Please note that the following article contains significant spoilers about what unfolds in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
One of the most enjoyable features of the Star Wars saga has always been its ability to lean into the mysteries of the Force. While we live in a cultural fabric that has preached scepticism and relativism over the past 40 years, Star Wars statements on the Force have been unambiguous on preaching light over darkness and the importance of ancient virtues such as patience and self-control.
But Star Wars: The Last Jedi turns it all on its head.
It is an obvious deconstruction of the Force religion. Much of the film is a commentary on the rejection of tradition and the mythology built up in the Star Wars universe. “Let the past die” and “it’s time for the Jedi to end” become Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker’s new shared manifestos.
In fact, through the whole film the audience constantly sees important symbols of the Force, some very much cherished by fans, demolished.
Luke casually tosses aside his father’s lightsaber at the beginning of the film, an it is eventually torn in two. On the dark side, we see Kylo Ren destroy his helmet - his connection to the Sith line and his grandfather, Darth Vader. Snoke’s radiant throne room is left in flames. Yoda himself even enters this new reform movement and burns up the ancient tree at the site of the first Jedi temple on the island of Ahch-To - putting an end to (the audience is led to believe at this point) some of the most valued and ancient scriptures of the Jedi religion.
And as it turns out, Luke’s exile isn’t a place of meditation or self-improvement. It’s a self-imposed punishment of a man who was tempted to kill his defenseless (admittedly evil) nephew in the dark of the night and is living with the consequences. This is no 40 days in the desert. It’s a purgatory where Luke pins his own failures on the Jedi of the past, the once lauded knights of the galaxy.
Luke is able to redeem himself through once again fully embracing the Force and sacrificing himself for the new Rebellion by the end of the film, but there’s no doubt what conclusion Director Rian Johnson intends to steer the audience toward: the Jedi, and the Sith for that matter, as we know them, are gone.
What will take their place is unclear. It’s a much more democratized expression of the Force, but there no longer exists any strict boundaries on right and wrong, between light and darkness. Individuals are now free to explore the Force without a rulebook in place.
This, to me, is central to some of the existential angst that part of fandom is expressing, dragging down audience scores on places like Rotten Tomatoes and filling up online comment boards. It’s not that the film isn’t a thrilling ride, but there is a degree of sadness among some who struggle with seeing the foundation of this ancient faith shaken.
It’s never easy to lose your religion.
Luke was right when he told Rey that the Jedi as an institution became corrupt, abandoning their values by participating in the Clone Wars and being blinded to the rise of the Sith through the person of Emperor Palpatine.
Every religion goes through necessary cycles of revelation, canonization and establishment of tradition and dogma. It is in the later stages where it becomes necessary for a prophet to speak and a period of reform to take place to get back to the more basic and purer mission of the faith.
There are, however, consequences if tradition and orthodoxy are thrown out entirely within the process. It needs to be handled with tremendous care. A Christian church that ignores 1200 years of history between Nicea and the 95 Theses does so at its own peril. In the same way, a galaxy that drops tens-of-thousands of years of study among Force users loses something deep in meaning as well.
Rian Johnson, in very postmodernist fashion, stripped down to the bone many of the ideas of the Force.
And now it is up to J.J. Abrams to put it back together or to build something new in Episode IX. Will Rey be able to succeed where Luke failed and restore order, or will she build something new entirely? It’s a lot to accomplish in just one film. I hope they are up to the task. A whole religion depends on it.
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