Man, where do you even begin?
Star Wars is many things to many people. It has changed genres many times as the series has gone on, drawing from many different points of inspiration. It used to be the very symbol of outsider auteurship succeeding in the face of Hollywood studios, and now it’s part of the great Disney media conglomerate. It is modern mythology, and has been interpreted and reinterpreted many times.
So, let us zoom in on one particular aspect of this saga: the Force. What is it? How does it work? Can you even nail it down to a particular thing? The answers to these questions have changed drastically over the years, from the pens of countless different authors. It works perfectly as a microcosm for both the Star Wars media empire as a whole, and even the whole concept of “genre” fiction.
As time has passed, we move from a vague and mystical interpretation that offers endless possibilities, to a highly systematized one. In order for it to be controlled and monetized, things have to be nailed down, there have to be answers to everything. Tropes and conventions cease to be a space to play in, and instead become a set of strict borders and guidelines.
Let’s go through things in chronological order.
The Original Trilogy
At first, everything was vague.
The Force is just a vague idea, it has no direct agency. It draws inspiration from ideas around psychic powers, ESP, and a bit of Taoism for flavor. During that time, these ideas were not out of place in science fiction; in fact they were a mainstay. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov has plenty of psychic characters, it was just thought to be an unknown branch of science, not a fake one.
Jedi are basically the same as Newtypes from the Universal Century timeline of Gundam. They can tap into some sort of unknown power that can do… all sorts of different things. Some people don’t think it’s real, it has some sort of mystical significance in old religions, it can grant you greater perception of the world, so on and so forth.
It can be used for good or bad things, and that largely comes down to individuals. The choice between the light and dark side isn’t some sort of in-born thing, or even an active choice, but rather an internal struggle of the soul. In Gundam, this is framed as the Newtypes being exploited by the war machine for their abilities. In Star Wars, it comes down to making a choice between physical power and spiritual enlightenment.
The interesting thing, to me, is that Luke doesn’t come cleanly down on the light side. He doesn’t choose the purely spiritual life, he has to have some physical power in order to save the day in the end. Which makes him an interesting character, and perhaps hints at an idea that this strict dichotomy isn’t actually the right way of thinking about things (not to get all KotOR 2 on you for a minute). The old mystics Yoda and Obi-Wan have to be dragged out of their caves and made to care about the world again, and Luke has to be calmed down and have his youthful vigor tempered by ancient wisdom to keep from falling to the dark side. Balance is not all one thing or another, it is a synthesis of both.
The Prequel Trilogy
Jedi and Sith are now superheroes.
In the 13-year gap between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, Star Wars has gone through a radical transformation. A whole legion of fans and professional writers have gotten their mitts on it, and they have explained everything. Any trace of vagueness and ambiguity has been thoroughly stamped out by reams and reams of texts and explanatory diagrams.
This gap constitutes, basically, my whole childhood. I have a memory of going on a road trip with a friend who had a bunch of Star Wars books. Now, these weren’t novels, no, they were compendiums of planets and vehicles and characters from the Extended Universe. Full-on technical diagrams and stat sheets, hundreds of pages long. It makes the fictional world feel big and rich in a different way from the original movies.
There are now defined styles of lightsaber combat, there are lists of Jedi powers that descend from different traditions, taught by specific masters. There are dozens of different species that have different specialties, different ties to the Jedi Order. There are artifacts and ruins and all sorts of history associated with both the Jedi and especially the Sith. The light and dark sides are a strict dichotomy, almost personified beings with wills trying to fight it out over the universe. Star Wars has gone almost completely Manichean.
In the films, Jedi are now an organization, a proper chivalric Order. They have strict rules, they have political power, they are freighted down with physical concerns. There are rules about what a force user is like: they wear robes, they use a lightsaber, they can push things around with their mind. These are followed by literally every single one we see on screen, down to Palpatine and even Yoda, formerly a pure mystic who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
The struggle between the light and dark side is now a literal, physical war. The power that an individual has over the force is something that can be measured, the infamous midichlorian revelation in the Phantom Menace. There is a prophecy about a chosen one who will bring “balance to the Force”, which is interpreted as getting rid of the Sith entirely. Of course, that’s not how things end up going.
The Sequel Trilogy
This is where things get a bit complicated.
We start off with things being a big vague and mystical again, in The Force Awakens. There are people showing off new powers, with the scene at the beginning where Kylo Ren stops the blaster bolt in mid-air, but also fledgling force-sensitive people not sure what their powers are or how to use them. There is still a strong connection between use of a lightsaber and force-users, but it is not strictly exclusive.
Then, in The Last Jedi, we get a full rejection of the systemization of the Force. The Jedi were wrong, and their rules were bullshit. But that doesn’t mean that their wisdom should be abandoned. Things are very mystical again, with people have vague visions, lots of long-distance feelings and effects. It’s a return to the more Newtype-ish, ’70s-style psychic version of the Force. It doesn’t deny that the traditions of the Jedi and Sith were important, but they are not the only things that are allowed to exist.
In the end, though, The Rise of Skywalker returns us all the way back to the prequel style of fully defined and systematized Force. In fact, it goes even further than those films did, the Force power is now a limited quantity from person to person. It has fully transitioned to being a power set from a tabletop RPG, with specific powers and specialties and limited mana points. This vague something has been fully pinned down and defined , to the last degree.
This set of movies is being pulled in many different directions, by different generations of fans and creators. It has no defined personality, it has transitioned fully into a Media Property and away from being a single story. As such, the interpretation of what the Force is changes wildly depending on who is telling the story. It is flexible, capable of being whatever you need it to be to fill in the gaps in your story. It either dissolves into superstition, or becomes a hard and fast rule, depending on what the individual author needs in the moment.
It goes without saying that The Last Jedi is a controversial film among Star Wars fans. But what everyone can agree on is that what JJ Abrams wrote in response to it is a bunch of hackneyed bullshit. Going back and saying “nuh uh!” to the big revelations of the previous entry in a series is always a bad look.
However, it is instructive to look at those reversals in detail, and reflect on how they are emblematic of how the series has changed over the years. And in return, how this represents a shift in how the fandom surrounding genre fiction itself has changed.
Palpatine was Rey’s grandfather.
Hey, eugenics are good, actually!
I joke, but this is maybe the most disappointing change. Instead of the idea of grappling with forging your own identity separate from your lineage, we get this return to the ol’ Fisher King bullshit. There are only two important families in Star Wars: The Skywalkers and the Palpatines. If you’re not connected to those, too bad, you don’t get to have a say in the course of history.
In some ways, it’s just the same old Great Man Model bullshit, but it also signals a shift away from a populist approach to fandom (I could be a Jedi!) to a more elitist one (this character is cool because they’re a Jedi!). Not to bring up this dreaded specter of internet arguments, but it’s the Mary Sue approach to making a character appealing.
The idea is that you just load them up with interesting stuff, cool facts and lore, rather than anything that takes more effort like a character arc or a personality. In its most extreme, this is something fans do when writing fan fiction, and it’s basically harmless. Just a bit of self-indulgent fun. However, there is an underlying logic there that can infect the writing process, a dangerous and toxic meme.
Rey and Kylo are a diad of the Force, with power unseen in generations.
This one is a bit vague and confusing, but it carries a lot of weird implications.
It comes down to how you define the powers that a force-sensitive person has. Is it just a sensitivity to some sort of vast, cosmic power that you can tap into to? Or is it an individual thing, an internal power that can be used and up transferred, a zero-sum sort of life-power that incidentally you can also use for magic tricks.
The original trilogy, and even the prequels, seem to land firmly in the former. Using the force is a skill that you learn from old masters, who have had time to study and practice and learn all sorts of techniques. It’s like any skill, some people have a natural aptitude for it, and thus an easier time learning new techniques, like Anakin.
In The Rise of Skywalker, though, we end up landing firmly in the idea that Force powers are just like magic in Dungeons & Dragons, or any random JRPG. The power is stored in individuals, and it’s a thing that is entirely within them. The legacy that is carried along is also literalized. Rather than a tradition of techniques and philosophy, on one side we have a weird parasitic life-form that hops between bodies, and on the other a legion of ghosts whispering encouragement in your ear.
Kylo and Rey are special because they have a special power. They’re both largely untrained, but that doesn’t matter because they have this power anyway. It is not depicted as a special sensitivity to the Force in general or an aptitude for tapping into some external power, but just a big lump of Force energy that is created when they come together.
Leia had a lightsaber and trains Rey in the force.
In The Last Jedi, there was a lot of imagery around rejecting lightsabers, and by proxy the idea of a codified Jedi tradition. Luke’s reliance on the old ways ended up causing him to attack an innocent child and lose everything. So, he rejects the old ways entirely, and goes off to be a hermit.
His sister, Leia, on the other hand, rejects the old ways in a different sense. She marries and has a child, despite being a Jedi. She is active in the world, fighting to make it a better place. She engages with things on her own terms, standing up for her own way of doing things. Leia’s depicted as a force-using person, but not a Jedi. She has no lightsaber, and she only uses the force in one scene, to save her own life.
Then, in the next movie we learn that she does actually have a lightsaber, did special Jedi training with Luke, and wants to pass on her legacy to Rey with a specific training regimen. She represents the same old Jedi order that Luke does, another full-on Knight who decided to reject her mission at the last second. She dies the same way Luke and Obi-wan did, with a vast show of power, in order to save her son.
The Shrinking of the World
So, what does this all add up to? Why does it matter if things are defined? If questions are answered?
Well, it shrinks the world into something that can be bought and sold. Taoist philosophy, a vague idea of mastery and skill, is hard to put on the back of a toy box. If things are small, if they are limited and codified and categorized, then they can be more easily parceled out and monetized.
Under capitalism, the goal is not the enlightenment or improvement of the individual, but just to extract value through the use of fantasies. Rather than explaining a new worldview, the Force is just another method through which to gain power that you can fantasize about. You are not going to gain that power yourself, but through the avatars the company sells you, so they can keep selling you things.
Fill the wikis with mysteries that can be answered in just one more episode, one more season, one more saga. Lore is an easier sell than philosophy.
The company will buy your soul with a fantasy, and then sell it back to you for the rest of your life. You must choose your lane, your fandom, your genre, and then follow the rules. Craft your personality from these pre-approved elements, and then give back by paying your tithes.