Spoilers there are, yes. ‘Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.’ Han Solo may have been no believer in the ways of The Force when he’s introduced to us a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Over the course of his life, he becomes, if not a convert, at least prepared to believe that there is more in the universe than the things that he can touch and see.
Han’s blunt denial of Luke Skywalker’s sudden and enthusiastic acceptance of religion stands against one of the pillars of the Star Wars universe. Faith in the Force in one form or another is vital to everything that happens across the vast, extended galaxy of stories in which Han, his friends and enemies appear.
The latest episode, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, brings that notion of faith into strong focus. In this writer’s ‘umble opinion, this makes it the most interesting in the new spate of Star Wars movies. Not just because of the story, but because of the reaction of those of us on the other side of the screen.
Let’s begin with an essential truth. The Star Wars stories are triggered by the conflict between two religious factions, the Jedi and The Sith. Notice, I don’t say two religions. Both sides believe in the same key points–that there is a Force that binds all living things together, which can be used either as a weapon or a tool. The difference is in interpretation. How you choose to use The Force. Right away, although we are long ago and far away, the struggle for supremacy of a point of view is no different to the one we’ve seen over the centuries between Catholics and Protestants or Sunni and Shia Muslims.
With that in mind, there’s another question to consider–is there a correct interpretation of the way of The Force? Yes, I know, we’re told that the Sith are evil and the Jedi are good. But, as the story has expanded, this simple black and white picture has become less clear. The Jedi are as capable of evil acts as the Sith. They are happy to use military ends to ensure their dominance (with the inevitable collateral damage), and while claiming to respect the rule of law are happy to act like gunslingers while taking care of their business. There’s no real Jedi code, more a set of guidelines. And that’s before we talk about the highly dodgy manipulation of those ‘weak-willed’ individuals that constitute the Jedi Mind rape Trick. Or the fact that they cheerfully drove the Sith to the edge of extinction in actions that look a hella lot genocidal.
One thing on which both sides agree–there has to be balance to The Force. Neither side can exist without the other. Which means, of course, that the age-old battle can never end. There can be no final victory, no crushing defeat. Just war, forever.
Notions of blind faith have gradually been eroded as the Star Wars Universe has expanded. Balance can be viewed as the realization that there is good and bad in everyone, and that Sith are as capable of good as Jedi are of evil. Believing without question in the tenets of the Dark or Light Side of The Force can have awful consequences. None of this is new to fans of the animated universe, of course. The Clone Wars and Rebels have explored the morality –or lack of it– of the Jedi for years.
But it’s Rian Johnson’s embrace of this concept that has made The Last Jedi such a fascinating prospect. The path has become unclear for the major Force users in the story. Kylo Ren and Luke suffer from crises of faith that lead them to the same conclusion–it’s time to burn it all down and start again. The First Order and the Resistance are simply fresh uniforms on the same old armies. It’s the age-old battle. Frankly, it’s unsurprising that an old warhorse like Luke would be sick of the whole thing. For Kylo, betrayed again and again by a series of flawed masters, the urge to break the mound is utterly understandable. Even Rey falters when faced with the uncomfortable truth that Kylo is more than a monster.
There’s more to it than that, though. The intention at the heart of The Last Jedi seems clear to me. Rian Johnson is clearing out all the old baggage, to open up the pathways to a new, fresh set of stories that are less beholden to entrenched history (sure, I’ll grant you that there’s still a lot of Empire Strikes Back in TLJ, but it’s much less of a Greatest Hits than either The Force Awakens or Rogue One). At the end of the film the Resistance is pretty much gone. The First Order has lost its old power structure with the death of the Palpatine-esque Snoke, and is now led by an unpredictable figure with no interest in the old ways. We’re moving into a third film that has no Luke, no Han, and tragically no Leia. Things all look incredibly… unbalanced.
And herein lies the most interesting part of all. Johnson’s film has become the subject of a vicious backlash, as some fans have reacted with shock at the bold changes made by the film. The appearance of petitions demanding significant re-edits or the removal of canon status to the film have fascinated me. The insistence that TLJ be struck from true Star Wars history from these fans could be viewed as nothing less than an accusation of heresy on Johnson’s part. Their faith has been insulted, and they demand restitution.
Sticky subject, this. Of course, there are people out there who identify as Jedi on census forms. How much of an anti-religion joke is that? How closely can we conflate Star Wars fandom –actually, any fandom– to faith? There are those who have found community, friendship and even love in the gathering of like-minded fans. At the same time, there are self-appointed gatekeepers who insist that there is one way and one way only. This has only got more complex as the universes in question have expanded. There’s surprisingly little common ground between the generation that grew up with the original trilogy and those who still prefer the animated series or prequels. Same core text, different interpretations. This is not confined to Star Wars, of course. I mean, you can offer the same argument to Harry Potter, anime or sports fans of every stripe. It’s just easier to see the parallels with SW which has such a potent religious allegory right at the heart of it.
Commentary about the way Luke effectively abandons the Jedi focusses strongly on the notion that ‘he wouldn’t act like that’ or, more extraordinarily, that his actions are somehow an assault on core principals of heroism or masculinity. That’s an argument that I really am not interested in addressing here. These commentators clearly have faith in Luke, and the notion of him as a character that would walk away from everything he stood for attacks that faith.
I’m moving into a broader interpretation of the word here, one that has a certain validity when we talk about fiction, especially the big franchises. Part of the enjoyment of Harry Potter or Star Trek or WWE is being able to identify with and empathize with our favorite characters. We have faith that they will behave in a certain way. Harry will not join forces with Voldemort. Kirk will always make a pass at the girl with the antennae. This is why we fans get so annoyed when our heroes and heroines act ‘out of character.’ Our faith in them is wounded.
But in the case of old Skywalker, there’s another element to consider. The Luke of TLJ is not the farm boy gazing out at the twin sunset of Tattooine. That was forty years ago. None of us are the same person at 60 as they were at 20. It’s nonsense to assume otherwise. Faith in your favorite characters is one thing. Refusing to accept that they could change or grow is something else, particularly when you take the quickest of looks at Luke’s dad. Hero of The Clone Wars. The Empire’s Greatest Monster. Killer of the cruel Emperor Palpatine. Now there’s a character with a fluid character map.
Star Wars has never been a simple good-versus-evil story. The Last Jedi, in my opinion, opens up the contradictions and dichotomies at the heart of the tale and lays them bare in explicit fashion for us. If neither the ‘villain’ or ‘hero’ of the story have belief in the roles that they have been forced to play, then all of a sudden everything is up for grabs. There was a lot to like and a lot to hate in The Last Jedi. But one thing’s for certain. I have faith that the next episode is going to be something very interesting indeed.