Happy Star Wars week! This piece is part of a series on God in sci-fi and fantasy. Read the other entries here.
Last weekend, my wife and I gathered with a handful of friends and watched the original, unaltered 1977 version of Star Wars.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, the original Star Wars (now called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) was released in 1977 and featured then-cutting-edge special effects, achieved through creative combinations of costumes, puppets, and old-school camera trickery.
I hadn’t seen the first trilogy until the Special Editions hit theaters when I was a teenager — I was used to director George Lucas’ CGI “updates,” added twenty years later and widely considered to detract from the original films.
So this weekend was a treat for me. I was amazed at how organic and tactile the world unfolding on screen felt. It was strange and hypnotic. And by the time young protagonist Luke Skywalker and his wizened mentor Ben Kenobi hire a cutthroat smuggler named Han Solo to help them abscond with secret plans that could bring down the oppressive Empire, I was under the movie’s spell.
Then I saw Han shoot a man in cold blood.
In the Mos Eisely cantina, Han has just agreed to carry Luke and Ben away from danger in Tatooine when he is approached by Greedo, a bounty hunter working for one of Han’s creditors. The two exchange words and then, in the 1997 version I knew, Greedo shoots Han. Han awkwardly leans away, and then returns fire.
I had always known that this was a change from the way the film was originally presented: In 1977, Greedo never shot his gun. Instead, Han shot him pre-emptively. From years of listening to friends bemoan the change, I thought I understood why it was problematic. But now that I’ve seen the original story play out with my own eyes, I get it in a way I never have before.
Han goes on to tell Luke and Ben that he doesn’t view himself as a leader or a hero or a freedom fighter. He just wants to get paid and move on. Over the course of the story, though, his aloof nature begins to break down. He develops affection for the passengers he’s taken on. He sees the truth and value in their quest. He rebuffs their offer of a leadership position in their organization and leaves with his money. But when it seems like their mission is sure to collapse, he returns to save their lives, at great personal expense.
The 1997 version of the movie used computer technology to change the very beginning of Han’s story. Director George Lucas has said in subsequent interviews that he didn’t think we should accept Han as a hero if he began the movie as a killer. So he added in a gunshot from Greedo, and digitally manipulated the scene to make it look like Han had moved out of the way. But as I learned this weekend, changing the start of Han’s story colors everything that comes after.
And Han shooting first isn’t just a better story — it’s also a truer one.
The Bible is full of stories of people being given honors and responsibilities they don’t think they deserve (and to our eyes, definitely don’t): The ascendant king David welcomes Mephibosheth, the grandson of his deposed enemy, to dine at his table. Paul, a violent oppressor of the Christian faith, becomes a leader of the oppressed church. And in the Christmas story, an entire planet full of people who have learned to be content living in the dark get shown God’s wondrous light — at great expense to the light-giver himself.
It’s in God’s character to want more for people than they want for themselves. This shows up again and again in the ways God interacts with our world. And we are made in God’s image — when we see this kind of story told well, we respond to it.
The original version of Star Wars tells this kind of story about Han Solo. At the outset, Han is living moment-to-moment with no check on what he is or isn’t willing to do. The only guideposts he lives by are whether the options before him are enjoyable and beneficial to him. When he says he isn’t a freedom fighter, he’s not just saying that he’s too busy to take part in a revolution — he’s also saying that he believes himself to be too much of a scoundrel to be trusted or relied on for anything morally upright. He doesn’t deserve to be part of the club. But over the course of the movie, he is shown grace by the other characters, and offered a seat at their table just as he is. That offer moves him and changes him.
By telling us the story of a Han Solo who waited for his enemy to take the first shot before opening fire himself, the Star Wars Special Edition presents him as a man of principle from the very first. His actions are guided by a commitment to moral principles that transcend his fears or desires. In this version, when he says that he’s not part of Luke’s political cause, he’s not implying anything about the quality of his own character — he’s just letting them know that he has other things on his plate at the moment. Han’s story in the Special Edition is the story of a self-sufficient moral crusader deciding when to deploy his morals in the service of a new cause.
The original Star Wars gave us a Han Solo who evoked something of the story of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well, or the proverbial younger brother returning to his father’s house in the hopes of becoming a hired hand. He could only conceive of himself as an outsider, disqualified from the community of the righteous by the life the he led. Realizing that he was welcome anyway shook him to the core, and he gave his life to Luke and the Rebel Alliance in gratitude.
The Special Editions paint Han Solo as something akin to a Sadducee who, over the course of the movie, decides to become a Pharisee. That’s a story that could probably also tell us a lot about the state of humanity — but it also lies to us about our future. It tells us we are condemned to remain ourselves. It offers us no glimpse of the change, the growth, and the restoration that, on some level, we know we crave.
And it reveals even less about what God has done through Christ to provide it.