Editor’s note: This column contains spoilers for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” If you haven’t seen the film, you’ve been warned.
The highest grossing movie of 2017 was “The Last Jedi,” the latest Star Wars film. Why is this melodramatic fantasy film so popular? One suggestion is that it reflects the interests of our era.
This film offers liberal social commentary. The good guys, for example, are part of the “Resistance,” which is also the name of the anti-Trump movement.
The film’s progressive moralizing is blatantly obvious. We encounter a class of rapacious capitalists who profit from war, selling weapons to both sides. The lavish lifestyle of these greedy fat cats rests upon the abuse of children and animals. In one wild scene, the rebels destroy the capitalist casino and free some abused space horses. In another scene, Chewbacca even seems to consider becoming vegetarian.
The movie also reflects the concerns of the “#MeToo” era. The film’s heroes are female. The bad guys are white males. Even the men who work for the Resistance are clueless and inept. At one point Princess Leia tells Poe, the cocky young pilot, to get his head out of his “cockpit.”
This film’s liberal values are put into words by Admiral Holdo, the rebel leader played by Laura Dern. She gives a moralistic speech in which she reminds us that the Resistance is on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed throughout the galaxy.
The Resistance is inclusive and democratic. The cast is multiracial and multiethnic. Again this seems to reflect the concerns of our era, when DACA and resurgent white supremacy are on the table.
The rebels value freedom and individualism. They hope that evil people can be turned toward the light. This hope motivates Rey, the film’s heroine, as she naively confronts the evil emperor.
Rey is a democratic heroine. She is a nobody from nowhere. She discovers her powers without tutelage. Luke Skywalker even fails to deliver all of the lessons he promised her. The moral of the story is that the Force thrives in the hearts of untutored children.
This leads us to the film’s most radical message, which is about religion. Luke thinks it is time for the Jedi religion to end. He blames his religion for failing to protect the galaxy against evil. He rejects the mythology of the Jedi and the hubris of the priestly Jedi knights. The light will exist, he says, without the Jedi priesthood. He says that it is hubris to think that the Jedi alone are keepers of the light.
Yoda appears and offers a similar verdict. As they contemplate destroying the Jedi’s most ancient texts, Yoda says it is time to look past a pile of old religious books. “Page turners, they were not,” he says. “Wisdom they held.” But the truth they contain can be found without reading them.
Yoda suggests it time to turn the page and evolve beyond the old religion. The next generation will learn its own lessons and fight its own battles. “We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda says to Luke.
Finally, the film offers a message about peace and love. The entire franchise is called “Star Wars.” But what about peace? The character Rose provides a hint with one of the most memorable lines of the film. She says, “We will win, not by fighting what we hate but by saving what we love.”
Luke Skywalker demonstrates this in his final battle with Kylo Ren. He condemns the hate and anger that fuel the dark side. He even tells his former disciple that everything he says is false. It is the Resistance that possesses love and truth, while the First Order offers fake news.
Like Obi-Wan before him, Luke sacrifices himself for the well-being of the next generation. The film ends with a new generation discovering the Force and preparing to join the Resistance.
If all of this seems a bit trite and contrived, well it is. Star Wars is not philosophy. It is a popcorn-crunching fantasy film. But even fantasy can provide food for thought.
Does art imitate life? Or does life imitate art? And why are Americans so fascinated by a story about what happened long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away? May the Force be with you, as you think that over.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala