The Last Jedi: A Thematic Approach from Just a Guy Who Likes Star Wars (Warning: SPOILERS!)

So, I’m not a serious enough Star Wars fan to have an opinion that means something, but I didn’t know what all the fuss was about after seeing The Last Jedi. While watching the movie, I was trying to pick out different themes and ideas within the movie itself without referencing any other outside sources, and I wanted to put down my the connections I made here. I also wanted to write this before reading any other material from others, just so I could preserve my thoughts as they are. So these are entirely my own. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read any further because I’M PRETTY MUCH TALKING ABOUT THE ENTIRE PLOT AND STUFF.

The movie itself seems to capture a lot of tensions that perhaps seem timely, but really aren’t unique to any one period in time. Issues of tradition and identity come clashing to the foreground through many of the characters. And that’s how I’m going to organize this post: through a series of tensions or paradoxes that don’t necessarily get resolved for one side or the other (hmmmm… kind of like the Force, right? Funny how that works).

Take one moment to appreciate Porgs:

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Heroes versus Leaders

One of the first scenes in the movie is a fundamental difference in tactics between Princess Leia and Captain/Commander Dameron as the Rebellion attempts to take down the huge gunship of the First Order. Dameron is absolutely insistent on taking this once-in-a-million chance to wipe out a dangerous weapon of the enemy, while Leia is more concerned about saving lives and preserving a the Rebellion, even if it means losing some chances and equipment along the way. In a stunning rebuke, she tells Dameron that there were plenty of heroes on the mission, but not a single leader.

From her statement, and from the rest of the story, it seems apparent that heroes are willing to die for a cause, but don’t have the sense of the bigger picture. Heroes go for short-term wins rather than long-term victories– essentially winning the battle, but not the war. The real clencher to this tension is the role of a new character, Admiral Holdo, who is put in charge in the temporary absence of Princess Leia. Admiral Holdo also takes a cut into Dameron’s pride, casting him aside as a trigger-happy ne’er do well, telling him “you are the last thing we need.” Ouch. And for a while, you think that she may be a traitor to the cause. Dameron hatches a plan to save the Rebellion fleet, and eventually calls Holdo out as a traitor as he seeks to see his plan through. Woops. It turns out that his plan doesn’t work, relying on his chances didn’t save the day, Holdo wasn’t a traitor, and her slow and steady approach did save the day.

What do you know.

Is the days of the swashbuckling Gryffindor-type approach to problem-solving gone? Well, I don’t think they’re totally over. I mean, the epic risk-taking crazy flying through extremely narrow caves and defying C3P0s statistics are definitely still in this movie. But dang. It makes it a lot more ambivalent.

There is more than strategy at stake here though. It’s also about values. The movie clearly shows that these high risks end up costing a lot of lives along the way. Which is a perfect segue to the next theme.

Sacrifice versus Love

One thing that is very clear in most Star Wars films is that heroes are willing to die for the cause. The entire spin-off movie Rogue One was entirely dedicated to a small crew who died to secure the plans to the Death Star. In order to ensure success, you have to be willing to put your life on the line. And lives are lost. The Last Jedi begins with the tragic loss of a girl manning a bomber, but is able to take down the enemy gunner in the process. Good on her. But her sister is absolutely heart-broken after the loss. Are such sacrifices necessary, or worth it?

I was a little caught off guard when the movie apparently decides that, maybe not? Paige, the sister of Rose, the pilot willing to die, chooses to stop Finn from sacrificing himself to stop the death ray from blowing apart the Resistance. In the moment, I was absolutely livid! Finn was ready to die, he was going up in flames, the audience is sure he’s a goner. But then Paige t-bones his ship right out of the air before impact. Saved. Finn asks, “Why? Why did you do that?” Her response? “It isn’t death that will save us, but love.” All you need is love. My immediate reaction was, well watch the Resistance get blown to bits right before your eyes. The idea seems that if you have enough faith, it will work out without having to sacrifice any lives? Kind of like the theme from trolls? “No troll gets left behind!” Apparently the idea that the world isn’t all cupcakes and rainbows isn’t popular these days? No room for realists?

Well, there actually does seem to be room for realists. Our leader-not-hero Admiral Holdo ends up choosing to stay behind on the ship while the Resistance escapes. When the Resistance begins to be attacked by the mother-ship, she sacrifices herself by flying her ship at lightspeed right through the enemy forces breaking the ship in two. Again, there seems to be a place for sacrifice. But there is a greater awareness of the cost that is necessary, and that you should be aware of the lives at stake.

Old versus New

One of the parts that makes the new Star Wars such feel-good movies is the nostalgia. We got Han Solo (until he died), and Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker (plus a Yoda appearance, and the dynamic droid duo C3PO and R2D2). But you also get a new generation entering the field embodied in the conflict between Kylo Ren and Rey. Originally, you may have thought that this new generation was just going to inherit their roles from their parents. Rey would become an epic jedi. And Kylo Ren seemed to be taking on the role of his father, Darth Vader.

But in an epic twist, Kylo refuses that role. But he doesn’t choose the Rebellion either; that would be too conformist.

OK, back up. So Kylo and Ren have this mind thing going on where, despite their differences, they can attempt to work things out. We learn a little of Kylo’s back story piece by piece. He didn’t just up and join the dark side, attacking Luke and trying and wrecking the Jedi training grounds. Luke apparently tried to kill him, and he defended himself. Afterwards, he chose to cast off what he viewed as an old and corrupt past embodied by his father, Luke, and the Rebellion. He would try to forge his own identity and his own way. That originally took the form of service to Emperor Snoke, but in a moment of self-determination, he slew him as well. He rejected the conflicts of his past, and sought to choose his own path.

Some other characters contribute to this theme of old versus new. Luke Skywalker for instance ends up burning up the tree-temple of the Jedi along with the sacred texts, essentially seeking to erase the legacy of the Jedi. Wise Yoda turns up though, and offers some sage advice. Yes, perhaps the time of the Jedi are gone. But in his efforts to preserve old and dusty tomes, he forgot that it was more important to preserve Rey herself. We can’t sacrifice people to abstract principles.

Some perhaps may scoff: Bah! What a bunch of liberal nonsense! If you interpret this all as a mirror of Christianity, Luke pretty much just burned the only surviving copy of the Bible. But I don’t think that this was an entire repudiation of tradition and religion. I think it is a bringing into balance of two opposing forces. Conservatism values institutions because they are tried and true; just by virtue of their surviving means they have value and are worth preserving. Liberalism recognizes the worth of individuals and their right to self-determination. This movie was just recognizing that both are of value. In the end, Rey does become a Jedi. Luke doesn’t die the last of his kind, and the tradition will ultimately live on, just in a new form adapted for a new generation. I totally agree that we can’t sacrifice individuals to abstract principles.

Good versus Evil

This theme continues and overlaps in the battle between good versus evil. Luke is the first to confront that fact that maybe being good isn’t all it has turned out to be. He has played the hero too long (similar themes are also explored in the TV show “Once Upon a Time.” The hero role sometimes gets sickening). He was used to being a hero. But when his plans of passing on his hero legacy to Kylo blew up in his face starting a whole new galactic war, he decided to give up fighting for good altogether. What good is good is all it does is cause pain? He cuts himself off from the force entirely and exiles himself to the hardest place to find in the galaxy.

Another character, the codebreaker (what’s his name?!) has reached similar conclusions as Luke. He believes that the fight between good and evil is really just a way for the rich to get richer. Weapons producers sell their goods to the First Order and to the Rebellion. He agrees to help Finn and Paige for a price, but turns on them when he gets an offer from the bad guys. His justification? “You’ll be beating them tomorrow anyways.” The fight between good and evil is just an opportunity to make a few bucks to him. There is nothing noble in taking sides.

The audience is rightly horrified at this attitude. And Luke ultimately sees the folly in his own stance as well. He sees that by backing away, by not engaging in the fight, he was not only going to lose ones he loved, but the good was going to be snuffed out. In a near-tragic scene, Leia, his sister says “The last hope is about to be snuffed out.” Good thing Luke beams himself in and has an epic showdown with Kylo and saves the day!

In the end, the passive approach seems to be the right own, but it can’t sustain itself. It seems that the tension between good and evil is inevitable (I mean, it’s managed to last how many Star Wars episdoes?!). But that seemed to be true, given Luke’s lesson on the Force to Rey: violence and peace, they both exist in a constant tension. (They needed to know the bitter in order to know the sweet, right? Haha).

History versus Potential

I wasn’t sure what exactly to call this tension, but I settled for history and potential. It seems clear that the past plays a role in the present. But judging our future by our past is harmful. When Luke senses evil in Kylo, he pulls out his lightsaber, but has second thoughts about killing him. By passing judgment on Kylo, he drove him towards the dark side. It seems to be clear that we need to let individuals choose their own path. Like Sirius Black taught Harry Potter, “Both good and evil live within us, both light and darkness.” Just because there is darkness in someone doesn’t mean we should condemn them.

Luke nearly passes the same judgment on Rey when he senses darkness in her too. He seems eaten up that darkness can exist (funny, didn’t he JUST teach Rey about the tension that exists between all things? Why should it not exist in individuals as well?)

Rey is also interesting because she is completely new. She has no history tied up with heroes or villains. As Kylo tells her, “You’re nothing.” Gee Kylo, what a nice guy you are. I’m looking forward to see if they develop this theme more in the next film.

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