I took my sweet time gathering my thoughts about this movie. In fact, I watched it three times before I decided I was indeed ready to write this post. My review of The Last Jedi will contain, as the title suggests, spoilers for the movie, but it won’t be a rundown of everything that happens. The Last Jedi is, after all, two and a half hours long! I will probably even not address certain things you might be expecting me to some you might find in our non-spoiler review. Rather, I will be discussing a couple of themes running through the movie and describing some of the scenes addressing these themes. In the next few weeks we will be posting some posts dedicated specifically to the arcs of many of the characters in The Last Jedi as well as some scenes, but I will be talking about some of those developments here as well. So, without any further ado, let’s jump into it. Wait, one more obligatory SPOILER WARNING!
‘The greatest teacher failure is.’
The key message of The Last Jedi, in my eyes, is that we all fail sometimes but that we only become stronger by learning from it. Yoda literally spells this out when he visits Luke and says the above. Part of the frustration for some fans disappointed by The Last Jedi lies, I think, in this message. It is difficult to see your heroes failing on the big screen, to put all their heart and effort into something and have it turn out to be wrong or a disappointment. But what these people forget or fail to see is just how much our characters learn from these moments. Take the Canto Bight arc. Finn and Rose think they can save the remains of the Resistance fleet by flying to Canto Bight and finding a master codebreaker to help them break aboard Snoke’s ship and disable a tracker, thereby allowing the fleet to escape. They come up with this plan and stick with it, involving Poe but no one else. It is fair to say that their trip to Canto Bight doesn’t turn out the way they hoped. They are arrested before they can talk to the master codebreaker and flee with a sketchy man saying he can help them. Once aboard Snoke’s ship, they are caught and almost executed. But what happens during their time on Canto Bight and Snoke’s ship? Although they fail in their initial mission, both Rose and Finn learn a great deal about themselves and about others. With each obstacle they face they become stronger, while their initial defeat strengthens their belief in the Resistance.
There are many more instances of failure in The Last Jedi. Luke fails to live up to Rey’s hopes and Leia’s expectations of him, because he is still to focused on his previous failure as a Master. Once Yoda, literally, knocks some sense into his head he comes to realise that one failure does not mean he cannot continue to play a part, that he can still make a change in what happens. He finds a way to be what people need him to be, despite his previous failures. That is an incredibly powerful lesson, both for him and for the audience. Overcoming his fears and disappointments allows him to find peace and become one with the Force at the end of the film. Rey also fails in some aspects. She wants to save the Resistance and believes this can only happen when they have someone powerful on their side. First she tries to bring Luke back, which seems to fail. Then she wants to bring Kylo Ren/Ben Solo back, convinced that the future she saw is the future that will materialise. Her hopes to end the war by finding someone else fall apart, but she learns something in the process, namely that she can be the person to affect a change. She lighted a spark of hope in Kylo/Ben but she also discovered even more strength and resilience in herself.
Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is an interesting case when it comes to failure. On the one hand he also fails. He cannot kill Leia, Rey doesn’t join him, she gets away and he doesn’t manage to destroy the Resistance on Crait. On the other hand, he finishes the movie as Supreme Leader. He has defeated his master and taken control. He has more power than ever before. And yet he is the one who, by the end of the movie, looks broken and downtrodden. He has lost more, despite having technically won something. It is an interesting counterbalance to the continuous defeats the Resistance suffers and their hopeful and joyful attitude towards the end of the movie.
‘We are what they grow beyond.’
Yoda was full of wisdom in this movie, and in many ways it isn’t surprising that it is his appearance that lays out some of The Last Jedi‘s messages the clearest. Yoda is, after all, a key character in Star Wars, appearing in almost every Prequel and Originals film and consistently relaying important information. He is a mentor to many, but also to the audience. It is his explanation of the Force in The Empire Strikes Back that strikes so close to home for most people. His role as Master is key. There is a clear link between him and Obi-Wan Kenobi during the Prequels in that they both train Padawans that turn to the Dark Side. For Yoda, the loss of Count Dooku must have been tough and their battle in Attack of the Clones is part of the climax of the film. Obi-Wan’s battles with Anakin in Revenge of the Sith as well as A New Hope are among the highlights of the respective movies. This pattern is once again repeated in The Last Jedi, where Luke has to face the Padawan that abandoned him, as well as face his own abandonment of said Padawan. His confrontation with Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is once again part of the climax of its film, as well as an emotional highlight.
What I am trying to show above is the ever-present theme of Master-Apprentice that runs throughout Star Wars. This may seem obvious, but Star Wars films actually consistently go deeper, analysing what makes a good Master and what makes a good Apprentice. The Last Jedi is the pinnacle of this, in many ways. With its emphasis on the importance of failure, the movie also looks at a number of different relationships in the film. We have Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, whose relationship has already fractured, the reasons for which are only now revealed. Luke saw power in Ben and wanted to train it, wanted to pass on what good he knew. Luke literally says he wants to pass on the good, forgetting, as Yoda points out, a Master should pass on everything he knows. While Kylo/Ben is seduced by the Dark Side, Luke is seduced by his own capabilities, and his failure to steer Ben upon the path he envisioned for him weighs heavily on him and prevents him from accepting Rey as an Apprentice.
There are, of course, other Master-Apprentice relationships in the movie. One that stands out is Leia and Poe. Leia is seen to consistently pass on lessons to Poe, emphasising that while his methods may pay off, there are many consequences he isn’t considering. A victory is not a victory if it causes that much loss of life. Get your head out of the moment and consider the whole playing field. Leia is training him to become a leader, by giving him opportunities, listening to his ideas and reprimanding him when he steps out of line. By the end of the film Poe has learned a lot from her and has become a leader in his own right. Leia actively hands over command to him towards the end of the film on Crait when he shows he has actually embodied all of her lessons. However, someone else plays a role in their Master-Apprentice relationship and in its eventual outcome, and that is Vice Admiral Holdo. Poe respects Leia immensely and he listens to her. But he doesn’t show this same level of respect for others in Leia’s position. When Leia’s successor is announced by Commander d’Acy Poe gets ready to hear his own name and his disappointment and surprise when he doesn’t hear it is visible. It is not dissimilar to Anakin’s outrage when he is allowed a place on the Jedi Council but not granted the rank of Master. Both know their powers and capabilities but don’t see their own shortcomings or lack of training. Poe is impatient and a hotshot, and Leia repeatedly tells Poe so. However, when Holdo doesn’t immediately accept him into her inner circle of trust and tells him the same he refuses to accept it. He fails in his training here and starts a mutiny, purely because he thinks he knows better. It is after his mutiny and plan fails (see the importance of that above) that both Leia and Holdo show themselves to be excellent Masters. While Poe is carried aboard a transport ship Holdo looks at him fondly and she and Leia agree that it is his troublemaker nature they like so much. Holdo doesn’t demand punishment, she doesn’t try to convince Leia he is a problem. Rather they both appreciate who he is and that this failure is a lesson in and of itself. This understanding and patience on the side of a Master, which was missing with Luke when it came to Kylo/Ben, is crucial and is shown to pay off towards the end.
Contrast this to the Master-Apprentice relationship between Snoke and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. It is shown to be deeply abusive from the beginning, with Snoke using Force lightning on Kylo/Ben when he stands up in anger. He consistently belittles him, makes him doubt himself and those around him, and rousing his anger at everyone who makes him feel “weak”. It is incredibly toxic. Snoke is training Kylo/Ben not to be better than him, to become a competent leader, rather he is training him, and Hux, to be his puppets, to fufill his ambitions. Luke betrays how early this began when he says he already sensed in young Ben that Snoke had twisted his mind. While Poe is allowed to make mistakes, to fail and to disagree, there is no room for Kylo/Ben to do the same. It is a relationship based on fear and anger. Even Darth Sidious seemed to care more for Anakin. Kylo Ren/Ben Solo has two unfortunate Master-Apprentice relationships, which set him up for continuous disappointment, anger and betrayal. His desire, as stated in The Force Awakens, to train Rey would have continued this bad behaviour, yet The Last Jedi suggests he can perhaps learn something from her.
‘Hope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it you’ll never make it through the night.’
Hope, and love, are incrediby important to The Last Jedi. However, the movie also isn’t afraid to show how hope can fail us sometimes. Rey and Kylo/Ben are both full of hope that their vision of the future is right, yet both are disappointed. Leia hopes for response from the Resistance’s supporters, but she is disappointed. But Luke (re-)learns the importance of hope and brings it to the Resistance. He believes that if he could not succeed in training Kylo/Ben, if he cannot defeat the whole First Order, then why should he come out? What can he do? As it turns out, he can do a lot. His presence inspires the remaining Resistance fighters, it allows them to continue to believe and to escape. Hope is what carries the Resistance, what drives our main characters and it is something we as viewers should continue to hold on to as well.
Someone who embodied hope for me in The Last Jedi was Rose. I will be writing about her more later, but her presence on Canto Bight, her unwillingness to let the Fathiers suffer, her optimism and kindness, they all leave their marks on the children she and Finn encounter there. Then add Luke’s heroic appearance and we get that beautiful final scene in which Broom boy watches his friend reenact Luke’s actions. Wearing Rose’s Resistance ring, he casts a hopeful and determined look to the stars and it becomes clear that the Resistance’s hopeful spark may indeed light a fire. Rose also embodies this earlier on on Crait when she saves Finn. Although all of this will be discussed in later posts in more detail, Rose’s determination that the Resistance will win by protecting what they love rather than destroying what we hate is incredibly important. It is something we should all remember in hard and difficult times. It is easier to give in to your anger and your hate, but it is more worthwhile to protect what you love. For Rose, destroying Canto Bight was only worth it until she had freed the last Fathier of his saddle and saw them in peace. It is a small but important distinction, and I love it.
‘This is not going to go the way you think.’
We have frequently talked about Mike Klimo’s Ring Theory on Clone Corridor and part of the beauty of Star Wars is that, to quote George Lucas, ‘[i]ts like poetry… it rhymes’. Star Wars usually does this without being derivative of its own franchise. For me The Force Awakens occasionally felt too repetitive of A New Hope, yet J.J. Abrams still brought out some very interesting aspects of both films by circling back to previous themes. Rian Johnson does the same in The Last Jedi and warns us from the very beginning that this is not going to go the way we hoped. Much like Luke in A New Hope, Rey finds an old Jedi Master, but unlike Luke she isn’t immediately whisked away into an adventure. Much like Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, Rey wants to learn more about what happened to her parents but rather than finding a big role laid out for herself she realises she comes from nowhere. Much like Luke in The Return of the Jedi, Rey goes to confront the big bad in the hope to turn him, but she is disappointed in that. What I’m hoping to show is that in The Last Jedi Rian Johnson inverts what we have seen in Star Wars so far and shows us another side of it. Johnson shows he has learned from George Lucas there, who did the same thing with the Prequels. Did you love this big bad villain that I created? Let me show you how he started as a hopeful little boy. You think the Jedi are awesome? Let me show you how darkness and evil rose while they were in power.
Star Wars inverts what we expects and that is why, in my humble opinion, it stands head and shoulders above all other franchises. Star Wars is not going to give you the straightforward narrative that we all know. It is not going to be an easy morality tale in which the good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad. Rather, it shows us they morally grey areas of life, how good guys do bad things and how bad guys are full of hope for something good to happen. The Last Jedi continues this trend beautifully by inverting previous storylines and subverting our expectations. We love Poe, therefore Poe must be right in his mutiny. Except he isn’t. Luke is a legend to us, therefore he must be willing to come save everyone. Except he isn’t. And it is by revealing our own expectations to ourselves that The Last Jedi changes these defeats into beautiful moments. Because Poe’s failure makes him a leader who puts his troops lives above a potential heroic last stand. Because Luke’s fears and hopes are what bring him to Crait to buy them time. In The Last Jedi everyone has to face their own failures and everyone comes out of it stronger, technically. It is only Kylo who ends the movie seemingly more broken than before. He is technically more powerful than ever before, but he has lost more than the others. We’ll go into this more later.
‘It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.’
I want to address one more thing. Benicio Del Toro’s character puzzled me initially. I wondered what role he played in the message The Last Jedi was trying to tell and it only truly struck me the third time I saw the film. DJ doesn’t choose sides, doesn’t see the world in a clear black and white. This is very important for Finn’s development because he comes to realise that 1) nothing is entirely black and white, and 2) that not choosing sides, the way the arms dealers do, is morally corrupt. DJ seems friendly and seems wise in that ‘Disconnect from the machine, don’t let the system control you’-way, but in the end turns out to be a villain in his own right. He joins their cause, gets to know them, but he also sells them out and endangers the whole Resistance. He doesn’t choose sides and it’s not a big deal in his eyes because eventually the tables will flip and the other side will be stronger. But in some times you can’t afford to be that ambiguous. By not standing with anything you don’t stand for anything. DJ is as morally despicable as the arms dealers on Canto Bight despite his big spiel. This is a really important message, I believe.
The Last Jedi is a character driven film like we haven’t seen in a long time. The second movie in any trilogy has to do a difficult job. On the one hand it has to continue the storyline, but on the other hand it also has to develop its characters to prevent it feeling empty. The Last Jedi focuses especially on the latter, giving all of its characters a chance to grow and explore. Does it do so like some people had hoped? Nope. But does it do so excellently and with a brilliant eye for what Star Wars is about? Definitely!