My senior thesis advisor was the Obi-Wan to my Luke Skywalker. He had been my mentor all throughout undergrad, and nearly every class of consequent and lesson of value I learned in those hallowed halls was under his tutelage. His mind seemed to me to be on another level. Telling him such, he replied with a nugget of wisdom that’s never been far from my thinking since: “It’s the goal of those who come before to be surpassed by those who come after.” Now, a decade later, those same words are uttered nearly verbatim by Yoda to Luke Skywalker* as part of the Jedi wisdom he was charged to pass on: “We are what they grow beyond.” It is part of his musings on his own status as a figure of legend – legends and legacy being among the central themes of The Last Jedi.
On the textual level, Luke and Ben Solo both suffer under the shadows cast four decades earlier, Luke his own and Kylo Vader’s. Just as the Jedi Order a generation before him fell – despite being the legends to whom he himself looked up to – so too did Luke seemingly fail as a master and mentor, imprinting in him a wariness of his own hubris to the point of paralysis. Similarly, Kylo Ren telegraphs his admiration of Vader – replete with black cape and cloak and full-face mask – only to be constantly derided for his derivativeness, and worse, his dissimilarity; he’s no Vader, and he knows it.
But every bit as much as legacy looms large as a force for despair, it is equally so a force for hope. In the face of frequent failure throughout the film, of military defeat, misplaced trust, and long-odds not paying off, the Resistance remains resolute precisely because of the conviction that their present deeds – even their defeats – would be the legends that inspire others to fight as well; would be “the spark that ignites the fire.” And by the film’s end they are vindicated in that belief.
At the metatexual level, it’s easy to read The Last Jedi’s mindfulness of legacy as a metacinematic musing on Star Wars’ place atop the pantheon of popular culture properties. The Sequel Trilogy sits in the shadow cast four decades earlier as well. Much of the film is mired in fan service and homages to the originals. Upon the initial viewing, The Last Jedi seems so desperate to recapitulate Empire Strike Back (and to a lesser degree, Return of the Jedi) in the same way as The Force Awakens regurgitated A New Hope.
It structurally starts similarly enough, with the Resistance fighting to flee their no longer hidden base. By act two, all of the principle heroes are on the run through space trying to escape the enemy, save for a lone learner seeking the tutelage of the last living Jedi. Then, as part of their flight from the fiends, the rebels seek out the services of a scoundrel in a beautiful but decadent city. Here too are a Dark Side cave, promised revelations of parentage, and a novice knight abandoning the training before completion. Even visually the white wastes of Crait call back to Hoth, the soft golden hues of Canto Bight conspicuously evoke Cloud City, Poe Dameron all but cosplays as Han Solo, and Rey is garbed in the same grey that similarly signified the potential paths of light and darkness that stood before Luke on Degobah, replete with a cameo from Yoda. The Last Jedi is for all intents and purposed a redux of The Empire Strike Back – until it isn’t.
There’s a confidence on the part of the filmmakers in this work of theirs that comes through in the final acts, a self-awareness that The Last Jedi, like a successful student, surpasses that which came before it. It’s simultaneously bleaker and brighter than any main entry in the saga. Johnson et al know that just as they were inspired by Lucas’ original trilogy, so too will future generations cite Episode VIII in particular as the spark that ignites the fires of their imaginations. Both the last Jedi and The Last Jedi succeed in stepping out of the shadow and living up to the legends that inspired them.
This comes as a pleasant shock. I was pessimistic about the prospects of the film following the first teaser trailer, which seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the Force – and by extension the Star Wars saga as a whole. In the Prequel Era I frequented fan forums, and one of the most enduring and egregious errors some had regarding The Force was that it was essentially Taoistic, that the proper balance of the Force was an equilibrium between the Light and Dark, Good and Evil. Though this contradicted Lucas’ own statements on the matter, his word is no longer law, and Rey’s rhetoric in the teaser seemed to suggest that Disney was embracing this illogical and incoherent notion that the summum bonum is not Goodness itself but rather a strange admixture of good and evil.
Thankfully, The Last Jedi evidences a far more nuanced notion of the Force and morality. Luke is looking for the Jedi Order to end not because he’d wrongly concluded that adherence to goodness is somehow villainous, but rather because he’d rightly concluded that the Jedi are superfluous and unnecessary to the Force. The Order existed for a thousand generation; the Force existed long before that, and would continue to long after the various religions which try top make sense of it lose the last of their adherents. The Force, in its aseity, has no need of Jedi. The Order, so far as Luke sees them, were a failed sect full of flawed adherents, without whom life has and will go on. And morality will still be what its always been, the denizens of a galaxy devoid of Jedi still capable of discerning right from wrong and deciding to do the former. To those advocating pernicious and perfidious villainy in order to “balance out” an overabundance of benevolence and heroism, Luke would surely say, “Every word in that sentence is exactly wrong.”
Every character arc in The Last Jedi comes to the same conclusion. DJ nearly convinces Finn that there is a moral equivalence between the First Order and the Resistance, and that the only proper response is amoral indifference and personal profit from playing both sides against one another. Finn initially overcomes his cowardice because he’s looking to live up to his own legend as a hero of the Resistance in the eyes of Rose, but demonstrates genuine courage only once he consciously rejects DJ’s self-serving nihilism.
Rey, likewise, learns to let go of her own hand-wringing over legacy – of the mystery of her parentage and what their identity might mean for her purpose, of her desperation for the approval of surrogate father figures such as Han and Luke – and instead sets out simply to do what she sees as right, sans the completion of her training or earning the appellation of “Jedi.” And when she stands before Solo and Snoke, she does not consider their maleficent machinations as positive or even necessary contributions to the neutrality of the Force, but rather implores Ren to reject the Dark and return to the Light, full stop.
Indeed, the entire structure of the story, which places as paramount the survival of the Resistance, presumes the goodness of Good over Evil. Were the philosophy espoused by the film truly one which valued evil as highly as good, then either the changing fortunes of the First Order and the Resistance would have been treated with indifference, their yin and yang being necessary compliments to one another, or otherwise it would have condemned the heroes and villains alike as two extremes both failing to achieve the golden mean between morality and immorality, Rey rejecting the Rebellion and the First Order to set off on her own middle path. Instead, there is absolutely no ambiguity; by the film’s final frames, the heroes stand on the side of all that is good and right and the villains on the side of evil, and the audience’s sympathies are entirely for the former.
The goodness of Good is a seemingly simplistic message, but it is precisely those broad brush strokes and clearly cut archetypes which have always made the best Star Wars films so poignant and powerful. Lucas once said, “Don’t avoid the clichés – they are clichés because they work,” and The Last Jedi succeeds and fails largely along the lines of how closely it adheres to conventions. Mark Hamill’s soft-spoken surfer drawl – true to the nascent and naïf knight archetype the character of Luke originally embodied – subverts the gravitas normally associated with the wizened wizard character; Obi-Wan and Yoda seem so wise not because of their words but rather because of the delivery on the parts of Sir Alec Guinness and Frank Oz, respectively. Hamill – perhaps one of the best voice actors in history – surprisingly doesn’t deliver, at least not in comparison with his predecessors.
Conversely, the visual motifs all perfectly play to type. Luke’s last stand on Crait perfectly evokes the Western gunslinger dueling at high noon. Leia revealing the fullness of her connection to the Force in her apparent death and majestic glide through the heavens channels the crone-clad fairy godmother of classic märchen. And the aesthetic of the Resistance, their technology, and their tactics is taken directly from the most mythological modern conflict, the Second World War. Added all together – samurai and spaghetti westerns, European folklore and World War, sci-fi setting and religious musing – and The Last Jedi captures the otherwise indefinable je ne sais quoi of the original films in a way that the Prequels or even The Force Awakens never quite could.
Since the days when Joseph Campbell was praising Lucas as his greatest student, Star Wars has been the de facto American Mythology. Adding a new myth to that mythos is not too dissimilar or much less difficult than penning a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. It has an imposing legacy to live up to, and the burden of knowing its own importance in posterity. But director Rian Johnson succeeds in this task with aplomb. By the time the trumpets thunder out William’s iconic score and the credits begin to roll, all of us in the audience are the little boy in the last shot, faux-lightsaber in hand, Rebellion-insignia on our signet, starring at a shooting star overhead and the great wide galaxy behind it, hearts full of hope, and our imaginations inspired by the legend of The Skywalker.