How does the idea of self-sacrifice fit into the Star Wars stories?
Let me start with one premise. I believe that the idea of heroic self-sacrifice has become somehow devalued in many contemporary stories and films. Its frequency shows, on the one hand, how deeply the ideal of giving up one’s life for the sake of others’ survival and well-being is rooted within our society. That, by itself, is good. What is not good is when it becomes superficial, and the self-sacrifice loses its depth and becomes a cheap trope. You have probably seen it many times: a likeable secondary hero shouts “keep going, I’ll hold them off”, and all that becomes of it is a moving scene, in which the surviving main characters shed a tear on his grave, which fades into the end credits. If this happens in every second film or TV show and the purpose of it is the shock value or making the audience cry, we are losing the perspective of what it actually means to give up one’s life.
Sacrifice can take on many forms. It can merely mean giving something up – which happens in Star Wars frequently. But I would like to focus on the specific case of giving up one’s own life for someone else, for their good.
The Silence of Vader
The original trilogy already has one of the most powerful moments of self-sacrifice: it is the moment of Darth Vader’s – Anakin Skywalker’s – redemption. Vader is aware that by destroying the Emperor, he forfeits his own life; not only because the Emperor is going to fry him with lightning in his last seconds, but because Vader has become so dependent on the Emperor’s power that he can’t live on after his death.
We could still argue, however, that it isn’t an entirely “clean” self-sacrifice. It is more like Vader finally seeing the truth, and accepting his own death as price for repairing the damage he has done. Nevertheless, his motivation is still strongly grounded in saving his son from death, and offering him the perspective of continuing life. Through destroying the Emperor, he offers the same to the Galaxy at large. It is the choice between life and death – not for himself, but for the Galaxy. By accepting his death, he offers life to the Galaxy.
There is one major problem with this equation, however – one that becomes clear if we start going deeper. If we look at Anakin Skywalker’s life, it has never been about self-preservation. Indeed, it has been about the preservation of others, and that was the thing the Emperor exploited. If we try to fit Vader’s final act into the traditional framework in which the Western society tends to see self-sacrifice – from heroic sagas to modern superhero stories – it doesn’t quite compute.
I think there is often a large misjudgment many of the Western audience make when watching Star Wars. Since the concept of self-sacrifice is so powerfully present in our culture (via the Judeo-Christian tradition, whether consciously or unconsciously), many have the tendency to view Star Wars and for example the Jedi beliefs through the lens of humanist and Judeo-Christian system of values. In both of those, the inherent value of one’s human life is indisputable – and therefore giving it up is the greatest sacrifice one can make.
But George Lucas was inspired much more by Eastern traditions, especially Buddhism, when creating the Jedi. And there, at least in Buddha’s original teachings, the idea is to let go of one’s self not for the sake of others, but already for one’s own sake, to end the cycle of suffering perpetuated by one’s attachments to the world. In that sense, Vader’s self-abnegation wasn’t primarily a sacrifice for the sake of others, but simply something that had been long overdue.
The Smiling Jedi
We run into similar problem when contemplating Obi-Wan’s death. He confronts Vader already knowing that he is going to be defeated – that is willing self-sacrifice, all right. However, in contrary to the archetypal image of Jesus of Nazareth’s suffering on the cross, Obi-Wan does not experience the actual pain of death. He accepts it more like a smiling Buddha than like suffering Christ. Obi-Wan is at peace, knowing that this is not the end. He, too, had to reach this stage somewhere – he had to go through some kind of struggle during his life when he realised and decided that he was willing to give up his life. But we do not see that moment on-screen.
It may be all right in the case of Obi-Wan, whom we expect to be such a spiritually mature figure that he has, in the Jedi-Buddhist sense, let go of all attachments. But dozens of young superheroes we see on-screen do the same thing as Obi-Wan, strolling to their death as if that was the easiest thing under the sun. This comes back to the issue I have sketched out in the beginning.
How do the new Star Wars films fare in this respect?
Self-Sacrifice In Rogue One
Can the deaths of Rogue One’s protagonists be classified as self-sacrifice? Well, yes and no. Everyone in the team dies for a purpose: so that the Death Star can be destroyed, millions of other lives can be preserved, and ultimately, the Empire can be overthrown.
But the self-sacrifice isn’t really their own choice, at least not that particular moment when they die. Once the Rogue One team is on Scarif, to phrase it nastily, dying is just a part of the job: the choice is no longer in their hands. They are certainly no Obi-Wans or Buddhas cheerfully accepting their deaths. If they could, they would have escaped the planet – it just so happened that they couldn’t. You could say the important part was deciding to go down to the planet in the first place, but that wasn’t a self-sacrifice: it was a gamble, a risk (even though a big risk, to be sure). Perhaps, in that sense, they are closer to the Christian archetype of the preacher from Nazareth, who also took the risk and went all the way – walking into the heart of the political and clerical power that saw his message as a threat. Just like him, the Rogue One team ended up in a situation where the only way out would be to give up everything they stood for.
The Last Finn
Let me return one more time to the issue of the “devalued self-sacrifice” I have been talking about. My point was that if we see characters doing such thing too often, with not enough emphasis on the seriousness of the situation and the resolve it takes to willingly accept one’s own death, we may stop seeing the message and perceive it as just another trope. “Ok, this character does it, let’s move on.”
In this way, Rian Johnson has done something remarkable in The Last Jedi. In the final scene of the battle on Crait, Finn decides to do just the kind of meaningless self-sacrifice we have been talking about.
It has one more dimension: let us remember Finn was raised as a First Order trooper. They are undoubtedly brainwashed into seeing “sacrifice” for the higher ideal of the First Order as something commendable. I can imagine it was a bit easier for Finn to accept his own death for his new cause than it would have been for his fellow Resistance members, simply because he had been growing up in a society that forced him into such mindset from early on.
Unlike Rogue One team, Finn’s planned sacrifice didn’t have any perspective – which is the thing Rose rightly challenges him for. This is a motive that would deserve its own treatise – an imposed disregard of one’s own life in the name of an ideal, sort of a perversion of the willing death for the sake of others’ well-being. The border can be, at times, very thin; and I have been wondering for some time whether the “cheap self-sacrifice” trope, very often seen in military context, doesn’t subtly push us towards this “Finn mindset”.
But this is where Rose’s speeder comes crashing in, interrupting the fool in his tracks. On the meta-level, The Last Jedi challenges the “cheap self-sacrifice” model like no other contemporary major film I know of. Rian Johnson’s story says: no, this is not how self-sacrifice works. In The Last Jedi, a “filmmaker with a hammer” has come to smash the stereotype that has become stale. Hopefully, keeping his lesson in mind, we can again learn to appreciate the depth of the message, to understand what self-sacrifice really means.