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No End in Sight: The Human Cost of Conflict in ‘Star Wars’

With ‘The Last Jedi,’ director Rian Johnson is asking fans to consider the human cost of the never-ending conflict between the dark side and the light

Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The most subversive moment in Star Wars: The Last Jedi happens when the characters Finn, Rose Tico, and DJ are on their way back from the casino on Canto Bight. An interstellar mash-up of Las Vegas and Monaco, Canto Bight is a playground for the rich, powerful, and politically connected. Rose calls it “a terrible place filled with the worst people in the galaxy.” She tells Finn that most of Canto Bight’s inhabitants made their money selling weapons to the First Order. But when Benicio Del Toro’s DJ goes through the records of one of the arms dealers, writer and director Rian Johnson throws a curveball at the audience. The dealer had been selling to the Resistance, too. The revelation puts a new spin on the conflict at the center of the movie and the entire franchise. Who is really benefiting from the never-ending war between the Sith and the Jedi?

The new trilogy has changed the meaning of the original three films. Return of the Jedi’s happy ending—when the Emperor is killed, the second Death Star is destroyed, and Darth Vader is redeemed—is gone. What was once the final conflict in the battle between good and evil has become a blip in a larger story. The implications are horrifying. Many characters in The Last Jedi have never known a time without war. The Sith and the Jedi have been fighting for at least 70 years. Anakin Skywalker was 9 years old at the start of The Phantom Menace; his grandson is in his 20s and fighting in the same battle. It’s no wonder Leia’s call for help at the end of The Last Jedi fell on deaf ears.

Rose thinks everyone on Canto Bight is an arms dealer because it’s the only way to make that much money during a civil war. There is a massive military-industrial complex that lies underneath the Skywalker family saga. War costs money. The U.S. government has spent over $400 billion on the F-35 fighter jet program, and estimates have the total cost at $1.45 trillion over the next 50-some years. Imagine the price of a fighter jet that travels through hyperspace. The galactic equivalents of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin wouldn’t want either side to win. They would want the two sides to keep fighting. If the Sith had been truly defeated, the interstellar war machine would have shut down. Snoke and his minions were a necessary evil to keep it going.

The same holds true for the Jedi and the Resistance. There has to be someone for the First Order to fight if they are going to keep investing in the newest weapons technology. Leia inspires her troops by telling them they are the spark that will burn down the First Order. She is a savvy political operator who spent her whole life scheming in the halls of power. She understands how the galaxy works. She knew her job was to keep the spark alive. As long as she did that, there would be people pouring gas on it.

It’s unclear what the Resistance is even fighting for at this point. Do they have a plan for what happens if they win? The Republic has now collapsed and crumbled into tyranny twice within the span of a single lifetime. Why would the third attempt be any different? Maybe a democratically elected senate isn’t the best way to govern a galaxy with millions of settled worlds and countless numbers of intelligent species. Leia and Luke have more selfless motivations than Snoke and Kylo Ren, but what was the difference for the average person on a planet destroyed by war? At a certain point, the Sith and the Jedi become two sides of the same coin. There has to be more to life.

At the end of The Last Jedi, Johnson borrows an iconic image from the original trilogy, with Luke looking out over the horizon, dreaming about what his future could be. His uncle Owen warned him what would happen. He didn’t want his nephew to repeat Anakin’s mistakes. He wanted Luke to work on a moisture farm, not “follow old Obi-Wan on some damned fool idealistic crusade.” How would Luke’s life had looked if he stayed on Tatooine and chased womp rats on his speeder? Owen brought an orphan into his home and gave him a happy childhood. That takes just as much courage as trying to save the universe. His life seemed boring to a restless teenager, but it was much happier than Luke’s exile on Ahch-To.

George Lucas based the story line of the original trilogy on The Hero’s Journey, anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s theory of the story arc of all mythological tales. The hero receives a call to adventure, which he initially refuses. He is aided by a supernatural mentor who gives him an artifact necessary in his quest. To fulfill his destiny, he has to cross a threshold and leave the world he knows behind him. Luke starts the franchise as the hero and ends as the mentor, sacrificing himself to save the Resistance in much the same way as Kenobi did battling Darth Vader on the first Death Star. Luke became a legend, but he didn’t win a lasting victory. That was never possible in the first place.

Johnson puts his own spin on what bringing balance to the Force means, one that reckons with the logical implications of a war that stretches on for eight movies. Rey sees it in her vision on Ahch-To: Dark balances light, and death and decay lead to life. The story just repeats, over and over. After Palpatine died, Snoke took his place. Snoke tells Kylo Ren that he knew a light would emerge to meet his growing darkness. Rey isn’t even part of the Skywalker story—she was raised up from nothing. Johnson sees that the Force balances itself. The Jedi and the Sith each have parts to play. The only thing that changes are the names. It’s what Luke tells Rey in her training: “The Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if a Jedi dies, the light dies is vanity.”

“Vanity” is an interesting choice of word. It might suggest what Johnson’s inspiration was in writing this movie. It reminded me of King Solomon’s speech in the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament. The book is written from Solomon’s perspective near the end of his life. He looks back at all the money he made, all the temples he built, all the victories he won, and concludes it was all for nothing. It was all vanity.

The Last Jedi is about hope, and how to find it in a world where no victory is permanent. If you put your hope into changing the world, you are going to end up disappointed. Even if we could build a utopia on earth, it would never last. The next generation would squander what they were given. As the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in his Gulag Archipelago, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor classes, nor political parties, but through all human hearts.” The biggest difference any of us can make is in the lives of the people around us. That’s the final lesson Yoda teaches Luke, as they watch the old Jedi books and temple burn. Stop looking at the horizon, and start looking at the need right in front of you.