It happens about 25 minutes into A New Hope. Luke—now just a scrappy farmhand on a dusty sand planet—begs his Uncle Owen to let him leave Tatooine and join his friends at the Rebel flight academy. Owen refuses, and Luke stomps out of the hut, defeated, resigning to a scraggly hump in the sand. Up on that isolated dune, we see this misty-eyed peasant kid, who seems at once so goodhearted and so tortured, peering up toward a purple sky. A dewey french horn plays a melody in the upper register. And when Luke gazes out at that sunset, we see that there are two suns looking back at him. Mysterious as it may be, it’s an image that has established itself as among the most recognizable in all of film history.
But what does it mean, really? Today on May 4th–the pop culture holiday that’s come to be known as Star Wars Day–I keep thinking, after all these years, why do we keep seeing this Binary Sunset in Star Wars? The image is so significant to the series, appearing in Episodes III, IV, VIII, and IX, but it’s always understated. Unlike a lot of the recurring motifs of Star Wars, which are almost always just plainly stated out loud, the Binary Sunset is left open to interpretation. But that’s not to say this image is meaningless. In fact, as I unpack each occurrence of the Binary Sunset throughout the nine-film series, I’m realizing that these two suns may be the connective tissue holding all the many branches of the Star Wars saga together.
In the excellent Phantom Menace making-of documentary, The Beginning (which is oddly available in full on Youtube for anyone interested), George Lucas explains to producers of Episode I that his movies are like “poetry...sort of. They rhyme.” Whether or not you believe Lucas really had the entire nine film “Skywalker Saga” in mind when he first set foot in Tunisia to film A New Hope (then just called Star Wars), the recurring image of Tatooine’s twin suns seems to function, like he says, less as narrative text and more as a poetic device.
In Episode IV, Luke sees one sun that’s whitish with a pink outline, and another that’s blood-red. It’s a striking image, one that, especially with the majestic french horn from John Williams’ orchestra, inspires a lot of wonder. But there’s more to it. By the end of that trilogy, we come to understand, in this formative moment, Luke was gazing right over the threshold. A few scenes later, his foster parents will be burned to death and he’ll be yanked away from Tatooine to contend with a father who's dragging his only sun into a genocidal–yet all-powerful–Sith regime. One sun is light, the other is dark. In Return of the Jedi, we learn that it’s up to Luke to decide which one of those suns he’s going to let set on him. Get it?
28 earth years later, but a few decades on the Star Wars timeline backward, we see the suns again in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. This time, they’re the final image we see. Owen and Beru, two moisture farmers on the nowhere planet Tatooine, catch a glimpse of the Binary Sunset after being trusted with what will prove to be the Galaxy’s last hope: the infant Luke Skywalker. Whereas before, this image represented a choice between light or dark for the savior child, here, years before Luke’s story even really begins, the Binary Sunset is a signal of hope. Yes, the Galaxy has been lost to Lord Sidious, yes, the “chosen one” has gone the way of the Sith–but at the end of the prequel trilogy, we’re reminded that there is still hope. And not just in the form of one child. There are two suns: one for each of Padmé’s twin children.
We don’t see the Binary Sunset again for a long time. It isn’t until the second film of Disney’s new trilogy, 12 years after Episode III, after Kathleen Kennedy had brought the franchise back to its feet, that we see those suns–and Luke Skywalker–again. But in The Last Jedi, Luke isn’t quite the same as we’d known him before. The Luke Skywalker of Episode VIII is callous, old, and dejected. In the years we’d been away from him, Luke had failed–he failed to bring the Jedi Order back to life, failed to train his nephew Ben Solo, and worst of all, failed himself. Resigned to a solitary life away from the rest of the Galaxy, cut off from the Force, Luke became a shadow of the hero he once was. But in The Last Jedi, he’s finally brought back into the light. With Rey’s help, Luke finally accepts his failure, learns from his defeat, and makes a legendary sacrifice, his final stand against that blood red sun.
Luke dies a warrior death out on the far-off planet Ahch-To, but not before catching a glimpse of the Binary Sunset again. The last thing Luke sees before he disappears into a pile of empty robes is a pair of suns. Sure, they’re not the suns of Tatooine, but they certainly signal this recurring motif, except this time, the suns aren’t a representation of choice, but a reminder of sacrifice. A reminder of those who lived–and died–before him. For Luke to really become that hero he chose to be, he had to make this last sacrifice, just as Obi-Wan did for him. Staring out at these two suns, he’s learned his final lesson. It’s no coincidence that the John Williams soundtrack portion that plays during Luke’s passing is called “Peace and Purpose.”
The Skywalker Saga ends just two years later in J.J. Abrams’ Rise of Skywalker. And although the story drifts away from Luke and Anakin, exploring new regions of space with the new hero Rey, the Binary Sunset, again, becomes the prevailing symbol of the film. In Rise, Rey comes face to face with the reality that, unlike the heroes before her, she bears a bloodline that has only ever been associated with evil. She’s a Palpatine. And the prophecy says that she must restore the Sith to power, not the Jedi. So once again, it’s a story about choice–Rey’s choice to reject the narrative written about her in favor of an organic one.
But when she sees the Binary Sunset on Tatooine again, on this very last time, we learn now, after 10 films and over forty years later, that the meaning of these two suns was actually not so ambiguous or abstract after all. When Rey, a Palpatine, stares up at that stunning vision, the mystery of the Binary Sunset becomes really quite simple. The whitish sun–the light one–represents the Skywalker family. And the darker red one signifies the Palpatine bloodline. Two suns. Two families. Jedi. Sith. Good. Evil. Rey chooses which bloodline she wants to keep for herself. It’s about as classic as you get.
That’s Star Wars in a nutshell, I think. Franchise obsessives have argued for decades about what makes a story a Star Wars story. The series is a thematic one–although the Skywalker name is central to the movie trilogies, there’s really no person, group of people, central conflict, or even part of the galaxy on which the whole franchise is based. Unlike The Avengers, Lucasfilm’s space adventures aren’t just about bringing old stories from the comics to life, or adding new superheroes to a team, one by one. Sure there are recurring characters throughout Star Wars–we’re always seeing furry aliens, moody warriors, evil wizards, slap-happy smugglers, etc. But to me, Star Wars has always been more about french horns than laser swords. Today, as the franchise sits right on the precipice of a new era, with eleven upcoming television shows, two new films, and more comic books, novels, and video games to count, I hope Disney is keeping the Binary Sunset in mind. It’s like Finn says in Rise of Skywalker. “It’s a feeling.”
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