The Last Word Part 4 – Philosophy of the Force

The Force is the core of the Star Wars universe and yet is often depressingly ambiguous. It is a mystical primordial connection to the universe that is clearly influenced by Eastern philosophy, with the added benefits of direct real-world – telekineses, precognition, telepathy, and so on. It also has, we are told, Light and Dark sides, but nobody explicitly spells out what those are very well, except the Dark Side people are all evil, typically in a delightfully cliché manner.  The Star Wars universe is distinctly Manichean, the spiritualist, balanced Jedi who order themselves versus the evil, power-hungry Sith who order the material universe, and clear battle lines between the two.

I vaguely recall some loose talk about Anakin (Vader) having actually brought balance to the force by making the Dark Side equal to the Light. While the films don’t explicitly deny this that I remember, I claim it is a silly interpretation as the Dark Side fundamentally is imbalance.  Even in The Last Jedi we see this in Rey’s meditation on the cycle of life and death – there’s the balance of the light side. The Dark Side is pooled in a dark cave, apart from the natural cycle and (despite Luke’s strange statement about its existence being balance) not actually mirrored by an equally pure node of the Light Side in this or any other film.

Thus, it was not Vader who brought balance to the force, but Luke, as is appropriate for nonspecific prophecies. The fact that Luke DOES talk about the Dark Side cave being part of the balance says to me that the writers of The Last Jedi never understood what the Force was. This is unfortunate, and has poor consequences for the philosophical themes of the film.

There is one thing the Jedi could never be, and that is anti-tradition. The connection to previous people is as inextricable to the concept of the Jedi as their connection to those presently alive, as demonstrated by the large number of ghostly interventions in the original trilogy. Truly, for Luke to destroy the books is to sever his connection to past Jedi, that is, declaring war on the Jedi and the Light Side as a whole (such severing is, after all, of the Dark Side). The whole thing is made maddeningly incoherent when Yoda must use the fundamental connection of all things and all people to make a beyond-the-grave appearance in order to encourage Luke to sever ties with people and things including Yoda himself. Luke could have pushed for an end of the Jedi, but not done so with Yoda’s assistance, not and still actually be standing on coherent. Neither could Yoda have helped.

(As a brief aside, the book burning scene is when I lost all sympathy for the writers of the film. People who burn books are, in my view, presumptively wrong, if not universally wrong. Wise old Yoda casually dismissing the ancient texts as worthless, and actively seeking to destroy the carefully hoarded knowledge and histories, signals to me that the writers of the scene are – and I mean this, as scholar and scientist – my enemy. This unavoidably colored all my notes after this point, and my eventual conclusions.)

I am not claiming that there is something fundamentally wrong with morally ambiguous ghosts and morally grey (or even grimdark morally relativist) universes – the popularity of Game of Thrones, Warhammer 40k, the Elric Saga, and similar certainly goes to prove the appeal of such.  The problem is that Star Wars is space opera, THE space opera – it’s built on pulp adventure stories, the kind where writers take child-like delight in psychic warriors amid galaxy spanning conflicts and super-science rayguns, where heroes do heroic things and get the girl and all that. The Last Jedi, by very seriously making an argument that the Jedi must end (even if they make that argument so incoherently I can’t be certain that’s the side they come down on), muddies the waters. The line between the Light Side and Dark Side may have run through both Luke and Vader’s heart, but the line itself was always very bright. This film isn’t so sure, and because it isn’t sure, it’s trying to be a different movie, something that, at a very fundamental level, doesn’t mesh with the classic Star Wars universe.  I get the sense the writers wanted to write a different universe, but decorated it with the trappings of Star Wars for marketing appeal.

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