Updated: Tuesday, January 2, 2018, 2:23 PM
If Star Wars isn’t a religion unto itself, it at least has one baked into its fiber. Forty years after we were introduced to the Force, Star Wars: The Last Jedi — the latest episode in the Skywalker family drama — makes the series’ boldest statement yet about its faith, and in doing so offers a parallel argument about our own world.
The Last Jedi makes it clear that its predecessor, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is about more than a desert scavenger learning how to mess with a stormtrooper’s mind. This awakening is now about the democratization of spirituality. The Last Jedi not only takes the story — refreshingly — in a different direction than past entries in the series, in which Jedi were seen as a pure force for good, it serves up a universal repudiation of religion and religious leadership.
When The Force Awakens hit theaters in 2015, it felt pretty clear that the title was a reference to Rey (Daisy Ridley), the protagonist and clear corollary to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) from the original trilogy. From the moment her mind is probed by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Rey’s ability to use the Force grows rapidly. You can almost see the force, ahem, awaken in her during her duel with Ren, the two of them perched at the edge of a canyon.
But what if that wasn’t the point, or at least not the whole point, of the Force’s awakening? What if Rey was simply one example of a widespread phenomenon? What if the Jedi, rather than being venerated Force evangelists who were spreading light across the galaxy, instead were smothering the Force for millennia with their rigid dogma? And what if the film makes the case that something similar has happened in our world?
(Requisite warning: If you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi and don’t want parts of the film spoiled for you, it’s time to go read something else, like our review, or this story about trolls who are ruining the movie for others.)
Maybe that’s what Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed The Last Jedi, is trying to tell us. Luke hints at this idea: He tells Rey it’s hubris to think that the extinction of the Jedi Order would mean the extinguishing of the Force. In a galaxy with trillions of souls, only this relatively paltry number of people can tell everyone how this energy, which exists between — and is created by — all living things, is supposed to be understood? And they’re the only ones who get to manipulate that energy? Nah.
Perhaps a hierarchy of apprentices, knights, and masters isn’t needed to learn about this great power. Councils shouldn’t set rules saying you’re not permitted to fall in love if you also know how to levitate a rock. Johnson could be speaking to us about the real world, where the idea that a patriarchal hierarchy — governed by ancient rules — should serve as gatekeeper to spiritual fulfillment is in decay. We should open our minds to the idea that what we believe or don’t believe about creators, gods, or other deities can be just as legitimate as what is professed by the person wearing a robe at the front of the room. They can be guides, but they shouldn’t be all-powerful guards charged with dispensing whatever spiritual goal people are seeking, be it enlightenment, inner-peace, or eternal salvation.
In the final scene of The Last Jedi, after thousands of years of the Force being held hostage by its supposed champions, a young child laborer — like Rey, a nobody from nowhere with no branch on the Skywalker family tree — summons a broom to his hand just by thinking about it. No one taught him how. A warrior monk with a hood fetish didn’t have to count minuscule specks in his blood cells, like they do in The Phantom Menace. He didn’t have parents who were second cousins to Luke’s grandmother and whose picture is in the background of a scene in one of the prequel films. (Even though some people, who clearly didn’t get the point of the The Last Jedi, insist “broom boy” has some grand history.)
No. He was just a kid with hopes for a greater existence. The Force is free now; it belongs to everyone.
Johnson’s story rejects a long-held belief in the Star Wars universe and says the Jedi are not righteous and all-knowing protectors of the Force. And in doing so it says something important about us, too: Like the broom boy, we don’t need our hands held on the way to spiritual gratification — we can find our own path.