Warning: This spoiler-heavy discussion of Star Wars: The Last Jedi contains lore and acknowledges that the prequels exist.
There’s something that seems more important about the Star Wars movies, something truer. It’s at heart a phenomenon based on gnarly ship and creature designs with a ton of cool-looking action, but those are the things you need if you want, say, a fun Star Wars video game or (I’m sorry) the prequels. If you want a worthy successor to the great movie canon, though, you need to delve deep into a sort of mythical grammar. Star Wars is a factory-made myth—a retelling of the hero’s quest that has captivated us for millennia, presented in film, the storytelling medium (at least until video games learn to quit chasing graphics).
That’s always been where the Force has come in, and it’s where the latest entry, The Last Jedi, has done some of the boldest reimagining since we first were introduced to Jedi training in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s already surely divided fans of the series. That’s why I think it did such a great job.
I’ll focus as little as possible on how obsessed with Star Wars and specifically the power of the Force I was as a youngster, but look—I was. The original trilogy of films told a sweeping epic with only a few principal characters, and our understanding of the Force was really constrained to what we could see those few characters doing in a few moments of heightened tension.
In Episode IV, the Force was something ephemeral and, it seemed, mostly psychic. We saw Obi Wan Kenobi influencing the minds of stormtroopers, sneaking about to avoid fighting in the bowels of the Death Star, evaporating immaculately in death, and returning to Luke as a voice of calming wisdom during an absolutely crucial final battle. We were made to understand that the Force was more of a guiding power, granting those strong in it a form of intuition.
Then, too, we also saw it could be used for telekinesis, with Darth Vader’s casual choking of an impudent middle manager in the board room. This scene in particular still haunts the series, because pretty much every other movie in it paints that admiral (and, really, Han Solo, too) as a complete moron unless you accept the premise I always assumed: That the Force isn’t flashy. It had always been my interpretation, as a kid, that the Jedi or the Sith used their powers sparingly or in deceptive ways, so that a smuggler bopping around the Outer Rim or the sort of stuffed-shirt space fascist who’s walked around his whole life talking out his ass would plausibly not believe in such power without personally having laid eyes on it being used.
Even when Obi Wan tricked stormtroopers into letting them pass or Luke aced a one-in-a-million shot to destroy the Death Star, either of those things could be chalked up to absurd luck or favorable circumstances. Nor were they given to always work—Luke’s own attempt at mental trickery fails against Jabba the Hutt, and it’s heavily implied that it doesn’t work on the sharp-minded or highly alert.
More than that, Obi Wan’s advice to Luke to “Let go” during the final trench run seems to signal that you need to let the Force take over, almost as if it acts through you rather than you act with boosted HP/MP because you’re using it.
How much of this has to do with the fact the Force came into being in the mind of a laid-back kid in Northern California in the ’70s is up to individual interpretation. For context, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974, three years before cinemas made the jump to light speed.
Luminous beings are we.
Then George Lucas more or less turned over the saga to better writers, and we got The Empire Strikes Back, which is really were the Force became what we now know. From the moment Luke pulls the lightsaber to his grasp to free himself from an icy cave, this Force is immediately more physical, more magical, just a bit more obviously fantastic than before.
It cements for us the idea that the dead can linger as ghosts, with Kenobi advising Luke and brooding with Yoda over the remainder of the trilogy. It tells us that the sort of profound connection Obi Wan felt at the destruction of Alderaan in the first film can also extend to people who are important to the Jedi—as we see with Luke feeling the distress of his friends and even knowing where they are when he goes to try to rescue them. It also seems to suggest that it can heighten the reflexes or even the strength of the Jedi, with Luke performing extreme feats of strength and balance.
And then, of course, there’s the duel between Luke and Vader, with leaping and telekinetic attacks and all manner of wizardry—with Luke’s escape using a psychic connection to Leia that hints at the revelation yet to come, that they are twins.
By Return of the Jedi, Luke’s power had him singlehandedly mowing down Jabba the Hutt’s entire criminal organization and levitating C3P0. (My favorite single shot of all eight of these damn movies is still the moment he springs free of Jabba’s guards and ignites his new green lightsaber, the look on his face in that one joyous frame saying, “It’s on.”)
Yet, it was still mysterious. When Luke struts into Jabba’s Palace like he owns the damn place, he dispenses with the front door guards with a wave of his hand. They cringe back, and we don’t know why. Did he make them afraid? Did he command them to do so? Did he make them feel pain or panic? How he did it matters less than the fact he could do it, just as the fact Emperor Palpatine used lightning bolts to attack Luke matters less than he used the Force to torture and toy with and humiliate him.
The Force remained a storytelling device more than detailed set of rules in its own fictional universe—after all, you don’t see Luke using his mind to fling enemies into the Sarlacc pit or cause Imperial speeder bikes to crash. I never doubted he could do such things; I just figured he wouldn’t, that only pricks like Vader or Palpatine would use the Force not to enhance one’s perceptions or defend oneself in a fight, but to maim and kill the other guy. That, I thought we had learned, was the Dark Side of the Force.
When Luke threw his lightsaber away and embraced a certain death, I remember thinking he really had become something more.
A theory of an ever-expanding universe
We Old Millennials had a special treat between 1983 and 1999—a blissful childhood filled with Star Wars tie-ins that were made under the innocent assumption the franchise had run its course and we’d never see another adventure in that galaxy far, far away. To fill the great yawning vacuum in all our hearts (and George Lucas’ wallet), Lucasfilm created its own videogame publishing company LucasArts (RIP) and licensed the rights to write a small mountain of original novels.
I’m of course far too cool to have read said mountain of original novels, now reprinted under the “Legends” imprint—I was way too busy having girlfriends and doing popular stuff like sports and … hacky sack? But I’ve heard that, starting with Timothy Zahn’s floodgate-busting “Thrawn Trilogy,” Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, the Force gained a few new ground rules. In the very first scene, Obi Wan Kenobi’s spirit again visits Luke Skywalker, revealing that the time has come for him to cease lingering on as a phantom and go onward.
Subsequent books (which I also haven’t read) took the Force in all the sorts of directions you’d expect a diverse group of authors writing across more than a decade would: Disguising oneself by clouding the minds of others, transferring one’s consciousness into another damn body, going into healing trances, straight up absorbing the energy from laser blasts, serving as the focal point of a dozens-of-Jedi-students group effort to yank a goddamn Star Destroyer out of orbit.
The video games, meanwhile, took the Force and made it something you could hit X to perform, if you weren’t out of mana. Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight is both one of the greatest games of all time and one of the worst offenders in this regard, with protagonist Kyle Katarn (imagine Han Solo’s hilariously illegal mercenary swagger with Luke’s stupid-awesome Jedi powers) learning how to leap tall buildings in a single bound and electrocute foes with Force Lightning.
By the late ’90s, gamers were wondering why the original trilogy had been so spare with displays of the Force when the property was allowing you to mulch stormtroopers with ease.
“This weapon is your life.”
And then, oh dear, the prequels.
There’s been a steady drip of late from writers no more qualified than myself, trying to find something to love about Episodes I-III. These people are wrong, but I hope they’re leading happy lives. It serves nobody to delve too deeply into what’s wrong with the movies, but they got the Force wrong and I’m not even talking about midi-whatsits.
If, as I said earlier, your average Han or Admiral Choked-By-Vader doesn’t believe in the Force, what rock were they hiding under? Han was alive during the events of the prequel trilogy based on his age relative to Luke and Leia’s, in a time when Jedi were all over the damn place, and did things like ignite their lightsabers at a strange noise or stage massive battles in which they ripped apart dumb robots. (Also, what, did Chewbacca NEVER TALK ABOUT THAT TIME HE WAS IN A COMMANDO SQUAD WITH YODA? Fuck these movies.) You have Yoda—a peaceful person who goes on about how physical size and strength are nothing compared to the boundless power of the Force, about how aggression and violence are of the Dark Side—jumping around with a little green lightsaber when he should be above such things.
Licensed out to studios I won’t even bother googling in the wake of LucasArts’ shuttering, the video games became similarly insane, with no offender more worthy of scorn than the garbage that were the two The Force Unleashed games. Further complicating the series lore with nonsense that crapped on established canon from games that were actually good, they also handed protagonist Starkiller a ridiculous slate of powers that would make Goku blush. Walking tanks were crumpled up like tissue paper, entire legions of stormtroopers were barbecued with lightning at the press of a button, enemies in a heightened state of alert with elite military training were mind-controlled to kill their comrades or dive off cliffs.
And this, largely, is what the prequels decided to do, too, with Obi Wan and Anakin hurling enemies aside with Force Pushes or sailing around a lava planet with Force Jump. Gone was any idea that this power was something subtle, mysterious, something in which you needed to have a sort of faith. It was exactly the kind of power you could just make a bigger robot to defeat—maybe with four lightsabers doing a helicopter blade thing.
The Force Awakens (and then the Force actually awakens)
My biggest concern with The Force Awakens and the entire concept of a new trilogy of films was its portrayal of the characters and of the Force. I thought that the cat had been let out of the bag and that we just needed to accept a level of power creep. Fortunately for the Force itself, but unfortunately for anybody who wanted a storyline that truly rocketed off into new possibilities, director J.J. Abrams set about reviving the franchise by completely clearing the board and basically just starting it all back at square one. The Jedi are gone and there are a couple of jerks who bandy about the Dark Side like it’s a toy.
Right from the start, I was heartened to see Abrams use the Force for different purposes than I had seen in the prequels or any of the other lightsaber-happy material since 1999. Stopping a laser blast in mid-air, using his power to drag information out of the mind of an unwilling victim, and pretty clearly using his rage and pain to remain standing after taking a direct hit from Chewbacca’s heavy duty gun, Kylo Ren gave us some creative new ways to use the Force that were also easy to understand. But it wasn’t until The Last Jedi that we really saw things both new and entirely in keeping with the storied traditions of these movies.
In a shocking moment, TIE fighters wreck the bridge of the cruiser Leia’s standing on, sending her roaring out into the black, unmoored and unprotected. For a long and terrible moment it looks like she’s well and truly gotten spaced. And then, she opens her eyes, reaches out, and sails across the gap and back to the safety of the ship’s interior. It is a wild and incredible moment that I’m sure a lot of the film’s detractors don’t like. They’re totally wrong about this, because it is both true to the Force and true to Leia’s character and what we know about both her birthright and her spirit.
We’ve always known Leia, like her brother, is strong in the Force, and we’ve known that while training is important, these powers can guide even the untrained. Luke needed to make that one-in-a-million shot because it was in his character to strive to be something more. And Leia needed to survive, like she’s always needed to, because the fight’s not over. That sudden spectacular propulsion leading Leia out of certain death is basically the same thing as Luke getting the hell out of the carbonite-freezing chamber when he fights Vader. How brother and sister get out of these deadly situations is less important than the fact they did so with the Force.
Similarly, the intriguing communication between Kylo Ren and Rey is another exciting new application of this mystical power, while also being an extension of what we’ve already seen. It’s used here, like Leia’s death-defying escape, as a thrilling thematic element. These two powerful young people are enemies but are drawn inexorably toward one another because of the unknowable power they share. This power literally bridges the interstellar gap between them just as it figuratively bridges the gap between their characters. It’s an interesting way for the two to interact as characters that isn’t another fucking fight scene.
Finally, and most wonderfully, is Luke’s last gambit on Crait. When he appeared inside the Resistance base to give one final goodbye to Leia and go meet his destiny head-on, I had no idea what would happen. I only hoped that it wouldn’t be him crumpling up tanks like paper. It turns out that what happens is everything: A casually invincible Luke disdainfully shrugging off a bombardment from a battalion of tanks, a portentous lightsaber battle between a failed master and a traitorous apprentice, and finally, the reveal that Luke has surpassed even Yoda as the series’ ultimate troll.
As Kylo Ren rushes in to deliver what we assume to be a deathblow to a wizened old master, it becomes apparent that Luke is not actually there. I love this so hard that I’m no longer old enough to legally drive. And even more than that, I love that nobody man-splains it to us. Did he, from parsecs away, reach out with the Force and mind-fuck the entire First Order assault team and the Resistance and his own sister? Was he incorporeal when he gave Leia one last sweet kiss on the forehead to say goodbye? Was that him tipping his hand to her so she would know his plan? Can machines (like the First Order’s targeting instruments) or droids (like C3P0, who clearly saw and acknowledged Luke) be mind-fucked? Did he manipulate the particles of the air to make an image of himself, or even a whole body double with weight and displacement?
I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, and I love that I don’t know and that it doesn’t matter, because it feels like magic, like something only a legendary wizard could do. It shows that a true Jedi Master, with the Force as his ally, can go toe to toe with a tank battalion, save his friends, humiliate his foes, and give the new recruits plenty to talk about, all without leaving the couch.
If you shell out 15,000 in-game credits in Star Wars: Battlefront II, you can play as Luke Skywalker, with a bog-standard array of powers. I wonder which button I need to press to pull off that shit.
Kenneth Lowe will suffer for his lack of vision. He works in press relations in state government in Illinois and has been published in Colombia Reports, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Illinois Issues Magazine. Find him on Twitter or read more at his blog.