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The Phantom Menace of Superstition in Film and Television


Matt Nisbet

May 28, 1999

This is an essay about George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Dark Lords of the Sith. The modern mythology created by the two filmmakers through films like Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T., has been celebrated in the world media, but there is a Dark Side to the stories weaved by America’s foremost storytellers. In short, Darth Lucas and Darth Spielberg have created a legacy of films that attack reason, sell transcendental fantasies, and undermine appreciation for science and progress.

The case against Lucas and Spielberg has its origins a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, where science and reason were celebrated. It was the age of the Enlightenment, a period that dominated Western culture during the eighteenth century. The era praised and expanded the achievements of Bacon, Voltaire, Locke, and Newton while offering rationalism and science as the best means for navigating, shaping, and understanding the world. The great achievements of science and technology we enjoy today owe much to the traditions of the Enlightenment.

The Romantic period was an intellectual rebellion that followed the Enlightenment, stretching through the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century. If the Enlightenment was an age dominated by scientists and philosophers, than the Romantic period was the era of poets and artists. Romantic poets Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge disdained science, and in their writing admired transcendental fantasies, emotion, agrarianism over industry, and intuition over reason.

By the twentieth-century, the traditions of both Romanticism and the Enlightenment co-existed, but in irreconcilable conflict. In 1959, English scientist and novelist C.P. Snow described the development as “The Two Cultures.” One culture was comprised of the arts and humanities while the other was comprised of science. Between the two, Snow described ” a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

The most dominant art form of the century, however, came about through a combination of the Two Cultures. The scientific invention of cinema and television merged music, drama, visual setting, and narrative into an assault on the senses and emotions of mass audiences worldwide. Culture and society were forever changed.

As communication researcher George Gerbner points out, the privilege of storytelling in our society has been given to the producers, writers, directors, and owners of film and television. The role of storytelling is critical to a culture as it shapes our conceptions of self and society, and influences our aspirations, behavior, and knowledge.

During the Enlightenment, storytelling was dominated by the philosophes, journalistic popularizers and great public orators who propagandized the achievements of science and reason. The result was an educated public that championed rationalism and personal freedom.

One of history’s great ironies then is that although science created the medium, the dominant storytellers in film and television champion in their stories the medieval, the romantic, the transcendental, and the anti-scientific. The influence of the electronic media has contributed to a society of twenty-first century science and technology that is plagued by twelfth century superstition and belief. According to Gallup polls, more than half of Americans believe in the Devil, a third believe that houses can be haunted, three quarters believe in angels, and nearly a third believe in crashed alien saucers.

Enter filmmakers Lucas and Spielberg. Lucas captivated a generation of Americans with the release of Star Wars followed by Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. This summer hordes journey to view Phantom Menace, the prequel to the Star Wars trilogy dubbed “the most anticipated film of the century.” Steven Spielberg emerged in the seventies with Jaws, followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, E.T., and his most successful box office hit of the nineties, Jurassic Park. Combined, Lucas and Spielberg have grossed billions worldwide with billions more in merchandising sales. They have inspired nearly three decades of blockbuster extravaganza films that play on Lucas/Spielberg themes, along with television series, novels, fan clubs, conventions, web sites, action figures, college courses, wall paper, bed spreads, lunch boxes, and children’s swimming pools.

Take a moment to deconstruct Lucas with me. The linkages to the Romantic period in Star Wars are obvious. The Force is a pantheistic energy that offers a dark and light path. Certain individuals are born with a special connection to the Force, and are trained as Jedi Knights. Through monkish servitude and meditation, the superhero Jedi Knights are able to harness the Force, and develop supernatural powers that include incredible reflexes, mind control, telekinesis, remote viewing, and divination. After their death, Jedi Knights appear as smiling and wise guardian angels to aid the protagonists. In order to “use the force,” Jedi Knights remind others to “trust your feelings,” “let yourself go,” and “use your intuition.” In an interview in TIME magazine, Lucas described the phrase “use the force” as a leap of faith. “There are mysteries and powers larger than we are,” George Lucas tells Bill Moyers. “And you have to trust your feelings in order to access them.”

Though the subjects of Spielberg’s films are varied, the Romantic themes remain consistent. Jaws is premised on the irrational fear of a sea monster that lurks concealed in the great unknown. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, aliens are angels basked in brilliant white light that shepherd humans to the heavens. In E.T., the alien is a fallen angel seeking to return home. Ancient buried spirits of Native Americans are awakened in Poltergeist when suburban sprawl threatens to dig up their sacred graves to make way for swimming pools and basements. In Jurassic Park, greedy scientists recreate dinosaurs, but are unable to control them, thereby unleashing chaos and disaster.

Spielberg is far from through with the paranormal. He recently announced plans for a twenty-hour Sci Fi Channel series on alien abduction. Not to be outdone, fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is producing a sixty-six part series featuring alien invasion and the prophecies of Nostradamus.

Americans under the age of thirty have been the subjects of a great experiment. Transcendental and supernatural stories have always been part of world culture, but never before in history has a generation been inundated by mythology through such a powerful medium as film and television. If we use this technology to tell our children medieval stories, what can we expect in return?

Writing in his 1996 book Demon Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, astronomer Carl Sagan noticed that even the bright students of Cornell University suffer from gaping holes in knowledge. “I can find in my undergraduate classes,” he wrote, “bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star.” Sagan’s undergraduates are indicative of a general public whose scientific literacy is at an alarming five percent. The prolific author and scientist also offered an indictment of the media. “An extraterrestrial being newly arrived on Earth, scrutinizing what we mainly present to our children in television, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, the comics, and many books-might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity, and consumerism.”

In an era of unprecedented technological sophistication, younger generations risk growing up the most technologically proficient generation in history, but also the most scientifically illiterate. Fed a steady diet of fantasy, it appears only a matter of time before technology turns into magic for a population characterized by fundamental misunderstandings of science. As we face increasingly complex policy decisions on issues that include the environment, the economy, education, and medicine, our democracy will be tested if we continue to live in fantasy, and lack an appreciation for science and reason.

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Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at Northeastern University and a CSI technical consultant.