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Let the past die – kill it if you have to

Warning: The following post contains unmarked spoilers for The Last Jedi.

 

 

 

 

 

Two years ago when I saw The Force Awakens I had some concerns. The movie was enjoyable enough, but it leaned really heavily on the original Star Wars. Based on the failure of the prequels (which were bad for many reasons, but a lack of originality wasn’t one of them), I was worried that Disney’s plan for Star Wars was simply to remake the original trilogy over and over again until it ran the franchise into the ground. Having now seen The Last Jedi, I am no longer concerned. What The Last Jedi shows me is that the new trilogy isn’t about stripmining the original trilogy as I had first feared. Instead, it is doing something that is only really made possible by having a movie franchise that’s been running for decades – the new trilogy is a commentary on the original, holding up some of the premises of Lucas’s defining work to the light and inspecting some of the premises that made Star Wars what it was.

The limits of personal heroism
Poe Dameron’s arc in The Force Awakens largely consists of him engaging in the sort of heroic derring-do that hot shot pilots are wont to engage in. In The Last Jedi, that’s still what he does, but it goes badly for him. It’s not that he fails at what he sets out to do, Poe is good at thrilling heroics, and his every plan (except the last) results in victory – a Pyrrhic victory. Because while Poe excels at small-scale engagements and getting the job done at any cost, he has no head for the big picture. Killing one big ship at the cost of your capacity to destroy any other big ships is only a good deal if your opponent only has one big ship. And the problem with long shots is that most of the time they fail, and sometimes failure is worse than not trying at all. By the end of The Last Jedi, the entire Resistance can fit in the Millennium Falcon, and Poe’s attempts to strike a decisive blow against the First Order are most of the reason why.

And this failure of Poe’s is very typical of the Galactic Rebellion. Sure, they killed the Emperor and blew up the Death Star, but there’s more to an Empire than one man and a fully armed and operational battlestation. Palpatine’s takeover of the Old Republic was popular at the time and each governor had a lot more power in the Empire than they had in the Republic (Vader and Leia talk about this early on in A New Hope). Sure, some of those newly-liberated planets will have wanted to restore the Republic, but clearly there were enough that liked the Empire just fine to make the First Order into a power that could crush the Republic and cut the resistance down to almost nothing. The Rebellion won several battles, but they couldn’t win the war, and that is what the Resistance is going to have to figure out how to do if they wish to prevail over the First Order.

How do you live up to your own legend?
In Return of the Jedi, we leave Luke Skywalker a triumphant hero. He overcame the temptations of the Dark Side, not only for himself, but for his father too. He was instrumental in killing the Emperor, saving the rebellion and redeeming Vader. We meet Luke in The Last Jedi a broken man. He made a terrible mistake, and that mistake ruined him. While many people objected to seeing Luke brought so low, it does make sense – it’s worth remembering that while the Jedi in The Last Jedi is plural, the Jedi in Return of the Jedi was singular. At the end of that movie there is exactly one Jedi left in the universe and that means the entire future of the Jedi Order was placed on the shoulders of a half-trained young man with no leadership, administrative or mentoring experience. Frankly it would have been more surprising if it hadn’t gone horribly wrong.

And yet we’re surprised anyway, because it’s not a normal man who failed, its Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion, one of the iconic movie heroes of the 20th Century. But the heroic virtues he displayed in Return of the Jedi are no help for the problems he finds himself facing. And thus is a legend destroyed. It’s only when he comes to understand that his failures can be a source of strength, and not just shame, that he is able to help the Rebellion.

Star Wars for all
There is a clear theme of inclusiveness running through the new trilogy, and I don’t just mean that in the conventional way. Yes, we now have a protagonist who is a woman, and with Finn and Rose they are adding ethnic diversity to the central cast, but there was a more profound sense of exclusiveness about Star Wars. Luke Skywalker may have looked like a nobody moisture farmer to start with, but he was the son of Darth Vader, arguably the second most powerful person in the galaxy once Tarkin dies. Leia was not only of the same lineage, but she was also a princess of Alderaan. Sure Han Solo isn’t anybody auspicious, but the original trilogy has a really aristocratic feel to it. Even the Force in the original trilogy starts to feel very exclusive, like the Skywalker clan has some special claim over it, a sense that was magnified in the prequels.

All of this is overturned in The Last Jedi. It turns out that Rey is not some long-lost Skywalker nor does she have any other auspicious birth. She’s a nobody scrapper from a family of nobody scrappers who sold her for booze. She doesn’t have the Force because she’s important, she’s important because she has the Force. And that’s an important distinction. It is refreshing for the swineherd in a fairy tale to get told “You’re not a prince in disguise, you’re just a regular swineherd. Be the hero anyway.” And that theme is what the movie ends on, with a slave child showing nascent force power – anybody could be a force user. This goes somewhat for Snoke too. Who is he? Nobody in particular, it doesn’t matter. Who he is (or was) doesn’t matter, all that matters is what he did.

The limits of nostalgia
Zooming out a little, the central theme of The Last Jedi, and likely this trilogy, seems to be that you can’t let yourself be chained by the past. Not only is The Last Jedi distinctly different from previous Star Wars movies, but the characters in it either learn or need to learn that they have to grow beyond their heritage. Rey gives up on waiting for her parents to come back for her, Finn refuses to be a stormtrooper, becoming his own person. Kylo Ren only comes into his own when he stops trying to be Darth Vader, and he is the most explicit about this theme.

This works in reverse too. Poe’s attempts at standard Rebellion shenanigans backfire horrendously. The First Order and General Hux have this air of the ridiculous around them because they are trying to be The Empire and just can’t quite do it. You can tell Hux just really wants to be Grand Moff Tarkin, but he just … isn’t, and that’s a significant part of why Hux is funny in places. He’s trying so very hard, but he just can’t make it work. Luke’s tragedy is similarly driven by being chained by his past; he can’t get past his mistakes, and it’s killing him.

On the whole I am happy with this direction for Star Wars (a few nitpicky plot issues notwithstanding). So long as they can stick the landing in Episode IX, it will let them start telling new stories with the trilogy that comes next. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.


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James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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17 thoughts on “Let the past die – kill it if you have to

  1. Carrying over my mythic archetype analysis from @Richard-hershberger’s thread, it’s entirely possible that the moral choice offered to a character may be “will you repeat the mistakes of the past?”

    But I do insist that the core of what makes a story satisfying is whether the protagonist’s success or failure is the result of a moral choice that she/he is prepared to make during the story’s progress.

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  2. One thing I enjoyed in the new films is the, now recurring, theme of practical minded First Order minions. Kylo Ren is having himself a destructive tantrum in the interrogation room after finding Rey has escaped. Old Storm Troopers would rush in and ask what happened. New Storm Troopers quietly turn around and march the other way.
    Kylo, again, heaves Hux across the shuttle compartment after he questions an order to land. The pilots snap to. Oh hell yes! We’re landing sir, would you like some coffee to go with that landing sir? I busted up.

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  3. I saw it last night, and this was very much my takeaway also, that this is a refreshing yet subtle commentary on the original trilogy.

    I also sensed a different mood of maturity. Partly because Luke and Leia were so much older, it had a sober gravitas that the original never could have had. We can literally see the effect of time and tragedy on their faces.

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    • As much as I complained about the technical details and plot holes, I really did enjoy the characters, especially how Luke and Leia are portrayed as real, flawed people struggling with the past they take some responsibility for.

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    • I agree, they tried to did this a little in A New Hope with Obi Wan, but it works so much better here because we saw young Luke and Leia, so the more grizzled / beaten down feeling the characters has hits harder.

      While there is much to dislike about the current fad for endless sequels, in The Last Jedi they are at least using Star Wars’s history for something useful cinematically.

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      • As days have passed since I’ve seen the movie, Grouchy Luke has only grown on me as an interesting character.

        We’ve seen him make choices. We’ve seen him do the wrong thing, we’ve seen him deal with how he did the wrong thing, and we saw him just up and give up since he did the wrong thing, and then we saw him apologize for screwing up.

        (Maybe we saw him die… but it seems to be the kind of dying that lets you come back and give speeches. So maybe we’ll see him haunt Kylo Ren in return for being haunted by him for so long. I wonder if we’ll see Anakin again.)

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      • James K: they tried to did this a little in A New Hope with Obi Wan,

        This is an interesting point. Nowhere in the original trilogy does Alec Guinness convey a sense of tragedy about what happened nearly 20 years ago – Frank Oz does, and does it well, but Guinness doesn’t.

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