Star Wars: The Last Jedi is visually stunning and an astonishing work by visual artists whose names appear by the hundreds in the film’s credits.
We know the story by now. There is a battle between an Evil Empire — with its maniacal, dictator, Snoke, and his mindless and highly regimented minions — and the Resistance, a diverse and ragtag group with just enough order and discipline to fight against the totalitarianism of this latest incarnation of evil known as the First Order. The First Order has been ruthlessly successful, and the Resistance is threatened with extinction. Behind and above the battle between the Resistance and the First Order is a spiritual battle between those who use the Force that connects and undergirds all life for good and those who are drawn to its dark side and the acquisition of this spiritual power for the purposes of evil.
In the past the Resistance has been saved by the martial skill and spiritual wisdom of the Jedi. The temple of the Jedi has now been destroyed and no one knows where Master Luke Skywalker is. A young woman, Rey, who seems to have the ability to become a Jedi, is sent on a search for him so that he can train her, revive the Jedi, and save the Resistance. When she finds Master Skywalker, he is a cynical and burned-out case who refuses to train her because the last apprentice he had, Kylo Ren, turned to the Dark Side and is now the powerful apprentice of Snoke. Skywalker now believes that the Jedi religion offers only destruction and false hope.
Skywalker reluctantly offers Rey three lessons. His goal is to show her the destructive power of the Dark Side and the illusory quality of the hope that pursuit of the Jedi way offers. As Rey enters into the fullness of the encounter with the Force, she comes into telepathic contact with Kylo Ren, who beckons her to the Dark Side and causes her to doubt the integrity of Skywalker. Both Kylo Ren and Rey are isolated and alone with their special gifts, and he bids her to join him in an alliance that can make the world new. She resists, though she is full of inner struggle and turmoil.
Frustrated by his inability to quench the hope that is in Rey, Skywalker determines to burn down the sacred tree that houses the inner sanctum of the Jedi and where the sacred books of the Jedi way are kept. He wants to put an end to this false hope. At the last minute he can’t go through with the act, and just then Skywalker’s Master, Yoda, appears as a luminous being of light. Skywalker tells Yoda that in the end he couldn’t bring himself to burn the sacred books. Yoda then uses the Force to set the sacred tree on fire and laughs as it burns.
Skywalker is appalled: “Master Yoda, the sacred books of the Jedi.”
“Read them, have you?” Yoda says.
“It is time, then,” says Luke.”
“She has all she needs,” Yoda says, as Rey departs to return to the Resistance and its seemingly doomed last stand.
In the end Skywalker and Rey each play an indispensable part in saving the day by the use of all their Jedi powers. As the Millennium Falcon, the trusty ship that has always saved them before, lifts off with the survivors, we glimpse in a storage container that is opened and closed very quickly the sacred books secretly accompanying the heroes in their escape.
At the end of the movie we see small children who are child labor slaves in an alien workhouse giving each other hope by telling the story of the Jedi and Master Luke. The camera focuses on one little boy who appears to have a hint of the telekinetic power that is the telltale of the Force looking to the heavens in hope.
Ithought that the first Star Wars movie was a hopeful cultural event because it signaled the resistance of the human spirt to an absolutizing secularism. In response to a completely demythologized world of science and technology, popular art imagined a future in which spiritual realities and the struggle between spiritual good and evil are still the defining human drama. The romantic flirtation with Gnosticism, Manicheism, and pantheism was poignant for its historical forgetfulness, but at least the dimension of the spiritual was being acknowledged as essential to the human person and some sense of the transcendent was beginning to reappear. Like the first movie, this one is also poignant for the mix of hope and spiritual longing.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described our time as cross-pressured, a time in which it is difficult to believe and difficult not to believe. That struggle is evident in this movie. Skywalker wants to be a debunker and wants to pass on his skepticism to the rising generation. Rey refuses to give up hope, though she also finds it difficult to believe. Skywalker wants to rid the world of the illusion of a saving spiritual wisdom and tries to destroy the sacred books, and yet cannot bring himself to do it. In the end the sacred tree and its sacred books are apparently destroyed. It is hard not to read a reference to Christian faith here. Whether intentionally or not, the movie is expressing the disappearance of Christian faith from a culture in which even the priests are relatively ignorant of the content of the sacred books. As Yoda says, “Read them, have you?”
After the destruction of the sacred tree and its books, Yoda says of the young apprentice, Rey, that she has everything that she needs. Here I thought that Yoda was expressing the popular sentiment that it is possible to be spiritual but not religious. One can find spiritual strength on one’s own without disciplined study of a spiritual path. In the absence of a mentor and an accessible deposit of wisdom, what else is one to do? Off Rey goes to face the forces of evil with what scraps of knowledge she has.
In the end, Skywalker saves the day by an act of self-sacrifice that requires the greatest spiritual effort of his life. In the performance of this act he completely exhausts himself and at the same time achieves immortality by being assumed bodily into the next life. Rey plays her part by a masterful act of Jedi telekinesis. Very fallible and ordinary people save the day with heroic acts of faith.
The movie’s conclusion has the faithful remnant safe in an old but revered ship that carries, unknown to its occupants, the sacred books waiting to be rediscovered. There are many moments in the film that express a profound distrust of religion as a false hope and a destructive force. There also many moments in which there is an aching longing for the return of faith and a recognition that without a story and a sense of the sacred it is impossible to nurture hope.
I take hope from this film. True to the well-established story line of the Star Wars films, we have a protest against a thoroughly disenchanted world. It is a sober protest well aware of the dangers of religious extremism but nevertheless unwilling to live in a thoroughly disenchanted world. We are told that the real battle is spiritual, and can be won only by those who are willing to spend themselves in spiritual struggle. We are told that the ark of salvation is old but still the best hope of survival and that hidden within is wisdom and saving power waiting to be rediscovered.
The closing scenes of The Last Jedi are a metaphor for the whole film: young people keeping hope alive by telling themselves a sacred story that is imperfectly remembered and even less perfectly understood but that has a power that cannot be extinguished. It makes me think of St. Paul’s vision in Acts 16:9 of a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.”
Something new is appearing in the culture: a dissatisfaction with a banal materialism and a nostalgia for a story that gives hope, one that tells of a sacred tree. Though it is hard to believe, there is a desire to believe and an intuition that the story told in the sacred books that come out of the tree can be rediscovered as a life-giving story. Somebody is waving at us and asking for help.