Whether or not the Galaxy no longer needs the Jedi, it certainly doesn’t need any more Star Wars reviews. Why write another? Because I am tired of having this conversation with myself in the shower. The characters and conflicts Rian Johnson depicted in The Last Jedi touched me deeply. I decided to ask myself “Why?” With the Blu-Ray, I can examine my thoughts.
“Destruction” and “Belonging” seem to swirl round the heart of this film. Who and what still belongs, and is relevant, in the Star Wars universe? And what is best left sliced apart by Laura Dern with purple hair in heels?
Rian Johnson’s film creates new space for new characters to live and breathe within the narrow, pigeon-holes called characters in earlier films. The characters, and film itself, rebels against the lofty “archetypes” and “legends” Lucas and Campbell assigned to them in the 70s, and remakes a legend for our times.
The Last Jedi felt like a smack in the face and punch in the gut because it was meant to. Johnson dove into the “sacred” space of Star Wars. And somewhere, between a fold in Jabba’s back fat and a CGI Gungan, he came up with what still matters in Star Wars. Just as Yoda destroys the ancient Jedi temple without hesitation, Johnson blows apart the myth of the mythos of Star Wars. And, though we realize that Rey has made off with the “Sacred Jedi Texts,” the Star War’s fan is left holding Joseph Campbell’s ponderous Hero with a Thousand Faces. Read it have you? A page-turner it is not. Already know we that which we need. Hmmmm!?
The most important piece Johnson salvages from the junk heap that is the checkered history of Star Wars is its humanity. The sometimes disgusting and confusing tangle of real human emotion, exorcised from the Prequels, return. The excitement, adventure, and humor The Force Awakens gave us back have returned, minus the 40-something nostalgia wallow. And, in true Star Wars tradition, offers an awesome and glorious vision of space and The Galaxy on the red and visceral edge of visual effects and cinematography that pushes itself from backdrop to integral story-telling tool.
Within the first moments of the film, we learn everything we need to know about it. Cocky, fly-boy Poe Dameron approaches The First Order’s lead ship with “an urgent communique for General Hux from General Leia.” When Poe’s “tooling” has bought the time his mission required to evacuate the Resistance from the planet below, he signs off with a “your momma” joke directed at Hux.
Aside from the character-appropriate, Star Wars humor, I found myself thinking of Hux’s mother. Hux obviously had one. We know he isn’t a clone. And suddenly all of his Uriah Heep misery and resentment makes Hux human. In a Galaxy where your lineage means everything, somewhere, Hux has a mom.
In the bombing sequence that follows, we also learn that the film is an action film with clear human consequences. In the death of the bomber pilot Paige, we see the human cost of Poe’s rashness. He earned that slap in the face from Princess Leia. Even rebellions have rules. “Into the garbage shoot, fly-boy!”
But where Johnson’s vision truly sharpens, lies in the relationships between Rey, Luke, and Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. We begin where we left off, with Rey earnestly holding out Vader’s old light saber to Luke on the lonely island that houses the first Jedi temple. I had a brief flash in the theater: “He should to toss it.” Single best choice in the entire film: an honest moment that set us up for what to expect from both the character of Luke and the film’s treatment its venerated idols and icons.
We know Mark Hamill disagreed with Johnson’s choices for Luke. So, let’s think about what we know about Luke Skywalker. While his Uncle is purchasing the droid that will lead to the destruction of the Death Star, what is Luke doing? Say it. “But I wanted to go into Toshi Station and pick up some power converters!” In the next scene he’s playing with his model space ships and complaining to droids. Luke is a good person, with good impulses. From what we see, he was raised with care by his salt of the earth aunt and uncle. But his mind is always elsewhere, chasing distant dreams, searching for excitement, a place to belong set apart. He cannot see what is in front of his face. Luke craves excitement and fame. And he will whine and pitch a fit when he doesn’t get his way.
Yoda liberally beats Luke for this. When Luke executes his plan to free Han Solo from Jabba’s palace, Han describes Luke as having “delusions of grandeur.” So what do you really believe would become of such a man when he fails? What happens when the man who single-handedly * destroyed the Death Star, trained with both Obi-wan and Yoda, brought about the end of The Empire, and redeemed his father Vader? The last Jedi? What happens when that guy fails? When Luke Skywalker finds the weakness, the Vader, the humanity inside himself, reflected in his nephew Ben. He lashes out with his light saber, just as in Yoda’s cave. Luke is left utterly broken. Just as Obi-wan failed Vader, Luke fails Leia and Han by chasing their son to the Dark Side. How does a legend, how does Luke Skywalker deal with that level of failure?
Johnson’s choice to leave Luke a bitter, broken, self-pitying and self-loathing man hiding away from the Galaxy in Ireland seems true to the character we have known. So when a young girl from “nowhere,” turns up with his father’s old light saber, in desperate need of a surrogate father, a sense of belonging and care, of a teacher; he pushes her away. Straight into the arms of Ben Solo.
And while both Luke and Rey were from nowhere, let’s call him Ben Solo, is definitely from somewhere and is someone. He is a Skywalker. That passionate family that drove the plot of a 40 year old franchise. They slice each other’s limbs off. They live on the planets where they were engulfed in flames and had their limbs sliced off. They commit vague acts of incest. They are hard-headed, petulant, and powerful. In short, they are a dynasty as mighty as the Olympian Gods. And in Luke’s own words, they have the flaw of those who would be gods, hubris, and they suffer their fate. Pity and Fear.
Which leads us to Ben Solo. While he sees Vader as a man to emulate, his character surpasses Vader as a villain in complexity and relevance. He is a man to be both pitied and feared, in the ancient Greek sense. As a boy, he has a barely there Dad, and a working Mom who pushes him off on his famous Uncle, who feels threatened by the boy. As a young man, he seeks escape and belonging with a manipulative leader. He becomes a patricide, and what we all too clearly recognize as a rampage killer, a Columbine kid. That is who he is. A shattered monster. But he is still a Princeling with pedigree. And, unlike Vader, he is young, vulnerable, and handsome. The perfect “fixer- upper boyfriend” for a lost, confused, lonely, and rejected young woman, searching for someone to show her where she belongs in the world. Which is exactly what Rey is.
Ben Solo uses the language of an abuser with Rey. He tells her what she fears most, that she is utterly alone, a nobody. That her parents where nobodies, junkies, buried in forgotten graves in the sands of nowhere. He tells her that she is nothing, except to him. Except with him. In a world where lineage and status count for everything, to be with him is to matter. #MeToo Rey.
And this is the true essence of Johnson’s modernization of Star Wars expressed through the failure of Luke that Yoda refers to. His failure of Rey. But, like Luke’s insistence that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Like the burning of the ancient tree of the first Jedi temple, and Ben’s desire to “kill the past.” Rian Johnson manages to save Star Wars by destroying it.
Earlier in the film, Luke snidely demands of Rey if he should walk out and face down the entire First Order with a “laser sword.” And yet, that is what he does. As Leia and the remaining rebels hole up inside the rusted remnants of an old rebel base, Luke performs his most heroic act in any of the films, he offers himself as a sacrifice so that his friends may escape and live on, and only then finds the Hero he needed to be.**
And, as we watch knowing that Carrie Fisher has herself become one with the Force, the burden of STAR WARS falls away forever. Rian Johnson’s great achievement in creating The Last Jedi was, yes, kill the past. Lords and Princesses are replaced by nobodies from nowhere. Clones are replaced by Finn and Hux’s Mom. Storybook romance is replaced by the complexities of the neglect, dependency, abuse, and just the usual messy humanity that Disney films in particular have glamorized for too long. Both the heroic and the evil, the Light and the Dark, are left in the hands of the uncertain young characters who will determine the future of the Galaxy. And I like that.
**Like the old King Beowulf, Campbell fiends. 😉
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