So, if you haven’t seen The Last Jedi, you should probably stop reading right about now. I would never presume to tell you the odds, but I’m pretty sure I’m about to spoil the film for you.
I understand why some are frustrated by The Last Jedi. I’m still uneasy with how they handled Carrie Fisher’s untimely death, with what was essentially a first act fake out. I was pretty disappointed in Snoke going out like a punk (though he was, in fact, a punk) and that probably tampered some of the thrill of Rey and Kylo, back to back, wrecking Snoke’s guards in the red room. But we let’s Force-push the criticism that “all these jokes don’t belong in Star Wars” down the Sarlacc Pit.
It’s obvious now that Rian Johnson was game to make a sequel but not interested in making a remake. When Luke looks at that legendary Skywalker lightsaber and flips it over the cliff, we can tell this is going to be different sort of Star Wars movie. Ultimately, I think Johnson is trying to do some multi-level accounting for … why this universe exists at all. And it’s not to be an unjust war allegory or a vessel for Abram/Maz’s mystery box. Who’s Rey’s parents? What’s up with Snoke? Can we get some logical explanation for the rise of the First Order. No one, nothing, and Johnson doesn’t really care, and that’s kind of the point. So some people are mad.
I’d like to argue that Johnson’s dilemma as creative dude, though, is the same dilemma that Kylo, Luke, and Rey are dealing with in The Last Jedi. Namely, how do we balance what came before and find our own path for our own time?
Kylo is trying to balance the Force by literally killing anyone and destroying anything from the past. “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” he tells Rey in one of their Chatroulette sessions. “That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”
When Kylo smashes his silly Vader mask, his agenda is now to erase it all. But by trying to destroy the past, he’s really just re-enacting it. Every move he makes is essentially one that his grandfather made before. Kill his closest male mentor. Kill the Supreme Leader/Emperor. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy! Johnson and (the incredible) Adam Driver add the “please.” Because this is a confused (all-powerful) emo teenager desperately trying to find his place in the Skywalker legacy. Star Wars is both big and small. The fate of galaxy basically decided by one family’s succeeding mommy and daddy issues.
Luke shrugs it all off. Forget it. Forget the Jedi. Luke’s seen the prequels. He speaks our truth when he lays for Rey the fall of the Jedi Order. At the height of their powers, the Jedi fell for the ol’ “oops this Sith Lord we’ve been wondering about is actually the Chancellor who works down the hall who we let gain dictatorial powers over the galactic senate.” And then the Jedi alienat Anakin Skywalker (their prophesied Force Jesus) and let Darth Sidious and Anakin destroy all the Jedi and galactic democracy. That’s a pretty big L.
So the Jedi failed, then Luke failed Ben Solo. Huh, maybe this Jedi way doesn’t really work after all.
Rey’s our avatar through a lot of this. She’s asking questions and taking names. What’s happening to me? Who are my parents? She’s driven by curiosity and longing to belong more than legacy. What darkness must she overcome to be a Jedi? What’s in her cave? Not her father, not a legacy, but a mirror–Rey to the power of infinity. The hero at the center of our story is a nobody, not a Palpetine or Kenobi or Skywalker descendent. And in making her so, Johnson is beginning to restore the balance in the Star Wars ™ universe.
Why do we like Star Wars anyway? Well, laser swords are very cool. I want have a plastic one. I also happen to hate Nazis and love a great jacket]. Porgs! Porgs for dinner? No, Chewy no! Also pew pew! Say it with me, “we are the spark, that will light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down.” Rebellions are built on hope! Hero Story in Space! Benicio! Laura Dern! If I love you and you know it, don’t let me become a decoration.
How about these love triangles!
Finn – Rey – Kylo (you can’t make him put a shirt on!)
Rose – Finn – Rey
Finn – BB8 – Poe
And look at that … no one is related this time!
For some, Star Wars is a little deeper than that. So how can Johnson balance the originals, prequels, and the ground J.J. Abrams laid with Force Awakens. Abram’s Force Awakens succeeded in moments that felt transformative but are eventually fleeting. The Millenium Falcon hurtling through the clouds. Harrison Ford sighing, “Yeah, I knew Luke.” Rey pressing that lightsaber at Luke. (Abrams’ casting was also perfect).
But like our favorite emo Force prodigy, Abrams found his balance in imitation. Walk the path that’s been walked before. Follow the beat and blow up their big gun. He built his movie on his mystery box of parentage and Big Mysterious Bad. He forgot that while the original Star Wars certainly had its famous reveal, up until that point we thought we knew who Luke’s dad was, until we didn’t. It hit us like a fathier, because we weren’t waiting for. For Abrams, the waiting is the whole game.
And so Rian Johnson grabs the mic. And Luke flips his father’s lightsaber off the cliff. That seems like a hint, no? Kylo will use that same lightsaber to punk Snoke. Kylo-as-Ben and Rey will put an end the its run as the most symbolically important weapon in the universe–because of who’s wielded it. Anakin to Luke to Ben to Rey. Skywalkers all, except for one.
That lightsaber is basically the symbol of how over three generations, a family squabble has torn AN ENTIRE GALAXY apart. And who’s profited? Johnson shows us. It’s the folks in Casino City–selling guns to the bad guys and the good guys. The implication of “we gotta push these toys!” has stretched this universe beyond the point I think Lucas imagined when he was dreaming up Kurosawa meets Joseph Campbell in space. This is what Kylo is trying to purge. He’s trying to address the same problem as Luke, the corruption of this story by one family and a dumb mystery box, when it was really all about looking up at two moons or some stars and making weird noises when you’re alone in a barn with a broom.
Yoda has a different solution to the same problem. Pass on what you’ve learned, he tells Luke again. Pass on your failures. Don’t pretend the prequels didn’t exist. Don’t build this story on mysteries and a magical bloodline. “Wars not make one great,” looking at you Poe.
Another Yoda quote came to mind during Luke’s showdown with Kylo.
“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” Yoda tells Luke and pinches his shoulder. Well, that’s exactly what Luke does in the end. The Luke who struts in winking to C3PO and says “See you around kid” is a Force-projection, not too different from a Force ghost. It’s new vs the old. But Kylo can’t touch Luke. He’s pure light. And that doesn’t mean pure good. I think it’s meant as history. You can’t fight the past, Kylo. And for the first time in two years, we don’t really know what’s coming next, which is awesome.