Put Down Thy Lightsaber

The first teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Episode VIII) has been released. Oh no. Here we go.

I admit: When it comes to Star Wars, I am way too emotionally involved. I was born the year after Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) was released and thanks to the technology of Beta and VHS (we were a VHS family), the original trilogy provided a major backdrop to my childhood. I attribute the development of my personality, in part, to my idolization of Princess Leia. When we played in our basement, I didn’t picture myself as a princess in a tower waiting to be rescued but as a fearless trash-talker wading around in garbage, about to be crushed between two walls, yelling: “Don’t just stand there! Brace it with something!” One of my favorite childhood photos is of me and my brothers dressed up as Luke, Leia, and Darth Vader for Halloween. My first major disappointment in life was when I asked for the Ewok Village toy for Christmas three years in a row and never got it.

Another disappointment came when I was in college: My brother and I stood in line on opening night for Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) practically peeing our pants with excitement. We walked out befuddled. I don’t think anyone in my generation fully recovered from the let-down of that experience until that guy over at Red Letter Media published an online review of the film in 2012. Think about it: Thirteen years had passed, 9-11 had happened, and America was fighting the longest war in our nation’s history, and this guy was still stewing about The Phantom Menace and what a piece of crap it was! Therapists will tell you that if you can name a problem, its power will wane: In a 70-minute tirade, “Mr. Plinkett” named the many problems with Episode I. His subsequent reviews of Episodes II and III, along with the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, helped me to finally process my emotions and come to terms with my whole, decades-long Star Wars experience.

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Then I learned that George Lucas had sold the rights to Disney and I plunged back into the abyss. What would this mean for the future? On the one hand, Lucas was a confirmed sellout and this was sad, but we already knew that, and none of us trusted him anymore anyway. He had lost the magic. Maybe it was time to pass the torch. But to Disney? I was pretty sure they were evil. The only upshot was that J.J. Abrams would be writing the screenplay for Episode VII, so I was cautiously optimistic.

Let me tell you what I thought about Episode VII, which was released in 2015 before I explain my hope for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. In a nutshell, this is my hope: I hope Luke Skywalker takes that damn lightsaber and chucks it off the 200-foot cliff he is standing on.

Back to The Force Awakens.  Everyone knows it was less like a sequel to The Return of the Jedi (1985) and more like a “reboot” of the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope (1977). In terms of plot, character, and imagery, yes, it was derivative, but I loved the wholesome nostalgia, the snappy dialogue, and the subtle humor, and I think Abrams struck a nice balance: paying homage to the originals while incorporating some fresh thematic concerns better suited to our times. In my more hopeful moments, I imagine he might have been trying to lay the groundwork for a new trilogy that could not only delight us but surprise us, completing the arc of Luke Skywalker with a return to the story’s spiritual heart.

One of the prevalent themes in The Force Awakens (2015) is the fact of human vulnerability and physical frailty. In the first scene, the first line spoken by bad guy Kylo Ren is: “Look how old you’ve become.” It was a brilliant way to start a film in which the audience would be confronted by the senescent bodies of their childhood heroes: Harrison Ford’s creaky action scenes; Mark Hamill’s scraggily beard; Carrie Fischer’s Botoxed visage and raspy, nursing-home voice. (She titled her memoir Wishful Drinking. Oh, Carrie Fischer, rest in peace.)

In the original trilogy, protagonists could dash through hundreds of laser bullets with immunity while picking off Storm Troopers one by one; if spaceships got hit, they would briefly sputter but rarely crash. In the first scenes of The Force Awakens, a rebel ship gets hit and it will no longer fly; the pilot must make alternate plans. After a hard day’s work in the desert our heroine Rey shakes a few drops of water from a bottle and ravenously chews her meager provisions. Finn, a deserter, stumbles across the desert and is reduced to drinking water from a trough. From the get-go, we are made to sympathize with the characters’ human needs. Humans hunger and like Christ (or perhaps like Fischer) we thirst.

Abrams also does in the first scene what it took George Lucas three films to do: He humanizes the enemies. When a Storm Trooper gets shot, another Storm Trooper, who later turns out to be Finn, runs over and kneels next to him. In the original movies, downed Storm Troopers were stepped over like so much garbage. Now a dying Storm Trooper reaches up and touches the other Storm Trooper’s face, leaving a red smear of blood across his white mask. The audience thinks less “sci-fi,” more “Band of Brothers.” Storm Troopers are no longer like the one-dimensional targets of video games, dimwitted automatons, or mere cinematic cannon fodder. They are now people, soldier-slaves kidnapped and brainwashed since birth. They have the capacity to empathize. They suffer. They bleed. They die. And despite their brainwashing, they have free will. When they are ordered to murder civilians, one does not do it. That one is Finn. He later says: “I made a choice.” Abrams introduces the new Star Wars generation to their first conscientious objector, albeit in space.

In the film, Abrams also humanizes the main antagonist, Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. He has been seduced by the Dark Side but he still feels the pull of the light and “prays” for the “grace” to resist it. Now Darth Vader was powerful, but he was also protected and plaited. He was part machine. He strode around in armor. We didn’t see his human side until the very end of the trilogy when he removed his mask, and that was after he had turned good. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, is a slender young man. His cloth robe billows. He wears a mask that distorts his voice, but unlike Darth Vader, he can remove it and live. The mask has a snout, which makes him look more like an animal than man or machine. One character calls him a “beast.” Rey calls him “a creature in a mask.” Han Solo calls him Ben, the name he was given at birth. He never stops claiming him as his son and never stops calling him home. Princess Leia, now General Organza, says: “I know there is still light in him.” This is very much in line with classic Star Wars themes.

The climactic scene between Han Solo and Kylo Ren is powerful, but it was the finale with Luke and Rey that sent a bright tingle up my spine and planted a small seed of hope that Star Wars could once again speak to audiences with mythic power. After all the big question at the center of The Force Awakens is not “Will Kylo Ren come home to Mom and Dad?” but “Where is Luke Skywalker?”

At the end of the film, they access a map to his whereabouts. Our heroine, Rey, finds herself on a distant planet climbing an ancient stone staircase. How brilliant that J.J. Abrams chose Skellig Michael as the location for this final scene, the big reveal! It is a small island thirteen kilometers off the coast of Ireland, the site of a sixth-century Christian monastery. When Rey reaches the top of the staircase, Luke slowly turns to face her and pulls back his hood. Every Star Wars kid of any age was breathless: There he is—Luke! Look how old he’s become. But it is him, again after all these years, our hero! But he is different. There is nothing left of that squirrely, whiney kid we once knew. His robe, like his beard, is gray and weathered, and he stands so still. He is an experience. He is wisdom. Rey thinks he is hope. She extends to him his lightsaber, which has been in a trunk for many years. In her eyes, there is a plea: “Help.”

“Help” is one of the most frequently used words in The Force Awakens. It cements bonds of friendship and trust. The good guys in Star Wars have always helped each other. Help is what made the relationships between Han, Leia, and Luke more than just a dopey Hollywood love triangle. Luke left his Jedi training prematurely when he knew Leia and Han were in trouble. Han covered for Luke when Luke was trying to destroy the Death Star. Princess Leia dressed up in disguise and risked her life to save Han. In the new film, Finn runs away for fear of being caught by the First Order, but he returns when he learns that his friend Rey is in trouble. Princess Leia’s famous line was: “Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Kylo Ren asks Han Solo: “Will you help me?” In Star Wars, good guys see other people as living, breathing “HELP!” signs, and they feel compelled to respond. Even if they don’t believe in their ability to respond (response-ability), they end up surprising themselves, like Han, like Lando, like Finn.

Bad guys use each other. Han Solo warns his son: “Snoke is using you for your power. When he’s through with you, he’ll crush you.” When Rey first meets BB8, a defenseless little droid in the desert, he is being dragged through the sand in a net. She intervenes and releases him from his captor, saying: “That’s Tito. He only wants to use you for your parts. He has no respect for anybody.” The First Order wants to use Finn for killing and gives him a number instead of a name.

When Rey stands there literally looking up to Luke and trying to give him the lightsaber, we are left wondering what he will do. His expression is ambiguous. We don’t know what he is thinking because we don’t know what he has been up to all these years. The assumption by the other characters seems to be that Luke is out there all alone on that island because of Ben, whom he trained, defected to the Dark Side, so Luke got discouraged and ran away. If we only have only two choices, fight or flight, and if Luke hasn’t been fighting, then that only leaves one explanation, right?

As he stands there looking at his old lightsaber, the audience is led to wonder if is he remembering his glory days, back when he learned to use the Force, helped to defeat the Empire and blew up the Death Star. Is he longing for his old weapon just like Han Solo was longing for his old spaceship?

Han Solo, after the “loss” of his son, Ben, and the disintegration of his marriage, went back to doing what he did best: being a fast-talking, swashbuckling space swindler. When Han tracks down the Millenial Falcon in space, which has been hijacked by Rey and Finn, they ask, “Are you, Han Solo?”

Rey asks: “Han Solo the smuggler?”

Finn asks: “Han Solo the war hero?”

In a comic moment, Chewbacca shrugs because we never exactly knew what Han Solo was, in terms of his character, but Luke was different.

We knew from the beginning that Luke was our unambiguous hero. He was our good guy, and he knew it too. Who can forget the way he looked out at that sunset on Tatooine knowing he was destined for something more? And is there not something of that look in his eyes now as he stands there looking down at Rey? He was expecting her, after all. When he turns to face her, his gesture implies openness but not necessarily consent. He does not extend a hand to accept the lightsaber. The credits roll. The moviegoer leaves wondering whether he will be able to respond to her plea for help or if he has been hardened by the years like the rocks that surround him. Yes, Disney, we are willing to pay another $12.50 this year to find out.

If you’ll allow me to nerd out for a minute (as if I haven’t been already!), I think the question is not “Will Luke help?” but “How will Luke help?” Good guys always help! And besides, I don’t think Luke ever gave up the fight. I think he’s been fighting the whole time, but not in a way that Rey or Han or anyone else would understand. He will help—but maybe not in a way that they, or we, would expect.

My brother, the biggest Star Wars nerd, thinks the idea of Luke turning down the lightsaber is a ridiculous delusion brought about by wishful drinking, but with a conscientious objector hero already in the mix, I don’t believe this hope is so far-fetched! For one, the lightsaber thing is played out. It was exciting the first two times we saw it, but after three prequels and a sequel, lightsaber duels have gotten old. The go-to shtick for keeping Star Wars fresh for the past 20 years, absent good storylines, has been to introduce new weaponry into each film, especially new kinds of lightsabers. But you can’t use new weapons to tell a new story. In this sense, every war throughout history is merely a reboot. Not to mention, there are certain plot devices that have become so well-worn in Hollywood and in the Star Wars franchise (the doomsday weapon for one) that no one in their right minds could possibly think of recycling them again.

I have had enough of remakes and reboots! I have had enough of drama born of superheroes with superpowers fighting super villains with super weapons! I have had enough of war, in space or on Earth, and I have seen enough of those vast cinematic sprawls littered with the debris of dead extras! It is time for something new.

Then there’s Kierkegaard. Yes, Kierkegaard. He believed there were three realms of life: the aesthetic (concerned with immediacy), the ethical (concerned with social expectations and the responsibilities of living in relationship with others), and the religious (concerned with the responsibilities of living in relationship with God, which often requires the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”) In terms of character development, Luke was already moving from the aesthetic to the ethical when he was training as a Jedi and fought with the Rebellion. Yes, he was partly driven by a young man’s thirst for adventure and a desire to escape the everydayness of his life, but he was also developing a spiritual gift and a sense of duty to others, as well as a mature understanding of self-sacrifice. The beauty of characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda was that they transcended the ethical realm. They understood something about the spiritual reality in which they lived and could participate. This led to a certain distance and perspective on “the world.” They were not so quick to be galvanized into “action” by every manifestation of evil that reared its ugly head. What a disappointment it would be if Luke merely returned to fight and helped the Resistance like a soldier being called up for another tour of duty. This would limit his action to the realm of the ethical.

Some people think he will come back to train Rey, as Obi-Wan and Yoda trained him, but why? She has already proven that she can use the Force by her mysterious ability to fly a ship, use a lightsaber, and perform Jedi Mind tricks. I don’t want a Luke Skywalker that trains an apprentice in the martial arts; I want a Luke Skywalker that has developed a deeper understanding of the Force and thus can teach Rey about the real nature of the fight she is in and the art of spiritual warfare.

It seems that with female protagonists these days, the point is to prove that they can kick as much ass as a man, but in the case of Rey, I hope for something more. Luke was impulsive and, like most young men, eager to pick up a weapon and get in on the action. Rey is more naturally gifted, more confident in her powers, and more compassionate. While she isn’t afraid to use a blaster, the first time she shoots and kills a Storm Trooper, she freezes in shock. She is flanked by some other interesting female characters. Leia is no longer a princess but a general, and the “new Yoda,” Maz Kanata, has huge goggles that are perhaps a metaphor for feminine intuition: She can peer into a person’s eyes and “see” their feelings and thoughts. In one of the most beautiful scenes in The Force Awakens, Finn and Rey return from their mission successful in having blown up the planet that housed the super weapon. The men all run out from their ships shouting in glee, with handshakes and back slaps. Rey hangs back in sorrow. Leia walks over to her. They embrace. Here’s the end of every war story for you: The men are celebrating a “win” while the women are mourning the dead.

But my most compelling reason for hoping that Star Wars could move beyond the “blasters and bombs” formula is that it already has in its most captivating moments. The scene that stunned me when I was a young girl was not the scene in which Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father. The most shocking scene was the most mysterious: when Obi-Wan fights Darth Vader.

Vader says: “Your powers are weak, old man.”

Obi-Wan responds: “You can’t win, Darth. If you should strike me down, I would become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Obi-Wan waits until Luke can see him, then holds his lightsaber up and lets Darth Vader strike him. Obi-Wan vanishes and his robe falls to the ground. To my six-year-old self, this scene made no sense! Why would he let Darth Vader kill him? Why would he let Darth Vader win?

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke seeks out Darth Vader for revenge but he is “not a Jedi yet.” Vader overpowers him and slices off Luke’s hand. Vader corners him and gives him an ultimatum: join the Dark Side or be destroyed. You can almost hear Obi-Wan whispering in that scene: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” Luke makes a choice: He falls down a hole into space, risking death. Clearly, he understands that physical death is not the worst thing that can befall a man.

In Return of the Jedi, Luke must confront Darth Vader again, but when the Emperor urges Luke to give into his anger (“Use your aggressive feelings. Let the hate flow through you.”), Luke refuses. He says: “I will not fight you, father!” He fights only to defend himself; then he flees. After Vader threatens his sister and those he loves, however, Luke becomes enraged and jumps back into the fight. Luke gets the upper hand and in a scene that mirrors the one before, he manages to slice off Vader’s hand this time and corners him.

The Emperor says, “Your hate has made you powerful.” He urges Luke to go in for the kill. Luke looks at Darth Vader’s missing hand, then down at his own missing hand. He sees that by allowing himself to be controlled by anger, he is becoming like Darth Vader, doing exactly what Darth Vader did to him. He is becoming indistinguishable from his enemy. Should he choose to kill, he won’t win, because something in him will die, and this spiritual death will mean losing more than his life. There is only one way to win: He throws down his lightsaber and says, “Never.” He would rather die than continue to fight.

So my question is: Why should we want Luke to take it back up again?

The second best line of dialogue in The Force Awakens is one word shouted by Han Solo: “Ben!” He shouts it as he walks out, unarmed, to confront his very unstable, unpredictable son. Harrison Ford’s delivery is spot on, a mix of righteous anger, concern, and desperation, conveying the frustration of a parent watching his kid go down the wrong road, and the pain of a love that wants so badly to save, but can rely only on love, not force, to do it.

In the truly meaningful encounters in Star Wars, the encounters wherein the characters have to make significant choices, force, even the “legitimate use of necessary and proportional force” (as the Catholic Church puts it) in cases of self-defense, is renounced. The truly meaningful encounters always involve a choice, and that choice is often the courage to be nonviolent even in the face of death.

Jedi Knights teach kids that the real enemies are not the Sith or the Empire or the First Order. The real enemies are fear, anger, and hate. Jedi Knights teach the difference between the use of force and The Force. Luke Skywalker could put down his lightsaber because he did not need his lightsaber to win: Victory required neither the destruction of his enemy nor the assurance of his bodily survival. Joshua Casteel, a soldier who worked at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq before he became a conscientious objector, inadvertently summed up the greatest lesson of Star Wars when he asked: “What if all of the energy we used to try to defeat the enemy was instead used to try to redeem the enemy?” It was the theme of redemption that lied at the heart of the original trilogy, specifically the redemption of Darth Vader.

What will lie at the heart of Luke Skywalker’s story? I think about my friend who had her children watch The Sound of Music recently for the first time. Her kids said their favorite characters were the Nazis “because they had guns.” When I think about this, I dread the possibility that Disney could turn our mythic hero into another lame superhero, who simply wins through the superior wielding of weapons.

It is too idealistic, I know, to think that Hollywood could produce a movie with a strictly nonviolent message. Even Hacksaw Ridge had to make Desmond Doss, with his refusal to kill, look heroic while not making his comrades, who were willing to kill, look unheroic. And what would a nonviolent movie sell? How many millions have been made off those damn lightsabers? But it is worth mentioning the setting in The Force Awakens: sandy landscapes littered with the detritus of past battles, rotting spaceships, and rusted out Walkers. These machines come across not as sources of great power but as eerie reminders of a mechanized view of life in a military industrial age, the culture of death and all its cold waste.

I am reminded of one of the last lines of the mechanic man, Darth Vader: “Luke, help me take this mask off.” Luke helps. In choosing this death, Darth Vader returns to life.

Is it really so wild for me to hope that Luke Skywalker might teach the twin powers of Ren and Rey, and thus American children, about a third way, about another option besides fight or flight, and that winning does not require the destruction of the enemy but might even prohibit it? What would victory look like in this new trilogy then, if there were no “this time it’s personal” lightsaber duels, celestial dogfights, or exploding planets? Well, the makers of The Force Awakens seemed to understand, at least, that if you want to be a hero, sometimes you have to be a traitor, and while the Dark Side always welcomes a reckoning, it dreads an awakening, because the single greatest threat to the killing machinery of evil empires everywhere has always been the light of human conscience.

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