(This is a review/retrospective on Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.)
The overarching goal of The Last Jedi — the main reason it’s my favorite Star Wars movie — was to force Disney and Lucasfilm to take Star Wars in a new direction. To imagine, and innovate, and do new things instead of just repeating the same stories (like a young, Force-sensitive, starry-eyed orphan on a desert planet joining a rebellion) with the same characters (Star Wars Episode IX: Palpatine Family Reunion) and the same outcome (like the bad guy turning good at the last possible moment thanks to the power of love).
The Conviction of Evil: Redeeming Ren
(In)famously, the First Order is ideologically hollow. Why do they hate the Republic? Who knows, they’re fascists. Why did Ben Solo turn? Who cares, he’s hot (I mean, to be fair…) But for four years from 2016 to 2020, the news media of the United States (to its slim credit) actually realized that it was wrong in treating Trump supporters as ideologically hollow.
Even if you think their ideas are ridiculous, self-contradictory, and/or morally abhorrent in literally a dozen distinct ways, you have to acknowledge: they do have ideas. (And for all you liberals reading this, this is how many socialists feel about you. Socialists, consider if you really want to be at all similar to liberals.)
The real-life parallel of the First Order had and continues to have reasons for their actions and beliefs. The fact that the media didn’t much listen when they tried to express those reasons doesn’t mean the reasons are so absurd as to be unfilmable. In real life, the Empire and the First Order exist for reasons that their members are fairly serious about.
That was the point of subverting the climax of Darth Vader’s arc in Return of the Jedi with Kylo Ren’s arc in The Last Jedi. The Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker returned because George Lucas always wanted Star Wars to function as a family odyssey as much as — maybe even more than — a political allegory or a space opera. Kylo Ren doesn’t turn back to the Light Side — making Rey the last Jedi — because Rian Johnson wanted to make the point that evil isn’t so easy to root out of people’s souls.
Not least because we ourselves often don’t see it as evil. We just see the Other that way.
A Tale of Two White Elites: Canto Bight
“This guy was an arms dealer. Made his bank selling weapons to the bad guys. And the good.”
Until Andor brought us the (halfway accurate) Lenin stand-in of Luthen Rael, The Last Jedi was the first time in all of on-screen Star Wars — and quite possibly in all of Star Wars, across hundreds of books, thousands of comics, and more — that the R/R wasn’t portrayed as innately pure and virtuous. (Rebellion/Resistance; let’s face it, there are no substantive differences between them. It’s an identical underdog, but with a different name — a successor in the worst sense of the word.)
Even the Rebellion’s decision in Rogue One to assassinate Jyn Erso’s father is written to be a difficult decision for them to make — because they’re oh-so-noble. And they only make that decision for sympathetic, practical reasons based on their desperate circumstances; it’s not because of any ethical (or ideological, hint hint) failing of the Rebellion’s.
There’s too much to say about Centrist ‘revolutions’ and respectability politics to unpack all of it in anything shorter than an academic thesis. But I think it’s quite easy for anyone and everyone to get quite a long way by asking ourselves just two questions:
- Why does Star Wars choose to have its anti-imperialist Rebellion(/Resistance) be led by two White elites (Senator Mon Mothma and Princess Leia)? And …
- Why is the only non-White anti-imperialist who’s dedicated to the cause and/or in a leadership position (i.e. Saw Gerrera) male, a ‘bad radical’ strawman, and an unthinking, perpetually angry Black man?
The Canto Bight subplot wasn’t well-executed. But it was a correction to Star Wars’ way-less-than-half–baked conception of revolution that the franchise has desperately needed since a long, long time ago.
The Hermit-Mentor Trope: Who is The Last Jedi’s Luke Skywalker?
Okay, let me just say at the top: I would’ve liked a different Luke; and I’m not gonna spend much time on this character. Much has already been said of The Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker — most of it negative, some … well, less negative (such as one reviewer, who pointed out that the film wasn’t left with many options after The Force Awakens decided Luke would just abandon a galaxy undergoing a fascist takeover).
My two cents? Luke isn’t any of the past Lukes.
He’s not the starry-eyed farm boy and hopeful rebel he was in the original trilogy. He’s not the Jedi Knight with essentially Buddhist capacities for compassion, forgiveness, and humility (my preferred Luke), so well portrayed in the Heir to the Empire trilogy that kicked off Star Wars’ old expanded universe.
Instead, The Last Jedi’s Luke Skywalker is meant to subvert another Star Wars trope: the hermit-mentor who can do no wrong.
Jolee Bindo: Star Wars’ First Time Around This Bend
(Spoilers ahead for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — play/watch the game first! It’s super worth it!)
In the Knights of the Old Republic video game, Jolee Bindo gets all the best lines, and has nearly all of the attitude in the ensemble cast. This wizened, old (Black!) former Jedi cracks wise, mocks Star Wars tropes, and has been living in an isolated hut on Kashyyyk for two decades. He hates that “everyone thinks that the Jedi are perfect”. When one of the other main characters talks about how KOTOR’s war between the Old Republic and the Sith is ‘the war to end all wars’, Bindo delivers a viciously mocking one-liner and points out that wars recur again and again in the Star Wars galaxy. If you discover (SPOILERS!) Revan’s identity before meeting him, your first interaction can’t be anything but hysterical — every dialogue option is just your character being flabbergasted at how little Bindo cares who Revan is!
Yet, Bindo is also portrayed as being wrong about very important things. For instance, while he criticizes the Jedi Order a lot, and claims that being part of either the Jedi or Sith organizations wouldn’t change who a person is, being part of your group during KOTOR leads him to rejoin the Order.
And his choice to be a hermit is, frankly, despicable in context. While the galaxy suffers a horrible war, with the Sith committing atrocity after atrocity — even while the Czerka Corporation enslaves Wookies on Kashyyyk while he has been living there — Bindo does nothing to help anyone. For two decades, he helps himself by staying alive, and doesn’t help anyone else. In the original trilogy, Obi-Wan and Yoda were pretty much portrayed as saints. Yet the fact that people created and joined the Rebellion proves that they could’ve done something — they were just choosing to be hermits instead; and we tend to let it go simply because they’re the wise old mentor.
Continuation vs. Theme
Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, The Last Jedi didn’t give its subversion of Star Wars’ ‘saintly hermit-mentor’ trope the opportunity to also be funny and occasionally wise. This could be because Luke’s flaws — the subversion of the trope — were more essential to the story than in KOTOR, so the film didn’t want to water them down at all. It could also be because a video game with dialogue options has more time to tell its story than a film. But regardless, The Last Jedi wasn’t really reinventing the wheel with Luke Skywalker.
Nor was it trying to demonize the person Luke Skywalker has previously been. The creators of this film weren’t fools. They were fans of Star Wars themselves; of course they knew other fans might dislike how different Luke is here. But they consciously chose not to keep the character the same; and to instead reshape the character so that they could use his story to communicate a theme. They were just trying to subvert a Star Wars trope; and the tool that previous entries in the franchise had left them with was the option to name one of the characters “Luke Skywalker”.
So did Rian Johnson do wrong? Should he have just plugged numbers into the classic Star Wars formula? Should he have anticipated the lengths that Disney–Lucasfilm would go to to drag Star Wars back into its cookie-cutter mould with The Rise of Skywalker? Should he have NOT tried?
I don’t think so. From its origins — equating the US empire with the Nazis two years after the Vietnam War ended — through to its prequels — showing liberal democracy decaying into fascism — up to Tony Gilroy’s Andor — taking complete and total inspiration from real anti-colonial and socialist revolutions — Star Wars has, to lesser and greater degrees, repeatedly tried to change how the US sees its actions, its liberalism, and its institutions. Why shouldn’t Star Wars try to change Star Wars itself?
It tried to convince the new owners of Star Wars that the franchise should grow. It’s the only entry of the sequel trilogy that tried to update Star Wars for a new generation. It tried to do nearly all of the best, most beloved things any Star Wars movie has ever tried to do.
Okay, But: Is The Last Jedi Good or Bad?
To me, The Last Jedi only just qualifies as a good movie. The First Order is still incomprehensible. Holdo forcing everyone to follow a plan they knew nothing about is how conventional militaries work — NOT the kind of revolutionary group that Star Wars claims the Resistance is. (And why do we need yet another White woman leading the R/R?) Rose’s last line to Finn is stupid — in the same way, though not as narcissistic, as Leia and Poe thinking that the First Order won’t be destroyed unless their resistance group — “the spark” — survives.
And, not least of all, this film failed. The hatred leveled at it, and the existence of The Rise of Skywalker — it’s pretty clear that, at least in the short-term, The Last Jedi did not do the things it tried to do.
But you never know if you did, or did not — not until the outcome actually happens. In the moment, all you have … is to try. The Last Jedi shouldn’t have sought to FORCE change. The lack of creative imagination behind the scenes left it unable to offer a vision of what Star Wars could and should change into — nevermind a persuasive one; and so, it could only hammer away at existing Hollywood and Star Wars tropes — and even then, as I said earlier, it left most of them alone.
But it tried. Harder than any other Star Wars film ever has. That, more than anything else, is why The Last Jedi is my favorite Star Wars film.
If you liked this article, check out more of our Star Wars content, like our review of the latest High Republic novel, The Eye of Darkness.