Friends, the concern around spoilers has been strong with this one. I will reiterate here and now, you have been warned! If you are receiving this by e-mail, having subscribed, close it now if you don’t want spoilers!! I hate fighting opening night crowds, but we made a point of seeing it first thing Saturday morning after a Friday social media fast. Here are some thoughts below … I assume you’ve seen it if you read ahead!
Let me set the stage a little: I was worried about the Star Wars franchise. So many people had put so much into making money from this compelling science-fantasy storyline. On top of that, writers already had a monumental task: to hold the themes and possibilities of the original Star Wars, while telling a real story that we can connect to from a world much-changed since the 1970’s. And they had to do it on the shoulders of the much-maligned prequel trilogy (which had its shining moments nonetheless), and a disorganized set of stories ranging from several animated series to dozens of post-RotJ novels to video games that seek to fill in the blanks on everything from ancient galactic history to Jedi lightsaber color to whether Darth Vader ever took an apprentice between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.
Force Awakens did a passable job, but felt like a rough gear shift into the new storytelling. It beat the low bar of the prequels, and pushed through our resistance to having anything ever change about our timeless heroes (Luke, Leia, Han, and the rest). Perhaps that’s all it ever could have done. But a year later, Rogue One came out and showed us the kind of storytelling possible in the Star Wars universe: a new story with new characters, connected to the old ones but not beholden to them, and a war film instead of a fantastical epic — a genre change, or at least a successful fusion of Star Wars into new parts of science fiction.
So looking towards The Last Jedi, I was nervous. Nervous that we’d have porgs set as Point-of-View characters to sell merchandise. Nervous that Luke Skywalker would be used as a set piece rather than a character. Nervous that CGI battle scenes would be favored over innovation in visuals. Nervous that they would copy the plot line of Empire Strikes Back, and wind up doing damage to how both the old and the new sit in our artistic landscape.
I shouldn’t have worried. It was beautiful.
Not perfect, mind, but beautiful.
They avoided the pits I was fretting over: there was CGI, sure, but they had many better visuals. There were porgs, sure, but they were added texture instead of … well, fake ewoks. And Luke Skywalker was hardly a set piece.
But beyond that, their theme work was masterful. They used the pressures of their context to ask the question directly: What should we save of the past?
This is where we are living, of course. When “Make America Great Again” is a slogan that’s never been defined, and we are trying to make sense of old institutions in a world that is now ruled by globalization, mechanization, and the “publish-then-filter” realities of the internet, we’re not sure how much we’re supposed to carry — or even able to carry — as we move forward. We certainly haven’t learned how to go forward yet.
The Last Jedi knows this. And in some ways, it’s the defining question of the film. Rey wants to recover the past: the Jedi order, the Resistance, and a Legendary Luke Skywalker. Kylo Ren wants freedom from the past, and is willing to cut away whatever seems to hold him.
Their final conflict is a great treatment of this: Rey, sure that she’s finally turned him, must face the reality that he still feels the seductive opportunity to keep burning things down; Kylo, fresh from the victory of defeating one part of the past, is ready to keep advancing, burning it all down.
Rey must face the reality that Ren lacks restraint.
Ren must face the reality that Rey lacks abandon.
And between them, as the film says: balance.
This is one of the points where the film demonstrates more complexity than your usual blockbuster, and insists on letting reality enter even this fantastical world. It isn’t all “good and evil.” Ren and Rey may be united in a moment, but divided in the next. The arms dealers are selling weapons to the “bad guys” … and the good.
We’re returned to the original question: how do you make your way in such a world? This is a world where plans fall apart. Poe Dameron’s initial success seems to show that fortune favors the bold … but Leia reminds him to count the cost. And his future successes … well, statisticians would say they “regress to the mean.” That is, his luck runs out. Boldness still has an impact and surprises people, but he’s often operating without full facts, and the lucky coincidences favor the foe as well as the friend.
Other plans fall apart too. Rey falls into a trap. The cloaked transports are detected. Finn and Rose are revealed too early. But people adapt. Rey still turns Kylo, even if only halfway. The cruiser offering a smokescreen to the transports turns to a different tactic. Finn and Rose take advantage of an unforeseen opportunity.
So making your way is, in part, a matter of being able to release your hold on a certain kind of “past,” and travel with some agility. The star cruiser chase is an easy metaphor here for the difference between Rebel and First Order mindsets.
But the film has better wisdom than that to impart: making your way is a matter of why you make it, more than how.
This, to my mind, was the most powerful message in the film. Rose tells Finn, “We’ll win by saving what we love, not destroying what we hate.” That might seem at odds with Admiral Holdo’s act that seems to mirror the one Rose interrupted Finn from taking. But where Finn was seeking to destroy what he hated, Hondo was saving what she loved.
The easy mirror for that was the confrontation between Luke and Kylo Ren. Luke is not there in smug self-righteousness — he doesn’t repeat the franchise’s over-earnest appeals to return from darkness. He doesn’t stand as an iconic legend. Instead, his single word “No” (which masterfully avoids the matter of revealing his true purpose in coming now, to this point) demonstrates that he’s accepted the world as it is.
But Luke still makes choices within that world. He accepts that his actions have had consequences. He apologizes. And he acts to save others, including those who he loves. In the course of it, he tells Kylo that if he strikes him down in anger, he will always be with him — a psychological truth as real in our world as that galaxy far, far away (and his addition of “just like your father” opens the door to a Han Solo cameo in Episode IX). The film notes that Luke’s actions were full of “purpose and peace.” Why he did it matters.
This is a kind of truth-telling that feels resonant with the greatest storytelling of Star Wars. And it does it without falling into an “all emotions matter” trap that would have left it dim next to the great work that Inside Out did on that topic directly. It feels like they made good use of the particular nature of the Star Wars universe to tell a true story about what heroism — and even simply goodness — looks like in a complicated galaxy.
And the film’s final comments — that they have everything they need to build a rebellion — are a clarion call to a world trying to resist the urges that power the darkness of The First Order (the twin extremes of rigid uniformity and control on the one hand, and burning everything down on the other). It warns away from a too-naive dependence on the old institutions to save us simply by being institutions: you need the young Reys of the world out there making choices, not trees full of books (but okay, you need the books too). It even lets Luke remind Kylo Ren (and us) that we can fall into the trap of “fake news” too easily (“Every word in that sentence is a lie”).
And it reminds us instead to save what we love: one another, and wisdom, and yes, some things like the Jedi Order and the Resistance … but not to save them uncritically, and not without acknowledging that they must continue to grow and change to face the needs of each day. And it reminds us to travel lightly, not burdened down by an insistence that the present and future must conform to the expectations we bring with us from the past.
Final thought? This film could have been Episode VII. Cut out the entire Starkiller Base and a few of the cutesy scenes (Han and Chewie vs space monsters?), and I think you could have brought the best parts of the VII storyline into VIII for a 3-hour film about a new resistance rising from the final pieces of the old in the face of a First Order that seems to finally be consolidating the remains of the Empire after Palpatine’s fall.