Severe spoiler warning: This article discusses specific, major themes and plot-points for the entirety of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (opens in new tab). If you don't want catastrophic spoilers, come back after you've seen the movie.
“Balance in the Force” was always bullshit. Whenever anyone in Star Wars talked about trying to attain it prior to The Last Jedi, they really meant one thing only. ‘We’re going to eradicate the other guys from The Force so that we can have The Force all to ourselves’. Fairness in Star Wars - as, alas, often in the real world - amounted to ‘The fairness to give me what I want, and who cares about anyone else’. The Sith hated the Jedi for being Light Side, and the supposedly more chill Jedi hated the Sith for being Dark Side (hate, of course, leading to the Dark Side itself, according to Yoda), and both sides dug in, to the point of mutually assured destruction several times over.
In the original trilogy, that’s fine. An after-the-fact fairytale about oppressed good guys fighting for freedom against space-fascists powered by the evil remnants of an old, pseudo-magical war, Episodes Four to Six need be no less black and white than they are. The original trilogy is a tale of desperate struggles in desperate times, in which unremittingly vile, ostentatiously powerful bad guys have already won, and any would-be heroes are already long crushed under the boot of space-faring Nazi rule. In a situation like that, there need be little nuance. The underdog Light must rally to defeat the rampant Dark, and it must do so without reservation. Because space-Nazis. Fuck those guys.
But things get more complicated when we hit the prequel period, and the films start trying to explain how this great upset came about. Because while dictatorship is, by its very nature, a pretty simple and straightforward scenario, the circumstances that lead to it, as history has proven over and over again, really aren’t. Spend as long as you like working on that time machine, but going back to kill Hitler really isn’t going to change much at all. Such drastic shake-ups in socio-political norms result from complex, long-term feedback loops of resonating, social and economic unrest, in which no side tends to be entirely blameless.
Some asshole always comes along to manipulate these factors to their own advantage of course, but without a complicated and troubled political and philosophical landscape to leverage in the first place, there would be nothing for said jerk to work with. But regardless, the Star Wars prequels stuck doggedly to George Lucas’ simplistic view of Light and Dark during this period, and that’s a large part of the reason they collapsed in on themselves narratively.
I wrote extensively (opens in new tab) about this a couple of years ago, but the TL; DR version is that what should have been the story of a troubled young prodigy forced to make a bad decision after being failed by the framework around him was itself failed by Lucas’ refusal to open the tin of grey required to paint the Jedi as anything other than big damn heroes and eventual victims. So, what we got was not the tale of binarily opposed individuals and institutions brought down by refusal to give an inch, but rather a great deal of whining on all sides, and a Jedi Order who ended up looking really rather stupid by the end of it all. It made it really hard to find anyone to root for.
But now we have Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And thank God we do. Because while The Last Jedi’s unbounded stock-take and myth-bust of the reality of Star Wars iconography is a long overdue slice of narrative self-awareness - the tone set the instant Luke off-handedly throws away his legendary lightsaber, and two years of lore-musing fan speculation with it - it’s also a vital move in ensuring Star Wars’ continued relevance as a modern fable in 2017. Because 2017, let’s face it, has been a right old shitstorm, stemming from a great deal of complex issues, binarily opposed viewpoints, and not a great deal of inch-giving.
This isn’t just about Star Wars changing to reflect the mood of the time, although I also applaud The Last Jedi’s open discussion of amoral, wartime profiteering, class struggle, and the fact that whoever we support on the inside of a conflict, the simple existence of that conflict is always good for someone on the outside. For once, Star Wars is acknowledging the second word in its title with refreshingly stark responsibility and meaning.
But as well as all of this, The Last Jedi, the latest entry in a series long-obsessed with concepts of legacy, destiny, sins of the past, and taking one’s part in a pre-determined lineage, is an open and explicit detonation of all of those notions. Both within its own, internal story, and within the meta-story of what Star Wars itself means, The Last Jedi is a wrecking ball to the expectations of the past. Blockbuster status notwithstanding, it is one of the most layered, aware, and progressive pieces of mainstream cinematic storytelling this year, unreservedly reworking the nature of its own past story just as it uses those very changes to discuss the nature of that story. And, for that matter, the nature of its audience.
Rey’s parents are deflating nobodies, and her bloodline has nothing to do with her role in the sequel trilogy’s events. There’s no great prophecy, no Chosen One story, and so her position and path are now entirely her own to define. Snoke is dead, the nature of his background, identity, and any big-picture relevance not even remotely explored, and his corpse all but kicked into the bin, instantly forgotten about. He was simply an asshole who did asshole things for a while, and now he’s gone. Let’s move on. His past doesn't make him any more important, whatever it was.
The Force, via Luke’s extra decades’ understanding of it, has been recontextualised as neither good nor bad, with life, death, creation, and destruction simply foundations and functions of each other, with order existing as a default characteristic of nature. Realising this, Star Wars’ most famous Jedi has stepped away from the Jedi’s most famous power, apparently in order to stop upsetting this true balance, and avoid contributing to the continuing galactic conflicts that would do just that, as they always have before. Kylo Ren’s internal conflict has not ended, as expected, with a similar Dark or Light Side decision to that made by his grandfather and uncle, but rather with a conscious decision to remain conflicted, burning down the traditions expected of him in order to find a new way to navigate his path through a Force-imbued galaxy.
And the same is the case with Rey who, rather than completing her Jedi training with Luke and becoming a fresh, newly empowered hero in his mould, has been happy to pick up the basics and then head off to work out the rest for herself. And Yoda, once the staunch Jedi dogmatist, heading up the Council in the prequels and reluctant to let young Luke rush his own training in The Empire Strikes back, is glad to let this happen, personally nuking the Jedi temple in order to draw a line under all of the traditions – both in the movies and outside of them – that have led Star Wars to this point. For the first time in Star Wars, the message is not about embracing or resisting destiny, but setting fire to the whole idea of destiny and legacy, and realising that all that truly matters is what’s really happening right now.
And it’s all brilliant, creating a kind of anti-Star Wars that, once you allow yourself to get over the shock of it all, is the most authentic Star Wars has ever been. It might proudly jettison expectation and convention every chance it gets, but that’s exactly the point. This is not a film happy to be led by the artificiality of expected tropes and nostalgia when there are more interesting, more important things to explore and state. The Last Jedi is authentic because it truly pays attention to the detail of its story, and deals with it logically, whatever that means for tradition.
It’s all very well getting romantic about cyclical storytelling and historical parallels (“It’s like poetry”), but if we’re taking the reality of this story seriously? Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And so, knowing that all of this has happened many times before (and will happen again if allowed to), the wisest thing that the surviving (and ghostly) Jedi can do right now is break the cycle.
If they allowed the same Light/Dark, Jedi/Sith, Chosen One/Legacy loop to happen for a third time after what has gone before, they’d be blind idiots. Wise warrior monks, still living the definition of madness, millennia after this whole mess first started. Thus, wonderfully, the sequel trilogy suddenly and unexpectedly becomes not just another happy repeat, but a more meaningful work which, without retconning anything, turns the eight films previous into a coherent thematic arc, regarding the journey from destructive, prequel-era dogma to the realisation of natural free will.
And the same lessons and learnings are applied to Star Wars itself. The tropes that Star Wars has always previously traded upon, if allowed to continue indefinitely, inevitably lead to the same, self-perpetuating feedback loop its destiny-resigned characters have found themselves in for two trilogies already. Stay with the old ways, keep fighting the same old battles by the same old rules, and you’ll go around in circles forever. That’s as true in Star Wars storytelling as it is in real life, and The Last Jedi is finally a statement on that, and a brave rejection of stagnant (if comfortable) repetition. Both on and in front of the screen, The Last Jedi is an uncompromising realisation of how progress really happens, whether you’re a burgeoning Jedi or an excited fanboy.
As dedicated consumers of geek-culture, we perpetually find ourselves bemoaning the lack of new ideas while, also, paradoxically, scurrying nostalgically into the past. Nostalgia is a comfortable place to visit at times, but if revered unchecked, it is simply a roadblock to the fresh, future adventures we crave. And so it’s beautiful that Star Wars, for so long the holiest of nerd grails, the greatest nostalgia haven around, and the series most internally reliant on its own narrative past, has drawn a line at which to cut off its own history.
It’s beautiful that Snoke is cut down, unidentified and unknown, specifically during a self-aggrandising speech about the predictable nature of destiny. Because who he was doesn’t matter. All that matters is the practicality of what he did, that he was hampering the next generation from finding their own path, and has now been stopped. It’s beautiful that Rey and Kylo, rather than accepting clean, expected roles after Snoke’s death, still don’t really know where they stand, feeling as much empathy with each other’s confusion and potential now that they’re free of legacy as they do conflict with each other’s methods.
And it’s beautiful that neither newly self-ordained Supreme Leader Kylo nor anyone in the Resistance seems to have any clue what the next step is, or where it is even leading, going into Episode Nine. Because that’s what happens to people when they suddenly stop accepting prescribed roles. It takes time to work out who you are and what you’re doing. But the results of exploring that freely are always worth it. And it’s also beautiful that we see the Force itself used in all manner of new and unexpected ways, because in a film so resolutely concerned with re-writing what we know about what the Jedi and Sith are, there’s no more fitting metaphor than rewriting what they can do, right in front of our eyes. The limitations of expectation are gone. Anything can happen from this point on.
And so, for all of The Force Awakens (opens in new tab)’ brilliance, Star Wars has never had a brighter future than now. Because Star Wars finally has a future, rather than a recycled, riffed-on past. The Last Jedi’s methods of achieving this are shocking to witness at first, but ultimately crystalise a great deal of important, much-needed lessons, about fictional heroes and villains, about long-term storytelling, about franchises, fandom, and – yes – the nature of 2017 itself. And that’s important. Because, literally and in relation to all of the above points, The Last Jedi is Star Wars in 2017. It’s time for Star Wars to admit that things have moved on since 1977, and encourage everyone else to do the same.