It’s been a month and a half since the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, was released. Tension between fans who liked and hated the movie was higher than between main character Rey and her nemesis Kylo Ren, but by now the controversy has simmered down and conversation dwindled. Even though bickering over the film exists only in a sub-reddit far far away, I can’t help but ruminate on the Force, the relationship between teacher and pupil, and the simultaneous fragility and strength of hope.
Balance and Energy: A Force.
The Last Jedi, maybe more than any other Star Wars movie, grapples with the nature of good and evil, and the ‘balance’ of the Force. As with other ideologies which assert that evil is necessary for good to exist, that they are parts of a whole, a yin and yang, I struggled to accept the notion of ‘balance’ in the force. “Maybe there’s nothing to be learned here,” I thought, “maybe ‘the force’ just isn’t a Christian theme.” And then Rey enters the Black Cave, symbolic of the dark side, and everything changes.
In her training with Luke, young Rey begins to understand that the force is, “more than lifting rocks.” While meditating she reflects on the complex ecology of this lost island, “Life. Death and decay, that feeds new life. Warmth. Cold. Peace. Violence.” Luke presses her, “And between it all?” “Balance and energy. A force.” “And inside you?” “Inside me, that same force.”
I wanted so bad to point to the force as an image of God, between all things and within us all. Giving life, intervening and accessed through faith, hope, and love. But what about the dark side?! God has no “dark side,” nor is evil an equal counterpart to the Lord. Even more than displaying the transcendent power of the Light side of the force, The Last Jedi succeeds in descending with Rey into the Dark side to unmask its true nature. It is in the cave, searching for answers about her parents, that Rey confronts her greatest fear.
The idea of being assaulted by our greatest fear is far from original, think of Pennywise the clown from Stephen King’s IT or the Boggart in Harry Potter. But the image that director Rian Johnson chooses says something very profound about the nature of evil. Facing a reflective surface within the cave, Rey becomes incorporated into a single file line of infinite versions of herself. Rather than panic, she eventually finds herself at the end of the line encountered by a shadowy figure revealed to be only her own face. Johnson explains, “her greatest fear is [that] in the search for identity, she has nobody but herself to rely on.”
Right then, Johnson won me back to his vision of the force. Evil, he has displayed, is not some ambitious force pushing and pulling against the ‘good.’ Rather, at its essence, it is isolation, the conviction that “I alone have the answers.” Nothing is more Christian than the notion that all evil stems from pride.
Once read in this way, so much about this light-speed paced movie comes into focus, particularly the tortured conscience of the jaded Luke, the personal trajectory of the fly-boy Poe, and the fate of the First Order and darkness in the galaxy.
The true burden of all masters
The Last Jedi provoked a good amount of very valid critiques from long-time Star Wars fans. One complaint was with the direction they took the central character of the Saga, Luke Skywalker. Some said the cynical, defeatist, old man they meet in Episode VIII could not have been the same energetic, hopeful hero of Episodes IV thru VI. And this is true! The Luke of The Last Jedi has been through a lot since we last saw him and is in the middle of a huge crisis! This is a crisis we will all inevitably go through and one many in our Church are facing now, namely, “Considering my failures and imperfection, what do I have to offer the next generation?” and, even more difficult, “As I pass the torch (or the lightsaber), how do I let go?”
Throughout the movie we learn more and more of Luke’s difficulty in taking on the role of Jedi Master. It becomes apparent that his failures as a teacher are borne from fear. The fear that there is something in his students beyond his control. Feeling out of control can definitely be scary. The world is changing more rapidly than ever. How do we maintain a system of passing on wisdom that doesn’t seek to control but empowers future generations; and how do we accept our place in that system?
Right when Luke begins to feel out of control and defeated as his newest student abandons him, Yoda shows up to cut to the core of this issue and lay some wisdom on all of us. “Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.” Yoda reminds his former student that our limitations and mistakes are not obstacles to passing on wisdom but necessary tools.
St. Peter reminds us of this as well in his letter to the church in Corinth, “power is made perfect in weakness… for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). But this is a certain kind of strength. It is a strength that accepts “insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints.” And it accepts that those to whom we grant wisdom will use it to surpass us. As Yoda goes on to explain, it is a strength that demands humility, “Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
Become what you were meant to be
But the burden for creating a future belongs to both Master and student; and as the force-connected youth of this film grapple with how to move forward so do we. “Something inside me has always been there. But now it’s awake, and I’m afraid.” Rey, alongside the brooding Kylo Ren wrestles with who she’s meant to become and where she fits into this unending galactic conflict. Faced with the quest for identity, the two ultimately diverge onto very different roads.
Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo, can’t reconcile the failures of his family. From his flighty father Han to his Uncle Luke who seems to utterly give up on him. He continues to look for father figures to give him his identity. But both the memory of his grandfather, Darth Vader, and his mentor in the dark side, Snoke, both eventually fail him too. He gives up on looking for help from others and decides, “It’s time to let old things die.”
Soon he invites Rey to the same path, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” She too has been disappointed, let down, and abandoned but faced with the choice to burn it all down and begin again with Kylo she begs him, “Don't do this.” But it’s too late.
How will we respond when faced with questions of our identity, purpose, and mission? Will we reject where we’ve come from and the wisdom of those who’ve come before us? Or, when faced with our overwhelming potential, will we respond like Rey, “I don’t know what it is or what to do with it, and I need help.”
The spark that will light the fire
After this last confrontation the newly established hero and villain part ways. One seeking to destroy the remnants of his past and the rebellion and the other to save them. Meanwhile, the remaining rebels are facing their own hard questions while fighting for their survival.
From the very beginning of the movie right until the final moments, well-known pilot Poe Dameron takes off straight into the heat of every battle. Though skilled, he is soon demoted for his fool hardy tactics, but despite the reprimand, spends most of the movie trying to do things his way. Cut to Poe’s buddy and biggest fan Finn who develops a similar habit of blasting off to save the day on his own.
Despite all Poe’s efforts things keep going wrong for the rebellion and he’s forced to take a back seat. As he watches another rebel work and sacrifice without fanfare or explaination General Leia Organa, a figure of wisdom in the film, tries to teach him, “She was more interested in protecting the light than seeming like a hero.”
As our young rebels learn, even more important than laying aside your life is laying aside your pride. The message is brought home for Finn when his friend Rose saves him from a reckless maneuver in battle. Struggling to stay conscious she says, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”
Evil will eventually consume itself. All the light has to do to win is survive. We live in a world that can seem constantly at war. I know when I see some injustice or untruth I rush in to point it out, correct it and get so frustrated when it feels out of my control. But what are we fighting for? Constantly reacting to the problems of the world is distracting us from creating a vision for a brighter future.
Scripture tells us, there is a time to “uproot and tear down,” structures of evil and darkness. But we must remember “to build and to plant” as well. As The Last Jedi reminds us, hope envisions a better world where we all have a place. But to build that place, where anyone can rise to be a hero, demands a courageous humility, a humility that looks to the wisdom of the past, and fearlessly into the future.
Anthony Esser lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey, and daughter, Noelle. After serving in various ministry roles from Ohio to New Orleans and three years at the National Shrine, Anthony now works in evangelization in the Archdiocese of Washington. Besides writing for THR, he paints portraits, cooks Italian food, does stand-up comedy, and walks his dog on the boardwalk near his home. When he’s not causing a ruckus he loves sitting with the Lord in adoration.