Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lost and Star Wars: why some mysteries are better left unsolved

The epic television drama Lost and the epic movie series Star Wars have much in common, and not just a devoted fan base.

Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way first: both are fantasy/science fiction dramas, which tap into classic themes of good and evil. They both draw upon existing mythology while inventing their own. Both have avid (rabid?) fans who are passionate in their praise and their criticism. Both have six “parts” (if you count each television season as one part.) Both use comic relief to break the tension while tackling issues of life and death. Both have been hailed and assailed by critics as game-changing forces of pop culture and melodramatic fluff.

So far so good, but both sagas are more than just the sum of their parts. The best fantasy uses its fantastic settings and characters as metaphors for our own world. Both of these epics did just that, though with how much success is still up for debate. At the heart of both stories is the struggle of good vs. evil. Other themes included family, friendship, loyalty, faith, and our own search for meaning.

Because Lost had so many hours to work with, the show could explore these themes in much greater detail and variation. Star Wars didn’t have this luxury of time, and instead used a broader brush to paint its big ideas. Although the story and themes of Star Wars were simpler than those in Lost, this was also an advantage, for the writers could polish their big concepts without getting bogged down in dozens of minor characters and sub-plots (can you imagine the complications that time-travel would have brought to the plot of Star Wars?) I would even say that Lost is more science fiction than Star Wars, because issues of science and physics were integral to its story.

But here’s the most interesting parallel, I think. Both sagas raised big questions in their early chapters, and both tried to answer those questions in their later chapters. The general criticism aimed by some viewers at the ending of Lost (and I partly share their assessment) is that the show did not answer all of the questions it raised, and when it did, the answers did not live up to expectations. My own criticism of the final three Star Wars films (Episode 1, 2 & 3) is that even though they did answer most of the questions raised in the earlier films (the origins of Darth Vader, the Clone Wars, etc.), the films did not inspire us the way the first trilogy did; the storytelling was somehow less satisfying.

To this I would say that some things are better left unsaid, and some mysteries better left unsolved. In the very first Star Wars film, we did not need to know where Darth Vader came from, his very mystery was part of his appeal. During most of Lost we likewise did not know the origin of the smoke monster, nor all of the other mysteries of the island, yet it was thrilling to watch each puzzle lead into another. I’m not saying that storytellers shouldn’t bother solving their mysteries or tying up loose ends – only that it’s okay to leave a little mystery, because that’s what keeps life interesting. And by letting your audience use their imagination to fill in the blanks, you are involving them more actively and making the whole experience more engaging. It expands the story in infinite ways beyond anything the writers could have imagined.

So here is a message for creators and viewers of genre fiction or any other fiction. Questions are okay if they make you think, if they stir the imagination. Not everything needs to be tied up in a bow; art is a conversation not an explanation. And if you're forced to use your brain once in a while, don't worry, it's good for you.


Chris Sabatino said...

What a great post, John! I totally agree with most of what you said. I loved both Lost & Star Wars and loved your 6 part comparison. I thought too many answers were given during the final season of Lost and wondered what else people needed to know and, although I enjoyed watching Star Wars ep.s 1-3, I thought they were pretty much disappointments, we really didn't learn anything new. I thought those chapters would have turned everything we thought we knew inside out (like Wicked did for Wizard of Oz), but they were just simple exposition.

Jesse Anna Bornemann said...

Well put, John - I think it's a tricky issue for storytellers. I tend to feel cheated, as a reader, if the "gun on the wall" in Act I isn't fired in Act II (metaphorically speakin'). But I'm willing to allow for mystery and a bit of artistic license, too. Sometimes a gun is just a gun, and a Smoke Monster is just a Smoke Monster.