On Star Wars, Sunsets, and Hopes for a Better Tomorrow
I’ve always found it interesting that in a film saga filled with mystical powers, lightsaber duels, and space battles, the most enduring image of Star Wars is that of a farm boy looking out longingly at the setting sun. The Binary Sunset scene is so beloved that not only did George Lucas utilize it to close out Episode III Revenge of the Sith, which at the time was expected to be the final Star Wars movie, but two out of the three sequel films produced under Disney have also deployed the Binary Sunset in the concluding moments of their respective films. While we can debate the story merits of these subsequent sunset scenes (thumbs up on Revenge of the Sith, thumbs down on Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker), the one thing that is not up for debate is that sunsets are utilized in Star Wars to depict moments of transformation for key characters. And, as it turns out, the Bible utilizes sunsets in a surprisingly similar way.
In Genesis Chapter 15, the Bible records the covenant G-d formed with Abraham. Although his descendants were destined to be slaves in Egypt, G-d promised the first Jew that one day his offspring would be free and return to this land that he had settled. Notably, the Bible also records the precise movements of the setting sun as G-d tells Abraham of the future. As the sun is about to set, Genesis 15:12, a dread falls over Abraham as G-d first relays to him about the slavery his offspring would be subjected to. Just a few verses later, in 15:17–18, the Bible now records that the sun has fully set. Only then does G-d promise Abraham the redemption of his children. The Bible’s detailed notes regarding the position of the sun, coupled with how G-d reveals Abraham’s future to him, reflect how the sunset serves as such a transformative moment for Abraham. There is a natural dread that comes with a sunset. Sunsets bring endings. It is a time of uncertainty. And unlike sunrises, which are also transitional moments, there is a looming darkness waiting at the end of a sunset. It is easy to be a hopeful at a sunrise, but it can be much more difficult at a sunset. Abraham feels this dread even before G-d tells him about his offspring’s future enslavement, indicating that Abraham’s worries are connected to something he feels at sunset, rather than the vision he receives from G-d. Maybe Abraham felt this every sunset. By G-d choosing to reveal his future to him in connection to the movements of the sun, the Bible is demonstrating that while it is natural to fear the uncertainty of a sunset, the transformation that comes with it can also bring fulfillment.
Luke Skywalker’s journey from farm boy to savior of the galaxy mirrors this exact scene from the Bible. It all begins with a sunset. Luke is eating dinner with his Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen when Uncle Owen tells him that he won’t be able to leave the desert farm to go to school for at least another season. Luke sulks away in frustration from the table and heads outside to watch the twin suns of Tatooine set before heading back inside to finish his chores. This Binary Sunset scene, iconic now in pop culture and cinema history, is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. For the story of Star Wars, the scene serves as the transformative moment in Luke’s life. After he returns inside, he finds that his new droid R2D2 has escaped, off in search of his former master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke doesn’t quite realize it yet, but his adventure has now already begun. The sunset serves as a transformative moment for Luke. He watches it as a trapped young man yearning to live the life he dreams of. When it ends, he’s now been gifted his opportunity. While Luke and Abraham may differ in the way they view sunsets, with Luke finding solace and hope and Abraham finding dread, the sunset serves as the transformation point in both their lives. Luke’s longing for adventure is finally fulfilled, and Abraham’s hope for children is assured by G-d.
Although sunsets are moments of transformation, they are uncertain moments. Following his sunset vision, Abraham, now assured that he will have a lineage, weds his wife Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar, and has a child Ishmael with him. While it’s clear, to me at least, that the Torah and G-d have sympathy for Ishmael, it’s also clear that the boy is not the child Abraham dreamt his son to be. He would still have to wait years before having that son with Sarah. By juxtaposing the birth of Ishmael to Abraham’s vision, the Torah is noting that while G-d will provide the moment or opportunity for transformation, there is still uncertainty about what that transformation will bring. Abraham was guaranteed by G-d to have children. But Abraham, for whatever reason, did not choose correctly in how to bring that vision into reality.
Star Wars recognizes this as well. In Episode II Attach of the Clones, Lucas brings the story back to Tatooine and the Lars Homestead, when Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, goes to the moisture farm with Padme to find his mother. As Anakin speaks with Padme before heading off to the Tusken Raider camp where his mother has been captured, Lucas intentionally chooses to film part of their conversation via the character’s shadows, cast against the outer wall of the homestead by the setting twin suns. These shadows, connoting darkness or the anti-self, foreshadow Anakin’s turn the dark side. Sure enough, his first steps down that path take place just moments later when he slaughters the Tusken Raider camp, one of the more disturbing moments in the entire Star Wars saga. Lucas’ inversion of the hopeful Binary Sunset scene from Episode IV demonstrates the uncertainty that comes with moments of transformation. The Force created the opportunity, but how father and son responded to it changed the trajectory of their stories. Luke took the chance for adventure and overcame the limitations of his farm-boy upbringing. Anakin, faced with the death of his mother, turned to anger and hate.
Ultimately, while sunsets can be chances to transform, the choice rests with each of us to determine what that transformation will become. G-d, The Force, whatever it is you call it can only grant us the opportunity to make the change we want. From there, the choice is ours.
I first saw Star Wars in 1997 when the original trilogy was re-released as the Special Edition. I was seven year olds and like most children when introduced to Star Wars, I gravitated towards the “cool” parts of the saga — the lightsaber duels, space battles, and mystical powers of The Force. I (well my parents) bought video games, actions figures, and trading cards, and I even costumed as Darth Vader for Purim one year. But I also used to watch the sun go down sometimes and hum that Jon Williams melody to myself. There’s no way at the age I could have articulated why that scene mattered to me so. Even now it’s difficult. But there is something captured in that wordless scene that is universal. Even my father, who playfully teases me for my love of Star Wars understands it. I think it’s best to let the scene speak for itself.
Everyone knows what it feels like to dream. When you boil it down to its essence, that’s all that Star Wars is. The timeless hope that tomorrow will be the day we wish for it to be.