Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Last Jedi is the Most Philosophically Interesting Star Wars Film

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

- Luke Skywalker

The Last Jedi is the most philosophically interesting Star Wars film.

I’m not saying it’s the best Star Wars film. Or a perfect film. I think I will go with the majority of Star Wars fans and stick with The Empire Strikes Back as my favorite (also maybe not perfect, but then what is?).

Yet I think The Last Jedi is the most philosophically interesting of all the films. So far, anyway. I suppose J. J. Abrams could surprise me when I see The Rise of Skywalker for the first time in a few days, but as David Barr Kirtley said on his podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, while Abrams knows a lot about making movies, The Last Jedi writer and director Rian Johnson actually has something to say.

I think a lot of the nerd rage surrounding The Last Jedi results from a failure to understand what Johnson was trying to say. Some of the worst of this hate, however, is a deliberate rejection of what Johnson was trying to say, and while I can’t promise enlightenment even for the most open-minded of readers, those with their minds set on hate will likely find nothing here but more of the hate they crave.

What was Rian Johnson Trying to Say?

I got a head start in a previous post, “The Last Jedi’s Canto Bight Sequence: A Defense,” which looked at one of the most maligned parts of the movie to show how, despite appearances, it’s key to making one of the main points of the movie regarding the harm of narrow expectations.

This post will be a bit more general, looking at what The Last Jedi has to say about the metaphysics of the Force, the failures of the Jedi, and philosophical questions for the audience both as fans and as human beings.

Please note: This post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi, but since you only have a few days to see it before The Rise of Skywalker, what are you waiting for?

The Metaphysics of the Force

We’ve learned about the metaphysics of the Force in all the Star Wars movies so far. From Obi-Wan’s lesson that it penetrates and binds everything in the universe to Yoda’s lessons about not judging people by their size, from Maz Kanada’s advice to Rey on accepting the guidance of the Force to Qui-Gon Jinn’s cringe-worthy lectures about midichlorians. To be fair to Qui-Gon, he had some good stuff to say about the importance of focus, so let’s focus on that instead.

A lot of haters of The Last Jedi feel like it betrays everything about the previous movies. But, philosophically speaking, what it adds to our understanding of the metaphysics of the Force is a natural evolution of the previous ideas. The Force has always been something that flows through all being and beings in a balance that is often inscrutable to even the smartest beings like the Jedi. It took Luke Skywalker almost 40 years to learn these lessons, which to me makes it all the more philosophically interesting to see on screen how deeply he learned them.

The Failures of the Jedi

Let’s look at Luke’s lesson that the Force cannot be owned by the Jedi and that to think so is pure vanity. How could this not be true, given everything we’ve learned about the Force since Episode IV? Even if the arrogance of the Jedi was born of good intentions, look at what it allowed to happen in the prequel trilogy and in the rise of the First Order in the new films.

There are been non-Jedi Force sensitive characters since we learned about Leia’s Force-sensitivity in the original trilogy, which has continued with Maz Kanada and at least one of the kids of Canto Bight. Luke is basically asking, “Who the hell do the Jedi think they are, owning the reality that underlies the entire universe?” Who the hell, indeed?

It’s no secret that there’s a lot of Daoism and Buddhism in Star Wars. The non-anthropocentric view of reality in the Daodejing is evident here, as is the Buddhist insistence that thinking you own something or strongly identifying with something is a sure path to attachment, which as Yoda and the Buddha would agree, leads to suffering.

(For a more detailed exploration of the Buddhist dimensions, see this piece by Siddhant Adlakha.)

It’s easy to get wrapped up in romantic notions of the Jedi as all-knowing space wizards, but Luke’s criticism of the Jedi in The Last Jedi seems entirely fair, at least if you’ve been paying any attention to anything we’ve learned about the Force since 1977.

I think a lot of the hate of The Last Jedi shows that many Star Wars fans were more attached to their idea of what the Force and the Jedi are than anything anyone actually said about the Force. One of the most philosophically interesting things about The Last Jedi is precisely how it encourages the audience not just to ask questions within the universe of the film, but also about ourselves here in our galaxy.

Philosophical Questions for the Audience as Fans and Human Beings

The Last Jedi spends a lot of time subverting audience expectations. Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy recently confirmed that a big part of the movie was meant to intentionally challenge the audience.

To put it mildly, a lot of people complained about that (or at least a lot of the internet’s loudest denizens have complained—I suspect The Last Jedi is more popular among Star Wars fans than such denizens would have you believe).

I don’t think it’s good to subvert audience expectations for no reason, but The Last Jedi has some pretty good reasons once you understand what the movie is about. As I said before,
The wisdom here seems to be a common theme in another classic Daoist text, Zhuangzi. All human (or Wookiee or droid) perspectives are inherently limited. When you become too attached to your own perspective on the world, you are closing yourself off from the beauty of the unexpected. The universe may not always give you what you expect, but if you learn a bit of Zhuangzi’s and Yoda’s wisdom, maybe sometimes it will give you what you need.
While this is a more general lesson for the audience as human beings (or Mon Calamari or Bothans), I think fan reactions to the film also encourage deeper questionings about fandom itself: What do fans and creators owe each other? Can fans go too far? Why are fans hyper-critical of some works while other, similarly flawed projects are relatively unscathed?

On that last point, Melissa Hillman makes an interesting hypothesis that the range of contradictory complaints about The Last Jedi are driven by gender issues. Note that neither Hillman nor I are saying only men hate The Last Jedi or that all men who hate it are blatant misogynists, but I think Hillman makes a good point.

Think about many of the most nit-picked moments of the film from Canto Bight to Leia keeping the plans away from Poe to Vice Admiral Holdo’s tactics to Rey’s power to everything Rose does … or think about the real life demonization of Kelly Marie Tran or Kathleen Kennedy. A lot of these relate to instances where women are in charge or otherwise not acting in the ways that most men are socialized to expect women to act (which is a bit odd considering characters like Ripley in Aliens or, well, Princess Leia in the original trilogy, but maybe these are the exceptions that prove the rule or maybe they are “unfeminine” precisely in acting like men, whereas The Last Jedi imagines different ways of being women in a Star Wars film … I’m not sure).

Whatever you think about all this, I think it can prompt self-reflection on the part of the audience. Why am I nit-picking a movie about space wizards? How can Rian Johnson, Kathleen Kennedy, or Kelly Marie Tran ruin my childhood? Is nostalgia always healthy? Is the past as great as I remember it being? Do I want to make Star Wars great again? Is it possible I’m more critical of characters or plot points that challenge my expectations about gender or race?

Answer these questions how you will. Maybe you’ll answer these and still hate The Last Jedi. Maybe you just don't like the movie. That's fine. But I will say for myself as a white man that asking these sorts of questions of myself has often been difficult and I’m far from perfect, but it’s the only way I can have any hope of coming to terms with the harmful expectations that my society has given me about other kinds of people.

Challenges of The Last Jedi

The challenging aspects of The Last Jedi are, I think, a big part of what the haters hate. Philosophical questioning about oneself is often difficult and uncomfortable. Just ask people who listened to Socrates or the Buddha or Martin Luther King, Jr. or bell hooks, or for that matter, students in my college philosophy courses.

The Last Jedi is not an easy film for the characters or the audience, and its difficulty is mainly due to its philosophical content. If you want easy Star Wars, watch The Mandolorian. It’s fun and perfectly fine. You also get Baby Yoda, whose cuteness has conquered galaxies and our hearts. Yet so far The Mandolorian is a pretty safe Star Wars property, philosophically speaking … but that’s … another post.

The Last Jedi is at the end of the day a space opera movie about space wizards with laser swords. It can only do so much. But if you think part of what art, like philosophy, can do for us is to encourage us to delve deeper into attempts to understand ourselves, each other, and the universe, then maybe The Last Jedi has some interesting lessons for sentient beings here in our galaxy--if only we have the courage to take up its questions.


  1. A Post-Script for Philosophy Types:

    I thought about including a section in this post about the phrase "philosophically interesting" and how I hate the way academic philosophers use that phrase to more-or-less disguise their personal intellectual taste as something more substantial (I've been told a lot that my interests in Buddhist philosophy or skepticism aren't "philosophically interesting"). For this post, I decided that such a section would be pedantic in a context where I'm trying to talk to people outside of the discipline of philosophy (i.e., the general audience of this blog). Instead, I hinted at what I mean by "philosophically interesting" in the last section of the post.

    But let me clarify one thing that might be odd to philosophy types: I think the metaphysics of the Force is plenty philosophically interesting even if fictional. I also think Plato's metaphysics is interesting even though I don't agree with it. Plato and Star Wars may be wrong, but we can nonetheless learn interesting things from them, and a big part of what we learn comes from questioning our own presuppositions.

    The philosophical point of the movie is about the harm of being too attached to expectations and preconceptions, which is a big part of the Buddhist and Daoist elements of the idea behind the Force (I'm maybe presupposing too much familiarity with Buddhism and Daoism in this post, but I said more about it in the previous post on Canto Bight). The Last Jedi brings this out not just in the Jedi moments as most of the other movies do, but in the very plot of the movie, which I think is brilliant. This is also the entire basis of my (and I think, Rian Johnson's) critique of toxic fans: they are toxic precisely because they are too attached to their preconceptions, and the film is brilliant in bringing that out.

    So to sum this up as a single argument:

    1. According to my own stipulated definition, part of what makes something philosophically interesting is its ability to encourage us to question our presuppositions and assumptions.

    2. The Last Jedi also does this with some help from philosophical traditions of Daoism and Buddhism (at least implicitly).

    3. So, The Last Jedi is philosophically interesting in at least two ways: A. Encouraging the questioning of assumptions, and B. Drawing on Daoist and Buddhist philosophical resources (at least implicitly).

    4. While previous Star Wars movies have been philosophically interesting in both of these senses, The Last Jedi fits both of these senses to a greater degree, both within the Star Wars universe but most especially for the audience.

    5. Therefore, The Last Jedi is (at least according to my stipulated definition) the most philosophically interesting Star Wars film.

    I could attempt to justify each of these premises, but I hope careful readers will see that I have attempted to do so in the post. To spell this out any further would perhaps be pedantic even for philosophers! Of course, whether I am right about any of this... well, as nobody has managed to convince all philosophers of anything in the last 3,000 years, I have little hope of doing that on this blog!

  2. Many people praised the new direction for the brand that Johnson chose, but many Star Wars fans did not agree with that and hated The Last Jedi.

    The controversy was so great that Lucasfilm and Disney eventually invited JJ Abrams - the author of The Force Awakens - to return. `` The Last Jedi ' ' deviated from the 2015 episode too far, and the filmmaker now has to adjust his moves and create the ending.

    It was probably an overwhelming task for a single work, so much so that it was reported that Abrams once wanted to "break" The Rise of Skywalker into two episodes but was not approved.