If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading now.
I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. Star Wars: The Last Jedi just came out, and in it, we’re given probably the most in-depth treatment of the Force and its nature that we’ve gotten in a Star Wars movie. Out of all the elements of Star Wars, the Force and its users have unquestionably been the thing that has kept me coming back. You can have all the rebellions and oppressive regimes you want, but the main reason I love Star Wars is the mystical power and the laser-sword-wielding heroes and villains that use it. The latest movie contains a bit of new detail about the Force and the Jedi, and I’m super excited to unpack it.
In particular, there’s a side of the Force that has always been somewhat implicit in its portrayal, but one that is pointed out more directly in the latest movie than it has been in the last few: the idea of the Force as spirituality. Luke calls himself “the last of the Jedi religion”, and A New Hope in particular uses the word “religion” in reference to Force-adherence several times, so I’ll be examining that as we go along in addition to everything else. Let’s dive into what we know already about the Force, before The Last Jedi.
The Force is everywhere
The ever-present nature of the Force is asserted multiple times in the movies. The Force isn’t a distant deity, but is portrayed as an all-encompassing network that infuses the universe and brings everything together. And so, if the Jedi are a religion, then they’re possibly a pantheistic one. Luke passes on what he learned from Obi-Wan and Yoda to Rey, saying that “the Force is not something the Jedi have.” At no point in the franchise are we given to understand that the Force is something local to individuals or to a part of existence. It is in all things at all times, though we do know that places or people can become a “vergence” in the Force where its influence is particularly concentrated. The cave on Dagobah is one such vergence, and Anakin Skywalker himself is another, as attested to by Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace.
The Force is used
This sounds obvious, but I wanted to delineate it explicitly: the Force is used as a tool, as a means to an end. The Jedi, and other Force-users, utilise it to jump, push, pull, electrocute, choke, stop blaster bolts mid-flight (which is the coolest depiction of a Force power ever), communicate with the dead, sense thoughts and feelings… the list goes on. The uses are countless. To this end, the Force starts to bear less similarity to a deity and more similarity to qi, as an innate part of existence that can be utilised to perform normally impossible tasks.
The Force has a will
Here’s where things get interesting. Firstly, it’s easy to see the Force as merely a tamed power responding to the hand-waving of people attuned to it, but it is made clear that the Force has a will of its own. “[Midi-chlorians] continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force.” Qui-Gon says in The Phantom Menace. If you find the very mention of midi-chlorians or the prequels offensive, on the Millenium Falcon in A New Hope, Luke asks Obi-Wan: “You mean it controls our actions?” Obi-Wan responds, “Partially. But it also obeys your commands.” These quotes cements the fact that the Force not only acts because of people, but through them.
Episode 7, the first of the new trilogy, and probably my favourite of the Star Wars movies, is aptly entitled The Force Awakens. It could, of course, have been a series of coincidences that brought Rey into close proximity with weighty events affecting the galaxy, but it seems more likely that the Force worked in some subtle or miniscule way to shape things ever so slightly. Snoke notices, after all. “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?”
The Force is respected
An essential part of most religions is some aspect of worship or reverence. The easiest reading of the Jedi as a religion would be that the Force is their deity, but the points I’ve already made above put holes in that idea. Clearly, the Jedi do not idolise or worship the Force. They use it for both incredibly trivial things and very powerful things. Still, there is an abundance of respect for the Force as a concept in the Jedi Order. For example, they care a lot about bringing balance to the Force, a topic so important that prophesies have been made about it.
Secondly, “May the Force be with you” is a frequent saying in the Star Wars universe. This saying is just as often said to those who can’t feel the Force at all as those who can, and so it implies that the Force doesn’t merely serve its users, but it influences all people, even if they’re not aware of its influence. It’s not just like saying “good luck.” Look at the reactions of those to whom this phrase is spoken, and the tone of those who speak it, and you’ll see that the statement has weight.
The Force is an afterlife
This one’s easy: Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin appear in the physical world multiple times after dying, Yoda teaches Obi-Wan to communicate with the long-dead Qui-Gon, and death itself is referred to as “becoming one with the Force.” The Force relates to life and death at a fundamental level.
The Force has two sides
The light side and the dark side. The duality of the Force is absolutely vital to the Star Wars stories. You either follow the light side, doing good and helping others, or you serve the dark side, taking for yourself and hurting those who get in your way. You can “turn” from one side to the other, and of course the first six movies chart Anakin Skywalker’s epic journey from the light side to the dark and back to the light again. The transition is seen as something of a moral event horizon: once you pass a certain point, you have “turned” and that respective side of the Force now influences your personality and your decisions. To that end, we’ve only really seen Force-users that are pretty clearly on one side or the other. They have conflicted feelings about what they do, but right up until that fateful encounter with Mace Windu and Palpatine in Episode 3, Anakin is on the light side despite his mounting concerns and drastic actions (although I’m sure that Anakin’s exact moment of turning can be debated). Likewise, as Darth Vader, he serves the dark side right up until he picks up Palpatine in Episode 6.
Also worth noting is what side of the Force you’re on is influenced not just by what you do, but why and how you do it. Acting out of anger or hatred moves you closer to the dark side of the Force, and indeed, a large part of Darth Sidious’ plan to turn both Anakin and Luke involved getting them to kill out of anger.
Many people have criticised the Force’s black-and-white depictions, but to me, it was always refreshing to come to a universe where good and evil are relatively clear-cut, and those two sides clash (often with lightsabers). As we’ll see, The Last Jedi adds nuance to the simplicity of the Force without undermining it.
The Last Jedi
Right, so that’s what has been established by the movies before The Last Jedi. What does this latest instalment add, and how does it affect what I’ve listed?
The Force can be used to link minds and project images of people
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke reaches out to Leia while he’s dangling from the bottom of Cloud City. She “hears” him, understands where he is and comes to his rescue. In The Force Awakens, we see Kylo Ren extract information from people’s minds against their will. The Last Jedi expands on this concept greatly. Snoke links Rey and Kylo Ren’s minds so that they don’t just hear each other, but can see and touch each other through the Force. Kylo Ren claims that Rey couldn’t be initiating the connection, as “the effort would kill you.” Snoke links the two of them to manipulate them and manoeuvre Rey into coming to see him, but after Snoke dies, the two communicate once more, towards the end of the movie. Whether it’s a deliberate act or whether Snoke’s interference left a lasting impact on their minds isn’t clear, but I’m leaning towards the second option, as at no point do either of them “reach out” or otherwise appear to make an effort to connect to the other. It’s possible that they’re linked in this way for life.
As an aside, I found the connection and the interaction between Rey and Kylo Ren the most compelling and interesting part of the movie. I loved how their relationship isn’t binary or simple, but a complex thing. They’re on opposite sides, but Kylo Ren sees them working well together, while Rey wants to redeem him and bring out the good in him. What’s more, Kylo Ren knows he’s done terrible things (“You are a monster.” “Yes I am.”) Their confrontations are personal, deep, and vulnerable for both of them. These sequences were an absolute joy to watch, and I hope this connection between them plays a large part in Episode 9.
But back to the Force. Rey and Kylo’s connection is different to how Luke makes himself appear to the Resistance and then to Kylo Ren on Crait. For one thing, Kylo Ren makes a point of noticing that he can’t see Rey’s surroundings when they’re connected, and I’m for now assuming that Rey can’t see his either. Luke, however, can clearly see Crait and what goes on around his projection as he walks around obstacles and through doorways. This appears to be a one-way enhancement, as obviously no one on Crait realises that Luke isn’t actually there. This isn’t, then, a direct link between minds, but the manifestation of an image that moves and acts like a person. Like Rey and Kylo’s mind-bridge, this also appears to take a huge amount of effort, as we see Luke visibly sweating with the effort, and collapsing with exhaustion once it’s over. The strain of this kills him shortly after, triggering his transformation into the Force.
The Jedi had a birthplace
Han tells Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens that Luke vanished in search of the first Jedi temple. In The Last Jedi we see he’s found it on Ahch-To. Given that the planet is mostly ocean, with small islands dotting it, it seems unlikely that the Jedi “evolved” on Ahch-To, unless they were originally aquatic or amphibian. The island that Luke lives on obviously has native sentient beings, the Lanai, but Luke calls them caretakers, and doesn’t say that they were the first Jedi. Of course, the first Jedi could have been a different sentient species from the same planet, but then why would none of that species have been seen in the film? To me, it seems most likely that the Jedi formed organically on a different planet or planets, and then picked an obscure, out-of-the-way planet on which to devote themselves to study and training. Perhaps other sources of canon will shed more light on this in the future.
The Jedi had sacred texts
We see “the original Jedi texts” on Ahch-To. Let’s be clear about this: these things must be unimaginably ancient. We’ve never seen a book before in the Star Wars movies: even the Jedi Archives in Attack of the Clones were all holograms and electronic data. We don’t know exactly how old the books are, but both Luke and Han have used the phrase “over a thousand generations” to describe the Jedi. In a galaxy with such a menagerie of species as the Star Wars galaxy, a generation could mean anything, but even if we take an ultra-short generational lifespan of 10 years, that’s at least 10000 years the Jedi have been around, and probably a lot more. It’s a wonder the paper in the books didn’t crumble to dust when Luke touched them, but it’s entirely possible later technology was used to preserve or strengthen the original books.
The existence of these books also makes me reconsider my “the Jedi developed on another planet” theory above. If the Jedi came to Ahch-To from elsewhere, then they must have already had spaceflight by the time the first Jedi temple was established, at which point it makes no sense for them to still be using books. The books make it seem more likely that the Jedi natively developed on Ahch-To, and then expanded elsewhere. It’s also possible that while Ahch-To held the first dedicated Jedi temple, the actual origins of the first Jedi were offworld. Perhaps, then, the books are early journals or writings of people discovering the Force who later got together and decided to study it in a dedicated manner, consequently establishing the temple.
Interesting here is Luke’s use of the word “sacred”. He’s upset at this point in time, because Yoda has called down lightning to destroy said texts, so it’s possible he’s just trying to make Yoda feel bad with an impactful word, but in either case, the word “sacred” has several meanings, one of which is “embodying the laws and doctrines of a religion.” This is the one that seems to apply because, as established beforehand, the Jedi don’t really worship anything.
Force ghosts can do more than communicate
Speaking of Yoda calling down lightning: before The Last Jedi, the only thing Force ghosts could do was appear and speak. This changes drastically with the destruction the ancient Jedi library. I wasn’t sufficiently surprised by this until a friend pointed it out as something we haven’t seen before. Let’s analyse this. We know that when someone dies they become “one with the Force”, so their essence/consciousness/soul/whatever you want merges with or returns to the Force. Does this mean Force ghosts can manipulate whatever they want about the universe? Since they’re part of the Force, can they influence it in the same way, or even at a greater level than they could while a part of the “physical” world? And how about the fact that Yoda physically taps Luke on the nose with his cane? We don’t know for sure whether Luke actually felt something when Yoda did it, but it implies a greater level of interactivity for Force ghosts than we’ve previously seen.
Let’s look at the progression of Force ghosts chronologically. Yoda unveils at the end of Revenge of the Sith that Qui-Gon has “returned from the netherworld of the Force”, learning the path to immortality. He says he will teach Obi-Wan how to communicate with Qui-Gon, which of course means that Yoda has established communication with him already (we see brief, one-way flashes of this in Attack of the Clones). As all living things are bound in the Force regardless, my personal interpretation of the “immortality” line is that it is preserving your individual identity after death, instead of merging back into the Force at large (I might have read this in a novelisation somewhere, but I don’t remember.) It follows that Qui-Gon teaches Yoda and Obi-Wan this transcendence power, which of course explains their bodies vanishing upon death. They, then, would pass this onto Luke. Since Yoda uses a word like “returned” in reference to Qui-Gon, then it seems that those part of the Force after death are still subject to the laws of time, or some version thereof. Qui-Gon was able to learn a skill after death. It follows, then, that Force ghosts can expand on their presence and influence in the afterlife. Given Yoda’s proficiency as a Jedi Master, it would then seem that he’s the first to unlock the ability to affect the physical world as a Force ghost, which he demonstrates in a surprising fashion. Yoda may be an exception due to his strength, but it remains to be seen how widely this new ability will be passed on to other Force ghosts.
The one big hole in this theory, is, of course, Anakin Skywalker, who appears at the end of Return of the Jedi as a Force ghost. He did not transcend the same way Obi-Wan, Yoda and Luke did, he simply died. It’s possible that the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Yoda passed on their abilities to him straight away, but I’ll freely admit I’m stretching it here.
The point of this section is that Qui-Gon demonstrates that abilities can be learned after death. Yoda has simply learned something that possibly no other individual has before, and it remains to be seen whether this ability can be passed onto others.
One last note. When Yoda burns the library, he tells Luke that “That library contains nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” Of course, the obvious interpretation is that Rey already knows what the books held, but I bet you anything Yoda already knew that Rey had taken the books and put them onboard the Falcon, and so his statement was also meant in a literal sense. The library, being the tree, was empty. Rey had all its contents.
The legacy of the Jedi is safe
A large part of the movie’s plot centers around why Luke feels the Jedi need to end. He learns of their past deeds (probably informed by the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Yoda) and the fall of the Republic, feels that his own mistakes in dealing with Kylo Ren are a result of the same hubris and pride that felled the Jedi, and so judges that the Jedi are a failed idea that must be left to die.
But at the end of the movie, when Luke confronts Kylo Ren, he proclaims that “I will not be the last Jedi.” He doesn’t say this with defeat or regret, he says it with grit and determination. He has been convinced that the legacy of the Jedi is in safe hands, that the tradition is worth carrying on. What caused him to change his mind?
I believe it’s a two-part thing. For one, Rey demonstrates the same drive that Luke did in Return of the Jedi: they both have a connection to a dark side Force-user who they believe can be redeemed and returned to the light. Perhaps Luke sees something of himself in Rey, and, well, when he did it, it worked. Darth Vader was turned and the Sith were ended. For all Luke’s talk of the Jedi’s failure, he himself embodied the biggest victory the Jedi have ever had.
But the second and probably more important factor is, once again, Yoda, who I felt imparted some genuine wisdom in this movie. He berates Luke for sequestering himself on the island and focusing on the mistakes of the past when he should be trying to improve the future. Yes, mistakes have been made, but Yoda emphasises that failure is “the greatest teacher,” and Luke has, after all, passed on the knowledge of the Jedi’s past failures to Rey. She knows about them, and is equipped not to repeat them. The keystone of Yoda’s teaching is put into place with the line “We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of true masters.” In this, he is telling Luke that while Luke may have reached his limits in terms of understanding of the Force, it is Rey’s place to surpass him and improve upon what he has accomplished. This, I think, is the thing that gives him the pride with which he tells Kylo Ren that the Jedi will go on.
“Balance in the Force” may have meant equality
Ah, yes. “Bringing balance to the Force” has been a keystone of the Skywalker saga. After all, Anakin was supposed to be the Chosen One of prophecy, the one to bring balance to the Force. Certainly according to the likes of Obi-Wan, he fails at that. “You were supposed to destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!” To Obi-Wan and perhaps the rest of the Jedi, balance in the Force meant that the dark side had no major claim or hold. In this view, the light side of the Force is the Force’s balanced or natural state, while the dark side is an aberration, something immutably wrong that needs to be corrected.
The other view, of course, is that balance in the Force means an equal amount of dark side and light side power, and in this view, Anakin probably did help bring balance to the Force. He destroyed most of the Jedi, then the last Sith Lord (having turned from being a Sith Lord moments before killing the Emperor).
While I of course can’t condone Anakin’s methods, I hold to the second viewpoint, that the light and dark sides are supposed to be equal, and I believe The Last Jedi gave a small amount of credence to that idea. Inside the Jedi temple on Ahch-To, there is a symbol in the pool of water on the floor (I will update this post with an image once they’re available, I can’t find one at the time of posting). Crucially, it is split into a light half and a dark half. This is, I believe, a nod to the idea that the Jedi Order’s original purpose was to maintain balance, both internal and external, between the two sides of the Force, with their dedication to the light side developing later.
If true, this could have a lot of implications. I think it’s unlikely to ever be confirmed, because Star Wars is a story about good triumphing over evil, but it’s an interesting thought.
The Last Jedi was probably one of the deeper Star Wars movies we’ve gotten. It had its occasional strange moments as all movies do, but I enjoyed it a lot, and I must say that I’m enjoying the sequels more than the original six movies so far. Episode 9 has a lot of threads to tie up. I’ve focused on the Force and the Jedi plotline in this post, but there’s of course the whole fate of the Resistance, and what will happen to Leia (who I’m very surprised survived the movie), Finn (who I felt was skimmed over a little bit in this one), Poe (who I felt really shone) and all the rest. It’s going to be a long two-year wait.
Did I miss anything important? Is there something else you think I should cover? Let me know in the comments!