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Jan 03

The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi is divisive. Most people liked it, some people absolutely loved it, and many people absolutely hate it. Most of the hate comes from people who think that the movie wasn’t enough like the other Star Wars movies, and that the way it was different tarnishes the value of those films. They are right that the movie is an attack on much of what people value about the other Star Wars movies. They are wrong to think that this makes it bad. The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie ever made. And it is that precisely because of how it differs from the others.

Before I explain what is great about The Last Jedi, I want to address a few complaints about it that don’t connect directly to how it differs from the rest of the films. First, some people didn’t like the force-skyping in the movie, claiming that it is a crazy addition to force powers that was only there to serve the plot. This complaint is weird. Projecting an image of yourself is a skill that dead Jedi have been doing since Empire came out. Projecting a voice is something that dead and living Jedi have been doing since the beginning. The idea that living Jedi could acquire the skill to not just phone one another, but to project images to one another is not an odd addition to the existing skill set.

Then there are the two scenes people find just silly: Mary Poppins Leia and the casino scene. These were, admittedly, at least a little silly. The demonstration that Leia hasn’t just been sitting around lazily failing to develop Jedi powers is a good addition to the movie. Even bringing herself back into the ship was a fine way to show it. I think the visual was the problem here. It looked silly. The casino scene also had some silly elements. The two biggest ones were that they got arrested for illegal parking, and that magically 2 different expert code breakers were in the same place and they just happened to get thrown into a cell with the second one. The rest of the scene, though rushed, was good. It was a way to connect the rest of the movie to the larger universe and it was central to both Finn’s development and the ending of the film. For a movie with so much going on, one rushed scene isn’t a big complaint.

Some people also complained about the porgs. The porgs were cute. The scene with Chewie not eating one was hilarious. Their inclusion was also a necessity of filming, as they were actually CGI-ed puffins, who they couldn’t disturb and who lived on the island where they filmed. Some people complained about not getting Snoke’s backstory. We didn’t get the Emperor’s backstory in the original trilogy, either. I’m not sure why people expected one. But it’s also worth pointing out that there are future movies that can fill this in still. Some had the same complaint about Captain Phasma. But this series’ Boba Fett had as much backstory as the original. It’s not one movie’s job to satisfy the curiosity of every potential viewer on every potential point.

The other big, somewhat legitimate complaint about the film had to do with Holdo’s decision not to tell everyone her plan. It’s hard to justify her refusal to at least assert that there was a plan in place and that staying on their course was the best way to fulfill it. However, it certainly wasn’t wrong of her not to tell Poe her plan, or to keep its details quiet. A seemingly impossible act of tracking their ship through light-speed had just occurred. An irresponsible hotshot who had just got a number of people killed wanted access to sensitive information in a public forum. Giving it to him at all wouldn’t have been smart, and publicly giving in to his anger when trying to establish a leadership role would have been monumentally stupid. Also, if they could track them, there was reason to think that they had some way of monitoring them, either through a spy or through spy equipment that could access their conversations. Staying silent about the details of their plan was a good idea, although, as I said, it would have been good for morale to point out that one existed.

Okay, so those are the problems people have had that aren’t related to the central themes. There were issues with the film. This is hardly a surprise. There are large issues with every Star Wars film that has been made. We look past them because we love the story, the characters, and all the rest that comes with Star Wars. Well, except Jar Jar. There is no looking past Jar Jar. I’m still holding out hope that the Young Han Solo movie starts with Han shooting Jar Jar without comment. But, that aside, the problems can be forgiven if we love the experience. This was a great movie, and if you didn’t love the experience of watching it, this is probably your own fault. Most of the complaints about the film have this basic structure: I think this movie should have looked like this one I had in my head and have been dreaming about for years, but it didn’t, so it sucked. And, yes, if Rian Johnson had wanted to make a movie that looked like ones Star Wars fans would have written for Luke’s return, then it’s clear he failed spectacularly at doing that. But he didn’t want to do that. Instead, he wanted to make a movie that was incredibly good, and that mattered, and that focused on the main characters of this trilogy instead of the secondary ones, like Luke. And in the process he made the greatest contribution to the Star Wars franchise we have ever seen.

So now for the big reason that The Last Jedi was absolutely great and yet most Star Wars nerds hated it: it was written for your kids, not for you. The last generation had their Star Wars story. It was the one they needed and the one they loved. But it was not the story that this generation needed. Rian Johnson wrote a Star Wars movie for this generation, and all the ways it challenged the old story were necessary to give it the freedom to be that story. He had to overcome the past, by killing it where he had to, in order to make the story that this generation of Star Wars fans needed. And he did the most incredible job of it possible. I am so grateful to him for making for my children a Star Wars story that could define heroes for them in exactly the way they need to be defined and make for them something to love and treasure forever.

The main difference between this Star Wars and all the other ones is its depiction of the nature of a hero, and the nature of the hero’s journey to becoming who they need to be. Luke Skywalker was the Hero of Destiny. He was the one who had a secret place in a larger story and by finding his place in it all he was able to overcome evil and grow into the role he was always destined to fulfill. Others helped him along the way, but their role was merely to see to it that he would do what the narrative structure of destiny required of him to become the celebrated hero he was always going to be. Rey was set up to be this hero in the first film. She was Luke 2. But we heard that story already. More importantly, we didn’t need that story again. Times have changed, and the heroes we need today aren’t ones who realize their destiny. The heroes we need today are not heroes of destiny, they are heroes of the moment. They are heroes who choose to do what is right and to do what is hard because they see that it must be done. They are heroes embedded in a reality of failure all around them who nonetheless see the need to stand against it all and do what is right. Rey keeps saying she needs to find her place in all of this. But she has none. She isn’t a part of some grand story cast around her waiting for her to take her proper place in it. She is a nobody. And if she wants to be a hero, she doesn’t get to be one because of narrative destiny, she only gets to be one by choosing to do what she can to resist the evil and the failure around her. As the mirror showed her, her place isn’t about who her parents are. There is nothing to her story beyond herself and what she chooses to add to it. If she is going to be a hero, she will have to be a hero of the moment, not one of destiny. And that she can and will do.

While Rey is the ultimate hero of the series, the hero of this movie is Finn. He is the one who goes through the most dramatic and important change in the movie. Finn came out of the first movie, in the eyes of those in the rebellion, as a hero. But he wasn’t one. When he rejects Rose’s description of him as a hero, he is right. Finn is a selfish coward in the first movie, and at the beginning of this one. He wants to run away. It may seem that he’s being heroic trying to save Rey, but even this is mostly selfish. Rey makes him feel good about himself. That’s why he needs her with him, to make him able to see himself as a hero when he knows he isn’t one. And he starts out this film wanting to get Rey and run away, just like he did in the first movie. Although he knows he’s not a hero, he’s happy to accept the image of one, to be thought of as a Big Deal. Rey lets him extend that illusion to himself. But it’s not true, as his actions make clear.

And then he goes to the casino. And Rose shows him that all the glitz around him is an illusion masking a reality he doesn’t want to see. He starts to learn that some things matter. But he’s still uncertain. When the code breaker shows him that the rebellion is armed by the same people as the first order is, he is inviting Finn to take on a new excuse for ignoring what is right. He is inviting him to embrace relativism, and a false moral equality between the sides. This is a tempting idea to Finn, who could easily at this point end up going off with a scoundrel who is truly without an underlying sense of morality; a Han minus the thing that brings him back to the Death Star. This fact is revealed in his ultimate betrayal of Finn and Rose, which forces Finn to see that the moral equivalence being drawn is wrong, that there really are things worth fighting for, and that his role in the rebellion matters because fighting in it is the right thing to do. For the first time ever, he decides to make himself part of a larger, significant cause. He grows into a moral person in that instant. And he fights bravely against his past, killing it in his decision to move beyond who he was and remake himself not as scum, but as Rebel Scum. He carries on this identity throughout the film, showing a willingness to sacrifice himself for something that matters, an action that would have been impossible for him in the past.

The movement beyond both an imposed purpose from the narrative structure of destiny and from illusion is found in Kylo Ren’s development as well. Ren is told he is no Darth Vader. He destroys his helmet to symbolize his failure to become his grandfather. And then in the moment he can prove to himself and to Snoke that he really is bad enough to take Vader’s place, he isn’t able to kill his mom. He can’t bring himself to go that far. This is a not a man who would kill all the younglings. But this doesn’t make him good. He doesn’t turn away from the dark side when he decides not to be Vader. Instead, he decides that he doesn’t need to be someone else, he can make himself the person he wants. And he doesn’t want to be Vader, he wants to be the Supreme Leader. His attack on Snoke required him to leave his mind transparent in intent and secret in target. It required that he break free from Snoke and his own commitment to destiny. In that moment where his ambition to rule overcomes everything holding him back he surpasses Vader by letting go of the past. The structure of the story that mirrored so closely the prior films is gone. The battle this time will be Rey vs. Ren, not Luke 2 vs. Vader 2. They grew into characters in their own right by being established as independent from and in many ways better than those who came before them. They are great fighters, taking down all the elite guard together, and evenly matched as well. Their battle in the next movie is something I cannot wait to see.

But what about Luke? Even if one accepts the value of everything above, many would think that it doesn’t justify destroying the value of the old story, or what was done to Luke’s character. As Mark Hamill has said, “This is not my Luke Skywalker.” And it’s not the one that many have carried with them from childhood. But the reason that Luke in The Last Jedi doesn’t match that version of Luke is that that version of Luke was never real. The character in the films was quite different from the romanticized version of him that lives in childhood memory. The actual character of Luke Skywalker was a whiny, entitled child who grew into an arrogant, rash adult. He was heroic, certainly, but he was also deeply flawed. Luke gave up on his training when it got too hard, abandoned it for personal reasons, and thought he was a jedi master before he ever finished (which, really, he never did). He has it in himself to quit, to place his friends above the cause, to think himself far greater than he is. A man who must run and hide from a rancor until he can win by trickery is not a jedi master, and has no reason to be so arrogant in the face of Jabba the Hutt. A man who has lost his one and only lightsaber battle is not entitled to such a high opinion of himself. Johnson does something very brave here. He asks the audience to realize, just like the characters have to, that their image of Luke is not the reality. Luke is not someone who can single-handedly take down the First Order with his laser sword. The best he can do is exploit that notion so he could to get Kylo Ren to believe he stood there and survived all that cannon fire when clearly there is no way he could have.

Probably the most controversial part of Johnson’s depiction of Luke was the idea that he would, even for a moment, consider killing Ben Solo. But Luke lashed out like this once before when he decided to strike down the Emperor after being begged by him to do just that. Luke is a man who cherishes the story about himself, but sees that it isn’t as true as he would like to think. In many ways, Luke is more like Finn than like Rey: prioritizing the personal over the important, happy to live a story of himself that surpasses what his actions merit. In a single moment, Luke sees that he has lost his nephew, who his sister trusted him with, to the dark side. He has already seen that there is someone who can surpass him as a jedi. Like his teachers, Luke has failed to see the threat of the rise of the dark side and has lost his best student just as they did with his father. He sees history repeating itself, but this time it is his fault. He panics at the thought of how this will destroy the story of the jedi and the myth of himself, and he fails for a minute. But that minute is long enough. This failure is not in keeping with the heroic image of Luke, but it is in keeping with who he is, and with what the jedi truly are.

Many have also complained about Luke’s death. Luke’s death is foreshadowed in the film when Kylo Ren tells Rey that the effort required to force-skype with him would kill her. Luke dies a hero in this film. He uses what is likely his only means available to intervene effectively and in time to save those he loves and keep the rebellion alive. The effort kills him. Here, ironically, Johnson’s desire to respect the original trilogy by giving Luke the same visual to go out on as he had when he was introduced may have made the connection between his effort and his demise unclear. Luke is clearly spent by the effort, but he stays around a little while. He will, of course, be back in ghost form in the next film, which is why he can tell Kylo Ren that he will see him around. But he has made himself content with the future going on without him. He has moved to a point where he can allow for the notion that the jedi don’t depend upon him, and that his role doesn’t have to be the one of the hero. By letting Rey become the focus and the hero of the story he is able to let go of his own past and of the need to remain the heroic figure of legend. He sees that failing in that image doesn’t require hiding from the world so no one can see who he truly is and what he has caused, in hopes that that image isn’t lost forever. As Leia tells Rey at the end, the rebellion, and the story, has everything it needs in her. She can be the hero of the story because she, and not Luke, is the hero we need to see today. Luke’s acceptance of this, of the story going on without him, allows him to be the hero one final time and allows hope be rekindled through the efforts, and the stories, of the next generation.

So, no, Luke isn’t still the hero of memory here, because if he was we couldn’t see the real ones we need today. Mark Hamill was right when he said it’s not his Luke Skywalker. He was also right when he said that Johnson has made an all-time great movie. He couldn’t have done it without Mark Hamill’s performance, and his acceptance of the movies going forward without him as the star. And the movie can’t be, in our society, what it needs to be and should be unless we can also accept that the story carries on without the heroes of the past. That the stories of those who will shape this new world are worth hearing, and that the heroes we have before us now are the ones our children need to see if they are to face the world we have left them in with hope.

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