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Choosing Between Good And Evil In A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Jonathan Short

The battle goes on. In a galaxy far, far away, forces of good clash with forces of evil.

The new installment of the Star Wars saga is an absolute success. Rotten Tomatoes estimates a critics' approval of 93 percent. Tickets sales are breaking all records: Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently surpassed Titanic and Jurassic World, netting $740.3 million in the 19 days after its release — and closing in on Avatar, the highest domestic grossing movie of all time.

Threatened by video games and digital TV, Hollywood is fighting back in style. Bloomberg estimates that — helped by Star Wars, Jurassic World and Minions -- the movie industry netted a record-breaking $11 billion in 2015. The war for consumers never abates.

Being a Star Wars fan, I approached the movie theater with trepidation, worried that the new episode would flop. No one wants this, especially those of us who grew up with the series. The first installment was launched in 1977 (fourth in the series) written and directed by George Lucas, starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness.

That's 39 years of Star Wars, a fantasy where abundant intelligent life exists in another galaxy. It's not quite what we expect happens in our Milky Way, given what we know now of the properties of exoplanets and the evolutionary history of life on Earth: If life exists elsewhere — and there is no obvious reason for it not to — it is likely quite simple, probably made of unicellular organisms. (As it was here for about 3 billion years.) Complex life and, in particular, intelligent life, is most probably quite rare.

But in Star Wars, different species commingle and battle for power in ways that mirror what has been happening here on Earth since the dawn of civilization. The saga is an allegory for our own collective history, with themes like imperialism and the inevitability of war dominating the narrative. In particular, there are two times: one that advances linearly as people age normally and another, a historical time, which is cyclical. The same battles recur endlessly, reflecting an unstable balance between good and evil.

Spoiler Alert!

In the new episode, parallels with the ascension of Nazism are quite clear. (Spoilers from here on!) Thirty years after the fall of the Galactic Empire in Episode VI, forces of evil regroup as the First Order. The new leader wants to control the galaxy using a devastating weapon capable of destroying planets as if they were soap bubbles. Stormtroopers are back. In one scene, before the deployment of the dreaded weapon, we see thousands of them aligned in an open square like Hitler's troops, saluting their general with a raised hand after a speech that could have been in German.

To control the galaxy, the First Order needs to eliminate the Jedi — or the last of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker. Luke tried to reorganize the Jedi after the defeat of the Empire, training a new crop of students. One of them, Kylo Ren, son of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), betrayed him, turning — in the cyclic inevitability of the narrative — to the dark side. Ren's inspiration was none other than his grandfather, Darth Vader.

Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker are back, as we see new characters interact with old heroes, a formula designed to please. Director J.J. Abrams does a fabulous job re-creating the flavor of the original three episodes (so, Episodes IV, V and VI), moving away from the excesses and plasticity of the more recent installments (Episodes I, II and III).

The basic plot is reminiscent, reflecting the basic point of the saga, that the Force needs both good and evil — that a dynamic balance between the two is essential. There can't be good without evil and vice versa. We could almost substitute Force for Tao and good and evil for yin and yang. The Tao flows through the universe, manifesting itself through the dynamic interplay of yin and yang. "Feel the Force" could be interpreted as "Connect with the flow of Tao."

With Luke on a self-imposed exile on a distant planet, good incarnates in the novice Rey (Daisy Ridley), who receives powers quite mysteriously. (Some fans complained of Rey's amazing abilities. I imagine we will find out where they come from in the next episode, scheduled for May 2017.) She is the audience pleaser, the good we all love to see in action, displaying the tremendous inner strength we all want to have in our own private battles through life.

Even if good and evil need to coexist, it's always nice to see good triumphing, even if only temporarily.

Better not to take the science seriously. To extract energy from a whole star and store it somehow within a planet seems quite impossible. No solid material or supporting magnetic field can capture a plasma at tens of millions of degrees in such a small volume, let alone refocus it with the directional of a cannon. Also, traveling at light speed is impossible for bodies with mass. Only light or another massless entity can do this. Sounds don't propagate in outer space, where there is no sustaining medium like our atmosphere, so wars in space would be eerily silent.

But no one wants a physics lesson when they go to watch a movie like this. People want to have fun and to be moved by the characters and their adventures. In this, Star Wars delivers, telling us a story that is close to our own, to our capacity to create and destroy, to succumb to the seduction of power, about the inevitability of good and evil.

If the Force represents some kind of cosmic consciousness, an abstract representation of a deity, the movie tells us that, even in the divine, good and evil must coexist. Realms of pure good, or of pure evil, are utopias. One can't exist without the other: To fight for final victory is pointless. The battles will keep on happening, as the balance of power shifts this way and that.

The movie poses meaningful proposition: Given the inevitability of good and evil, we have a choice. Which way we go defines the life we will have.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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