I. It is a Period of Civil War
For the past few years, I’ve looked upon the release of each Star Wars movie and thought, “This’ll be the one to unite the fans again.” I’ve been wrong every single time. And while the unfortunate reality of Disney’s rigorous production schedules will inevitably give me several more chances to vindicate that assumption, I’ve realized that this will never, ever, be the case. It’s no fault of Disney or any of their creative personnel, either. Rather, Star Wars has, for better or worse, transcended judgment based on the standards of most formal film criticism, and is instead often weighed by the four decades of cultural baggage that it hauls like an oxcart. Diehard fans and casual audiences alike already have a conception of what Star Wars “means”, and yet the interpretations are all over the board. These films have nothing to worry about from professional film reviewers; their own fans are consistently their most savage critics.
The passion with which fans tend to argue about the franchise’s integrity borders on religious fervor. From the prequel trilogy to the more recent sequels and spinoffs, the discourse you’ll find online would have you believe that Star Wars’s legacy is constantly in a state of jeopardy. To disappoint that legacy, offer a pale imitation, or otherwise “ruin your childhood”, as the ever-hyperbolic Internet is so fond of saying, is to desecrate a series that many hold as a significant cultural icon.
It’s little wonder, then, why the new movies are so entranced with notions of trepidation and uncertainty regarding how we contextualize our past, live up to expectations, and sustain and augment the mythology of our predecessors. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are equal and opposite films in this regard: both firmly ground themselves in their narrative ancestors by overtly evoking scenes and plot points from the original trilogy, but while TFA highlights ideas of mimicry, rejuvenation, and a gracious acceptance of an intimidating but delicate legacy, TLJ instead focuses on deconstructing the perversity of this inheritance, zeroing in on the adherence to outdated and destructive ideas, the anxieties of failure, fruitless struggles, and misplaced faith.
Together, the two films engage in a surprisingly lucid dialogue about the legacy of one of science-fiction’s most-loved and most-hated franchise, one that’s nevertheless staged in the emotional journeys that the characters themselves explore.
II. The Force Awakens: Aren’t You a Little Short?
“This will begin to make things right.”
This is the first line of dialogue spoken in The Force Awakens, and already the film shows its self-conscious concern for the Star Wars legacy. With the new movies, Disney, Abrams, Kasdan, and the other creative forces involved set out to distance the series from the much maligned prequel trilogy and go back to basics. Detractors of the film cite this as evidence of its creative bankruptcy, as the movie is, structurally, a remake of A New Hope, the original movie from 1977.
The plots of both films, loosely summarized, revolve around a young man/woman living on a desolate desert world who befriends a wayward rebel droid that carries information crucial to the resistance effort. They leave their home on the iconic Millennium Falcon and discover their potential as latent adepts of the Force. Meanwhile, a villainous imperial force, led by a Nazi-esque officer, an evil sorcerer clad in black, and mysterious leader working behind the scenes, constructs a planet-sized superweapon that it uses to annihilate civilian targets on an astronomical scale. The heroes stage a daring rescue within the mobile battle station’s base, face off against the main antagonist, and then participate in a riveting dogfight that ends in the station’s destruction.
The Force Awakens was in no way trying to mask these parallels. Marketability and nostalgia-baiting played a role, to be certain, but the movie kept a clear and consistent approach to the way it interacts with its distant past. The production of The Force Awakens itself is a reverential throwback; it was shot on the same brands of camera and film stock that made the first movie, turning its back on George Lucas’s infamous and controversial push for digital film in the prequels. Early promotional videos emphasized the use of sets, costumes, practical effects, the casting of relative unknowns for lead roles, and even a brief scene using stop-motion.
Simply put, TFA was paying tribute, both textually and behind-the-scenes, to its progenitor. But what sets it apart from the various other “soft reboots” that have become the norm in the industry is its incorporation of these self-reflective, borderline worshipful elements into the diegesis, rather than using them as hollow signifiers of the brand. Moreover, it uses the repetition of plot elements as a proverbial negative space to highlight the movie’s significant departures from the status quo – an especially poignant maneuver, since one of the film’s strongest themes is about the anxiety of worthiness.
The presence of ruins, artifacts, and remnants of significant historical context permeate almost every frame in The Force Awakens. Rey makes a living salvaging materials from old war relics, including a downed Star Destroyer. Her method of borrowing and repurposing even leads a Stormtrooper to call her “scavenger scum” later in the film, denigrating her background as someone who subsists on the past creations of others. She lives in an overturned AT-AT walker, which she’s refurbished into a comfortable hovel, while wearing a rusted rebel pilot’s helmet as she sits pensively beneath the walker’s foot. She is quite literally playing dress-up while eclipsed by the imposing wreckage of the original trilogy. Her chance encounter with BB-8, and her subsequent opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker’s journey, happens mere moments later. The Force Awakens visually acknowledges its debt to the original trilogy and its uncertainty in its own ability to fill the franchise’s big boots.
More artifacts are treated with veneration and awe as the film progresses. Rey initially dismisses The Millennium Falcon as garbage, just as Luke did, but becomes ecstatic when she discovers its identity and history. The image of a comatose R2-D2, tucked in a corner and covered in a tarp, inspires feelings of stark melancholy. Perhaps most significant is the in-universe legacy of Luke Skywalker. The Resistance views him as their last hope, staking everything on locating him. Rey tells Finn that she thought Luke was “a myth” (a more believable notion than the Jedi vanishing into obscurity between Episodes III and IV, given that Luke, for all the public knew, was a singular larger-than-life figure who destroyed the Death Star, defeated a lecherous crime lord, and effectively won the war by confronting Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader; meanwhile, the Jedi somehow drifted into legend, despite playing active political and military roles, answering to the whims of the Supreme Chancellor, and having a view of the Senate building right outside the window of their headquarters; but I digress). The elevation of Luke from man to myth would later play a critical part in The Last Jedi, but here it distinguishes the original Star Wars’s canonization among the saints of cinema. No longer is it a pulpy action-adventure series based on 1940’s serials. Instead, it’s a ubiquitous cultural icon with its own fragmented religious following, with denominations arguing about everything from the extent of Lucas’s role in the creative process to whether or not Han shot first. In other words, to live up to Luke Skywalker, to the legacy of Star Wars, you have to be more than human, regardless of the fact that Luke started as just another stock character in just another sci-fi movie. Rey, and by extension, the new trilogy, are forced along the path of Luke Skywalker’s now-perverted legend, following the same basic plot points, whilst cruelly set up for failure and disappointment.
That’s why Rey balks at the idea of taking up Luke’s lightsaber when it’s presented to her. Even as Maz Kanata explains her potential and her destiny to carry on the Skywalker legacy, she runs for the hills – ironically just after chastising Finn for almost doing the same thing. Much of the main cast spends the film fleeing from their prescribed roles in the universe, for better or worse. Finn breaks his conditioning as a Stormtrooper, assumes a new identity, and is content to spend the rest of his life running away from the First Order instead of fighting for a greater cause. Luke’s failure to resurrect the Jedi Order leads him to exile himself where even his closest friends couldn’t find him.
But the strongest example of this comes in the form of Kylo Ren, debatably the best character in the new series. Kylo represents the destructive effects that legacy-expectations can inflict upon someone’s identity and sanity – especially when those expectations are multi-faceted and contradictory. He’s a child of several worlds: the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, the nephew of Luke Skywalker, the heir to the Jedi, the grandson of Darth Vader, the bearer of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s alias (Ben), and at first glance, a more obvious and legitimate inheritor of the series than Rey is, considering Star Wars’s preoccupation with familial ties (more on that in The Last Jedi). He’s the anxieties of a generation made manifest, uncertain of who he is and feeling alienated by the previous generation’s designs for him. Leia laments giving him to Luke, who wanted to make him into a Jedi, like himself. Kylo also expresses resentment towards Han, citing his father’s absence from his life. All of this leads to his perverted investment in the myth surrounding his grandfather.
Kylo Ren desperately seeks to emulate Darth Vader, regarded by many as the ultimate movie villain, and is continuously frustrated as he comes up short of this ideal. He spends time alone, praying to the burnt husk of Vader’s helmet, another hallowed artifact. This time, however, the artifact in question reveals the grim risk inherent in this motif of reverence: becoming a slave to a past that can’t be perfectly replicated. Rey rebukes Kylo, telling him that he’ll never be as powerful as Darth Vader, which upsets him greatly, because it’s a reality he’s been avoiding. No matter how much he mimics Vader’s cruelty, he’s still a proverbial cosplayer and fanboy. His troops don’t respect him in the way that Vader’s did. He lashes out, throwing temper tantrums and destroying equipment in fits of impotent fury. General Hux regularly questions his authority and gets away with it. He’s not the S.S. death commando that Vader was; he’s an insecure school shooter with a power fantasy, searching for meaning and validation in a role that he could never live up to. The consistent parallels with A New Hope thereby cast him in contrast with Vader and put his failures under a microscope. He’s emblematic of all Rey has to fear – not just the temptation of the dark side, but the pressures of upholding a legacy. It’s little wonder why she’s reluctant to take up the saber.
Han critiques the superficiality of Kylo’s Vader envy by specifically addressing his mask, saying that he doesn’t “need it”, in reference to the previous Dark Lord’s breathing difficulties. His use of the headpiece is intrinsically appropriative and hollow, devoid of the substance and meaning behind the thing it emulates. Material objects, clothing especially, play a huge role in The Force Awakens as superficial harnesses that secure the bearers to roles that they don’t totally fit. Finn awakens from his Stormtrooper conditioning, another predetermined identity, when his helmet becomes stained with blood and he’s forced to remove it. By taking Poe’s jacket and impersonating a member of the Resistance, he intends to mask the shame of his past life and prop himself up with the keepsake of a hero. Of course, Finn neglected to doff his Stormtrooper boots, which, in a deleted scene, allows Han to deduce his past role. Even C-3PO questions whether or not he’ll be recognized on account of his new red arm! These articles act as crutches, providing for their wearer’s mental stability and assurance in their purpose – they’re how they fit themselves into the grand play that they’re forced to take part in.
The fact that Kylo Ren’s most vulnerable moments happen when he’s separated from his Vader-inspired helmet lends further evidence to his identity’s dependence on his heinous grandfather’s image. His unstable mental state is plainly reflected in the energy fluctuations that go through his lightsaber’s blade. His movement and mannerism during the final confrontation in The Force Awakens are characteristic of a frantic, lost, and maniacally unhinged man, due in no small part to Adam Driver’s spellbinding performance. Kylo feels like he needs to become Darth Vader because there’s nobody else he could be at this point. He declares a birthright to Rey’s lightsaber, since it originally belonged to Anakin Skywalker – it’s another artifact to confirm his identity and worthiness, free of the shaky, uncertain nature of his own weapon. His bout with Rey, a duel second only to the last battle with Luke and Vader in Return of the Jedi, pits two confused youths against each other, seemingly trapped by the memetic legacy of their predecessors and struggling on behalf of ideologies they don’t fully understand. This mutual sense of alienation would later show how the two went from bitter enemies in TFA to somewhat sympathetic allies in The Last Jedi.
The Force Awakens addresses the legacy of Star Wars with some scrutiny, but overall it privileges the triumph of devotion and succession over the anxieties of failure. Those anxieties remain a central theme throughout its immediate sequel, but The Last Jedi, by contrast, chooses to call its mythologized past into question, ask whether or not the continuation of these legacies are worthwhile, and challenges the audience to reflect on why exactly this multi-billion dollar franchise still appeals to them.
III. The Last Jedi: Lost Confidence and Shattered Faith
Throughout my first viewing of The Force Awakens, I had a big, stupid smile on my face. This is because I was precisely the demographic for the film’s targeted fanservice. Upon seeing The Last Jedi, however, I wasn’t smiling. Rather, I was gazing at the screen in awe, both at its elegant visual direction and its provocative content. Leaving the theater, everyone who watched it with me voiced a common response: ”I need time to digest this,” or “There’s a lot to unpack.” The Last Jedi may be the most thematically rich movie in the series, and in its disruption of the status quo, it was inevitably destined to outrage fans.
In many ways, The Last Jedi acts as the perfect companion piece to The Force Awakens, building on the earlier film’s character development while also posing arguments against its worshipful treatment of the original trilogy. It calls everything into question: the morality of the Jedi, the resolve of the rebellion, the artificiality of the conflict, the nature of the Force, the purpose of self-sacrifice, the above all else, the reason to continue in the face of abject defeat.
Yoda famously chided that “There is no try,” but that, along with many other packaged quotes of Jedi ideology, proves untrue in The Last Jedi. The characters in this film try. A lot. And they fail nonetheless, even when they put their lives on the line, follow their principles, and give it everything they’ve got. Belief doesn’t guarantee success. It’s a Star Wars movie for a more cynical time.
After achieving success with his 1950’s nostalgia-piece American Graffiti, George Lucas made the original films as escapist throwbacks to pulpy adventure serials, westerns, and samurai flicks. The opening phrase “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” doesn’t just establish the setting, but also the proximity of the conflict – one so far removed from the audience that they can watch it with detached amusement. The Last Jedi situates itself differently, pulling the audience into the conflict and making it all too real for them. We see flawed heroes, disgraced leaders, sympathetic villains, political realities that are a bit too close for comfort, and common soldiers who struggle and die in vain. Plenty of violence and death happens on-screen in the original trilogy, but every fallen hero or military blunder puts the protagonists one step closer to delivering justice and righting the wrongs of the universe. The new film goes to great lengths to make the protagonists feel small, insignificant, and unable to make a positive change no matter what they give up. This breed of vulnerability and angst aggravates further hostilities between the new generation of characters and the older ones. In place of The Force Awakens’s reverence, where the meekness of Rey and the insanity of Kylo Ren served as mere obstacles to overcome and potentially lead the way for a Star Wars Renaissance, The Last Jedi validates the anxieties of its young cast, challenges the beliefs of old, and explores how characters reconcile their lost or betrayed faith with their longing for purpose.
Back in Return of the Jedi, Luke tells the Emperor, “Your overconfidence is your weakness,” to which the Emperor responds, “Your faith in your friends is yours.” This match of wills ultimately pays out in Luke’s favor, as his allies, both on Endor and among the Rebel fleet, manage to defeat the Imperial war machine. His father even returns to the light to save his life, vindicating his faith. But The Last Jedi, in its moral deconstruction of the Jedi philosophy (one which draws close parallels with the Sith), portrays faith as a fragile thing, and potentially as destructive as the Emperor’s self-assured hubris.
Time after time, misplaced trust leads to grand betrayal, hope for a brighter future leads to crushing disappointment, and investment in superhuman idols leads to a discovery of just how mortal and fallible they are. It’s hard to keep faith alive when almost every plan in the movie results in failure. And eventually, deluded faith and catastrophic failure form a vicious feedback loop.
Finn and Rose hope to disable the First Order’s tracking technology and embark on a lengthy vignette to recruit a code-breaker. They fail to retrieve the man they wanted, and so they end up putting their trust in a vagabond named DJ, who ultimately sells them out and makes everything worse for the Resistance. Poe’s faith wavers when he’s asked to blindly follow Admiral Holdo’s lead, and his failed coup and misplaced trust in Finn’s venture leads to the deaths of countless soldiers. Holdo opts to sacrifice herself in one of the film’s most stunning scenes, but it fails to take out the First Order’s leadership, and the Resistance is effectively crushed anyway. However, the strongest dynamics in the movie, and the ones that most clearly illustrate the aforementioned phenomenon, are the ones between each of our Force users: Luke Skywalker, Rey, Kylo Ren, and Supreme Leader Snoke.
Kylo, recently disgraced by his duel with Rey and berated for his defeat by Snoke, is left alienated by his master’s mockery of his Vader obsession. Feeling humiliated and unworthy, Kylo smashes his helmet and begins to doubt whether carrying on the legacy of the decrepit and dead serves his needs for fulfillment. Estranged from both the light and the dark, he vows to “let the past die”, completing his transformation from someone dependent on relics to dictate his identity to a villain repulsed by every facet of the old order. He develops a bond with Rey, who, having failed to bring Luke out of hiding and growing increasingly impatient with the fatalist Jedi Master, sets out to change Kylo’s heart. Snoke, confident to the end that he held Kylo’s leash, is betrayed and bisected in one of the movie’s most subversive scenes. But despite their mutual pleas for companionship, Rey and Kylo fail to convince one another to come over to their side.
Yet even as the young cast tries to make sense of who they are and what they believe in, it’s Luke Skywalker who embodies both the greatest victim and the greatest perpetrator of damaged faith. One important point about Luke that many critics of The Last Jedi neglect to acknowledge – and indeed, a concept that plays a major role in the film’s central conflict – is that Luke is a flawed individual, not a paragon of goodness. This man destroyed his defenseless father’s arm in a fit of rage, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he’d consider, if only for a moment, taking the life of one of his students in order to prevent all he’d fought for from being swept away. In the realization of his worst fears through his failure with Kylo, Luke sends himself into exile and, seeing the galaxy locked in a spiral of life and death with no permanent solution (as alluded to by the weapons trading plot discovered by Finn and DJ), finds the Jedi to be at fault just as much as the Sith. His isolation from both his friends and the Force has left him bitter and fatalistic, so much so that he callously discards the lightsaber that Rey presents to him. He shows right away that he’s not the hero the Resistance needs, and attempts to convince Rey of her naiveté regarding her views on the Jedi and the Force.
Fresh off the reverential orgy of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi aims to cut Star Wars’s ancien regime down to size (literally, in Snoke’s case, who was revealed to be smaller than his holographic appearance in TFA suggested, and later found his torso splayed out on the floor). Fan theories about the identity of Snoke or Rey’s parentage were discredited, Luke faced criticism as a defeatist hermit (while Obi-Wan and Yoda got a pass), and the common conception of the conflict between the light side and dark side, spelled out so plainly by Maz Kanata in TFA, was revealed to be largely illusory. For all the complaints of the previous mainline film playing it too safe, TLJ took the franchise in a bold, critical, and socially-conscious direction that left many viewers feeling as lost and abandoned as the characters in the film. With all the subtextual fears of failure from TFA validated in the diegesis of The Last Jedi, the search for purpose in a universe/property with such a burdensome legacy has yet to yield any simple, conclusive answers.
IV. May the Force of Others Be with You
As the plans, dreams, and ambitions of the characters come crashing down, so, too, does the previously monolithic morality of the Star Wars universe. Although largely portrayed as an archetypical “good vs. evil” conflict, nuanced takes on the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force are not unknown to series, most notably in Return of Jedi. In that film, Luke questions his Jedi Masters’ advice, as they believe that his father can never be saved, and Luke’s only recourse is to kill him and the Emperor. In the end, though, Luke kills neither of them; his trust in his friends that Obi-Wan and Yoda told him to abandon in the previous film allows the rebels to win the war, and the old sages’ wisdom is revealed to be dubious and archaic. Luke would recreate the Jedi, true, but it would be his Jedi. But seeing the mistakes of his predecessors repeated in his paranoid mistreatment of Ben Solo, followed by the tide of darkness that inevitably rises in proportion to the light, Luke concludes that these tragedies are unavoidable responses to the Jedi Order’s presence. Hiding in exile as much out of necessity as of shame, he accepts that the Force must be balanced – and the ultimate way to balance something is to have nothing at all. He cites the failings of the old Jedi Order, their ignorance and corruption, and declares that nobody has a right to reign over the Force.
The conceit that the “light side” of the Jedi (itself an alien and distant concept to the struggles of the common folk in the galaxy) raises its own enemies and facilitates longer power struggles that capture others in its midst aligns with the revelation that corporate bigwigs are getting embarrassingly rich through perpetuating the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order. The rather unpopular Canto Bight sequence, admittedly too long and very clumsy at times, provides a critical lens through which the entire conflict can be viewed: the lavish aristocracy and child slavery of Canto Bight exist outside of whims, control, or concern of either the Resistance or the First Order, as they’re too busy senselessly killing each other in conflicts they don’t understand, enabling further abuses elsewhere. As Luke seems to conclude – and Snoke seems to corroborate in his predictions of “light coming to match the dark” – war, oppression, and suffering stem from a corrupted investment in power, profit, and continuity. In other words, it’s a chain-reaction big enough to take down a thousand Death Stars, sustained artificially by the hands of the greedy, fanning the flames of war.
And the parallels of the Canto Bight capitalists and the studio executives at Disney do not go unnoticed.
So with the disgrace of the light side and Jedi philosophy, what can we put our faith in? The Last Jedi offers a tentative answer in the interconnectedness of the universe. When Luke teaches Rey how to reach out with the Force, he has her touch images of peace and chaos, life and death, even among the smallest of creatures.
The motif of connection vs. isolation saturates the mise-en-scène. Leia and Rey share a tracking beacon between each other, which eventually falls into Finn’s hands as well. Rose interferes with Finn’s would-be solo suicide run, explaining that caring for loved ones is more important than smiting enemies – a subversively cynical outlook, as it confirms that the conflict will continue, without end, regardless of how many bodies they throw at it. Kylo Ren and Rey form their relationship through the medium of the Force, communicating over vast light years in their search for validation. Conversely, Luke appears to have severed his ties with the Force, only briefly reopening them to reach out to his sister. At the film’s climax, Luke projects his consciousness across the void to confront Kylo, despite not actually leaving his hermitage. This helps to facilitate the culmination of his arc, changing him from a man who abandoned the galaxy to one who is truly superliminal.
But as The Last Jedi eschews easy answers, it shows that such tethers, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, can prove destructive. After all, the crux of the movie’s suspense hinges on a pastiche of a submarine chase, where the First Order is tracking the Resistance ships through hyperspace and towing their fleet just beyond the range of their lethal arsenal. The bond between Rey and Kylo ultimately turns toxic and emotionally manipulative. Rey literally shuts the door on him to terminate the relationship, simultaneously evaporating the illusionary linked-dice that had come to symbolize both their connection with each other and Kylo’s ties to his heritage.
Symbolism in Star Wars has never been particularly subtle.
The movie returns the Force to its Taoist roots and distances itself from the more Westernized, pseudo-scientific portrayal from the prequel films (which was complete with Messianic prophecies and quantifiable power-level mumbo jumbo). It emphasizes balance, harmony, and humility, in stark contrast to the rival superpowers feuding throughout the franchise. The Force, according to The Last Jedi, acts not through these juggernauts, but through the infinitesimally small.
This accounts for The Last Jedi’s focus on animals: the equine beasts that Finn and Rose rescue from a racetrack, as well as the clever crystal foxes that, with their animal intuition and understanding of their environment, lead the rebels to safety at the film’s climax. It also plays into the film’s focus on the poor, downtrodden, and forgotten. In a sense, the Force has been democratized.
Rey, as revealed to the chagrin of thousands of fan theorists who were convinced she was the daughter of [Luke/Han/Obi-Wan/The Emperor/Jar-Jar/That Elephant Thing From Jabba’s Palace], is the child of destitute, drunken scrap dealers who abandoned her on a desolate junkyard world. Her attachment to familial surrogate figures, from Han Solo to Luke Skywalker to Kylo Ren, serves both as a bait-and-switch for the audience and a devastating gut punch to our heroine. She has no great destiny, no right to inheritance, and a fragmented sense of self. And yet despite this, she wields the Force with great strength and consistently shows a depth of altruism and valor. Despite being a “nobody” from “nowhere”, to use her own words, she’s still a hero – a new breed of hero, independent of the sordid Skywalker legacy and free to walk her own path. But of course, ignorant commenters and misogynists looking for a cross to die on will use this as further of evidence of how she’s a “perfect Mary Sue” (disregarding the operative meaning of that word and ignoring her plethora of faults, doubts, and failures, including, but not limited to: accidentally releasing dangerous squid monsters into a crowded freighter, fleeing from the presence of Luke’s lightsaber, being easily dispatched and captured by Kylo Ren, failing to convince Luke to return to the Resistance, failing at each and every test Luke gave to her in training, failing to turn Kylo, etc.; but again, I digress).
This emphasis on a democratic manifestation of the Force comes to a head in the last shot of the movie, where a small child, untrained in the ways of the Jedi or the Sith, uses his power to call a broom to his hands, intermingling the mystical and the mundane in one of the film’s most sublime and poignant moments. The Last Jedi recasts the magic of the Star Wars myth, provoking the audience to unlearn what they’ve learned and bear witness to a film that’s more engaged with the reality of its social context than one that slavishly imitates its predecessors and panders to fans.
V. Every Word in That Sentence Was Wrong
Audiences promptly pointed out that The Force Awakens was a structural retelling of A New Hope. Just as quickly, they identified the similarities between The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back, except this time, something was different. TLJ consistently teases us with mimicry of TESB, but this flirtation sets the stage for subversion. Instead of hearing the shocking truth behind the protagonist’s origin, we experience the angst of her irrelevance. Instead of the roguish traitor having a change of heart and helping the heroes to escape, DJ sticks to his guns and walks away. Instead of seeing the rebels decimated and routed on a snowy white expanse at the beginning of the movie, it’s at the end. For all intents and purposes, The Last Jedi is The Empire Strikes Back turned on its head. It takes the most beloved installment in the franchise and sets out to undermine and ruin the recreation of its most iconic scenes. As Luke says, “This is not going to end the way you think.”
Irate fans are, to an extent, justified in their resentment of this movie. Some have called it a slap in the face for Star Wars, while others have accused it of being too “millennial”, no longer representing the values of the series or its characters. They’re kind of right. Regardless of your feelings on the film, The Last Jedi’s message to old fans is loud and clear: “This isn’t your Star Wars anymore.”
The series has evolved, and evolution by necessity means a departure from one’s old form. Fans are so invested in Star Wars that it’s almost like a holy text – there are disagreeable parts, to be sure, but the unprecedented mania that’s surrounded this brand for almost half of a century shows that it’s perceived as something other than a set of decent sci-fi movies. And I think it’s valid to examine whether or not these cultural artifacts, like the ones the characters in the sequel trilogy keep exhuming, actually have legacies worth living up to. If I decided to rank Episodes VII and VIII with the likes of the original trilogy, I would be bombarded with vitriolic hatemail. There’s a bizarre conception around the immaculate nature of the first three movies (even though they faced their share of criticism at release), and the demand to produce more installments that can call themselves “worthy” strikes me as self-defeating. There was even a petition to delete The Last Jedi from the franchise canon, as if its very presence had a corrupting influence, and it needed to be ritually cleansed at the stake. If the original series – misremembered and mythologized to the point of absurdity, not unlike praying to a mask of Darth Vader or expecting Luke Skywalker to solve everything – cannot be equaled, then the most we can ever hope for is a passable pastiche that smiles and deferentially follows in its footsteps, like a pilgrim on its way to see the relics of a saint.
The beauty of The Last Jedi comes from its critique of this paradigm. Not only does it toy with and subvert fan expectations of what a Star Wars movie should be, it also invites introspection and criticism into why people care about Star Wars in the first place. And in some cases, the answers aren’t pretty. As explained above, the film alludes to the series’ entrapment in a perpetual struggle as part of a weaponized merchandizing scheme (and contrary to what the Internet would have you believe, this not a new addition on Disney’s part; Star Wars has been a media/merchandise giant ever since Lucas fought for the rights to license toys in the 70’s, and nothing will ever match the amount of press and hype generated for The Phantom Menace). Like the surreal grotto scene where a lineup of Reys end their search for answers with a mirror, viewers won’t necessarily like what they see when they gaze into the abyss. The fact that Luke and the Jedi aren’t out of character is the frightening part to people, because it means that the archetypical symbols of goodness and virtue that they’ve rooted for their entire lives have betrayed their faith by the simple fact of their fallibility.
In-universe, Rey and the rebels look on Luke Skywalker as a legend – almost as if they’d seen a little movie series called Star Wars. They consider the man as a symbol, when in reality he’s just a tired, broken war veteran, one who’s excused himself from the outside world to avoid future failures. This deconstruction of the Man as Symbol motivates a significant portion of the film’s drama, and is ironically replicated in the responses of disgruntled viewers who founded themselves turned off by Luke’s pessimism. He embodies disappointment, and it’s difficult for anyone to accept that (perceived) gods can bleed and cry.
Although the movie explains Luke’s ideology and renders his motivations sympathetic, the framing doesn’t necessarily endorse his actions. He’s frequently shot in the same manner that antagonists are displayed based on cinematic trends of lateral movement, often positioned to Rey’s right. It’s his movie as much as Rey’s, but his callous fatalism comes under scrutiny through this lens. Furthermore, a scene where the specter of Yoda descends to tell Luke that he needs to “pass on his failures” brings all of the movie’s themes full circle. Failure, as disheartening as it may be, nevertheless makes for the ultimate teacher. Everyone in The Last Jedi learns the hard way.
Luke’s astral projection during the final fight marks the film’s brilliance. Not only is the whole sequence visually stunning, with Luke moving without leaving the same sanguine footprints that Kylo does, but it allows Luke to elegantly reconcile his dilemma of being both a flawed individual and man-made god, in true Paul Atreides fashion. If he had gone to duel Kylo in person, he would’ve certainly died, but the martyrdom of the galaxy’s last, desperate symbol of hope is not what the Resistance needs – especially if that death only shows how weak and vulnerable he is. Instead, Luke chooses to embrace his symbolic value, seeing the inspiration in Rey and the hope his story has brought to those who might’ve otherwise had none. He transcends his mortal coil, manifesting himself as a phantom that the new Supreme Leader can’t truly destroy, to his humiliation. And with that, Luke disperses into the grand flow of the universe. We see his story reinterpreted by the small children of Canto Bight, dreaming of a better life, and showing that, with hope and determination, the kids, Rey, or anyone can create their own legends. Luke embraces his symbolic value and became more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
Luke will not dictate the trajectory of these new legends. Rey’s Jedi will not be Luke’s Jedi, just as Luke’s Jedi were not Yoda’s Jedi. It remains to be seen if Rey can halt the cycle of violence between the light and the dark side, but one can only hope. The symbolic rending of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, a weapon that’s passed through three trilogies, seems to suggest that an era is ending, and that our ideas of the Jedi must evolve. The Jedi may not be all powerful or all good, and Star Wars may not be perfect series, but people derive strength from believing in such things, and according to the film, there’s good that can come of that.
The Last Jedi places the burden of constructing the truth on the viewer. Luke and Kylo both have separate accounts of what happened on that fateful night when Luke sought to preemptively eliminate him, and it could be said that both are true “from a certain point of view,” as a compulsive-liar-of-a-Jedi-Master might say. The new films, drawn from the same spark of inspiration that enraptured so many casual fans, have adopted their own clear and critical direction for the franchise, one that many won’t be happy with. Because of all the cultural baggage tangled up in it, Star Wars can and will always be whatever individuals make of it. On one hand, that’s saddening, since the series will never have the sort of peaceful consensus that I’d like to see. But conversely, I find it inspiring to see such a huge blockbuster movie foster such spirited debate – though I could do with a lesser degree smugness and bigotry.
VI. The Future of “A Long Time Ago”
The Last Jedi has its share of flaws. The humor feels awkward and forced at times, the Canto Bight segment is too long and could’ve been better tied into the main story, and timeframe of the whole story seems a bit confused. But to me, these failures don’t diminish the movie’s accomplishments; rather they’re just more experiences for future creators to learn from.
I’m somewhat disappointed that most reviews, including this one, barely mention the formal aspects of the film (lighting, cinematography, color, sound, sets, acting, choreography, etc.). Most of it proved among the best in the series, but discussion about that almost always get drowned out in a sea of voices arguing over whether or not the movie did Star Wars justice. And I suppose that’s the legacy we’re preoccupied with to the point of myopic obsession. That contentious legacy will stay in the limelight for a while longer.
The 2010 documentary The People vs. George Lucas asked the question of whether a work of art belongs to its creator or its audience. With its emphasis on democratization and subjective meaning, I believe that The Last Jedi makes it clear where it falls in this debate. Rian Johnson’s vision won’t satisfy everyone, and the film keenly acknowledges this without necessarily denigrating the legitimacy of those responses. That commands a great deal of respect from me, at least.
I won’t try to predict the future with Abram’s Star Wars IX. I know that Abrams is a crowd-pleaser at heart, and a talented one at that. I hope that he doesn’t walk back the daring elements of The Last Jedi in light of the recent mixed response, but we’ll have to take what’s to come. Inevitably, the movie-a-year release schedule that Disney’s pushing will grow exhausting, and may even undermine some the ideas discussed here. But frankly, it’s pointless to worry about that.
It’s much healthier to find meaning in the things that move us – whether you’re a director with the opportunity to carry on your favorite film series, an astronomer dreaming of the wonders of space travel and alien lifeforms, or just an idiot teenager who roped his friends into a stupid video project and discovered first-hand how miserable it is to edit in lightsaber effects frame-by-frame. For better or worse, Star Wars will be with us. Always.
– Hunter Galbraith