by Luv Mehta
So this little indie low-budget movie called Star Wars: The Last Jedi came out, and fan reactions are… split, to say the least. It’s an incredibly risky movie that adds a lot of introspection and deconstruction to the series, calling into question the way the Force, the mythical space-magic that has been a mainstay of the series, has been treated, interpreted and taught across the whole saga.
For better or for worse, this has ended up being exactly the kind of movie that the franchise needed - a risky installment that shakes up the whole series and invites discussion and analysis. There have been quite a lot of debates on the matter, and there are so many great takes that have been spawned that you can spend the whole day getting to know new perspectives on it.
Through this article, I’m trying to do something different. Because all this deconstruction and introspection isn’t new to the Star Wars universe - it’s something gamers have experienced back in late 2004, when Obsidian developed and released Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords - a title that split fans to the core, in many of the same ways the current movie fandom has experienced right now. And I feel it might benefit to compare them both, seeing how the decisions they took are simultaneously critical of the central morality play of the series, and why these end up making for a stronger story.
Mild spoilers for The Last Jedi follow, and I’ll do my best to avoid any spoilers for the Knights Of The Old Republic series (referred to as KOTOR afterwards for convenience). Because the analogy can be extended best to a Light Side playthrough of KOTOR II, I’ll primarily deal with the plot on that side.
First off, some background - the Star Wars movie universe was started off in 1977 with the release of Star Wars, which was a fun romp through space that utilized the classic rebels-against-the-empire trope to great effect. It was followed by The Empire Strikes Back, a sequel that pulled off a darker story with a killer twist, and still managed to be lots of fun, still being remembered fondly among the fandom as the best of the whole series.
Thirty seven years later, The Last Jedi, the eighth installment in the series, would similarly polarize the audience, but less for its twists and more for its subversive storytelling, its tendency for playing darker story turns straight (with no sudden uplifting story turn benefiting our heroes in sight), and an attitude towards the Jedi (the magic space monks who were on the side of good) and the Sith (the magic space megalomaniacs who were on the side of evil) that was critical of the black-and-white morality at play, being especially disdainful of the former and the effect they had on the galaxy.
I know, you’ve clicked through to read a Star Wars article, so you probably know all this by now. But there’s a point to the summary.
In 2003, Knights Of The Old Republic started off its own mythos, staying faithful to the universe (way back before the Extended Universe, with all its games and comics and books, were declared invalid) by being set 4000 years before the timeframe of the movies - a helpful artistic decision made by BioWare so that whatever they did wouldn’t interfere with other works in the canon. This worked out especially well since the game was a typical BioWare RPG that allowed branching storylines based on player choices and, quite notably, gave the option to the player to play the game either as a Jedi or as a Sith.
KOTOR was a smash hit, pulling off a killer twist while still managing to be lots of fun. KOTOR II, on the other hand, was given to Obsidian to develop (since BioWare wanted to make an RPG set in a universe they had created, for once), and the story was written by Chris Avellone, an RPG veteran with an impressive array of work (the most notable being Planescape Torment, still considered one of the best written games ever).
And, as the pattern goes, it would end up polarizing the audience, less so for its twists and more so for its subversive storytelling, its tendency for playing darker story turns straight (with no sudden uplifting story turn benefiting our heroes in sight), and an attitude towards the Jedi and the Sith that was critical of the black-and-white morality at play, being especially disdainful of the former and the effect they had on the galaxy.
To understand the story decisions behind KOTOR 2, some background is needed - Chris Avellone, having no experience with the Star Wars stories prior to being contracted to design the game, saw and read every movie, every book, every comic in the universe that existed - all in a very small timeframe. And while a lot of it appealed to him, the unique context in which he experienced it ended up influencing his perception of the Force, the Jedi, and the universe of the story itself.
Let's get back to The Last Jedi. When Rey meets Luke on an island in the middle of nowhere, she finds a man disillusioned with the Jedi Order. Luke Skywalker, having lived his life by the Jedi philosophy, having trained students in the way of the Light Side, has come to the conclusion that the Jedi Order has done more harm than good, that the position of the Jedi being the guardians of the light side is vanity, and that the ways of the Jedi has inevitably ended up harming the universe on the whole.
For a mythos that has thrived on the black-and-white morality of good versus evil for so long, this is an incredibly controversial opinion to take - and it’s an opinion voiced by the lead character of the original trilogy, no less. It’s also something that can be traced back to the story of KOTOR 2, a game to which this opinion was as endemic to its plot as it is to The Last Jedi. And the person who voices it is one of the most interesting characters in the entirety of Star Wars.
Kreia is an old, blind woman with a mysterious past that ends up training the protagonist of KOTOR 2. However, unlike the first game, where the protagonist was a newcomer to the ways of the Force, the player character here has a clearly defined history as a disgraced Jedi that was exiled from the Order for disobeying its wishes and going to the Mandalorian wars to stop the slaughter of innocents. Because of this, her teachings aren’t about how to use the Force - they’re about the light side and the dark, and how the dichotomy actively ends up harming the universe.
Coming back to The Last Jedi, there’s a deleted scene revealed by Rian Johnson recently, where Luke gives a harsh lesson to Rey by giving her a situation to work with, and the way a Jedi Knight would deal with that situation. Luke tells her that bandits are responsible for a big fire she sees at the beach, and they regularly raid the island and kill the fish nuns that take care of the island. Rey wants to help, but Luke tells her if she does then attackers will return with more forces, and she won’t always be around to protect them. He claims a true Jedi would do nothing, only intervening in order to maintain balance, despite the fact that others would be killed. He claims that her decision to immediately rush and save them isn’t what a Jedi would do, and therefore, the galaxy doesn’t need Jedi to save itself.
It’s a dark lesson, one the Lucasfilm Story Group nixed because they saw it as being too cruel. It’s also the most obvious argument for The Last Jedi having been influenced by KOTOR 2, since lessons like these are everywhere in the game.
There’s a scene in KOTOR 2 that takes place in Nar Shaddaa, a moon full of smugglers, criminals and refugees. The setup is simple enough - a beggar asks you for money. As typical of the game, you have a couple of dialog options - give the beggar some money or cruelly tell him off and walk on by.
But choose the kindest path and something unusual happens. Unlike other games, where you’re invariably rewarded and congratulated for such an act, Kreia rebukes you for your choice.
“Why did you do such a thing? Such kindnesses will mean nothing, his path is set. Giving him what he has not earned is like pouring sand into his hands. And would that be a kindness? What if by surviving another day, he brings a greater darkness upon another? The Force binds all things. The slightest push, the smallest touch, sends echoes throughout life. Even an act of kindness may have more severe repercussions than you know or can see. By giving him something he has not earned, perhaps all you have helped him become is a target. Seeing another elevated often brings the eyes of others who suffer. And perhaps in the end, all you have wrought is more pain. And that is my lesson to you. Be careful of charity and kindness, lest you do more harm with open hands than with a clenched fist. “
And you see the beggar being mugged and brutally beaten up by someone else who takes the money and runs away.
Kreia doesn't consider herself a Jedi or a Sith - when you ask her which one she is, she dismisses your question as unnecessary. Indeed, when you look at her character profile in the game menu, as you can for all your party members, you can see how her alignment is perfectly wedged between light and dark. All of her teachings fall within the grey - she does not encourage going around helping every single soul in need, since she believes that conflict stokes growth, and your helping people in need is, to her, a cruelty - you’ve robbed them of working towards their own betterment, of learning from the experience. However, she does not encourage selfishness and wanton cruelty either - she sees no merit in punishing people for pleasure.
The difference in both Kreia and Luke’s ideologies, however, come from what they’re specifically critical of. Luke is critical of the Jedi Order in particular - one of his lessons to Rey involves him telling her of all the failures it had borne, and all the harm they did to the galaxy. He views the glorification of the Order as a mistake, since every action these glorified legends took had wide-reaching repercussions. The living proof, to him, is his own failure in re-establishing the Order, and in imparting the teachings of the Jedi to Ben Solo.
Kreia, on the other hand, is critical of the Jedi philosophy itself. That the Jedi Order of her time refused to intervene during the Mandalorian wars, seeking time to study the situation even as billions were slaughtered, was, according to her, the natural result of being a Jedi. Like Luke, she sees the safety of the galaxy as being something that will take hard decisions and choices - and the neutral wait-and-watch strategy of the Jedi is, according to her, a complete failure at approaching the problem. “Apathy is death,” she states at one point. “Worse than death, because at least a rotting corpse feeds the beasts and insects.”
However, relentless scrutiny is, by itself, worth nothing. It’s helpful to understand and analyze what makes the foundations of a story strong, as well as what makes it weak - but deconstruction for deconstruction’s sake does nothing to help the story stand on its own. A helpful analogy would be a gourmet dish - you can separate it into different components, see what makes it taste good, but unless you bring them together in a satisfying way, what good is it? You can’t stuff spices down your throat and feel fulfilled for knowing which ones were used to make it.
In short, deconstruction without reconstruction is pointless.
Thankfully, The Last Jedi and KOTOR II do ultimately end up having a point to their generally subversive tone. The former, especially, shows the light side of the Force as being worth protecting, and the Jedi as being more than an order of people, a bunch of books to dictate their way. The Force belongs to everyone, it says, not just the Jedi. So what makes you a Jedi isn't any monopoly you have on the light side, but your actions to fight back the dark and help the ones in need.
The latter has a very different conclusion, showing that balance can be accomplished without having to be a Jedi or a Sith. What makes someone great isn't their connection to the Force, it argues, but who they are as people. The decisions they take, the impact they make on the galaxy itself, all of it is something endemic to one's choices, not one's powers. And these choices can make all the difference in the well-being of a galaxy.
Because what matters, in the end, is not strict dogmatic adherence to a religion - it’s about action, and of moving forward without being shackled by the failures of the past.
And, in a way, this has always been what Star Wars was about. You can’t succeed without failure, and you can’t learn how to win if you haven’t lost. Way back in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back was a story that was all about our heroes failing to stop the bad guys, with some of them barely getting away in the nick of time. But even that movie ended with a tinge of hope - that one day, the rebellion would succeed, and it would all be worth it.
Because saving the galaxy is always worth it.