Understanding The Force, Rebellion, and Heroism In The Last Jedi
Understanding The Force, Rebellion, And Heroism In The Last Jedi
By Tim Kail In "Other Writings"
The older I get, the rarer it is that I’m able to proclaim, “Wow!” as my eyes widen, aglow with the silver light of a movie.
This is not due to a lack of love for film, or even some deficiency on the part of modern cinema; it’s just due to the inevitable grind of living. You see so much that you become inured to each “new” cinematic experience. Unless you're careful, cynicism, much like The Dark Side, takes over.
This is why I’ve become increasingly appreciative of genuine “Wows” when they finally happen.
And Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi made me go “Wow!”
Several times, in fact - whether it was the especially miraculous space-flight of Leia, the emotionally vulnerable exchanges between Kylo Ren & Rey, the heartbreaking horse-aliens racing across their moonlit beach, or Luke Skywalker saying & doing anything with anyone.
It takes a happy army to make a movie like this, and it takes great skill to make something as pop-culturally sacred as Star Wars and not muck it all up.
Whatever a viewer's specific gripes may or may not be, there really is no muck here.
There is only a sincere film that strives to make the abstract as tangible and emotionally resonant as possible. And it succeeds. Concepts like “The Force” and “Rebellion” are explored in The Last Jedi with earnest, fresh eyes, made manifest by a cast of characters who are relentlessly heroic, kind, tortured, funny, and wise.
These two concepts in particular, “The Force” & “Rebellion”, are germane to Star Wars, so it’s easy to take for granted how difficult it is to make audiences care about things they never actually see; least of all things that have already been explored eight times on the big screen and in hundreds of comics, video games, cartoons, and novels over the course of forty years.
The film diligently follows through on the promise of “The Force” & “Rebellion” with action set-pieces that culminate in life-lessons rather than explosions (though there are certainly lots of explosions along the way). This is what sets The Last Jedi, and Star Wars itself, apart from other big budget escapist art; the movie is completely preoccupied with “doing the right thing” rather than its specific set of super powers.
This focus is a welcome deviation from the amoral, broody norm of modern-day comic book movies where caped crusaders waffle in their pathos. One of the principle conflicts in The Last Jedi is not whether or not our heroes should bother saving a particular group of people, but exactly how best to save them.
These characters care so much about each other and their world that loss, when it occurs, is truly felt, and the sense that goodness itself must be preserved is the impetus for everything that transpires.
While sacrifice is an integral part of heroism, The Last Jedi refuses to allow it to be the only means of heroism. In this movie, “heroic-suicide” isn’t posited as the ultimate way people save each other; in fact, this movie dares to call a penchant for self-induced martyrdom shortsighted and even a little stupid.
Living well, and with purpose, matters so much more than dying gloriously in Star Wars. Leia, a General who knows what it really takes to win a war, rightly slaps a foolhardy Poe Dameron for his reductive idea of heroism early on in the film.
We win by “protecting what we love” rather than "killing what we hate" observes Rose, the most morally-wise of Last Jedi’s cast.
And that message is Star Warsian to the core.
Rian Johnson, the film’s writer & director, can rest proud in the wake of this film's release knowing that he understands one of Star Wars' most valuable teachings.
The original trilogy explored how we protect our friends, our parents, and our right to mature beyond adolescence.
The prequel trilogy explored how we try (and fail) to protect democracy.
This latest trilogy, with the addition of The Last Jedi, explores how we protect “all that we love” and “all that is good” - which includes the Star Wars saga itself, and everything it has given to the real-world.
Ironically enough, the spandex-clad, disillusioned broods of Marvel & DC who knock down buildings and then hold congressional hearings about it are much less true to life than Star Wars’ space-Nazis, rebels, and laser-sword-wielding wizards.
The galaxy far, far away hits so close to home precisely because its depiction of heroism involve acts of genuine kindness, some large, but most of them small: a mentor’s reassurance, a friend showing up exactly when you need them most, a parent’s remorse, a child’s forgiveness, recognition for good deeds done, appreciation for loyalty, a much-needed embrace after a loved one dies, and an unwillingness to give up…no matter what the odds.
Coupled with the saga's realistic portrayal of heroism is an unabashed celebration of innocence, typically represented in the form of furry or robotic side-kicks, and fascinating indigenous creatures (something Last Jedi weaves beautifully into the fabric of its theme & plot).
We see ourselves in the characters of the Star Wars saga not because we wish to be like them, but because we simply are them.
George Lucas created an incredibly human story despite the fantastical trappings surrounding it, and The Last Jedi understands this incredibly well.
The only aspect of Lucas’ Star Wars that can no longer be achieved by a new Star Wars movie is innovation within the film-medium itself. Lucas was an inventor as much as he was a storyteller, and “the next Star Wars” will never be the literal next Star Wars. It will be an entirely different technological and narrative feat created by a new kind of genius for a new age. Star Wars fans hoping to "see something truly different" may have to recalibrate their expectations if they're ever going to enjoy these new movies.
The next generation of filmmakers to explore Lucas’ galaxy are charged not with innovating film, but with “preserving the spark” much like the characters in Last Jedi. Thus far, after three new films by Disney, that goal has been achieved.
Johnson’s The Last Jedi helps set a standard for this budding tradition by knowing what really makes Star Wars…well...Star Wars.
It’s not The Death Star nor The Mos Eisley Cantina nor the color of someone’s lightsaber.
It’s the humanity.
In Luke Skywalker’s disillusionment, Kylo Ren & Rey’s curiosity, Finn’s reluctant tenacity, Poe’s ability to learn, Leia’s crotchety strength, and even Chewbacca’s inability to eat the Porg, the Last Jedi depicts the real struggles of good people living in a believably difficult world.
This is how the film stays truest to Star Wars whilst nudging its cast into the next installment. This is why it will be even more appreciated in the future - it is a film of ideas more than a film of plot.
Star Wars has long been misunderstood, even by some of its most ardent fans, as hinging upon its plot-twists, archetypes, and special effects when, in reality, Star Wars endures because of its ideas.
So, rather than offer any more detailed analysis of the film (and because I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet), I will simply extend my gratitude to the people who made it for reminding me not only what I love about Star Wars, but what I love about life.
We are all bound by forces we cannot perceive as we go about our little lives on this precarious blue orb called Earth.
Star Wars reminds us that it is our charge to protect it, and each other, however we can.
Star Wars reminds us that if we’re lucky (even if we don’t believe in luck) that it's still possible to glimpse a spark of magic in the dark, and go “Wow”.