘Airport’ series; but the craze had run out of steam by 1977 and Lucas’s timing was perfect.
It’s undeniable to see now that the revolutionary blend of a simplistic B-picture plot with cutting-edge special effects created the formula that remains with us today where the ‘Blockbuster’ picture is concerned; the only real difference is that, almost forty years on, space Cowboys & Indians have been superseded by superheroes. The crucial distinction between ‘Star Wars’ and the franchises that have pursued the same path since 1977, however, is that almost from the very beginning there were some who took the lightweight fun very seriously indeed.
News footage of the queues outside the cinema when ‘Star Wars’ arrived in Britain at the end of 1977 shows a sizeable proportion of young men in their late teens and early twenties present as well as the expected children (who, like me, had received advanced warning of this event via promotion in American Marvel comics); the presence of over-18s suggested an audience that George Lucas hadn’t anticipated. I remember going to see the film as a ten-year-old in early 1978 and it defined that year for me as a childhood fad. The merchandise swamped the shops, from bubblegum cards, comics and stationary to the ridiculously expensive action figures, though I never owned any of the latter.
By 1979, I’d moved onto something else, as tended to happen with me then; I was actually becoming more interested in pop music and the 99p seven-inches assembled into their chart positions on the wall of my local Woolies. I did go to see ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in 1980, an eleventh hour childhood moment on the cusp of adolescence, but by the time ‘The Return of the Jedi’ hit cinema screens three years later, not even Princess Leia’s slave girl outfit could tempt me back; my prepubescent fascination with the George Lucas universe has never been rekindled.
I realise my experience as a brief ‘Star Wars’ fan is not necessarily the common route many have taken once exposed to the saga. Imaginary worlds such as those created by Tolkien already had a dedicated adult following of largely male fanatics before ‘Star Wars’, but Lucas’s invention has spawned even greater fanaticism to the point whereby some use it as a design for life; attempting to elevate the cult of the Jedi, the movie series’ monastic Samurai-like warriors, to the level of an actual religion, is perhaps taking things a little too far. Although the man-made mythology of the Jedi is no more fantastical than that of actual bona-fide religions, one can’t help but wonder why the world needs another religion when the ones we’ve had for thousands of years have hardly left a legacy of peace and harmony.
The decision of the Charity Commission to turn down charitable status for the so-called Temple of the Jedi Order seems like a victory for common sense, though when one studies the myths and legends of the ‘legit’ faiths that have far more followers than the Temple of the Jedi Order can boast around the world, there’s not much to separate them. Until some bright spark invents genuine light sabres, the Jedi’s capacity for violence would at least be subdued in comparison to the competition; and Jedi Jihadists remain restricted to a galaxy far, far away, which can’t be bad.
© The Editor