“That’s how we’re going to win. Not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.”
Okay, so millions of people are going to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the newest installment of the Skywalker saga. They will go for many reasons: They’ve been following this story for forty years. It is such a piece of popular culture that to not see it would be unthinkable. There are amazing special effects and battles. It is the last film for Carrie Fisher, who died nearly a year ago. Some will go to nitpick the physics. Others will want to consider the mythology around the Force and how that relates to our own ideas of philosophy and religion. This review is primarily directed to that last group.
The film carries the story on from The Force Awakens. The First Order is seeking to eliminate the last of the Resistance. Leia (Carrie Fisher) manages to evacuate their planet just before the First Order ships arrive, but soon the First Order finds them and puts them under siege. Fighter pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), who is undisciplined and hotheaded, continues to break all the rules as he tries to fight against the enemy. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who has an affinity for the Force, tracked down Luke (Mark Hamill) on a remote island. She wants Luke to come back and bring hope to the rebels. Luke refuses, saying the Jedi need to die off. Yet Rey persists to learn more of the Force. And so the battle goes on between the good and evil, but of course, when the Force is involved, light and dark are often at war within the characters more than they are between the armies.
Ever since the series began with what was later named A New Hope, the Force has been the main spiritual aspect of the series. It has a very mystical element. The description that Luke gives to Rey about the nature of the Force is very close to panentheism—not that God is within all things, but that all things are within God. (But of course the Force is really a religion without a divine being.) Even though some of the characters are more connected to the Force, in reality, all live within the spiritual system of the Force. And so when each character steps up for their time of heroism or villainy, they are acting out their understanding of the Force. It allows even minor characters to bring enlightenment.
There has often been an almost monastic quality to the Jedi. Luke, like Obi-wan Kenobi in A New Hope wears hooded robes. The shelters on Luke’s solitary island are like the stone bee-hive shaped cells of an Irish monastery. Luke has become very like an anchorite, having separated himself from the world. Perhaps this hermit life is a form of penance. He had brought others here to train as Jedi, but when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Leia and Han Solo, went to the dark side, Luke’s faith in the Jedi philosophy was broken.
In this film, the real Force-related conflict is centered on Rey and Ren. Both have a special affinity for the Force. They are both in a struggle about how the Force is to be used. That good and evil exist in parallel within the Force is part of what makes the Force an interesting examination of the spiritual/theological realm.
Rey and Ren also seem to be connected in some way. While Rey in on the island with Luke, she and Ren begin to see each other remotely and have conversations. Rey recognizes that Ren is deeply conflicted. Ren sees in Rey a person who is searching. Both think the other can be brought over to the other side. There is a complexity to this relationship that opens many possibilities, both for this film and future episodes.
This film spends a good deal of time talking about hope. When Rey finds Luke, it is because she sees him as the embodiment of hope, even though he has essentially lost hope. The Resistance is trying to survive so that they can be the hope to others throughout the galaxy. Hope, in this film, is best seen in the darkest of times. It is not always easy to live in hope. Poe has not learned to hope, so he often acts impulsively. It is hope that sustains the rebels, even as they face sure annihilation. And hope that gives them new insights. It is also the need for hope that opens the door for Episode IX.
For me, the key part of the Star Wars franchise has been the web relationships. Going back to A New Hope, the links between Luke and Leia, Luke and Obi-wan, Han Solo and Leia, Darth Vader and both Luke and Obi-Wan, and R2-D2 and C3PO. In the current set of films (going back to the Force Awakens) new relationships are forming: Rey and Finn (John Boyega), Rey and Poe, Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and in this film Finn and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). At the same time some of the older relationships are running their course to a finale. One of my complaints about the Star War series as it’s progressed is that the technological advances in effects has taken the fore and the relationship aspect of the stories has been diminished. As I said, some will go to the film to relish the battle scenes and CGI special effects. Although that is a legitimate reason, I’m not in that group. For me the amount of time blowing each other up is time away from the people and the connections that was so important in creating this franchise.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios