Making Sense of The Last Jedi

A. D. Jameson

Still have some unresolved thoughts after seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi? A. D. Jameson, a lifelong geek, is here to help. Jameson’s book, I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture (publishing this May), is an insightful and irreverent investigation into geek culture and the science fiction, fantasy, and superhero pop-culture icons who have captured the attention of countless fans. Here, Jameson examines how the Star Wars series has been shaped by the past and grapples with a rebirth in the present, while also raising questions about what it means to be a fan.

Although reactions to Star Wars: The Last Jedi have been mixed, the movie has its fair share of champions. Some critics and theatergoers have hailed it as an iconoclastic work that subverts (or, as some have more fancily put it, “deconstructs”) the saga’s mythology, making a clean break from the seemingly endless struggle between the twin sides of the Force, the Light Side and the Dark, as well as the endless lightsaber duels between the Jedi and the Sith. In lieu of that, these critics argue, The Last Jedi is about how no one is ever wholly good or evil, and that even heroes fail. Which is a very pretty reading, so it’s too bad it’s incorrect—or rather, incomplete.

The previous Star Wars episode The Force Awakens (2015) ended with Rey flying off to a secret part of space to find Luke Skywalker and bring him back to aid the Resistance. Upon arrival, she stands before him, her left arm outstretched, offering him his old lightsaber. When The Last Jedi returns to this moment, Luke takes the lightsaber, studies it, then tosses the weapon over his shoulder before striding off in a huff. Clearly this won’t go the way that we thought. As if reading our mind, Luke tells Rey that he has no intention of flying away with her: “You think, what? I’m going to walk out with a laser-sword and face down the whole First Order?” Nor is he interested in training any more Jedi, a group whose legacy, he insists, is “failure, hypocrisy, hubris.”

“You think, what? I’m going to walk out with a laser-sword and face down the whole First Order?”

He knows of what he speaks. Gradually, Luke reveals that he went into self-imposed exile due to his failure in training Ben Solo, who was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force and became Kylo Ren. Luke regards this failure as akin to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s bungled training of Anakin Skywalker, who fell and became Darth Vader. Kylo Ren, meanwhile, telepathically reveals to Rey that Luke tried to murder him in his sleep, which is why he burned the Jedi Temple and slaughtered most of Luke’s students before fleeing.

Given the conflict between the two men, then, it’s surprising to find that Kylo Ren agrees with Luke. “Let the past die,” he implores Rey. “Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” Despite Rey’s insistence that the Jedi are worth saving, Luke is doing what Kylo Ren wants. Having gone to the island to die, he also takes a torch to the hollow tree that houses “the original Jedi texts,” manuscripts that contain a thousand generations’ worth of wisdom. And while Luke winds up staying his hand, Yoda appears out of thin air and summons lightning, sending the whole place up in flames. “Time it is,” he tells Luke, “for you to look past a pile of old books.”

Time indeed. It’s not hard to read those manuscripts as a metaphor for the Star Wars saga to date—not only the films, but the hundreds of supplemental novels, comics, and video games that have fleshed the fantasy out, often to an unwieldly degree. (“Page-turners they were not,” Yoda croaks, gleefully throwing shade at much of the franchise.) Champions of The Last Jedi see in moments like these writer-director Rian Johnson’s attempt to struggle free from the weight of forty years of Star Wars, and shepherd it into greener pastures. Ever since Disney began releasing new Star Wars movies in 2015, fans have wondered whether the films would be any good, the conventional wisdom being that Disney would play it safe. That proved correct with J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens, essentially a remake of the original 1977 Star Wars. Since then, Lucasfilm has, if anything, grown even more cautious, shoehorning Darth Vader and his wicked red lightsaber into Rogue One, then firing Christopher Miller and Phil Lord from the forthcoming Han Solo movie, citing “creative differences.” (Presumably the comedy duo was being too irreverent.)

Luke and Kylo Ren’s desire to escape the past, then, is also Rian Johnson’s: it’s the desire to have the same freedom George Lucas did in 1974, when he started dreaming up Star Wars. Back then, anything was possible—for example, Lucas’s first draft described Han Solo as a large green alien with gills. The movie’s success ensured there would be sequels, but director Irvin Kershner, remarkably, didn’t make Star Wars 2, creating instead the more romantic and painterly The Empire Strikes Back. But after that, the freedom to do what one wants with Star Wars has, for the most part, dissipated. Author Timothy Zahn had some when he wrote the first sequel novels, but even he was (excuse the pun) an heir to the Empire. After that, the only person who’s had real freedom to remake Star Wars according to his whims was George Lucas in the mid-to-late 1990s, when he created The Phantom Menace. (Say what you want about that film, but you can’t say it isn’t idiosyncratic.)

Today, however, anyone going to see a new Star Wars movie knows exactly what to expect: Jedi, Rebels, droids, Imperial forces, aliens, monsters, dogfights in space, lightsaber duels, “May the Force be with you.” Everyone, geek and non-geek, young and old, wants to be a Jedi—has pretended to be a Jedi, even, attempting to Force-grab cans of Coke from across the room and waving sticks about while making lightsaber noises. Disney and Lucasfilm understand this. Taking my seat in the theater before The Last Jedi started, I saw an ad for an app for the Google Pixel 2’s “The Last Jedi AR Stickers,” which let users “battle Stormtroopers.” The ending of The Last Jedi underscores the ad: an anonymous slave boy Force-grabs a broom, which he wields like a lightsaber. That’s the fantasy of Star Wars: he could be you!

The sad thing about The Last Jedi, therefore, is that Rian Johnson tries but fails to make anything new. In the end, Luke does exactly what he told Rey he would not do: walk out with a laser-sword and face down the whole First Order. Kylo Ren also fails: given the chance to obliterate the Resistance once and for all, he instead takes Luke’s bait, flying down to confront his old master. The two men fire up their lightsabers and wind up repeating history, reenacting the Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader duel from A New Hope. One can sense here what Rian Johnson wanted to do, what he should have done: have Luke and Kylo Ren team up to wipe everybody out, creating the breathing space for a new type of Star Wars film. But just like Kylo, just like Luke, Johnson loses his nerve.

In the end, Luke’s battle with Kylo Ren gives the members of the Resistance just enough time to get away, jetting off in the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star’s tractor beam having been disabled (more or less). And before that familiar ship disappears in a streak of light, we get reassurance that the saga is still intact. Unbeknownst to Luke and Yoda, who sat there watching their hallowed tree burn, Rey stole the original Jedi texts, smuggling them aboard the Millennium Falcon. Of course she did. No true fan of Star Wars wants to let go. To be a Jedi is to be a slave to the past.

A. D. Jameson is the author of several books, including Cinemaps, a collaboration with the artist Andrew DeGraff. A former blogger for HTML Giant, his fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Unstuck, and elsewhere. He is a PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois in Chicago. His new book, I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture, publishes in May.