Star Wars: The Circle Theory

"The circle is now complete." -- Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope

During one of my university film classes, while viewing the first Star Wars movie for the umpteenth time in my life, I noticed something new. Over and over again, I saw the circle as a visual motif throughout the film.

So I started thinking about the cyclical storytelling structure that George Lucas was using and I wrote an essay about it. I also spoke about it in an independent documentary that was filmed during the original trilogy's "special edition" re-release, and I posted a version of the essay on my old City of Kik Web site. Here is the general gist:

George Lucas created the Star Wars franchise, a marvelous series of films that exhibited the cutting edge of special effects technology, and captured the imaginations of moviegoers of all ages. For good or bad, the impact of Star Wars on the motion picture industry cannot be denied. Yet, underlying all the visual effects and the “popcorn” summer blockbuster mentality is a cinematic composition full of carefully thought out symbols serving a mythic story. Throughout the film series, especially the very first chapter (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, 1977), one single visual motif emerges again and again: the circle.

Round images dominate many shots in the Star Wars universe. The presence of the circle is everywhere. Rebel ship corridors, hatchways, escape pod launching pads, ship windows are all round. The vacuum tube that sucks Artoo-Detoo (himself a dome-topped droid) into the Jawa vehicle is cylindrical.

Watching a Star Wars movie, one gets bombarded with images of circles, spheres, and cylinders: objects such as the Death Star space station, the planets, the two setting suns of Tattooine, Darth Vader’s round torture device, Han Solo’s “Millennium Falcon,” the floating remote sphere that tests Luke Skywalker’s Force skills, even Princess Leia’s original hairdo!

This symbol is pushed even further when Vader encounters his old mentor Ben Kenobi and says before their final duel, “The circle is now complete.”

Such use of round imagery by Lucas, a student of cinematic mise-en-scene and mythology, could not have been accidental. Lucas has admitted his inspiration by the scholarly works of people such as Joseph Campbell who have noticed the presence of the circle in mythic tales and cultures from the dawn of civilization, from Stonehenge to ancient art and relics. The story structure of Star Wars owes much to Campbell’s theory of the “journey of the hero” – from discovery, to initiation, to the heroic return.

The non-linear nature of the Star Wars episodes, first telling the “middle” story of Luke and Leia in chapters 4 through 6 and then telling the prequel tales of Anakin and Amidala, fit into this circular vision of reality, in which the beginning and the end of things blend together. Luke visits the planet Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back and expresses how “familiar” it looks, even though the movie-going audience is viewing it for the first time. Epic tales of the past, such as the Clone Wars and the “destruction” of Anakin by the Dark Side, are told first through verbal reminiscing and then witnessed “firsthand” in Episodes 1 through 3.

During the climax of Return of the Jedi, the Emperor says, “Only now, in the end, do you understand.” And yet the viewer arguably cannot fully understand until every chapter of the saga is complete, presenting all the clues and pieces of the puzzle that will make the full scope of the story complete.

If the mystic Force of Star Wars can be viewed as an analogy for faith-based religion, then the use of the circle as a mythic symbol becomes evident, for the God of both eastern and western theologies is a timeless god with “no beginning and no end,” a true eternal “alpha and omega” concept.

Lucas is pretty obvious with his use of symbols. The opening title sequences of each film seem to float away forever, flying off into the infinity of space, lending a grandiose scope to this tale of good versus evil from the very beginning of each chapter. Also, the first shot in A New Hope shows a tiny rebel ship quickly followed by a gigantic Imperial Destroyer which takes up almost the entire widescreen frame – the comparison instills awe in the viewer, clearly showing the might of the Empire and establishing the Rebellion’s David-and-Goliath story.

The Star Wars tale also constantly contrasts technology with more primitive images. Flesh and blood are destroyed and replaced with synthetic limbs of machinery; “feelings” supersede computerized instructions; mechanical wonders such as droids, space ships, and massive AT-ATs are placed in “old world” environments such as barren deserts, snow-covered landscapes, wide oceans, and untouched forests.

It is a jarring juxtaposition of primitive methods versus futuristic inventions. Again, the circular idea springs to mind about the notion of “progress.” In a sci-fi/fantasy world of ray guns and tractor beams and doomsday devices, it is fitting that Lucas has created his weapon of choice to be the cylindrical light saber, which requires physical contact between opponents. Vader and Kenobi, Luke and Vader, Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn, Kenobi and Anakin and Yoda and Count Dooku, all must get close to each other in order to battle each other. They must look into their enemies faces as they square off, like medieval knights. Again, the symbols are everywhere.

If the circle is indeed an intentional symbol, and if Lucas is indeed following a Campbellian structure, then the circle might not be complete until we see a “final trilogy” – episodes 7, 8, and 9. Lucas had initially mentioned that there was more to the saga beyond the first two trilogies, so only time will tell whether the prequels served as the discovery, the middle trilogy served as the coming of age trial by fire, and whether further chapters will see the “return” of the Star Wars saga to the big screen.