… because apparently everybody involved with this website needs to write their own Star Wars thinkpiece. *Heavy spoilers*, obviously.
While my general thoughts on the movie can be heard during me and Mike’s podcast review of the film, I’d like to focus on one particular point at length. I’ve never written an article like this before. The title alone is irritating. There’s a better than average chance that if you finish reading this you’ll want to punch me. That’s fine.
Coming out of The Force Awakens a couple of years ago, I was among those who were bothered by the degree to which it replicated the plot of Episode IV; There’s homage, and there’s rehashing a movie.
I’ve also always taken issue with how often the Star Wars franchise elects to relegate significant plot points to the opening credits scrawl or its litany of side material. I’m glad that the novels, comic books, video games and various animated shows matter, but to gloss over the rise of The First Order and open Episode VII with our heroes’ apparent victory all but erased and The Empire back in full force in all but name was extremely jarring to me. I’m sure somebody will fill in this gap in the story in the coming years. Good for them. I’d have still liked a few more lines of dialogue dedicated to how exactly we ended up in this situation. And don’t get me started on Snoke.
But a funny thing happened recently; while expressing these frustrations to Ben Phillips (co-host of the upcoming Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey) he made a point about cutting off the head of the snake and how that doesn’t necessarily end the threat. This resonated with me to such a degree it re-framed not only The Last Jedi, but The Force Awakens and Star Wars as a franchise.
I’d like to stress that the following is essentially a fan theory; one possible interpretation of the material. J.J. Abrams’ Episode IX may fully invalidate everything I’m about to say. With lens flares.
Rian Johnson used his time at the helm of The Last Jedi to offer some critiques of the whole franchise through the words and actions of Rey, Luke, Yoda, Poe, Finn, Rose, Kylo and even DJ. In doing so he galvanised the white hot rage a depressing portion of the Star Wars fan-base have toward their own sacred texts (“The only thing Star Wars fans hate more than people who don’t like Star Wars, is Star Wars”). But in doing so, whether intentional or not, Johnson made some pretty salient points about the world. The
Reel Real World.
Toward the end of the movie, Finn embarks on a suicidal attack on a First Order weapon in an attempt to save the rebels from certain doom, accepting his fate and willingly giving his life for his friends. But at the last second, Rose swerves into him, knocking him off course and saving his life, offering the explanation “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” It’s the kind of message that will make certain people roll their eyes and claim they want to throw up. It’s also, to me, the most important line in the film, and key to Johnson’s critique of Star Wars.
Rey and Luke’s scenes are full of negative assessments of the Jedi. Rey comes to realise Luke Skywalker the man fails to live up to Luke Skywalker the legend. He is an embittered, angry old man who has turned his back on everything and everyone. He is not the man she had hoped and won’t come with her to magically save the day (yet) so she decides to continue without him.
Luke makes a mockery of the Jedi, rightfully pointing out that at the height of their power they failed. That’s what Jedi do, they fail. He also points out their arrogance, and ultimately goes so far as to attempt to destroy the original Jedi texts, but cannot go through with it, leaving Yoda’s ‘Force Ghost’ to finish the job for him (though it seems Rey took the books with her when she left. Boo/Yay). Yoda chuckles to himself about it, because that’s what Yoda does. He states that failure is the most important lesson of all.
Poe Dameron rails against authority in an attempt to save the day, defying Leia and getting dozens of rebels killed. This gets him demoted and scolded. He then defies Vice Admiral Holdo, frustrated by her inaction as the rebel fleet is on the brink of extermination, arguing with her and insulting her, concocting a secret plan with Finn and Rose, and even going so far as to lead an armed mutiny. Holdo calls him a FlyBoy and dismisses his hotheaded attitude. Leia shoots him. He learns that not every situation needs to be tackled head on. Sometimes finesse and reason are required. Sometimes it is better to live and fight another day. Sometimes it’s about the big picture. He becomes a better leader. He LISTENS TO WOMEN.
Finn grew up inside the First Order system only to defect and join the inner circle of the rebellion. He’s not really experienced the plight of the common person in the Star Wars galaxy (as far as I know). One could go as far as to say he’s privileged, despite any ill-treatment he received as a stormtrooper. His journey with Rose opens his eyes to life beyond the scope of the big, sexy Pure Good vs Pure Evil battle of the Jedi vs the Sith, The Rebel Alliance vs The Empire, The Rebellion vs The First Order.
During this journey, Finn and Rose meet the morally grey DJ, who drops truth bombs like “today they kill you, tomorrow you kill them,” claiming that it’s all the same. He cares not for the conflict between these two organised groups because it’s a big galaxy and he’s got his own problems. Finn tells him he’s wrong. His phenomenally delivered response? “Maybe.” Be open to being wrong, folks.
Kylo Ren continues to be torn apart by his internal conflict. The son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, the student of Luke Skywalker, seduced to the Dark Side by Snoke, he killed his father and almost did the same to his mother. It is revealed that Luke contemplated murdering the boy while he slept, sensing the darkness within him, afraid of what he might become. This betrayal wounded Ben Solo so deeply he lashed out, attacking his mentor, deciding there and then where his place in the galaxy was, joining up with The First Order. Emulating his grandfather, Darth Vader, he wears a helmet with a voice modulator he does not need, creates his own monstrous red lightsaber and adopts his new Star Wars-ass moniker. Snoke senses Kylo’s heart is not fully in these decisions, and mocks him repeatedly, calling him a child in a mask. Embarrassed and angry that Snoke is right, Kylo destroys his helmet. This has been Kylo’s reaction to most situations: anger. He destroys computer consoles. He attacks and screams at his own men. He is utterly furious when his opponents defy him. Like a lot of young men, Kylo is not emotionally equipped to deal with trauma and the only release he knows is anger. He makes rash decisions, regrets them, but is afraid to admit he was wrong and so doubles down on them. Violently. He puts on a confident facade that everybody sees straight through. He is frustrated when things do not go the way he believes they should. He’s a 21st Century #problematic male. He even negs Rey! (“You’re nothing… but not to me.”)
Toward the film’s conclusion, Kylo and Rey, each adamant the other will join their cause, are at Snoke’s mercy. Snoke narrates the events he has foreseen, stating Kylo will take his lightsaber and kill his true enemy. Kylo murders Snoke. He and Rey join forces to dispatch the Praetorian Guards in a triumphant fight scene. Rey implores him to call off the First Order assault on the Rebels. Kylo thinks on it a moment before imploring her to let them die, to let it all die: the Sith, the Jedi and all the old ways, and instead create a better galaxy with him. Classic ‘Join Me’ stuff. Rey of course rejects him, but he had some valid points.
Rey learns (from Kylo, admittedly a biased source) that her parents were nobody special. Her affinity for The Force is not through divine right, it is just a coincidence. She is an ordinary person who has lived a difficult life, a life that has strengthened her resolve and made her a better hero. She is good because she decides to be. She’s you. She’s me. It’s why Spider-Man is probably the best superhero ever created, and if they go back on this and make her the daughter of some great Jedi or Sith, I will be extremely disappointed.
The film closes with a group of children playing with a Luke Skywalker toy. One boy heads outside and looks to the sky, seeing a ship zoom by, and then raises a broom as if to emulate a lightsaber. If Rey’s parents aren’t special, why can’t this kid grow up to be a hero too? Why can’t 1000 kids grow up to be heroes? That’s the power of the legend of Luke Skywalker. It’s also the power of Rey NOT being Luke Skywalker (not that these kids know who she is).
What do any of these points have to do with each other? Well, aside from the obvious platitudes about hope and letting go of the past, they can be tied together as a giant metaphor thanks to my aforementioned frustrations with The Force Awakens and the miraculous rise of The First Order.
What if The Force Awakens recycled the plot of A New Hope, not for cheap nostalgia, but to demonstrate that the problems in the galaxy are systemic and cyclical? Sure, Luke defeated The Emperor and our lovable band of heroes got their medal ceremony, but how many people worked for The Empire? Why did they join it in the first place aside from a competitive healthcare package? What happens to them in a world where their leader is gone? Do they suddenly change their minds and concede they were wrong? No. They joined up in the first place because they had a certain point of view. A certain set of frustrations. I don’t buy that every single one of them is simply greedy and evil. Understanding their motivations is infinitely more important than killing the old man who shoots lightning from his fingers.
The prequel trilogy details the fall of an ineffective senate and the failures of a stubborn, self-appointed pious peacekeeping force, leading to a violent revolution and the rise of an Empire. A special group of individuals fight The Emperor and Darth Vader and defeat them, seemingly saving the day for one and all. But then we’re right back where we were.
I think that’s the point. The plight of the Star Wars galaxy cannot be solved by a government, or religious groups, or by special individuals. The cycle just continues. The Empire Falls, the First Order rises. The Death Star is destroyed, they build another one. And then another one. Jedi keep on fighting Sith. “Today they kill you, tomorrow you kill them.”
The tactics of Finn and Poe are ineffectual because they’re short-term. Rose, coming from a very different background to a lot of the central characters, offers Finn some perspective he was lacking. Her message, quoted above, is that change, TRUE change, cannot be enacted by simply smashing the opposition. It will take a real, collaborative effort. It’s about hearts and minds. It’s about teaching the next generation to be better than us. It’s about hope.
In the present day, in a galaxy not far, far away, we are going through some turbulent social issues. I don’t think you need me to preach my social values to you. Based on the content of this website, I think you can guess most of my viewpoints. I’m also laughably under-equipped to tell anyone how to go about fixing things. But I do believe in the message Rian Johnson presents, intentionally or not;
Killing the Emperor will only lead to Snoke. Impeaching Donald Trump will only lead to Mike Pence. Taking down an individual isn’t enough. Not every problem can be attacked head-on. Sometimes it’s about the bigger picture. We need to learn from our failures. We need to check our privilege and pay attention to the disillusioned, those who feel alienated from the larger conflict between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Men need to learn how to express their emotions in healthier ways. We don’t need Luke Skywalker. We need a generation of educated, inspired young people who believe they can be their own Luke Skywalker. “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”