Written by J. James McFarland
This is intended as an overview of the central themes and character arcs of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It contains spoilers for the film.
“The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
This is a movie about a certain point of view, the wrong point of view. This is a story about making mistakes, then forgiving yourself and getting on with the task of making up for the errors. Each of our main characters has opportunities in The Last Jedi to make choices which will define the future of the struggle against The First Order. As we are informed in the crawl, the First Order fleet has now been sent out across the known Galaxy after the destruction of The New Republic, and there is no force large enough to stop them.
The movie opens with an evacuation of the base seen in the prior film. The Last Jedi takes place within a very short period of time after the end of The Force Awakens, perhaps hours. A truly ugly First Order ship enters the stage, and “our hero of the Resistance” Poe Dameron confronts this monstrosity himself, without support, in a humble X-Wing. His pal BB-8 tells him it is a bad idea, Leia tells him it is a bad idea, yet Poe puts his ego first.
During this setpiece, we learn a great many things about Poe which were not revealed to us before. His skill as a pilot has made him arrogant and has turned him into a disastrous example of a poor leader. During The Force Awakens we get to know Poe as a somewhat aloof, confident and joyful man. During The Last Jedi we see him descend into paranoia, self-centered arrogance, and a lack of faith in his superiors. He is willing to allow the Resistance to be defeated and his peers to be killed in pointless shows of self-importance. This becomes clear as Poe ignores General Leia’s orders and commits a large portion of the remaining offensive pilots of the Resistance to a desperate gamble. He has noble intentions, but is doing the wrong thing.
Meanwhile, Poe is self-satisfied with taunting General Hux about his parentage. Hux, a proper and straight-laced official who is insecure about being the bastard son from an extramarital affair his father had with a serving woman. This is a pretty sly wink at the audience and certain to go unnoticed by most.
The point of view for much of the movie is that of Poe. Poe FEELS a lot. He's very emotional. We witness him defy orders. Later he will do so again, only worse, which will make him responsible for the end of The Resistance.
If Poe had not taken a self-centered stance each time, each time with “noble intentions,” The Resistance would still exist. During the movie we FEEL with him that he's doing the right thing, we're exhilarated at his "success" even as we watch Rose lose her sister Paige, and we sympathize with Rose and Finn as they join in his mutiny - also defying orders - to run off on a hopeless errand.
Our new focal character for the film, Rose Tico, is introduced as Finn has chosen to run away from the Resistance. This is the second time Finn has chosen this course of action also choosing to save himself in The Force Awakens. However, in The Last Jedi we see that Finn has grown to care about one person besides himself, Rey. His decision to run away from the battle in this film can be said to have “noble intentions,” as he intends to put distance between the scenario he fears is about to befall the Resistance and the homing beacon which will bring Rey back there. In reality he is not only depriving the Resistance of Rey, but also unintentionally changing Rey’s goal of bringing Luke back to the Resistance and Leia. The audience may read into the depths of that motivation, but he joins “our hero of the Resistance” Poe in being motivated by folly.
During this sequence in the film we meet Rose Tico, who is mourning the loss of her sister Paige. Paige could be said to be one of the real heroes of the opening sequence, her selfless sacrifice of her life alongside those other pilots and gunners who died having taken down the monstrous First Order gunship. Indeed, General Leia identifies them as the heroes of the battle. Rose takes the position during this film of being the one character who continues to be heroic throughout the narrative. She is also a teacher to Finn who still has little personal identity outside of his brainwashing as an agent of The First Order.
Rose tells the audience and Finn that he is her hero - though he has let her down and been more legend than hero. This becomes the theme of the film. We have to experience that ourselves with Luke, Rey and Poe. We have to watch our heroes be real people who make mistakes, a hard real-world lesson, and then are rewarded to see them begin becoming what they were meant to be. Rose's hero-worship for Finn is a metaphor for us.
“I’m endangering the mission. I shouldn’t have come.” “It’s your imagination, kid. Come one.”
When we catch up with Rey, we find that she has an unknown connection to the tiny island which Luke has been living his humble life upon. She knows this place, she tells us. Rey finds that Luke is desperately sad and even hopeless. Our hero of the original trilogy, “The New Hope,” has become despondent. This places the audience expectations of a super-powered, flying and fireball throwing righteous Luke Skywalker quickly out of reach. We want to continue to see that young optimistic man who would never give up but life has been hard on him. This is our own failure. Since the prior film Luke has been a question mark and we have forgotten who Luke really was. Most of us expected something unrealistic, when what we find is a still-genuine Luke who has grown to be a simple farmer, hunter and gatherer, reflecting his true personality and his roots.
During her time on Luke’s island, Rey spends her time experiencing conversations with Kylo Ren, and seeking answers in dark places. Kylo Ren is behaving in the manner of all classic abusers, alternatingly shaming Rey and then being “the only one who understands.” Rey, like Poe, ignores the orders of her wiser master and continues to allow Ren to manipulate her, like most women in this position. She believes “she can fix him.”
Rey explores the Dark Side in a scene which will be endlessly interpreted. My personal takeaway from her experience underground is one which confirms my views on the Dark Side in general: the person who goes to the Dark Side is one who is self-seeking and self-centered, putting themselves ahead of everyone else in general. In her vision, there is only Rey, surrounded by Rey, and finally coming face to face with Rey.
In these scenes with Kylo Ren we see a succession of interpretations, flashbacks of an event which led to Luke being so detached from his higher calling. These alternating “he said / he said” interpretations of one moment in time show when Luke momentarily became hopeless over his ability to save Ben Solo, and saw a dark future he had to prevent. A folly of the audience from these scenes is to internalize the second flashback’s shock, when Kylo Ren is relating his false point of view. During this scene, in the same way that director Rian Johnson has connected us to Poe’s emotions and point of view, we are connected to Kylo Ren’s emotions and point of view. However, his views and actions are also wrong, and so again the audience has been put in the position of feeling emotions which support a false view.
We do not know what actions young Ben Solo has been taking. We never get to see how he has behaved, what choices he has made which make Luke fear him so. What was Ben Solo DOING during his time at the academy which made Luke so afraid that he would glimpse into Ben’s sleeping mind? In The Force Awakens, we find out that Leia and Han are familiar with Snoke. Starwars.com specifies that “Snoke seduced young Ben Solo when the Force-sensitive boy desperately needed a teacher. Snoke’s influence would prove critical when Luke Skywalker finally agreed to make Ben one of his new Jedi apprentices.” In The Last Jedi we are told that Luke has been aware of Snoke’s influence on his pupil and he does not seem surprised that other students leave with Ben. Ben slaughters his peers. This is very similar to when Anakin destroyed the Jedi temple, but at a much younger age.
Kylo has shown a very strong inclination towards a pattern of behavior of "no, not the light, anything but the light!" He is choosing to be evil instead of acting out of unconscious behavior, a pattern which Anakin never did. There is no “noble intention” in Kylo Ren, and as the movie progresses we find this truth deepening. The difference between Anakin and Kylo Ren is the big difference between "there is still light in him" and "he refuses the light and intentionally wants to be evil."
“I cannot be betrayed, I cannot be beaten. I see his mind, I see his every intent.”
We are deprived of Snoke’s history in a subverted way. Instead of focusing on the man behind Kylo Ren, we are quickly forced to watch Kylo Ren ascend the throne of The First Order himself. Snoke is only to us what Kylo Ren grows beyond. We do know how Snoke ruined Ben Solo, however. He promised him the same thing all Dark Side Masters promise their pupils. This is the promise that your own self-centered character defects can take focus in your life. We know exactly what drives these sorts of people, it is always the same. Power over others. Self before others. Self-importance. Self-aggrandizement. Ego satisfaction.
We can see that Kylo Ren is a monster who only cares about himself and is willing to let the whole Galaxy suffer to "become what he's supposed to be." Kylo Ren doesn't give a fig about anyone except Kylo Ren. What we learn in this movie is that it started really early. We don't know what he has done by that point in the flashbacks, but whatever Ren has done and the path he started down during those dark times is enough to make Luke lose his hope in the future.
After The Force Awakens, many fans of the Saga were confused about Kylo Ren’s role in the film. At the time my habit was to kindly reinforce that not only were we as the audience mistaken to see him as a strong man, but that he was in fact only a kid wearing a scary mask. However I would point out that he was on par with the Anakin Skywalker we see in Episode II, and that I hoped to see him grow into a monster that might surpass Vader. With The Last Jedi, we see him cross that threshold and become his own man.
Luke spends some time training Rey, and tells us that he has only “seen this power once, and he wasn’t afraid then.” This further solidifies that there was a slow decline of Ben into Kylo Ren, as we see that young Ben Solo’s actions were making Luke fearful. Luke launches into a diatribe of spite at the old Jedi. “The legacy of the Jedi is failure,” whining about hubris, a view that the Jedi led to the creation of Palpatine and of Vader. I see this as Luke summing up the endless negative fan opinions I refute regularly online. I do not believe that this is an accident of the scripting. My belief during this scene is that Luke’s faith has fallen so far that he is actually resonating with the lowered and weakened faith of that segment of the fanbase which continually echoes that the Jedi were corrupt, or that they should have let Anakin do as he wished, or that they deserved to die. Meta!
This line of thinking ignites me to such strong views! I do not want to lose focus of the topic at hand by being distracted into a completely different essay, suffice to say that my views on the Jedi and the future importance of the Jedi is so strong that I self-published a printed tract going into these topics. Luke is here expressing a point of view which I believe to be wrong, but his simply saying these things fills me with great hope! In a film whose entire basis is that heroes can be wrong, make mistakes, and then learn to become masters, this indicates to me that the future of the films will not only address the true mistakes of the Jedi, but that Rey will also restart the Jedi from fresh. The films can get into the true failures of the Jedi, which were getting involved in politics, moving from Jedha to Coruscant, then allowing outside opulence to reduce their own strong-points of aloofness and neutrality in The Galaxy.
We see that Luke has reconsidered his stance, reconnected to The Force, and sought his sister Leia. Upon waking Leia, whose own strong connection to The Force has just saved her life, he then quickly rushes to Rey’s hut. In this moment, it is my belief that the Luke we see running down the hillside excitedly is a Luke who will now announce to Rey that he wants to accompany her and join the struggle against The First Order. That was a sense which I cannot justify except in his behaviors, just prior to realizing that Rey is communing with Kylo Ren. I believe this realization has jilted Luke away from his new momentary intentions. I do believe that upon seeing Leia he has changed his mind, but his resolve dissipates quickly during a disagreement with Rey. Luke cannot follow. His submerged X-Wing has been scuttled, the S-Foils aren’t even on the plane any longer. From the paint pattern, we can see that parts of the wing have become the door of his hut.
“Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, essential to a Jedi's life.”
Making emotional attachments forbidden was something that Anakin completely ignored and considered below him. The Jedi did not have rules about not having emotions, rather they trained their adherents to live in a manner of personal humility and also emotional sobriety. This allows The Force to communicate it's Will, the will and needs of life around them. A Force user who exerts selfish needs is someone who will ignore the needs of other lifeforms and be a taker, not a giver.
The biggest problem the Jedi had to me was getting involved in Galaxy business. Historically separate and apart, they had maintained clarity on Jedha. They were more focused and knew what their role was. They were meant to train young Force users to be mature and emotionally sober adults who wouldn't use their abilities for evil or selfish gain at the expense of others. They were meant to prevent the rise of people like Palpatine or Vader. Moving to Coruscant, being surrounded by politics, tangentially involved with structures of governance, living in a wildly opulent manner, and involving themselves in the business of other people's life is what I see as some of their major failures. They lost their purpose.
By choosing to drag the audience along in the grip of our emotions, by putting us in the position of sympathizing with the wrong choices our heroes are making yet simultaneously making us a participant in the self-righteousness of those characters, The Last Jedi is forcing we the audience down the path of The Dark Side. We participate in Rey’s Dark Side journey and the film allows us to simmer in selfish righteousness during its journey. Is this an intentional effect of the writing and directing? It’s hard for me to say, although if I were to expand on the idea it would be natural to say that this movie is about the Dark Side in the way that Episodes III and V are, however this one compels the audience through their own Dark Side experience. It isn’t pleasant.
“Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you see it, you'll never make it through the night."
Poe was kicked out of the loop of leadership. He was a danger to the others because of his ongoing propensity to ignore orders demonstrating himself as a loose cannon. Vice-Admiral Holdo had a plan and the other ship captains were aware of it. They were in the middle of pretending to flee aimlessly while preparing a secret secondary mission. This is while executing a secret third mission, which was the cloaked vehicles leaving the abandoned ships with refugees and coming to the capital ship. Nobody had enough time to worry about Poe and his lessening mental state, keeping an eye on his paranoia and behind the scenes plotting.
Holdo is presented to us as a threat, and potentially even a traitor. Sinister music plays in her presence, and we still haven’t had the time to process the mistakes which Poe has already made. I bought in to the myth and hero-worship of Poe. I suspect we all did.
Vice-Admiral Holdo had reason not to trust Poe. Let's look at this more because this is the CENTRAL bait-and-switch of this movie. People wanted an "I am your Father" moment in which the truth of the entire story is flipped upside down, and they expected Rey's parents or Snoke's one-liner history to be that moment. Instead, you get something high concept: like Rose (rose-colored glasses?) we are super proud of our heroes from The Force Awakens. Poe, Rey and Finn are our heroes, we want to watch them rush in, kick ass, and be awesome. Then we see that they have massive character defects because they are human and fallible. Luke then demonstrates this, and Yoda just smiles and laughs and tells us that it's okay! That is how we grow into leaders. Our heroes will be leaders: Poe, Rey, Finn, Rose, Chewie, Nien Nunb... everyone on that little piece of junk life raft.
That is the "I am your Father" moment, not that the bad guy might be redeemed, but the opposite: the good guys might have irredeemable flaws. In real life, admitting that we are wrong verbally to another person is one of the most humbling and difficult things to do. However, actually accepting it and coming to terms with it in these circumstances is far less likely. Self-honesty is nearly impossible for most of us. In the next film, our heroes are freed up now to be epic… they have earned it.
“That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”
Rose has lost her sister, been awake for days on guard duty, had her hopes dashed on a failed mission, lost faith in a hero figure she admired, become his teacher, been through an arrest and escape, gone for an aggressive physical ride, watched 99% of the entire Resistance die because of the actions of the man who sent her on a failed mission, and then been promoted to front line combatant because there are no pilots left. Aside from all those things which make Rose one of the only heroes in the Resistance, she saves Finn’s life, interrupting his impossible attempt of being a savior figure. If she had not done so the Rebels in Episode IV would not have Finn to help rebuild the Resistance. During their wild good chase mission she has watched him grow from a self-motivated coward into a self-sacrificing hero. Rose Tico has done the opposite of both of Poe's major boneheaded mistakes which destroyed the Resistance, she saved a part of the Resistance. She didn't let Finn have a Pyrrhic victory.
Rose begins as a focal character for ourselves, her hero worship analogous for our emotional views of Poe. By the end of the film, she has potentially become one of the three primary leaders of the New Rebellion.
Will Rey join her in that role? It is difficult to say. Like Luke, she may isolate to focus on self-training using the ancient secret Jedi texts which she possesses. Rey's curiosity about her parentage is solved. Rey has now become a hard-reboot on the Jedi Order capable of a fresh start without the baggage of the past which Luke had. She can return to Ahch-To, or find a new place like Jedha to begin again.
Rey spends this movie slowly being drawn into Kylo Ren’s devious emotional web. Like all emotional abusers he confirms her own fears that she comes from nothing. He lets her know that she is not anything special or important, putting her down and then offering her a hope. She’s something to him, he protests, and only with him will she be of any potential value in the future. This is textbook abusive behavior. Kylo Ren is demonstrating behavior closer in nature to The Emperor than he is to Darth Vader during this moment. I do hope that this is followed up in Episode IX.
They told us in The Force Awakens that her parents were gone, in the past, and that she needs to look forward. They said it multiple times. Being an orphan is Rey's thing and it makes her everything that Kylo Ren wishes to be. She's her own person. After The Force Awakens, they continued to push the narrative on social media that her parents were gone, in the past, and that she needs to look forward. Daisy Ridley kept reiterating in interviews that it was very clear in The Force Awakens who her parents were. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.
It could all still be a big reveal, there's an air of mystery around whether Kylo Ren is telling the truth or lying to her. After The Empire Strikes Back came out, people spent years debating whether Vader was lying or not. The truth is that there isn’t reason to revisit this topic. When Rey meets Poe for the first time at the end of the film, she introduces herself and Poe responds “I know!” Rey is already important, somebody of great value to other people and The Galaxy itself. Contrary to Ren’s manipulations, Rey now knows that he is wrong.
“See you around, kid.”
During this thought process I have tried to adhere to constraints within the boundaries of topics integral to this film specifically when possible. Here I would like to take a moment to “go deep” on Star Wars lore with a concept which occurred to me during the first viewing. Follow with me on this side path for a moment.
In Episode III we learn that Qui-Gon Jinn has transcended death due to his own studies outside of the Jedi Order. His body did not dissipate upon death, however he is able to come back as a voice without a visual body. Later we see that he has attained this mastery as well which occurs in media outside the films. The important part of the narrative is that Revenge of the Sith demonstrates that Qui-Gon is the first to learn of this affect of being One with The Force. He then imparts this knowledge to Yoda, who passes it on to Obi-Wan. These are the first three Jedi in recorded history who we know to have this ability. Obi-Wan has advanced the knowledge to the point where his body dissipates upon death. He also appears first as a voice and later in a visual body.
We find out now that Yoda has also advanced the knowledge. Yoda came back first as a visual body skipping the voice-only form and he can now influence the real physical world. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force flow around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, yes, even between the land and the ship.”
The Last Jedi makes it clear that Yoda and Luke have not communed in a very long time. We are not given specifics, however we know that Luke has learned the secret of dissipation at some point from someone. I posit that he learns it from Yoda in this very movie, right there in front of the burning tree. My personal view is that Luke also improves on it and learns to Force Ghost while still alive, and that this is the nature of the visual projection. We have a precedent example of this sort of visual manifestation carer-of-Snoke earlier in the film, however the behavior of the manifestation is very different. Snoke’s manifestations are limited to the participants in three of the four examples we have. These earlier versions appear to be manipulations of the mind, a talent that Snoke is a master of, and it can be argued that Snoke “lets Luke in on” the final one in order to cause the conflict between Rey and Luke.
My suggestion is that Luke is letting The Force flow so deeply through him that he can project his Force Ghost though living still. Later, after he has been One with The Force in the same way that Obi Wan and Yoda have, we watch him get up from the exertion, sit back down and begin to float meditate. To me this signals us that Luke has not actually succumbed to some unknown Force exertion in the manner which most of the fanbase online seem to believe. Rather I believe that he has been so pleasantly at peace in The Force during the experience that he just allows himself to return to it. This would differ from Obi Wan and Yoda, who needed a push to dissipate, a physical death. My view is that Luke never experienced a physical death, just saw through "this crude matter" and chose to be a luminous being. He chose to peacefully become One with The Force.
“They really hate that ship.”
Rising above our mistakes is the central theme of this movie. Everyone loses, no one wins, and the stakes have never been higher in Star Wars before. Yoda has even told us that we have to let go and be at peace with ourselves.
There is no longer any Resistance against The First Order. The First Order will have complete control potentially on a larger level than The Empire for the next movie, depending upon the time gap. There are only around 25 characters left alive on the lifeboat Millennium Falcon and most of them are leaders.
This film plays with the expectations of the audience masterfully. We get to see Luke become the legend which Rey wants him to be and which The Galaxy needs. All our protagonists are fallible, mistake-making heroes and now they can get on with the business of being “The Salty Twenty-Five” against the entire Galaxy. The Millennium Falcon is now the most important ship in The Galaxy.
The audience has been through our own version of The Dark Side, and now we can get on with discarding it. Yoda is also talking about us, and speaking directly to those of us in the audience who are listening.