For Star Wars to live, Star Wars must die. Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a thrilling, layered and goddamned fun meditation on the tension between our need for legends and myths and the ways those legends and myth constrain and reduce us. Star Wars is the film series that popularized the monomyth in the modern era, and Johnson walks right up to old Joe Campbell, kicks him in the nuts… and then gives him a hearty bear hug. The Last Jedi struggles with and embraces the paradoxical duality at the center of the meaning of legends and heroes, leaving thoughtful audiences with more to chew on than any other blockbuster in recent memory.
If Kylo Ren was the avatar of The Force Awakens’ reflexive pandering to nostalgia – a Vader-obsessed fanboy who has the kind of anger issues that could manifest in unpleasant Reddit comments – in The Last Jedi he’s growing up and putting aside childish things. The Vader cosplay is gone as Kylo crushes his own helmet and begins to look towards ways of breaking out of the story in which he finds himself. George Lucas talked about there being ‘echoes’ in the Star Wars Saga (“It’s like poetry, they rhyme,” he famously said of the Prequels), but those echoes can become deafening. The only way out is to break out, and Kylo Ren gets that in The Last Jedi.
“Let the past die,” he tells Rey. “Kill it, if you have to.” And here’s the thing: he’s right! The past – the Skywalker saga and the Jedi and the endless battle between rebels and empires, in all of its many forms – is choking the life out of Star Wars. Was there anything more disheartening than watching The Force Awakens and seeing that, thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the galaxy far far away was the same as it ever was? The Empire and the Rebels had new names, but not new clothes or ships, and Han Solo had reverted to his unreliable Empire Strikes Back self for some reason. It wasn’t even an echo, it was barely a remix of the original films, and it didn’t offer many directions to take the story except for the same ones the story had been going in for years, a Manichean battle between light and dark set against a David and Goliath tale of rulers and rebels.
The mythology of Star Wars had become so restricted that it was choking us. The vision of what a Star War IS was so tight that it led JJ Abrams to remake A New Hope. We were too reverent, too in love with the thing to allow it to be real, to be alive, to try and be new and fresh. We didn’t want new and fresh, we wanted the same feeling it gave us the first time we saw it. And all else would be failure.
Just as we started hemming in Star Wars by demanding it live up to a certain kind of mythology, so do some of the characters in Star Wars find themselves similarly hemmed in. Finn, a Stormtrooper made good, finds himself elevated to the level of hero of the Resistance, a job he doesn’t want. When technician Rose Tico sees him trying to escape the doomed fleet she is crushed – she had held this man on such a pedestal, and he let her down. Meanwhile Rey is confronted with a Luke Skywalker quite different from what she had expected – on Ach-To she finds a grumpy, crusty old man who is deeply disinterested in hearing about her new Star War bullshit.
Both of these women find themselves let down by these men, not because the men are failures (although they do, in their own ways, fail), but because these men can’t live up to the hype that surrounds them (by the way, it isn’t just the men. At the end, on Crait, the famous hope-bringing General Leia abandons all hope. Even she is not as big as her legend makes her seem). And they can’t live up to the hype because they’re people, and like all people they have feet of clay. So The Last Jedi argues that we need to see past our heroes, to be aware of the humanity and flaws at their core, and accept the whole package. Heroes are nice, and they offer us inspiration in their actions, but by elevating them to hero status we’re asking them to stop being human, to only be perfect. And here’s the thing – we get inspiration, but by demanding perfection we lose the larger comfort they could give us. Our heroes should be able to fail and to falter and to be wrong and make mistakes because WE do those things, and it’s vital we see ourselves reflected whole in them.
But The Last Jedi takes all of that a step further; in a structure that mirrors that of Empire, TLJ has all of our new heroes failing in fairly disastrous ways. Finn goes off on a side mission that only leads to the destruction of the Resistance fleet, Poe engages in a mutiny that was unnecessary and rash, and Rey can’t save OR end Kylo Ren. Her failure is the least of them (but then again it’s becoming clear that Rey is the least of these characters, a character the movie seems unwilling to challenge on a level as deep as it challenges the others), but it fits in with the larger theme: the big, sweeping heroics of movies don’t always work.
In fact, the only heroism that really works in The Last Jedi is quiet heroism. It’s the self-sacrifice of Paige Tico and Vice-Admiral Holdo. It’s Luke defeating Kylo Ren with strategy, not violence. Most of all it’s Rose Tico letting the fathier free, and later saving Finn from a big, stupid and pointless suicide.
“That’s how we’re gonna win, not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love,” she tells him. It’s perhaps the wisest thing ever said in a saga that is, frankly, filled with low-key wisdom. From Obi-Wan and Yoda’s Zen musings to Qui-Gonn’s stoic monkish witticisms, Star Wars has long had Eastern wisdom at its core. But with Rose we end up with a different kind of Eastern wisdom, leaving behind the martial stuff that makes kung-fu and samurai stories so exciting and getting to the heart-focused stuff that makes Eastern wisdom so correct. Rose’s statement is a beautiful summation of metta, the Buddhist concept of loving kindness, and follows on Qui-Gonn’s warning that “Your focus determines your reality.” By focusing on that which we hate, we become hateful. By focusing on that which we love, we become loving.
Rose’s statement points to the only way to end these interminable Star Wars. In The Last Jedi Finn gets a look behind the scenes, sees who it is that actually benefits from decades of Galactic turmoil. It’s not the people of the Galaxy, who have had four or five different governing systems in the space of two generations. It’s not the Rebels and the Empires, who change places every decade or two, never truly gaining or losing any ground, just stuck in this endless tactical tango. No, the true victors of the Star Wars are the rich people on Canto Bight, the war profiteers and weapons manufacturers, the people who sell ships to both sides (and we can take a step back and look at Star Wars as a real world thing and see that Rian Johnson is telling us that it’s the toy companies who are really making the money here).
By fighting each other endlessly the various Rebels and the recursive Empires only enrich the greedy greys, and only by removing themselves from the fight can this truly be finished. Only by turning towards love can the Galaxy finally achieve Star Peace. Because as long as someone is willing to fight what they hate, there will be profiteers ready to make things worse. But once they turn to saving what they love… the possibilities are endless.
Those possibilities don’t have to include being powerless. One of the greatest things The Last Jedi does is it offers a new way of looking at the Force. Too often this astonishing, life-encompassing field has been reduced to a weapon, a way to float rocks, as Luke dismissively says. In The Last Jedi the Force is bigger, and perhaps closer to what it truly should be. It allows Rey and Ren to talk at great distances, bringing them together to actually have insight into one another (something that NEVER happens in a Star Wars film. The villains and heroes rarely meet, and when they do they have monologues or quips for one another, not dialogues).
In the end Rian Johnson subtly shows the way forward by getting rid of something we over-identify with the Force – the light saber. The saber is just a weapon; as we have seen anyone can wield one. You may need the Force-sensitivity of a Jedi to wield it well, but a holding a light saber doesn’t make you a Jedi. In The Last Jedi this is hammered home at the end when Luke, become a Jedi more powerful than any we had ever seen before, does so without a saber in his hand or on his belt. In fact, it had been previously destroyed. Luke’s ultimate moment of Jedi badassery isn’t violent or martial, and it doesn’t involve a blade – it involves him sitting and concentrating. It’s a mind to mind combat, not body to body. In the end, Luke is at his most powerful when his father’s lightsaber, the through-line of this whole series, is finally gone.
There’s a lot of deconstruction in The Last Jedi (one of my favorites is how Johnson has Luke canonize our feelings about the Jedi in the Prequels – they suck! I’ve always wondered how much George Lucas was trying to undercut his own mythology in those films, and how much he was just hemmed in by his own predetermined endpoint), but in the end it’s all in the service of reconstruction. The heroes no longer have a monopoly on heroism. Rey isn’t part of a lineage, she’s just a random person. Rose isn’t trained or skilled in battle, but she throws herself into it. And at the very end we see a stableboy, impacted by Rose’s heroism, look up into the sky as the Millennium Falcon jumps to hyperspeed and we see him be inspired, looking towards tomorrow with hope and courage.
This is the paradox at the heart of it all – we still need heroes. That paradox is comfortable for those who study Eastern thought, especially Taoism (the Force is at its most Taoist in The Last Jedi). There is light and there is dark, and neither one is the whole picture. There is only a whole picture with them both present, and neither can exist without the other. So the paradox of heroism and legends – they’re limited, they’re alienating, but we also need them and they make us better and help us move forward – is one the film embraces. It’s not the full dismissal of the Manichean nature of the series that I wanted, but it’s close.
That feeds into some of the film’s other themes (I believe this to be the most thematically rich Star War yet attempted, a big part of why I love it so), especially its theme of failure. It’s hard to remember – or to know, for those raised in a world that always had Return of the Jedi – but The Empire Strikes Back is a stark depiction of the failure of our heroes. Their only success is barely getting away alive, and during the course of that film Luke doesn’t gain wisdom so much as he loses a hand and his innocence. Return of the Jedi assures us that, in the end, the good guys win (although The Last Jedi reminds us there is no end if we continue making the same mistakes), but in the years between Empire and Jedi the heroes existed in a strange state of being very bad at their jobs. So it is with The Last Jedi, as all the heroes fail and lose, barely pulling out a survival in the end.
But where Empire’s themes were more along the lines of “everybody takes one on the chin sometimes” and “the world is darker than you thought as a child,” The Last Jedi takes failure very seriously… and believes it is important. Yoda calls it the greatest teacher. In meditation we talk about how the practice is that moment when your mind wanders and you are able to bring it back to your point of concentration – that’s where the real work is happening, at that space where you’re failing to concentrate. In Empire they lose, in The Last Jedi they FAIL, and it’s a big difference. In The Last Jedi their best efforts aren’t enough, and they have to learn from those mistakes and absorb those failures. They also have to learn how to live with them – how can you take Finn’s pointless suicide run on the cannon as anything but a foolish attempt to redeem himself for accidentally fucking the Resistance fleet?
By focusing on failure The Last Jedi is brave in a way that the Prequels, also about failure, weren’t. The Prequels treated failure as tragedy, as the fate that befell the Jedi and the Republic when they got too big for their britches and too complacent. That happens. But failure also comes when you’re honestly trying your best, and it’s brave for a mainstream movie to show that to us. We don’t go to Star Wars to be reminded that our best efforts may not pay off (and in fact may blow up in our faces), but it’s something we have to be aware of and we have to truly own.
We live in a society that is pathologically ashamed of failure (and that, bizarrely, looks at death as the ultimate failure. The next time someone says a person ‘lost their battle’ with a disease think about what that MEANS – that the sick person didn’t have it in them to win a fight, which is crazy. It’s like saying that by aging you’re losing your battle with the linear progression of time), and so we live in a society that doesn’t teach us to learn from our mistakes. We’re not allowed to make mistakes, and if we do, we have to hide them and not let others see them. You can see this in Luke’s story – he made a mistake with Ben Solo and instead of learning from it he retreated, ashamed, from the Galaxy. In fact he learns the one wrong lesson you can learn from failure: don’t try again!
As he explores these themes (and more – there’s a great story of intergenerational conflict here, one that I can’t believe hasn’t been explored like this in the generational saga of Star Wars yet), Rian Johnson also has a ton of fun. Not since the first Return of the Jedi has the universe been expanded so joyfully, with tons of new creatures and locations that feel fleshed out and real, not just like the throwaway bits in the Prequels. Johnson uses his new creatures not only to sell toys (let’s be honest here) but also to advance his themes; as the movie goes on the interdependence between humanoids and creatures becomes clear, and he creates a beautiful animal rights message that stands out in a series where the creatures have often been offed for comedic effect.
He weaves a few thrilling plotlines together, creating a delightfully overstuffed narrative that flies by at hyperspeed. The central plot is sort of lifted from Battlestar Galactica’s classic episode “33” (turnabout being fair play, as the original BSG was an attempt to cash in on Star Wars) – the ragtag Resistance fleet is being chased endlessly by enemies who can, against all odds, track them through hyperspace. Here he splits the plot – as Poe Dameron mistrusts new leader Vice-Admiral Holdo, Finn goes off on a secret side-mission to save the fleet. Meanwhile, Rey attempts to train with Luke Skywalker on Ach-To, but also finds herself sending psychic billet-douxx to Kylo Ren, and she is torn between the father figure she never had and the rebellious loverboy telling her to go ahead and kill yr idols. Ren, meanwhile, puts his own words into action and throws aside the shackles of his own narrative, destroying his master and ascending to masterhood himself.
If we’re going to look at characters, we have to start with Rey, who is both the least interesting character in the movie and perhaps the most important. Rey herself is largely a blank slate, ping-ponging between Luke and Ren, fully sure of herself but weirdly incurring no consequences at all from her self-assurance (negative or positive). Rey’s real function in the narrative, it seems, is to break wide open the aristocratic nature of the Star Wars Saga and pull us away from being hostages to the Skywalker bloodline.
Star Wars follows ancient narrative pathways, but those pathways are so ancient they were blazed by people who couldn’t even imagine a non-aristocratic world. There was no room for democracy in the cultures that formulated the Hero With A Thousand Faces, and so the Chosen One narrative always ends up being non-democratic in the extreme. There is a person who, by birth, is better than you and I, and as such they are more suited to be heroes than you and I are. The obsession with Rey’s lineage points to this bias – we expect her to be a Skywalker or a Kenobi because she’s so powerful, and we automatically assume that power is inherited.
But The Last Jedi explodes that. Rey is just a person, from nobody parents (this is something Lucas tried to kind of do in The Phantom Menace, but he just made Anakin into Jesus, the ultimate Chosen One by lineage). This returns not just the power of the Force to the people, but also the possibility of being a hero. You don’t need to have been born into this, you don’t need to have displayed exceptional skills or abilities. You just have to be willing to step up and do the thing.
This is why I love Rose and Finn so much. Finn was a faceless Stormtrooper who decided to break free from the narrative into which he was placed and become his own man. Along the way we watch him try and figure out who that man is, and he doesn’t want it to be a hero – he wants it to be someone who cares for and helps his friends. Rose, meanwhile, is a technician with no real special abilities. She may be pretty smart – she figures out the hyperspace tracking thing – but there’s no indication that Rose is any smarter than anyone else. And that’s beautiful – she’s one of us. Her heroism is explicitly the heroism of the citizen soldier (the stuff we celebrate about WWII GIs, tying this film into another of Lucas’ influences) – that she is a regular person in irregular times doing extraordinary things not because they come easily to her, as they do to Rey, but because they need to be done. Rose doesn’t need to be an expert at anything, she just needs to be willing and courageous. I love her so much for that.
Poe, meanwhile, has a wonderful story that truly undercuts all masculine concepts of heroism. His go-to plan – blow shit up! – just won’t work in this situation, so he tries and finds a way to make it work. To a man with only a hammer every problem looks like a nail, after all. There are a few things that elevate the Poe storyline, but most of all it’s the performance of Oscar Isaac, whose sexual chemistry with Laura Dern as Holdo is OFF THE CHARTS. This adds such a layer to their pas de deux, one that he couldn’t have with Leia, who is too maternal a figure for him (although you totally get the sense that Leia doesn’t quite look at him as a son, if you get what I mean). As Rey must navigate between two figures – one a parental figure, the other a sexual figure – so must Poe.
And Leia. As an old man, I grew up watching these movies as they came out. I remember coming out of Empire obsessed with Yoda and Obi-Wan saying “There is another,” and I assumed it was Lando (he was, after all, the only new character introduced in the movie). When it was Leia I wasn’t bummed out (even though I later realized it was Leia simply so the movie could explain why Luke didn’t get the girl without making him seem cucked) – I was excited. I thought the idea of twin Jedi was cool, and I really wanted to see Leia do awesome things.
Then came The Force Awakens, which returned Leia to her Empire state, almost as if she had no knowledge of her Force sensitivity at all. This was, I thought, a loss, and reflected a lack of imagination. So when Leia got her big Force moment in The Last Jedi I was ecstatic.
Her moment is one of my favorite in the whole series for a number of reasons. One, it’s the kind of shot that only exists in this film – Rian Johnson was happy to update the visual language of Star Wars and he did it nicely with this series of ECUs followed by the tracking shot. But what I love most is the grace of it; after so many films that have reduced the Force to a blunt object, just pushing people around and throwing things at people, here we see someone using the Force with fluid beauty. What’s more, Leia is using the Force in conjunction with the Taoist principle of wu-wei, or “effortless action.” So often we see Force user STRAINING at it, looking to move something in an unnatural way. A traditional Force user might pull things TOWARDS them in this situation, but Leia pulls HERSELF towards the ship – she goes with the flow, as water does. It’s a central concept of Taoism, and it is all about beauty and harmony, which Leia exhibits as she serenely floats to safety.
Her story is interesting, as her feet of clay don’t get revealed until the end, as the Resistance finds itself in a last stand at the Alamo situation. They’re fucked, and Leia, traditionally the voice of hope and the spark of the rebellion, is defeated. Her calls for assistance have gone unanswered, and she knows they will all die, and in this moment her legendary facade slips. It’s small, but it’s perhaps the most heartbreaking failure of the legends. It’s certainly the most human – how much more pain should Leia be asked to endure before someone else supports HER for once?
Which is why Luke’s arrival is beautifully timed. This is, of course, Luke’s movie, and yet Rian Johnson consistently undercuts what we think a Luke Skywalker Jedi master movie should be. He uses a lot of chanbara-feeling elements – I can totally see Toshiro Mifune drinking milk right from a cow’s udder and smiling – while also mixing in plenty of wuxia stuff. But he makes it all his own, and the weight of Luke’s story is heavy on the film.
That Luke Skywalker is a fuck up should come as a surprise to no one who has watched the OT, and neither should the idea that he runs off when things get hard. Luke’s defining quality, as Yoda reminds him, is that he’s always convinced he’s needed elsewhere – which is what makes his ability to help his friends while staying right where he was so thematically perfect in The Last Jedi.
I love that Johnson uses an in-your-face callback to Star Wars as a way of reminding Luke that failure doesn’t mean you stop trying – after all, Obi-Wan didn’t just give up after he failed with Anakin. He took Luke’s future into his hands, first as a protector and then, when the time came, as a trainer. So did Yoda, who you could argue helped the Jedi Order fail altogether. Those two regrouped and waited for the right moment to act, as opposed to acting impetuously (see: Dameron, Poe). But act they did, and Luke realizes he must as well.
His final moments are one of the great triumphs of the series. His astral projection is simply awesome (and how telling is it that he appears to Ren as he was when he had his complicated moment with the Padawan (and at the risk of putting too many parentheses here, let me say how much I loved the Rashomon nature of the reveal of that backstory. Remember what Obi-Wan said about things being true from a certain point of view? Yes, that was a retcon… but it’s also philosophically correct. We all see the world from a limited POV, and the objective truth is somewhere outside of that)?), but even more powerful are his final moments of life?
Luke, once again staring at twin suns, but this time with a sense of fulfillment, with understanding that he is where he needs to be (as he always was, he just couldn’t see it at the time), quietly and peacefully ascending into the Force, achieving parinirvana as the last Jedi at the same spot where the first Jedi sat? What a glorious moment, made all the more beautiful by Steve Yedlin’s photography. It’s the PERFECT ending for Luke Skywalker, and I cannot imagine asking for anything different.
All of which leads us to Kylo Ren, the best character of this new series of movies. Adam Driver brings ferocious complication to this character, one who roils with confusion and hatred in a way that is complex and touching. I GET Kylo Ren, I see the source of his anger and resentment. But I also see how badly he is hurting himself. I have the empathy for Ren that Return of the Jedi asked me to feel for Vader, but which never quite worked for me (and which really didn’t work after the Prequels made Anakin deeply unlikable).
If I have one beef with The Last Jedi it’s that I think Kylo Ren is completely right, and that Rey should have joined forces with him. Not to rule the Galaxy, as he says, but out of an understanding that there will always be light and dark. They can’t exist without one another, so what’s the point of endlessly being in conflict with one another? As the Yin Yang shows, the light and the dark are curled up together, and each contains a piece of the other – embrace this! Notice how the mosaic of the Prime Jedi on Ach-To is a Yin Yang? That’s not an accident – the earliest Jedi understood that the Light/Dark dichotomy is a false one. Both are present in all things, as Luke points out to Rey – the secret is to maintain that balance internally. Nothing can be all light, just as nothing can be all dark.
My disappointment comes from canon; in the cartoon Star Wars Rebels there’s a being called the Bendu, an ancient creature of the Force, who scoffs at the idea of “Jedi” and “Sith.” There’s just the Force, he says, and it contains all. I wish Rian Johnson had taken the Bendu’s lead and gone down this post-Zarathustrian path.
But still, Kylo Ren rules. As a bad guy he has exactly the right smarts (it’s overkill to train every gun on Luke, but also smart) mixed with the right fallibility. I like that his defeat in TLJ is mental, not at the end of a saber. That said, I love that he gets to show off his truly badass skills in the best battle scene in a Star Wars yet. The Throne Room fight in TLJ is what the arena battle in Attack of the Clones should have been – smart, thrilling, inventive, fun. Rian Johnson didn’t need CGI sets or villains to pull off one of the ultimate fight scenes in these movies, he just needed to pay attention to what make for cool choreography while allowing the heroes to act in ways that make sense.
Ren’s killing of Snoke is a highlight – not only is it nice that this cheap, shitty character gets taken out (seriously, why have Emperor 2.0? How devoid of creativity do you need to be to introduce that?), but it’s even nicer that Ren does it in a way that uses Snoke’s own Force powers against him. It’s smart, and it’s part of how Johnson thinks of the Force as more than a blunt instrument.
I loved The Last Jedi, and I could go on for many more pages about it. I’m only scratching the surface – I think the Canto Bight sequence rivals the original Cantina for inventiveness and world-building, I think the light speed kamikaze attack is brilliant and one of the most gorgeous sequences in all nine films to date, I think that the battle of Crait was glorious and sweet, I think the introduction of the grey market and “Slicers” was brilliant… I could go on and on. But what I will say is that The Last Jedi did what I want a modern Star Wars film to do – engage with the material, question it, deconstruct it a bit but also reinforce the best stuff. I’m excited that Star Wars gets to move away from hierarchical systems of power and finally brings a sense of democracy to the Galaxy. I’m excited that the heroes of this new Star Wars get to be fully dimensional and human, including in failure. I’m excited that Luke Skywalker became a great Jedi not by being a great warrior but by being a great meditator. I’m excited that the been-there/done-that nostalgia of The Force Awakens has been cleared away, leaving a future so open I honestly couldn’t tell you what Episode IX will be about.
Most of all I’m excited that a filmmaker came in to Star Wars and made their own movie. Rian Johnson’s film makes the right nods to Lucas’ established style, but he understands that eventually this band is going to have to learn new songs, that it can’t just keep doing covers. And so he’s inserting his own style here, loosening things at the edges. Yes, we need Star Wars, yes it inspires us and helps us be better, but we also need to stop putting Star Wars in a box labeled “1977” and let it breath, grow… and even fail.
Finally, I love that the last scene of this movie could be the last scene of Star Wars ever. If there were never another story in this universe I would be okay having just seen that Force-sensitive kid standing there, looking at the stars, ready to make the future better.