Since it’s Star Wars Day (“May The Fourth Be With You”), I thought I’d highlight this video:
In it, Wisecrack — a YouTube channel that explores philosophical ideas and concepts through reference to pop culture — addresses the meanings behind Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and in the process made me look at the film in a slightly different way. A way, I’ll admit, that partially reinforces my sense that it’s not a great Star Wars movie, but at the same time — because you can do contradictions like this in philosophy — leads me to wonder if it isn’t possibly also one of the best Star Wars movies.
(For the record, my official Star Wars ‘head-canon’, if I haven’t mentioned it before — that is, the movies I think comprise the fundamental ‘saga’ of Star Wars, goes: Episode II; Episode III; Rogue One; Episode IV. All the rest are undeniably great fun and very entertaining, but for me the rest don’t really impact on what I think is the core message of Star Wars: the Dark Side brings its followers to their own destruction.)
The video touches briefly on the meaning that can be read into some of the events of the film — and by the way, as with any time I talk about films or books or games or plays or what-have-you, I will not be giving a hoot about spoilers. So don’t read on if you don’t want plot points of The Last Jedi revealed to you.
So, for example, where The Force Awakens got a lot of criticism for being essentially a re-packaging of A New Hope — plucky band of rebels face down all-powerful fascist empire and destroy their huge planet-killing laser gun — Last Jedi, by this reading at least, makes quite explicit its intention to subvert that. Throughout The Force Awakens Kylo Ren, angsty lead bad-guy, is the stand-in for his grandfather, the fallen Jedi Darth Vader: black cloak, metallic full-mask helmet, breathy mechanical voice, and so on. Ren is shown as revering Vader, and seeking to continue what he sees as his legacy. Yet, in Last Jedi we see symbolic rejections of all the staples of the old Star Wars stories: Luke, presented with his old lightsaber by Rey, flicks the weapon over his shoulder and into the sea. Ren, standing with his mask on before his master, the weirdly non-significant Snoke, is told to “take that ridiculous thing off” — and later smashes the mask in a fit of Force-amplified pique.
So as symbols of the old Star Wars fall, a space is created for a new reading on the saga’s mythology, and this is where things get really interesting.
As Rey seeks Jedi training from Luke, the former master tells her repeatedly that the Jedi are over; their value, if they ever had any, is spent. “It’s time,” he says in one of the key lines in the movie, “For the Jedi to end.” He actually questions whether the Jedi ever really did any good, and while this can easily be mis-read as Luke’s cynicism and sense of failure colouring his view of everything, Wisecrack point out that this might actually be Luke experiencing a greater enlightenment.
One of the most fundamental ideas in Star Wars has always been the idea of the Force in balance: that Light has to fight to keep itself in balance with the Dark. Anakin Skywalker was unwisely favoured by the Jedi Council he ultimately destroyed because the Council believed in a prophecy that Anakin would “bring balance to the Force”. In effect he did: he reduced the number of Jedi to two — Yoda and Kenobi — effectively matching the number of Sith: himself and his master, Sheev Palpatine. This sort of balance wasn’t likely what the Jedi had envisaged.
But as Maz Kanata pointed out, “The Darkness rises, and Light to meet it.” The Force balances itself — and when the sides go out of balance, it doesn’t require a conscious act by any one Human/humanoid faction to restore them. If society begins to express great darkness, then great light will appear to match it, and vice-versa: the Dark is a part of Human nature, and the more effort the Jedi put into stamping out the Dark the more it will manifest itself in a society that’s restricted from facing it and reconciling with it.
“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more systems will slip through your fingers.”
In essence, in order to purge themselves and their society of the Dark, the Jedi became powerful. But in pursuing that goal, they pushed the Force out of balance — at least as far as Human society in that one galaxy was concerned. The Force righted itself, manifesting the counterbalancing darkness in the rise, once again, of the Sith order and its faithful.
When he asked Rey to join him, promising to end the Jedi and the Sith, and all the trappings of the old order, and to rebuild the Galaxy anew, Ren — according to this argument — showed that he’d reached the same understanding that Luke had finally attained: the binary, oppositional structure of Light versus Dark could not lead to a ‘victory’ for either side. The adherents of both sides were attempting to create a world out of balance: for the Jedi, and the Old and New Republics, that meant suppressing ‘evil’ — with evil represented by the selfish and emotional impulses of the Dark Side.
There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.
— The Jedi Code (from the Star Wars Expanded Universe)
For the Sith, the Empire and the First Order, it meant cleaving to strength and freedom, and rejecting the ‘weakness’ of compassion and the bonds of obligation by embracing the power of the Darkness.
Peace is a lie. There is only Passion.
Through Passion I gain Strength.
Through Strength I gain Power.
Through Power I gain Victory.
Through Victory my chains are Broken.
The Force shall free me.
— The Code of the Sith (from the Star Wars Expanded Universe)
These mantras didn’t come from the Star Wars movies, but from the so-called Expanded Universe — the countless books, games, graphic novels, and so on that filled in the narrative gaps, padded out characters (even to the point of making Boba Fett interesting)
Either one of these codes makes perfect sense from its respective point of view — yet what Ren had realised, and Luke had begun to accept, was that attempting to force the Force* in one direction or the other could ultimately only result in a backlash as the universal order returned — perhaps abruptly, even violently — to equilibrium.
When Ren offered Rey a new start, he was actually trying to take the one step that would put the galaxy on a more even footing. Rey was tempted because, perhaps, she realised deep down that this was the only real way to end the constant sway back and forth, good to evil and back, Dark to Light and back, that the galaxy had been going through for thousands of years. But in the end, perhaps the thought of giving ground to the Darkness was too much for her; perhaps the habit of thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ was just too ingrained to break. Whatever the reason, when she declared against Ren and gave herself entirely to the Light, Rey — undoubtedly with the best intentions — committed the galaxy to the continuation of that endless cycle.
I don’t for one moment think the idea of accepting the nature of Humans as creatures of both Light and Darkness means that we shouldn’t have laws, or that we shouldn’t hold to codes of morality and ethics. There are ways to treat people that are good, and ways to treat them that are wrong. Accepting that the Darkness is a part of us shouldn’t and needn’t change that. But it does warn us against absolutism, and the illusions and contradictions that can arise from absolutist thinking:
“Only a Sith deals in absolutes!”
— Obi-Wan Kenobi to Anakin Skywalker; The Revenge of the Sith