Concerning The Last Jedi, I will spell out a few disappointments before giving my own philosophical take and embrace of the original trilogy. There are several initial disappointments.
First, I am disappointed with Snoke. We know nothing about this villain, and we were slightly invested in him from Episode 7: The Force Awakens. The internet was filled with speculation about his identity, how he survived and his relationship to the Sith and the Dark Side, and the Emperor.
Initially, the Emperor set up the Empire with a Dark Side theocracy at its center. Without the Force, it would collapse, and this was a theme Timothy Zahn explored in the Heir to the Empire Trilogy (1991) and other expanded universe sources picked up, e.g., Dark Empire (1997) graphic novels. From what I have seen of the First Order, the idea remains the same. Force-users hold the reins of power, and the First Order and the Empire are instantiations of the Dark Side where those reins of power become more than just metaphors.
Second, the Star Wars universe has developed technologies that have some rationale for their existence in the fictional setting. Weapons hurl energy bolts against other ships and we see turrets, turbolaser batteries, missiles and the like. When Vice Admiral Holdo rams the ship into the fleet, I do not think this is technologically feasible in this fictional setting. This tactic renders the very idea of modified freighters or capital ships with large weapons useless. Why build such ships and fleets if you are just going to ram capital ships slags of metal into fleet formations?
Third, when Holdo smashes the enemy fleet, the First Order had enough ships to encompass the fleeing ships three-dimensionally on the aft, port, and starboard formations. Much like the mistake of the fleet in Starship Troopers (1997) who clustered their ships around the planet to be beaten up by insectoid races hurling asteroids, the First Order failed fleet tactics 101.
Fourth, Finn is not very developed, and probably represents the most creative origin for a Star Wars character ever despite the writers lack of developing him. He is a stormtrooper brainwashed from birth who grows a conscience, and he obeys that moral conscience to flee from the insipid evil of the First Order. There’s some speculation that he grew a conscience in tune with the Force in some way. Notice Ren’s attention to him in the opening sequence, and we see him take up a lightsaber against Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. In both films, Finn winds up trying to flee from battles he cannot runaway from (a possible analogy to millennial feelings about being born and thrust into the legacies of austerity and neoliberalism). In the heat of conflict, he finds his moral resolve, but only when his friends are in danger. His only practical function seems to be to know layout of Star Destroyers, Imperial bases, and has an extensive knowledge of tactics. However, this is not a very impressive reason for him to be kept around. His character has untapped potential and should be developed further than he is.
Luke’s character rejects everything that came before. He grew wise to the hubris of the Jedi at the height of their power. Luke is critical of the Jedi allowing Darth Sidious to grow in power right in front of them. Luke is rejecting the orthodoxy of tradition. Such tradition breeds hubris and mortal certitude. Yoda seems to agree, and in rejecting tradition, Luke’s refusal to teach Rey looks like the right call. She already has power enough to renew in orthropraxy what Luke rejects in orthodoxy. Yoda reminds Luke, our students succeed and exceed the charges of their masters. That’s the curse of all masters. When Luke is confronted by Yoda’s Force-ghost, he’s already on his way to burn sacred texts and teachings of the Jedi. Yoda calls down lightning to drive Luke’s point home, but also in refusing Rey, the Force and something like the Jedi will survive. Yoda and Luke fade away in The Force Awakens to inaugurate new adventures.
In Buddhism, sometimes monks will burn sacred texts in front of their students. It’s very easy for the young and devoted to attach themselves to the possession of a sacred teaching rather than focusing on the right conduct such teachings should bring about in those that study them. In this way, both Luke and Yoda recover a pragmatic and existential orientation to what it means to be spiritual, religious, and in this case, Jedi, and they see this renewal of purpose to the Jedi in Rey. Rey also seems to embody a more complementary idea of the Force than what seemed a separation between good and evil from before.
Rey is the cosmic balance to Ren’s raw power. Snoke reveals that he thought Luke was Ren’s equal in power, and here the Force seems to have chosen a nobody-Jakku-born spacerat to bear that responsibility. Rey and Kylo overthrow Snoke and in their cooperation, Rey pleads with Kylo not to go in the direction of the First Order. He asks her to join them, and she pleads with him to stop. Their interaction embodies the ebb and flow of a complementary universe rather than the earlier dogmatic black and white, light and dark absolutism of the hero’s journey me and those older than me grew up with. In some ways, this might resemble a millennial retelling of the Star Wars mythos from a younger generation that seems to reject organized religion for both science or spirituality. For me, this retelling of the Force is more Tao than the rigid orthodoxy of an inherited Judeo-Christian (Jedi vs. Sith) dogmatism (I’ve talked about this before over at Philpercs).
Like the Tao, Rey seems to be fluid with respect to the Light and the Dark. When she goes into the Dark Side hole on Ahch-To, she is looking for answers about her parents. In her vision, her image is reflected back in a nearly endless mirror until she sees her own reflection staring back at her. One possible interpretation could be that she has no parents, and that she may well be a clone—a copy of a copy of a copy.* Of course, this only holds if we maintain a very literal interpretation the nearly endless mirror scene. The Dark Side cave warned Luke about his possible folly. Another interpretation might be to figure out what the Dark Side warning is. Perhaps, she expends so much energy on her parents that she loses sight of herself—a more likely interpretation, I think.
The Last Jedi succeeds more than it fails, however. First, I like the more nuanced understanding of the Force. Today’s youth is more cynical, more appreciative of context, and the directors are capitalizing on these more contemporary (and sensible) attitudes. As a moral theorist, contextual details matter more than adherence to rigid uncompromising moral principles that oversimplify moral understanding and nuance. At least, this describes my theoretical commitments regarding morality. In Episode 7 and 8, the morality of the Force is not as dogmatic as in the original trilogy. In the original trilogy, Star Wars suffers from what Terry Gilliam said of fantasy in an interview several years ago. “Fantasy isn’t just a jolly escape. It’s an escape, but into something far more extreme than reality, or normality. It’s where things are more beautiful and more wondrous and more terrifying. You move into a world of conflicting extremes.” In fantasy, good and evil can acquire more poignant and manifest roles in everyday life.
The fact that fantastic fiction can oversimplify conflicting extremes is a reason why I do not accept Dan Fincke’s interpretion of The Last Jedi over at Patheos. He’s sees Nietzsche’s critique of dualistic morality in The Last Jedi everywhere (where in this essay it should be understood perhaps as embracing a more virtue-oriented approach to Jedis, or understanding the transition away from deontological rigidity to a more Taoistic metaphysics undergirding the Force). While I am sympathetic, Fincke ignores the metaphysical truth of the conflicting extremes in the original trilogy and the role that fantasy embodied rather than imposing our own philosophical views and finding confirmation of them in the original trilogy. We should understand the contrast provided by both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and the ultimate philosophical departure concerning those conflicting extremes. We are moving away from those extremes, or at the very least as a culture we are seeing uncompromising rigidity and tradition in a negative light, especially regarding the Trumpist era of politics.
The Last Jedi speaks directly to Millennials about the uncompromising rigidity of tradition when Rose interferes with the Finn’s impending heroic sacrifice. Finn is about to take the speeder directly into battering ram cannon on the planet Crait. Rose flies right into his speeder preventing that sacrifice. Nearly dying, she looks up to Finn. She says that what makes us different is our ability not just destroy what’s in front of us, but what we find worthy to love. At this moment, the multicultural Disney ABC franchise is speaking to our contemporary climate, and I am glad they went there. So much hate has funneled out of the White House that citing the difference between love and hate is a necessary message. The earlier franchise romanticized violence in the oversimplifying extreme of calling for its necessity, and perhaps the love/hate distinction is this generation’s conflicting extreme.
Finally, we should talk a little bit about Luke Skywalker. If I were writing a roleplaying supplement, I’d make a new Force power and call it “Astral Projective Illusion,” and require Affect Mind and Projective Telepathy as its prerequisites. Luke projects himself across the galaxy, and everyone can see him. He’s not an illusion as much as we might think of a soft light hologram like we encounter in the X-men’s Danger Room. Poe Dameron, Leia, Hux, and Ren all see him. The illusion buys time for the rest of the resistance to escape, and Rey levitates rocks with the Force. Everyone witnesses her power and Luke’s power. The Force, then, is known and celebrated in the tale of Luke’s sacrifice again. Luke becomes the very legend Luke didn’t want himself to be.
Luke sees the Jedi complicit in the rise of the Dark Side Force Users. In fact, he stands over Kylo Ren momentarily thinking he should strike him down. This scene is told in three different tales borrowing from the narrative strategy of the Kurosawa’s Rashômon. In this Japanese samurai film, the same tale is told from three fluid perspectives, and this living fluidity of the encounter that turns Kylo and causes Luke to doubt himself eventually is a powerful tool. In Rian Johnson’s cinematic Star Wars tale, The Last Jedi is still a postmodern eclectic collage of cinematic influences.
*I owe this insight to the science fiction fantasy writer Casey Matthews.