The Last Jedi and the Problem of Nihilism

The Last Jedi and the Problem of Nihilism January 3, 2018

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You may not have heard, but there’s a new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, in theaters. Since I’m an admitted huge geek, you might expect that I’d be the ideal audience. But to my own surprise, I’ve found that my reaction was a shrug. I did see it and I did enjoy it, don’t get me wrong – it’s just that I’m no longer as enthusiastic about the whole franchise as I thought I’d be.

Part of the problem, I think, is knowing that Disney intends to make an endless stream of these movies. After The Force Awakens last year, that realization began to sink in. I prefer stories that have a beginning and an end, and knowing that they plan to milk this cash cow forever means the franchise will never have narrative closure. (This is the same problem I have with comic books.)

But after seeing the new movie, I had a more specific critique that goes a long way toward explaining my lack of enthusiasm. Major spoilers follow!

In The Last Jedi, the orphan adept Rey finds Luke Skywalker, only to find that he’s become an embittered, angry old hermit who wants nothing to do with the galaxy’s problems. The first time she sees him, he slams the door in her face.

Rey follows Luke and badgers him for answers, and eventually he reveals what’s haunting him. After the events of the original trilogy, he tried to set Leia and Han’s son, Ben Solo, on the path of the light side, but failed. Ben’s moral corruption was far worse than Luke realized, until it was too late. At a low point of despair, Luke took out his lightsaber and contemplated killing Ben in his sleep. But Ben awakened unexpectedly, realized what was happening, and escaped after a fight that demolished Luke’s new Jedi temple. The next time we see him, he’s the villain Kylo Ren.

At the climax of the movie, Luke comes out of seclusion, but not to strike down the bad guys. Instead, all he does is trick Kylo Ren and the First Order’s army with an illusion of himself, which they uselessly attack – giving the rest of the heroes just enough time to escape out a back door and flee the planet. Then Luke dies and merges into the Force, seemingly foreclosing any possibility that he’ll be of any further help to them.

Here’s what troubles me about this. The original Star Wars was an upbeat, swashbuckling story in the spirit of the pulp adventures George Lucas drew his inspiration from. However long the odds, however cartoonishly evil the bad guys, you never doubted that the heroes would find a way to triumph. It was, and is, a story aimed at children.

But the new franchise, and this movie in particular, casts the originals in a much darker and grimmer light. Luke’s character arc is the perfect distillation of this.

The Last Jedi, like The Empire Strikes Back, is the middle of a trilogy. There’s a story purpose in making the heroes’ situation seem as desperate as possible. But even when the next movie brings the inevitable come-from-behind victory, it still means that everything the good guys accomplished in the original trilogy was for nothing. None of their sacrifices mattered.

This isn’t the impression you’d get from Return of the Jedi. The good guys redeemed Darth Vader, killed the Emperor and blew up the new Death Star. The closing scene gave every reason to believe that peace would return to the galaxy. Instead, we now know that the Empire rose again in less than a generation, even more powerful than before. As soon as one Dark Lord was killed, another one was waiting to step into his shoes and continue his evil plan. The fledgling galactic republic was decapitated almost immediately, and the heroes are once again a tiny, ragtag resistance struggling for survival.

This ought to be especially heartbreaking for Leia. After the originals, you might have thought she had the chance to break the cycle of evil and cruelty and raise her son to be kind and just, succeeding in every way his grandfather failed. But no: Ben Solo turned out as power-hungry and murderous as Anakin Skywalker. It’s as if some people, even some families, are fated to be evil.

It’s hard not to get the impression that Star Wars is saying progress is an illusion. Whether it was intentional or not, you can discern a message that any good we can accomplish is temporary at best, that war and fascism will never be defeated and that people who care will always be an insignificant minority. (TLJ twists the knife by giving us the character of DJ, an amoral thief who takes glee in pointing out that the Resistance gets their weapons from the same war profiteers who supply the First Order.) For a swashbuckling sci-fi adventure aimed at children, it has more than a passing flirtation with nihilism.

When I made this argument on Facebook the day after seeing the movie, some of my friends pushed back. They said that The Last Jedi isn’t meant to be nihilistic, but realistic. In light of current events, it’s all too relevant a message that we can never sit on our laurels, that every generation has to wage its own fight for freedom. Even after a period of relative peace and optimism, evil forces we thought long vanquished may come roaring back. It’s a valuable message that humanity is fallible and progress is fragile, and that we can’t take any of that for granted.

I grant this point’s validity. But if anyone who worked on Star Wars intended it, then I’d argue that it’s an overcorrection.

Although the past year has given us plenty of reason for pessimism, I haven’t lost my belief in moral progress. It’s still a fact that the world is freer, more peaceful and more prosperous than in any other era of history. There’s much good news you don’t see unless you’re looking for it. As a case in point, just last week, we heard that crime in New York City has declined to a 50-year low. (See also.)

One election isn’t enough to change all this. As bad as things look right now, it’s too soon to declare that this is the point where history’s arc of moral progress stopped and began to reverse. There’s not nearly enough evidence to support such a sweeping generalization. Pop culture and fiction can be a valuable message of hope when hope seems hard to come by in the real world; but the message can be taken too far, if we fall victim to nihilism and conclude that the future facing us is bleaker than it really is.

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