Tradition, Myth, and Failure in ‘The Last Jedi’
An ocean of virtual ink has already been spilt on The Last Jedi, including at least two takes that, I think, get a lot right. Rob Bricken explained why “The Last Jedi Killed My Childhood, and That’s Exactly Why It’s Great,” and Jacob Hall argued, “The Last Jedi Doesn’t Care What You Think About Star Wars, and That’s Why It’s Great.” The Last Jedi is an unconventional Star Wars film by design, accounting for its divisiveness and its approach to greatness.
Before I dive in, a note about where I am coming from. I might be accused of being a fanboy — as I explained in a previous post, I am of the generation who grew up with Star Wars and who view it less as entertainment and closer to revelation.
But I strive for something beyond fanboyism; or, at least, something in addition to it. I read films theologically: I look at them as statements of — or, at least, reflections of — underlying world views. Every world view is, at root, about God, man, the world, and how they relate. Star Wars is no different.
That is why, counting this review, I have written over ten thousand words about the meaning of Star Wars (and tens of thousands more about other films). I wrote about the messianic themes of the original. I compared Empire to Greek tragedy. I saw themes of redemption and atonement in Return of the Jedi. And I shared the story of what Star Wars means to me. That might be helpful context for this review.
‘Last Jedi’ is about failure. That’s a good thing.
I felt unsettled walking out of the theater after my first viewing. On the one hand, I recognized that Last Jedi was one of the best directed Star Wars films ever. Rian Johnson managed to put a cohesive directorial vision through the formidable corporate franchise machine and survive. The filmmaking craftsmanship is top-notch and, rare for a blockbuster, there are Important Things and Deep Themes to talk about.
On the other hand, I just didn’t enjoy those themes very much. It is hard to enjoy a movie that is about failure: individual failure, the failure of our mentors and heroes, and the failure of our hopes and dreams. Last Jedi is a profoundly frustrating movie to watch. Every major character makes bad choices and suffers consequences for it.
Poe is too brash; Holdo too aloof and mistrustful. Finn and Rose embark on a harebrained side plot that, in another movie, would save the day against impossible odds. In this one, they failure miserably and get half the Resistance killed. It’s not much fun to watch the good guys act dumb and get massacred. The characters’ stupidity is a feature, not a bug, of Last Jedi.
(Side complaint: it should have been Akbar, not Holdo, who piloted the cruiser on its kamikaze mission. Akbar deserved a better death than what he got).
But consider (as my wife lovingly reminded me): failure is a fact of life. We all fail and we all have our moments of stupidity. Movies, especially big-budget franchise blockbusters, rarely portray failure the way Last Jedi does. The protagonists always face a setback, but a surmountable one. The good guys always win in the end.
That is why blockbusters tend to feel the same. They play the same emotional beats. They hit the same notes: you are special, you can be a hero, you can defeat impossible odds, you can defeat the bad guys. They slide into a monochromatic, homogenous sameness. Pirates of the Jurassic Transformers: Age of Ultron’s Extinction, Part II.
Compared to this, Last Jedi hits a profoundly discordant note. To the same extent, Last Jedi is more truthful. It is truer to life. It speaks about an experience we have all had and will all face again, one which mainstream films obsessively avoid: you will fail, it will hurt, sometimes catastrophically, and an uncaring universe will roll on with or without you.
Yoda tells Luke, in his finest moment on screen since Empire, “Pass on what you have learned, including your failures. Failure, the best teacher is.” This is mature storytelling, and courageous too. It takes major cojones to bet a quarter billion dollars on a blockbuster starring characters who suck at life.
Last Jedi is about breaking free from tradition. Episode IX will fix this.
Another theme of Last Jedi, the one I struggled with the most, is its anti-traditionalism. This is a movie about Luke’s rejection of the Jedi legacy— and, implicitly, Disney’s rejection of Star Wars tradition. But I suspect (and hope) the film’s rejection of tradition is only provisional: it is watered down in part by its own choices and in part by the way it lays groundwork for the next film to re-embrace tradition for a new generation.
Luke and Kylo explicitly reject the past — “kill” it, in Kylo’s words. (It’s interesting that the only person to agree with Luke about breaking free of the past is his antagonist). Luke casually throws his family heirloom lightsaber away. Yoda, wizened repository of Star Wars lore, shows up to burn it all down. These moves are an exclamation point to Disney’s rejection of decades of Star Wars tradition when it threw out the “Expanded Universe” canon, a move that still strikes a sour note.
Being against tradition is quintessentially American, and very stupid. Tradition is the accumulated wisdom of the past, the received lessons of our parents’ mistakes, the antecedent narrative whose storyline we are commissioned to carry forward. Traditions, all else being equal, are good.
Yes, sometimes tradition enshrines bad things, teaches bad lessons, or becomes rigid and oppressive. Tradition needs to be organic and allow for evolution and self-critique. But being against all tradition on principle is as foolish as being slavishly, uncritically accepting of all tradition. Yoda burning down the tree and (we are initially made to think) the Jedi library struck me as dangerously close to a foolish rejection of tradition simply for its own sake, and, on first viewing, I hated it.
The film’s anti-traditionalism is leavened by a few — too few — countervailing notes. Rey, we see in almost the last shot of the film, has taken the Jedi books, saving them from Yoda’s auto-da-fe. She is akin to the Irish monks who saved civilization by preserving its texts. In the next film she is almost certainly going to take up the task Luke abandoned of rebuilding the Jedi Order using the best of the past she can glean from the Jedi library.
Similarly, Luke, for his part, re-embraces his legacy in his final act (more on which below). And Yoda wasn’t as hostile to the Jedi order as he seemed. Rian Johnson explained in a recent interview that Yoda knew Rey had taken the books. When he struck the tree with lightening, he knew he was burning a meaningless symbol empty of content, not the only surviving copy of priceless texts. That’s why he told Luke the books don’t have anything Rey doesn’t already have.
I’m glad to hear that, but for my taste the film doesn’t work hard enough to counter what Luke, Kylo, and Yoda say about the past. It leaves their claims almost entirely unchallenged. Instead, Last Jedi seems to be leaving that task up to the next film. Episode IX is poised to find a new synthesis between the arch-traditionalism of Force Awakens — both loved and criticized for nearly being a remake of the original — and the antithesis of Last Jedi.
If so, we will look back on Last Jedi with more fondness. Even Empire was criticized in its day for how it departed from its predecessor. But you have to leave home in the first place if you ever want the warm joy of a homecoming. Last Jedi tells cold, hard truths we needed to hear about failure, myth, and heroism. Having told those truths, Star Wars is free to go home again.
‘Last Jedi’ is a Painful, Necessary Deconstruction of the Hero Myth — And a New Embrace of It.
The hardest failure and disappointment to grapple with in Last Jedi is Luke Skywalker’s failure as a mentor, and Rey’s (and our) disappointment in him and his legend. For lifelong fans who have waited for 34 years to see our hero back on screen again, the Luke Skywalker of Last Jedi was almost physically painful to watch.
But, again, Luke’s character arc is mature storytelling, startlingly so. In fact, four years ago in my review of the original film, I shared my mixed feelings about the messianism of Luke’s Hero’s Journey and wrote about how I’d like to see it change. The Hero Myth, I wrote,
…suggests that we average people not only yearn for a Messiah, but that we can and should aspire to be the Messiah…Secondly, the Hero Myth reflects an instinctive human desire to immanentize the eschaton; that is, to build heaven on earth, to achieve complete salvation here and now…[These myths] can make us impatient; they can tempt us to look for (or try to become) a saving hero here and now, to achieve that final victory on this earth. That is a form of idolatry, and leads to utopianism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. That leads to the dark side.
Turns out, Luke Skywalker shares my concerns. In The Last Jedi, he has run away from his own legend. He has become a grumpy old man who despises his own legend because of the darkness it led him to. (One flaw in the movie is that it kept too much of this crucial backstory off screen, revisiting it only in brief Rashomon-style flashbacks).
The problem is, despite their danger, we need our heroes and the myths about them. Just as we cannot reject all tradition, we cannot reject all myth. Last Jedi tells that truth in-universe by showing that Rey, and the galaxy, needs to believe in the Legend of Luke Skywalker again. She tells Luke, “The galaxy may need a legend right now.” This is true in the real world: we can’t ceaselessly deconstruct everything and every hero, or we will believe in nothing and fight for nothing.
And our need for heroes is true in a theological sense too. These kind of stories “can be edifying imaginative tools to help us picture and look forward to Revelation 19, when Jesus appears astride a white horse as the Conquering King.” There really is a Messiah, and fantasy stories about make-believe heroes can help train our emotions to recognize the real one.
What to do about our need to have a hero yet guard against hero-worship? Here is the solution I previously offered. Remember, I wrote this four years ago, long before we had the slightest inkling about the direction of the new trilogy.
Here is my vote for how the next movie, or trilogy, must end to become more than just another Hero Myth: Luke must die, and we must see a successor carry on his work. Think of Sam returning from the Grey Havens after Frodo sails away, ready to devote himself to family and Shire. The lone hero is gone, but his work continues through others’ efforts because that is the work that we, who are not the Messiah, have to do until he returns.
Either Rian Johnson was reading my movie blog, or (more likely) he thinks about film the way I do. I was, shall we say, staggered as I saw Luke’s story unfolding. The only thing more surprising than watching the end of Luke Skywalker’s story play out exactly as I suggested was how emotionally unprepared for it I was.
The film soars with its central subject. Rian stages Luke’s face-off against the First Order and Ben Solo with a grandeur unmatched in the Star Wars saga and rarely elsewhere, drawing deeply on Star Wars’ roots in samurai films. The camera work and the choreography in the climactic sequence are gorgeous and majestic, worthy of their subject. As painful as it was to watch Luke despair, to watch him despise his own myth and admit his failings, it was the setup we needed for him to re-embrace his myth, go out in a blaze of shattering glory, and pass on his legacy to those inspired by his heroism in his galaxy and ours. My only complaint is that it was too brief.
Luke’s act leads directly to Last Jedi’s brilliant, breathtaking final shot: the anonymous kid inspired by Luke’s legend, silhouetted against the starlit sky, broom held out like a lightsaber as the familiar music swells. Rian is bringing us back to the beginning: a regular kid, gazing at the horizon, yearning for adventure, inspired by heroes of yore. There is nothing more quintessentially Star Wars than this, and if Rian sacrificed everything else and burned it all down so that he could reaffirm this one image, it was a price worth paying, for it found greatness.