Although I have waited till now to publish detailed thoughts on the film, it is fairly common knowledge in various circles of the internet that I do not much care for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The number of fishes above might also indicate this, though I have found it difficult to settle on a rating for the film, because my thoughts and feelings on it are mixed – conflicted, one might say. If Lady Bird is right, and love and attention are one and the same, it might well be true that, in some sense, I love The Last Jedi. But the purpose of this essay is not to argue whether it is a good movie or a bad one. Though I love the Star Wars prequels, my explication essays were not primarily concerned with defending them. By the same token, this essay is neither a critique, nor an apologia, but an explication.
Still, a preliminary point must be made about how I approach and interpret Rian Johnson’s film, as well as J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. There was no need for this story to continue beyond Return of the Jedi. The circle was already complete. Yes, part of Star Wars’ appeal was its suggestion of vastness, of a living, breathing universe that existed far beyond the edges of the frame, but an equally indispensable part of its appeal was its finitude. For all the spin-offs that sprung up surrounding it, this was, at its heart, a story about one family, about a father and a son whose lives were marked by uncanny repetitions and striking variances. On a fundamental level, Star Wars was comprised of two trilogies that complemented each other perfectly, leaving no room for a third of equal weight. If you’ll permit a vaguely impious comparison, they are the New Testament and the Old. Everything else is merely apocryphal.
With every installment, Lucas forged ahead into daring new realms of personal imagination, constructing Star Wars out of the flotsam and jetsam of his childhood, but the post-Lucas films are being made by those whose impressionable youths were defined not by Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa but by Star Wars itself. The circle has shrunk. The pupils may have supplanted the master, but they are still defined by him above all else. These are not so much Star Wars movies as they are movies about Star Wars. However, while they will never be timeless, vital, or meaningful in the same way, I do believe these sequels can still be interesting – perhaps even deeply compelling – in their own right.
Since the release of Revenge of the Sith in 2005, no Star Wars movie has been able to recapture the entirety of what Star Wars is about, and it seems unlikely that any ever will. Instead, each of the films produced since the Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Lucasfilm has narrowed in on whatever parts of the whole interest its auteur most. Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, like his Godzilla, focused on evoking a sense of sublime religious awe, while The Force Awakens, like all of J.J. Abrams’ films, was preoccupied with nostalgia and the iconography of the past. This brings us to Rian Johnson, writer and director of The Last Jedi. When it comes to capturing the multi-faceted spirit of Star Wars, Johnson casts a wider net than either of his two predecessors, but he also diverges more sharply from what we expect one of these movies to feel like. In itself, this is neither good nor bad. Johnson is a talented filmmaker and, in many ways, an ideal candidate for the job. He shares Lucas’ interest in psychology; indeed, from the very first scene of his very first film, Brick, his work has been suffused with Freudian symbolism, imagery, and anxiety about procreation and possession. He also follows in Lucas’ footsteps by advancing his exploration of the power of myths to inspire, picking up where Abrams’ meta-commentary on Star Wars left off. Moreover, he has a penchant for genre pastiche and a love for classic cinema. However, while Lucas approached Star Wars’ roots with solemn reverence and an earnest embrace, Johnson is much more impish (direct homage to Wings’ casino tracking shot notwithstanding). “The movies that you’re dressing like are just copying other movies,” Jeff Daniels tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper. “Do something new.” Indeed, Johnson sometimes seems possessed of an almost pathological need for originality, which fits rather uneasily with a series that has always been about preserving old traditions.
The Last Jedi is the most self-aware Star Wars film, zigging every time it’s expected to zag, and to my taste, this mischievous, subversive approach wore thin. Emerging from the theater on opening night, I demanded in exasperation, “Does Rian Johnson even like Star Wars?” I still think this modus operandi is to the film’s detriment, as I find Star Wars’ very un-self-aware earnestness to be one of its most crucially endearing qualities, and I am sufficiently old-fashioned that all the fart jokes in The Phantom Menace rankle my feathers less than Poe Dameron hitting General Hux with Star Wars’ first “your mom” one-liner. In my explication essays, though, I exhorted audiences to look past the sometimes off-putting surface of the prequel films, and when I took my own advice, I saw that beneath the winking ironies, self-aware humor, and subverted expectations, Johnson had more on his mind than the shallow thrill of saying “Gotcha!” over and over again. He has done his homework: from the use of colors to the Platonic dynamics to the exploration of the Jedi and the Force, The Last Jedi is in keeping with what came before. It’s easy to believe that Kylo Ren’s oft-quoted exhortation to “let the past die” is an expression of Johnson’s philosophy, but I don’t think that’s where his sympathies ultimately lie. Where do they lie, in fact? That’s a harder question to answer, but I have a few ideas.
Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
“It is not the children who break away; it is the parents who abandon them.”
– The Closing of the American Mind
Part I: I Can Hear You! Can You Hear Me?
“Report back when… uh, I don’t know… when it makes sense.”
– Burn After Reading
The Last Jedi begins with an extended comedic beat: Poe Dameron hails General Hux before a battle and proceeds to screw around with him, as action heroes do in movies these days. Hux gives some of the usual evil monologues, and Poe, mocking his enemy, pretends to be unable to hear him. “I can hear you,” Hux finally cries in frustration. “Can you hear me?” To my tastes, it’s an ungainly, overly farcical scene, but it is apt that the film opens with what Padmé might call a “failure to listen.” The second installment of every Star Wars trilogy is about obfuscation, confusion, and miscommunication, as truths are concealed and unveiled. The Empire Strikes Back is relatively intimate. The war between Rebellion and Empire takes a back seat; the drama hinges on Han and Leia’s emerging feelings for each other and the spiritual conflict Luke faces, culminating in the revelation of his parentage. Attack of the Clones is similarly quiet for much of its runtime, slowly building dread beneath a stately surface until chaos finally breaks out at the end. In The Last Jedi, Johnson pursues this theme to its most extreme expression yet, crafting a frenetic medley of misunderstandings.
I am always disappointed that the film pans down from the opening crawl, rather than panning up as Attack of the Clones did. If ever a Star Wars film should have declared its intention to subvert expectations from the very beginning, it was this one! However, these early moments establish a great many things. One of the film’s key themes, stated so clumsily by Rose near the end – “Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love” – is planted much more elegantly in the very first exchange of dialogue. “Forget the munitions,” says a female officer as the Resistance evacuates. “Get everyone on board the transports!” Though it sounds trite coming from Rose, the idea of choosing love rather than hate, laying down weapons to save others, is central to Star Wars. In Empire, Yoda corrects Luke’s perception of the aged Jedi as a “great warrior” by saying, “Wars not make one great” – a line Johnson certainly took to heart. Of course, a series of films with the word Wars in the title can hardly support a straightforwardly pacifist reading, and Rose oversimplifies matters. Because she is the film’s most preachy character, it is easy to assume that she is voicing The Last Jedi’s thesis, and that Johnson espouses a similarly simplistic view, but a closer look reveals that all is not so simple as she suggests.
I have devoted an almost absurd amount of thought to the color symbolism in Star Wars. To briefly recapitulate my conclusions, red is passion, blue is reason, and green is spirit, the properly balanced meeting ground between the two. In The Force Awakens, Abrams seems to default to a simpler, more obvious reading – red is bad/dark, blue is good/light – and since this is, after all, a matter of interpretation, I did not assume Johnson would use colors exactly as Lucas does. However, they seem to match up.
As The Last Jedi opens, the Resistance is fleeing a green planet, threatened by red cannons. The villains are characterized by unchecked, tyrannical passion; the evil Dreadnought’s interior lighting is red, which not only works color-wise, but also recalls a submarine. Passion often lurks in the unconscious, symbolized by water in Lucas’ prequels, and is especially dangerous when submerged (repressed). The Dreadnought’s commander mentions the ship’s “surface cannons,” furthering the submersion metaphor, though the heroes are also subject to threats from above: both Empire and Last Jedi open with a Star Destroyer sending projectiles down through the atmosphere onto the planet where the Rebels are based. Driven by fear (passion), the Resistance unmoors from its green base, making a hasty ascent away from balance and harmony – and we will see the catastrophic results.
This opening scene establishes that Johnson is following Lucas’ color scheme in rather detailed and complex fashion. As the passionate Poe prepares to attack the Dreadnought, his screen shows a red bar building up until it becomes green, at which point his X-Wing’s blue thruster comes to life. With all three colors working in tandem, Poe’s attack is successful – to the dismay of General Hux, who appears as a blue hologram in the Dreadnought’s red interior. “He’s insane,” Hux says (emphasis mine), furthering his association with the intellect. When Poe ignores Leia’s attempts to call him off, things become unbalanced. Leia is the intellect in this scenario, trying to rein in the appetites. She is surrounded by blue holograms, with C-3PO (always the voice of reason) at her side. When Poe decides not to listen, he blocks her out by hitting a switch with a blue light. This breakdown of communication was prefigured early in Empire, when another brash pilot refused to talk to Leia; “I turned [my communicator] off,” Han told C-3PO. “I don’t want to talk to her.”
Poe manages to keep things together temporarily. “Work your magic,” he tells BB-8 when something in his X-Wing is damaged, and the droid descends into the ship’s interior. Though he uses the word “magic,” Poe – unlike Luke using the Force to destroy the Death Star – is relying on technology, reason without spirituality. BB-8 looks around with a blue light and uses his head to fix the problem. A red light on Poe’s control panel turns green and the battle resumes – but it is clear from the symbols that something is wrong.
Reason (“Blue Leader”) comes to Poe’s aid as Resistance bombers descend on the Dreadnought. With their militaristic designs and bubble turrets, these ships resemble the Republic gunships from Attack of the Clones, and their deployment is similarly worrisome, promising short-term victory but long-term costs. The bombs explode prematurely due to a mishap and all of the bombers are destroyed except for one – on which we meet Rose’s sister, Paige, whose name (“page,” as in a text) links her to the intellect. In keeping with this reading, her helmet and bomber both have blue highlights. Roses, of course, are often red (befitting a passionate personality), so the two sisters, with their yin yang talismans, form an important pair of complements: Rose is the stomach and Paige is the head. Looking upward, Paige calls to Nix, the pilot of her bomber, whose name means “nothing,” and from whom she receives no answer. This sets up a key motif: The Last Jedi is unique among Star Wars films in that its idealistic characters find themselves wrestling with nihilism, questioning the difference between sacrifice and suicide. Accordingly, Paige’s first and only scene sees her dying a stoic’s death to destroy the Dreadnought, gripping her half of the yin yang talisman and closing her eyes as fire engulfs her.
This is not the only middle entry in a Star Wars trilogy to open with a woman being killed by an exploding spaceship. In the first scene of Attack of the Clones, Padmé’s decoy dies in her place. In both instances, the woman who dies is the double of a key figure in the plot that follows. The death of Padmé’s double signified the beginning of the end for her senatorial persona, and the loss of Paige ominously foreshadows a similar split between reason and passion, which will grow steadily wider as the Resistance mounts its escape. (Clones and Last Jedi are also the only Star Wars films to feature the yin yang symbol.)
We will come back to Rose later, but the disastrous division between the intellect and appetites of the Resistance is seen most clearly in Poe’s plotline. As we have already seen, Poe is passionate to a fault, the kind of brash, impulsive character that we expect as a Star Wars staple, and if his refusal to listen to Leia wasn’t enough to position him as “A Han Solo Type,” Poe steals the man’s Empire Strikes Back outfit as well. Abrams rather uncritically embraced Poe’s brand of high-flying heroism, but Johnson is more skeptical. Demoted after the bombing disaster, Poe objects, “There were heroes on that mission,” but Leia counters: “Dead heroes. No leaders.” Once again, heroism and death are critically linked in The Last Jedi. I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov:
“Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go so far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising.”
Poe has an appetite for immediate action, but Leia tries to lift him up to see a bigger picture. “Get your head out of your cockpit,” she chides. “There are things that you cannot solve by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing something up! I need you to learn that.” Leia was often the heart of the original trilogy’s Platonic triangle, mediating between Luke’s head and Han’s stomach; here, she plays a similar role. Rather than ignoring (repressing) the feeling-driven Poe like the stoic Jedi of the prequels, Leia engages him on his level, reprimanding him with a slap but also granting him permission to jump in an X-Wing and blow something up when the situation calls for it.
Unfortunately, Poe’s X-Wing is destroyed in the next attack. (In a succinct expression of the film’s arc, BB-8’s head flies off his body and then reattaches itself.) Worse, Leia is blown out the window into space – just as her brother was sucked out a window during his duel with Vader – and, despite her best Mary Poppins impression, rendered comatose. With Leia absent, the loss of harmony in the Resistance worsens, as the appetites and intellect are increasingly unable to communicate with each other. As in Empire, a significant subplot consists of an extended pursuit through space, during which the squabbling heroes are incapable of jumping to lightspeed. C-3PO is ignored and/or verbally abused all the while.
Leia’s replacement, Vice Admiral Holdo, is a better leader than Poe. While he is shortsighted, destructive, she thinks about long-term restoration: “We are the spark that will light the fire that will restore the Republic.” While he relies on technology, she expresses trust in a higher power, concluding her first speech with the proclamation, “May the Force be with us.” However, when it comes to harmonizing the disparate impulses of the Resistance, she does little to improve the situation. Holdo’s purple hair and dress – rare colors in Star Wars – evoke some instructive reference points. In Attack of the Clones, the assassin who tries to kill Padmé wears a similar shade of purple. The assassin is a “changeling,” just as the characters’ perception of Holdo changes over the course of The Last Jedi, and perhaps Anakin’s mistaken assumption that the female shapeshifter is a “he” prefigures Poe’s confusion over having the feminine Holdo for a commanding officer.
Holdo’s actions, demeanor, and even the aural similarity of her name recall the one Jedi to have a purple lightsaber: Mace Windu. (Amusingly, both are played by Jurassic Park alumni.) Holdo is aloof, standoffish, rational to a fault; tellingly, under her lead, it is the medical frigate – which tends to the healing of the physical body – that gets left behind first. She responds to passionate characters with distrust and hostility, and quickly categorizes people, calling Poe “flyboy,” Finn “a Stormtrooper,” and so on. Holdo pronounces that the galaxy’s oppressed put their “faith” in the Rebellion’s “symbol,” but Dexter Jettster warned Obi-Wan to be wary of an undue focus on symbols. Windu embodied the worst tendencies of the Jedi, and Holdo exhibits many of the same flaws. Instead of accounting for feelings, she shuts them down and shuts them out, banning Poe from the bridge, the ship’s seat of reason.
However, by suppressing the passions, Holdo unwittingly leaves them to run rampant, and while the Resistance leadership isolates itself, the repressed elements – Poe, Finn, and Rose – concoct a harebrained scheme with disastrous results. We’ll discuss Finn and Rose’s plotline in the next section, but the power struggle between Poe and Holdo reaches a climax when he sees that she is fueling transports to abandon ship. Because Poe’s sense of heroism is so tied to dramatic action, and because Holdo has done nothing to make her seemingly passive rationale comprehensible to him, conflict erupts: “You are not just a coward,” he berates, “You are a traitor.” The chaos culminates in the appetites’ attempt to supplant the intellect, as Poe stages a mutiny before Holdo can carry out her plan. As the voice of reason, C-3PO wants no part of this madness, but Poe seals the bridge doors, locking him in, while Holdo takes advantage of clouds and fog – the confusion of the unconscious – to try and regain control of the hangar (the realm of the appetites).
It is up to Leia, the heart, to restore balance. Highlighting just how upside-down things have become, Johnson frames her return to the bridge as a reversal of the opening to the original film. A rebel waits in anxious expectation, blaster drawn, as the edges of the door spark and sizzle. When it is blown open, a mysterious figure enters in a cloud of smoke, but this time, Leia is the one invading, not being invaded, and she wears white, rather than black. Once again, she must bring the appetites in line, heralding the beginning of a return to the proper order of things, and she is also the one who gives an account of Holdo’s actions to Poe. “She was more interested in protecting the light than she was seeming like a hero,” Leia says, recalling her earlier line about “dead heroes.” Johnson clearly has a bone to pick with heroism, as it is commonly defined, but there seems to be a cautionary counterpoint in Holdo, who cared so little about being a hero that she alienated Poe and thus shares his responsibility for the Resistance’s severe losses.
Holdo stays behind while the others abandon ship, and despite her shortcomings as a leader, her final actions reaffirm her noble intentions, demonstrating a genuine selflessness that Windu seemed to lack. Like Paige, another character associated with the intellect, Holdo chooses to sacrifice herself in order to blow up a Star Destroyer and save the Resistance fleet. “She’s running away,” a female officer remarks, but Poe’s opinion of her as a coward has been effectively reversed: “No, she isn’t.” By making the kind of grand gesture that defines Poe’s idea of heroism, Holdo has not betrayed her ideals, but has properly united them to praxis (action!) – her final maneuver is a sacrifice, not a suicide, because she has already proved herself not to be motivated by vainglorious conceit. The rightness of the act is underscored by a subtle bit of foreshadowing: during Leia’s Mary Poppins routine, she flies through a blue hologram of Snoke’s ship on the Resistance cruiser’s bridge. The heart determines the ideal course of action; the head carries it out.
Part II: No Something, No Doing
“Don’t act like you had a plan. You’re Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine!”
– Mad Men
In the first moments of The Force Awakens, we learned that Luke Skywalker had vanished, and the absence of the Jedi was responsible for widespread “despair in the galaxy.” According to The Last Jedi’s opening crawl, Luke’s return will “restore a spark of hope.” A spark connotes fire, passion, but hope refers to the future, which is unseen, ideal; the return of the Jedi will reunite the divided intellect and appetites. Until then, the Resistance has lost both the spiritual framework of the Jedi and the political framework of the Republic. Poe identifies himself as a member of the “Republic fleet,” but Hux states, “The Republic is no more.” There is no common ground. A similar sense of uncertainty permeated Attack of the Clones, with the confused iconography of good Stormtroopers, bad rebels, and the clouds that engulfed their battle. For much of The Last Jedi, Johnson unmoors good and evil from any context, framing the First Order and Resistance as two sets of ships floating in a void. “We’re really nowhere,” Finn remarks. (The words “nothing” and “nowhere” recur more pointedly in The Last Jedi than any other Star Wars film.)
In such a state of confusion, reason seems powerless, and it’s little surprise that the passions run amok, but no matter how good their intentions, they are doomed to fail without reference to higher things. In Luke’s plotline, we will see that faith without works is dead, but in the actions of Poe, Finn, and Rose, we see the converse: works without faith, one-in-a-million schemes without trust in a higher power, an extension of Han Solo’s protest, “That’s not how the Force works!” When he first meets Rose, Finn says, “May the Force be with you,” but he says it flippantly, to distract her from his attempt to escape. When she replies, “Wow, you too,” she is only in awe of him, not anything spiritual. When Poe asks how she met Finn, her reply is simple – “Luck” – but Obi-Wan taught, “there is no such thing as luck.”
Although Finn often has good moral impulses, his conscience develops slowly. In The Force Awakens, he refused to take part in a massacre of innocents, but when he claimed to be rescuing Poe Dameron because it was “the right thing to do,” Poe called him on it. “I’m not who you think I am,” he told Rey. “I’m not Resistance. I’m not a hero.” He ended up aligning with the Resistance first because he selfishly wanted to escape the First Order, and second because of his emotional attachment to Rey. His maturation is only beginning, and Johnson frames his reintroduction in The Last Jedi as a birth: awakening from his coma, he emerges from a womblike healing device, attached to tubes leaking fluid.
Finn meets Rose when he descends into the bowels of the Resistance cruiser, where the escape pods are. (They have red doors.) She “works behind pipes all day,” so she and Finn have quite a bit in common; when he was part of the First Order, he worked in “sanitation.” Rose is defined by the material world, in contrast to her sister, who already shuffled off this mortal coil, and we first see Rose weeping over the yin yang talisman that links her to Paige. She is ecstatic to see Finn, who Paige deemed a hero for “knowing right from wrong” – but upon realizing he is abandoning ship, she stuns him with a blue device. When reality doesn’t match up to ideals, the passions lash out in disappointment. Like Poe, Rose is disgusted by the notion of “running away.” She accuses Finn of cowardice just as Poe accused Holdo; indeed, Finn, governed by his fickle appetites, is called a “traitor” by just about everyone. When these three passion-driven characters get together, they concoct a well-intentioned but absurd plan to save the fleet, while C-3PO aptly complains about being the “sole voice of reason,” and soon enough, we are quite literally off to the races.And to Justin Theroux’s cameo.
Guided by passion, Finn and Rose go to a casino planet, Canto Bight, in search of a “master” codebreaker with a red flower (a “rose,” by any other name) on his lapel. This is standard Star Wars fare; from the original film onwards, our anti-authoritarian heroes have sought allies in the galaxy’s seedy underbelly. Finn and Rose crash on a beach – i.e. by the water – and escape the tyranny of the wealthy upper crust by descending through the sewers into the underworld where the repressed elements live. These benevolent children recall the younglings who helped Obi-Wan in Clones, and are a counterpoint to the malicious dwarfs who tried to smelt C-3PO in Empire. Rose is accustomed to life in the underworld, so she is the one who communicates with its denizens, using a ring with the Rebellion insignia on a red background.
Though this subplot is rather dramatically inert, it sets up several new connections to previous films. As in The Phantom Menace, racing is connected to gambling and child slavery. Moreover, Canto Bight is a desert planet with twin moons (rather than twin suns), making it a kind of alternate Tatooine. It also recalls Kamino, a planet where the manufacturers who profit from weapons of war reside and talk of “business,” and Bespin, an affluent, seemingly apolitical city where the heroes join forces with an untrustworthy scoundrel. The credits only refer to this character as “DJ,” and as much as I would like those initials to stand for “Dexter Jettster,” they most likely refer to his creed, “Don’t Join.” Indeed, while Jettster was a portly, appetitive fellow who ran a diner and gave helpful advice, DJ is the opposite. Although Finn and Rose meet him in the underworld, there is something about DJ that is almost ascetic, quite divorced from passion: he is devoted to his ideal of not having ideals, and nothing else. Helping them escape onboard a ship commandeered by BB-8, DJ calls, “Need a lift?” The heroes make another hasty ascent that proves problematic, as DJ tries to pull Finn up into the world of Nihilism, Star Wars Style – ideas divorced from sentiment and morality.
When DJ demands payment, the usually appetitive Finn abruptly appeals to principle: “We gave you our word. That should be enough.” DJ insists: “No something, no doing.” The “something” he gets is Rose’s yin yang pendant, her link to Paige. The red leather chair Rose sits in to pilot the ship swivels like one of Palpatine’s thrones, and furthermore, when she gives DJ her necklace, she repeats the Senate’s famous catchphrase, “Do it.” This is a surprising connection, to be sure, but an apt one. Palpatine embodied the repressed passions secretly driving the seemingly rational Republic, and Rose – also associated with repressed passions – is the one giving up reason to drive this action, which, despite its intent, will end in disaster. Rose acts the part of the stomach in this tripartite trio, DJ becomes the head, and Finn’s fickle heart is caught in the middle. He rightly objects to Rose giving up her talisman to DJ; her connection to Paige and all she represents should not be thrown aside. Finn follows DJ out of the red-upholstered cockpit into a room with blue leather cushions, where DJ, wearing the yin yang talisman connoting reason, attempts to corrupt him with perverse philosophy: “Good guys, bad guys… made up words.” This recalls Kurosawa’s Rashômon (referenced more overtly elsewhere): “Maybe goodness is just make believe.” Star Wars is often characterized – not quite accurately – as a black and white morality tale, but DJ posits that the categories of good and evil are meaningless. “Let me learn you something big. It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.” Machinery is often associated with evil in Star Wars because it is frequently used to curtail freedom. The Death Star was a “technological terror” in the service of an authoritarian dictatorship, and Obi-Wan condemned Darth Vader as “more machine than man.” DJ twists these categories into something new and frightening: he believes in a deterministic, mechanistic universe where good and evil do not matter, and freedom is found only by detaching oneself.
Appropriately enough, our trio of repressed characters approach Snoke’s Star Destroyer from below. While Finn and DJ are dressed in standard grey First Order uniforms for the infiltration, Rose is wearing a blue uniform. It seems odd for this most passionate of characters to be wearing the color of reason, but simultaneously, the same thing is happening on the Resistance cruiser, as Poe stages his mutiny against Holdo and takes over the bridge. In both plotlines, the stomach is trying to be the head, and it won’t work. DJ uses Rose’s yin yang pendant to open a control panel because it is made of Haysian smelt, the “best conductor.” This makes sense, given that a conductor transmits energy through itself, and it also makes sense that DJ returns the trinket to Rose when he no longer has use for it, as he has no real connection to what it represents. The infiltrators cross a red bridge to reach their goal, but are blocked and captured. As in Attack of the Clones, the threat of ritualistic execution looms, and the fact that Finn and Rose are set to be beheaded recalls Viceroy Gunray: “I want [Padmé’s] head on my desk.” However, Holdo’s final actions save them from the symbolically significant fate of having their heads separated from their bodies.
Like Lando Calrissian before him, DJ cuts a deal in the interest of self-preservation (per Rashômon, “If you’re not selfish, you can’t survive”) – but unlike Lando, he feels no remorse, and has no redemptive change of heart. “They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow,” he tells Finn with a shrug. “It’s just business.” However, seeing the results of DJ’s philosophy firsthand solidifies Finn’s rejection of it: “You’re wrong.” His newfound zeal is seen in his subsequent gladiatorial fight with Phasma, who taunts, “You’re a bug in the system.” Once again, Finn is faced with the idea of being a meaningless cog in a mechanistic universe, but he rejects this role. When the fight concludes, he is knocked down a hole (another descent), but rises on an elevator. Concluding this ascent, he declares himself “Rebel scum,” finally committing to an ideological position. Rose calls, “Need a lift?” – directly recalling the earlier beat where DJ said the same thing, from another vehicle that BB-8 commandeered. That was a flying ship, though, while this is a walking machine. Finn’s head is finally in the right place, but his feet are on the ground where they belong.
Similarly, the Resistance is no longer adrift in space, but has holed up in a subterranean base on the red mineral planet Crait, in a “hideout from the days of the Rebellion.” The Resistance’s search for solace has led them further down into the underworld and back into the past. (Rose mentions that she and Paige grew up on a mining planet.) As in Empire, Leia orders the door closed for the protection of those within, threatening to trap the appetitive characters outside. In both cases, they manage to get in anyway, and when the frightened Resistance starts shooting at Rose and Finn, it is Poe who gives the order to cease fire – a small sign of growth in the fellow whose first instinct was always to blow something up. While Poe is learning to think ahead, Finn – despite his decision to commit to the Resistance – is not exactly a strategist, and he comes up with a faintly nonsensical plan to take out the First Order cannon that will “crack that door open like an egg.” Finn’s arc in this film started with him emerging from a metaphorical womb, and now the Resistance is trapped in a similar cradle of life. But more on that later – for now, it is enough to note that this parallels the climax of The Force Awakens, in which Finn knew how a First Order superweapon (a “big gun”) worked and led a last-ditch, against-all-odds attempt to stop it. In Abrams’ movie, that worked; in Johnson’s, it doesn’t.
Finn struggles to control his speeder and Rose instructs, “Engage your mono ski, the green toggle.” Finn, rapidly heading into the territory of suicidal idealists where Luke resides (more on that later too), must be reminded by appetitive Rose to balance out by “engaging” with his passions as well. Naturally, he does so by literally connecting to the planet’s red landscape. Similarly, Rose balances herself by touching the talisman symbolizing her connection to Paige. However, despite the Resistance’s best attempts to harmonize reason and passion, their attack accomplishes nothing. This battle, with Rebel speeders going up against four-legged Imperial walkers, also overtly recalls The Empire Strikes Back, but its utter pointlessness is more reminiscent of the climax from Attack of the Clones, in which two faceless CGI armies clashed in a meaningless battle to disguise Palpatine’s bid for control of the galaxy. “It’s a suicide run,” Poe realizes, rather obviously marking this as a repeat and reversal of the opening attack on the Dreadnought. He orders Finn to retreat, but Finn refuses to listen, taking off his headset just as Poe shut off his communicator.
To the film’s detriment, I don’t think Johnson effectively dramatizes why Finn’s attempted martyrdom would be bad rather than good, suicide rather than sacrifice. I think we are meant to understand that Finn crashing into the cannon would not actually stop it from destroying the door of the Resistance base, and thus, his death would accomplish no practical purpose – but this is far from clear. In terms of thematic significance, as we are about to learn quite bluntly from Rose, Finn, like Poe, is motivated not by love for the Resistance, but by hatred of the First Order. (“I won’t let them win!”) As Finn makes this suicide run, he disengages his ski, unmooring from the red ground, but while he may think he is acting selflessly, subjugating his passions to his ideals, the symbolism says otherwise. The screen turns very red as he approaches the aperture, and the heat of the beam begins to melt his speeder. Finn’s act is not a thoughtful choice, but a passionate, misguided impulse.
Speaking of misguided impulses, Rose saves Finn, delivers a speech about the Power of Love™, and gives him a thoroughly unexpected kiss before falling unconscious. There was no indication of romantic attraction between these two, or even a one-sided infatuation on Rose’s part, and though Johnson trots out a classic cinematic device, pairing this outburst of passion with an exploding firework in the background, no amount of directorial prowess can keep the moment from falling flat. Yes, it is traditional for the second installment of a Star Wars trilogy to include a romantic subplot that climaxes in a kiss, but something has gotten jumbled up here, because this isn’t even The Last Jedi’s romantic subplot. We’re getting to that next.
Part III: Let Old Things Die
“Nothing is written.”
– Lawrence of Arabia
Rey is the young protagonist who emerges from obscurity in the desert to learn the ways of the Force, filling the central role previously occupied by Anakin and Luke. However, in The Last Jedi, we learn that she has no blood relation to the Skywalker family, and upon a closer look, the dissimilarities only grow more pronounced. Anakin lacked a father, and Luke a mother, but Rey lacks both parents; Luke calls her “Rey from nowhere.” Moreover, while Lucas’ two trilogies traced archetypal, developmental patterns, Rey is already quite fully formed when we meet her. Anakin and Luke were immature idealists, but Rey is exceptionally competent and unfailingly moral. One of her first actions onscreen, refusing to sell BB-8 at great personal expense, immediately positions her as a paragon of compassion reminiscent of the ideal Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Luke Skywalker circa Return of the Jedi. Indeed, by the end of this film, she has adopted Qui-Gon’s hairstyle and the color scheme of Luke’s Jedi outfit. Passion, reason, and spirit are already more or less balanced in Rey. There are things she does not know about the Force, but when taught, she readily accepts them, and her aggressive tendencies have already been integrated into her moral compass. The second installment of a Star Wars trilogy traditionally involves a descent into self-knowledge, but the tests Rey faces do not reveal her vices; instead, they simply test the virtues she already has. Luke and Kylo Ren both tell Rey that she needs a teacher, but apparently, both are wrong. I find this to be a less robust and satisfying arc than Anakin’s or Luke’s, but I am not quite willing to declare it an invalid one.
Uniquely, this trilogy has not one but two young Force-sensitive protagonists. Though Kylo Ren is the villain, he has more familiar traits. He is a descendant of Skywalker blood, burdened with expectations of greatness, possessing raw skill but undermined by immature ideals, torn between good and evil, passion and reason. “You have too much of your father’s heart in you,” his master says, pointing out that patricide “split [his] spirit to the bone.” Indeed, like Anakin, Kylo kills every father figure he can get his hands on. (Also like Anakin, he tries spinning – a good trick.) In The Last Jedi, the duality between Kylo and Rey, expressed through a series of metaphysical conversations, externalizes the conflict that is traditionally internal. Kylo is Rey’s dark side, and she is his.
The most striking parallels and discrepancies between Rey and Kylo emerge from their relationships to the past. In The Force Awakens, both were students of history. Kylo idolized Darth Vader and Rey was giddy at the prospect of meeting Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, who she thought were myths. Here, both find themselves disappointed, and both turn Anakin’s lightsaber against their respective masters, using an icon of past legends to rebuke their mentors for not living up to it. When Snoke mocks him for being “a child in a mask,” Kylo smashes his helmet. Rather than fail to live up to Darth Vader, he tries to sever himself from all old things: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” In contrast, Rey doggedly tries to bring Luke out of his self-imposed exile even when he throws his old lightsaber away and urges her to leave. She places the blame for his failures on Kylo, arguing that the student is responsible, not the master. The truth is more complicated.R: Alas, poor Kylo! I knew him, Hux.
The rubble of Luke’s burning temple and the narrative device of conflicting flashbacks recall Rashômon, which ended with the discovery of a baby abandoned by its parents, and similarly, we learn that Rey’s family “threw [her] away like garbage.” Both she and Kylo are defined by absent families. In The Force Awakens, Leia laments that she “lost” her son when she sent him away, and Rey lives alone on Jakku, perpetually awaiting her parents’ return. (“They’ll be back, one day.”) The two young protagonists make for a neat pair of opposites: one longs for family, while the other strives to be free of it. Neither gets what they want. Kylo killed his father, but the deed seems to haunt him. As Han and Leia’s son, Luke’s nephew, he comes from a family of legends, and we sense that Rey uses those same legends to try and fill the void left by her missing parents. Kylo admonishes, “You can’t stop needing them. It’s your greatest weakness, looking for them everywhere… in Han Solo, now in Skywalker.”
Rey’s search into the past culminates in her version of a key Star Wars motif, the descent into the cave. We’ll discuss the Freudian significance of the geography of Luke’s island in more detail later on, but until then, forgive me for noting that the dark side hole Rey descends into resembles an anus. Per Wikipedia, during the anal stage of development, children “test their parents, the authority figures, on how much power they really have.” Fittingly enough, this stage is integral in determining the child’s decision-making capacity, and can result in a sense of independence. The hole is at the edge of the ocean, suggesting its link to the depths of the unconscious, and the dark side is associated with the physical world and its needs. Rey’s anguish over the absence of the family unit is appropriate, but her attempt to find meaning in biological lineage is doomed to be unsatisfying, leading only to loneliness. “I thought I’d find answers here,” she says. “I was wrong.”
At the opposite extreme, Kylo’s attempts to cut himself off from family are similarly doomed. At first glance, The Last Jedi does not seem to give him an equivalent descent sequence, but I think it is hiding in plain sight: it is the climactic battle on Crait. Rey’s descent mirrors Luke’s (no pun intended), but Kylo’s is more reminiscent of Anakin’s. The slaughter of the Sand People in Clones references The Searchers, but is also indebted to Lawrence of Arabia’s massacre at Tafas, and here Kylo quotes Lawrence directly: “No prisoners.” Hux plays Sherif Ali – “That’s enough!” – and, in keeping with his rational role, advises Kylo not to descend into the red clouds from which Luke emerges. Like Anakin, however, Kylo ignores the intellect, enacting (or attempting to enact) an indiscriminate slaughter in a fit of passion. Anakin’s violence was a reaction to the death of his mother, who he failed to save, but Kylo is lashing out against his mother, who he fails to kill. Moreover, like Luke in the cave on Dagobah, Kylo duels an older relative who is not physically present; though he wins the fight in a certain sense, striking his opponent down, he fails in a deeper sense. Luke found he had a disturbing kinship with Vader, while Kylo finds his connection to his family is not easily severed, entering a cave to find a talisman symbolizing his father (Han’s dice).
Earlier, I noted that the Resistance cave base on Crait was comparable to an “egg” or womb. At the risk of getting too blue (which doesn’t mean “rational” this time) for this site, I must also point out that the battle here revolves around the First Order’s attempt to penetrate said base with a phallic battering ram, which causes the white landscape to bleed red. The combination of these two colors recurs only once in Star Wars, when Padmé’s virginal white outfit is stained with red blood during Clones’ climax. In both cases, the symbolism carries a specifically anatomical association. The perpetrator of this disturbing violence is Kylo Ren, who, frantically trying to cut ties with his origins, metaphorically attacks the womb, the source of life. (The literal source of his own life, in fact; his mother is in the base.) Further developing the theme of Nihilism, Star Wars Style, the villains of The Last Jedi often oppose themselves to birth. Snoke rants that the “seed of the Jedi Order lives.” This seed is related to the spark of hope, which Snoke, driving towards death, wants to snuff out. Yet for all Kylo’s attempts to leave old things behind, he merely repeats old cycles, following in his grandfather’s Oedipal footsteps.
During one metaphysical conversation with Rey, Kylo stands at a window with his hands folded, mirrored on the reflective floor. This composition recalls Anakin on a Naboo balcony, deciding to search for his mother. The timing is similar: Kylo’s mother has just died, seemingly, and, like Anakin, he transfers his affections to a younger woman. Returning from her disappointment in the cave, Rey confides, “I’d never felt so alone.” “You’re not alone,” Kylo says. “Neither are you,” she replies. This intimate scene takes place in a darkened room by a fireplace, recalling not just Yoda’s hut in Empire, but Anakin and Padmé’s fireside conversation in Clones, when they admitted their feelings for one another. Kylo takes off his glove, and the two young lovers reach out to touch hands through the Force. This illicit contact occurs in a dark interior, much like Anakin and Padmé’s kiss before entering the Geonosian arena, and the connection is similarly severed by exposure to the exterior. Luke bursts in and, like the Jedi standing in the way of Anakin and Padmé’s courtship, tries to separate Rey and Kylo by destroying the hut.
Rey is not deterred, believing that Kylo Ren – or “Ben Solo,” his given name, by which she now refers to him – will turn to the light. “I saw his future,” she tells Luke, “as solid as I’m seeing you.” Rey consistently overestimates the solidity of legends and visions, and one wonders if this is merely naïveté or a form of faith or hope. Certainly, she is not entirely right about Ben, but neither is she entirely wrong. It is worth noting that Rey adopts Qui-Gon’s haircut and dark grey robes, symbols associated with the ideal Jedi, only when she connects with Ben and travels to Snoke’s Star Destroyer to meet him. Luke became a true Jedi by integrating the dark and light parts of himself, acknowledging his passions and learning to control them.
Upon her arrival, Ben is revealed in a cloud of smoke, always a symbol of uncertainty, and the theme of confused and conflicting perceptions crops up again, as the two young people have different interpretations of the vision they received when they touched hands. “You don’t have to do this,” Rey says as Ben takes her to Snoke, rejecting a deterministic view of the universe and emphasizing his ability to choose. When Snoke deactivates Rey’s handcuffs, their lights go from red to green – perhaps suggesting that she was drawn to Kylo by passion, but is now free to be her usual spirited self. When Snoke states his intention to “obliterate” Luke’s island – that, is to return it to oblivion, nothingness – Rey responds to the idea by trying to use the blue lightsaber. When she sees the Resistance transports being destroyed and all seems lost, she grabs Kylo’s red lightsaber. Again, we see Rey using both reason and passion in harmony, prompting Snoke to exclaim, “Still that fiery spit of hope! You have the spirit of a true Jedi!”
It is difficult to tell what Ben is thinking as Rey and Snoke face off, though one notes that he cannot or will not watch her being tortured. When Snoke gloats that it was he who bridged their minds through the Force, Ben looks subtly stricken, as if his privacy has been violated. (This recalls the way Palpatine maneuvered Anakin and Padmé together in Clones.) The decisive moment comes when Snoke orders him to kill Rey. “My worthy apprentice,” his master calls him, “Son of darkness, heir apparent to Lord Vader…” But Ben is long past trying to be Vader’s successor, and he betrays and murders Snoke by activating Anakin’s lightsaber, cutting him in half just as his ship is about to be split in two. By trying to escape the shadow of another’s legacy, Ben only repeats cycles of the past. It is traditional for practitioners of the Dark Side to kill their masters: Vader killed Palpatine to save Luke, and it is suggested that Palpatine killed Darth Plagueis in his sleep. With Snoke out of the way, Ben and Rey fight in harmony to defeat his guards. The predominant red hue of the scene suggests that passion is ascendant, marking this as a consummation of sorts for the two lovers.
However, Rey flings one of the guards’ weapons into the red curtain, setting it on fire and revealing the windows behind. Fittingly, as the faithful believer in legends of the past, she turns this passion-blinded location back into another Star Wars throne room, visually similar to the one where Obi-Wan and Anakin fought Dooku, or where Vader and Luke fought before Palpatine. Around the same time, Poe is being removed from the bridge of the Resistance cruiser and Rose and Finn are in handcuffs in the Star Destroyer’s hangar. Passion is waning on all fronts, and the last two guards in this fight are both killed by the blue lightsaber. Rey throws it to Ben, who activates it, impaling the final guard through the head. (Twice in this scene, he kills simply by turning Anakin’s lightsaber on.)
The alliance between Rey and Ben is short-lived. Though they were briefly united in passion, their ideological differences arise again, separating them. “It’s time to let old things die,” Ben says. “Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels… let it all die.” Ben remains defined by his anger towards the past and the shapeless urge to “move forward,” although the First Order is conspicuously absent from his list. “I want you to join me,” he says. “We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy.” For Ben, as for Lawrence, “nothing is written” – the future is defined only by his will. “You’re still holding on!” he shouts when Rey objects. “Let go!”
“Letting go” is a Jedi ideal in Star Wars, practiced by Qui-Gon in his final moments, and by Luke when destroying the Death Star, but Ben, like DJ, twists it into nihilistic asceticism. He does not suggest letting go to trust in the Force, but to pursue his own desire. Finally, he circles back to the matter of Rey’s parentage. Her parents, she admits, were “nobody.” “You have no place in this story,” Ben says. “You’re nothing… but not to me.” While Vader tempted Luke by appealing to his self-importance, Ben preys on Rey’s insecurity. Like Vader, he is driven by a terrible longing. “Join me… please,” he says quietly, reaching out, but this time he does not remove the glove from his hand. His very plea to “let old things die” is a repetition of the past Rey steadfastly clings to. Like Anakin, Ben wants companionship, but dooms himself to loneliness.
Part IV: The Galaxy Needs a Legend
“This is the West… when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
– The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
In The Force Awakens, Rey was delighted by the idea of finding a map to Luke Skywalker. “I thought he was a myth!” she exclaimed. However, the Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is quite different than the myths would suggest. I have posited that Kylo Ren is a dark mirror of Luke’s younger self, and Luke’s temptation to kill this boy undoes the integration of conscious and unconscious, youth and maturity, that he fought so hard to achieve in the original films. Tragedy resets him, so to speak; his burning Jedi temple recalls the burning homestead where his aunt and uncle died. Like Kylo, tormented by his failure to live up to standards set forth by legends, Luke tries to repress the past. His first act onscreen is to throw away an old relic – a perversion of his heroic choice, at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, to throw down his lightsaber out of love for his father. He has dumped his X-Wing in the water, banishing memories of past heroism to the unconscious. His idealism has reached a twisted, suicidal extreme. “I came to this island to die,” he says. “Nothing can make me change my mind.” These are the words of a weary old man, but coming from Luke, they are also the words of a petulant child. He has regressed to an infantile state, evinced by the way he drinks green milk from the breast of some kind of space walrus.
Luke’s despair is tied to the past, but that is also where his redemption comes from. R2-D2 persuades him to train Rey with an appeal to nostalgia, showing him Leia’s hologram from A New Hope and prompting him to follow in the footsteps of his own Jedi mentor, Obi-Wan. In The Last Jedi, we meet Luke on the island planet Ahch-To – associated, like the base the Resistance abandoned, with the color green. This is where the “first Jedi Temple” resides, marking it as a birthplace of spirituality, and indeed the entrance to the tree where the “original Jedi texts” reside is rather vaginal in appearance, furthering Johnson’s interest in birth/womb imagery. Symbols of the unconscious abound. The tree is shrouded in clouds and fog and Rey says she has seen it before in “dreams.” Perhaps Johnson is obliquely implying that the Jedi religion sprung out of the collective unconscious, and while this may be disappointing to a theistic viewer like myself, it is a fair interpretation of Lucas’ vision, considering – to take one instance – Yoda’s teaching that “life creates [the Force], makes it grow.” The fact that the sacred texts are found in this metaphorical womb, combined with Yoda’s later assertion that Rey “already possesses” their knowledge (a double entendre, as she has taken the books by that point), recalls the Platonic idea that the soul exists before birth, and learning is merely the recollection of that prenatal knowledge. Similarly, in Attack of the Clones, we saw the Jedi library, but Dexter Jettster – well, whaddya know, a rather important character for his limited screentime – highlighted the inadequacy of symbols and the difference between knowledge and (heh, heh) wisdom.
We have already discussed the anal dark side hole that resides at the lowest point of the Ahch-To island, and the vaginal tree adds to the same anatomical/Freudian symbolism. The hole related to the id: Rey’s deep, unconscious desires. The tree, related to reality (about which sacred texts make claims), connotes the ego. Finally, there is the stony high place, related to the superego, linked to larger ideals and self-criticism. Here we see that Luke has succumbed to the classic Jedi flaw: overemphasis on detachment. “The Force is not a power you have,” he reprimands Rey. “It’s not about lifting rocks.” The Force is certainly more than a tool to be wielded, but Luke wrongly denies its practical component – after all, “moving stones around” was part of his own training on Dagobah! Another key difference: Yoda instructed Luke to go to the dark side cave, knowing he had crucial lessons to learn there, but Luke tries to keep Rey away from its equivalent on his island. Like the Jedi of the prequels, Luke is secretly driven by fear.
Two of the main reference points for Lucas’ Star Wars films were Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and John Ford’s The Searchers. Johnson goes for different works by the same masters: Rashômon, as discussed, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a deconstruction of American westerns that concluded with the declaration, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Just as Kylo was tormented by his inability to live up to Vader’s legendary stature, Luke is ashamed of his failure to live up to his own legend – also recalling Lawrence’s doomed attempts, in Lawrence of Arabia, to fashion a mythic narrative around himself. “If you strip away the myth and look at their deeds,” Luke tells Rey, “The legacy of the Jedi is failure, hypocrisy, hubris.”
After sensing Ben’s future, he considered killing his nephew in a moment of “pure instinct,” which passed like a “fleeting shadow,” leaving him with “shame.” Luke condemns natural impulses as the Jedi did, but while the Jedi of the prequels were blind to their own arrogance, he recognizes his. In Ben, he saw “the eyes of a frightened boy whose master had failed him,” and he bitterly tells Rey that he failed because he bought into the legendary status others attributed to him. Yet Rey, ever the faithful believer, is unfazed, recalling Liberty Valance: “The galaxy may need a legend. I need someone to show me my place in all this.” Regardless of their literal accuracy, she sees legends as crucial to the formation of their hearers.
Nevertheless, Luke remains distraught, lamenting, “I can’t be what she needs me to be.” Like Kylo urging Rey to “let old things die” and attacking the womblike Resistance base on Crait, Luke succumbs to Nihilism, Star Wars Style and tries to burn down the past, embodied in the similarly womblike tree with the sacred texts. For all their differences, Luke and Kylo are driven by many of the same impulses – defined, indeed, by the very same moment of failure. Kylo’s nihilistic fervor dooms him to repeat the past, and similarly, Luke replicates the crucial flaw of the prequels’ Jedi. He divorces ideals from action, prompting Yoda to rebuke him (and hit him with a stick) as he did in another key fireside conversation: “Skywalker, still looking to the horizon. Never here, now, hmm? The need in front of your nose!” In Empire, Luke was distracted by the allure of the future, but here he dwells unduly on the past. “Time it is,” Yoda chides, “For you to look past a pile of old books.”
Of course, the apparent rejection and burning of ancient texts is bound to rub a classicist like myself the wrong way. I wrote in my essay on A New Hope that Lucas was both a traditionalist and an innovator, and praised his ability to “hold these forward and backward drives in tension.” Johnson leans too heavily on innovation for my comfort; I’m glad his sympathies ultimately seem to lie with Rey, who preserves the books offscreen, but it initially seems that the proper course of action is not defined or dramatized as effectively as its improper counterpoints. Is this true, though? Yoda frees Luke from an obsession on the past so that he may keep Jedi traditions alive through his actions. (Becoming the story’s “embodiment,” or “realization,” one might say.) Luke said that the legacy of the Jedi was failure; Yoda argues that failure is the greatest teacher, reminding Luke to pass on what he has learned.
“We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda says. “That is the true burden of all masters.” Certainly it is not a burden all masters can bear. In Snoke, we see a mentor who will not let his students surpass him, instead enforcing their subservience, seeing them as tools to be manipulated. There is a sense that Snoke seeks to intimidate his underlings by inflating his image; in The Force Awakens, he appeared as an oversized hologram, and here he makes his first appearance as a giant blue holographic head. The Snoke and mirrors routine gives the character a Wizard of Oz flavor, and indeed, his bluster proves similarly ill founded. He talks down to Rey and Kylo, frequently making note of their youth, but this dismissiveness leads to his downfall; like Palpatine and the prequels’ Jedi, the heady, aged Snoke is undone by the overconfidence he places in his intelligence.
“Well done, my good and faithful apprentice,” he says to Kylo. Anakin misquoted Christ in Revenge of the Sith – “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” – and, like Snoke, was swiftly punished for equating himself to divinity. Snoke’s death is particularly ignominious. It is traditional for two hands to be chopped off in a Star Wars trilogy’s second installment (not just Luke, but the Wampa; not just Anakin, but the changeling), and Snoke loses both of his. He is cut in half by Anakin’s lightsaber shortly before his ship is cut in half by Holdo’s lightspeed maneuver. With his demise, the First Order falls into disarray just as the Resistance threatened to do. “Our supreme leader is dead!” Hux cries. “We have no ruler!”
Luke and Snoke are compared and contrasted at multiple points in The Last Jedi. Recounting the tale of Ben’s fall, Luke says, “Leia blamed Snoke, but it was me.” Both remark on the potential of Ben’s Skywalker bloodline, and both define the balance of the Force by opposition. “Powerful light, powerful darkness,” says Luke; “Darkness rises and light to meet it,” says Snoke. However, Luke’s final actions position him as a sharp contrast to Snoke; rather than selfishly consolidating power, he empties himself for the next generation.
Luke’s entrance to the mine on Crait directly recalls his first appearance in Return of the Jedi: he comes down a corridor, a cloaked silhouette wearing black, and removes his hood as he enters the light. After going astray, Luke has returned to the properly balanced state he reached at the conclusion of the original trilogy, and once again descends into the underworld to save his friends. “I can’t save him,” he tells Leia, no longer taking undue responsibility for Kylo’s choices, but does not deny the possibility of her son’s redemption: “No one’s ever really gone.” As in Clones, the climactic duel occurs when a Jedi master comes to confront his wayward apprentice, though Luke’s duel with Kylo also recalls Obi-Wan’s final moments on the Death Star: it is a performance, an act of storytelling, meant to inspire the heroes and distract the villains. The fact that Luke is not tangibly present furthers this theme. He wields a blue lightsaber, and his footsteps do not touch the red landscape.
According to Yoda, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack,” and in this case, Luke’s actions are those of a true Jedi. He does not have to strike Kylo down to be victorious; he does not even have to physically draw his lightsaber. “I failed you, Ben,” he says. “I’m sorry.” Kylo retorts: “I’m sure you are! The Resistance is dead, the war is over, and when I kill you, I will have killed the last Jedi!” Because of Luke’s actions, however, he is mistaken: “Every word of what you just said was wrong. The Rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi.” No longer wanting the Jedi order to end, Luke sacrifices himself to preserve its legacy. He carries on the legend, projecting his ideal self across the galaxy from the island’s high place, and in so doing brings his own story full circle, back to the binary sunset that defined his infancy, his adolescence, and now his old age and death. Becoming one with the Force, he becomes a part of history. He is not isolated in his final moments, though; Leia and Rey both feel his passing. His body fades, like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him, leaving behind a cloak that floats away in the wind.
Luke’s actions certainly inspire Poe, who – despite being one of the most passionate characters around – perceives, “He’s doing this for a reason.” Of course, Poe’s passion is not bad in itself, and he tells C-3PO to shut up so he can listen to nature, symbolized by the crystal foxes, who lead the Resistance to a “natural unmapped opening.” It’s hard not to question Leia’s wisdom in granting a leadership position to the mutineer who just got the vast majority of the Resistance killed, but this does position Leia as a good mentor, who – in contrast to Snoke – is willing to let her students surpass her. Nature alone, though, does not save the Resistance. It merely leads them to the place where they can be saved by spirituality: Rey’s connection to the Force, which properly unites higher things to praxis (action!). She rolls the stones away from the mouth of the tomb as Luke declares the Rebellion “reborn.” The symbolic reference to the Resurrection is aptly reframed as an instance of rebirth; after all, we have already compared the cave to a womb.
As at the climax of Clones, a heavy object is lifted by a Jedi to save others. Clones is also the only other Star Wars film where a lightsaber is split in two, and in both cases, it is a blue one that belongs to Anakin. Holding the two halves, Rey asks, “How do we build a Rebellion from this?” Leia replies, “We have everything we need” – trusting, perhaps, that what is split can be unified. At the end of The Force Awakens, an unconscious Finn was loaded onto the Falcon; here, Finn loads an unconscious Rose onto the same ship. While he looks for a blanket to cover her, he stumbles across the Jedi texts that Rey took from the tree on Ahch-To. If I am right about what Paige means, here we once again see Rose paired with books. Johnson concludes on a tableau that recalls what used to be the end of this story.
However, The Last Jedi does not stop there. Throughout, Johnson – apparently trying to hasten the end of Star Wars history, if you will – has paralleled both Return of the Jedi and Empire Strikes Back, and accordingly, his film has two endings, one to mirror each. In a brief coda, we see the slave children on Canto Bight retelling Luke’s story. There is quite a bit of completeness in the film’s last moments. The child is shadowed, doubled. He sees a blue streak in the sky, uses the Force, and wears Rose’s red ring. For millions of people, Luke is their reference point for the legends of the past. Because of his example, this child, like his forebears, can look to the stars with the hope of future reconciliation.
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