“This is not going to go the way you think.” – Luke Skywalker
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams sought to prop up and revitalize the most popular film franchise in movie history, to preserve its qualities in amber for a new generation. The Force Awakens was very concerned about what you, the moviegoer and fan, thinks about Star Wars. It wants to please you. It wants to be comfort food. And it’s very, very good at that.
But with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson wants to burn Star Wars to the ground. Not because he harbors ill will toward it, but because he loves it. He loves it so much that he wants to cleanse the garden and allow something fresh and new to grow. The Last Jedi is not concerned about what you, the moviegoer and fan, thinks about Star Wars. It wants to challenge you and make you question what Star Wars is and what it can be
(This post contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.)
An Answer to the Ellipsis
Star Wars: The Force Awakens concludes with one helluva cliffhanger. The Force-sensitive Rey arrives on the planet Ahch-To, tracks down the elusive Jedi master Luke Skywalker, and offers him his long-lost lightsaber. Luke’s face flashes with a dozen different emotions. You can practically feel the words crawling up his throat. And then the film ends, to be continued in two years. It’s a grand moment. An epic moment. A perfect finale for a film built out of questions and mysteries, a film about legacies and the shadows they leave behind.
And when we return to that scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Luke Skwalker accepts the lightsaber from Rey, examines it for a hot second, and casually tosses it over his shoulder. From its opening scenes, The Last Jedi makes it very clear where it stands – everything you thought this movie was going to be is incorrect. The symbols you hold dear, the symbols that J.J. Abrams held so dear in your stead, are being deliberately stripped of their power. If that shakes you, if that upsets you…well, that’s just Rian Johnson preparing you for what’s next. Abrams left him with an ellipsis, a “to be continued” that felt like a specific path. And Johnson takes a hard left turn in his land speeder, breaks through a fence, and goes off track into the wilderness.
Star Wars has gone off the rails. Either you’re going to be on board for the bumpy ride to a new place or you’re not. But the intentions are made early and they’re made perfectly clear.
Mark Hamill famously disagreed with Johnson on the direction of Luke Skywalker when he first read the screenplay for The Last Jedi, and it’s clear why. Luke, the farm boy who became a war hero who became a warrior knight who became his father’s savior, has fallen into disgrace. While The Force Awakens featured a Han Solo falling back into his old scoundrel ways (a position of comfort for those worried about a watered-down take on a character who was at his best when he wasn’t playing nice), The Last Jedi features a Luke Skywalker that is unlike anything we’ve seen before – a broken shell of a man who believes that everything he fought for and achieved was for naught. By telling young Rey that none of this matters, he’s also telling the audience the same thing. The stuff you love? The details that have reshaped pop culture and created a geek language that everyone speaks? Yeah, they’re wonky. Or rather, they’re broken. Your faith was flawed.
Luke’s hopelessness is especially affecting because the film is clearly on his side. This is not a movie where a plucky young Jedi-to-be shows up at the old master’s doorstep and teaches him how to hope again. This is a movie where a flawed old man with a lifetime of victories and regrets informs the decisions of a new generation of young heroes who need to find a new way to hope. Clearly, the old ways didn’t work because darkness rises again and there are still tyrannical man-babies trying to be the next Darth Vader. There’s a flaw in the system, buried too deep for most to see, and the only solution is to burn it all down.
The Last Jedi chooses to make this literal, as Luke Skywalker, wild and enraged, moves to burn down the ancient tree housing the ancient Jedi texts. But he doesn’t get to do it. Instead, the ghost of Yoda, the wizened master who trained him decades earlier, arrives, summons a lightning bolt, and does the job for him. This Yoda (once again depicted with a physical puppet after years of being a CGI creation) is very much the character we first met in The Empire Strikes Back – eccentric and wise and silly and profound in equal measure, the kind of old weirdo who has found grace and power in just letting go.
Johnson is clearly not a fan of the militarized, commanding Yoda of the prequels and the animated Clone Wars TV show. This Yoda cackles as he burns down what remains of the Jedi religion, the court jester whose mischief always carries greater meaning. This Yoda knows what Luke knows – the order to which he dedicated his long life is gone, and trying to recapture it is a fool’s errand. Why resurrect an archaic institution that cannot serve a new generation when you can let that new generation build something new for itself? Even Luke, a noble man who believed in the hidden goodness of Darth Vader, gave into his darkest feelings and considered murdering young Ben Solo in his sleep. The old ways failed Luke. They failed Ben. They will fail the Resistance. Luke knows this through anger and regret. Yoda knows this through wisdom and perspective.
It’s important that Johnson lets Yoda burn it all down and not Luke – the passing of the torch is not just the result of the failure of an old man who learned things the hard way, but it comes with the blessing of the wisest character in Star Wars canon. Luke knows that the Jedi must end, that they do not monopolize the Force, and that evil has flourished on their watch. But where Luke saw despair, Yoda sees a chance for renewal. Where J.J. Abrams saw a warm and comforting blanket that makes you feel really good, Rian Johnson sees that stagnation is the death of all things. Stagnation leads to Empires and First Orders. Hitting the reset button, breaking the machine, leads to revolutions. And after 40 years of circling similar ideas, Star Wars could use a revolution.
That revolution feels especially well-timed, as fans discuss whether or not “Luke would have done that.” Geeky debates will always exist (they’re the reason Star Wars thrives today), but maybe we should hone in on what The Last Jedi is telling us. Maybe it’s dangerous to worship our heroes to the point of idolatry, to convince ourselves that they can never do wrong, never make mistakes, and never let their hubris create monsters that threaten a new generation. Johnson sends Luke out on a high note, allowing him one more showdown with his former pupil in a fight that is pacifistic resistance at its most grand and extreme, but it’s the final gasp of the hero we once knew. Long live Luke Skywalker…but never forget that he erred. That he done fucked up.
It’s easy to imagine Rian Johnson watching The Force Awakens and being thrilled. It’s a thrilling movie. It does that. It’s also easy to imagine Rian Johnson watching The Force Awakens and noting, “This Supreme Leader Snoke guy kinda sucks. I should do something about that.”
Despite being positioned as the Big Bad of the new trilogy, the overlord pulling the strings, Supreme Leader Snoke barely leaves an impression during his appearances in both Star Wars movies. His generic flavor of Almighty Galaxy-Destroying Jerk is something we’ve seen several times in Star Wars and countless times elsewhere. He’s dull. He’s especially dull when compared to the angsty, flawed, and powerfully human Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, played with such intensity and raw pain by Adam Driver.
But The Last Jedi knows our expectations. It knows that we think Snoke will remain a threat through the next movie and that Ben will find redemption. It focuses on Ben’s internal conflict as it showcases Snoke’s incredible power. As the son of Han Solo grows more sympathetic, his leader grows more godlike, revealing a command of the Force that allows him to flick enemies and allies alike around his throne room like gnats. The Last Jedi makes Kylo Ren more vulnerable as it makes Supreme Leader Snoke more unstoppable.
So yes, the death of Snoke is a disarming twist and a beautifully staged one – Snoke’s command of the Force bites him in the ass when he reads Ben’s feelings and intentions but cannot understand where they’re pointed. One little Force push from Ben Solo and Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber is activated, cutting the Supreme Leader in half and ending his reign of terror an entire movie earlier than anyone expected. It’s shocking. It’s hilarious. It’s bound to anger fans who have spent the past two years attempting to discern the identity of Snoke. Quite frankly, The Last Jedi doesn’t care about Snoke and it reacts accordingly – your Snoke theory never mattered because Snoke never mattered.
Part of this reflects Johnson’s interest in Ben Solo and his lack of interest in Snoke (can you blame him?), but it’s also a perfect reflection of the grander ideas at work in The Last Jedi. Luke Skywalker loomed large, but in the end, he was just a bitter old man with a chip on his shoulder. Snoke loomed large, but in the end, he was just an vicious old bastard whose backstory is unimportant and who gets stabbed in the back by his angsty student. In a universe where everything is connected, where we’ve been trained to expect greater meanings and profound truths, this is a punch to the gut. Not everything is connected. The mightiest can fall. And at some point, they probably should.
Snoke probably mattered once upon a time, to someone. But he’s gone now. Luke Skywalker mattered to the galaxy, but his time is over. The future has been yanked from the hands of past masters and the universe will be reshaped by Kylo Ren and Rey, who are both fighting for the same thing from opposite directions: the chance to build a future beyond the command of a generation that failed. Johnson’s decision to bring us even closer to Ben Solo, even allowing him to fight alongside Rey in an incredible lightsaber fight, before doubling down on him being irredeemable may be the best choice in a movie filled with audacious choices. Just because Darth Vader was redeemed doesn’t mean his grandson is going down the same path. And yeah, the motivations of this new villain make a certain amount of sense, don’t they? That should trouble you as much as it troubles Rey.
(As a side note, the sudden demise of Snoke feels akin to General Hux’s transformation into bumbling comedic relief. Some may take issue with him being reduced to a punching bag, but it once again feels like Johnson taking an ill-defined character from The Force Awakens and running wild with him, giving him something to do. The same goes for Maz Kanata, who is funnier and wilder in her brief cameo here than she was in The Force Awakens.)
Save the Things You Love
If the death of Snoke was The Last Jedi bursting a bubble, the revelation about Rey’s parents is…an even bigger bursting of an even bigger bubble. The Last Jedi is a movie about disappointment – your heroes are broken, your allies failed you, and your mystery parents, whose identity has been driving your entire existence so far, aren’t Skywalkers or Solos or Kenobis. They’re just some schmoes who sold you off and left you to rot on a backwater planet. If your last name is Skywalker, you’re destined for greatness. It’s a given. But what does it mean if your name is Rey? Just Rey?
The Last Jedi is full of nobodies brushing shoulders with somebodies. Rey discovers that her parents were drunks, simple traders who didn’t care about her, even as she trains under the legendary Luke Skywalker. Poe Dameron must grapple with the fact that he’s taking orders from General Leia Organa, a woman who has suffered and bled and fought for the Galaxy for 30 years, and therefore knows what’s right more often than him. And poor Rose must come to terms with the fact that Finn, a “hero” of the Resistance, is prepared to desert the moment things get tough. The new men and women of Star Wars (with the notable exception of Kylo Ren) are profoundly ordinary. Or rather, they’re profoundly ordinary people forced to live up to the extraordinary people around them, even as those extraordinary people often let them down.
I imagine we’ll see Star Wars fans upset about Rey not being a secret Skywalker or a Kenobi or a clone of Emperor Palpatine or the reincarnated Anakin Skywalker (the internet is a bad place), but Rey’s origin as just a person is more powerful than even the most shocking twist. Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker emerged from a nothing planet as nobodies and rose to the occasion, stumbling into destinies they could never have imagined. To tie every character of significance to them and their circle of allies and enemies would be to rob them of their power. The beauty of Star Wars, since its earliest days, has been the depiction of heroes coming from every corner and every walk of life. A farm boy. A princess. A smuggler. They have no business saving the galaxy, but damn it, they have to! Who else will?
And now we have an orphaned scavenger abandoned by her completely un-noteworthy parents, a conflicted deserter from a vicious military regime, and a skilled pilot with a lot to learn about leadership. The next generation of Star Wars heroes are born from disappointment, the disappointment of having to live in the shadow of heroes and the disappointment of having to fight the war that those heroes failed to actually win all those years ago. No one should have to do this. No young person should have to go to war. Why should these kids, with no connection to the previous generation beyond being unfortunate enough to exist in the same galaxy as Luke, Han, and Leia, suffer for the sins of the Skywalker family?
They shouldn’t, but this is the hand that was dealt to them. And they’re going to fight because that’s what heroes do, no matter where they come from. Secret parentage that supplies an easily digestible explanation for your superpowers is for chumps…and Jedi masters who spend their final days in self-imposed exile.
A Long Time Ago…
Think back to the original Star Wars, the 1977 film, back before it was subtitled “A New Hope” and before it inspired an entire multimedia franchise. Look at the man who made it: George Lucas, a young hotshot, a proper artist, whose previous brush with science fiction resulted in the grim THX 1138. That film wears its politics, and its anger and frustration, on its sleeve. And while Star Wars is an infinitely more accessible film, it’s still the work of the same man and he’s still speaking the same language. A “fun” movie about a team of freedom fighters battling an oppressive, fascist regime is inherently political. Lucas knew this more than anyone and he even kept it alive in the much-derided prequels, which ended up being an entire trilogy of films about the failure of democracy in the face of a tyrannical despot.
When Lucas conceived Star Wars, it was as fresh and radical as anything else made in the American New Wave of the ’70s. But by Return of the Jedi, the ragtag Rebel alliance felt safer and the Force more of a superpower than a mystical way of life. An already simple premise was made simpler, an undesirable turn after The Empire Strikes Back doubled down on Lucas’ original concepts. It’s telling that The Force Awakens feels like a cinematic adaptation of our nostalgic feelings about Star Wars instead of a Star Wars movie as conceived by George Lucas.
Perhaps that’s why The Last Jedi is such a jarring experience, one that feels specifically built to make audiences work through their feelings about this universe. Rian Johnson is unabashedly political and unafraid to slaughter the sacred cows. The First Order isn’t just a group of guys whose costumes provide cool cosplay opportunities – they are fascists, evil and cold and frightening. The Resistance isn’t a team of plucky heroes – they are a band of fighters who are specifically cast with diverse men and women to reflect the fears and frustrations of millennials who feel trapped and afraid in a world where resistance often feels futile (and who really wouldn’t mind tearing apart a casino city operated by the 1%). The Force isn’t just a cool excuse for heroes to lift rocks – it is something mystical and mysterious that cannot be easily explained and comprehended, something that even Luke Skywalker has a complex relationship with at this point.
Even the Lando surrogate, the unnamed codebreaker played by Benicio del Toro, offers no easy answers as he betrays our heroes and doesn’t even reach for apology or redemption. Even the goofy humor that arrives early and often is a departure from the norm, a case of Johnson making the movie his own rather than following a style guide. The Last Jedi feels like a movie young George Lucas, passionate and bold, would have made. It feels like a proper Star Wars movie by refusing to feel like a Star Wars movie.
The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story want to please you. They want to hit familiar beats and remind you why you love Star Wars. They are so much fun. But The Last Jedi doesn’t want to remind you of anything. It doesn’t care about your relationship with Star Wars. The only relationship that matters here is Rian Johnson’s relationship with Star Wars, and for the first time in a long time, here is a Star Wars movie with a proper point of view, one delivered by a storyteller who is unafraid to shatter a universe he loves, to break down the heroes that mean so much to him. A wise and noble Luke is easy. A Luke with regrets? That’s hard. That’s tough to swallow. That’s what elevates The Last Jedi beyond a simple retread – it asks you to take these characters seriously in a way that other Star Wars films have not, to acknowledge them as something beyond a vessel for escapism. Star Wars can only matter in the long run if it’s given the room to grow. And right now, it feels like the sky is the limit. Right now, Star Wars feels…unsafe.
And that feels great.