I tried once before to summarize my reactions to The Last Jedi and it quickly turned into a diatribe about postmodernism and the Republican Party. I doubt most of you would care to ride that train, especially given how supersaturated we’ve already become over the last year with posts about politics. Maybe I’ll post that another time after I’ve gotten to my real point, which is that while The Last Jedi wasn’t at all what I went into the theater wanting to see, it was in fact a bold and iconoclastic move to create a more grown-up Star Wars universe for an audience who has aged far beyond the worship of its childhood heroes.
That’s what the majority of angry, dissatisfied Star Wars fans didn’t get, or at least didn’t appreciate, about the latest installment in this storied franchise. Once you get past a few pacing weaknesses and flaws in line delivery, the movie did a pretty decent job of showing what it looks like to kill your heroes, at least proverbially speaking, because there comes a time in everyone’s life where your heroes really need to die.
See, there’s an open secret about all human social systems: Our progress is dependent on our relentless hope that we can in fact rise above our primal instincts and create a world that looks more like the one we would like to inhabit—a world not dominated entirely by the strong preying on the weak, but by compassion, solidarity, and a hope for a world more equitable than the one we inherited.
But the catch is that even our idols have flaws, and if we never come to grips with that fact, we will never look squarely at the world we inhabit, but instead keep distorting it into the world we expect to find. I cannot believe that this is a healthy way to go through life. The Last Jedi was written and directed to get that message across to a generation that should have figured this all out by now.
In case you haven’t guessed, spoilers will follow so don’t read this if you don’t want plot details given away.
Kill Your Heroes
If I had to pick a single moment that encapsulates the ethos of this film, it would have to be the moment that chronologically followed the last scene in the previous installment when Rey offered the fabled Skywalker lightsaber to Luke, who then sighed and tossed it over his shoulder like a used banana peel.
That “laser sword” as Luke so flippantly called it was built by none other than his father, Anakin Skywalker—the future Darth Vader—and was kept by his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi for two decades until Luke was old enough to wield it himself. Luke lost it along with his hand in a fight with Vader on Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back, and yet somehow it was obtained by the bespectacled Maz Kanata who kept it until the day it called to Rey, who finally carried it all the way to the remote island on which the aging Luke Skywalker had been hiding for so long that people weren’t even sure he was still alive.
Rey offered him this recovered emblem of his legendary status only to watch him throw it away like yesterday’s garbage. Needless to say, this perplexed her, and I’m not sure she ever got the point even by the very end of the movie, at which point observant audiences discovered that she had stolen the original Jedi texts and had hidden them away on the Millennium Falcon in the drawer that Finn reached into for a blanket to keep the ailing Rose warm (did you catch that?).
“That library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.”–Yoda
It turns out Master Yoda was enjoying a bit of double entendre here. Before Rey, Chewie, and R-2 took the Falcon and abandoned the legendary Skywalker on his remote island to fade away into his invisible Jedi afterlife, we didn’t actually see her steal the original Jedi texts that Yoda so cavalierly disparaged, but evidently she did. I would imagine we will see those texts again in the next movie, which sort of undermines the deconstructive purpose of this entire film, but I’m getting ahead of myself now and I need to stop and get to my point.
This movie is about outgrowing the myths that dictate what our lives are supposed to be about, because who but ourselves can really determine our own destinies? In order to demonstrate what that looks like in practice, they went and made Luke Skywalker a crotchety old man, much like his master Yoda before him, who is no longer committed to resisting the galactic fascism of whichever sinister Sith Lord is currently ruling the galaxy.
One is tempted to conclude that the ultimate end of all Jedi wisdom is to detach from everyone and everything else, letting it all burn to the ground because there’s nothing you can do about it. Which in the end is very Buddhist, and also incredibly cynical. I did mention this is a Star Wars for today, right?
The point is that this film was made expressly to destroy everything we’ve come to love about the original trilogy because in time that’s what real life does to every one of our beloved mythologies. The longer we live, the more time we get to discover the flaws in our heroes and to deconstruct the narratives we were given so that we can learn to carve out our own place in the worlds we hope to create for ourselves and for those who come after us.
It doesn’t take many steps to see the underlying commentary this provides for those of us who left behind our religions, along with our own sacred texts. “Page turners, they were not,” Yoda honestly quipped. And yet we can’t seem to let go of them, can we?
Nature versus Nurture
Did you expect as I did that Rey would turn out to be a descendent of a privileged bloodline? How desperately did you want her to be a Solo, or a Kenobi, or a Skywalker? I suppose there’s still room in the third installment to walk that back (Snoke could have fed both Kylo and Rey a false narrative about her parents), but I really hope they don’t because it’s refreshing to see this point made here, of all places.
“Skywalker, I assumed, wrongly.” —Snoke to Rey
Hasn’t the human race had enough of royal bloodlines? Are greatness and destiny really determined by one’s physical parentage? Crikey, I hope not. I already struggle enough with fighting the demons my biological father faced, and I’d rather not resign the fates of nations to a small handful of people who happen to carry the right last names for the job.
There is a hopefulness in knowing that the leaders of tomorrow can come from absolutely nowhere, even as “nowhere” as Jakku. The very last scene of the film shows an impoverished little boy reaching for a broom that appears to reach back for him as if by some invisible…uh…force. Which is precisely the point. This little boy was a nobody, just like Rey. And yet the force keeps binding things together the way that it always has whether or not a hierarchical religious order continues to preserve its attempted hegemony over the power contained therein.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Jedi order really sucked at keeping the galaxy safe from the Sith. In fact, they seem to have been directly responsible for perpetuating their own enemies by repeatedly training and equipping them with everything they needed to overthrow their teachers and wreak havoc on everyone else.
A Star Wars for Today
There is also a lot of keen social commentary woven throughout this film, and perhaps sometime I’ll take more time to hash that out. Whereas in the original trilogy, the greatest concentration of scum and villainy was in a backwater cantina in Mos Eisley filled with lowlifes and common smugglers, in The Last Jedi that dishonor goes to a resort town inhabited by the filthy rich, who make their money selling weapons and war machines to both sides of the neverending galactic conflict. Because ain’t that just the way of things?
“It’s all a machine, partner. Live free. Don’t join.” —Benicio Del Toro as D.J., token libertarian.
It turns out a number of heroes and anti-heroes in this world seem to be grasping at different parts of the same elephant. First Yoda quits the universe and exiles himself to die on a swamp planet, hoping never again to train another Jedi. Then Luke does the same thing and refuses to leave his own exile even after the idealistic and powerful young Rey comes to offer him back his own mighty Excalibur. Or rather his father’s, which is part of the problem.
Even Kylo seems to be internalizing the same realization, namely that the old order of things no longer fits the world in which they live. Clearly it didn’t do a good job of making the galaxy a better place for most people. The rich and powerful just got richer and more powerful, while everyone else got more and more miserable. Too bad Kylo’s solution was to take the reins himself, effectively duplicating the very thing he believes he is going to destroy, which is also quite typical of revolutionaries. They always become the very thing they were trying to overthrow.
Incidentally, I find it quite fitting (and unfortunately ironic) that the Star Wars of today felt the need to address the social ills of dramatic income inequality. The original series, which was dreamed up by a man who eventually sold the franchise for $4 billion to the most powerful marketing machine in the world, offered very little that would inspire hope in those who weren’t born into the right kind of family to achieve greatness.
But even the symbol of the resistance which featured so prominently throughout the franchise reboot felt somewhat hollow to me since I know good and well it is only a part of a massive marketing campaign to get us to buy stuff. This franchise, which purports to sell us the idea that the little guy can rise up and stand up to the rich and powerful, is now owned by a global entertainment conglomerate worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Like the cynical, opportunistic thief D.J. said, “It’s all a machine, partner.”
Kings and PawnsI’m fighting a great deal of my own cynicism these days, having lived just long enough to see the gaping cracks in the narratives of my youth. I guess that makes me the perfect audience for a movie as unexpectedly layered as this.
Take the great Luke Skywalker, for example. He was a legend in his own time, and a childhood hero of mine as well as of everone else in this film. Yet he knew something which Rey and all the others who revered him did not: that he is just as flawed and perhaps even more dangerous than most because he is so revered. It was he himself who turned the young Ben Solo into a scared, angry young man when his own fear almost got the best of him.
At first when Luke told Rey the story of that fateful night, he told the truth but he conveniently left out an important detail, namely that he had already ignited his saber and was poised above the young Ben Solo, as if about to take his life. By the time he had come to his senses in that moment it was already too late and Ben had become his mortal enemy. But notice that even Ben/Kylo’s version of the story was off at least a little as well. In his version, Luke didn’t change his mind at all. Kylo crossed sabers with him because Luke was about to kill him. Both stories told the truth, but each version left out at least one complicating detail in order to pack the greatest emotional punch and support the overall trajectory of each person’s character arc.
There’s an old saying about breakups that says there are three sides to every story: his version, her version, and the truth somewhere in between. I think the same wisdom applies to just about every other epic conflict. The Last Jedi aims to make the same point.
“Good guys, bad guys…made up words.”–Del Toro as D.J.
That’s a bit of an overstatement, and a false equivalency to boot. Clearly the resistance stands for an order that values individuals and cares for the less fortunate, which characterizes the kind of world that most besides the wealthiest and most powerful would want to live in. But Del Toro’s stuttering hacker/thief doesn’t really care about that. He is like a modernized analog to the original trilogy’s Han Solo, only this time we are being reminded that you can’t really count on random smugglers and thieves you pick up in backwater cantinas or in jail cells. And their moral reasoning will most likely leave something to be desired.
But he’s not entirely wrong, either, about it all being a part of a big game in which we are all unwitting pawns. Like Kylo in this movie, I myself recall a time when I was manipulated by an Old Man in Charge of Something over which he was trying to maintain his control. It turns out powerful old men are experts at exploiting the weaknesses and aspirations of young upstarts. First they flatter you with high praise and then they take it back when you don’t live up to their expectations. At one point, Snoke transparently gives away his strategy:
“A cur’s weakness, properly manipulated, can be a sharp tool.” —Vladimir Putin Snoke
Like Palpatine before him, or like any number of James Bond villains, Snoke’s overconfidence was his own greatest weakness. It emboldened him to overshare with his young apprentice how he uses emotional manipulation to get what he wants out of people. Kylo took every word of that to heart, and soon he found himself smashing his Vaderesque cosplay gear into oblivion, no longer content to be a pawn in someone else’s game. Snoke didn’t realize he had already lost his right hand man until it was too late.
The Lengthening Shadow of Men
Finally, in case you were somehow half asleep, you undoubtedly noticed The Last Jedi registers a number of body blows to the notion of toxic masculinity. Most of the acts of true heroism in this movie were performed by women—from the highest admirals to the lowest munitions techs—while the men kept trying to do stupid stuff that got a lot of people killed. Two diametrically opposed styles of leadership were on display throughout this film, and in the end it was the women who most naturally grasped that, as Leia put it, it’s more important to protect the dying light of the resistance than it is to make yourself look like a hero.
Poe Dameron got slapped in the face by the true hero of the resistance, and then later stun gunned by the same. The famous Finn got knocked out as well by a quirky mechanic who had just finished gushing about how much she looked up to him. Even the great Luke Skywalker got bested in a short sparring match with a young woman with virtually no training at all, and it was Rey again who outforced Kylo Ren after rejecting his offer to make her somebody even though she was a nobody.
“You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me.” –Kylo Ren
Kylo here illustrates the classic douchebag move of tearing down the object of your affection only to then offer to build them back up, only this time with a self-worth that is derived from the condescending mercy of a benevolent master. Rey wants nothing of the sort, and clearly she knew she was not nothing. She didn’t need him to be somebody in this story. For all his enlightened insights into burying the past, evidently he forgot to reevaluate his understanding of what leadership looks like, and perhaps love as well.
In the end, Kylo is as much a product of his dysfunctional past as anyone else, but he fails to see that. Even in his advice to Rey he cannot see the inescapably circular nature of his attempted escape from his past:
“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.”–Kylo Ren
Who you were meant to be? By whom or by what? And does whoever or whatever he means belong with “the past” that she was supposed to let die? If so, what does that do to her purpose, her destiny?
Agent Smith in the The Matrix trilogy kept running into the same problem, and Neo was the only one in that film who seemed to spot the flaw in their logic: How can someone be destined to overturn a system that is responsible for dictating that this is precisely the role into which you were born? Every time darkness rises, light rises to meet it with equal…force.
You’d think at some point somebody would stop to realize that they are creating their own enemies by the very ways they engage them.
Losing Your Religion
Ultimately this film is about deconstruction. It’s about tearing down the idols of your youth because the time has come for you to outgrow them. For the Star Wars universe, that means being willing to let the Skywalker legacy fade away. It had a good run, and it charmed us all with its magic.
But the world is much more complicated than the simplistic dualisms of our younger days, and our heroes and villains are equally complex. We cannot keep trying to force everything and everyone into predictable categories because, truth be told, the world never was quite so simple. We were never right to think it was.
For many of us, that meant growing up to see through the artificial nature of the religious categories we internalized from our youngest days. Like Luke and Yoda discussed as they watched their most sacred place burning to the ground (by their own hand, I might add), it was time for the Jedi religion to die. Through that system of belief, the Jedi were indoctrinated into believing that they themselves were responsible for controlling and managing the Force, which as Luke told Rey was vanity.
The Force didn’t belong to anyone any more than virtue, goodness, or purpose belong to any one tribe, nation, culture, or religion. Sooner or later you’re supposed to grow up enough to see that. I would argue that most people don’t, which makes me sound elitist, I know. But it’s still the truth. What’s really elitist is believing that your tribe, and yours alone, holds the patent on righteousness and truth.
I think my children most identified with the idealistic young Rey in this film, who kept trying to convince Luke to resume his expected place in pantheon of galactic gods. She still saw the world in black and white terms, so much so in fact that at times she felt out of place in this movie. Ironically I felt like she was the relic in this pairing, the holdover from the past, rather than the fabled Luke Skywalker, who had seen far too much to still cling to simplistic categories. I found myself identifying much more easily with him. Like him, I’ve seen way too much already.
But then again she did remind him that there were people who needed him, and that kept him from completely detaching in the end. There were people who still needed saving, and he managed to do so by playing into everyone’s fantasies with a staged lightsaber duel against impossible odds. He played the part of the hero as a ruse, a diversionary tactic allowing the true heroes to get the surviving members of the resistance out of harm’s way.
All in all, I have to say that despite some occasional misfires in line delivery (you could almost feel the heavy burden of the franchise weighing down the director), The Last Jedi was a surprisingly deep film that had the nerve to kill off all its heroes in order to make a way for the next generation to grow beyond their masters, because that’s what growth and progress require.
Read also Dan Fincke‘s review of The Last Jedi’s here.
[Image Sources: Lucasfilm]