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NEW YORK (Reuters) - As any philosopher will tell you, there is a lot more to "Star Wars" than a bunch of spaceships, lightsabers and princesses.
Rich in mythology, symbolism and theology, the movie franchise set in a galaxy far, far away has for decades proved a treasure trove for earthbound philosophers, raising issues such as the nature of good and evil, free will and determinism, the prophecy of the chosen one, and the true nature of The Force.
"'Star Wars' is very powerful because it helps us understand ourselves in the light and dark side of The Force. We feel this in our lives when we have this pull of immediate gratification but a desire to achieve long term goals," said George Backen, professor of philosophy at Adams State University in Colorado.
"George Lucas hit on a perfect mixture of myth, Flash Gordon, Westerns and Japanese culture, and it really resonates with people," Backen added.
For more than 30 years, academics, students and people of faith have used 'Star Wars' as a springboard to explore themes like moral ambiguity, father-son relationships, concepts of feminine beauty and the yearning for something better in life.
Now they are anticipating new topics to explore with the arrival on Dec. 18 of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
"I wonder if 'The Force Awakens' theme is a kind of post 9/11 take, where former certainties are rattled and things we thought were reliable are disrupted?" said Kevin Decker, professor of philosophy at Eastern Washington University and co-editor of the book "The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy."
Decker, who has seen the six movies more than 100 times, will also be looking for any radical changes to the concept of The Force as the ultimate arbiter of who is good and who is bad.
"If, for example, 'The Force Awakens' means all kinds of people wake up suddenly being able to use The Force who have never had any training or knowledge of it, that would be a fundamental shake-up in the 'Star Wars' universe," Decker said.
Spiritualism is a major "Star Wars" theme. Creator George Lucas was quoted as saying some 15 years ago that The Force embodies "a concept of religion based on the premise that there is a God and there is good and evil."
Caleb Grimes, the Virginia-based author of the "Star Wars Jesus" book and website, believes young Luke Skywalker's initial yearning for something more in life echoes "our desire to know a personal God."
Philosophers debate whether human-like droids, such as R2-D2, are conscious or self-aware, and how could that be tested. The Imperial Stormtroopers have long been likened to Nazi armies, and many feminists view Princess Leia's gold metal bikini and metal-collar captivity in "Return of the Jedi" as embodying a tyrannical ideal of feminine beauty.
Backen, who has seen the movies countless times, said that although the characters are not actively wrestling with philosophical concepts, the movies help explain a lot of human experience through their stories.
"'Lord of The Rings' and the Marvel universe are popular but they don't have the cultural influence that 'Star Wars' has," Backen said.
College philosophy courses based on "Star Wars" are hugely popular with students, he said.
"It's another way that students want to express their fandom and be part of the 'Star Wars' universe. The courses give them this opportunity and also they end up learning a lot of philosophy. Hopefully."
Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Nick Zieminski