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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Last Jedi as a Spiritual Descendant of ESB

I was about 9 or 10 years old when I made my first contact with Star Wars. It was the novelization of "Empire Strikes Back," translated into Chinese. At the time I had been pretty well read in European and Chinese folklore and fairy tales. Its effect on me was both instant and lasting.

Alec Guinness was not wrong when he thought A New Hope was a load of cheap garbage, but ESB, it was another matter. There is something deeply resonant and undeniably powerful in ESB. I read the book over and over and, when I finally got hold of a VHS copy of the movie, watched it numerous times.

Self-proclaimed Star Wars fans who complain that The Last Jedi has strayed from the canon, particularly a good-versus-evil, black-and-white configuration, have obviously not watched and chewed over ESB as I did. While JJ Abrams' The Force Awakens is a more superficially transparent remake of ANH, TLJ is a more faithful remake of ESB and the original trilogy in spirit. Rian Johnson is obviously one of the fans who were even more obsessed with ESB than I was.

It should be noted that it entirely incorrect to believe George Lucas' Star Wars series are about the conflict and struggle between good and evil. Good and evil are not the concepts he used in the story, and that was certainly intentional. It is instead light and dark, which are by no means interchangeable with the Christian (seen through an American lense) concept of good and evil.

Drowned out by the "No, I am your father" shock during the climax of the movie, people have often overlooked the important second act of ESB. Luke Skywalker is directed to the planet Dagobah (an obvious allusion to the Buddhist term "dagoba," i.e., "stupa") to learn the way of Jedi from Yoda. Here in the swamp of Dagobah he is drawn into the dark side of the Force and, after a brief battle with a black figure resembling Darth Vader, he discovers that the head he has cut off is his own. This is a key scene ripe with symbolism (both philosophical and psychoanalytical), but is left undiscussed between Yoda and Luke and between most commentators and the audience.

This line of thinking is extended into Return of the Jedi, in which Luke insists on surrendering to Darth Vader and trying to turn him back to the light side of the Force. While Lucas has been derided for color-coding the characters' costumes with their moral status, one cannot ignore the choice to have Luke wear all black in ROTJ, especially in the final confrontation. Was this merely a ploy to keep the suspense about his potential descent into the dark side? I don't think so. Rather, I think it brings up another overlooked theme about the Force.

In several places, characters mentioned a certain "balance" in the Force, which can only refer to the balance between the light and dark sides. One is then led to infer that a balance (implied: favorable) in the Force is the coexistence of light and dark, not the elimination of the dark side. Unfortunately, Lucas never explicitly declared this idea in any of his movies, including the prequels. Perhaps he was afraid that such an admission --- that the dark side is not only necessary but inevitable --- could alienate a vast number of fans who find it intolerable. Or, perhaps he himself was always somewhat uneasy about it as well. Nevertheless, the idea of "balance" is there, and it seems that Johnson more openly put it in front of us.

Yes, this could bring some discomfort to the mind, particularly to those who confuse light/dark with good/evil. But it is also the element that separates the SW series from the American popular mythology that permeates the American heroic cinema.

Lucas' ambivalence over his own concept is further illustrated in ROTJ. The ending is a cop-out in more ways than one, and many critics have sensed it and wrote about what a disappointment it is after the greatness of ESB. The most appropriate resolution to the struggle between the light and dark sides is, obviously, restoring the balance, i.e., their coexistence. It would have been far more satisfying if Luke and his father die together in an embrace. Or, like the encounter of matter and anti-matter, both are annihilated in a burst of energy. Or even if both go their separate ways after exchanging a piece of each other --- in fact this is hinted at in the mirror image of the robotic hands of both father and son.

Despite some profound insight, we have seen Lucas at times struggling to articulate his ideas with clarity and elegance of symbolism. His difficulty only grew with the prequel trilogy, but the ideas are undeniable. What makes him stand apart from colleagues like Steven Spielberg is his reflection of the self and the darkness in his own identity.

Lucas has talked repeatedly about the Vietnam War as an inspiration for ROTJ. There is a slightly worrisome subtext in this analogy --- Are the short, foreign Vietnamese fighters represented as the much maligned furry aliens? Nevertheless, the meaning of the Vietnam War to him and to the series should not be underestimated. As a white American male, surely he is aware that he himself is the Empire, as much as he (and all of us) would like to identify with the resistance or the Ewoks. What makes him unlike other white, American, male filmmakers and popular entertainment creators is that his self-awareness is stronger, or perhaps his self-deception is weaker. That's no small feat.

This reluctant acceptance of the dark side is more clearly and forcefully embraced in TLJ. Note that the self-awareness and self-critique are definitely there, which is why Yoda's gleeful destruction of the Jedi library was so gloriously satisfying and so consistent with Zen Buddhism. One of my favorite parts of TLJ is the unabashed connection and, in a sense, mirror image between Rey and Kylo Ren. They touched, even. It's important. And best of all neither defeated the other in their final battle. That is the balance that makes the universe live and thrive.

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