A Loving Indictment: A Defense Of "The Last Jedi"
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has taken its place as the most divisive film in the Star Wars saga. Its critics cite it as a character assassination of one of fiction’s most noble heroes with an inconsistent message, while its supporters mark it as a complex web of ideas that demand the viewer to sit down with the film’s messages, themes, and arcs and get down to the nitty gritty of Star Wars’ core ideals and question all of them. Are the Jedi truly a force for good in the galaxy and are they even necessary to keep the balance? Are bold heroics the best way to fight for good or is martyrdom a fool’s path? Can anyone truly become anything? How much does our past and our failings shape us? The Last Jedi answers all of these questions with nuance, subtlety, and love for the franchise. The following is a defense of The Last Jedi and its methods of telling a beautiful story of failure. My defense will focus around narrative points of debate regarding the handling of Force, Jedi, and other overarching themes and how they relate to TLJ, as well as an answer to issues many detractors have with the story itself, and (at least for now) will not delve into the real world debates on “political” aspects of the film.
PHILOSOPHY OF A BROKEN MAN
The Force and the Jedi Orders importance to it has been a point of debate in Star Wars stories for years. For every devout Jedi Knight and Sith Lord there are unique Force users with fascinating hot takes on the Force. Kyle Katarn’s philosophy of the Force simply existing and not having sides, Darth Traya and her desire to kill the Force itself because the Force wills the galaxy into constant chaos. Yes, both are now Legends but that doesn't take away the myriad debates and discussions each philosophy presents. The Last Jedi presents us with a new Force philosopher. A Jedi we would never have expected to have a grim, pessimistic, and bitter take on the Force: The New Hope - Luke Skywalker.
To understand Luke’s new philosophy we need to understand what has happened to him to get him here. Time to address the first of many complaints of this film and quite possibly the biggest one; Luke Skywalker’s character arc. Many people hated his pessimistic views and his unthinkably shocking act of trying to kill Ben Solo in his sleep. Luke Skywalker was a bright eyed idealist with his sights set on resurrecting the Jedi Order and continuing the legacy of his father and mentors. He saw first hand the perils of the Dark Side. Luke saw everything that was caused by Palpatine and never wanted to see it again. The novelization of “The Force Awakens” says that Supreme Leader Snoke had been planning to corrupt Ben Solo from a very young age meaning that Ben’s fall was not unlike Palpatine’s long game with Anakin. By the time Luke has become a Master of his own order he surely has learned of all the things that led to Anakin's fall; his loss of his loved ones and the isolation that brought, his never feeling welcomed by the order and targeted by council, and a predisposition to aggression. Luke saw all of these things brewing inside Ben’s mind. Luke was presented with a morbid choice: let the dark side return to its former glory with another fallen Skywalker with innocent blood on his hands, or stand in the gap of another galactic depression and stop it before it starts. To do this, to prevent the creation of a monster Luke repeats the history of the Jedi; sacrificing their morals in the name of a greater good only to still fail and give evil a chance to strike by giving birth to the vengeful and blood thirsty Kylo Ren. The Jedi of old did this with the Clone Wars and culminating in the rise of the Empire, the Jedi Purge, and the birth of Darth Vader. Luke made the same mistakes and suffered the same consequences because his fear and pride got the better of him (as it did Mace Windu, Yoda, etc).
Luke lost everything because he couldn't learn from the failures of the past so he gave up on the Force seeing the Jedi as damned to fail every time. Consider for a moment that Luke’s lack of hope isn't unique to him. Both Obi-Wan and Yoda considered Luke’s refusal kill Vader as a guarantee that the Sith would have final victory, they saw no chance for light to prevail in Anakin. The moment Anakin turned Yoda gave up on him. “Gone your apprentice is, consumed by Darth Vader.” Now, is that to say Yoda was without reason to say this; no. But Luke’s predecessors were less than hopeful for a peaceful and happy ending to their story, so too was Luke. To quote George Lucas “Star Wars is like poetry, it rhymes.” (Or it repeats depending on who you ask). We all know this old quote but Rian Johnson includes one rhyme in TLJ that not many have addressed; Luke Skywalker becomes a new Obi-Wan Kenobi. His beard, his garb, his attitude all mirror Old Ben up to and including a not so subtle call back to the famous “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.” message. Both Luke and Obi-Wan are broken men full of regret who locked themselves away in seclusion and have partially given up on their once profoundly strong beliefs. Upon finding purpose and worthwhile cause, he takes the fight back up and in a final act of Jedi heroism he stands between the Dark Side and the fledgeling rebels to provide an escape by sacrificing himself. Luke becomes Obi-Wan. His whole arc revolves around the three men who shaped him. He fails because of fear of his father’s legacy, he is given final guidance by Yoda, and it culminates in his stepping into Kenobi’s boots and concludes this transformation by bloodlessly facing his greatest failure and sacrificing himself. Luke sees in the end that his failures will stand a lessons for the future Jedi and that he must take back up his identity as a Jedi legend. He learns that failing is step in the road and treats it as such.
HEROES, MARTYRS, LEGENDS
Luke’s decision to come back around acts as a segway into the other theme and point of contention: the folly and values of heroics. Many detractors claim this to be a point of the movie that the film can't make up its mind on, however I see it as a resolution of two extreme sides of the debate to meet in the middle, Luke’s disdain for heroics and hero worship, and Poe and Finn’s over eagerness to be the subject of such heroics act as our opposing sides.
Let's take a break from Luke and focus on Finn and Poe. Poe’s arc is centered around learning when heroics and charging into battle are necessary. Simply put Vice Admiral Holdo doesn't tell Poe her plan because he has been profoundly insubordinate and roguish and clearly cannot be trusted to be a part of the plan to escape the First Order. He is shown by Holdo’s well timed and wholly necessary sacrifice that there is a time to fall back and weigh options and there is a time to act. Martyrs don't win wars. Leaders do. All through Star Wars we rarely see the follies of grandiose heroics. We see characters be chastised for rushing in headlong but we never see real consequences for it...until TLJ. Poe is responsible for the death of dozens, dozens that the Resistance doesn't have to spare. Finn also has a smaller revelation on being a hero. He goes from being only willing to fight for Rey and her safety to being prepared to give his life for the cause. Now I believe the theme of recognizing the folly of heroism is why the Canto Bight B Plot exists. As many critics of it point out it goes practically nowhere and Finn and Rose’s plan falls apart at the seams. This is to show why trying to go head long into these types of conflicts isn't the right thing to do and that it results in loss of time, resources, and very nearly lives. Canto Bight is pointless because Poe’s scheme is small minded and doomed to fail and once he sees the error of his ways he's able to save the newly galvanized Finn from fatally following in his footsteps.
Now to see the other side of this, as previously mentioned Luke turned his back on his legendary name because he saw it as a lie. His legacy and life was a lie to him and when it came down to it, being a legendary Jedi meant nothing when you've let down everyone you love. He must accept that for all their faults and failings the Jedi truly were good for the galaxy at large. No one could take away their influence on the galaxy, no one could take away the lives they saved, and all of that was true of Luke. The galaxy needed a hero now more than ever, and as he always has, Luke Skywalker answered the call. The same way the Jedi’s failings are able to exist in tandem with their accomplishments, so too is the importance of heroism with the pitfalls of it.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Now, we have gone this entire essay without really talking about our co-protagonists. Rey and Kylo Ren represent the two ways we can manifest these realities of the flawed heroes as well as the concept of legacy and how it shapes us. Rey as a character is driven by a longing for kinship and place to call her own. Her status as a nobody who was brought up on the stories of Rebels fighting an Empire and living her life literally in the shadow of those stories. Ben Solo was born of those stories. She craves a legacy, he wishes freedom from his. Snoke makes it clear that he only values Kylo Ren for his heritage and potential as a warrior, not for who he is.
Rey, try as she might cannot make herself a Skywalker or a Solo, she's a nobody; a nobody who is poised to save the entire galaxy from a history of unstable Skywalkers. Rey is a manifestation of the hero worship and Kylo represents the skeptic who's had enough of Jedi vs Sith.
It's no secret that Rey’s parentage was a hotly debated topic leading up to Episode VIII release. Kenobi? Solo? Skywalker? Palpatine? Born of the Force? Binks? Rey is Rey. Her parents don't matter because she is here to forge her own destiny. We as the audience are given a sweet message that our lineage doesn't define us and that we can be bigger than what we think we can be. Kylo Ren shifts from being Vader’s devotee to denouncing all parties but himself and Rey with his desire to do away with the past and its heroes and villains. This thread is TBD as we don't know what direction they will take their legacies yet but it sets up a very exciting ending for them to become what they are meant to be.
THE MEANING OF FAILURE, HEROES, AND LEGACY
Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi is an exercise in subversion and taking what we know and making us question everything we think we know about them. Rian Johnson knew the standard expectations fans had; the Jedi are an unquestionable force for good, bold and brash heroics are the way to go, to be an important player you need to be a part of a legacy, our heroes always do the right thing. Johnson took all of these and made us question the validity of these and when the dust settles we have very nuanced and ernest answers of moderation. If you don't like The Last Jedi, that's perfectly okay, and if we all love everything we lose our ability to debate and have our passionate back and forth as a fandom, but if The Last Jedi rubbed you the wrong hopefully this was able to add a new layer to the film that may help to improve your future viewings of the film.
Article by: Jarod “Dark Jedi” Baughman-Stubbs