The Last Jedi — A Story of Our Time

The Last Jedi has been out for some time now, so I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the movie. There are spoilers later, so look away now if you haven’t seen the film. From a purely cinematic perspective, TLJ is a visual and audio masterpiece, though the pacing was a bit sluggish. But what I’m really interested in is the narrative. Many people were disappointed by TLJ, but that’s exactly the point — this is a story about disappointment.

This tale is a product of the times we live in. Things are looking scary; the empire reigns, and freedom is slipping away. Magic has faded from the world, and the heroes of yesteryear are lost. The resistance is under attack throughout, making only small and inconsequential gains. Even the victory at the end is pyrrhic, coming at an almost total cost. In short, this is a movie about things going poorly.

The major theme of the film is failure. Poe’s foolhardy attempt to destroy the dreadnaught fails miserably, and much of the Resistance fleet is lost as a result. Finn and Rose’s secret mission was not just pointless, but backfired spectacularly, ruining Holdo’s plan. Rey’s attempts to bring back Luke, turn Ben, and find answers were all unsuccessful.

Luke himself has become a ruined man, haunted by shame and regret. Throughout the original trilogy, we saw as Luke struggled with the dark side, just as Anakin did before him. That battle was never won — it can’t be. Darkness is in all of us, even as the light creeps into the darkest places. After the empire fell, he tried to revive the Jedi Order in the old way, but his failure to manage the dark side led him to a horrible mistake — creating Kylo Ren in the process. But this isn’t just Luke’s error: the whole model is broken.

The Jedi Order’s fatal flaw was a failure to acknowledge the darkness. In the dying days of the Old Republic, they had become a lazy elite priest class. They judged worthiness to receive Jedi training by midichlorian counts, and took children from their families to be indoctrinated into a Jedi cult — rejecting that which was imperfect and impure. By resting on a simplistic good-versus-evil worldview, they couldn’t help Anakin to manage his darkness and drove him into Palpatine’s arms. Their hubris and arrogance blinded the Jedi to the creeping corruption until Sidious had already won.

Luke repeated this error. He denied the dark side, and in turn it crept in. Seeing the raw power in Ben scared Luke, but instead of acknowledging his fear he sought to destroy it. Rather than confronting his mistake and working to correct it, he hid — not in cowardice, but in an effort to protect others from his darkness. Fear of failure kept Luke from even trying; and so darkness grows in the absence of light.

When Rey arrives on Ahch-To, she expects a saviour but receives a disappointment. The perfect, invulnerable legend she grew up with is revealed as a deeply flawed man. She dreams of charging in with laser sword swinging to save the day, but it won’t work — it can’t. Deus ex machina is a lie; salvation doesn’t come from idolatry. Reliance on heroic dramatics is part of what created this mess in the first place.

Deepening this theme, Rey’s parents are revealed not to be Skywalkers, nor Kenobis — they’re nobodys. There’s no mythic origin story, no special parentage, no privileged childhood; she’s nobody, from nowhere. But even despite her lack of training, Rey has power rivalling Ren’s. She doesn’t just refuse to shy away from the dark side, she actively pursues it, confronts it, and learns from it. When she leaves to confront Ben, she doesn’t come to destroy him, but to reach him. Together, in the best lightsaber battle of the whole series, Ben and Rey defeat Snoke and his guards, only to discover who the real enemy is.

It’s here that the other major theme of the movie emerges. It’s not unidimensional “bad guys” who cause the most suffering; it’s what self-interest and the best intentions can lead people to do. For Kylo Ren, it’s a desire to create order out of chaos; a misguided solution to an oversimplified and ill-defined problem. Meanwhile, DJ and the war profiteers of Canto Bight exploit both sides, amassing decadent wealth at the expense of the people.

It’s important to note that Ren thinks himself the good guy — a singular saviour to bring peace to the galaxy. This is the problem with fascism. When a society becomes backward-looking and idolatrous, ends begin to justify means and liberty dies. A craving for safety and predictability leads people to give up their power — the Force fades, the Jedi disappear, and democracy gives way to authoritarian rule. But all hope is not lost.

Heroes have power beyond themselves. When Luke appears on Crait, he seems unstoppable. After brushing off a heavy blaster barrage, he confronts Kylo Ren echoing Obi Wan’s final warning: “strike me down in anger, and I’ll always be with you”. Without even physically acting, the legend of Skywalker gives rise to everything needed to build a new resistance.

The most powerful moment of the movie is its last two minutes. Slave children act out Luke’s defiant last stand on Crait with scavenged action figures, only to be scolded by their cruel master. Reaching with the Force for a broom, a child stares in wonder at the stars. His broom becomes a lightsaber in shadow, and so a new generation of Jedi are born.

But this is not the start of a new New Jedi Order — yet another set of powerful elites, blinded by dogma and tradition. Yoda burned the temple, and with it the bonds of that troubled past. With the knowledge of the Jedi now with Rey, and the power of the Force awakening in the hands of the people, a new paradigm can begin. Heroes don’t save the day on their own; it’s the power of common folks inspired by these legends that shines in the darkness.

Many walked into this movie expecting more of the same; a nostalgic rehash of a triumphant good-versus-evil narrative, with a neat tangle of familial relations and fatalistic coincidence. There’s none of that here; we’re in new terrain. These problems can’t be solved by blowing up the big scary space station, or killing the nasty old Sith Lord. Our old strategies and our old ways of looking at the world might have worked in simpler times, but can lead us into errors with terrible consequences.

As Yoda points out: “failure, the greatest teacher is.” If we fear failure, we cannot learn from it — and so we repeat the same cycle. Venerating our heroes as flawless erases the most important part of the hero’s journey: growth. The master teaches out of their failures, and must look on as the student makes new mistakes of their own — “we are what they grow beyond”. True learning lies not in emulation, nor obedience, but in forging an identity of one’s own — inspired by example, but tempered by experience.

Myths and traditions are powerful, but can be perverted if not viewed critically. The Last Jedi is a warning about the dangers of the unconsidered. In our world today, we hold many such beliefs — the supremacy of the market; the infallibility of our individual judgment; the reliability of our cultural narrative; our idea of what “good” even is. Many of those who grew up with Luke, Leia, Han and the rest of the Rebellion have gone on to unknowingly welcome the First Order as their masters. Having been told who the bad guys are and that God’s on their side, subjects of the empire will gladly lay down their freedom in service of the cause. Much like Kylo Ren, it’s easy to see oneself as the good guy, even as we judge, oppress, and destroy. Confronting such doubts is uncomfortable to the extreme, but no one — Jedi nor Sith, Empire nor Rebel, commoner nor legend — is perfect and infallible.

The allegorical parallels are plentiful. We’re in trouble here; the elites have all the resources, and the military-industrial complex profits while the world burns. But we’re not waiting for a saviour — a powerful and special hero to swoop in and save us from the big bad guy. That hero is us; we’ve all got the power, we need only reach out. But just defeating the emperor won’t solve the problem; a new one will simply step in — it might even be us. Balance in the Force comes when we adopt moral autonomy — accept the dark side and the light side in turn, and act out of our best selves.

In short, I see The Last Jedi as the most important film of the series. It’s not the story most fans wanted, but it’s the story we need right now. While far from a perfect film, Episode VIII drives home the tragic tale of the prequels, and hints at a hopeful future. May the Force be with us all.

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Eric Shepperd

Social theorist and activist interested in psychedelic phenomenology as a vehicle for social change in the face of the global environmental crisis.