Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Killing the Past

With Episode VIII now out on all video/on demand platforms, and therefore finally viewed by me, I’m now ready to dust off this poor neglected blog and try to contribute a bit of analysis to the themes of this latest Star War and its place in the combative cultural environment it wound up in. Because after sitting on it for a couple of days, I was surprised to find that it stuck with me in a way that most of the other Star Wars movies did not. And it all comes down to perspective.

I am 35 years old. Not “old” by most measures, but certainly not “young”. I’m not even middle aged yet, but I still find myself dwelling on the concept of ageing, the fleeting nature of youth, relevance, and the difficulty of keeping up with ever-accelerating cultural change. I think about this a lot (too much), so the dawning realization of how deeply baked in the theme of “killing the past” is to The Last Jedi gave me a lot to chew on.

The Force Awakens Inverse

Before I get to the meaty part of this whole thing, I of course am obligated to acknowledge the considerable backlash against The Last Jedi. However, I am NOT going to waste too many pixels on the alt-right reaction and their ridiculous review bombing bitch fest. To be honest, I was expecting a lot more overt woke olympics content based on that reaction, and in reality there’s almost none. There are women in leading roles that are not love interests, and a few people of color likewise, that’s it. If that irritates you on its face, all I can say to that is: “seek help.”

But there was an equally strong backlash from mentally stable audiences and general Star Wars fanatics as well, and I find that fact pretty interesting. Yes, there are plenty of nits to pick here…

OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING

For example, Leia’s much maligned Mary Poppins moment when she saves her own life after being blown out into the vacuum of space using heretofore unseen Force abilities. Or the second act detour on Canto Bight that seems to exist solely to give Finn something to keep him busy, and to utilize even-less-significant new character Rose. The sequence grinds the film’s momentum to a halt, fails to add any critical developments to the plot, and culminates in a destined-to-age-badly CGI stampede that recalled the worst imagery of the Prequels.

Many of the complaints from the hardcore fan community revolve around the fast and loose treatment of Force powers – several of which are conveniently debuted in this movie. The Force can now be used to video conference two people. It can be used to astral project a duplicate of yourself in another place, like Loki in the Thor movies. And it can even enable a dead Jedi (in this case, a delightful actual-puppet Yoda) to physically act upon the real world as a ghost. Personally, I always viewed the Force as a catch-all plot convenience – vaguely defined with unexplored limits, and I’m easily able to forgive stretching the believability of it given that it’s Star Wars’ most overtly mystical element.

For those who have more substantial misgivings about the film as a whole, I can’t help but wonder how much of that comes down to the subversion of expectations set by The Force Awakens. Commercially that film was a massive hit, and no slouch critically as well. However, the most common criticism was that it traded too much in nostalgia for the original trilogy, and ultimately felt like a stealth remake of a New Hope with better special effects. I shared this criticism, and although I liked the film OK, it felt like junk food to me. Satisfying in the moment, and quickly forgotten. I feared the same would be true of The Last Jedi, and I even winced slightly in the opening space dogfight when they pulled the whole 360 degree whirly bird cockpit shot on Kylo Ren. Was this going to be just a soft remake of Empire Strikes Back?

But it’s not. In fact by the time the film was through I was left with the sense that Rian Johnson, and whomever conceived of the main plot elements, were reacting directly to criticism of The Force Awakens in developing this followup. I see that as a fairly brilliant – and risky – move, given the safe commercial triumph of the previous film. If Star Wars is going to last as long as Disney wants it to (read: forever), it needs to be willing to tread new ground. To let the past die.

So while Force Awakens was an avalanche of fan service, callbacks, and textural recreations of A New Hope, The Last Jedi almost brazenly refuses to give the audience such simple pleasures. Sure, Luke Skywalker, Leia, R2, C-3PO, Chewie and even Yoda are all back, and there are multiple space dogfights and lightsaber duels, assorted aliens in the background of a social setting, and so on. But the plot subverts expectations at every turn. YET ANOTHER SPOILER WARNING JUST TO BE SAFE Who are Rey’s mysterious parents? Nobodies. Who is Supreme Leader Snoke actually? Just another dictator. What has become of legendary hero Luke Skywalker in his winter years? He’s damaged, bitter, and tormented by failure. It would all be pretty depressing if it weren’t for the generous moments of levity throughout. But it isn’t sad for the sake of being sad. It’s all in service to the larger theme, which encompasses both of the text of the film and the meta narrative outside of it.

Clinging to the Past Versus Killing the Past

It’s all right there in the trailer, in Kylo Ren’s voiceover: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”

While Rey is working on her kind of crappy Jedi training with Luke, she’s secretly having Forcetime sessions (not my term) with Kylo, and sensing that classic conflict within him of dark vs. light. She decides to make it her mission to save him the way Luke “saved” Vader. Luke is having none of it. “This is not going to go the way you think.” He sees Kylo Ren as a lost cause, the Jedi as failure, and the only hope worth having is to save one’s own hide. It’s heartbreaking to see, and of course we want and expect Luke to be wrong. But it turns out, in the most critical moment, that Rey and Luke are both kind of right, and both kind of wrong about our Nu-Vader. He kills Snoke and draws lightsabers alongside Rey in the film’s most thrilling battle, just before revealing that he doesn’t actually buy into any of this “light side/dark side” business. The Jedi, the Sith, the resistance, the Order – all just “old things”. And the only thing to do with old things is toss them aside, much as Luke casually tossed aside his own lightsaber in the film’s opening moments.

It’s a chilling but wonderfully understandable point of view. What have we actually achieved from these centuries of continuous galactic struggle? Luke and his rebels destroyed two Death Stars and brought the Empire to its knees, only for the First Order to pick up all those old Stormtrooper outfits and pull the same shenanigans all over again. Under Snoke, Kylo Ren received constant ridicule until he decided to use a bit of praise as a form of manipulation. In his Ben Solo years, training to be a Jedi, Kylo witnessed his own master make an attempt on his life because he was deemed too dangerous. One would understandably be fed up with the whole routine.

Ironically Luke, his greatest nemesis, feels basically the same way. He too was burnt by tradition and expectation, except that his reaction was to draw away from the universe into his own seclusion, and Kylo’s was to ascend to the top of the ruins of the old world and lead the way (violently) into the future. Kylo is an extremist. To him, everything old is worthless, and must make way for the new, or be destroyed. Luke is ready for the Jedi to end, but he still flinches when Yoda sets fire to the sacred Jedi tree and the ancient texts within.

This is where my own perspective comes into play. I see elements of Kylo’s “destroy the past” philosophy reflected in the culture of today, as well as the failures of Luke Skywalker as a stand-in for the previous generation. There’s an arrogance to youth in the rush to discard previous institutions and ways of thinking in the service of driving the engine of change, just as there’s a resentment and mistrust of youth among the aged. The two conflicting flashbacks of how Kylo’s Jedi training came to a violent end perfectly reflect those contrasting viewpoints. As Luke stands over Kylo Ren, lightsaber drawn, Kylo sees an fearful old man trying to snuff out the future – Luke sees an overpowered, inexperienced kid destined to destroy everything and everyone he holds dear. At that moment, they both become villains.

In the middle is Rey, Finn, Poe, and what remains of the resistance. As always, wisdom lies in the balance between two extremes. Rey still believes in the Jedi and the way of Light, Finn and Poe and Rose still believe in the Resistance. And in fact, the First Order is still kicking at the end of this movie too, just that Kylo Ren has usurped the leadership and is planning to do… something. We’ll have to wait for Episode IX to find out. But as Episode XIII closes on a shot of a another child “nobody” gazing up at the stars, visibly inspired by tales of the legendary Luke Skywalker and his rebel heroes, the movie establishes the conclusion of its theme: Don’t cling too tightly to the past. Let it inspire your future.

The Story Continues…

I am right at that age where I can start to feel what it’s like to lose touch with the modern world. My “youth” is so close in memory that I can’t yet identify as an “aged” person, but I’m also largely ignorant of popular music, and slipping behind the curve on new technology and how the young are interacting with that technology. I have no interest in watching people play video games on YouTube, yet scores of millionaires are somehow being made in that way. Not to belabor the point, but it’s very weird to still have fresh, vivid memories of high school, while knowing that actual high school (and college) students look at you and see an old guy.

All this is to say that the themes of The Last Jedi resonated with me. The entire film is less a push-pull between the nebulous forces of Light and Dark, and more about the friction between the past and the future, each attempting to exert their will on the present in the form of the young and the old. At times I feel like Rey, enamored with past glories and eager to carry on traditions that will prevent the future from consuming itself in its own excess. Other times I feel like Luke, questioning the point of it all, overwhelmed by the continued triumphs of evil in the world, and wondering if that simply IS the future no matter what I do. But I never feel as nihilistic as Kylo Ren. I know that the past has value, as do some of its institutions, while others must necessarily die in order for humanity to move forward. And I know that change is both inevitable and necessary. It can be good, bad, or neutral, but it always just IS. I think maybe the way we keep ourselves from turning to our own dark side is being able to clearly see what’s actually worth fighting for.

“That’s how we win. Not by killing the ones we hate, but saving the ones we love”

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