Can 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Salvage The Force From This Spiritual Wreckage?

star-wars-episode-8-last-jedi

A passage from Chuck Wendig’s new novel Empire’s End, closer to his Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy — covering the fall of the Empire and the inception of the First Order between the Battle of Endor at the end of Star Wars: Episode VI Return of the Jedi and the Battle of Jakku, years before Star Wars: The Force Awakens — sheds new light on the Force, theoretically deepening our understanding of the spiritual and religious dimensions of the mystic energy field binding the galaxy together. Instead, the excerpt illuminates just how spiritually destitute, ideologically empty and narratively useless the Force has become since the Star Wars Original Trilogy.

In Aftermath: Empire’s End, worshippers in the underground Church of the Force, first alluded to in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Lor San Tekka, the old man (Max von Sydow) who gives Poe Dameron a thumb drive, is a member), reads this poem from the Journal of the Whills, an ancient text central to the Jedi identity:

The truth in our soul

Is that nothing is true.

The question of life

Is what then do we do?

The burden is ours

To penance, we hew.

The Force binds us all

From a certain point of view.

It’s hard to go further without saying flat-out how childish this is, more like something an Ewok would write on a bathroom stall than a foundational text for a burgeoning galactic religion. But prose aside, what does this say about the Force as a spiritual concept? Is this believable as the philosophical underpinning of the Jedi Order and their manichean opposite: the Dark Side of the Force and the Sith?

In Star Wars we learned from Obi-Wan Kenobi that “the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

This power can be accessed by the Force sensitive, regardless of whether they’d use it for good or for evil. Moreover, it’s not just a spiritual power, but a martial one as well. Darth Vader warns Grand Moff Tarkin and Admiral Motti against believing too much in the power of the Death Star, which is eventually destroyed by Luke Skywalker accessing the Force.

Star Wars introduces several other Force concepts that provide a clearer picture of its nature. That it can have a “strong influence on the weak-minded” suggests the Force can be accessed through or is attuned with our thought processes. It responds to intelligence and discernment, rather than the faith and incuriosity that characterizes most other religious belief. The Force “flows through” and cannot be held or possessed, instead uniting disparate minds across a holistic web through which suffering reverberates: Obi-Wan didn’t choose to feel the pain of the dying Alderaanians.

The greatest contributions to our understanding of the Force comes from Yoda in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. “Anger, fear aggression… easily they flow,” Yoda says. The Dark Side is not stronger, but “more seductive” and more likely to “consume you” and “dominate your destiny.” And most importantly, the Force is us. “Luminous beings are we,” Yoda tells Luke, “not this crude matter.”

What we have accumulated is New Age-y and vague, but a set of coherent spiritual virtues. The Force as we learn to understand it in the Original Trilogy is analogous to pantheist conceptions, without its own agency or a centralized godhead. Instead it is the summation of all life’s spiritual grounding. Our physical bodies, those crude forms, distance us from the full tapestry of life into which we can sink, assuming we’ve been taught how. The Light side represents surrender to that universal order, the Force flowing freely through its adherents. Followers on the Dark Side of the Force are the opposite, using their strongest emotions to clot and hold the Force inside of them, producing tremendous power, but pushing the universal order to a crisis point. The Jedi are loose and the Sith are tense. The Jedi are water and the Sith stone.

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy made the Force a more squalid thing, sadly empirical and channeled through midi-chlorians. The Jedi Order were revealed to be galactic prudes, plucking away children for cult induction into an ascetic and boring lifestyle of Protestant work ethic and Catholic guilt. And like the Catholic Church, the Jedi Order of the Prequel Trilogy is simultaneously obscenely wealthy — meeting and living in opulent Coruscant quarters, cavorting only with the rich — and austere, saintly Franciscans and Young Pope sybarites all at once. But say what you want about the tenets of Jedi-ism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.

Since the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012 the nature of the Force has been both greatly expanded and utterly marginalized. Star Wars Rebels and Clone Wars (which straddles the old continuity and the Disney era) episodes have greatly expanded the Force, largely by introducing facets and Force practitioners outside the Jedi vs. Sith framework. We learned about the demigod-like Force Wielders, Force Priestesses, Nightsisters and the Lasat, who worship a personification of the Force named Ashla. This new conception of the Force fits nicely with our original understanding of the Force as an energy force without motive of its own; capable of spawning a thousand religions, sects, cults and practices. Good work.

But the closer we get to the core continuity embodied in the movies, the more cautious the approach. The banal and tautological mantra of Chirrut Imwe, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me,” turned Rogue One’s spiritual dimension into a limp nothing. In that movie the Force was neutered and empty of new ideological content, forgivable only because Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was written specifically to stand separate from the Force-sensitive Skywalkers and the Jedi. But what about Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

Despite the title, The Force Awakens is devoid of any clear message when it comes to the Force. People speak vaguely of “balance,” while the spiritual core, Maz Kanata, offers a retrenchment of sorts, telling Rey, “it moves through and surrounds every living thing.” While this sounds like Obi-Wan or Yoda’s description, it’s a subtly different conception of the Force as something essentially outside of life, rather than a creation of living things and their collective spiritual power. And “moves through” just doesn’t have the rhetorical oomph of Obi-Wan’s “penetrates.” Rather than being transformed and shaped by it, The Force Awakens re-conceptualizes the Force as more like neutrinos, bouncing all around and through us without our knowledge, at least until it’s time to ask it for superpowers.

Neither The Force Awakens or Rogue One ruins the Force, but more reduce it to platitudes even less specific than the already platitudinous conception handed us by Obi-Wan and Yoda.

Wendig’s Aftermath passage is particularly instructive as to this new approach because it actually says something, anything, unlike the two movies so far released. So let’s give it another look.

The truth in our soul

Is that nothing is true.

The question of life

Is what then do we do?

The burden is ours

To penance, we hew.

The Force binds us all

From a certain point of view.

Let’s take it bit by bit.

“The truth in our soul / Is that nothing is true” is definitively not true in the Star Wars universe. No one involved with the Force is a relativist (or nihilist), precisely because the Force offers tangible order and power. This line is true about our world and species, but can’t be said accurately about the Star Wars galaxy, because the Force itself is true in the grandest, most existential sense.

“The question of life / Is what then do we do?” See, this jives nicely with what we know about the Force. Because it is without agency in itself, instead channeling the collective will of all living things, the Force can’t tell you what to do, it can only give you access to the collective sentiment.

“The burden is ours / To penance, we hew.” This has all the stink of Earth religions, with our vengeful gods who must be appeased with our pain. But while it may not sit well with the original conception of the Force — spiritually rigorous, but not about atonement or self-punishment — it does align with the Prequel Trilogy’s depiction of the Jedi as spiritual flagellants, whose prime duty is to deprive themselves of any attachment to the very living things that comprise the Force. I may not like it, but its presence in the Journal of the Whills would help explain the more prudish and sclerotic features of the Jedi Order in the late days of the Republic.

“The Force binds us all / From a certain point of view.” Yes, this line has been widely interpreted as explaining away Obi-Wan lying to Luke Skywalker about his father, but it’s still tremendously stupid. That the Force binds all living things in the Star Wars galaxy isn’t a point of view, it’s naked fact. Unpleasant side effect: it should also remind you of the worst line in Star Wars history.

While this poem has been the most widely shared passage from Empire’s End, Wendig handles the Force with more nuance in other parts of the book. At one point a character explains that the Force belongs to everyone, not just the Jedi. “They wield it, but the Force is in all living things. It is what gives us our intuition, our drive, it’s what connects us to one another. We are all one with the Force,” Jumon says. And while it’s possible to dispute whether the Force provides “drive” (to over-empower the Force would make every Star Wars character a pawn in its grand design), at least it’s on-message.

Empire’s End isn’t the proof that Disney is mishandling the Force, but a symptom of its neglect. The Force may thrive in the constellation of TV shows, novels and comics, but we all know only the movies really matter, existing at the core of our Star Wars conceptualization. Everything else is created around them. And what we’ve learned from the first two is that the Force has become an inconvenience, to be either marginalized (Rogue One) or exploited for plot parts (The Force Awakens).

While movies have always been a collaborative endeavor, Disney has taken committee movie-making to a new level, with both the Marvel and Star Wars movie series. This has some distinct advantages, including well-plotted, well-considered, polished movies. They are more immune to disasters because there is a distribution of vision. But that exact fragmentation leaves spiritual elements in limbo.

The Force may not be a radically innovative spiritual philosophy in the original Star Wars, but it’s the clear emanation of George Lucas’ single heart. There’s a meaning to the Force that can be felt from soul to soul, the language of cinema recreating the Force in miniature, tying every Star Wars fan in holistic sensation. But because the Force is not plot and can’t be neatly codified in a three-act structure, its genuine nature falls victim to the cynicism of groupthink. Not because the people working on the new Star Wars movies are cynics or don’t love Star Wars, but because the structure of their creation necessarily favors utility over evangelism, denaturing the Force. An accumulation of individuals organized holistically, without structure, the Force is inherently anarchic. Bureaucracy can do nothing but strangle it.

Star Wars: Episode 8 The Last Jedi will be an excellent chance to see if the Force can be revivified in the Star Wars movies. Unlike The Force Awakens and Rogue One, The Last Jedi didn’t go through a barrage of screenwriters, just director Rian Johnson. In this is the necessary prerequisite for embracing the Force at all adequately, for the Force can only flow through life, not through the parody of life embodied in the corporation and the Lucasfilm Story Group’s boardroom. As a luminous being, the Force might flow through Johnson. We’ll see Dec. 15. May the Force be with you.

Loading...
Join the Discussion
Top Stories