Star Wars Episode VIII: THE LAST JEDI comes out on Blu-ray and DVD today. To honor the release, Lewton Bus offers this rumination on the film’s themes.
WARNING: This article will freely discuss events from THE LAST JEDI and elsewhere in the Star Wars canon.
“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
The moment we first heard Kylo Ren make this statement, halfway through the first full trailer for The Last Jedi, we knew it would be a significant idea in the film. Everything was adding up to a story about transitions, about endings and new beginnings: Kylo had killed his own father in The Force Awakens, the first teaser had concluded with Luke saying, “It’s time for the Jedi to end,” and Snoke and the First Order were apparently rising from the ashes of the Starkiller disaster just as strong as ever. And, of course, there is the very title of the film: who is the “last” Jedi?
So when Kylo made that potent declaration, fan speculation went wild. Who or what will represent the past, that Kylo will apparently be trying to kill? Does he follow the murder of his father with an attempt on his mother’s life, as implied by the trailer? If Rey brings Luke out of exile and back to civilization, does Kylo go after his uncle as well? Holy kyber crystals, we’re going to get a huge epic Jedi-on-Sith lightsaber brawl like in the prequels, aren’t we?
And then the film arrived, and fans perceived that Kylo’s pronouncement wasn’t just his own philosophy, but was a statement of purpose for the whole movie. Director Rian Johnson had made a frontal assault on everything Star Wars fans loved about the movies, trying to burn the franchise to the ground.
- Heroic flyboy Poe Dameron is reinvented as a clueless dolt whose macho flailings nearly doom the Resistance.
- In a shock twist, the mysterious “New Emperor” Snoke is killed by Kylo before we learn anything about his past or his rise to power, like we saw with Palpatine.
- Leia rescues herself from an awful death in the vacuum of space with a display of Force talents totally unprecedented for her character.
- Luke Skywalker and his old master Yoda set fire to an ancient locus of Jedi power and have a wistful chat while they watch the flames consume the symbol.
- The whole Jedi-as-warrior-monk thing is totally thrown out; instead of magic space ninjas doing battle, like in the previous movies, we have a former hero turned mopey hermit who bitterly mocks the whole idea of fighting evil, and then defeats the bad guys with a mere illusion, never even laying a finger on them.
- The last remnant of the Resistance, fleeing the First Order, is whittled down to almost nothing, and at the end of the movie escapes in disgrace with so few people they can all fit on the Millennium Falcon.
- Luke himself, the face of the original trilogy’s heroism, dies.
And on, and on, with many more examples of transgressions against the franchise besides.1 The point is, with all of this going on, it’s totally obvious what the movie is up to, right? Star Wars as we know it gets crumpled up into a ball and hurled into the sun, because it’s the past, and the movie tells directly that if the past won’t die on its own, then you have to kill it. Yes?
No. Because what’s truly amazing and impressive is that every word of that summary is wrong.
It’s truly baffling and bizarre how many people have latched onto “let the past die, kill it if you have to” as the guiding principle and the mission statement for the movie. Yes, it’s a cool, memorable line. Yes, The Last Jedi is consciously built around the theme of succession, of old authority and old assumptions giving way to new blood and new ideas. And, yes, all of the events above do seem, superficially, to reflect a conscious desire on the part of the film to tear down established mythology in service to the director’s personal worldview.
But in order to support that argument, you have to misread the movie, citing the above incidents while ignoring other moments that contextualize and explain the events, and that contradict your reading.
To begin with, here is the most important salient fact about this interpretation:
The character who delivers that line, Kylo Ren, is the movie’s villain.
He’s the bad guy. The antagonist. He’s angry, he’s frustrated, he’s emotionally unbalanced; he suffers the neurosis of entitled superiority undercut by fear and deep self-doubt. And in the end, rather than reaching an epiphany and transcending his flaws, he surrenders to the darkness, embraces his absolutist fantasies, and fully actualizes himself as a nihilistic shithead.
Do you really think the filmmakers would allow that guy to articulate the movie’s creative mission statement?
Don’t believe me? Let’s go through the arguments point by point.
- Poe Dameron is a masculine dimwit.
This one’s easy. If you want to argue that the filmmakers think Poe’s a hotheaded fool who deserves to be sidelined, then you have to ignore the last quarter of the story, where he realizes he’s made mistakes and allowed his short-sighted glory-seeking to interfere with and endanger the mission, and he slows down and reorients himself strategically and earns the right to resume a leadership role. The movie sees clearly that with his charisma, his energy, his dedication to the cause, and his ability to inspire people, he has tremendous value, and as soon as he gets beyond his self-centered recklessness, the Resistance should absolutely keep him around.
- Snoke is a wasted supervillain.
This one is also easy. Snoke is a powerful motivator behind the front-line villains, and as such serves the same role, and gets the same level of development, as Palpatine in the original trilogy. Fans who wanted to see Snoke’s beginnings and his rise to power forget that all of that was folded into the Emperor’s mythology years after Return of the Jedi left cinemas. And, of course, Lucasfilm being Lucasfilm, we’ll no doubt have lots of opportunity in the future to explore Snoke’s background, if not in films then in other media. As it is, he fulfills his required role admirably, not just as the Grand Wizard who motivates everybody else, but as the dragon who is slain to allow Kylo to rise as the true villain. The movie very wisely recognizes not only that it doesn’t need Snoke, but that killing him serves a significant story function, so it lets him fall away.
- Leia gets Force powers out of nowhere.
Again, easy. Leia is Luke’s sister. There is precedent in the previous movies that she is Force sensitive, having connections and reactions to distant events in The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. She clearly is not interested in following up on or developing those talents, expressing intimidation at Luke’s mystical abilities, and instead chooses a path of secular leadership. It’s entirely plausible that at a moment of extreme physical stress she would unconsciously leverage her latent abilities to save herself. In other words, this is a small detail from established canon that the filmmakers capitalize on and expand into a surprising hero moment for a core character.
- Luke and Yoda torch the Jedi tree.
In a fit of anger, Luke says he will destroy this primeval tree, where a collection of ancient Jedi texts has been kept for millennia, but he hesitates; and then Yoda, cackling, calls down a blast of lightning, setting the tree ablaze. Luke tries to brave the flames to rescue the old books, but is driven back, and the two old Jedi settle down in the grass to watch the tree burn.
Except that the books aren’t in the tree. Rey already grabbed them, and took them with her; we get a glimpse of them safely stored in a drawer on the Falcon. Yoda dismisses them wryly as dull and obsolete, saying, “Page-turners, they are not,” but clearly they have enough interest and value to someone that they should continue to be preserved and read.
The tree where the books were kept was just a container, grown over the years into a dry, twisted shell, gnarled and convoluted and irrelevant; but what was inside the tree — literally, its heart — carries on.
- Abandoning the concept of Jedi as mystical warriors.
This one’s going to take a little longer to unpack.
First off, in the original trilogy, the little we learn of Jedi philosophy suggests that while they may be capable combatants, they do not seek out battle. In the Mos Eisley Cantina, Obi-Wan tries to defuse the tension with the scar-faced bully by offering to buy him a drink; and on Dagobah, Yoda tells Luke, “Wars not make one great.”
Rather, most of what we think of when we imagine Jedi as magical space ninjas comes from the prequel trilogy, where we saw dozens of these warriors performing acrobatic combat on battlefields across the galaxy. The thing is, though, however clumsy and opaque the execution might have been, these movies certainly had a dim view of the Jedi Order and its members, portraying their politics and beliefs as insular, unbalanced, ossified, self-serving, and increasingly irrelevant in the real world. As effective as they might have been in action (which is questionable: in his two fights, Yoda first lets the villain escape, and later gets his ass kicked), the Jedi of the prequel trilogy were not heroes; they were part of the problem. Which leads to the jaded weariness in the two surviving Jedi in the OT, and then to Luke’s disillusionment and self-imposed exile in the new films.
Second, Luke is shown to be wrong in his long-nursed anger and in his patronizing mockery of Rey’s idealism. He asks her, derisively, “Did you think I was going to walk out with a laser sword and take down the whole First Order?” And then… that is exactly what he does.
But, you object, he doesn’t really do that, it’s just an illusion, it doesn’t count.
Except that it works. Luke marshals all of his mastery of the Force and defeats the First Order, holding them off while the Resistance escapes, despite not being physically anywhere near the scene. He humiliates Kylo Ren without even touching him, from the other side of the galaxy. He epitomizes what the Jedi masters have been saying through the whole series: he saves the day without resorting to outright combat, without needing to attack his nephew. A fight may be what we were expecting, it’s how the child inside us wants to be indulged, but Luke has the wisdom to show us another way, a better way. And, what’s more, hardly anyone knows what he did; as far as the casual witness is concerned, Luke was there, and he did walk out with a laser sword and take on the whole First Order, by himself.
Luke accomplished much, much more than performing some impressive gymnastics that result in chopped-up corpses. Luke created a legend, a story which transcends mere physical achievement, and which will generate wonder and hope as it’s passed from teller to teller.
At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke is a heroic man. At the end of The Last Jedi, he has elevated himself to the status of myth.
- The Resistance is a failure.
Yes, if you ignore the fact that the remaining members, including Leia, Poe, and Rey, do escape, and if you ignore the epilogue, with the children, which tells us that their story has been spreading, and that the spirit of the Resistance lives on. Luke himself, in one of his last moments on Crait, says, “The Resistance is reborn.”
To stand up to a powerful enemy, above all else, you must have hope. It’s discussed throughout Rogue One, and Leia emphasizes it with the last word of the movie. The first movie in the franchise was belatedly subtitled A New Hope. As the Resistance flees and Poe demands an explanation of the strategy, he says the people deserve some hope. The Last Jedi knowingly drains this hope away, leaving our heroes teetering on the brink… and then concludes by showing its fire still burns.
Honestly, it’s almost as if the people who say The Last Jedi isn’t Star Wars haven’t even watched these movies.
- The movie kills Luke Skywalker.
Oh, come on.
Obi-Wan died in A New Hope, and Yoda died in Return of the Jedi. Did that stop either of them from translucently twinkling through subsequent installments?
Luke earns himself a heroic finale, one of the grandest, most epic victories in the whole Star Wars canon, and then he fades off to whatever Force dimension Jedi occupy when they’re called home, and from which they can reappear whenever their advice or support (or their gentle correction) is warranted.
Luke Skywalker dies. Pshaw.
What we are left with, clearly, is not a movie that attacks and tears down established franchise dogma, but that carefully picks and chooses which parts to preserve, to carry forward, while leaving the rest by the wayside. The movie is a deliberate meditation on Star Wars as mythology, carving away its accumulated irrelevancies in order to celebrate and reinvent its best, most life-affirming aspects.
Now, wouldn’t it be something if there were a line in the movie encapsulating that purpose?
Something like, oh, let’s say…
“That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate — saving what we love.”
Hey, look at that. The actual mission statement.
And look, also, at the character who gets to deliver the line.
Young. Innocent, almost naïve. New to the Resistance. Grieving a personal loss. Thrown headlong into a crazy adventure. Rises to the occasion and becomes a hero.
Rose is, clearly, not an outright copy of Luke, but the archetype underneath her character quite consciously reflects his situation and personality at the beginning of his story. And it’s not an accident that she’s the one to articulate the movie’s statement of purpose.
Now, as to why “kill the past” caught on, and has been advocated as a thematic objective of the movie that’s weirdly off-base when compared to the actual mission statement quoted above, there are obvious reasons why it would have resonated so strongly. First, it was featured in the trailer, and therefore had a head start in the popular consciousness. Second, it’s an action statement, aggressive, with a clear objective, while the real one, being about nurturing and preservation, is more open-ended and ongoing, without an end point, and is thus less punchy and direct. Third, obviously, is that one is said by a white man, and the other is said by a woman of color, which comes with its own raft of cultural complications.
On top of all that, I think, is the way the Kylo character invites empathy and identification from the audience, before the true depth of his villainy is revealed. He’s charismatic, with a recognizable psychology, tortured by internal conflict and understandable demons. He seems to represent a variation on the Nice Guy archetype, the man who thinks he’s the hero and believes in his heart that he’s right but who is confused and frustrated by the world’s refusal to cooperate with his intentions. Naturally, when he says something, many people will want to trust him and believe him.
Of course, The Last Jedi blows up the Nice Guy mask in a beautifully clear deconstruction, showing the good intentions to be self-serving and the confusion and frustration to be built on delusional privilege. In the last quarter of the story, Kylo assumes his final form as Toxic Douchebro Incarnate, destroying his master and using textbook PUA negging to try to manipulate Rey before finally falling into his black hole of despair and selfish burn-it-all malevolence. And the viewers who wanted to identify with Kylo perceive that as a betrayal, and flip the villain’s destructive nihilism to reflect their anger at the movie apparently turning on them personally.
Hence, “kill the past” initially catches on because it’s an interestingly phrased declaration from a uniquely sympathetic bad guy, and then it morphs into a venomous misreading of a film whose thematic ambitions do not align with the desired indulgences from a small sector of the fanbase.
I’m not going to fight with them, though, about their angry mis-perceptions. I’m with Rose: I would rather spend my energy saving what I love. And one thing I love is the way The Last Jedi shrugs off years of superfluous nonsense and accumulated narrative cruft, and shows us why Star Wars matters.