Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I Hate you — Don’t Leave Me

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”
— Kylo Ren
“Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” — Master Yoda

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars film ever made. It’s a breath of fresh air and bold injection of new ideas that both expand on the Star Wars universe and challenge others that have long been taken for granted. And yet, it has torn the Star Wars community in half. The reviews are sharply divided between fans and critics:

By contrast, The Force Awakens and Rogue One received equal amounts of praise from both camps:

What happened?

The answer, I think, has something to do with these two questions:

  • Who and what is Star Wars ultimately about?
  • What does this scene mean to you?

Let me explain.

When Disney announced it had purchased Star Wars for $4.05 billion, my heart stopped. I froze, unable to articulate any words or thoughts about what I had just read.

“Cautiously optimistic?”

A question. That’s all I could offer as a response whenever friends and family asked for my thoughts regarding the acquisition. I didn’t know what this would mean for the future of the franchise, or how this would retroactively color my interpretation of what the films meant and stood for until that point.

The problem with talking about Star Wars the way we talk about other disposable forms of entertainment is that, for many of us, talking about it in such a way tarnishes and diminishes the importance of its influence and shaping of many of our earliest, most primitive childhood memories.

Do you remember your first Christmas? Your first birthday parties? What you told mom and dad you hoped Santa would bring you every year? The gifts you received for good grades in school? The ways you entertained yourself in a world before the internet, smartphones, and streaming media?

Do you remember what subjects you would bond over with the very first people you’d call your friends? If you ever lived through the divorce of your parents and moved to another country, would you remember the very last movie you watched with your dad the day before flying out? The books you checked out with your very first library card?

I do. And there’s nothing unique about my life. For millions of us, many of our cherished and most precious childhood memories are intimately linked with the adventures of Han, Luke, and Leia.

For Kevin Smith, one of those memories is of his best childhood friend Pete:

With no access to the actual Star Wars films until the VCR was made affordable to the average consumer, we’d create our own Star Wars adventures. The best story (and the only one outside of the movie canon that we’d repeatedly play) wasn’t about Luke and Leia: It was about inexplicable fan-fave Boba Fett — the intergalactic bounty hunter who brings a carbonite-frozen Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt.
The plot of our backyard adventure: Boba Fett gets trapped by robotic gunslinger IG-88 in a Star Wars universe time loop, sending him through all the movies as well as moments only referenced in the flicks. In some eras, he’s a hero — even getting to kiss Princess Leia instead of Luke (this was before Return of the Jedi made ’em relatives). Other times when the chrono-belt pulled him into another era, Fett’s the villain he’s always known as in the flicks.
One morning shortly after Clerks happened to me, I got the absolute shit news that Pete King had been hit by a car in New York City. I asked how long his recovery would be only to learn the awful truth: Pete had died.
Not a summer goes by when I don’t think about Pete or our ongoing saga of Boba Fett lost in time. So when I heard about Disney’s $4 billion Lucasfilm acquisition, naturally I had a brief, one-sided conversation with my former best friend.
“We might finally get to see that Fett flick we always dreamed about, Pete,” I said aloud at my desk after I read the news.

For better or worse, these are more than just movies for many of us. They are the anchors in our memories that transport us to those brief moments in time when we were full of boundless optimism, joy, and a childlike wonder we’ve never been able to rediscover. Star Wars was my Christmas. Star Wars is Kevin Smith’s reminder of his long gone friend. Our identities are intimately nested with the history of this series, and from that lens we can begin to understand why backlash can often take the oh-my-god-it’s-the-end-of-the-word tone we’re seeing from fans.

What is Star Wars really about?

A good place to start is by asking its creator, George Lucas:

“The secret, ultimately, which is the bottom line in Star Wars and the other movies is there are two kinds of people in the world. Compassionate people and selfish people.
Selfish people live on the dark side. The compassionate people live on the light side. If you go to the side of the light, you will be happy because compassion, helping other people, not thinking about yourself, thinking about others, that gives you a joy that you can’t get any other way. Being selfish, following your pleasures, always entertaining yourself with pleasure and buying things and doing stuff, you’re always going to be unhappy. You’ll never get to the point. You’ll get this little instant shot of pleasure, but it goes away and then you’re stuck where you were before. The more you do it, the worse it gets.
You finally get everything you want and you’re miserable because there’s nothing at the end of that road, whereas if you are compassionate and you get to the end of the road, you’ve helped so many people.”— George Lucas

Perhaps a reason for the massive success of this franchise is its simplicity. Star Wars is, at heart, a classic tale of good and evil told in space. Good guys use the blue swords, bad guys use the red ones, they duke it out, good ultimately wins, and we all leave the theater with far more optimism than we had before.

But this isn’t the only way to interpret Star Wars. The intention of a writer, in this case Lucas, is clearly one interpretation for a literary or cinematic work. But the intentions of an author do not settle the question of what it all means. To assume that authorial intention is the only legitimate interpretation of a work is to commit the intentional fallacy. Lucas’s view is but one among a whole range of possible ways to interpret and understand the underlying messages and ideologies within a work of fiction.

The Last Jedi does not follow in the footsteps of Lucas. The Last Jedi is, at bottom, a film made by a director with a fundamentally different idea of the underlying philosophical foundations of this universe. The modern Star Wars fanbase can be divided into two camps: StarWars as black and white idealist escapism, and Star Wars as shades of grey realism. The simple view comes from Lucas. The latter is a branch stemming from the long-standing critiques authored by David Brin.

“Stars Wars belongs to our dark past. A long, tyrannical epoch of fear, illogic, despotism and demagoguery that our ancestors struggled desperately to overcome, and that we are at last starting to emerge from, aided by the scientific and egalitarian spirit that Lucas openly despises.”
— David Brin

Brin forcefully criticizes the naïveté of George Lucas, characterizing his established universe as:

“A chance to drop back into childhood and punt your adult cares away for two hours, dwelling in a lavish universe where good and evil are vividly drawn, without all the inconvenient counterpoint distinctions that clutter daily life.
When the chief feature distinguishing “good” from “evil” is how pretty the characters are, it’s a clue that maybe the whole saga deserves a second look.”

The values inherent to the StarWars universe imparted by George Lucas are morally odious, according to Brin. Values such as:

  • Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn’t be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.
  • “Good” elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.
  • Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.
  • True leaders are born. It’s genetic.
  • The right to rule is inherited. Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.

Central to Brin’s critique of Lucas’s naïve moralizing is the so-called redemption story of Anakin Skywalker, whom Lucas has always considered to be the entire focus of the movies:

“I get asked all the time, ‘What happens after “Return of the Jedi”?,’ and there really is no answer for that,” he said. “The movies were the story of Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker, and when Luke saves the galaxy and redeems his father, that’s where that story ends.”

Lucas further confirms this in the New Yorker piece Letter from Skywalker Ranch:

The scripts for the prequel, which Lucas is finishing now, make it clear that Star Wars, taken as a whole story and viewed in chronological order, is not really the story of Luke at all but the story of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, and how he, a Jedi Knight, was corrupted by the dark side of the Force and became Darth Vader. When I asked Lucas what Star Wars was ultimately about, he said, “Redemption.”

There is no ambiguity in how Brin feels about Lucas’ ideas regarding the redemption of Anakin Skywalker:

To put it in perspective, let’s imagine that the United States and its allies managed to capture Adolf Hitler at the end of the Second World War, putting him on trial for war crimes. The prosecution spends months listing all the horrors done at his behest. Then it is the turn of Hitler’s defense attorney, who rises and utters just one sentence:
“But, your honors … Adolf did save the life of his own son!”
Gasp! The prosecutors blanch in chagrin. “We didn’t know that! Of course all charges should be dismissed at once!”
The allies then throw a big parade for Hitler, down the avenues of Nuremberg.
It may sound silly, but that’s exactly the lesson taught by “Return of the Jedi,” wherein Darth Vader is forgiven all his sins, because he saved the life of his own son.
To his credit, Lucas does not try to excuse this macabre joke by saying, “It’s only a movie.” Rather, he holds up his saga like an agonized Greek tragedy worthy of “Oedipus” — an epic tale of a fallen hero, trapped by hubris and fate. But if that were true, wouldn’t “Star Wars” by now have given us a better-than-caricature view of the Dark Side? Heroes and villains would not be distinguished by mere prettiness; the moral quandaries would not come from a comic book.

This is why I think The Last Jedi comes from a very different science fiction tradition than the one exemplified by Lucas’s and Abrams’s treatments of the franchise before it. A tradition that seeks to undermine the entire edifice propped up by George, whose own tradition:

“Revels in elites, while the other rebels against them. In the genuine science-fiction worldview, demigods aren’t easily forgiven lies and murder. Contempt for the masses is passi. There may be heroes — even great ones — but in the long run we’ll improve together, or not at all.”

This is the Luke Skywalker that we see in The Last Jedi. The Luke Skywalker that seeks to shatter the illusion of his own legend. The Luke Skywalker that sarcastically asks Rey what it is she thinks he can do against the entire army of the New Order. This is not the Luke Skywalker of Return of the Jedi. This is Luke Skywalker, the failed hero. Luke failed his nephew and student Ben Solo when, in a moment of weakness, he ignited his lightsaber, ready to kill him in his sleep. He failed Ben by succumbing to his own fear, a fear grounded in a force vision Luke took to be fixed and inevitable. By failing Ben, Luke failed the galaxy he had once saved from darkness. Ben’s fall to the dark side destroyed the new Jedi order. Luke failed, as a teacher, mentor, and as a jedi.

Star Wars fans seem to take it for granted that once Luke overcame the temptation of the dark side in his battle against the Emperor, his character arc was complete. And yet we all know temptation does not work this way. Overcoming vices or the pull to the dark side is a lifelong process, not a single event.

The Last Jedi undermines the idea that the galaxy can be saved, if only the proper hero would emerge. The small grain of optimism we find in this movie is found only at the end, with the birth of a new rebellion from the ashes of the New Republic. The symbol of hope for the galaxy is not that of the Jedi Order, but of the rebellion.

A grassroots resistance by the people.

“I only know one truth — it’s time for the Jedi to end.”
— Luke Skywalker

Brin isn’t the only author to have roundly morally criticized the basic assumptions underlying the Star Wars universe. A much hated former author of Star Wars novels, Karen Traviss, has been equally vicious in her expressions of disdain for the jedi:

“I’m troubled by deferential forelock-tugging to supposed genetic superiors at the best of times, which is why I personally find the genetic Jedi concept sinister, but there’s an especially disturbing kind of arse-kissing that makes me recoil. It’s the kind that says the Jedi are always justified when they do seriously bad shit, because — well, they’re the good guys, and what good guys do is never bad, right?
Now, if you like Jedi because Luke is basically an ordinary guy who finds the hero in himself, great. If you like lightsabers and impossible martial arts moves, bully for you. If it’s just fun for you, and you don’t feel mortally wounded when someone suggests that the Jedi might not actually be completely perfect, fine. You pass the harmless test.
But once you’re past the age of puberty and you start arguing passionately with me that the Jedi were right to accept a slave army of cloned human beings and use them in war, and cloned humans aren’t proper humans like us, and it was too bad the clones died, and the Jedi had no choice — well, sweetheart, I want to run a mile from you. Not the Jedi, who — just to remind you — are a figment of various writers’ imaginations, just like the clones. You. If I see that you really mean it, and you’re making excuses in your own mind for the Jedi just following orders on that delicate point, then you scare the living crap out of me. For real.”

There can be no doubt that the Luke Skywalker we meet in episode 8 is far closer to holding a view about the jedi much closer to Karen Traviss’s than the romanticized memory shared by old Ben:

“For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi

In fact, the only two lessons Rey receives from Luke involve his negative attitudes towards the jedi:

  • Lesson One: The Jedi are unnecessary. They don’t own the light, and the Force will continue to work for the good of the galaxy with or without them.
  • Lesson Two: The Jedi have a history of failure. At the height of their power, they allowed Darth Sidious to take over the galaxy and create the Empire. Obi-Wan Kenobi was responsible for the training of Darth Vader.

Much to the disappointment of fans and their two years of endless speculation, Rey’s parents are wholly inconsequential. The force picked her, a scavenger from a middle of nowhere planet, as its emissary to fight the darkness brought on by someone who is the inheritor of the royal and precious Skywalker bloodline. The countless rumors and mysteries surrounding her parentage were controversially put to an end in the most anti-climactic fashion imaginable: there is nothing special about Rey. At least, nothing special about her lineage.

JJ Abrams may retcon this revelation in episode 9, but that would be a shame. There is nothing interesting whatsoever about Rey being linked to other famous figures within the Star Wars universe. What’s ironic about the backlash regarding Rey’s background is that, consciously or not, those criticizing Johnson for deflating this mystery seem to agree with Kylo Ren when he says:

Kylo: Do you want to know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? And you’ve just hidden it away. You know the truth. Say it. Say it.
Rey: They were nobody.
Kylo: They were filthy junk traders who sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead in a paupers’ grave in the Jakku desert. You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me.

Is that really the hill Star Wars fans want to die on? Defending a view that your value, worth, and place in a story is contingent on your family background? Is that what Star Wars is really about?

Maybe. If you’re George Lucas. But this isn’t what Star Wars should be. And here’s one of the biggest reasons why I disagree so strongly with critics of The Last Jedi. I understand that for many people this film didn’t feel like a Star Wars movie. It’s a departure from and deconstruction of ideas we’ve taken for granted as integral to the structure and foundations of this universe. If what you like and want out of Star Wars is a classic black and white tale of good and evil, then a departure from Lucas’s vision is understandably going to be a cause for disappointment and outrage. If, on the other hand, you’re ready for the Star Wars universe to grow up and mature with the rest of us, then this departure is long overdue.

I get it though. I suspect one reason for much of the backlash is the hopeless tone of the movie. We want Star Wars to reassure us that evil is easy to spot and easily defeated. We want the good guys to blow up the death star while suffering few casualties, most of whom we barely ever get to know. We want optimism and joy out of these films, because that’s what they gave us as children. Especially given our toxic political climate and the despair many of us feel with regards to the bleakness of the future. If Star Wars can’t be our form of escape, what can be?

That’s the second reason I think is behind this backlash. Our heroes failed. The last shot of Return of the Jedi is a happy one. Our heroes standing together after defeating the Emperor and destroying his Death Star. Darth Vader redeemed and standing alongside the ghosts of master Yoda and Ben Kenobi. For decades, we didn’t know the details of exactly what happened after this scene, but our minds (or the expanded universe) filled those gaps. Our heroes lived happily ever after, or faced future struggles which were themselves overcome. What’s crucial is that they succeeded.

The Last Jedi shatters those illusions. We never even see the gang back together. The conflict continues and we’re left wondering what, if anything, was achieved by the victories of the original trilogy.

Han is dead. Luke is dead. Leia lives, but we all know Carrie Fisher’s death haunts her every scene throughout the film. The New Republic is gone, and our rebels are slowly being picked off. The film was psychologically taxing throughout because of the weight it imbued on the deaths of every rebel casualty. It had far more in common with Battlestar Galactica than any previous Star Wars film in its portrayal of the hopeless situation our heroes find themselves in:

In this film, Poe Dameron sort of represents the way that Star Wars has typically treated the concept of war: a heroic effort of blowing up the bad guys despite the odds and with little regard to the loss of life. Sure, we get some occasional glances and throwaway lines, but for the most part the deaths of pilots and soldiers is never an issue, and we certainly never see discussed the loss of life as it pertains to the bad guys. But in the last Jedi we’re suddenly thrust into this scenario where literally only four hundred good guys are left, and as the movie progresses we end with only a handful.
The loss of life is keenly felt. No one is cannon fodder anymore, as we start to recognize faces across scenes and realize that these are people, they’re not just cogs in a machine to bring down the bad guys. Every single person matters, so the focus really shifts from destroying the enemy to preserving life in general, which is the revelation that Luke passes on to Rey.
The force is life and the universe itself, not ideology. The Jedi don’t represent the light just as the Sith don’t represent the dark. Light and dark as good and evil are ideological, not natural. Everyone, good and evil, is part of the interconnecting and balance that holds the universe together.

The final scene in The Last Jedi marks a fork in the road where the direction of the Star Wars franchise would inevitably split the fanbase. I left the theater in tears. All I could think was “This is how my heroes died, and they didn’t even get to say goodbye.”

There is much to nitpick about this movie. It is far from perfect. Some decisions were silly, others indefensible, while others are okay to overlook. This is Star Wars after all. But I think the nitpicking masks the real underlying tension behind the polarization of the fan base. The film defied expectations, and whether you’re okay with that depends on whether the franchise is better off remaining faithful to George Lucas’s original vision or if, like me, you think it’s about time we listened to the lessons of David Brin.

I think it’s a masterpiece. But dammit, growing up is hard.

“First comes the day
Then comes the night.
After the darkness
Shines through the light.
The difference, they say,
Is only made right
By the resolving of gray
Through refined Jedi sight.” — Journal of the Whills