Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I hate that The Last Jedi will forever be a victim of the turbulent and seemingly eternal "discourse" because it deserves so much better than to be talked about only as ammunition in some larger culture war; it's a movie that deserves to be talked about for what it does rather than what it doesn't do, or the why and how of it fitting into the wider Star Wars franchise or blockbuster culture in general or the growing Disney media empire or the perils of online fandom entitlement and the way their incessant fan theories and alt-right leaning YouTube video essays obsessed with plot logic at the expense of emotional engagement are eroding what we know as film criticism or the rise/downfall of cinema as an art form or whatever other pseudo-theoretical framework you want to chain it down with. Yes, no movie exists in a vacuum. But we know that, we shouldn't have to reiterate that, and I hate that we have to couch talking about this and several other touchstone films of this generation in this way.

Because I honestly want to leave all that behind and talk about The Last Jedi, and for once not talk about how we talk about The Last Jedi. What amazes me is that even as someone who is firmly in the camp of this movie being a masterpiece and the best blockbuster of the post-Avengers era (and I love the Avengers movies too), I don't fully find myself always aligning with the values and interpretations of many of those who share my high opinion of this film. I don't love The Last Jedi because it "subverts expectations" or because it is some kind of hard stomp on "nostalgia" in blockbuster entertainment and Star Wars in particular, largely because I don't think it subverted expectations in the way many people say it does nor do I think it has any kind of contempt for previous Star Wars movies. If anything, I think Rian Johnson wrote possibly an even more genuine love letter to Star Wars than even J.J. Abrams did, which is a remarkable feat in and of itself considering that Abrams' "thing" as a director is using entire movies he makes to show how much he loves the movies he loves.

The single most confusing thing for me when it comes to the response to The Last Jedi is how many people willfully misinterpret what the movie's supposed "message" is. I think it has more than one, but let's pin that to the board. For now, let's turn to Kylo Ren, and what he has to say about Star Wars:

"Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That's the only way to become what you were meant to be."

Despite this being a startlingly cynical worldview for one of cinema's most enduring sagas, both people who love and hate The Last Jedi seem to think this is Rian Johnson's thesis. According to many, Rian stepped into the world he loved and decided that, for good or for ill, it was time for Star Wars to die, so that it could be reborn. When you view Star Wars as a property that's decided its core value is nostalgia (something admittedly easy to do after The Force Awakens), this is a borderline hostile stance for a filmmaker to take. Many critics and fans echoed this statement, especially in positive reviews, and I find it strange that so many seemed to miss how this film came to an end, and how hard the movie works to prove that Kylo's statement is faulty and self-destructive and so assuredly not what Rian intended to say.

But this is also the movie where Luke Skywalker, the hero of the Original Trilogy, the man who defeated the Empire and helped redeem his father, Darth Vader, says something that no one was ready to hear:

"It's time for the Jedi... to end."

For the fans, for the faithful, even for the most casual of audiences who only know Star Wars via pop culture osmosis, everyone could understand the gravity of this statement. Even when the Jedi did end, when the Jedi Order fell, they were still revered. In the world of Star Wars, the Jedi Knights weren't just guardians of peace and justice; they were legends, the mythic warriors of old, and their harmony with the Force was the perfect unison of religious devotion and divine power. They were something to aspire to be. Others go to the Jedi when they seek wisdom and guidance, even after they're dead! The Jedi can't end. They are Star Wars, in the same way the Rebellion is Star Wars, the way the Empire is Star Wars, the way Luke and Han and Leia are Star Wars, the way C-3P0 and R2-D2 and Chewbacca are Star Wars, the way Darth Vader is Star Wars, the way lightsabers and X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon and Star Destroyers and Death Stars are Star Wars. You can't just get rid of the Jedi! How could Luke, the paragon of the new Jedi Order, be so defeated?

But that's the problem right there.
The Jedi defeated themselves.

I'm not getting into a review of the prequels, that's too big of a well to jump into. But if they established anything, it's that the Jedi Order was made of people, not myths. Yes, the Jedi deserve some of their legendary status, but as far back as 1977, the Jedi were already gone. They were wiped out by one of their own, Anakin Skywalker, who betrayed them because he was manipulated by a Dark Lord of the Sith who offered him something the Jedi never could: the power to save his wife. Palpatine was lying, of course, but that's not the point: the Jedi believed themselves to be beyond "love", that it was a sin, that it was a path to the Dark Side. Love! Can you even imagine? Possibly the most selfless emotion a person can feel, to truly love another being, to be willing to do anything to protect them, to care for them, to sacrifice your own well-being to ensure theirs. The Jedi couldn't see the value of love, but a Sith could. He turned to the Dark Side because he thought it would save his wife. He turned back to the Light to save his son.

The Jedi were never going to win, because unlike the Sith, they don't have a core value they all hold to, for what else could the ultimate value of the Light Side be if not love? The Sith worship power; they all crave it, and do whatever they can to obtain it. The Sith have a coherent ideology. But the Jedi? What do the Jedi even want? The prequels don't have a clear answer, but perhaps that's always been the point. Peace? That might have worked, except that they are too willing to go to war, and too easily slip into becoming blood knights. Justice? That makes more sense, but who is to say their way is just? Is it justice to steal children from their families before they can walk, to wield powers far beyond those of mortal men without accountability, to go to war alongside a massive army of disposable clone soldiers (but still thinking and feeling and reasoning human beings) because some senators say it's the right thing to do?

How about this: is it justice that Anakin felt more willing to talk to the secretive leader of the Republic about forbidden Sith powers than to consult with the Jedi Council he was supposed to consider his peers? He was more afraid of disclosing the secret of his marriage to his best friend than possibly being seduced by the Dark Side.

Yes, the Jedi needed to end, because their ways don't work. The galaxy fell to the hands of the Empire because they were too consumed with their supposed prestige and mythic self-importance to realize they were all being played by a Sith Lord who conscripted them into a proxy war. They died pointlessly because the Jedi, at their core, were pointless: they served no coherent purpose because they lost their way eons ago. They were doomed before the first shell of the Clone Wars was fired. Luke Skywalker was supposed to bring them back to prominence, to give them a new path, and what happened? He failed. His nephew turned to the Dark Side anyway, and burned Luke's temple to the ground because Luke didn't realize that he was as fallible as all the rest. At the start of the film, Luke tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder, and yes, it's funny, but it's also tragic. This is a man who was told the Jedi ways had value, that even his own father, who had turned into the most feared man in all the galaxy, the herald of the most merciless regime the world had ever known, could still come back to the Light. He had hope once, but now it's gone.

But then comes Rey, as doe-eyed and idealistic and self-important as Luke once was when he stared off into the twin suns of Tatooine. She still believes in him. She believes in the Resistance. Hell, she winds up believing in Kylo:

"If I go to him, Ben Solo will turn!"

And in that moment, Luke remembers his greatest triumph, and his greatest failure. He thought the same once, on the forest moon of Endor, when he spoke to his father and knew, just knew, that there was still good in him. "If I go to him, Darth Vader will turn," he most assuredly said to himself. And he did. It cost him his life, but Darth Vader did turn. He turned because his son believed in him, because his son loved him, in spite of the monster he had become. And still, Luke wound up the same as his master before him: alone, defeated, hiding on a remote planet, waiting to die. The cycle begins anew. The First Order rose to power. So what if Ben Solo turns? Who's to say Rey won't follow the same path? The last of the Resistance is being slaughtered as we speak, in a desperate chase as the villains close in. The New Republic was blasted to dust. What's the point of any of this?!

The point, as it turns out, are some words that Luke Skywalker never heard, but would define his life all the same:

"Rebellions are built on hope!"

When Jyn Erso says this in Rogue One, it's up for interpretation whether or not she genuinely believes it. I'm not sure she does, because she seems to warm up to the idea rather quickly despite being a cynic for most of the film up until that point. However, she does know her father believed it. That for nearly twenty years, Galen Erso hid his true intentions from his masters, working tirelessly and endlessly in the hope that if he did everything right and built the perfect flaw into the Empire's greatest weapon, that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that his daughter could live in a galaxy a little bit brighter than the one he lived in. It was a billion to one chance, that the flaw would be built, not detected, and that actionable intelligence could be created, stolen, delivered to the Rebels, acted upon, and then used to destroy it. It's the kind of Hail Mary plan no one would ever believe could work. Nothing more than a foolish dream, most would say.

But it did work, and Jyn Erso laid down her own life to give that dream to someone else. It's not what her father wanted, but it's what he would be proud of her for doing. Because she does believe in her words by the end, and she delivers that hope directly into the hands of Princess Leia, and eventually, to Luke Skywalker.

Even after Rey leaves, Luke still doesn't believe in her plan. He thinks she's a petulant kid with a saviour complex. To be fair, that's not entirely untrue. But even if it's misguided in this specific instance, her ability to hope at all is something to be valued, and it takes some counsel from Yoda himself to get Luke to see that. Nobody needs the Sacred Jedi Texts. Nobody needs the old ways. The Republic is gone, and it's never coming back. The Jedi Order fell, more than once. Luke's way failed, but that's no reason to let everything go. Because the next generation is still here, and they have their own lives to live, their own choices to make. It's their world now, and Yoda knows it:

"We are what they grow beyond."

It's time for the Jedi to end.
But that doesn't mean what the Jedi were can't still mean something.

When Luke Skywalker steps onto the battlefield, like Jyn Erso, whether or not he believes in the power of his own legend is up for interpretation. But what matters is the impact of his actions. The greatest Jedi Master to ever live, as far as the myths and stories and legends that Rey and billions of children across the galaxy had heard, stepped back into the light for one last battle. He did it to preserve peace. He did it to deliver justice. He did it to save those he loved.

He did it to restore hope to the galaxy.

He reaffirms everything Star Wars is, and Rian has him do it in as clear a manner as he could possibly convey:

"The rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi."

And as he stares into the twin suns one last time and prepares to join the Force like every Jedi before him, Luke Skywalker finally realizes that the Light Side does have a core value after all.

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