The Path 'The Last Jedi' Didn't Take

There are limitations to being the most powerful franchise in the galaxy.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi]

Light. Darkness. Good. Evil. The nature of heroism. When it comes to big issues of ethical philosophy, The Last Jedi puts a lot on its plate. Considering how Episode VIII writer-director Rian Johnson’s last directorial film outing, 2012's Looper, featured an intriguing gut-punch of a downer ending, I came into Episode VIII hoping for an entertaining journey with a relatively bleak twist of a conclusion. But getting off that admittedly very enjoyable — though decidedly long — ride, I found my fannish glee tinged with a faint, but bitter aftertaste of disappointment.

Why? There weren’t any glaring issues, and more than a few scenes I watched in wide-eyed awe, once again the little girl who insisted that her fifth birthday cake be decorated like the Millennium Falcon. Was it just perhaps the inevitable disappointment of expectations built impossibly high? Maybe. But what exactly were those expectations, and what made them impossible?

It was only on my way out of the cinema, walking past promotional displays of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) that it clicked. Everything leading up to The Last Jedi, from its marketing to the fact that it’s Rian Johnson at the helm, built up the idea that it might really throw a wrench in the good/evil dichotomies that have ruled the Star Wars films thus far: the Sith and the Jedi, the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance, the First Order and the Resistance.

Though earlier installments have featured characters crossing from one side to the other —and back again, in the case of Anakin Skywalker — none have really questioned the existence of the underlying dichotomy. Yes, individual characters might have, but the actual narratives of the films have really maintained the idea that there is good and evil and a line between them. It may be a somewhat fuzzy line, but it’s there.

More than any installment before it, The Last Jedi has characters questioning this foundation and other fundamental aspects of the tried-and-true adventure narrative, such as the concept of heroism. But at the end of the day, several turns that for fleeting moments look like major directional shifts end up being detours ultimately leading back towards safe and familiar terrain.

Though this trend is found in all of The Last Jedi’s numerous plotlines, it is perhaps the one involving Kylo Ren and Rey that illustrates it most clearly. The latest installment’s crowning jewel of a lightsaber battle features Kylo Ren and Rey not as opponents, but as allies. Of course, once all their opponents are dead and they actually have to talk, things quickly fall apart. Though more willing to kill his master than the woman who previously trounced him in single combat, Kylo Ren remains as devoted to his political ideologies as Rey does to her entirely non-compatible ones.

However, the film is incredibly careful to set up Kylo Ren’s offer as one Rey can very easily refuse. The odd “connection” between them is explained away as a manipulation of Snoke (Andy Serkis), though the incredible synchronicity they display as dueling partners after Snoke’s demise seems to somewhat undermine such a simple answer. The cautious curiosity between them is allowed to develop exactly to the point of fingers touching before being discovered by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) — in other words just far enough for Rey’s self-initiated “maybe I can help him revert to the Light” mission to not seem completely ridiculous, but not far enough to actually present a significant dilemma for her when she realizes that, as Luke warned, “Bring Back Ben Solo” version 2.0 is really not going to end the way she thinks.

The offer Kylo Ren eventually makes to Rey, a proffered hand and the almost impressively backhanded compliment of “you’re nothing, but not to me,” while a clear callback to when Rey offers her hand to him in their shared Force vision, is not even a true equivalent. Both films have emphasized how Rey hugely values genuine human connection, having been so bereft of it for so long, and Kylo Ren’s offer of a gloved hand, considering how heavily the skin-to-skin contact element of their earlier interaction is emphasized, has very different implications.

Anything that would potentially be alluring to Rey, that might actually give her pause or cause her conflict before denying Ren’s offer, is minimized. And to top it all off, viewers are not given a chance to really see or hear any of the fallout from this misadventure from Rey’s perspective — no doubts, no questions, no lamentations. She’s made her escape by the time Kylo Ren wakes following their explosive fallout, and the next we see her, she’s far too busy saving the Resistance and having the legacy of the Jedi placed on her shoulders for reflection on her Kylo Ren encounter.

Elsewhere in The Last Jedi’s extensive narrative web, Benicio Del Toro’s opportunistic freelance codebreaker “DJ” bestows some words of wisdom upon John Boyega’s Finn. “Good guys, bad guys — made up words,” he says. “It’s all a machine partner. Live free, don’t join.” Considering how fully he ends up cooperating with the First Order, though, he hardly inspires the audience to give much weight or thought to his words.

The subplot involving hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and newcomer Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) is no exception to this trend. As Poe clashes with ultimately both of his superiors over the merits of what we might call “spectacular heroism” — the sort of heroics that lead to, as Leia critiques, “dead heroes, no leaders” — it seems as if the film might be approaching something of a harsh critique of the flashy heroism typically beloved by Star Wars. Though Leia’s pointed words to Poe regarding his misjudgment of Holdo, who is “more interested in protecting the light” than “seeming like a hero” is delivered with compelling gravitas, that Holdo goes on to meet her end in a heroic sacrifice bigger and splashier than any other in the film ultimately undermines what would have been an intriguing change of tune for the franchise.

Star Wars is, arguably, the pop culture phenomenon to end all phenomena. The franchise’s target demographic is humans who breathe air. That is, everybody. Star Wars is special in just how large and wide an audience it reaches, and that makes it incredibly powerful. It has seeped into every corner of our society, from fashion to politics (Tuesday in his victory speech, newly elected Alabama senator Doug Jones referenced Yoda).

There are moments in The Last Jedi that play with some potentially explosive ideas — “it’s all a machine, partner”; “it’s time for the Jedi to end” — but ultimately the film puts them back on the shelf, reaffirming a dedication to far more familiar territory. The Jedi legacy will live on through Rey, and in spite of various revelations made over the course of the film, the audience is left with no reason to question or doubt who our heroes and villains are. It’s still one hell of a roller coaster ride, but like most roller coaster rides, all of those twists and turns and steep dives end up taking you more or less right back to exactly where you started, less a journey than the spectacular but short-lived illusion of one.

Perhaps that’s the way it has to be. A bona fide “shake up” — philosophical, ethical or otherwise — of the Star Wars universe would be a sort of pop-culture earthquake. And while that is something I would personally love to see, it’s no wonder Disney has not and almost certainly will not take the risks that would be involved in such a move when they spent over $4 billion acquiring the franchise. But the decidedly mixed fan reactions (as opposed to the generally positive critical reactions) received by The Last Jedi thus far suggest this “safer” approach might not actually be all that safe, either.

So on that note, if Episode IX would like to prove me wrong, well, I would certainly welcome such a surprise. 

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