Be forewarned – this post is going off topic to talk a bit about Star Wars and society. Lately, I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary on how The Last Jedi is the Star Wars film that society needs right now and that it delivers an crucial message. Here are a couple of examples (out of the many I’ve seen).
This may sound ludicrous, but I believe #TheLastJedi may be a harbinger of cultural change, a shift away from “cowboy knows best,” and easy good v. evil stories. In an age of gross oversimplification, one of our most powerful modern myths is embracing nuance.
— Unpossible Erik (@unpossible_e) December 25, 2017
His voice was so clear in this movie through Luke’s words. Luke’s retrospective on the Jedi Order is almost a naked look at the franchise in general. Our dogma and obsession with rituals (why things are the way they are in Star Wars) need to go away. We stagnate and from good things (Original Trilogy) comes the bad (Prequels).
I was shocked at how subversive that message was. In many ways this theme resonates into the real world as a stunning force choke hold on the late capitalist United States. His remarks about the bloated institutions not saving us and the movie ending with a force sensitive child looking hopeful was indicative of a conscious awakening proletariat. Almost.
Heavy stuff. I’m only going to address one thing from The Last Jedi here. I don’t think I can really contribute anything else to the broader discussion that hasn’t already been covered thoroughly by others. But there was one scene – one major plot twist – that motivated me to write this. It’s the primary reason that I was disappointed with the film…and perhaps that was by design? Perhaps one message of The Last Jedi is that the present would disappoint the past. That the ideals of our youth would be disappointed by reality of our adulthood. So, brace yourself, there is one major spoiler coming but first let me talk about my perspective on the state of our society.
In 2017, I received actual Nazi propaganda in the local mail…. Up until this year it never would have occurred to me that this was even possible where I live. But it happened. I feel that civil discourse is breaking down as all interactions become increasingly partisan. If someone fails a litmus test, then they must be a horrific monster of a person to the other side (maybe even both sides). So what does this do to us as a society? It undermines shared social values, promotes enclavism, limits dialogue to soundbites (just enough to assign someone a side), and keeps each side busy judging/fighting each other so that they never find common ground to address their shared concerns.
So, back to Star Wars, I’ve found myself thinking about Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi a lot lately. I’ve always found the conclusion of Luke’s arc in Return of the Jedi to be powerful. Darth Vader is a horrible monster of a person. But his son – in sharp contrast to the Jedi dogma of emotional detachment we see in the prequels – not only still sees the good in his father but appeals to him as family. In a violent conflict, Luke found a third way – he didn’t triumph through dominating the enemy or segregating them off to their corner of the galaxy. Luke triumphed by appealing to the humanity of the series’ most prominent villain. A villain well established as, “more machine now than man. Twisted and evil.” At least to me, this wasn’t about redeeming Darth Vader (even if saving him was Luke’s motive) – it was about the getting him to help end the conflict. There’s a correlation here to conflict resolution work in places like Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa, or Cambodia. Return of the Jedi, just for that brief moment, goes beyond a simple good versus evil narrative to touch on peacemaking. And that’s why I had such a negative reaction to – SPOILERS – Kylo Ren going to the dark side because Luke Skywalker tried to kill him in his sleep. From my perspective it was completely antithetical to Luke’s journey in the original trilogy. But, perhaps, that was the point? Because I was raised to think of Nazis as antithetical to American culture and yet here we are.
In any case – I think Return of the Jedi demonstrates an alternative to the current partisan culture that divides us. We need to pull together – there is an actual Nazi resurgence among our many other societal problems – so let’s consider the “I know there’s still good in you” approach. Humans seem to have an innate need to categorize…endlessly labeling people as the “other”…but if we instead appeal to our shared humanity perhaps we can get to raw connection of “I know you have good in you. Please. Help me.” I’m not advocating that we compromise what is “good” or “evil”, Luke didn’t say that Darth Vader was “good”…he said his father still had “good in him”. I don’t think throwing the Emperor down a power conduit somehow made Anakin a “good person” despite the tacked on force ghost happy ending. Basically, perhaps the message our society needs right now is to pull people towards what is “good” instead of pushing them away because of their failings.
Incidentally, if you – like me – find the conclusion of Luke’s arc in Return of the Jedi powerful you may also appreciate Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.