A Deeper Look At Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I felt let down. As a huge fan of The Force Awakens, I was expecting a tidy and traditional follow-up. I was expecting lots of answers to lots of questions. But if you’ve seen the film, then you know it doesn’t provide any easy answers.
A few months after the film’s release, once I had time to ruminate on it, I even went so far as to write two separate blog posts about how writer/director Rian Johnson didn’t understand Star Wars and was a bad screenwriter (I won’t link to the posts because they’re not constructive, though they are still live in the archives). Unfortunately, I put myself into a group of people who now tend to frustrate me. Instead of thoughtfully laying out why I disliked the movie, I wrote angry blog posts expressing my frustration.
Two years later, after having watched The Last Jedi about 15 times and given it careful and retrospective thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is far and away the best Star Wars film in the Disney era. Once I took a deep breath and thought about why Johnson made this movie, I realized he loves Star Wars and was not trolling the audience for their unrealistic expectations. Rather, he was making a thoughtful and well crafted Star Wars movie.
Johnson understands Star Wars more than J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio, Michael Arndt, and the writers-by-committee at Disney. He considered what George Lucas was trying to say with the first six films in the Saga and took a natural next step. This is why it’s so disappointing how so many people hate The Last Jedi. It takes ideas George Lucas - the creator of Star Wars - set up in the films he wrote and expounds on them in a satisfying way.
Part of what Jonson does so well in all of his films is bringing real, modern day problems into his fictional worlds. So along with understanding Lucas’ fictional world, he understands our real one.
Down with Dogmatic Institutions
There are a lot of thematic ideas in Star Wars as a whole that I really love (and you can read about them in the posts preceding this one, if you haven’t already!). But this one is possibly my very favorite of them all.
Luke Skywalker sums it up to Rey like this: “Now that they're extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if your strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.” He continues, “At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.”
In just two short quotes, Rian Johnson explained everything wrong with the Jedi and why they actually kind of suck as an institution. The Force Awakens all but ignored the Prequel Trilogy. The prevailing idea in the zeitgeist is that those films are bad and took all the fun and charm away from the franchise, so it makes sense theoretically why they were pushed aside in TFA. When you’re trying to regain trust from a disillusioned fanbase, going back to what worked is a good idea, which is what made TFA such a success.
But when Johnson came aboard for the sequel, he decided to embrace the whole of Star Wars’ past, which is ironic for a movie where one of the main messages is, “Let the past die.” At the end of TFA, he was given the character of Luke being in self-appointed isolation. The only thing mentioned in that film was how one of Luke’s Jedi pupils had turned bad, causing Luke to blame himself. Johnson took this opportunity to critique the institution of the Jedi Order. He embraced the past in a completely different way than Abrams. Where Abrams brought back a classic feeling, Johnson understood the story.
From the very beginning of the Skywalker Saga with The Phantom Menace, there have been hints of the Jedi ideology being problematic. Young Anakin Skywalker is brought away from his home on Tatooine by Qui-Gon Jinn in hopes of Anakin becoming a Jedi. Anakin left his home and his mother for the first time to go fulfill his destiny and because all he ever wanted to do was help others. But upon arriving on Coruscant to meet with the Jedi Council, Anakin finds out he is too old to be trained as a Jedi. Immediately, this raises red flags. If Anakin is supposed to be so special, why shouldn’t he be allowed to train, despite the arbitrary rule of him being too old?
As Anakin continues to grow older, he misses his mother and begins to form an attachment to Padmé. But Jedi aren’t supposed to form attachments because it will distract them from practicing their skills. At this point, it seems more like a cult than a peacekeeping group of individuals who are more connected to the Force than anyone else.
By Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s mother has died and he’s already slowly starting to turn to the Dark Side because of all the built up anger he’s supposed to suppress instead of address. He can’t even tell Obi-Wan or Yoda about his fear of Padmé dying because that would reveal his love for her, which is against the rules.
Anakin’s best mentor, in a way, becomes Palpatine, whose alter ego is the evil Darth Sidious. Palpatine makes the Dark Side seem attractive. Anakin will be able to save those he cares about with the extra powers the Dark Side will give him. But the problem with the Dark Side is the reliance on fear and anger, the latter of which is particularly dangerous.
When Anakin finally realizes who Palpatine really is, he attempts to turn him in to Mace Windu and the Council. Mace is skeptical, though, because he doesn’t trust the way Anakin taps into the Force. But he only mistrusts Anakin’s use of the Force because it goes against Jedi teaching, which demonstrates the hubris of the institution at its peak.
Even still, Mace heeds Anakin’s warning and goes to arrest Sidious himself. But he doesn’t do it peacefully, even though that is the official Jedi stance. Mace is ready to execute Palpatine on the spot while Anakin, who is actually buying into a Jedi teaching, says Palpatine must first stand trial. This becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Anakin. He sees the Jedi for all their hypocrisy and hubris and joins the Dark Side.
In the very first Star Wars film, life as a Jedi is referred to as a religion. This idea isn’t explored too deeply in the Original Trilogy, but in the Prequels, it becomes obvious that the religiosity of the Jedi is the very thing that turns Anakin away. The Jedi have good teachings and a deep understanding of the force, but this doesn’t automatically mean they are correct. They set forth dogma and authority to assert there is no way but their own. This highly tracks with the ideas of the modern day church.
Having grown up in the church, I heard much lamenting of young people growing out of the institution. But as I grew older, I began to understand why. Much like the Jedi Oder, the church can oftentimes be full of hypocrisy and hubris. “Our way is the only right way and anything that strays is wrong.” But this can’t be right. Not for the church and certainly not for the Jedi.
So to see a once-hero of the Jedi realize this is huge. In TLJ, Rey comes to Luke thinking the two of them will bring back the Jedi Order together, but Luke has lost all hope after he failed Kylo Ren. In his mind, the end of the Jedi will bring about the most good. Luke feels he not only let down himself, but also those around him, down by failing Kylo Ren because he was “Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master. A legend.” He felt he was put on a pedestal, an impossible expectation to meet.
To a certain extent, Luke is right. The Jedi did need to change. They became an untrustworthy institution. But he was wrong to cut himself off from the Force, which is still needed. The way the Force was viewed was wrong, not the Force itself.
When Rey leaves to go confront Kylo Ren on her own, Luke decides it’s time to get rid of the Jedi texts. Just as he’s reconsidering what he’s about to do, he encounters Yoda in Force ghost form, who burns the sacred tree holding the sacred Jedi texts anyway. Yoda, in a rare moment of actually getting something right, reminds Luke to look right in front of him (“Skywalker, still looking to the horizon”).
Yes, Luke failed Kylo Ren, but this doesn’t mean he needs to completely be cut off from the Force. “The greatest teacher, failure is,” says Yoda in his signature anastrophe. Failing and then shutting yourself down is objectively the incorrect option. Rather, learn from failure and better yourself because of it. And Luke does learn this in TLJ. He reopens himself to the Force and saves the entire Resistance on Crait. Luke knows now that Rey can be even greater than he ever was - “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
By the end of the movie, Rey is still being labeled as a Jedi. But there is a new way to define what a Jedi is. There is no more Council and no more hypocrisy. There is only the use of the Force for good.
Rey saved the Jedi texts, even when Luke thought they were destroyed forever. There is value in the teachings of the Jedi and of religion in general. The problem is with the structure and dogma behind the institutions. So much good can be done in the world through what is found in the gray areas between opposing ideologies. Not being beholden to one side of the Force or the other, but understanding there is true balance in the center. It’s the same thing with religion. There doesn’t have to be strict adherence to one specific way of teaching. There can be lots of good from lots of different places. Accepting the different places is the first step into a larger world of learning and being.
Saving What You Love
Star Wars obviously has a violent word in its very title. Throughout the entire Saga, one of the prevailing ideas has been fighting for what you love. Episode IV is about fighting the Empire, Episodes V and VI are about fighting Darths Vader and Sidious, the whole Prequel trilogy revolves around a recently-started civil war, and Episode VII is about fighting back against the oppressive First Order. This makes it a pretty revolutionary idea to have one of the main ideas of Episode VIII being, “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”
This theme even manages to be prescient about the discourse surrounding the film itself. TLJ is likely the most highly debated and talked about Star Wars property ever created. The people who love it really love it, and the people who dislike it really dislike it. Amid all the debate that has been going on for upwards of two years now, it seems fans have forgotten this is a Star Wars movie. We are all only so passionate about it because it is Star Wars. There should be more middle ground, or saving what we love, instead of polarizing arguments, or fighting what we hate.
Because from the very beginning of this movie, it’s all about saving what you love. As Poe leads an attack on a dreadnought, Leia tells him not to. The attack is too dangerous and puts too many lives at risk. One by one we see Resistance fighters falling to their deaths, and we even see one specific sacrifice in Paige Tico. Poe’s trigger-happy attack costs more lives than it is worth.
Leia is shown looking at a monitor with each of her ships disappearing one by one as they are going down. She understands these people should have returned to the lead Resistance ship, because the small battle would have been won once those she loved were safe. But Poe just doesn’t get this idea. He just wants to “hop in an X-Wing and blow something up.”
When Poe returns, Leia explains how the Resistance is just the spark that will eventually burn down the First Order. But if you try to burn them down at every turn, the spark will eventually go out.
This is even an interesting comment on the hot-headed male ego. Poe still doesn’t learn his lesson after hearing from Leia this one time. Once Holdo doesn’t tell him her plan, Poe’s immediate reaction is to take matters into his own hands. He sends Finn and Rose off on a mission to try to take out the First Order’s weapons. He wants to fight. Holdo, though, has every right to withhold her reasoning from Poe. He’s just recently disobeyed direct orders and been demoted. Holdo ranks above him and does not need to answer to his unwarranted demands.
Of course, her plan the whole time is to evacuate the ship and save as many members of the Resistance as possible. She is more interested in protecting the light than bringing impossible odds against the dark, and this is the smart and right move. She takes out the enemy ship with what would later be called the Holdo Maneuver, which makes Poe finally understand the lesson Holdo and Leia have been trying to teach him.
Once they are on Crait, Poe quotes Leia and realizes he needs to evacuate the Resistance instead of fighting the First Order. Luke projected himself onto Crait to give the remaining Resistance members the chance to escape. He didn’t show up to have a signature Star Wars lightsaber battle with his former apprentice, but to save those he cared about most in the only way he could.
This becomes the ultimate sacrificial act for Luke. He demonstrates the importance of saving what you love because it really is the only way to win. Fighting something, even for the right reasons, is often fueled at some level by anger. The whole Prequel Trilogy was about how Anakin failed to resist his anger, which turned him to the Dark Side. So Johnson created pure motives for his characters and had them save what was important to them, because it was fueled by empathy and love.
In a poetic ending for Luke’s character, he dies while looking at a twin sunset. What once represented hope for his own life all those years ago on Tatooine now represents hope for others.
I ragged and ragged on this idea two years ago, but I’ve now done full 180. It’s perfectly executed and beautifully pertinent.
Forget What You Think You Know
Early on in the film, you realize you aren’t going to get the answers you wanted after TFA. Right off the bat here, Luke throws away the lightsaber Rey offered to him. He’s preparing the audience for something new and fresh in Star Wars. His line from later, “This is not going to go the way you think,” is a perfect encapsulation of the movie’s whole storyline. This movie isn’t interested in giving those answers. It’s interested in being its own special thing. Basically, it is baiting the audience into thinking certain things at certain times while it doesn’t follow through on those setups the way you’d expect.
For instance, when Rey arrives on Ahch-To, she sees Luke’s X-Wing submerged underwater. When I saw the film for the first time, my initial thought was that Luke would definitely be lifting it out by the end of the movie the way he couldn’t in Empire Strikes Back. But he doesn’t. It was just shown to demonstrate Luke’s state of mind.
After TFA, there were a lot of questions: Who was Rey related to? Who is Snoke? Where did Maz Kanata get Luke’s lightsaber? Fans endlessly theorized on where they thought the story could go next. But in a line as close to breaking the fourth wall as possible, Luke says, “Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.”
Everything was on the table for this movie and each time, Rian Johnson chose the answer no one was expecting. Once Snoke was killed off with a simple flick of the fingers from Kylo Ren, you realize anything is possible. Ultimately, the movie is better off for it. He could have gone the crazy route and made Rey a Palpatine or something. It’s good that didn’t happen.
As with any Star Wars movie, the Force is at the center of everything that happens. Rey is curious about what it is, of course, as she just recently realized its power within her. She’s very wrong when she guesses, “It’s a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and make things float,” as Luke quickly points out. Rather, it binds everything together with balance.
The Force balances death and life, warmth and cold, peace and violence, and every other polar opposite. It is inherently balance. The Jedi and Sith could access its perfect balance, but they both choose to focus on one side over the other. It’s again why the Jedi are so wrong about a great many things.
Consequently, the Force begins to bring together two individuals who are seemingly polar opposites in Kylo Ren and Rey. They find a connection they didn’t even know was there. Each one wants to make the other turn and join their cause, but they are both missing the point. They need to come together in the perfect balance which had been created at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Unfortunately, neither character learns this lesson in TLJ. There is a beautiful visual metaphor of the lightsaber splitting in half as they each vie for control of the center. It’s a striking representation of the internal conflict going on within each of those characters.
Kylo Ren felt there would be stronger inward resolve once he killed his father. He wanted any pull toward the light to be gone. But it doesn’t happen. He knows Ben Solo is still alive within himself when he wants it to be only be Kylo Ren. Snoke even points out how Kylo still has too much of his father’s heart.
At his core, there is good within Kylo Ren. Rey represents the opportunity to come back to the light. But just when it seems like he’s finally made the turn back - when he and Rey fight side by side - he’s still determined to follow through with evil. Killing Snoke didn’t represent a turn to the light, it represented his resolve to gain more evil power on the Dark Side.
Though, Luke communicates hope to Kylo, in the only way that can get through to Ren. He tells him, “Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you. Just like your father.” As his former teacher and friend, Luke is reminding Kylo Ren that at his core, he is still Ben Solo and has the chance for redemption if he only would choose to take that chance. Kylo just needs to get over his incessant desire to distance himself from his family.
Conversely, Rey is constantly searching for who she is. She wants to know where she came from so she can know her place in the whole story. When you expect her to finally be revealed as a secret Skywalker or Kenobi, though, the story zags and confirms she is no one.
Rey confirms this herself. Deep inside herself she has always known, but she wants so badly to have someone to whom she can be connected. But not until she accepts her origin is she able to become everything she can be.
Ironically, because Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father was the mothership of all plot twists, Rey not being connected to another powerful family became the largest twist in the franchise since The Twist. To have the audacity to create a character who completely stands on her own is incredibly special in this franchise. Instead of having to look up to a couple god-like families, you’re all of a sudden full of hope, knowing anyone can be special.
It’s really a simple message which has been being told in stories forever. But it’s never something that’s come to fruition in the most popular franchise of all time. It’s always just been the Skywalkers who are the heroes with their lesser Jedi friends defeating the big evil threat. You love to have something this massively popular send such a simple yet inspiring message.
In a way, this is the perfect ending to the entire Saga. There are some loose threads narratively, but it couldn’t have been wrapped up more perfectly in a thematic sense. After seven movies about a powerful family struggling to stay powerful, seeing them inspire Rey and Broom Boy to try to be everything they can is inspiring, heroic storytelling.