Sunday, January 21, 2018

"There are alternatives to fighting": Good vs Evil in "The Last Jedi"

In Star Wars (or A New Hope, if you prefer), when the Millennium Falcon is pulled into the Death Star by tractor beam, Han Solo declares, "they're not going to get me without a fight!", to which Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, "You can't win. But there are alternatives to fighting."

In The Last Jedi, I struggled to see the relevance of Finn and Rose's sojourn to Canto Bight, where the upper crust of the galaxy luxuriate in the spoils of war profiteering. Rose informs Finn that "There's only one business in the galaxy that'll get you this rich [...] selling weapons to the First Order." It turns out that Rose isn't completely correct. DJ later reveals to Finn that in fact Canto Bight's patrons sell to both sides, the First Order and the Republic/Resistance. He recommends to Finn that the best course of action is to "live free; don't join."

Like Kylo Ren's sentiment that "It's time to let old things die", this has been misinterpreted as a message of the film, but it isn't. Kylo's mistake is his belief in the need to "let the past die". Yoda puts us on the right course: "the greatest teacher failure is." Similarly, we're not meant to agree with DJ. He isn't even firm about his own arguments. When Finn challenges him later in the film, arguing that he's wrong to perceive the conflict as he does, DJ replies, "Maybe."

Yet the film clearly isn't advocating, as some reactionaries have argued, a nihilistic message that good and evil are meaningless and that we're all just pawns in a capitalist machine. We're still clearly positioned to see the Resistance as good and the First Order as evil. Instead, the film is arguing that good doesn't have to win through violence. This is particularly emphasised in the film through its depiction of the human cost of "righteous violence". Poe's attack on the dreadnought Fulminatrix (yeah, I remembered the name from a Wookieepedia article) gets a huge proportion of the Resistance's members killed. He ultimately recognises this in the finale when he calls off the speeder attack on the (poorly named) battering-ram cannon.

How all this becomes relevant, ultimately, is how it is borne out in Luke's narrative. In the conclusion of the film, Luke projects himself using the Force to appear on the planet Crait, and single-handedly faces down the entirety of the First Order's ground forces. In the ensuing confrontation, he completely humiliates Kylo Ren and makes the First Order military look utterly incompetent and impotent, and he does all of this without striking a single blow.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells Luke that the Force is to be used for "knowledge and defence, never attack". In The Last Jedi, Luke never attacks, and he still wins. In my review of The Last Jedi I said that Kylo Ren wins "politically" by usurping Snoke, but more accurately, in terms of his long term goals, he loses. He gains rank, but fails to destroy the Resistance and kill Rey, or kill Luke, who instead peacefully becomes one with the Force. Luke won because he used an alternative to fighting.

This doesn't mean that the film somehow advocates pacifism or surrender. Far from it. What it relates, however, is a long-standing theme that good cannot and should not win by being like evil, by matching their raw violent strength with strength of the same kind. In The Last Jedi, despite the failures of Rey, Finn and Poe to turn Kylo, outwit the First Order and outfight it respectively, the Resistance still "wins" because they humiliate the First Order and make them look stupid and pathetic.

In Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance wins great victories over the Galactic Empire. Yet they do not do this by mounting full-scale campaigns of war against the Empire, seeking to conquer planets, seize resources and acquire better and more powerful weapons. Rather, they use the resources they have to destroy two weapons, the first and second Death Stars. No one in either of these films ever advocates capturing the Death Star and turning it against the Empire, or for the Rebellion to construct superweapons of its own to terrorise and attack enemy systems. In this regard the Original Trilogy is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings: Sauron is defeated by destroying his greatest weapon (the Ring), not by using it (or similar weapons) against him. The Force Awakens rather unimaginatively reused this concept.

Nonetheless, in this manner The Last Jedi offers another response to evil: good wins if it can expose the limitations of evil and, going by the kids at the end, if it can inspire hope and resistance. Evil cannot win if its weaknesses are exposed and if it fails to dominate the hearts and minds of those it seeks to control. Again, this is not to say that good does not need, to some degree, to fight back, but the battle is not won purely through overwhelming military force. This is entirely consistent with how the Rebellion wins in the Original Trilogy, by destroying the Death Stars rather than trying to conquer the Empire. In the same manner, in Return of the Jedi, Luke avoided falling to the dark side, firstly by insisting that he would not fight his father, and ultimately by refusing to kill him, refusing to match violence with violence and hate with hate. Similarly, the elite of Canto Bight only flourish through their clients' mistaken belief that victory only comes through physically destroying one's enemy. There are alternatives to fighting, and ultimately they are more powerful than evil can possibly imagine.

Note that this doesn't excuse The Last Jedi's structure and pacing issues and the weakness of some of its humour, and it doesn't change the Canto Bight plot from feeling heavy-handed, distracting or clumsy. It just occurred to me that perhaps some of its disparate elements are more connected than they first appeared. Seriously, though, couldn't there have been a minute or two for Luke and Yoda to discuss what "learning from failure" might mean for force users in general or future Jedi specifically, and what being a Jedi might mean in a galaxy recognising that the force "does not belong to the Jedi"? After The Force Awakens, people expected the next film to answer a lot of "plot" questions: who are Rey's parents? What's Snoke's deal? Where'd the First Order spring from? I didn't care about that, but obviously it bothered other people. More importantly, in my opinion, I think Episode IX needs to resolve the thematic questions set up by The Last Jedi: having learnt from the mistakes of the past, what is the future of the Force and the Jedi? How can the Resistance win without resorting purely to militarily overpowering the First Order? What are the consequences of Luke's very public humiliation of the First Order on Crait? I'm a tad concerned that this is just another course for viewers to be disappointed as the direction of the Sequel Trilogy again changes hands.

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