By Will Rose
Let me honest and transparent right up front–I love The Rise of Skywalker. It may even be my favorite of the newest Star Wars trilogy. Yea, the movie hyper-speed skipped all over the place, but from my point of view, it had a lot of places to explore, and a lot of questions to answer before it wrapped up the Skywalker saga. I feel it did its job and hit all the right notes within the long soundtrack of Star Wars continuity. Without getting too deep in the weeds with the Disney-directed Star Wars trilogy as a whole, one of the popular complaints fans had with Episode 9 was the shift from Rey being a nobody (and therefore the Force can awaken and be used by anyone) to Rey being in the family tree of a powerful force user (so therefore the Force is only for those who are from a family with a high midichlorian count). I fully understand why this doesn’t sit right with some fans, but I don’t believe this plot direction abandons all hope that the Force isn’t available for an average person like me. I don’t think connecting Rey to Palpatine’s family undercuts the universality of the nature of the Force because there are clues that the Force awakens in other characters who are not yet revealed to be of powerful Jedi linage.
The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977. I was five years old. It was also the first time I remember my imagination being awakened to the possibilities of sci-fi adventures not only out there in a galaxy far far away but maybe this could happen in our solar system, too. Maybe even I could be Luke Skywalker! And I was Luke Skywalker when I played with my Star Wars action figures and pretended the naked wrapping paper cardboard tube was a lightsaber. A big part of my infatuation with Star Wars was the mixture and tension of being both a sci-fi technological futuristic styled adventure while proposing that this was an ancient story that happened a long time ago incorporating a mystical spirituality. Lasers, robots and spaceships intertwined with an all-powerful mystical force that binds all life together? Now that’s an adventure! That’s something I want to be a part of. Could I too be “force sensitive” in case I need to fight against an oppressive evil empire? Unapologetically, this is something I think about almost daily.
The first time we hear of the mysterious mystical Force in the Star Wars franchise is in Episode IV, A New Hope. That strange old hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi hands an “elegant weapon for a more civilized age” to Luke and tells young Skywalker that Darth Vader “was seduced by the dark side of the Force.” Luke responds, “The Force?” (had Luke never heard of the Force before?). Obi-Wan, with a small grin says, “The Force is what give the Jedi their power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” It’s here that we get a hint and foreshadowing of a light and dark, good and evil binary of the Force.
The second time we hear about the Force is during a round table Death Star committee meeting. Cue some words and conversations about a battle station, rebels, the imperial senate, fear and keeping local star systems in line, and then Admiral Motti says emphatically, “This station is now the ultimate power in the universe, I suggest we use it!” The dark robed Darth Vader shares confidently, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” Motti fires back (has he never seen Vader at work before this moment?!?), “Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer ways Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data plans, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebel’s hidden fortress….” It is at this moment that we see the Force actualized for the first time. It’s not just idealized or spoken of as a philosophy, we literally see it being used as Vader begins to choke out Motti combined with the infamous line, “I find your lack of faith disturbing”.
Ok, now we are getting somewhere. The Force isn’t just some legend or a disembodied past time. We see it in action and in the hands of someone powerful that can literally kill someone from across the room. This so-called “ancient religion” isn’t something to be taken lightly. As the groundbreaking movie moves forward, we see more evidence of the Force and who can wield it. The second time we see the Force actualized is when Obi-Wan mind-tricks a weak-minded Stormtrooper at the Mos Eisley spaceport. Luke tilts his head with curiosity as if he’s thinking, “maybe there is something behind this thing called the Force.” I feel the same way and I begin to reflect on what I would do if I had that kind of power.
And of course, there are still skeptics and agnostics when it comes to the Force. The Force looks as if it’s forgotten and certainly not tapped into or used with any sort of frequency. While watching Luke practice using a Jedi’s weapon Han Solo laughs and scoffs saying, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” Luke asks, “You don’t believe in the Force, do you?” Han responds, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of the galaxy to the other, I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff. But I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s an all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.” Obi Wan gins as if to say, “We’ll see.” After a few more adventures and a little help from his agnostic friend, Luke taps into that Force with a one in a million shot so that a small band of rebels blow up a space station the size of a moon. Maybe Obi Wan was right, “there is no such thing as luck.” By the time we get to episode 7, The Force Awakens, Han Solo has taken a few steps in a larger world to say the least and confesses, “It’s all true, all of it.”
As the space opera progresses and we move from one movie to the next we discover more about the Force and the legend of the Skywalker family. We learn that Luke isn’t just an average farm boy who can tap into the Force through dedication, hard work, practice, rather the Force runs strong in his family. Darth Vader is his father and within their family tree the light side and the dark side of the Force are battling for control and balance. While fans like myself didn’t give up hope that the Force connects all living things, and the average rebel could be Force sensitive, it did seem that if genetics was on your side one could rise to the top of Jedi ranks.
And then here comes the prequel trilogy and the fanbase really freaks out that Qui Gon Jinn is doing a blood test on Anakin to see how powerful the Force is that dwells within his veins. Midichlorians? The Force is now connected to biological determinism? The plot line with the Force moves from mysticism to a blood test and under the control of an organized religion. Is the Force accessible to someone like me or do I have to be tested to see if I’m good enough to be a part of this institutionalized knights of peace?
Much has been said and ranted about when it comes to midichlorians and Lucas’ story telling with the prequals. No need to go over that again, but when a new trilogy was announced a lot of Star Wars fans gushed over the possibilities. There was a new hope that Lor San Tekka articulates at the beginning of The Force Awakens when he says, “This will begin to make things right.”
The Force Awakens sets up many a mystery box, a reformation of the Force being one of them. The Force has awakened but for what purpose? Awakened for who? Within who? As the movie tells its story it looks like the Force has awakened within another average person on another desert planet. But the speculation ran rampant, “Is Rey a Skywalker?”, “Maybe even a Kenobi?” Only to find out through Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi that she is a nobody. Heartbreaking for Rey but comforting to those who wish to be Force sensitive and are not connected to the Skywalker family.
If The Force Awakens was a set up for the saga to move forward, The Last Jedi took speculating fans on a sharp turn deconstructing theories and expectations. The Last Jedi is a divisive movie among the Star Wars fanbase. Some love the deconstruction that subverts fan service. Others thought it mischaracterized beloved legacy characters. With some fans at odds with one another and with the franchise, as I said earlier, The Rise of Skywalker had some work to do. Did it sell out to fan service? Did it give us another big reveal we didn’t see coming? The debate and fan theories will continue for years to come. I thought the reveal that Rey is a Palpatine didn’t throw “the force is for everyone” out with an escape pod. While focusing on Rey and debating her origins, it’s almost like I hear Yoda whisper “there is another.”
There is another character that has an awakening in Episode 7. There’s a Storm Trooper, FN-2187, who when he sees the blood of a fellow soldier he is shaken to wake up, he has a new feeling. He looks around almost like he has taken a new step in a larger world. A few moments later, when walking back to his ship, Kylo Ren even turns abruptly to take notice of FN-2187 staring at him. Was this just coincidence or did Kylo feel a disturbance in the Force that had awakened in a new rebel who will soon be renamed Finn? A little later in the movie he even wields a lightsaber and holds his own with the weapon of a Jedi.
This awakening within Finn is danced around and teased in The Rise of Skywalker. Finn on more than one occasion needs to tell Rey something important. Does he love her? Did he have an epiphany about his own family lineage? Or is he Force sensitive like her? The questions are intentionally left to hang out there with answers perhaps told in more episodes to come. But we do see a shift. While Rey is a Palpatine, I believe that the Force can be “for anyone” because this reality of the Force shifts from Rey to Finn, and even to other characters as well. At one point Jannah shares with Finn that they have similar stories, that perhaps something awakened within her as well when she decided to rebel against the First Order. It seems the Force is accessible for anyone, whether you are from a deep-rooted family tree of powerful Jedi or Sith, or even if you are a nobody. It seems the Force can awaken within anyone and it can transform any degree of loyalty or scum and villainy.
Biology, genetics, family tress and organized institutions are still important and matter, and yet in an emerging post-postmodern world there is still a hunger for mystery and a longing to be a part of a larger story. In an age of shifting religious and political landscapes, organized religion and established institutions should not ignore that there are new awakenings and rebellions all around us. Skepticism, agnosticism, and unbelief are still a reality, and that’s ok, they hold us mystics accountable. But I do find it real interesting that the story arc for the Force begins with a choke out and a mind manipulation but ends with a new dimension of the Force being used as a means of healing and raising someone from the dead.
The world needs a new dimension of healing in the face of raging “fandamentalism”.
The world longs for new life to be raised in the face of powerful isms and systems of oppression. I tend to place my faith and my hope that this Force for healing and rising can be for anyone and used by anyone, within the Star Wars universe and even in our own.
May the Force be with you… yea, even you, always.
Will Rose is the Parish and Administrative Pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and Lutheran Campus Ministry in Chapel Hill NC. Will has a passion for engaging the intersections of faith, fandom and all things geeky. He leads a “God Loves Geeks” book club in his congregation, is on the www.TheoCon.live steering committee, and moderates panels at NC Comic Con in Durham and Raleigh NC. Will also oversees the website www.faithandsciencecollective.org with the purpose of helping curate a healthy conversation between faith and science.