—this piece contains major spoilers from The Last Jedi—
“Light … darkness … a balance.”
“It’s so much bigger.”
Those lines, in the first teaser for The Last Jedi, led to a mountain of speculation about just how far the film would go in terms of challenging and changing our understanding of the Force and the Jedi Order. Could it herald the beginning of “grey Jedi,” or Rey and Kylo Ren starting a new order of “balanced Force users” (whatever that is supposed to mean)? As it turned out, those lines were not in the film, and far from reinventing or even re-framing our understanding of the Force, TLJ reinforced it.
The entire film is ambitious in its attempts to cram in as many classic Star Wars themes and values as possible: the danger of impulsive, reckless heroism and the importance of patience; that staying neutral in the fight against evil makes you complicit; and the notion that the younger generation will redeem the mistakes of the old. It is in its exploration of the Force, though, that TLJ covers the most ground, and makes old Star Wars values more explicit in the text than ever.
Fear Attracts the Fearful
Luke’s fear of Rey’s power only heightens her sense of loneliness and abandonment, leading her to find a kind of empathy and understanding with Kylo Ren – one which could easily have had dreadful consequences. This was clearly telegraphed in the trailers, but the biggest shock was the revelation that one moment of weakness from Luke – instinctively igniting his lightsaber when he saw the death and destruction Ben Solo would cause – ended up confirming Ben’s choice, and led to those very events taking place. This is a classic Star Wars self-fulfilling prophecy, just as Anakin’s fear of Padmé’s death led to him taking the actions that ultimately cause it. “Fear,” as a wise man once said, “is the path to the dark side,” and this includes the effects that our fears have on other people.
This could be a controversial story choice, but it is handled with some nuance. Luke’s great victory in Return of the Jedi comes when he throws away that very same lightsaber and refuses to fight or kill. This compassionate act, Rey tells him, makes him a legend. But as Yoda tells Ezra in Star Wars Rebels, “a challenge lifelong it is, not to bend fear into anger.” Or, indeed, violence. You do not just beat the dark side once and then “level up,” free of its lure or of those instincts forever. It is a daily battle to control those negative emotions and maintain personal balance.
So what of balance, that defining theme promised in the first teaser?
The Balance of Nature
The tendency among fans is to think of balance as a mathematical equation, and that it is to do with the numbers of people who wield the dark side and the light side; or that it requires someone who can wield both sides, or a teaming-up of light and dark. Those interpretations are not consistent with the story of Episodes I-VI, or with George Lucas’s statements about it. The rise of Darth Sidious, Lucas tells us, causes the imbalance, and it is his death – as well as Anakin’s redemption – that brings balance back to the Force. Luke himself states this in TLJ – following the Emperor’s death, “there was balance for a time.” Lucas’s intention is now a clear part of the text.
TLJ’s explanation of balance is consistent with this. It’s not about Force-users – it’s about life itself. As Rey reaches into the Force, she sees the balance of nature on the island – life, death creating new life, peace, violence, warmth, cold. An ecosystem in harmony, consistent with Qui-Gon Jinn’s explanation in The Clone Wars that the natural cycle of the living Force feeds into the cosmic Force. If we use this as our base, the rise of Darth Sidious, and the fear, anger and hatred he spreads across the galaxy in the Clone Wars and subsequent Empire, are like introducing a tyrannosaurus rex into the English countryside. The balance of nature is destroyed. TLJ then takes the idea further, framing Ben Solo’s descent into the dark side and rise to power as the cause of this new imbalance, and Rey’s awakening as the Force’s attempt to halt this. “Darkness rises, and the light to meet it.”
This is different – though not entirely unconnected – from the notion of personal balance. This appears to be the Jungian growth of a human being to discover your true self, and involves confronting and accepting your “shadow” – your dark side. Luke’s journey in the original trilogy is realising that Vader is a part of him, and that he holds the same potential for fear and aggression; in TCW, Yoda literally faces his shadow and accepts it as part of himself. In TLJ, Rey confronts her feelings of abandonment, discovering that she is more similar to Kylo Ren than she would initially like to admit. She finds empathy and compassion for Kylo, but ultimately chooses a better path. Only by confronting our shadow can we understand ourselves and make moral choices.
The Insatiable Dark Side
The connection between Rey and Kylo Ren – a psychological tug-of-war of alternating empathy and emotional manipulation – is the driving force of TLJ. Rey’s boundless compassion wants to see change and redemption in Ben, while Kylo’s own intentions regarding Rey are somewhat ambiguous. TLJ does something truly shocking by giving us, at the end of the second act, the ending that many had predicted for Episode IX – Kylo Ren killing Snoke, and fighting alongside Rey. And then it takes us beyond that.
Just as in the Mortis trilogy in TCW, which begins with a state of balance between light and dark, the dark side ultimately proves insatiable. Kylo Ren cannot resist the lure of the throne, the chance to rule with Rey by his side and shape the universe the way he sees fit. However this is framed – pure evil, or benevolent leadership – “ruling”, dictatorship using the power of the Force to impose your will, is fundamentally disharmonious, and will only cause imbalance. It is only by letting go of your power that harmony can be achieved. Balance, it turns out, is not found in the light and dark sides teaming up against a greater enemy, because when that enemy is gone, the dark side remains insatiable. Kylo only wants more.
As TLJ ends, Rey has almost nothing … except her “found family” on the Millennium Falcon. And yet, surrounded by love, hope and purpose, she has everything she needs. Kylo, by contrast, rules the galaxy, but is more lost and alone than ever in the dust of the Resistance base on Crait, with only his best friend General Hux for company, having pushed away the one person who still found compassion for him. The dark side promises everything, and gives us nothing; the light promises nothing, and gives us everything.
Reinforcing this theme, Luke sacrifices himself to give the Resistance, and Rey, the chance to escape. Luke’s sacrifice is joyful – one of “peace and purpose,” Rey tells us, once again making explicit something Lucas had buried in the text. “The light side is joy, everlasting and difficult to achieve.” This kind of connection to the Force – a power neither Vader nor Kylo Ren could possibly understand – comes from absolute selflessness, as Qui-Gon Jinn tells us in the Revenge of the Sith novelization. Mourn Luke, do not. Miss him, do not. Luke Skywalker has achieved the ultimate power by letting go of his power and passing it to the next generation. It is the perfect finale for the greatest Star Wars hero of all.
The New Jedi Will Rise
TLJ does give us a few new “Force powers,” but nothing revolutionary. The “bridge” Snoke creates between Rey and Kylo’s minds reminds us of the way Maul appears to Ezra in Rebels; so too does the moment where Rey and Kylo touch hands, and see what they want to see in the same future event – just as Ezra and Maul both see the answer to their problems on Tatooine when they combine the Jedi and Sith Holocrons. Luke projecting himself across the galaxy may be controversial, but we have seen similar powers from Mother Talzin in TCW, and it also calls to mind early concepts for the ending of RotJ, where the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Yoda would appear to help Luke fight the Emperor.
Where TLJ pushes the mythology forward is in the birth of the new Jedi. Luke’s sacrifice is the ultimate vote of faith in Rey. Now we know why the lightsaber called to her, led her to the island, why she had dreams about the tree containing the ancient Jedi texts (books she stores in a drawer on the Falcon). As Rey closes the Falcon door on Kylo, cold disappointment on her face, her “belonging” in the story becomes clear. Her destiny is not, after all, defined by Kylo Ren, and it is not her responsibility to redeem him, much as she tried. She will now forge her own path, drawing on her own strength and that of her friends. Rey’s destiny is to become the first of a new generation of Jedi, perhaps someday training the random stable boy who is able to call his broom to his hand.
This film understands that the reputation of the Jedi, even among fans, was damaged – intentionally so – following their failures in the prequel trilogy and TCW. Luke even acknowledges this, invoking it as one of the reasons to end the Order. By the end of the film, though, Rian Johnson has restored the notion of the Jedi journey to something aspirational, inspirational and magical. He has also opened out the concept, made it feel the way it must have done in 1977. This isn’t about bloodline any more, and every child watching this movie will believe they could be a Jedi, too.
TLJ is about letting the past die … but not all of it. It’s also about holding on to what’s important and protecting the light. As Yoda tells Luke, the way of the Jedi is not found in dusty old books and lists of rules. It’s being a good person, acting from compassion rather than vengeance, finding our balance and letting go of fear and resentment, and Rey indeed already has everything she needs.
TLJ ends allowing for a blank slate in Episode IX. It could go anywhere and be anything, and there is space for years of books and comics and animated series about the birth and growth of the Rebellion against Kylo Ren’s tyranny. Rey’s trajectory and role in the story is now clear. She will make mistakes, because everyone does, and failure is the greatest teacher. But there is now a future for the Jedi Order and for Star Wars itself when the Skywalker bloodline has long died out, and at its heart is a random scavenger from Jakku who cares about people, and just wants to see the best in them.
11 thoughts to “The Force Reinforced: How The Last Jedi Reaffirms the Values of Star Wars”
Thank you for this…THIS was the analysis of The Last Jedi I was looking for after I saw the movie last week. Powerful balance, yes? I look forward to seeing this movie many more times and returning to eleven thirty eight for even more insight. May the Force be With YOU!
I agree 1000%. Although there were parts of this movie that rubbed me the wrong way, I think it deserves appreciation as much for what it does *not* do as what it *does* do. My biggest fear going into this movie (especially given all of the non-spoiler hype about how it “changes” or “expands” our understanding of the Force) was that it was going to turn into a sort of angsty canon KOTOR playthrough, in which the Jedi were somehow equally bad as the Sith and the “balanced” “gray” path was the way forward. I cannot express how relieved I was when this movie ultimately affirmed previous canonical understandings of the Force.
I’d still maintain that Luke’s temptation to kill his young nephew comes out of nowhere, and was poorly-contextualized within the movie. Yes, in real life people never defeat their demons, and being a good person is a life-long struggle, and even the most experienced in goodness sometimes fail to be what they ought to be. However, experience is still a powerful tool, especially as it provides perspective, and I struggle to imagine what Luke could have seen in young Ben that was somehow so overwhelming for the man who had faced Darth Sidious. This is reinforced by the fact that Star Wars is not real life, but rather fiction, and in fiction it is not unrealistic to expect some greater consistency on the part of characters than real people. For the purposes of “realism” or “commentary,” some inconsistency on the part of characters is probably desirable, but so is *development,* which in turn requires some level of (unrealistic) consistency. Other than a sentence or two about his growing hubris, we don’t see the character development that leads Luke to such a dramatically different place. In my mind, there were two possible alternatives to avoid this problem: 1) show us more Luke character development in longer flashback sequences, to build audience buy-in to that dramatic moment; or 2) have Luke reject Kylo in a way that is less immediately violent and fearful, leading to the same outcome. Given how over-long the movie is already, I would probably lean towards option two.
I absolutely adored Luke’s final sequence “on” Crait and on Ahch-To. As you note, although we’ve never seen it before, astral (in the most literal sense) projection of this kind seems pretty consistent with previous portrayals of Force powers. I think critics who are arguing that Luke’s final confrontation with Kylo is “cowardly” or “unheroic” are missing much of the point of the film’s denouement. By the end of the movie, Luke and Rey have each come to appreciate the other’s perspective on the dilemma of the Jedi: how to confront evil without becoming evil. Rey comes to realize in her confrontation with Kylo Ren that the desire to be “the hero” capable of wielding power to solve all problems breeds hubris that leads inevitably toward the Dark Side; rather than rushing to face Kylo again, Rey’s role in the finale is primarily to save others, by drawing off the First Order’s air support, and then more literally by carving an escape path for the remaining Resistance leadership. On the other hand, Luke realizes that fear of one’s own hubris is still *fear*, which also leads inevitably toward the Dark Side; rather than taking a passive supporting role, Luke steps up to confront Kylo directly. The final outcome, however, is not an exchange of perspective, but rather the synthesis of both master and student into a new perspective. Though Rey eschews further battle, she is not shy about using her powers to save those in danger. And while Luke confronts Kylo, he does so not in a blaze of glory, but through an elaborate ruse, designed not to overwhelm the First Order with his power, but rather to inspire and defend the remaining members of the Resistance. Luke and Rey ultimately achieve Balance by rejecting both fear and pride, and finding the middle path. I expect that Rey’s greatest challenge in Episode IX will be retaining this balance in the face of Kylo’s merciless pursuit of her and her loved ones.
In any event, great commentary on what VIII does right! I thought the Force was incredibly well-handled in this movie.
This is thoughtful criticism. My interpretation of Luke’s moment of weakness was that he didn’t feel any light inside Kylo, only darkness, and consequently he (for an instant) thought there was nothing he could do but strike him down. This invites an interesting comparison to ROTJ, where it was Luke’s faith in the light inside his father what ensured his triumph over Palpatine by the end. He had no such faith this time around, and was thus repeating the mistakes of his old mentors. Both Yoda and Obi-Wan thought Vader was beyond redemption and he needed to be destroyed instead of saved. That said, I do think the film could’ve explained it a tad better to make it completely clear. The information is there, but expanding on it wouldn’t have hurt.
The Kylo-Vader comparison is an interesting point to make. It still fails somewhat for me on two counts. First, Kylo’s “darkness” is primarily potential, compared with the very actual darkness of Vader. In this context, Luke’s temptation towards violence seems like a massive overreaction that comes out of nowhere. Second, Luke’s rejection of violence is not just directed at Vader (in whom he senses goodness), but also at Palpatine, for whom there is no redemption.
Perhaps, then, the issue is less the evolution of Luke’s character, than what Luke saw in that moment. I think my objection remains the same: if what Luke sees in that moment of temptation is so important, then it is something that the *audience* should also see. I enjoyed Hamill’s performance, but again I feel like this is a “show, don’t tell” should apply here.
I also thought of ROTJ with Luke’s moment of weakness when he sparks up his lightsaber. It reminded me of when he takes the fight to Vader again (and nearly kills Vader) when he accidentally gives up Leia. Then, it took longer for Luke to realize “this way lies the dark side,” whereas here, with Ben, he is IMMEDIATELY ashamed.
This piece is every bit as good as I expected it would be. And expectations were quite high based on your previous work! Thank you for writing it 🙂
The scene on Canto Bight, with Temiri Blagg, reinforces the difference between the Jedi of the Republic and the new Order.
The Prequel Jedi died because they were in armed conflict as generals, clouded by the dark side, mired in politics, unable to see a clear course of peace-making, the new Order lives because it is born out of hope. As we were seeing, they weren’t offering any hope to the galaxy. They were a mainstay force in the Republic, but they were easily caught up in the messes around them. They weren’t allowed to fight for the systems that probably truly needed them (like Ryloth and Onderon), instead focusing on strategic points (Bothuwai or Hissrich), needing to raise guerilla warriors to fight for the oppressed when they wouldn’t. Mistrust and trepidation was replaced with open contempt on many systems, even protests outside of the Temple against the War and the Jedi’s role in that war. When the Purge happened, most of the galaxy was fine to see the Jedi go.
But now? The Jedi stand for something again. Temiri is inspired by both Holdo’s sacrifice and the Resistance ring he wears. The Jedi mean something to this galaxy because the Jedi will truly fight for them, instead of fight around them. This is an Order that can stand for the oppressed, just as Holdo imagines the Resistance can, instead of strategy.
I liked it better when he was just Broom Boy.
I second Broom Boy!
I think broom boy is also inspired by something that is very rare in Star Wars – an act of kindness on part of Rose in liberating the fathiers, rather than blowing something up.
That is something that irks me though. Classy joints like that? They don’t mistreat their animals, oh no, the horror comes from the fact that the humans taking care of the animals are often treated much, much worse.
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