Letting Go of the Lightsaber: Interpreting The Last Jedi

DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

The release of a new Star Wars movie is a public event. I cannot think of anything in the last two years — not even elections, terrorist attacks, or freak storms — that I have discussed more widely or in more detail than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Of course my observations may be a little biased, given that I work in a cinema, but it is undeniable that no other film, book, TV show, political event, or musical release provokes as much analysis and conversation, amongst all age groups and social classes. This peculiar significance has no doubt been examined by academics far more well-versed in the nature of myth and cultural discourse than I can ever hope to be, but I think it can be said, without overstatement, that Star Wars is a modern myth. Lots of things are so-called nowadays, comic-book movies among them, but forty years of evidence supports a strong case that Star Wars has a very wide and intense appeal. The question is, what happens when a filmmaker decides to reinterpret that mythology? This is, in my view, what Rian Johnson has done with the eighth episode in the saga. I need hardly recap the popular backlash against the choices made in this film; it is enough to say that many people think he ruined Star Wars. If, however, Star Wars is a modern myth, it is not really possible to ruin it, only reinterpret and rearrange. My argument here is that while Johnson has taken a sledgehammer to the traditional arrangement of the mythology, the constituent elements remain, presented in a surprising form. Those fans who brutally condemn him might do well to take a less purist view, because the survival of a myth like Star Wars depends on such acts of redefinition.

One of the most disturbing aspects of The Last Jedi (TLJ henceforth) is one of Johnson’s least obvious innovations. Famously, Star Wars is a story of light versus dark, the ultimate space fairytale about the good people struggling against the domination of the bad people. Outwardly, we have all this in TLJ, yet the defining conflict of the film has very little to do with morality. Good and evil characters are mixed up on both sides of the movie’s fundamental question in a way which, at first, seems incoherent. At the heart of TLJ is the issue of nostalgia. Kylo Ren’s philosophical remark is perhaps the clearest expression of this, though given that he had just become Supreme Leader, the audience can be forgiven for not realising that he holds the same view as General Leia Organa: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” Such pithy aphorisms hint at Kylo’s future as an author of self-help books if the First Order ever runs out of star destroyers, but the line also shows Johnson’s interest in how the past limits the present. This is a point of conflict between Rey and Luke Skywalker, too, with the old master insisting that the Jedi must be forgotten and their teachings set aside. Both Luke and Kylo tell Rey that she needs to let go, but this problem is not limited to her character. Poe Dameron is constrained by his desire to carry on a useless legacy, in his attempts to protect the Resistance’s last ship, while Leia and Vice-Admiral Holdo realise that they must let go of their past if hope is to be kept alive. That curious scion of a scarecrow and an alien, Supreme Leader Snoke, is also trapped in the past, expressing his disappointment that Kylo is not becoming “a new Vader.” When lined up along this divide, the protagonists and antagonists of this film seem rather strange. On one side, in the nostalgia corner, we have such likely allies as Poe, Snoke, and Rey, while on the opposing side we find natural friends such as Kylo, Luke, and Leia. It seems that age does not even matter on this issue. Of course, there are shades of disagreement, as Luke’s anarchistic attitude falters at the decisive moment, and an intervention from the past, in the form of Yoda’s Force ghost, is required to set the ancient Jedi tree alight. This notion of destroying the past is especially shocking, after the nostalgic extravaganza that was The Force Awakens, yet was not the hope of the original Star Wars contradicted by the darkness of The Empire Strikes Back? TLJ represents a total reversal in argument to the previous film, yet in many ways this has always been the function of the second instalment of a Star Wars trilogy. The unsettling thing for those fans who came to see a re-staging of Luke and Vader’s first duel was that the problem of the past was given far more emphasis than the usual problem of morality.

That scene with Yoda and Luke is perhaps the centre of the film, for it expresses another of the film’s key concepts: the notion of positive disaster. This idea is, of course, as old as Anakin’s lightsaber: Ben Kenobi’s sacrifice, the underlying narrative of the prequel trilogy, and the entire plot of Rogue One all turn upon the power of positive disaster. TLJ, however, presents it in an uncompromising manner. It is all very well for an old man to make a heroic sacrifice, but to burn everything that has gone before so that it can be made anew is far more radical. Yoda’s lightning bolt formed the perfect symbol, coming from nowhere and sweeping away everything that restrained Luke. By the end of the film, the Resistance has been reduced to a tiny handful of rebels, and Rey’s lightsaber is nothing more than a couple of smouldering bits of metal, yet there is a greater sense of hope than at the start of the film, when our heroes still had all their equipment. The lightning keeps striking, burning away everything that cannot sustain the confrontation, until only the barest core of the original structure remains. Such a process is intense, and disheartening, not only because of the inevitable sense of loss, but because it reminds us that the things which protect us also constrain us, and strength is only found when they are discarded. This ethos was at the heart of Empire, as Luke ran through the forests of Dagobah with a green goblin perched on his shoulder, but in our more cluttered 21st-century times, a blunter message is required. Johnson’s masterstroke, however, is to identify this destruction of nostalgia with Yoda’s ghost. In this way, he shows us that the past wants to be past, the dead want to rest, and our failure to realise this does more harm than good.

Yet as much as TLJ shows that nostalgia and pointless homage are harmful, it also affirms the historical and mythological ethos of Star Wars itself. In this sense, the film is an argument against carrying on a materialist, parochial past, but an argument for living out a narrative that builds on a universal, spiritual history. Yoda burns down the tree, but only because he knows that Rey took the sacred Jedi texts with her. The idea must live on, but the thing that contains it must die. The final confrontation between Luke and Kylo expresses this with elegant understatement. Both the Resistance and the audience assume, at first, that Luke plants to confront, fight, and defeat Kylo, cowing the First Order at its moment of triumph. Of course, Poe soon realises that Luke is playing for time so they can escape, but his performance on the salt plain of Crait has a greater purpose that only becomes clear in the final scene. In this curious epilogue, children on Canto Bight play out Luke’s last stand with stick figures, whispering the tale of this mythic Jedi Master. Their actual master scares them back to work, but the new hope that lives in the boy’s eyes tells us the truth. In turning on his (simulated) lightsaber), Luke did not expect to defeat Kylo physically, but instead began a process of spiritual victory, as he established a new myth that would motivate future resistance. What Johnson is arguing for, then, is not a systematic repetition of the previous mythological cycles, but a process of redefinition, where the narrative materials are repurposed for a new myth that properly meets the needs of the present.

Of course, as much as TLJ confronts problems of history and narrative, it is still concerned with morality. The problem of its villain, however, is actually the inverse of Vader’s problem, which causes some confusion as the audience attempts to understand Kylo Ren through the paradigm of his predecessor. Vader’s problem, stretched across six movies, was one of trying to be good against the temptation of evil. Even in Empire, as he casually slices off his son’s hand, there is an overriding sense that Vader believes he is doing the right thing, or at least working towards it. His turn to the Dark Side was driven by a wish for power, indeed, yet this was always troubled by a wish to do good. Kylo Ren’s problem, however, is exactly the opposite. He is seeking to be evil, against the temptation of good. Force Awakens gave some hints toward this as he told his father, Han Solo, that he needed help to do what needed to be done, before impaling Han with his lightsaber. That turn of phrase is echoed before Kylo’s execution of Snoke. Time after time, Kylo’s acts of evil are associated with his sense of purpose, while his gestures toward the Light Side of the Force seem involuntary and reluctant. The ultimate moment of certainty for his character in TLJ comes when he turns the First Order’s guns upon Luke, without a hint of remorse or hesitation. The difficulty for us and, it seems, Rey herself, is that we have been trying to understand Kylo in terms of Vader, but their stories do not match. The Vader saga was about the problem of doing good, the Kylo saga is about the problem of evil itself. This represents a more fundamental reorientation of the Star Wars rubric than Johnson’s anti-nostalgia ballistics programme, yet it is a much-needed one. We have had six Star Wars films that showed us the temptations of the Dark Side of the Force, and the problems that thoughtful Jedi can have, even with the best of intentions, such as wanting to save their beloved wife and children. To rehash the same narrative in the new trilogy would be pointless, making it an irrelevant postscript to Lucas’s movies. Instead, however, TLJ has changed the terms of the inquiry, turning our attention to the nature of evil itself. Whether this is something that audiences want to see is another question, but I believe that the filmmakers ought to be commended for making narrative innovations, rather than lazily echoing previous tales.

In one sense, then, The Last Jedi represents a radical reshaping of the Star Wars mythology, yet the universe remains the same. It is a film that acknowledges the passage of time, and this is the very thing about which angry fans are most upset. It is a film that accepts change, showing us that the mechanics of the world are consistent, but their orientation and manifestation varies. There is an argument, of course, in favour of artistic consistency. Having once been an author of fan-fiction, I am aware of the need to follow the rules of an established universe and keep beloved characters in their usual roles. This dictum, however, is at odds with reality itself. Who among you has the same attitudes and beliefs that you held twenty years ago? In any case, when one is talking about a mythology, rather than a normal creative production, the rules change. Star Wars is a myth like Sherlock Holmes, Oedipus, King Arthur, Superman, Orion, or Hamlet. It is not a fixed narrative, but a living tradition, that can only be maintained through being reshaped and wrought anew. I am not contending that The Last Jedi is a perfect movie, nor am I entirely endorsing its arguments. Instead, I want to emphasise that it has a specific task, and fulfils it with reasonable success. Attempts to force into an incompatible framework are futile. It is a movie about letting go, because it is only by coming to an end that the story can begin again.

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