Star Wars: The Last Jedi in Scholarly Hindsight

It’s May 2018, which means another installment of Star Wars is upon us: this time in the form of the anthology film, Solo: A Star Wars Story.The last time I wrote a Star Wars piece I was chided for spoiling a film despite having posted a spoiler-free essay weeks after Episode VII’s release. (This is why you never read the comments). Keeping with the spirt of the season, we’ve assembled another edition of the Jedi Council for a review of The Last Jedi that you’ll only find here at Sowing the Seed. Drs. Matthew J. Cressler, and Megan P. Goodwin join forces to discuss the ins and outs of Episode VIII with our curator.

–Richard Newton, PhD

Star Wars VIII

The recent installments in the Star Wars universe have made an admirable attempt to match the visual pallet of the original trilogy. However they have departed in their attention to diversity of character representation, sparking a discussion about who has (and hasn’t) a place in the worlds of film and myth.

MG: THE QUEERNESS OF THIS FILM IS A LOT AND I AM HERE FOR IT.

RN:  Yeah…so what caught your eye about that?

MG: So okay, there’s a lot here. ‪I mean, the obvious chemistry between Poe & Finn ‪and Poe & everyone always.‪ BUT it’s important to note that in a main-narrative film, we’ve got a canonically queer character in Space Goddess Laura Dern.

‪And as much as I absolutely adore Kellie Marie Tran, I was kind of meh about the kiss with Finn.‪ Because really?  Did we need to romance that relationship up?

MC: Co-sign.

MG: ‪…Although important moment of sexual agency for an Asian woman, so watch as I contradict myself. She’s not eroticized or exoticized. She’s goofy and smart and in charge of herself and the situation, pretty much always.‪..also like if the universe presents you with an opportunity to kiss a consenting John Boyega…

‪RN: Audiences went in with a ton of interest in how these relationships were going to play out.

MC: Rose’s kiss of Finn surprised me more than anything else (and seemed to surprise Finn too). I was like, “Oh, I was not getting that vibe from this relationship,”unlike with Poe and Finn where if Poe had kissed him in that Bacta suit I woulda been all like, “ABOUT DAMN TIME!”

RN: I’ve told a lot of people that Poe and Rey cannot get together because it would confound too much of my hope that Star Wars is ready to move beyond tropes…Campbellian and otherwise…Rey and Poe together would represent the final conceit that Star Wars can only go so far in imagining how humans work–racially, sexually, theologically, whatever.

space nuns

And whereas the prequel films were derided for an overreliance on digital creatures, the non-human characters fit into the aesthetic of the Star Wars universe. This also means that they were subject to some classic questions about the sociology of that world.

MG: I need us to talk about the nuns.

MC: Yes, I have thoughts! Let’s talk about it.

RN: Go for it!

MG: OKAY INDIGENOUS SPACE NUNS:

‪a) Yes, please!

‪b) ….that they are non-humanoid but still binarily gendered is…something I find interesting, and one of the few places I was disappointed in the film ‪because we can imagine a galaxy in which all these things are possible, ‪but those women aren’t contemplatives in their own right? They’re just support staff for the Jedi‪, some of whom are themselves women, ‪but we only have Rey as an example of that. And she calls them “it.”

MC: …which I think goes back to Richard’s point about the conceit that Star Wars only ever goes so far in imagining what it means to be “human”…

‪MG: AND I’m sorry, but Cranky Old Clint Eastwood Skywalker feeding off the literal tit of that planet/island,‪ what am I supposed to do with that image? ‪Is that “look how native I’ve gone?” Is that “reproductive female bodies are gross?”

MC: Oh Lord, you’re right.

RN: So I think that scene and the social order around (what’s left of) the Jedi could be read a different way.

MG: Yes, help me.

RN: So the prequels are largely built on the audacious wealth of the Jedi. They are living large. But “Anakin from the Cut” experiments with the boundaries of those teachings and their implications.

MG: Yes, okay.

RN: Does being a Jedi equal austerity, liberation, imprisonment, absolute power?

MG: ‪Toxic masculinity will destroy us all in the long run, even if it gets us some short term wins?

MC: SUBSCRIBE

MG: What if there’s a long game that prioritizes survival and flourishing over heroics?

As the conversation continued, it became impossible to ignore the unwieldy growth of the multimedia Star Wars universe. Just speaking in-world, the narrative we discussed was one attached to cartoons, books, comics, films, and more. As a result, some of the sacred cows of the story are more complicated, convoluted, and compelling then one may think.

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MC: Am I the only one who read this film (with regard to the Force and the Jedi) as a total middle finger to Lucas’s prequels?

MG: Oh, completely. ‪F— Skywalkers!‪ It’s not your magic blood.

MC: It doubled down on Empire’s rendition of the Force and the Jedi and directly rejected many of the prequel’s attempts to expand on the Force in a number of ways.

RN:Kevin Smith calls it a finger to J. J. Abrams, too.

MG: It TOTALLY is.

MC: I saw that especially in how Luke goes out at the end.

MG: ‪Say more about that, Matt.

MC: Okay, so this will take a bit of backstory, but it has to do with Prequel Yoda.

MG: Nerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrds…‪hit me.

MC: So if there was one thing (so many) fans wanted from the prequels besides Anakin’s descent to the darkside (for which we now are eminently grateful for Kylo Ren), it was to see  Yoda “in action.”

MG:‪ I remember Yoda-in-action longings ‪even though they were pretty silly in retrospect

MC: And I remember debating what this Yoda would be like in action, given the fact that he was super powerful and beyond all this worldly stuff. LUMINOUS BEINGS ARE WE, after all! But then what does Lucas do, he gives him a lightsaber and makes him a crazy ninja dude.

Which, in a sense, goes back on all of Yoda’s Empire preaching about self-defense, and being beyond matter, etc, …

MG: … which is also a straight up TS Eliot move

‪…what there is to conquer

‪By strength and submission, has already been discovered

‪Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

‪To emulate —but there is no competition—

‪There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

‪And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

‪That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

‪For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

T. S. Eliot, From Four Quartets

RN: So I was amazed how Episode VIII didn’t “retcon” what we know about the Force. It perfected it.

MC: Or, if it retconned, it only did so by continuing the erasure of the midiclor–… what were they?

MG: Midichlorians?

MC: That was a bad joke. ;-0

RN: So some of this actually comes out more clearly in the cartoons (Clone Wars, Rebels, Forces of Destiny)…

MC: Power up!

MG: I’m out, but please go on.

RN: But Yoda is the ultimate failure by the end of the prequels.

MG: Ooooh.

RN: Not so much in that he doesn’t beat the Emperor, but that he ultimately has played into the Emperor’s hand and has to fight.

MC: oh, interesting.

RN: To me this makes Empire and Return of the Jedi so much more profound.

‪Yoda is beyond the lightsaber. “Your weapons, you will not need them.”

MG: And Ben’s (Kenobi) ultimate surrender to Vader…he doesn’t lose that fight, he just stops fighting

RN: And Luke is reconciling with all of this too at a whole other level because he was a pawn in all of this…He won but he didn’t win.

MG: Yep. He did what he thought was winning…because he couldn’t see the whole board.

RN: And he realizes it now.

MG: And he didn’t — couldn’t– win, because the Jedi fundamentally lost sight of balance in their attempt to win

RN: But by the end, it’s all about relating to those around you–your sister, your friends, your students, nature, and yourself.

MC: What we see of Jedi Master Luke is precisely what Empire Yoda implied a master was about. He *doesn’t* fight him. He shows that a true master is beyond even the need to fight with weapons.

‪BACK to your point, Megan, he shows that it’s not about heroics (downing the baddie) but survival

MG: See also, line that made me cry the hardest:

‪”This is how we win… not by fighting what we hate, but protecting what we love.”

(see also, reBuddhification of the Wars).

MC: The Force is what is between it all.

MG: …but, none of us is a separate being; we flourish or die togethr‪er

RN: There’s definitely a “Killing the Buddha” vibe here.

MG: Totally. Also, what do we do with Luke’s “you didn’t even try to fight the pull of the dark” freakout moment? ‪I get why he’s upset, ‪but Rey’s attraction to it comes from a place of wanting to restore balance, yeah?

MC: ‪I think that’s him still wrestling with his failure with Ren. Now he’s relented and decided to teach Rey, and he’s seeing Ren all over again (or he thinks he is cause he’s blinded by his own failure).

‪Rey has to snap him out of it: I’m NOT REN! I will not fail you. Thought that was gonna be a “I’m not afraid” moment, but no. Rey’s just like, “I’m not Ren, dawg.”

MG: …which…that’s a teacher-ly moment, too, right? How much of my pedagogy is “oh god, this REALLY didn’t work last time”

MC: Yes. I’ve always felt that teaching is a daily exercise in failure, so this film fit me like a glove.

RN:  Yep.

MG: Lucille Clifton does this perfectly:

the reason why I do it

though I fail and fail

in the giving of true names

is I am adam and his mother

and failure is my job.

Lucille Clifton, From “the making of poems.”

RN: But he also has that moment where he realizes that it’s not about him– and how freeing that is–even if fans hate it.

MC: Yes, and it is what gives Luke a redemption arc in the end (along with Yoda and Anakin and Ben Kenobi).

MG: Totally…‪not even just relating, ‪realizing there’s no separation, right? And yes, Richard – that his moment of making about NOT him is the thing that makes survival possible. ‪It’s small and damaged and precarious but possible. ‪It does still prioritize death/personal sacrifice, which is both necessary/unavoidable and a little Jesus-y for my tastes.

RN: ‪But I think the thing that keeps it from that is that it’s not just “I die for you.” There’s a “I am because we are” and “I will be because you are.”

MC: I don’t see him as dying for them in the same way as Ben did in New Hope.

MG:  It’s not atonement, it’s…fertilizer? …germinal, if that makes sense…but the growth made possible by timely death.

MC: YUP! ‪My tears moment came from Yoda “We are what they grow beyond…”

MG: …particularly now that I’ve been teaching long enough to see students grow into beautiful adults‪ who are just doing the most amazing things.

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As the conversation came to a close, each person gave some final thoughts on the film as it pertains to their particular interests in the study of religion.

MG: So okay, again, there are a lot of great (and obvious) moments to help us think about gender and religion here. ‪But I want to come back to the island as the place where religion lives because it’s the place women have tended it

MC: *snaps*

MG: …and the way that the rockstars of the religion — the Jedi ‪come back, f— s— up, destroy ancient buildings ‪and still expect their meals to come on time.

RN: Alright.

MG: …while spending exactly no time thinking, “oh hey, how would I eat without them?” This is such a moment of “this knowledge, this craft has survived because of nameless and seemingly impoverished women.” They kept Clintwood Skywalker alive after he wanted to die–‪which, btw, keeps the resistance alive — you’re welcome.

And they’re a joke in the film, ‪which, maybe, is kind of subversive. Like, even in a film where we’re directly invited to think about class and inequality, ‪women’s religion — women’s religious habits (not sorry) — are still dismissed, ‪even though they LITERALLY ALLOW THE RESISTANCE TO SURVIVE!

RN: ‪That’s legit.

MC: This is SUCH a good reading. Wow.

MC: So one of the things I love love looooved about this movie (as a Star War) was that it gave us a self-critical view of the Force and the Jedi. That Jedi Master Luke has not become this super-badass-warrior but someone who has grown to recognize the vanity of the Jedi (even if he is still blind to SpaceNuns).

‪And this leads me to a more meta point that I loved about the film (and connects to the topic of film *as* religion), which is that the film seems in a way to be committing blasphemy in certain quarters, and I’m here for it.

MG: Wherein “blasphemy” = “religious innovation”…‪which you know I am here for.

‪MC: “Let the past die…” ‪”We are what they grow beyond…”

*finger points upward emphatically*

MG: ‪BUT AT THE SAME TIME: paying attention to the past.

‪MC: If Star Wars is religion (and the reactions to the film offer even more evidence that they are), then this film fails for certain people precisely insofar as it is self-aware and self-critical of the universe.

‪Just the way Mark Hamill delivers the lines “Jedi Religion” and “laser sword” – oh man, I loved it.

I do think the dividing line on this film (for fans anyway) is whether you are willing to go to a totally new place in this universe, even if it means upending some of the things you loved (or thought you loved) about the originals.

‪Politics. Politics of representation. Etc. Etc.

‪This is why I think I would rank The Last Jedi as my favorite Star Wars outside the original trilogy.

RN: ‪I can tag on to that.

To me, the key issue for Star War, post OG trilogy, is for whom was the rebellion. What was frustrating about the prequels was that the Jedi were so garishly self-interested that the Sith was literally balancing them out. This is a big departure from the Jedi as an order of people committed to pursuing balance with the Force.

‪This is why a jumping Yoda and a cathedral-like temple was too much.

‪But these new films (even in the opening sequence of VII) suggests that there’s the kind of community that presumes that the way of the Force (a la the Jedi) is for more than the select few and is more than the ability to inflict blunt force.

‪So it’s why I’m here for Leia floating through space and Luke’s revised explanation of the Force.

‪It’s also why I’m so frustrated with the omission of Maz Kanata.

All issues of real-world representation aside, Maz Kanata was  the first sign of a Force beyond the Jedi.

‪And she is a complete vehicle for the pointless character on Canto Bight (sp?).

‪She could have been the one you call when you’re in a jam.

‪She also could be the picture of the Force beyond bureaucracy–whatever that may be.

‪I’m still holding out hope that we will return to that.

‪MC: That would be one of the reasons I’m excited to see JJ back. There are other reasons I’m not.

RN: I think he’ll nail the landing…a‪t least as good as ROTJ ‪adjusted for inflation.

MG:  I worry that he’s going to pull a Lost.

MC: Yeah, that’s my fear. ‪Rian Johnson did try his best to smash his mystery boxes, though, so hopefully that’ll help make it easier

MG:‪ I hope so!

Megan GoodwinMegan Goodwin, PhD is Visiting Scholar in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University. Her research focuses on the ways race, gender, politics and sexuality influence mainstream American interactions with contemporary minority religions. Follow her on Twitter @mpgPhD.

Matthew Cressler HeadshotMatthew J. Cressler, PhD is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston where he teaches African American religion, religion in America, and theory in the study of religion (among other things).  He is the author of Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017).  Follow him on Twitter @mjcressler.

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram@seedpods

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