30 December 2017

Star Wars, religion and tradition

The usual SPOILER ALERT stands here, of course.

It seems to be a common theme in commentaries (both praising and critical) I’ve seen of the new Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, that it makes a great deal out of devaluing tradition and religious belief, and instead gives us a variant of New Age spiritualism that deliberately scoffs at established religious texts, forms and heritages. But this is a theme that left me wondering if we were indeed watching the same film. I would not by any stretch call The Last Jedi high cinema. And indeed, this entire review (because that’s what it is, really) puts me in the awkward position of defending some aspects of a movie that I didn’t feel too strongly about one way or the other. But where others seemed to be seeing a film that denigrated and flouted tradition, whether that of Star Wars specifically or tradition in a broader sense, I saw a film that stood solidly within tradition whilst firmly disavowing the excesses of traditionalism. To borrow Mahler’s old saw: what The Last Jedi disdained was the ‘worship of ashes’, but it stood in clear support of the ‘preservation of fire’. (Indeed, Mahler may actually have been foremost in Rian Johnson’s mind, as the characters kept referring to the ‘fire’ and the ‘sparks’ of hope.)

First off, let me echo Damon Linker that the cultural obsession with Star Wars and our having turned what has always been and ought to have remained children’s entertainment into a kind of surrogate religion itself, is profoundly unhealthy. If you enjoy these films, fine. If they let you ‘take your first step into a larger world’ and explore the works of Carl Jung and the masters of Eastern philosophy, great. But to confuse the world of the films with the ‘larger world’ itself of philosophy, theology, folklore and mythology that they indicate is to insist that the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave are real. The cultural obsession with Star Wars is a kind of mass refusal of metanoia. And certain entries in this class of gripes about the movie seem motivated as much by this puerile confusion of the artwork with its broader meaning, as they are by the broader meaning itself. The obsession with ‘canon’ in a work of fiction seems particularly pathetic when compared with the source from which the term ‘canon’ truly derives, but it points to a truth that we seem to care, more religiously, about the fictional shadow-world of ‘long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away’, than we do about our actual religious heritage in the real world. If I come off as sneering here, that’s because this literally-idiotic obsession (one ironically proven and demonstrated by the asininity of the editors of Intellectual Takeout themselves) is something well worth sneering at. Only a self-obsessed and self-important group of man-children can attach such world-shattering importance to a film that was neither particularly bad nor particularly great.

So pardon me for not taking the first-order religious critiques of The Last Jedi too seriously. Though there are some interesting religious critiques to be made, the atavistic squawking over ‘canon’ and naïve one-to-one comparisons of the world of Star Wars to historical Christian debates over doctrine are not among them. I’m Orthodox. When I say I don’t belong to the Church of Lucas, I mean it.

Anyway: about the film. When Luke Skywalker shows up, he is shown to be a broken and embittered man, disillusioned with the ‘hubris’ of the Jedi ways, disdainful of the idea that there’s anything special or particularly praiseworthy about the Skywalker blood, convinced that the Jedi religion offers only a false hope to the universe and needs to be extinguished. He repeatedly tells Rey, and none too politely, to get lost – so convinced is he that the Rebellion doesn’t need a Skywalker and that the galaxy would be better off without the Jedi. He openly mocks the idea of showing up with a laser sword and facing down the First Order alone (so guess what he ends up having to do – at least in a ‘projection’ through the Force – by the end of the film?). He is riven by guilt that the family drama he’d sought to end by saving his father Anakin, is repeating itself with Ben Solo’s fall to the Dark Side – and that it was his own pride and blindness that had brought it all about. He came to the remotest place in the galaxy, in his own words, ‘to die’: to take the Jedi and all their failures with him. The title of The Last Jedi thus contains multiple layers of irony. It’s Rey – not Luke – who speaks, albeit naïvely, with the voice of tradition. She’s the one who believes that the Rebellion is worth fighting, that there is hope to be found, that there is something in the Jedi religion worth saving. This is something to be borne in mind.

Rian Johnson (director of Looper, an excellent dark dystopian science-fiction film in its own right) is actually to be credited for again returning the Force into something numinous, mysterious and even unknowable at bottom, rather than as a genetically-carried power that can be measured in positivistic terms through a ‘midi-chlorian count’. And I’m happy that he put that squarely in Luke’s mouth when Rey haltingly recites the demystified ‘Jedi special powers’ version of the Force, and he replies: ‘Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.’ The Force which Luke has Rey ‘reach out’ and experience is something like the cosmic Dao, the Taiji: the balance between positive and negative cosmic principles; life and death; rise and fall; light and dark; ‘surrounding’ and ‘binding’ all living and non-living things. If you understand Star Wars’s roots in Kurosawa’s filmography, and thus at least the pop-culture understandings of bushidô, Daoism and Zen Buddhism, this part of the film is a treat, not a betrayal. It is nothing if not a return to tradition – at least as far as the original trilogy was concerned. The original Star Wars trilogy was always bound up with New-Agey appropriations of Eastern religion and philosophy; there’s no use pretending that it wasn’t. Likewise with Rey ‘from Nowhere’ (speaking of echoes of Zen Buddhism and Daoism). The fact that she isn’t related to the Skywalkers or the Kenobis has the grace of saving the Force from being a kind of genetic determinism or the basis for a kind of caste system which only select families of a warrior élite can use.

The other scene which had Star Wars fanboys and ‘traditionalists’ howling was the one in which Luke, having finally chased Rey off his near-deserted island hermitage, means to set the ancient Jedi temple there on fire and burn it down – but is beaten to it by the apparition of none other than Master Yoda himself. But again, this is a reaction which is driven by the worship of ashes and the pigheaded immersion in the ‘canon’ of a fictional universe, which refuses to see how deeply-informed this scene is, not only by a Daoist-Zen understanding of ‘unlearning’ which is completely consistent with Yoda’s character but also deeply drenched in imagery which should resonate with a Christian, or even more broadly Abrahamic, audience – namely the prophesied destruction of the Temple in the Gospel of Saint John, or the rending of the Temple veil in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Here again, Johnson is being truer to the tradition of the original Star Wars trilogy than the fanboys are.

What makes this scene particularly profound is that Yoda is still teaching Luke, out of his own failures and his own painful, failure-ridden learning process in teaching both Obi-Wan and Luke. Yoda failed to recognise Luke’s own strength in The Empire Strikes Back, himself refused to ‘let go’ when the time came; that’s what made Luke’s return to Dagobah in Return of the Jedi so touching. Yoda telling Luke now essentially to trust Rey despite her having left her training unfinished to save her friends – just as Luke himself had done, long ago – was actually something close to a masterful touch, and again more in touch with the substance of the original trilogy than the critics give it credit for.

Indeed, the voice most hostile to tradition in The Last Jedi is that of a fallen Ben Solo, who nihilistically suggests to Rey to ‘let old things die… Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the rebels: let it all die’. Here we’ve got a ‘dangerous youth’ who is willing to dispense with everything – the order of the past, the unfolding of the present, even the ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ themselves – for the sake of power. A would-be galactic tyrant divorced from all fellow-feeling, for his family, for his master, for anything out of the past, credibly renders this version of Ben Solo more of a threat than the previous movie’s tantrum-throwing teenager had been.

Now, having said all of this, let me get to a final evaluation of The Last Jedi itself. It was good but not great. It was much more original than The Force Awakens. There were significant plot holes, cumbersome and ultimately-inconsequential side stories and a fairly clunky overall structure – but these were all (or should have been) valid complaints about not only the prequels, but also Return of the Jedi, which had four subplots going on at once, some of which got fairly tedious. On the other hand, we’re introduced to several new characters (like Rose, a low-ranking technician who had a strong Deep Space Nine Chief O’Brien appeal) and begin caring quite a bit more about characters like Poe Dameron, who had been introduced but somewhat underused in the previous instalment. I liked those elements.

But if we want to talk about religious interpretations of Star Wars, Damon Linker’s is still the best, and it’s one I share. Star Wars fandom is atavistically stuck in childhood. It wants movies that evoke the same magic, the same wonder, that they experienced when they saw the original trilogy as children. It attends these movies with all of the enthusiasm of a religious revival and treats the actors as though they are demigods. When the new movies fail to meet these subjectivist, emotional requirements of what Star Wars actually is per the individual fan’s tastes, the fans protest it. They become fanatical textualists and get into bitter disputes over the ‘canonicity’ of each new instalment that they never fail to demand. And the ‘fandom’ which once looked to the horizon with the hope of a young Luke Skywalker, becomes as embittered and cynical as the old Luke in this film.

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