The Nonviolent Philosophy of THE LAST JEDI

Star Wars Episode VIII: THE LAST JEDI came out on Blu-ray and DVD yesterday. To honor the release, Lewton Bus offers this rumination on the film’s themes.

WARNING: This article will freely discuss events from THE LAST JEDI and elsewhere in the Star Wars canon.

Take a look at the blockbuster landscape and what do you see?  Superheroes punching Supervillains and/or criminals, giant robots punching giant monsters, Vin Diesel using cars to punch other cars in the face… Even our kids’ animated movies are filled to the brim with cartoonish, slapstick violence.

Which all makes perfect sense! Violence is inherently cinematic — it’s one of the simplest ways for filmmakers to convey character, tone, and even thematic material without saying a word of dialogue.  The history of cinema is littered with films that feature violence as shorthand for the audience, dating back to the days of silent film.

Now I don’t mean to sound like I’m clutching my pearls, because I love some cool explosions and shootouts and face punches in my action movies.  Instead, I bring this up to talk about something special: The action packed and thrilling, but downright peaceful climax of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“But Kevin,” you might ask, “there’s lots of explosions and sword fighting and cool action stuff in The Last Jedi.”  And it is hard to disagree with that—one of the film’s highlights is Kylo Ren fighting side by side with Rey and taking on the guards in Snoke’s throne room.  That scene, however, is one of the final moments where the film’s “good guys” actively choose violence to solve the challenges they face.

For context, after Admiral Holdo saves the Resistance from certain annihilation by sacrificing herself in maybe the most awe-inspiring moment of 2017, both sides of the galactic conflict descend on Crait for what appears to be a final confrontation.  The white salt flats of the planet’s surface being trampled on by the First Order’s four legged walkers intentionally harken back to the incredible Battle of Hoth sequence from The Empire Strikes Back.  But writer/director Rian Johnson is too smart and too playful with audience expectations to merely rehash something we’ve seen before.  Instead, the “battle” of Crait is a bait-and-switch using the trope of a “final battle” in a film literally called Star WARS to make a point about non-violence and the fruitlessness of anger.

This is where the brooding facade of Kylo Ren transitions to an explicit avatar of the angry, entitled white male.  No longer beholden to trying to woo Rey to the Dark Side, Ben Solo drops his act and works to try and take what he feels belongs to him.  Darth Vader was the right-hand man to the Emperor of the entire galaxy, and his mother and father, through their actions in the Galactic Civil War, took that away from him.  He’s given his chance to try and take back what he feels is rightfully his spot in the pecking order of this universe, and violence and domination are his only means to accomplish that.

“Let the past die.  Kill it, if you have to.” Even Kylo Ren’s pseudo-intellectual mantra is brimming with a want and desire for violent behavior.  Contrast that with our heroes in The Resistance. Every primary character that we’ve followed throughout the film gets one defining moment, and each one either abandons violence as a means to an end, or is shown the folly of their ways.

Take Poe, the hotshot flyboy who spends the whole film grounded from his X-wing and longing to take the fight to the First Order.  His brash behavior, first by disobeying orders in the opening battle and second by sending Rose and Finn onto a First Order Star Destroyer nearly costs him, and the rest of the Resistance, their lives.  After failing in a last ditch effort to hold off Kylo Ren and his forces from destroying the blast door separating the two forces, Poe is given a decision.  Either enter into a last stand, fight to the death or inspire his friends to live another day and find a way to escape. His first moment as the true leader of the Resistance, is choosing the latter and accepting that surviving defeat is better than risking death for hollow victory.

But it’s Leia’s choice that allows this to even be possible.  Leia clearly loves Poe, as he reminds her of Han and of what Ben could have been.  Poe is loyal, charming, commanding and the best pilot in the galaxy, but he’s also brash and hotheaded.  He’s a more pure-hearted Han. Leia’s loyalty to Poe is tested when he attempts mutiny against Admiral Holdo and nearly costs The Resistance the war.  Given the chance, however, she trusts him to be the leader she knows he can be when he’s faced with his final choice. She allows herself to no longer be the face of The Resistance, passing on the torch to the protege she castigated and demoted in the film’s first act.

Even Finn, who goes from the cowardly lion to someone willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for “the cause,” eventually realizes the error of his ways.  Finn gets what, in most blockbusters of this ilk, would be an ultimate hero move: a chance to die saving the people and cause that he loves and has embraced.  But that chance is taken away from him when Rose, the ultimate idealist, makes her choice to sacrifice herself to save him.  Rose understands that dying to “save the day” is pointless, because you’re dead and all you’ve done is perpetuate the cycle.  Both Rose and Finn are true believers in the Resistance, but where Finn has fallen victim to Kylo’s hateful mantra, Rose is beholden to her own.  “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

Which brings us around to Luke and Rey, the reluctant master and the apprentice he refused to train.  Luke provides Rey two lessons on The Force over the course of the film, showing Rey that The Force is not merely “controlling people and making things float.”  Instead, he introduces her to the idea that The Jedi were wrong about trying to control and manipulate the force, as it is a ethereal construct flowing through everyone and everything in the Universe.  Everything in balance, both life and death, warm and cool, and violence and peace.  If both sides embrace conflict with violence, then the universe is out of balance.

Luke chooses, then, to accept his failure in Kylo Ren, and that his nephew’s thirst for violence will be unquenchable.  Luke, like his masters before him, doesn’t die accidentally or fighting. Knowing the effort would kill him, Luke makes the conscious effort to save the Resistance not through picking up his laser sword and taking on The First Order, but to use The Force to embrace peace in an attempt to restore balance to the galaxy.  Luke gets to say goodbye to Leia and apologize for his failure to Ben, all without having to do harm to anyone else in the conflict he feels responsible for. As Rey notes, Luke is no longer with us physically, but he dies at peace. Exactly like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him.

It’s Rey who gets the final, and most important, heroic feat in the film… simply by lifting some rocks.  After using the Falcon to distract the First Order TIE fighters, Rey manages to find the blocked off backdoor exit to the former Rebel base on Crait.  After the disappointment of meeting her expected teacher and hero and the failure to turn Ben Solo back to the light, Rey is given her first chance to use The Force for a categorical good. Collapsed under boulders and rocks, Rey uses The Force to nonviolently save her friends by “making things float”—exactly the thing Luke chided her for believing was the power of The Force.  

Rarely have the Star Wars films used The Force in their climaxes for anything other than lightsaber battles, aerial combat, or cool tricks in the midst of lightsaber battles and aerial combat.  Johnson sets both of these expectations up, with Luke staring down Kylo Ren and Rey manning the gunner seat in the Falcon, but instead subverts our expectations as an audience and shows us true heroism.  In a series about a seemingly endless conflict between good and evil where both sides possess powers beyond our imagination, simply lifting rocks is the most powerful statement in the entire 40 year history of the series.

There is no anger in Rey’s reunion with The Resistance.  Relief, joy, happiness, love, and most importantly peace are all we feel when Finn, Poe, Leia, and co. enter the Falcon to make a final escape.  In one final moment, we see Kylo and Rey experience one last shared vision, but Rey sees the rage boiling under Ben’s surface and both metaphorically and literally shuts the door on him.

The Phantom Menace tells us that “Anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”  But anger is also a normal and at times an even healthy emotion.  Rian Johnson understands that both of these ideas can be true. The Last Jedi is devoted to the idea that hatred and malice will destroy, and that the only way to confront this is through mindset where anger and peace exist in harmony and where nonviolence is a sign of strength, not one of weakness.