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Friday, December 22nd, 2017
Movies and TV

Why "The Last Jedi" Is the Star Wars Film We Need Right Now


After Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened to rapturous critical reviews (94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and received the second largest opening weekend of all time ($220 million in the U.S. alone), it’s natural that a certain backlash would arise on social media. Nevertheless, The Last Jedi is not only the Star Wars film we have right now, it’s the Star Wars film we need right now. Here’s why. 

1. Important characters tap into the power of nonviolence.

Luke’s heroic journey in the original trilogy took him from being one who had embraced the violence his culture taught him (“But I’m ready to fight!”) to one of nonviolence (he sees good in Darth Vader and redeems him by reaching out to his common humanity). In The Last Jedi, Luke has become inert by dwelling on what he considers to be his failure in teaching Ben Solo. (He still has to learn a few more lessons, like the one Yoda teaches him: “The greatest teacher, failure is.”) However, Rey appeals to Luke’s common humanity, reminding him of the good that’s still inside him. This is nonviolence. And it changes Luke. Whereas Return of the Jedi is about Anakin’s redemption through nonviolence, The Last Jedi is about Luke’s.

Now fully embracing the principles of nonviolence, Luke’s Force projection has an emotional meeting with his sister, Leia. Speaking of her son, Ben Solo, she says, “I held out hope for saving him. But I know my son is gone.” Luke insightfully responds, “No one is ever really gone.” This insight is nonviolence.

Instead of using the Force to harm or injure Kylo Ren, Luke sacrifices his own life to buy Leia and the others time to escape. This is nonviolence. It’s what fully completes his hero’s journey and allows him to join the Force ghosts of his predecessors: Yoda and Obi-Wan, who previously learned this lesson.

Another character who employs nonviolence is Rose. She willingly crashes her ship, nearly killing herself, to save Finn. She then explains, “This is how we’re going to win - not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” This is nonviolence.

But most of all, Rey taps into the power of nonviolence within herself when she senses good in Kylo Ren. Instead of writing him off as lost (even though he committed patricide in the last film), she says, “It isn’t too late,” and literally reaches out her hand to him during their Force connection. As she explains to Luke, “If I go to him, Ben Solo will turn.” Rey actively seeks Ben’s common humanity in an effort to turn him towards the light.

All of these are examples of nonviolence. And they arise in the middle of a violent world. This is the hope that the true Resistance can hold up. This is the spark that can light the fire. 

2. The Last Jedi democratizes the force.

It troubles the idea that what makes a hero is a good bloodline. Take, for instance, Luke, who tells Rey the reason he failed was because “I saw Ben with his mighty Skywalker blood. And in my hubris, I thought I could train him.” What Luke finally realizes is that it’s not blood that matters, but the nature one develops. 

Another example is seen in Rey. The big question going into this film was “Who are Rey’s parents?” Myriad theories had been meticulously expounded, typically tying Rey genetically to either Luke, Obi-Wan, or Leia/Han. Fans can be forgiven for this fallacy, because the first six films endlessly worked to tie one’s ability with the Force to family lineage (with the prequels even setting up an unfortunate racial essentialism inherent in midi-chlorians).

What Rey learns (we hope, truthfully) from Kylo Ren in this film is that she comes from ignoble parents who sold her for drinking money on Jakku. What this means, of course, is that the Force could be strong in any of us, not just those who come from privileged bloodlines.

Writer-director Rian Johnson accentuates this in his closing shot of the film by showing the poor stable boy’s ability to wield the Force in his daily life (he Force-grabs a broom) as he looks to the stars with hope. 

3. The film is an allegory about the wealthy’s oppression of the poor.

A few viewers have complained about the film’s second-act trip to the casino world of Canto Bight. They imagine that this is a detour taking us away from the main story. They are wrong. Canto Bight is the main story.

As Rose explains to Finn, Canto Bight “is a terrible place filled with the worst people in the universe.” Finn looks at the overwhelming wealth and luxury of the gamblers and responds, “This place is beautiful. Why do you hate it so much?” Rose says, “Look closer.” Finn sees owners of the fathiers (space horses) abusing their animals and oppressing their workers.

Rose relates this to some of her own backstory - “The First Order took everything from us.” The First Order is a system where the strong prey upon the vulnerable.

It then filters down. Where does the wealth of the casino gamblers and fathier owners come from? Rose explains, “There’s only one business in the world that will get you this rich.” Finn knowingly answers,“War.”

The First Order has the resources to make those who are complicit with it  immorally wealthy. This is personified in the thief, DJ. After betraying Finn and Rose, he explains: “It’s just business.” But Finn knows better, responding: “You’re wrong.”

The reason the First Order exists is because people don’t stand up to it. This not only includes the weapon sellers, the fathier abusers, and the thief/betrayers, but also the oppressed poor who, by their inaction, allow the First Order to remain in power. The Resistance’s only hope is to spark the flame that will light the fire among the disenfranchised. As Vice Admiral Holdo explains, “In every corner of the galaxy the downtrodden put their hope in us.” That’s why that stable boy is such a powerful final image for the film.

Rose and Finn free the oppressed fathiers, a symbol of the galaxy’s downtrodden. The scenes of fathiers smashing through the casino tables and the luxury vehicles is reminiscent of the oppressed proletariat rising up in revolution against their oppressors. The Resistance is awakening in far corners of the galaxy, even where the wealthy have a stranglehold on the poor. 

4. The film reveals the dangers of corrupt religion.

We’re startled by that early image of Luke throwing away the lightsaber that Rey brought at such great cost (including climbing all those stairs on Ahch-To!) because we’ve all spent two years imagining that reunion going much differently. We were certain that Luke would be a sanguine Yoda, passing on his accumulated knowledge to Rey in standardized lessons. Instead, he is in major need of some galactic Zoloft.

But it makes sense. Why would Luke have marooned himself on a far-away planet where the high point of his day is sucking green milk from the teat of a feral alien anteater if he were in a good state of mind? Luke knows the dark side of the force’s ability to corrupt: he believes it was his failed teaching that played a role in the corruption of his nephew, Ben. He wants to make sure this never happens again.

Luke is ready to burn down the sacred Jedi tree with the ancient Jedi holy texts inside. He’s saved this desecration by Yoda, who calls down lightning to burn the tree himself and then laughs about it. Yoda explains that the power of the force doesn’t lie in texts (which Luke hasn’t even bothered to read) but in the hearts of people who are sensitive to it (such as Rey).

Luke understands this when he says, “The Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say if the Jedi die that the light dies is vanity.” Light and truth are not solely owned by just one group.

The Last Jedi thus reveals many aspects of corrupt religion in our day, where people who haven’t closely read sacred texts, misread them and then use them to harm others. They haven’t internalized what those texts were teaching—what matters is the kind of nature we have developed in our hearts: do we have love and compassion for the poor, the vulnerable, and the outsiders, or do we look down upon them and oppress them? This is the true light side or the true dark side of the Force.

5. The film shows the problems inherent in toxic masculinity.

Early in the film, Poe Dameron disregards General Leia’s order to retreat (probably because he trusts in violence to solve problems and think he knows more than she does). Because of that inability to listen, many of the Resistance’s ships and best pilots are destroyed, thus creating this film’s crisis where the entire Resistance is very nearly extinguished. Leia explains, “There are things that you cannot save by jumping in an x-wing and blowing things up.”

Poe follows this up later by dismissing his new superior, who turns out to be a woman. “That’s Vice Admiral Holdo?” he murmurs. “Not what I was expecting.” After dismissing her counsel, he initiates a coup and wrests control of the Resistance from her. General Leia later shoots Poe with a stun gun and explains to him how disastrous this second blunder also was - Holdo knew what she was doing but Poe didn’t trust her. The Last Jedi reveals the importance of women keeping toxic masculinity in the workplace in check. 

6. But apart from all of these important issues of the Now, this is a beautifully made film.

It’s filled with deep myth. Take Rey’s journey into the Jungian cave. Although she searches for lost parents to give her life meaning, she finds only herself to fill that role.

There are startling surprises. Some characters who seem self-centered are then shown to have the greater good of the community at heart, or vice-versa (e.g. Vice Admiral Holdo, DJ, and even Luke.) Very few of the theories of Reddit came to pass or were even relevant, frustrating those who had imbibed them. 

There is breathtaking excitement. The opening battle arguably provides the most thrilling opening of any of the Star Wars films.

There are moments of humor. From the opening when Poe “tools” with General Hux over pretending to be on hold, to Chewbacca’s nearly becoming a vegan after seeing the sad porgs, these moments provide much-needed relief from the darker elements the film wrestles with.

There is palpable emotion from characters in which we are invested. I cried a couple of times during the film (such as the time when R2 played the hologram of a young Princess Leia from A New Hope), and even once during the closing credits (“In Loving Memory of our Princess: Carrie”). The mythic send-off of Luke at the end of the film with the two suns setting (reminiscent of a similar image in A New Hope) is filled with poignancy. It is indeed time to “let go of the past” and move forward with the new characters of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Finn, which The Last Jedi helps us to do.

The production design is sublimely gorgeous. Consider the Supreme Leader’s vibrant red throne room or the battle on the salt planet of Crait (with its trailing red plumes), both of which mythically signify the blood that spills when people use violence to achieve their goals.

The Last Jedi provides hope at the end of a year filled with quiet, unceasing despair. It shows us how to form a Resistance to the violent, the greedy, the sexist, and the corrupt. More than any other in the saga, it’s the Star Wars film we need right now.

Dr. David C. Simmons is the Professor of Film Studies and Humanities at Northwest Florida State College.