May 7, 2018
Does Star Wars really need the Jedi?
Imagine if in the middle of the Second World War, Allied forces had successfully captured Adolf Hitler, wiped his memory, brainwashed him into becoming an elite soldier for their cause, and used his knowledge to defeat the Nazis, thus making him a hero and absolving him of all his horrific crimes.
Does that sound mind-bendingly insane, astronomically stupid, and morally reprehensible to you? Well, I’ve just described the plot to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, arguably the most beloved video game in the Star Wars universe, and one of the best works of media to ever come out of the franchise.
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I don’t suppose there’s much risk in spoiling a 13-year-old game but (SPOILER ALERT) your main character’s identity as the amnesiac Sith lord Revan is one of the best-known plot twists in video game history. Finding out that you, the protagonist, are actually the one who started the bloody galactic conquest you’ve been spending the entire game fighting is a pretty huge player punch that casts a lot of your previous choices in a new light, especially if you’ve been playing as a faithful follower of the light side of the Force. It opens up a lot of questions about free will, nature versus nurture, and how they relate to a person’s innate capacity for good or evil.
Unfortunately, and I say this with great love for the game, the potential for a thorough exploration of these questions is limited by its fairly Manichaeistic morality system. Despite the presence of well-written, three-dimensional characters, you’re still presented with clearly-defined “good” and “evil” choices whose context, with some notable exceptions, avoids any kind of complication. In case things get too ambiguous for you, the game helps clear things up by “rewarding” repeated “dark side” choices with increasingly pale skin and red eyes. The further down the dark path you go, the uglier you look. The underlying problem is the same one that permeates most Star Wars movies and games: an uncritical embrace of core Jedi principles.
In a 1999 article for Salon.com, sci-fi author David Brin strongly criticized these ideas using World War II analogies similar to the one I made earlier. Unlike Brin, I happen to love Star Wars, but his article makes several valid points, chief among them being the Jedi’s vision of atonement: Apparently, all it takes is sincere personal remorse and one strong, irreversible act of good to get you in the clear. Darth Vader sacrifices his life to save his son from the Emperor and all his sins are absolved. In Knights of the Old Republic, Revan can ultimately choose not to join the dark side and reclaim his/her mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith and go on to save the galaxy without facing any real repercussions for past crimes. Sure, one of the characters will briefly chew you out for being indirectly responsible for the death of his wife, but he’ll forgive you for it if you express remorse—and if you play as a woman, you can even romance him! No matter how many awful things you may have done in your playthrough (fraud, racketeering, extortion, murder, even genocide), not betraying the Republic will inevitably result in a New Hope-style ending with a big ceremony in your honor.
But perhaps the most contentious aspect of this philosophy is the idea that evil is caused by inherently negative emotions like fear or anger and that the best solution, as explicitly articulated by Obi-Wan’s ghost in Return of the Jedi, is to “bury your feelings deep down”. In theory, this sounds plausible. After all, fear and anger are pretty unpleasant feelings, and as recent events have shown, people often make very bad decisions based on them.
In practice, however, this view of human nature is both simplistic and unhealthy. Emotions are complex, multi-faceted things whose morality largely depends on psychological and environmental circumstance. Fear is a natural response to the potential dangers of life, something that’s designed to keep you alive and aware; it only gets bad if you let it direct your every thought and action without taking the time to consider your options. Decisions driven by anger can be destructive and harmful to both yourself and others, but the emotion itself is not intrinsically negative. If carefully controlled and directed towards the right target, anger can be a powerful force for positive personal, social, and political transformation (see: the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, and virtually every successful pro-democracy movement in history). Even Jesus Himself, the very paragon of love, empathy, and forgiveness, was not above the odd bout of righteous anger. As one particularly complex dark side-aligned character from Knights of the Old Republic put it, “sometimes, anger and hate are deserved and right. Sometimes, things change because of it.”
We’ve seen the Jedi make mistakes and their ideas challenged before in Star Wars media, particularly in Knights’s masterful sequel The Sith Lords. Even the prequels, clumsy as they were, more or less implied that the Jedi’s forcible suppression of familial and romantic bonds was at least partially responsible for Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. In fact, reading the Jedi Order’s history on Wookieepedia paints the picture of a deeply flawed, stubbornly conservative institution whose reaction to dissident ideas and potentially dangerous knowledge is to systematically censor them instead of directly engaging with them. As history keeps showing us, this kind of approach invariably makes things worse. Seeing as the Order seems to continually create its own worst enemies, one has to seriously wonder if its existence causes more harm than it prevents.
With all that in mind, the prospect of watching Rogue One—apparently the very first Star Wars film without any Jedi or Force-sensitives among its main characters—becomes all the more exciting. How will the protagonists solve their problems without the help of Force powers? More importantly, how could the absence of any Jedi in a Star Wars film affect the series’ good-versus-evil narrative? If the writers find new ways to introduce, define and solve conflicts within a Star Wars story, then we may face the previously-unthinkable prospect of Star Wars movies whose moral foundation operates beyond predefined conceptions of a “light” or “dark” side of the Force. Who knows? The Force Awakens sequels may end up mapping out a future where both Jedi and Sith would be obsolete.
Crazy? Maybe. But no matter what direction the franchise takes, writers must find a way to expand upon its underlying philosophies in order to avoid telling the same story over and over again. Think of all the Star Wars comics or novels starring non-Force sensitives like Boba Fett or Han Solo that aren’t about yet another war between the forces of light and darkness. The potential is all there, just waiting to be mined. Here’s hoping Rogue One makes a few good strikes in the right vein.