The Death and Resurrection of Star Wars

The first question my friends asked me after seeing The Last Jedi on opening night was, “Did it go the way you expected?” After stumbling over some incomprehensible words, I couldn’t come up with an answer. Not because I had a hard time following the film or enjoying it, rather, because the film Rian Johnson created is completely unexpected and yet embraces the established mythos of the Star Wars saga.

Warning: major spoilers ahead

J.J. Abrams reacquainted us with the friendly trappings of the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, the first film in a new trilogy for a new generation of fans. Abrams’s task was monumental, introduce a new cast while integrating them in with the old cast, and laying a foundation for the next two films. The Force Awakens was completely enjoyable, even if it was overly familiar and safe.

Johnson took that foundation and turned everything upside down. Was Rey’s family lineage the most important lingering question for you? It doesn’t matter. Did you expect her to meet a wise and experienced Luke Skywalker? He’s broken and bitter instead. Was your Snoke theory correct? Probably not because we never learn anything substantial about him. In the first full trailer, Luke warns us, “This isn’t going to go the way you think.” The result is the most complex and nuanced Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

The death and resurrection of the Jedi

The Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is a man broken by the dark side of the Force. His entire life has been scarred by evil and the cycle of violence the Jedi and the Sith have been entwined in for millennia. That’s the true victory of the Sith, to drag the once noble Jedi Order down into the darkness of war and violence.

The hubris of the Jedi Luke speaks of in The Last Jedi is his own too. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke’s self-sacrificial act of non-violence draws his own father back from the depth of the dark side, a true act of selflessness and hope. But as he senses the darkness growing within Ben Solo, the great fear of losing another family member to the dark side leads to his own failure, and the cycle is started again.

Only Yoda, with 500 years of hindsight can see what Luke can’t—he didn’t pass on what he had learned. “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack,” admonishes Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda understands the failure of the Jedi Order and has let go of old ways. In his final confrontation with Kylo Ren, Luke finally realizes the true power of sacrifice, the lesson he should have learned all those years ago on the second Death Star. The master and apprentice meet, not with swords clashing, but with wit and wisdom pouring from Luke in a display of his mastery of the Force. The cycle is broken for now.

The way in which we confront our failures matter. It’s not enough to simply overcome them. Making things right isn’t as simple as we often like it to be. It’s complex and dirty and hard, but the way we go about it speaks volumes about what we’ve learned from those failures.

Pass on what you have learned

In Rey, we see the future of the Jedi. With so many expectations placed on her in-universe and out, it’s almost poetic that her family lineage doesn’t really matter. After all, both Luke and Anakin rose from obscurity to fulfill their destiny. If Rey had been a Skywalker (or Kenobi or Palpatine), she would’ve had to carry the burden of that legacy for her entire life. She would have been prone to repeat the same failures as Luke and the rest of the Jedi. But as a “nobody,” she is free to rebuild the Jedi Order in her image, free from the dark legacy of the past.

As Jacob Hall wrote in his wonderful defense of The Last Jedi, “To tie every character of significance to [the Skywalkers] and their circle of allies and enemies would be to rob them of their power.” Heroes can come from anywhere and they should. To leave the hero work to “the professionals” is as cynical a message as ever in these dark times. Rogue One so brilliantly encapsulated this theme we see in Rey’s journey in The Last Jedi. Star Wars is a story about you and me making a choice to do the right thing in the face of terrible circumstances. The potential future, the promise of a new Jedi Order, makes the final scene of the movie so poignant.

Yet the future of the franchise is as uncertain as ever. Perhaps this is the true brilliance of The Last Jedi. By bucking expectation and pushing our characters into the unknown, Rian Johnson has given us a blank slate to grow into. The expectations have been shattered and now J.J. Abrams returns to wrap up the new saga with Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo leading the way. Not only that but Johnson is also developing a new trilogy, set apart from the Skywalker Saga. I’m so excited to see where he takes us.

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