There’s something about Star Wars. I don’t know if anyone would recognize any of the movies as one of the best movies ever made, or even one of the best Scifi movies ever made, but still, the whole saga is a phenomenon by its own right. I, for one, love it. At first sight, it’s a simple fairy tale with epic battles in Space, samurai-like martial artists and a diversity of stimulating worlds. As I just watched STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI this seemed a good time to ponder on the essence of this saga as I see it.
The first movie I watched of the space opera was THE RETURN OF THE JEDI back in the day. I immediately fell in love with it and went back to rent the other movies in VHS. The first trilogy is really the simplest of them all. It’s the story of a boy who becomes the hope of the galaxy by facing the evil Empire and the notorious Darth Vader. To do this, he and his friends the Rebels, have to blow up several Death Stars, which are huge weapons of mass destruction. It’s a simple Good versus Evil part of the story. The only significantly complicated bit is the fact that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s own father. That fact disturbs the narrative and remains, I believe, the one single fact for which the Star Wars first saga is best known for. “Luke, I am your father” is a classic movie quote everyone recognizes.
But what, really, is Good and Evil? For a long time I’ve been skeptical of these concepts. Are there acts or entities in the Universe you can, without question, perceive as being Good or Evil? Or just judgments over someone’s actions? A cannibal that is eating an enemy he killed might seem Evil to you or me, but to him, and the ones in his culture, it could be a deed of Good, preserving the life energy of another person. And still, would this cannibal be totally Evil? Or could he be capable of loving and caring for his children, even if he will educate them to eat other people? I think it is obvious that evil deeds exist. People massacre others with cold in their hearts. And all kinds of violence are exerted onto many people by their peers and strangers alike. But Evil as an absolute? I doubt that. So the tale of Luke Skywalker fighting some kind of Dark Side of the Force seemed too simplistic even though alluring for some reason. We never doubt that Emperor is Evil incarnated, even though Luke can do the unimaginable and bring Darth Vader back to the Light. But what about that whole non-violence thing that comes up in the end, that ‘not succumb to hate’ idea?
A few years ago I learnt a bit about Buddhist compassion. It seems that Buddhists believe all actions of man have only two possible motivations: to achieve happiness or to avoid pain. And even the most hideous acts are done in a misguided effort to either become happy or avoid the pain of living. This is very interesting and resonates with Freud’s concepts of the Pulsion of Life and the Pulsion of Death. Or, in other words, the Life Drive and the Death Drive. Eros and Tanatos. The Life Drive seems to me very similar to the drive for happiness, for creating, for having children, for having sex and love. And the Death Drive seems close to a desperate reach to avoid pain, as in death there is nothing and so there is no pain. The Death Drive seems to be a need to avoid or destroy everything that can bring us pain, even if it is our own life. Well… this is a way I rationalize it, I guess. But if we think like this, then there really is not an absolute Good or an absolute Evil. Good and Evil are not the absolute essence of things, but only of results. Our intentions are always clear: achieve happiness or avoid pain. But our deeds can be Evil and so make us Evil. That is what Luke Skywalker seems to learn in his initial journey: that Good and Evil is a choice and that you can always do Good – Good is a moral choice and, according to the Buddhism I know, the only true path to happiness and enlightment.
Well, the second Star Wars trilogy (Episodes I, II and III), blurs the lines a lot more, and not entirely successfully. That’s why I think that trilogy really didn’t work, in spite of the developed special effects, higher world diversity, good fight scenes and some interesting characters (I loved Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn, and liked McGregor’s Obi-Wan and Portman’s Amidala), but still, the whole moral ground beneath the narrative is shaky. It’s about a boy, Anakin, who is recruited in his infancy to be a Jedi knight but is turned into the Dark Side by a treacherous Sith Lord whose devious plan will destroy the Republic of Planets and originate the Empire. But, really? What is this thing of ‘being turned to the Dark Side’? And how can we harmonize the pristine idea of the child Anakin with the Evil of Darth Vader? The movies’ execution is not as bad as some seem to think: if you look at the first trilogy you’ll probably find a lot of problems as well (not in the least the absurd way time is considered in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – when we are supposed to believe that Luke Skywalker became an almost fully trained Jedi knight in a matter of days). The real problem with the second trilogy is that you cannot empathize with the protagonist. Anakin is either Evil incarnated or the hero we root for. He cannot be both. And there really is not another protagonist we can follow. Not even Obi-Wan Kenobi. Because he is always a supporting character. Period. And even as we see Anakin choose wrongly in many intersections, we feel, or we are led to believe, that he has a good heart, and a willingness to do the right thing. That is systematically shown to us. And even as he is deceived, it’s difficult for us to understand what is that Dark Force that is invading him and why. We see him ‘Save the Cat’ too many times to suddenly believe he will turn into someone that will cold-heartedly ‘Kill the Cat’ from then on. Something is amiss in that character and so something is amiss in that whole story.
And so, what do we now have in this new trilogy that started with THE FORCE AWAKENS and THE LAST JEDI? There has been a lot of controversy about this last movie. Some say it’s a terrible picture, others love it. I haven’t really followed the discussion, I’m sorry to say. What I can tell you, though, is that THE LAST JEDI is probably my favorite Star Wars movie, period. It’s clever, exciting, strong, consistent. I liked THE FORCE AWAKENS – Rey and Finn and many other characters were brilliant and the whole feel of the movie was a return to the better days of the Star Wars Universe. But still, I didn’t like the final confrontation between Rey and Ren. It missed something. Not only did I not understand how someone like Rey could fight and win a fully trained Sith like Ren, but also the Ren character didn’t seem sophisticated enough, devious enough, determined enough to be a Sith Lord – a strong antagonist. In THE LAST JEDI, however, that weakness is not present. Rey and Ren’s connection is in fact what moves the whole picture. And in this picture, the theme of choice comes back with a vengeance. Choices become more complicated and less clear. We can also see this in the character of Luke Skywalker – who seems to think Light will bring Darkness and maybe vice-versa. Using a lot of references to the other movies, specially THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, THE LAST JEDI does exactly what that second movie achieves also: to bring the forces of the antagonist to an advantageous position. Typical Second Act stuff. But it does so by blurring the lines even further and showing how difficult it is many times to do the right thing. Making the moral choice is not easy, and many of us are misguided to what will fulfill us or relieve us. THE LAST JEDI sophisticates the Star Wars Universe, but not in a strange query way as the second trilogy ended up doing. This Episode VIII shows us real Evil and real Good: when the crisis hit us, which of us will choose rightly? Even when it seems we are doomed to fail?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I never intentionally hurt anyone, as far as I recall, but I’ve done some things I’m not particularly proud of. Still, today, this is what I’ve learned: in all or most of us there is a quiet voice inside that tells us what is wrong and what is right. Sometimes it is difficult to hear, but it’s there, if we take the time to listen. It helps us understand what to do when we have to decide. And that voice of conscience is what tells us what’s Good and what’s Evil. One of my goals in life is to be in tune with that voice. I believe in my morals and in truth and I try to live by those principals. And maybe that is also what Star Wars is all about. All stories have morals. It’s up to us to listen to them. ‘Not succumb to hate’ seems a pretty good principle nowadays. But History is ruthless – let’s see what it brings and let’s hope we can all choose rightly. Even Star Wars can teach us something.