As I promised, I’m going to get into some of the more nuanced criticisms of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in this post. I admit up front that this just devolved into a rambling mess that meanders all over the place. Apologies for that. I’ve been trying to rack my brain on how to fix it and make it neater and…yep, no luck there. So forget it and just put it up is my motto. That will also mean spoiling the ever-loving hell out of the movie. In other words, if you have not seen it and want to see it free of spoilers, GET OUT NOW! This is your first, last and only warning. From beyond the point below, we will start dissecting The Last Jedi in earnest. Got it?
In the immediacy of The Force Awakens, the biggest charge against that was that it hewed too closely to the Original Trilogy. The First Order looked and felt a lot like the Galactic Empire. The Resistance functioned in much the same way as the Rebel Alliance. Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke were stand-ins for Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Rey was a new Luke Skywalker. The expectation may have been imprinted that this movie would then follow along that path and be The Empire Strikes Back. And it is not.
At its core, The Last Jedi is about two elements. The first one of which is hope. The hope that the Resistance can continue the fight despite their losses. The hope that Finn and Rose can find the master codebreaker in time. The hope that Rey can convince Luke to return and help in the fight. The hope Rey has to turn Kylo Ren back to the light side. The hope Kylo Ren has to turn Rey towards the dark side. The hope that the First Order can be beaten. That the spirit of the Rebellion can be found once again despite all that has been lost. The idea of hope, of finding it, keeping it, not losing it is foremost in The Last Jedi.
And we see this element tested. With the New Republic decapitated thanks to the blast from Starkiller Base, the Resistance has little in the way of support from the galaxy. Their quest for the entire movie becomes one of escape and survival. So how much can they lose before they lose that hope? How many ships, pilots and crew have to disappear before the Resistance no longer exists? The movie even finds ways to strain them by removing from their midst their leader and symbol, General Leia, for a bulk of the movie. Unsurprisingly, with their iconic leader gone, characters like Vice Admiral Holdo and Captain Poe Dameron start sizing up one another to see who’s really in charge. The fraying of the Resistance due to the non-stop assault by the First Order truly begins in earnest then.
Is that what would really happen in a military structure? Well, Star Wars has always played fast and loose with its chain of command — remember Han Solo being made a general after spending a year in carbonite? Yes, the key in this story arc is for Poe to recognize that there’s more to being a leader than just charging headlong into a battle. But how he gets there is the key in the story. “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.” Both Holdo and Poe have heard Leia say this, but when it gets right down to it, Poe doesn’t start to truly believe that until the end. He keeps trying to make miracles happen and they blow up in his and the Resistance’s face.
Which brings us to the quest by Finn and Rose to find a master codebreaker on Canto Bight. I will admit: I really thought they were setting us up for a Billy Dee Williams’ cameo at that moment. From Maz Kanata’s description, it sounded as if Lando Calrissian was set to make his Sequel Trilogy debut. Alas, it was a fake out. Finn and Rose get captured, find DJ in their cell and he rescues them and becomes the codebreaker that gets them onto Snoke’s ship and nearly through to the end of their quest before they are captured.
I did not think the concept behind their search was dumb. It allows for Finn to be an active participant in this story, introduces another character to the saga and allows us to not be stuck all the time between Ahch-To and the escaping Resistance fleet. The only thing that seems odd is that they did it right in the midst of their escape. Maybe I would have preferred for the Resistance to get to Crait and then start thinking of another escape plan away from the First Order, but that’s me. It could have conceivably led to a longer battle on Crait than what the movie gives us and ratcheted up the pressure between Poe and Holdo as their attempts to hold back the First Order keep failing. However, by keeping the story aboard the cruiser, we get DJ’s betrayal and Holdo’s final act.
We also see hope strained on Ahch-To. Rey thought she was arriving to fetch the Jedi Master back to the Resistance and thus bring hope back to the fight. She might also have hoped he could show her how to use her newfound connection to The Force and help her reveal her true self. Because deep down, Rey appears to want this new power that’s awakened inside of her to be the conduit towards some grand revelation of herself. She wants her new Force sensitivity to reveal the hidden truth of her parentage. Instead she finds a man who is beaten, who is lost, who refuses to do any of what she hoped he might do. That’s because Rey has found a Jedi Master who has failed.
Failure is the second element at the heart of The Last Jedi and it is a bit surprising to have a massive, franchise blockbuster be built around the idea of failure. Luke’s failure with Ben Solo, which lead him to becoming Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren’s own failures in his duel with Rey, which see him chided by Snoke at the start of the movie. Poe Dameron’s successful failure above D’Qar, where he leads his squadron on a suicide mission against the Dreadnought. Finn and Rose’s failure when they’re betrayed by DJ, a man who is upfront about the lack of morals he has towards anyone. The Resistance’s failure when, after all their fighting and all their struggles, no one comes to their aid on Crait. The Jedi’s failures most of all.
While we might mince words as to the misunderstandings between Luke and Ben led to one’s fall to the dark side and the other’s exile, the sad fact is that it’s in keeping with the traditions of the stories we have seen so far in the Star Wars movies. Yoda’s student, Count Dooku, betrayed the Jedi and fell to the dark side. Obi-Wan’s student, Anakin, betrayed the Jedi and fell to the dark side. In each instance, their fall precipitated a period of darkness. Dooku led the Separatists in the Clone Wars. Anakin led the Empire during their reign. Now Ben Solo, student of the last Jedi, falls and leads the First Order in their quest to reconquer the galaxy.
The effect it has on Luke is similar to the effect such losses had on his masters, both of whom ended in exile in a distant world. And Mark Hamill does a great job in displaying the effect that this loss has on him. His failure cost him his hope. He perhaps thought he could find some answer in the ancient Jedi teachings but all they revealed to him was more of the same. His loss of hope led to him abandoning it all and deciding to stay and die on Ahch-To. Lost in the anger and disappointment many fans have towards Luke’s character arc is that Hamill turns one amazing performance here.
I think this is why this movie has gotten such a massive backlash. We saw the heroes of the Original Trilogy triumph. The Emperor was defeated. Darth Vader was redeemed. The Republic was restored. That should have been it, right? Except that The Force Awakens showed us that it was not the end of the fight. On top of that, The Last Jedi shows us that our heroes are not as invincible or as capable as we first thought. They’re fallible. They’re capable of fatal errors. They’re human. And humans fail and fail miserably.
The surprising thing though is that this is not news. The Force Awakens basically told us all of this information. Luke lost Ben Solo to Snoke and the dark side. His reaction was to flee to parts unknown. Leia’s Resistance cause is supported only by some elements of the New Republic and they, in turn, are blasted by the First Order. Much of what the heroes fought to do in the Original Trilogy has not resulted in a better galaxy. People like Rose and her sister and the orphans on Canto Bight continue to suffer under the heel of powers greater than they — no different to worlds owned by the Hutts in the Prequels or to the galaxy under the Empire.
I think what surprises fans is the reaction that characters like Luke and Han have had to this outcome. Of the Original Trilogy’s heroes, only Leia straps her blaster to her side and keeps fighting the good fight, leading others to oppose the new evil stretching across the galaxy. Han ran back to his smuggling ways while Luke lost himself in his grief and misery. Han tried to ignore it all. Luke took on all the Jedi Order’s collective failures and placed them on his shoulders. Is this what heroes should be doing? Is this what the bright-eyed farmboy from distant Tattooine would do?
In the Original Trilogy, we saw Luke try to right the wrongs committed by others; Obi-Wan and Yoda foremost. They failed to see Darth Sidious. They failed to see the evil within Anakin. As a result, the Sith wrested control of the galaxy and nearly destroyed the Jedi Order. Luke was the balancing act, correcting their errors. However, The Last Jedi presents us with a Luke that has made errors of his own: not seeing the evil within Ben Solo, allowing Snoke to poison his mind and heart. Most of all, refusing to acknowledge that Ben could still return to the light when he thought to kill him. In that moment, Luke fails Ben and gives Snoke his most potent weapon. Watching all his hard work and effort go up in flames would break anyone. Finding that it’s nothing more than another part in a never-ending cycle might lead to someone deciding to step away and let it all disappear.
And what do we make of Snoke? Some people are furious that the Supreme Leader is betrayed and dies before we get to know anything about him. Which is odd given that, until the Prequels came along, we knew next to nothing about Emperor Palpatine. The big bad of the Original Trilogy? The ultimate villain? Yep. Knew zero about him. He gets two lines in A New Hope. A small cameo in The Empire Strikes Back. Then he’s made the big super-villain for Return of the Jedi. So Snoke is not alone in coming out of nowhere, with little background and then being betrayed by their apprentice. It seems to be tradition.
If Snoke’s death felt like a middle finger to the thousands of fan theory videos on YouTube, well, I’d agree with you. But I don’t think they meant it that way. I think Johnson and his crew were more interested in telling a story with Kylo Ren and Rey at its heart and, fact is, Snoke would just get in the way beyond this point. His role in this story was to organize the remnants of the Empire into the First Order, cause Ben’s fall to the dark side and bring about the next galactic conflict. With him out of the way, the story is allowed to branch off in new and different ways.
Rather than having the First Order in the hands of a competent despot like Snoke, now things are led by a deranged, emotionally-distraught Kylo Ren. In some ways that makes Kylo Ren more dangerous but it also makes a less capable leader. Think to that last look General Hux gives him in the Rebel base on Crait. Ren is not Vader and Hux isn’t one of a myriad of Empire officers who will just follow because that’s the way it is. The Resistance might be brought to its tipping point but it’s the First Order that is left in a more precarious situation by movie’s end.
I feel like this rambling mess could go on for a long while. We haven’t even touched the concepts of disregarding legacy or dynastic bloodlines for a return to populist underdogs embodied in Rose and the orphans. We haven’t discussed the decision by Luke to face Ren as a Force projection of his best image and not the disheveled old man he became. We didn’t mention Captain Phasma and what exactly, if anything, Johnson and company wanted to do with her arc. We didn’t touch on Rey’s revelations of her parentage — the desperate search for meaning that ultimately led to a meaningless answer. I mean, I could go and on.
That’s what I find most exciting about The Last Jedi. It’s a movie that seeks to get inside what you felt were the sacred elements and tear them all apart to find what is really valuable. To see the heroes as human once again. In the short time he was around the Resistance, Finn’s actions in The Force Awakens already have him labeled a hero. We know it was nothing of the sort — he was not being selfless or heroic. He was focusing on what he wanted — escape from the First Order or rescuing Rey — and nothing else. Here he’s confronted by Rose for being selfish just as Rey is confronting Luke for being selfish and just as Leia and Holdo are confronting Poe for being selfish.
To be a hero is to be selfless, to look beyond your immediate needs or pain to fight for the greater good. If you can do that, you can become a hero, a legend, a ray of hope in a dark universe. Your story will be told over and over again and inspire new generations to do the same. That is The Last Jedi’s ultimate message.