The Last Jedi: a defense and explication (lots of spoilers)

The Last Jedi: a defense and explication (lots of spoilers) March 25, 2018

In this post, I’m going to lay out what I think the film The Last Jedi is about, and why the film is, for me at least, a thorough-going success, rivaling the original trilogy. This is not to deny the validity of many of the criticisms that have been made. The film doesn’t, for instance,  do a good job of explaining why the situation is so desperate and why the Republic appears to have failed entirely. But on the other hand, the prequels tried to flesh out the politics of the Star Wars universe and were largely unsuccessful. It makes sense that the new trilogy would turn away from political analysis to return to the story of a rag-tag band of rebels against an evil host.  I regret the lack of effective world-building, but I can still appreciate both TFA and TLJ for what they are.  TFA is an enjoyable homage to the original trilogy. TLJ contains plenty of echoes itself, particularly of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but it’s obviously going for something different. Is that something different worth going for? And does TLJ succeed? My answers are “yes, definitely” to the first question and “yes, mostly” to the second.

What impressed me about TLJ, as I watched it, was the way every part of this sprawling film interlocked to reinforce the overall theme. The theme, as in most fantasy stories, is about the proper way to struggle against evil. TLJ has gotten a lot of criticism for being iconoclastic, but frankly the bizarre and naive combination of Manicheanism and pseudo-Eastern monism present in the original trilogy needed to be smashed. I don’t read TLJ as cynical or nihilistic at all–rather, its complex narrative fleshes out what genuine heroism in a good cause looks like. Kylo Ren’s line “let the past die” has been quoted as the major theme of the film, but I think the ultimate message is better summed up in Rose’s words to Finn near the end of the movie, “It’s not about fighting what you hate; it’s about protecting what you love.” (Alas, that doesn’t make the “crash your plane into his plane in order to save him” episode any less ridiculous.)

The film tells three interlocking stories. The first story is about Rey’s quest to find Luke Skywalker and bring him back to save the galaxy, and when that fails, to turn Kylo Ren to the light as Luke had turned his father Darth Vader. This too fails, when Ren kills Snoke but takes his place as leader of the First Order, inviting Rey to join him, which she refuses to do. But, in the final climax of the film, Luke does show up (though only via “Force Projection”) for a showdown with Ren, echoing another moment from the original trilogy, the death of Obi-Wan. Rey rescues the tattered remnant of the Resistance and they all fly off on the Millennium Falcon. This is the principal strand of the story and the one that has gotten most acclaim.

The second story focuses on the fighter pilot Poe Dameron and his conflict first with Leia and then with Leia’s temporary replacement Admiral Holdo, as the Resistance fleet attempts to flee the First Order. This part of the story shows strong influence from Battlestar Galactica (a good thing in my book), and is an extended “setup” in which we are led to think that Poe is the hero and that Holdo is either cowardly or traitorous, only to find that in fact she and Leia were on the same page and had a perfectly reasonable plan, which Poe manages to destroy leading to thousands of deaths.

The third strand of the plot, a spinoff of the second, is the story of the former Stormtrooper Finn and his new friend Rose, who ally with Poe and go off on a hare-brained quest for an expert code-breaker who will allow them to disable the tracking mechanism on the First Order flagship. Their adventures on a “casino planet” have been largely dismissed as a silly digression from the main story, but some critics have pointed out that in fact this episode gives the fight between good and evil more specificity and believability than Star Wars usually attempts. Finn and Rose wind up with an amoral criminal as their expert codebreaker, who casually betrays them (and the fleet) to the First Order when they are captured. Reunited with Poe in the final showdown on the salt planet, Finn disobeys the chastened Poe’s orders to break off a suicidal attack, only to be (absurdly) knocked out of the sky by Rose, who delivers the line I quoted earlier as the fundamental motto of the film as a whole.

 I’ll get back to why I think this third strand of the story is actually important. But first, back to the Rey/Luke/Kylo Ren strand and the much-discussed theme of “killing the past.”

The first strand:  “The Jedi must end”

 Rey goes to Atch-To as a naive hero-worshiper of Luke, whom she had considered a myth until the events of the previous film. She clearly expects, as do other characters in the story, that Luke will teach her to be a Jedi as Obi-Wan and Yoda had taught him. This is what the logic of Star Wars has led us to expect. But Luke confounds these expectations by tossing the lightsaber over his shoulder and insisting that the Jedi are a failure and need to die. Kylo Ren reinforces this message by telling Rey in their telepathic conversations (which we find out later were enabled by Snoke in order to turn Rey to the Dark Side) that she needs to “let the past die” or even “kill it if necessary.”

The interesting thing about this is that it puts Luke and Ren on the same side. Both of them have taken away the same basic message from their confrontation (which we–and Rey–learn about three times, first from Luke, then Ren, then Luke again, each claiming to correct the other’s previous version). Both have concluded that the Jedi Order needs to be destroyed. Some reviewers have suggested that Luke’s reaction to his momentary impulse to kill his troubled apprentice is out of proportion–why conclude that the Jedi are all wrong just because you almost made one terribly bad choice? And, some have asked, why would the person who saw good in Darth Vader fail (until it was almost too late) to see anything redeemable in his own young nephew?

To answer this , we need to look at the history of the Jedi as shown in the films, including the much-despised prequels. The Jedi are an elite order of people who have been trained to use the “light side” of the Force. Theoretically, the Jedi want to recruit everyone who has the capacity to use the Force, although they have to get them very young in order to train them properly. The training includes rigid control of the emotions, which are generally linked to the Dark Side. This appears, from what we see in the prequels, to include a commitment to celibacy. That would mean that when Yoda warns Luke that his feelings for Leia could be made to serve the Dark Side, he’s understating considerably and he’s not just talking about the incest aspect. (Just looked this up and apparently Lucas claimed in an interview that the Jedi were allowed to have sex, just not marriage or family or any kind of “possessive relationships.” The case for the creepiness of the Jedi just got way stronger!)

I don’t want to get into the whole question of whether this is an implicit criticism of the Catholic Church, and if so whether it’s a fair one. (But I think it is fair to say that TLJ is a Protestant, maybe even Quaker movie!) As portrayed in the SW movies, the Jedi approach seems to be fundamentally unsustainable. Vows of celibacy are one thing, but a hostility to all emotion is quite another. (This website, which of course isn’t canon, says that Jedi are encouraged to feel emotions, observe them and then “let them pass through you” rather than clinging to them–which sounds very Buddhist. But it does say that emotions get in the way of hearing the Force. What then about “trust your feelings, Luke”? Feelings and emotions are different, I guess?)  And predictably, the Jedi seem to have little to offer someone who is experiencing inner turmoil. Such turmoil is, itself, seen as a manifestation of the Dark Side. The Jedi are also capable of ruthless violence, all for the greater good of course and done without anger. Yoda tells Luke in Empire Strikes Back that the Jedi must only use the Force for “knowledge and defense,” but if that’s true, then “defense” has a very flexible definition.

All of this explains why Luke responds as he does to the young Ben Solo. His abortive attempt to kill his apprentice was not just a momentary aberration. It was the reasonable way for a Jedi to respond to what appeared to be a rising tide of darkness within an extremely gifted student. After all, Obi-Wan and Yoda had both insisted to the young Luke that he had to kill his father, and both began discussing contingency plans (otherwise known as Leia) when they realized that he might not be willing to do this.

When Luke first meets Rey, he realizes that she, like Ben, is a deeply troubled person with great talent. He tells her that this “didn’t scare me enough” in Ben’s case. When she immediately feels the draw of the “dark” place under the island, he treats this as some fundamental flaw in her. Yet when Rey dives into the repository of the “dark side,” nothing terrible happens.  She doesn’t become evil–instead, like Luke in the parallel scene in Empire Strikes Back, she gains self-knowledge. Luke encountered a vision of Darth Vader (whom he did not yet know was his father) and killed him, only to see that the face inside the helmet was his own. Rey seeks a vision of her parents, but only sees endless images of herself. This paves the way for Yoda’s words to Luke that Rey already has all the wisdom she needs within herself.

Luke has been on the island for years, seeking to reject the Jedi traditions–but he has deliberately sought out a place of great holiness for the Jedi tradition, and has never actually been able to carry out his intention of burning the Jedi texts. He treats Rey in classic Jedi master fashion even while claiming that he is only teaching her in order to debunk the Jedi ways. He is deeply terrified by her alleged attraction to the “Dark Side,” which is a highly conventional Jedi reaction. Thus, ironically, the naive Ray, who seeks initiation, into the Jedi tradition is the push Luke needs to free himself from the Jedi tradition–or, perhaps, to renew it by returning to its true principles.

Luke’s final “duel” with Kylo Ren shows the new enlightenment he has reached because of his encounter with Rey. It is a homage, of course, to Obi Wan’s death in the first Star Wars movie. But while Obi Wan tells Darth Vader “if you strike me down I will become more powerful than ever,” Luke tells Ren, “Strike me down in anger, and I will always be with you, just like your father.” It is the language of relationship, rather than the language of power. It is a threat, but also a promise.

Ren’s desire to destroy the past violently is not actually a constructive answer. Killing the past, striking it down in anger, only means that it haunts us all the more. Rey’s attempt to turn Kylo Ren to the light fails, but that doesn’t make it foolish or wrong. At the end of the movie, Ren appears triumphant, but he has unfinished business with both the dead Luke (and, as Luke has pointed out, with his father) and the living Rey.  And Rey has emerged as a genuine heir of everything good in the Jedi tradition, regardless of her parentage.

The second strand: Poe vs. the women
The strand of the story that concerns Poe’s conflict with Leia and Holdo over the proper way to fight has gotten a lot of praise and criticism on ideological grounds. Generally speaking, conservatives hate it because they see it as heavy-handed feminist propaganda and they find its attitude to heroic sacrifice inconsistent (good when women do it, bad when men do it). Feminists typically like it, for obvious reasons. I’m on the feminist side on this one. I think it’s a neat reversal of conventional stories of derring-do, as well as a homage to Battlestar Galactica (which on the whole I find a good thing). I recognize that there are problems with the plot, but on the whole I found the characters engaging and the standoff one of the tensest parts of the movie, because the film created genuine uncertainty about who was in the right. I don’t find Holdo’s actions inconsistent–the movie never suggests that courage and sacrifice are bad things in themselves, only that they need to be, as Catholics would say, “rightly ordered.” (See Aristotle, and Aquinas, on courage as a mean between cowardice and rashness.) 
Just as the main strand of the film criticizes the ideology of the Jedi order, so this strand criticizes the
ideology of action movies in general, in which the way to resist evil is always to “get in a plane and blow things up.” And yes, this is gendered, because men generally are more likely than women to fall into this error. Holdo is set up to look like what my wife and I would call (if you’ll pardon a reference to the other classic screen sci-fi mythos) a “Kai Winn” character, from the obnoxious Bajoran leader in Deep Space Nine–someone who conceals her selfish ambition, and perhaps even her treason, behind the mask of motherly female authority. Personally, I loved this part of the story, precisely because I found it disconcerting. I also loved the completely unrealistic gentle treatment Poe got from Holdo and Leia when his mutiny failed.

This strand of the story mirrors the main strand in that more conventional “Star Wars values” are first presented, then debunked, then reaffirmed in a chastened way. Heroic self-sacrifice isn’t bad–it just needs to be clearly necessary and serve the common good rather than being an expression of machismo.

The third strand: “Protecting what you love”
The Rose/Finn section of the film has attracted the most criticism, and it does have some problems. The extended sequence on the casino planet drags the movie out, and Rose’s “saving” Finn by crashing into him is a rather bizarre act that strains suspension of disbelief, besides seeming like a heavy-handed statement of a theme that has already been made adequately. But from a strictly thematic point of view, this is actually the strand that pulls it together, with Rose’s line about protecting what you love rather than fighting what you hate.

Again, this is really just a restatement of a line we have heard from Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. . . anger leads to hate. . . hate leads to suffering.” (Maybe the only memorable thing in The Phantom Menace? Other than just how goofy it was?) That this line, which summarizes the message of the film as a whole, is given to such an “unimportant” character further cements the democratic, iconoclastic message of the film.

The closing scene of the film takes us back to the “casino planet” for a shot of a kid using the Force to lift a broom.  In spite of the problems with the earlier casino planet sequence in terms of the pacing of the plot, the events on the casino planet turn out to be thematically central to the film. Rose has commented that the financiers who gamble on the casino planet are the “worst people in the world.” The true villains of The Last Jedi are not cackling space wizards but well-heeled, respectable people who sell weapons to both sides in the conflict. And the true heroes, at the film’s end, are the down-trodden children who are just beginning to discover their own innate power.

For me at least, The Last Jedi is just iconoclastic enough to be fresh, while managing to evoke the combination of corny humor and romantic myth-making that made the first trilogy so successful. In the end, the film does not destroy the mythos of the series as a whole–it refreshes it by challenging some of its unacknowledged problems and giving it a more egalitarian message. Star Wars is one of the quintessential American myths (in both good and bad ways). By subverting the “hero blowing things up” model and substituting a message about the potential for heroism in everyone, this last installment has substituted one aspect of the American myth for another. From my perspective, this new version is largely an improvement.

I was finally inspired to finish this long review by watching The Empire Strikes Back today with my five-year-old daughter. The Yoda sequences on Dagobah are among my favorite scenes in the whole franchise, and watching them I realized how much The Last Jedi owes to its predecessors even as it tries to sort out some of their mixed messages. Also, not having watched Empire for a while, I’d forgotten how much TLJ’s closing fight really does echo the battle on Hoth in the earlier film. In one scene, Luke destroys an Imperial Walker when the battle is functionally over, accomplishing nothing that I can see for the greater cause. It is precisely this kind of pointless derring-do that the later film will criticize. The earlier films, like most action adventures, create action sequences that in the end don’t accomplish much, while completely skating over this futility. In TLJ, the futility is hammered home. Actions have consequences.

With TLJ, the Star Wars franchise has finally, reluctantly, grown up a little. Maybe that’s not entirely a good thing. But in a culture of delayed adolescence with a fixation on acts of violent heroism by young males, I think it mostly is.

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