A breakdown of the Force — and what its patterns could mean for 'Rise of Skywalker'
The "Star Wars" movies teach that humility is a crucial component of wisdom, and certainly I have been humbled as I've attempted to scrape the surface of "Star Wars" lore for this article. Make no mistake about it: I consider myself to be a bona fide "Star Wars" nerd. I've seen every movie (including rewatches for this piece), watched every episode of "The Mandalorian," caught bits and pieces of the TV series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" and "Star Wars Rebels" and consumed "Star Wars"-related commentary media like the legendary Mr. Plinkett review of "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace."
Yet as I've talked to multiple friends and relatives for this article (special thanks to Brian Davis, Jake Emery, Olga Mecking, Anne Stern, Warren Schnur-Holmes), I've grown to appreciate just how little I truly understand. When Lucas set out to create a modern mythology with the first "Star Wars" movie in 1977, he probably had no idea of how magnificently he would succeed. And few aspects of "Star Wars" lore are more steeped in mystique — and more worthy of a deep dive in anticipation of "Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker" — than the Force.
In the storytelling of the "Star Wars" universe, the Force serves two main purposes. First it is used to allow characters to do cool things, whether telekinetically move objects or manipulate the minds of their adversaries to perform spectacular fight sequences (with lightsabers!) and produce energy from their fingertips. On a deeper level, though, the Force provides the “Star Wars” universe with a distinctive mythology. Perhaps just as much as the fact that it’s set in outer space, “Star Wars” is defined by how its different characters interact with this mystical element known as the Force. The paladins within the universe — whether good ones like the Jedi or bad ones like the Sith — both manipulate the Force to improve their warrior skills and gain power. Characters part ways with each other, or attempt to impart wisdom and good wishes, by uttering “May the Force be with you.”
Without the Force, there would not be very much to distinguish the underlying principles of the “Star Wars” universe, which rely on the mystical (albeit with an annoying exception in the prequel trilogy), from the “Star Trek” universe, which is grounded in hard science. To the extent that it has been explicitly defined, the most comprehensive explanation came from a monologue by Luke Skywalker to Rey in “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi.”
“The Force is not a power you have. It's not about lifting rocks. It's the energy between all things, a tension, a balance that binds the universe together.”
George Lucas offered a similar explanation during a 1999 interview with Bill Moyers.
"I put the Force into the movies in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people," Lucas explained. "More a belief in God than a belief in any particular, you know, religious system. I mean, . . . the real question is to ask the question, because if you — if you — having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the questions . . . You know, if you asked a young person, ‘Is there a God?’ and they say, ‘I don’t know.' You know? I think you should have an opinion about that."
Yet even as Lucas offered these words to explain the Force, the movie that he was promoting in the process — "The Phantom Menace" — seemed to undercut his interpretation. That was the film in which Lucas introduced midichlorians, which as he explained to author Terry Brooks when he began writing the film's novelization are "a race that everybody knows about [in the world of Star Wars]. The way you interact and interface with this larger energy field [the Force] is through the midichlorians, which are sensitive to the energy. They are at the core of your life, which is the cell, the living cell. They are in a symbiotic relationship with the cell. And then, because they’re all interconnected as one, they can communicate with the larger Force field. That’s how you deal with the Force."
It seems paradoxical, to say the least, to have a "Star Wars" equivalent of mitochondria explain Force sensitivity while simultaneously arguing that the Force is a spiritual concept. Then again, the resulting contradiction captures the essence of so much of what makes "Star Wars" fascinating: One could interpret this as a Lucas-world answer to the philosophical question of the mind-body problem — and with the midichlorians serving the same function for the Force that the pineal gland did for René Descartes when he sought the origins of consciousness. In that scenario, Lucas was transposing real-world philosophical concepts into the fantasy world that he helped created.
The other possibility, of course, is that Lucas was subordinating the consistency of his deeper message to his storytelling needs. Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) needed to be established as unusually Force-sensitive, and to get the audience accepting that fact without too much muss or fuss, Lucas simply wrote in a quantifiable way of demonstrating that Anakin was a special child. Certainly J. J. Abrams (director of "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" and "The Rise of Skywalker" ) and Daisy Ridley (who plays Rey) have recently made it clear that they aren't fans of how Lucas' midichlorians interfered with the Force's seemingly spiritual nature.
If the "Lucas created midichlorians due to lazy storytelling" theory is the correct one, it would make a great deal of sense, since most of the major characters in the "Star Wars" universe are in some way defined by their relationship with the Force.
The question now, of course, is how will other characters’ relationship with the Force be used to further their story arcs in the upcoming movie — and the finale in the nine-episode “Skywalker Saga” — “The Rise of Skywalker.” Below I examine the major Force-sensitive characters and break down how they use the Force in the first eight films so far. In doing so, this will lead to conclusions about how the Force will be important to the drama that unfolds in the upcoming movie.
Obi-Wan Kenobi - Obi-Wan Kenobi is a bearded sage – played Ewan McGregor (in the prequel trilogy) and Sir Alec Guinness (as an older presence in the original trilogy) – who eventually becomes a father figure and mentor to young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the chief protagonist in those three movies. In the prequel trilogy, Obi-Wan is the apprentice, a promising young Jedi who hero worships his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and agrees to train the future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd and Hayden Christensen) because it is his master's dying wish. He carries a blue lightsaber.
The most notable detail about Obi-Wan Kenobi's use of the Force is how it evolves from that one would expect of a warrior to that of a more pacific sage. In the prequel trilogy, Obi-Wan Kenobi's Force sensitivity allows him to be a very physical warrior; if anything, the Force seems to operate like his personal fight choreographer. In "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," Obi-Wan's Force sensitivity was used to flesh out his rivalry with Darth Maul, the horned villain who Obi-Wan bisected with his lightsaber at the climax of "The Phantom Menace." Their uses of the Force explained their characters; Obi-Wan stayed true to the Jedis' monk-like mentality, while Maul's use of the Force was both strengthened and made unstable by his uncontrollable rage.
By the original trilogy, however, Obi-Wan's Force sensitivity has made him into more of a monk than a warrior. It was there that audiences were introduced to Jedi mind-tricks, which allowed him to manipulate people's consciousness without imposing violence, such as when he avoided getting himself, Luke Skywalker, C-3PO and R2-D2 detected by Stormtroopers by telling them that "these aren't the droids you're looking for" (the latter two characters are droids, and indeed the ones they were looking for). We also saw Obi-Wan give up his fight with Darth Vader — one that he seemed poised to win — in order to become a Force ghost (and thereby posthumously inspire Luke Skywalker). As a Force ghost, Obi-Wan's use of the Force is minimal; he offers valuable advice and reassurance to Luke, as well as confirms a major exposition point, but does not directly assist him in battles. It is unclear whether this is because he cannot do more or chooses not to.
Anakin Skywalker (also known as Darth Vader) - The heroic Anakin Skywalker's transformation into the villainous Darth Vader is in many ways reflected by his lightsaber's blade colors: Cool and sleek blue when he's a good guy, fiery red when he's evil. When we meet Anakin in the first movie of the prequels, he is a little boy full of hope for the future and who wants nothing more than to be a hero; when he is seen in the first movie of the original trilogy, he is one of the most ominous villains ever introduced to the silver screen, a Sith instead of a Jedi.
In all of these movies, his use of the Force is without parallel. He can choke someone out on a whim, read someone's emotions at a glance, and fight like the best of the Jedi with minimal training. His main downfall is that, because he is filled with negative emotions, he cannot always control how he uses the Force, something that Yoda senses in "The Phantom Menace." By the final film of the prequel trilogy, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," his gifts with the Force have prompted the Jedi to put him on the council — but his disturbingly close relationship with Chancellor Palpatine leads them to deny him the rank of Master. This only adds to the bitter feelings that ultimately cause Anakin to betray those he once idolized, as well as the prophecy that he would bring balance to the Force.
Yoda - Before "The Mandalorian" scene-stealer Baby Yoda was introduced as a beloved diminutive pointy-eared green baby alien being rescued by a stoical antihero, regular Yoda (Frank Oz) was a beloved diminutive pointy-eared green geriatric alien (with a matching green lightsaber!) who mentored Luke Skywalker on the ways of using the Force. If there is any character whose skill with the Force matches that of Anakin/Darth Vader, it is Yoda. He can lift rocks and starships with his mind, successfully fight gifted warriors who are more than twice his size and maintain his wisdom and equanimity even amidst terrible dangers and setbacks (that last skill comes from his profound knowledge of the Force). In the prequel trilogy he uses these skills to become an impressive fighter, one who almost stops Palpatine in his tracks. By the original trilogy he, like Obi-Wan, is an exhausted old man, and he demonstrates his use of the Force mainly to teach lessons to the young ones.
One of the more intriguing details about Yoda is the fact that his species is essentially a mystery. Only two other members of it have ever been seen: The Child (colloquially known as Baby Yoda) and Yaddle, a background female character seen briefly in "The Phantom Menace." All three of the members of the species seen in the film are very powerful in their use of the Force, although it is unclear right now whether that is a quality distinct to their species or just a coincidental trait shared by those three characters.
Perhaps Yoda's most important role, in terms of the Force, is to elucidate its basic concepts for the audience in the middle film of the original trilogy, "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back." In one notable monologue, he explains the intimate connection between a character's use of the Force and that character's inner psychological life:
A Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice... A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.
After Yoda's death, he's seen briefly as a Force ghost alongside Anakin and Obi-Wan in "Return of the Jedi" smiling but not really doing much. In "The Last Jedi," however, Yoda's Force spirit isn't just content to appear but calls down lightning to strike a tree. His ability to actively use the Force to affect the physical world expands the realm of previously assumed Force ghost abilities.
Emperor Palpatine - The most interesting story about Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)— who, like Darth Vader, wields a red lightsaber (perhaps to indicate his fiery temper and overall evil), although he briefly used one with a blue blade — occurs in "Revenge of the Sith." Prior to it, there isn't anything particularly profound about Palpatine's use of the Force, or even that complicated. He is simply meant to be the Final Boss, the Ultimate Baddie, and as such he is meant to master the use of the Force to highlight just how dangerous he is. He can shoot lightning from his fingertips, singlehandedly defeat a group of Jedi warriors who have come to arrest him for being a Sith (one can assume that his near-"defeat" at the hands of Mace Windu, played by Samuel L. Jackson, was a ruse to recruit Anakin Skywalker) and understand people's innermost thoughts in order to manipulate them.
Yet there is a scene in "Revenge of the Sith" that manages to both potentially shed light on Palpatine's backstory and provide us with insights into the inner workings of the Force . . . and, more specifically, why the Sith find its Dark Side so appealing. It occurs when he tells the story of Darth Plagueis the Wise to Anakin at the Opera House:
Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise? I thought not. It's not a story the Jedi would tell you. It's a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life. He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying. The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural. He became so powerful the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. Ironic. He could save others from death, but not himself.
The most obvious interpretation of this monologue is that Palpatine is indirectly telling Anakin about his own backstory: It doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that Palpatine is the apprentice being discussed in this story. Yet there is more to it than that. Within this monologue, one gleans the rationalization that exists for turning to the Dark Side. Part of it is the noble desire to keep those you love from dying, and part of it is the fear of losing what one has earned entirely for one's self (namely, power). In so doing, Palpatine winds up playing a role in "Revenge of the Sith" akin to that of Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back" or Luke in "The Last Jedi." He is a preacher of the faith, albeit from a very different point of view.
It is worth noting that Palpatine was killed by Anakin Skywalker at the end of the "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi," but is apparently still alive in "The Rise of Skywalker." It is unclear yet why this is the case.
Luke Skywalker - The shifting nature of Luke Skywalker's relationship with the Force is perhaps best illustrated by the changing color of its blade, which is blue in "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" because he inherited it from his father Anakin Skywalker. After losing to Darth Vader in the climactic battle in "The Empire Strikes Back," however, Luke creates a new lightsaber, one that has a green blade (perhaps as a tribute to Yoda).
A similar point can be made of Luke's relationship with the Force overall. In the original trilogy, Luke evolves from being a novice at manipulating the Force to being the man who revives the Jedi, redeems his father and thereby guarantees that Anakin Skywalker will bring balance to the Force. By the sequel trilogy, however, he has stopped being the Force's greatest champion and has renounced its use by the Jedi as well as the Sith, fearing that it can only leave suffering and destruction in its wake.
His mastery of the Force has enabled Luke to destroy the Death Star in "A New Hope" with a single perfect shot, able to escape seemingly certain death at the hands of the Hutts in "Return of the Jedi," best his father in a lightsaber battle during that same movie despite having lost to him in "The Empire Strikes Back" and — in "The Last Jedi" — convincingly seem like he has appeared in the flesh to take on a whole army when in fact he is projecting his own image from across the galaxy. This effort apparently kills him, as Hamill himself confirmed, although he will appear in some form for "Rise of Skywalker."
Princess/General Leia Organa - One of the most disappointing aspects of the "Star Wars" series is how it has underutilized Leia's (Carrie Fisher) Force sensitivity. This may have been pardonable when we were first introduced to the character in "A New Hope," when she appeared to be simply a princess, but became less so as her fearsome warrior abilities were established and she became a general. What's more, as the daughter of Anakin and twin sister of Luke, she is theoretically capable of very impressive feats. Instead we rarely see her display anything more than the fighting abilities possessed by non-Force sensitive characters — with the exception of the single best scene in "The Last Jedi," in which Leia survives being blown out of a spaceship and into the cold vacuum of space by using her Force sensitivity to levitate/fly back to safety.
As director and writer Rian Johnson explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2017:
That was something Kathy [Kennedy] was always asking: Why has this never manifested in Leia? She obviously made a choice, because in “Return of the Jedi” Luke tells her, “You have that power too.” I liked the idea that it’s not Luke concentrating, reaching for the lightsaber; it’s an instinctual survival thing, like when you hear stories of a parent whose toddler is caught under a car and they get superhuman strength, or a drowning person clawing their way to the surface. It’s basically just her not being done with the fight yet.
If we had seen more of this Force sensitivity from Leia in the original trilogy, or even in "The Force Awakens," her character could have been even more impressive than she already was. Since Fisher died before the release of the last two films of the "Skywalker Saga," Leia's presence has been understandably limited to pre-filmed footage and movie magic.
Ben Solo (also known as Kylo Ren) - When we first meet Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in "The Force Awakens," he seems like a knock-off Darth Vader, from his ominous gait to his dark mask and attire. We soon learn, however, that he is the son of Leia and Han Solo and grandson of Darth Vader, as well as being a character who wears his emotions on his sleeve and is capable of monstrous actions like destroying multiple planets.
There are a lot of parallels between the Force sensitivity displayed by Kylo Ren and that of his grandfather, Anakin. Both are clearly corrupted by their intense emotions and allow those qualities to drive how they use the Force. Both are terrifyingly capable at manipulating the Force to their will, to get it to do whatever it is they want it to do. Both crave power and, through it, validation after suffering terrible childhood trauma. The key difference, though, is that Kylo Ren never mastered Darth Vader's ability to hide his emotions under a mask of stoicism.
This doesn't mean that Kylo Ren isn't a master at using the Force, however. He has stopped a blaster bolt in mid-air, dives into people's minds to learn what he can from them, survives a gut wound inflicted by Chewbacca to defeat Finn in a fight and keep Rey on her toes, and effectively conceals his own murderous intentions from Emperor Snoke until it is too late for the Sith Lord to avoid being bisected. His iconic lightsaber — which, instead of being smooth and sleek, has a jagged red blade that seems barely capable of containing its own power — best sums up his relationship with the Force.
Rey - Before discovering her connection to the Force, the former scavenger who had to raise herself after her parents abandoned her is the great mystery in this series. Was Kylo Ren correct when he said that she was the child of nobodies, and is thus a nobody herself? Are the rumors right when they say that she may be a direct descendant of Palpatine or Luke Skywalker, or that she could be Kylo Ren's sister? Regardless of why she is Force-sensitive, though, Rey is without question the character with the most potential Force sensitivity in the entire series. In "The Force Awakens," she manages to intimidate Kylo Ren when he attempts to read her mind and defeat him in a lightsaber battle even though she had no formal training, and in "The Last Jedi," she saves the Resistance by removing a pile of boulders with her mind. Wielding a blue-bladed lightsaber, her role in the series is ambiguous because (as Luke notes in "The Last Jedi") she went directly to the Dark Side of the Force when engaged in an early meditation session. Her possible corruption is foreshadowed by a shot in the "Rise of Skywalker" trailer that shows her with a red-bladed lightsaber.
The advantage and disadvantage of the Rey character, in terms of her Force sensitivity and thus her overall relevance to the plot, is that she is all potential: If Lucasfilm can find a smart way of creating a pay off, "The Rise of Skywalker" will work. If not, it will be one of the biggest disappointments in cinematic history.
This brings us to the relevance of all these points for "The Rise of Skywalker." In addition to needing to find a satisfying payoff for Rey's storyline, the film will have several major challenges.
First, it will need to fix the errors made in "The Last Jedi" with the Luke Skywalker character. (More on that in my review here.) Most of these problems had little to do with his relationship with the Force, but there were also hanging plot threads involving Luke denouncing excessive use of Force powers in most of "The Last Jedi" only to embrace them at the end of that movie. What caused his change of heart? How will that impact his behavior as a mentor in "The Rise of Skywalker," if indeed that is the role he is to play? What new philosophy of the Force will he offer to contrast with those presented by Palpatine in "Revenge of the Sith" and Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back"? "The Rise of Skywalker" will also need to figure out the nature of Luke's powers as a Force ghost, which are theoretically constrained judging by how Obi-Wan did very little as a Force ghost in the original trilogy; although Yoda as a Force ghost was able to destroy real-world objects in "The Last Jedi."
Second, it will need to figure out what to do about Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. It was established in "The Force Awakens" that he is conflicted, torn between the various pulls of the Light Side and Dark Side of the Force. This could be viewed not only as a way for the film to tie up his character arc, but also to potentially redeem him. On the one hand, it is impossible to imagine this character redeeming himself after committing genocide and murdering his own father. Even if he performs some great act of good to save his soul, how can someone who has been guilty of such monstrosities walk away with his own life? Even Anakin Skywalker, despite being redeemed at the end of "Return of the Jedi" by murdering Palpatine and saving Luke, still had to pay with his own life. Yet Kylo Ren is such a tormented character — someone who has been dreadfully wronged and whose emotional instability is in many ways a direct result of those wrongs — that one could theoretically separate the Jedi side of his character from the Sith side of it. Could he be granted a second lease on life by embracing the good in him, the light side of the Force, the part that is a Jedi instead of a Sith?
Third — and this point can't be stressed enough — the story of Rey and her Force sensitivity needs to work not only in terms of her character arc, but of making those plot threads relevant to the nine-part saga as a whole. If Anakin Skywalker was the central character of the first trilogy and Luke Skywalker was the central character of the second, then Rey is equally important to the third. What is her purpose? Does she have a function in the future of the universe, or are her powers merely for her own gratification? If Joseph Campbell's hero journey is to be applied here, how does Rey "return home" as a better, more powerful person — and what gifts will she bring to the commoners?
Fourth, the movie will need to figure out a convincing way of bringing Palpatine back from the dead. One popular theory is that the bad guys in "The Mandalorian" are seeking Baby Yoda because the creature's midichlorians can somehow be used to resurrect Palpatine through a clone. If that is indeed the case, it would make sense given that the movie is set between “Episode VI” and “Episode VII,” and could explain why the timeline of the show syncs up so perfectly with the release of “Episode IX” (the penultimate episode of "The Mandalorian" will be released the day before "The Rise of Skywalker"). If that isn't the direction in which the movie is going, though, it better come up with something that doesn't feel like a forced attempt to repair the damage from "The Last Jedi." And, of course, there needs to be a satisfying resolution to Palpatine's arc, perhaps one in which a Skywalker kills him in this one because it was a Skywalker who killed him in "Return of the Jedi."
Like many critics, my guess is that either Rey or Luke will be the titular "Skywalker" that is "rising," and that the answers to these questions will rest in the dynamic Force sensitive relationships involving Luke, Ben, and Rey. It is difficult to imagine any other Skywalker being the "rising" Skywalker other than Luke or Rey, given that Leia is going to have her role minimized due to Fisher's tragic death and Ben has moved himself beyond the point of redemption. The only other theory — one that several of my friends hold — is that "Skywalker" will no longer be a single family's surname but rather the brand of successors to the Jedi. Perhaps bringing "balance" to the Force meant allowing the Jedi and Sith to cancel each other out so that a new order could rise, and "Skywalker" will be the name of that order. That too, of course, is guesswork.
May the Force be with it. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” opens wide on Friday, Dec. 20.
Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.