I was going to wait to write a spoiler post about Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi early next week, but I'm seeing some catastrophically horrible takes from the movie on Twitter (what else is new, I know) and in my limited back and forth there I got a little bit fired up and decided it would be better to write out some thoughts on the themes and character arcs of The Last Jedi instead of arguing vaguely with strangers on Twitter.
I know not everybody has had the chance to see the movie yet, so if that is you don't read this article. I will be talking about the finale and some structural and thematic arcs that require heavy spoilers. In fact, I'd go so far as to tell you to get the hell out and not come back until you've seen this movie. Love it or hate it on first blush that initial experience should be your own, untainted by knowing some key things in advance. Below I'm going to be talking like I would to a buddy who just watched the movie with me, which means everything's on the table.
So, now that it's only people that have seen the movie here, let's dig into this thing, shall we?
Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi makes some bold, Galaxy-changing moves. Not everybody is going to be all in on these choices and that's okay. As a matter of fact I'd even say some of these choices were purposefully made to throw the audience off balance.
There's a small moment in the middle of the movie where Rey reaches out with the force, thinking she's grabbing her lightsaber away from Snoke only to have the lightsaber fly over her shoulder, zip around the room and clunk her on the head before floating back to the side of the smiling Supreme Leader. By now we know that the end result for Snoke is the same, but the way we get there isn't the path we think.
For many fans they are Rey in this scenario and the lightsaber is their expectation. They think they know what they're going to get only to have it fly over their shoulder. After all the condemnation this same group threw at JJ Abrams' The Force Awakens for feeling too familiar you'd imagine they'd be overjoyed to see a movie that defies expectation, but you'd be wrong.
Johnson is a Star Wars fan who also happens to be a very thoughtful filmmaker, so he knows what you're expecting when a conflicted Kylo Ren is taking Rey before Snoke. He even shoots the elevator ride up to the Throne Room with the exact same framing of handcuffed Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. There's a reason for that. He wants you to think this is going to be a redemption sequence when in reality it's exactly the opposite.
Some have been mad at Snoke's exit from the franchise, but that moment had to happen, and happen that way, to make Kylo Ren a fully realized character. He has now killed two father figures and is hellbent on killing a third.
What's great about this sequence is Johnson takes your expectation (redemption) and gives you a hot second where you think you have it. You get the thrill of Rey and Ben Solo fighting back to back, working together and then you realize, about the time Rey does, that, as Luke warned her, things aren't going the way she's thinking.
Kylo needed to not be a lapdog anymore. It's way more interesting to watch him make the choice to become the full-throated leader of the First Order than to see him get a hasty redemption. The other option would be to keep Snoke a mystery until the third film and then that would force JJ Abrams to copy Jedi's structure. I see why he was eager to come back for IX. He has a wide open world to play in now, thanks in large part to Johnson's decision to kill Snoke.
One of the themes of the movie is about letting go of the past. It's seen in most major characters and in the overall arc of the film. Luke has to get over his mistake with Ben (and the even worse mistake to stop training the next generation). Rey has to move past her abandonment by her parents and realize they don't define her. Finn has to wrestle with his instinct to save himself/his friends and to serve a larger, grander purpose... and to live up to the image he wants to project, that of a Resistance hero. Poe has to come to terms with the fact that his gut instinct isn't always right, no matter where his heart is. Kylo literally repeats this theme in dialogue. He takes it a step farther. “Kill it if you have to.”
With that in mind, yes the ending of the movie is quite beautiful, not just in Luke's exit but in the lead up to it. His moment with Leia is all about letting go of the past, but unlike Kylo he doesn't want to destroy it. He gives her Han's dice from the Millennium Falcon (even if it's just a mental projection of it). Remember the past. Cherish it. But it's time to move on.
Luke said he came to that island to die and that's what happens. On a filmmaking level does it make sense to shoot it the way they do, by giving you that false sense of hope that Luke isn't going to Obi-Wan himself? That I find harder to argue against, but I can tell you that on second viewing the emotion of the moment hit me harder than wondering why they chose to have Luke give himself over to the Force alone on Ahch-To. It fits thematically with the whole letting go of the past thing and perfectly sets up the biggest, best emotional through-line of the whole movie for me.
Above everything else this story is about hope. Not hope in some prophecy or chosen one, but one that can be found in anyone, whether they're a slave child or a pure-hearted low-level resistance engineer. It's about goodness and light inspiring the next generation. That is represented the best in the new character of Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran, and it's the reason why I scratch my head at people dismissing the Canto Bight section of the movie. Sure, there's some iffy composite shots here and the highest concentration of CGI creatures, but this section is the linchpin of the entire movie.
It's ultimately not about the search for the master codebreaker, it's about the downtrodden seeing kindness from the dying Resistance. The Resistance is fading. The First Order is close to winning. Not only have they all but wiped out Resistance forces, but they've successfully put enough fear into the galaxy that nobody comes to aid of the remaining handful.
At the end of the movie all that remains of the Resistance is enough people that can fit on the Millennium Falcon and a broken lightsaber. But that's okay. The Resistance's time is over, much like the Jedi (as we know it) and the Sith (as we know it). The new Rebel Alliance is born in this film. It doesn't exist on the Falcon, but in the newly kindled fire in the hearts and minds of the people of the galaxy. Ordinary people. Extraordinary people who think they're ordinary.
The word “spark” is used many times in the movie, even in the opening crawl. And that's exactly what Rose and Finn do on Canto Bight. They spark that hope in those children. In the final shots of the movie we see two things play out: one, the myth of Luke Skywalker standing alone against an army told with enthusiasm from one child to another, and two, the ring carrying the symbol of the Rebellion on the finger of a force-sensitive slave child.
Kylo has it wrong, Luke had it right. Don't kill the past. Embrace it. But look ahead, not backwards. Look to the stars. Look to the double sunset one last time. Have hope for the future and the fire in your belly to bring it about. Don't run from your failures, acknowledge them and move on. Don't run from compassion and love and hope. Inspire it. Every victory the Resistance his comes from a place of love and self-sacrifice, never attack. Even the exhilarating, aggressive space battle at the beginning ends up costing the Resistance more than it does their enemy.
That little boy on Canto Bight represents that future. He so off-handedly uses the force that he probably doesn't even realize he has any special abilities, but we know for damn sure which side he's going to fall on should the call come again. And it's all because he saw two human, non-super powered people show kindness and bravery. The myth building of the Jedi Knight is cool and inspirational, but it's different seeing something with your own eyes. Surely that kid has heard of Jedis before, but what has he actually experienced? Cruelty 24/7.
That's why Rose is so important to this film and why that visit to Canto Bight is thematically the richest part of the story. If you write it off you're doing so by willfully ignoring the larger themes at play.
The Last Jedi leaves us with a wide open playing field for Episode IX. If it really is closing out the Skywalker Saga then it has to be about balance. That's the key theme throughout all the prequels, original trilogy and, now, this new trilogy, especially this movie. Anakin Skywalker was supposed to bring balance to the force and that balance seems to be paying off now. Everything light and dark as we know it is going to be over by the time IX concludes. Leia will be gone, Kylo's pretty much got to go at this point. That will end the Skywalker bloodline and for the ultimate prophecy to be fulfilled that means everything has got to be in balance.
On second viewing I found The Last Jedi to be even deeper and richer than I did on my first go around. I get that some people feel robbed of seeing Luke being a cool badass force warrior. I think that would have been cool, too, but would it have been right? Definitely not for this movie. That would have betrayed the core theme at play and I'll take smart story structure and strong thematic writing over “cool” any day of the week. The Darth Maul duel in Phantom Menace is cool as shit, but what does it mean in the grand scheme of that movie? Not much other than “oh, shit. The Sith are still here.” and “I guess you gotta be the one to train that Anakin kid now, Obi-Wan.”
As Rose says it's not about fighting someone you hate, it's about saving someone you love. That is what spawns true good in the galaxy. Luke realized that at the end and that's why he finally found the peace he's been seeking for years and he found it in a way that doesn't put yet another black mark on Ben Solo's soul.