The Last Jedi
Nihilism, Übermenschen, and a Rey of Hope
by Edwardo Pérez
The Force Awakens ended beautifully, with Rey and Luke Skywalker staring at each other, standing atop an island mountain, with a lightsaber between them – held out by Rey in a gesture of respect and hope. It’s such a significant moment in the Star Wars narrative that John Williams gives us a new theme – one so profound, it captured not just the new awakening Episode VII was all about but also the mystery and fantasy the first six films were based on, providing a musical anticipation for what comes next. Until …
Luke takes his old lightsaber, in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, glances at it for a brief moment, and then flippantly tosses it over his shoulder as if were nothing more than a useless, broken toy – shattering the beautiful scene and turning the expectation and wonder into something meaningless and empty (sadly, like most of The Last Jedi’s narrative, it might as well have been a Monty Python skit).
Philosophically, that’s what viewing The Last Jedi did to me, it crushed my childhood fantasies and my boyhood hero with one lightsaber toss. It took a narrative rooted in Eastern philosophy (such as the benevolence, optimism, and sense of destiny and connectedness inherent in Confucianism) and rewrote it into a nihilistic tale bereft of any significance. Yet, like Rey (the only bright spot in the film, besides the Porgs) I refuse to give in to the Dark Side. As the cliché goes, I’d watch Daisy Ridley’s Rey read the newspaper for two and half hours (and then I’d watch the Porgs use the newspaper to make a nest for their baby Porglings).
This is what nihilism does, it puts you on the wrong end of a Vader choke-hold, squeezing everything meaningful out of you until nothing is left, just an unfillable void. The Last Jedi does this not just to Luke, but to the entire Star Wars narrative. It doesn’t just change the story, it changes the philosophy behind the story. Jedi? Pathetic failures. The Force? Nothing special about it, it’s everywhere. Lightsabers? Just need an anti-lightsaber stick to block it. Blasters? Some polished chrome deflects the blasts. Resistance spaceships? They can run out of fuel and be tracked with GPS. First Order spaceship laser cannons? They actually have a range (because the laws of physics never mattered anyway) so all you need to do to evade them is … stay out of range.
So, nothing from any of the films matters anymore, including The Force Awakens and Rogue One, because, well, they’re so 2015 and 2016 (and we’re living in world now where nothing matters, not the presidency, not the truth, not factual science, not anything). Everything the mythological saga was based on has been castrated, left not just neutered but completely meaningless, even the characters and their it-doesn’t-matter-where-they-come-from backstories.
Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens? Meaningless. Didn’t change Kylo Ren at all (because just when you thought he might be redeemable, psych! he’s not). Luke’s death in The Last Jedi? Meaningless. He dies alone on Ach-To (and, if he really almost tried to kill Kylo as a boy, then he’s no better than his father Anakin). Paige Tico’s death? Meaningless. The First Order just called up another Dreadnought ship. Vice Admiral Holdo’s death? Meaningless. Kylo Ren and General Hux found the Resistance base anyway. Should we let Finn sacrifice himself heroically to save everyone on Crait? No, let’s save him at the last second and strip him of any meaning (because his mission to Canto Bight was meaningless, too). Should we let Leia die heroically on the bridge of her ship in the heat of battle? No, let’s give her a new force power we’ve never seen before (except on the animated Star Wars Rebels Disney XD show – because, that’s part of the canon now) so she can spend the rest of the movie being meaningless.
And, because Carrie Fisher died, Leia will have to die off-screen between films in a meaningless way – seriously, Rian, if you wanted to honor Leia, at least have enough respect for her character to give her a heroic, meaningful death. It should’ve been Leia, not Holdo sacrificing herself for everyone (or let her die at the beginning so Kylo can be more conflicted). Instead, Leia glowers throughout much of the film. She’s even lost hope for Kylo, who she’s written off as a lost cause.
In The Last Jedi’s philosophy, everything is meaningless, except for … Han’s gold dice? Luke finds the so-obscure-no-one-ever-really-noticed-them-before pair of dice hanging in the Falcon’s cockpit, looks at them with a sentimental gaze, and then gives them to Leia later at the end of the film (only they’re not real because Luke wasn’t real, so they vanish … meaningless).
What about the sacrifice Jyn and everyone else made in Rogue One? What about it? Okay, but the Empire and First Order are scary villains, right? No, we can laugh at them – and in Snoke’s and Captain Phasma’s cases, we can kill them off because, meh. Are the Jedi mysterious? No, they just learned about the force from some old books hidden in a tree. The Rebels? As Benicio Del Toro’s codebreaker says to Finn, “good guys, bad guys, just words.” What about John Williams’ score? Apologies to the maestro, but unlike every other Star Wars soundtrack (even the excellent Michael Giacchino score for Rogue One), there was no unifying theme, just the greatest hits served up to every character’s entrance – all meaningless (because who cares about the Force theme if Yoda is just going to laugh at the Force).
Depressed yet? Feeling nihilistic yet? It’s okay, you’re supposed to feel that way. As Nietzsche observed in The Will to Power, nihilism is necessary because everything we value will eventually come to an end (and, in Rian Johnson’s hands, be turned into incoherent fan fiction). Like it or not, it’s what life works towards. For Nietzsche, nihilism is the goal of life, the “logical conclusion” to everything we value – because in order to truly value something we have to destroy it and then we can realize what it really meant. Or, we can create new meaning and go through the cycle again (is this why seven out of the nine Star Wars films have Death Stars in them? Yes, The Last Jedi had a mini Death Star battering ram, because … why not?).
So, when Luke tells Rey that “the Jedi must end,” when Kylo Ren tells Rey to “kill the past,” and when Yoda burns down the Jedi tree, they’re all simply recognizing that The Force and The Jedi and The Sith and the Light Side and the Dark Side have all come to their logical conclusion. But, The Last Jedi takes it a step further: it’s not just over, it was never worth it in the first place – that’s what the examination of their values reveals. It was all a failure, balance never happened, the universe was never saved, nor will it ever be (because Disney needs more sequels) – it was all folly (like the opening scene between Poe and Hux, like Finn’s and Rose’s detour to Canto Bight, like Leia’s fake death, like that shot of an iron – yes, a literal iron – steaming down in a reference to the cult spoof Hardware Wars – Seriously Rian?).
Nihilistically, The Last Jedi’s message is simple: we don’t need a new hope, we need a new Force, a new way, a new anything so long as it doesn’t resemble the old. Luke threw away his lightsaber, Rey and Kylo broke it. Time to find a new weapon (How about a new director? Wait, Rian’s already on board with that. As he recently said in an interview, he wants more diversity behind the camera. Even he knows he’s obsolete).
For philosopher Albert Camus, believing in nothing opens up the universe to infinite possibilities, which is actually positive, as Obi-Wan might say, from a certain point of view. This must be what Rian told everyone when they were filming, to convince them that tearing apart everything Star Wars was built on was not just okay, but necessary (or he promised Mark Hamill a lot of money, because, yes, Mark, you sold out and broke my heart.)
Still, I really couldn’t tell if The Last Jedi was a millennial generation’s middle finger to their parents (like the opening scene between Poe and General Hux, who may as well have been in a Geico commercial) or if there was something more profound going on (like anytime Rey experienced something with the Force). There’s a difference between anything’s possible so let’s see what happens when turn Luke Skywalker into cow-milking, spear-fishing broken old man who’s shut himself off from the Force and let’s look for something new by exploring the possibilities of the Force and showing how it can be shut off or used to transcend light years (like a next generation Skype).
This is what makes Rey so intriguing in The Last Jedi (and, at times, makes her seem like she’s in a completely different movie – or maybe everyone else is just starring in Spaceballs 2). Rey still clings to hope: for the Jedi, for the force, for the parents she never knew (and still doesn’t know!), and for the resistance she rescues and joins at the end of the film. She even has hope for Kylo Ren, like Luke did for Vader in Return of the Jedi. Is this a message Rian? Or, like everything else in The Last Jedi, does it mean nothing?
If Rey really is a nobody – if her parents really were junk dealers who traded her for drinking money and who are buried in a pauper’s grave on Jakku – then what do we need Jedi for? If an ordinary girl is able to stand toe-to-toe with Kylo in The Force Awakens (and nearly defeat him with no training) and with Luke in The Last Jedi (and nearly defeat him with still barely any training) then Kylo and Luke are chumps. Or, is Rey just a total badass? If she is, it’s not because she’s a Skywalker or a Solo or a Kenobi (or whatever other theory that’s out there linking Rey to some Jedi/Sith lineage). Destiny is meaningless, there’s nothing to fulfill.
If we follow Nietzsche, the goal of humanity (after nihilism?) is the realization of what he calls the Übermensch, the super-human. For Nietzsche, there is nothing beyond man – no god, no otherworldly power. There’s just man. So, the only way to go beyond man is for man to go beyond himself. For Star Wars, this means if you want to be a hero then be a hero, like Rose does with Finn. And, if you don’t like your heroes anymore (because you realize they’re flawed and not as heroic as you thought they were) then replace them with new ones. Or, like Rose does with Finn, stun them and take them to the brig. Or, forget about heroes and villains and just do what Han should’ve done (and what the Codebreaker does in The Last Jedi), take the money and run.
In other words, if we’re to find any meaning in Star Wars or in life – if we’re to rise up from the chaos and become an Übermensch – then we have to burn everything down and rise up from nothing. We have to recreate ourselves, not how we were meant to be, not how others want us to be, but how we choose to be – like the little slave boy at the end of The Last Jedi who force pulls his broom and stares up at the nighttime sky and watches the Falcon blast off into hyperspace (like so many of us did way back in 1977).
In hindsight, The Force Awakens tore up everything meaningful about Star Wars, too – J.J. Abrams was just a little better at it than Rian Johnson (and he left it open enough that the narrative could have easily swung back to something meaningful and profound). If we’re honest, nothing since The Empire Strikes Back has ever lived up to those first two films, with each subsequent film digressing into self-parody. Only Rogue One, which had its share of flaws, has come the closest to capturing the spirit of what ordinary heroes (true Übermenschen) can do in extraordinary circumstances – and, more importantly, it exemplified what used to be the whole meaning of Star Wars: having the courage to willingly sacrifice yourself for the greater good of the galaxy (this is what Finn was trying to do Rose).
So, what’ll happen in Episode IX? Who cares? Certainly, not the characters who survived Episode VIII, as the shot of survivors in the Millennium Falcon looks more like a cocktail party than an escape – no time for sorrows because no one who was lost meant anything anyway. Beyond the film, it’s telling that Mark Hamill looks pained in every interview he gives (he’d rather do impressions of Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford) and that Daisy Ridley recently confessed to Rolling Stone that she’s done after Episode IX – and, when asked if she’d make a cameo thirty years from now in some future Star Wars film, she said she didn’t think the world would exist in thirty years – how’s that for nihilism? (Is it just a millennial thing? A reaction to North Korea? Trump? Or is it really time to blow everything up and start over?)
When asked about the Luke lightsaber toss, Rian Johnson admitted he simply couldn’t think of anything else. “What else could Luke have done?” Johnson asked the interviewer, who stupidly agreed with him (seriously, Disney, this is director you’ve awarded with his own trilogy?) I’m not a director or a screenwriter. I’m just a fan who grew up with Luke Skywalker as my hero, who waited eagerly to see him be the Jedi Master I’d hoped he would be thirty years later: powerful, wise, compassionate (and when that didn’t happen in The Force Awakens I was stupid enough to wait two more years).
Nietzsche may be right, nihilism may be the destiny we’re fated to encounter. Camus may be right, too. Once everything is meaningless, everything truly is possible. Even Rian Johnson and Disney may be right, perhaps it’s time for the old to give way to the new (and maybe it’s just me wrestling with getting old). But what nihilism seems to overlook – and what Rian and Disney seemed to have forgotten – is that the way we create meaning in our lives is through the stories we tell and our stories need to capture us, enthrall us, stay with us. They need to create philosophy not abandon it because meaning isn’t created by destroying stories, it’s created by keeping them alive.
One of the greatest positions in ancient societies was the poet, chronicling daily life in verse and prose and narrative. They kept the village alive through the tales they told, passing on knowledge and history, customs and beliefs, identities and roles, lessons and wisdom – everything meaningful to life. As I see it, in order to achieve a true nihilistic state of being we don’t have to eliminate meaning, we have to eliminate stories. That’s what Rian Johnson tried to do with The Last Jedi. It wasn’t an edgy director bringing in a fresh vision to a stale franchise (as his many apologists would have us believe). It was Chancellor Palpatine deceiving us that the Jedi are the enemy. It was laziness, the absence of creativity (because Easter eggs and celebrity cameos do not substitute for character development and narrative progression – yes, Rian, we saw Luke’s X-Wing submerged in water, but you didn’t put it there to develop Luke’s story and symbolically represent his failure and despair, you put there because you were just hoping someone would notice that it resembles his submerged X-Wing in Empire – Meaningless!). But maybe Rian’s not to blame – maybe it’s those of us who, like Luke (or like Obi-Wan), have failed to pass on what’s meaningful to the next generation (that’s why Anakin and Kylo turned and that’s why too many millennials out there have no idea what to believe in except what social media dictates).
Early in The Last Jedi Luke shows Rey his collection of ancient Jedi texts (the one thing Rian Johnson got right, though he probably doesn’t realize it). When Yoda sets fire to the tree Luke worries about the books and Yoda’s indifference suggests that the texts were lost, that they don’t matter. At the end of the film, when Finn (whose rummaging through the Falcon’s many storage compartments is a new running gag) looks for something to help an injured Rose, we see the books hidden in a drawer, put there by Rey and then, at the very end of the film, we see a group of slave children (and the little boy with the broom) tell the story of Luke and his final battle. They’re happy, excited, curious, and captivated by a tale of magic and wonder. Maybe there is hope after all.
Edwardo Pérez is an Associate Professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Dir. Rian Johnson. Perf. Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill.
Walt Disney Studios. Film. 2017.