Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
From its very first moments, the Star Wars Saga made its preoccupation with helmets absolutely clear. Chronologically speaking, the first few moments of Star Wars (1977) are nothing but helmets.
After an opening narrative crawl and a spectacular special effects sequence of an Imperial Star Destroyer chasing down a Rebel Blockade Runner, we basically watch a bunch of guys in helmets deal with other guys in helmets. Oh sure, C-3PO and R2-D2 are scurrying around delivering a bit of exposition, but it’s mainly rebels in helmets taking up a position to deal with intruders boarding the ship. Since we can see the worry on their faces, we empathize with them, even though we are not sure who any of them are.
Then, in a scene that will be imitated like crazy throughout science fiction films and shows for decades, a locked door is broken through to reveal a set of new guys in helmets! The Stormtroopers arrive for the first time on screen, guns blazing (and actually hitting a few of their targets). They must be evil because they wear full helmets with built in scowls.
The true evil shows up moments later when Darth Vader is first revealed on screen. Now there is a helmet, perfect for a character who would go on to become the most dangerous of villains on screen. Vader’s helmet was also a source of mystery as we caught a glimpse of the horrific injuries it concealed.
From that point on, the original trilogy is a story of baddies in full helmets, menacing heroes and anti-heroes who mostly go helmet-free but who sometimes wear partial helmets as the job requires. Yes, Imperial officers do not wear helmets, but this is largely so that we can see the looks on their faces when Darth Vader force chokes them.
That love of helmets ran backwards in narrative time for the prequel trilogies and jumped ahead with the sequel trilogies. The pre-Storm Trooper aesthetics of the Clone Troopers’ helmets added a kind of tragic foreshadowing to a group that was supposedly good. Kylo Ren’s own helmet represented his almost obsessive fixation with his grandfather Darth Vader.
One particularly strong example of the power of a good helmet in the Star Wars franchise is Boba Fett. This is a character whose entire popularity was initially based on a strong aesthetic design. We know this because the guy hardly does anything in the original trilogy. Wow does he look cool standing there though!
So cool, in fact, that Boba Fett’s look would go on to inspire an entire culture of characters, the Mandalorians. Their helmets are so cool that some of them cannot take their helmets off for religious reasons. In fact, the trailers for the upcoming third season of Disney+’s The Mandalorian suggest that the titular character, sometimes known as Din Djarin, has to redeem himself for doing that very blasphemous thing in an earlier storyline. That will not be an easy thing to do because there appears to be no orthodox path for absolution in this Mandalorian faith.
And that means in a few short weeks, Star Wars will once again have us worrying about helmets.