STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is an explosively controversial take on the future of the Star Wars franchise. Viewers have so far referred to it as both the best and the worst film of the franchise. My opinion is precisely that: It has some of the best moments and also some of most obvious flaws of any Star Wars film. But overall, I would rank it third in a global ranking of Star Wars movies (behind A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, tied with Return of the Jedi).
The film made the Force feel once again like the Force of the original trilogy. The Force is once again something that can inspire a near-religious devotion of an entire movement. It is a religion, not a mere genetic advantage. Luke’s conversation with Yoda felt like seeing the original Yoda for the first time in decades, and includes some of the best Star Wars one-liners of the series, including insights about the powerful lessons of failure, the burdens of leadership, and sly allusions to Rey’s mischievous theft of the Jedi texts.
My suspicion is that TLJ will age better than people expect, and that the next generation will look far more kindly on the movie than fans at opening night (even if some of the glaring flaws remain flaws forever). Much of the angst about the film revolves around the director’s treatment of Luke Skywalker’s character. The story Rian Johnson tells is a good story. It’s just not the story fans had hoped for or were expecting.
Luke Skywalker was mistreated
The Luke Skywalker of ROTJ was a man who walked right into Darth Vader’s maw, believing that Vader could be turned to good — despite decades of cruel dictatorship and treachery with no remorse or turmoil over the murders he has committed. Why? Because Vader is his family. Luke believes in his family, stands by his family. He seeks to rescue his family even when they are evil, murderous dictators.
Further, when given an opportunity to destroy this evil emperor once and for all, Luke does not take it, because his focus is not to destroy evil, but to redeem it. He protects the good when needed, without fearing or hating the bad. He knows that fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side. So he shows no fear in the face of ultimate evil, and no compulsion to destroy. And thus he has become a true Jedi.
In The Last Jedi, when Luke sees the darkness that has taken hold of Ben Solo’s mind, he instinctively turns on his lightsaber with the thought to kill his own nephew! In his worst moments, Ben Solo (now Kylo Ren) shows far more inner turmoil and conflict than Darth Vader ever did. So how does this square? Quite frankly, it does not. And it likely never will. Rian Johnson’s version of Luke Skywalker simply isn’t the same Luke Skywalker.
This is the film’s greatest failure: it misunderstands the character that fans flocked to the theaters to see once more. What they got was not merely a letdown. It felt like a total betrayal.
The problem could have been easily avoided with small changes to the story. If it’s important to the story that Luke failed Ben, he could have failed Ben in an innumerable other ways that wouldn’t have betrayed his character development in the original trilogy. So it was an unforced error on Rian Johnson’s part, and it’s now immortalized as part of Star Wars canon. This is regrettable, in my mind, but not unprecedented. George Lucas made similar unforced errors in his characterization of Anakin in the prequel trilogy.
The danger and power of legend
However, this film will age better than the prequel trilogy, because the story that Rian tells (however erroneous it may have been) is still a better story than the story that Lucas told about Anakin. It’s a story about a man who has become a legend, but feels (perhaps rightly) that the legend revered by the galaxy is a man who never existed. This legend clouded his mind and filled him with a hubris that led him to forget what had once made him great. He concludes, therefore, that legends need to die.
But he’s wrong. It’s precisely these sorts of legends that give us hope. Who cares if the legends of history never were quite the men and women we have since made them out to be? As Malcolm Reynolds once consoled Jayne Cobb in the show FIREFLY, “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of ’em was one kinda sumbitch or another.” It’s not important that our heroes live up to their legendary status. It’s the legends that give us narratives of hope, of redemption, of standing resolute in the face of evil.
Some have complained that Luke Skywalker never got his last show of mighty Jedi power, or his last dance with the lightsaber. In fact, he wasn’t even there in his final face-off with Kylo Ren. But that’s precisely the theme: around the galaxy, men and women are now telling the story of how the great Luke Skywalker casually strolled alone out of the fortress, faced the largest machines of death the First Order could muster, and then responded to the volley by dusting his shoulder. The great Kylo Ren himself, the new Supreme Leader, came down to meet him, and couldn’t even hurt him. Then he disappears with a grin, making fools of them all, as the resistance flees from their grasp.
That’s the legend that is now working its way through the galaxy, inspiring hope and conviction in the hearts of children everywhere that the First Order is not invulnerable, that there are those with the courage to stand up to the worst that they bring to the table. That the First Order can be resisted, and eventually defeated. In his last moments, instead of putting an end to the legends that he thinks once filled his heart with hubris, instead of convincing the world of the failure he really is, Luke Skywalker gave the galaxy exactly the legend they needed. (Even if not the legend fans wanted.)
Luke Skywalker and his legacy are larger than life, and he finally accepted that and gave the galaxy a legendary story of ultimate defiance that, in all technicalities, never even happened. And he did it with a sleight of hand that highlights the depths of his relationship with the Force: reaching into the minds of hundreds of people light years away, and crafting a shared illusion with intricate detail.
Had he actually been there (as many fans wish), a more tragic, hope-killing story would have been told instead, a story of how the great Jedi master — who took down the emperor and Darth Vader single handedly — was obliterated by the First Order, and Kylo Ren, it’s unstoppable Supreme Leader. That story would have been a hope-killer, not a hope-giver. But instead, he made the heights of his legendary status come to life before the First Order’s eyes, giving substance (of a sort) to their worst fears, while filling the galaxy with the very hope that Snoke had hoped to snuff out with Skywalker’s death. And that required him not to be there.
Yeah, that’s cool. And it does Luke far more justice than any lightsaber battle could have.
Problems with the film
I have innumerable complaints about this film:
Too much story. It has the plot/story content of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi combined, and it’s just too much for one movie. But that’s a problem with modern movie-making generally: modern films come bursting at the seams with content, on the fear of disappointing audiences with too little. A strong plot editor might have trimmed the story significantly, cutting back some of the excessive B-plots.
The grave mistakes of side-characters are under-explored. Much has been debated about whether Vice-admiral Holdo or Poe Dameron bears more weight for the near-total destruction of the Resistance throughout the film, and the poor writing that sweeps this under the rug. Either the movie treats Poe Dameron’s treachery too lightly, or Admiral Holdo’s bewildering treatment of her subordinates too casually.
Not enough setup for the next movie. We needed to see the Knights of Ren already (are they Luke’s former pupils?), or at least heard more about them — they’ll undoubtedly show up in the next film. Although they were alluded to in The Force Awakens, they will come out of near nowhere, since they were not involve in the events of The Last Jedi.
The casino scenes were unnecessary to the film. Not because the plan ultimately failed, but just because it was unnecessary fluff. A cleaner story could have involved one where Finn, as a former waste management specialist, knows exactly how to make a small pod (large enough for two) look like trash, and thereby bypass the threat detectors of Snoke’s ship (as a nostalgic call-back to Han Solo’s clever ploy in Empire Strikes Back). No “code breaker” needed, cleaner story as a result. Slightly shorter movie, perhaps, but the movie needed to be shorter anyways.
Salvaging the casino scene
If the casino scenes were necessary, they could have been handled better. For example, they could have could have deepened the sense of despair in the film by framing the Resistance as pawns in a larger political scheme, a threat bigger and deeper and harder to kill than even the First Order. If, for example, it was revealed that Snoke, for all his evil, was also just a pawn of more powerful and wealthier political players. In other words, if the scenes gave us a villain we actually expect (and fear) to see again in the next movie.
For example, imagine that Fynn and Rose both stumble upon and recognize a arms supplier at the casino, only to then realize that this supplier feeds weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance (maybe the owner of the ship currently in the film). In response to Rose’s indignation, the arms dealer responds, “Why do you think we sell you weapons and recruit for you, except to give the First Order reason to buy more?” In the film as it stands, Rose tells us these themes. We needed an actual villain to tell us instead, a villain with a face and a name that the audience comes to fear more than Snoke himself (for the fact that he/she has wealth and popular support, and has managed to rule the galaxy behind the scenes without incurring anyone’s wrath).
If Fynn and Rose came back reporting that something scarier and darker is on the horizon than the First Order, then their detour to the casino would have added to the tone of the film (hope against despair) by deepening the despair leading up to the climax. But as is, I don’t expect to revisit any of these places or themes again.
Powerful themes with Gospel implications
None of these complaints are fatal flaws. Again, this movie is, I think, third (or fourth) in the Star Wars saga in terms of enjoyability. And I think it is the most thematically rich of the films. And unlike the more politically inflected scenes of the prequel trilogy all of the following themes strike me as genuinely Star Wars themes, right at home with the series we all fell in love with originally.
We save what we love, rather than destroy what we hate. This follows the lesson of the Return of the Jedi: Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side. When our focus is on destroying that which we hate, we neglect saving those we love. We miss opportunities for redemption. We canker our own souls. Another way to put is that even in the midst of war, our hearts should be at peace. For it is when our hearts are at war that war corrupts us. We can forgive our enemies and hold no malice towards them in our hearts, even while defending those we love from their evil.
The greatest teacher, failure is. This is a new Yoda-ism that is bound to become as iconic as “Do or do not, there is no try.” We can learn from our failures, and grow stronger for them. As for what weakness teaches us, it is this: That we all depend on Christ. In other words, weakness can become our strength precisely because it reminds us that it is only through the grace of Christ that we have power to build God’s kingdom on earth. As the prophet Jacob said, “The Lord God showeth us our weakness [through failure] that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things” (Jacob 4:7).
Leadership looks beyond the immediate opportunity to be a hero. It’s not about us. It’s not about making ourselves a martyr. Sometimes the greatest sacrifice is to give up our dreams of becoming a hero; to give up the fantasies of youth that imagine us charging into battle with great courage and ultimate self-sacrifice. While there is nothing wrong with courage and self-sacrifice, when they are motivated by pride, they can lead us astray.
Hope insures against the future, and must be preserved even at the cost of the current battle. Sometimes the current battle must be lost, so that hope can persevere. Sometimes, the long term plan involves preserving something that fighting the current battle will cost us. It is important to remember this as we study the words of modern prophets and apostles: sometimes, they operate with a long term view, an eternal perspective, that rises above the fray of any current culture war we are fighting. They are considering the interests of the kingdom of God long after present squabbles are distant memory.
We are what we overcome and move beyond. We are not defined by static labels or the mistakes of yesterday. We are defined by what we are becoming through those mistakes. Our destiny is found in how we respond to the heartaches and disappointments that come our way; and even more importantly, how we respond when we glimpse truthfully the people we really are, stripped of our excuses and rationalizations. We are not defined by those moments, but by what we do with them. Do we step forward into new, covenant identities, defined by a renewed relationship with Christ? Or do we wallow in our present miseries, commiserating in self-pity or rehearsing our shortcomings?
Trust your leaders and trust your subordinates when working together as a team. This lesson is as old as Ender’s Game, where Ender adopted a new leadership style. He brought his team on board, gave them all the information they need, and then trusted them to make decisions based on that information. While he gave them directions, he trusted them to disobey if conditions on the ground warranted. Likewise, they trusted his instructions precisely because he held nothing back from them. Even an ounce of Ender’s philosophy could have saved many lives in The Last Jedi. The movie teaches us this lesson, but at great cost.
We are a product of our choices more than our heritage. It matters far less who our parents were, or our grandparents — our journey is one paved by individual moral decisions. Ben Solo had a tyrannous, murderous grandfather, but generous and loving parents. His decisions to turn to the dark side were his own. Similarly, Rey had no noble heritage (that we know of), and yet through her decisions she may end up leading the resistance against evil. As Latter-day Saints, we value knowing our heritage, but heritage does not define us. This is, in fact, one of the lessons of the Book of Mormon: the Lamanites were supposedly “cursed”, and yet they were blessed beyond measure as they chose to covenant with God, and became the fiercest disciples of Christ. The Nephites were a covenant “chosen” people who forgot God and turned to darkness. We can treasure our heritage, but we must remember that it is no shield against evil. Those born outside of the house of Israel are adopted in and treated as full members of the Abrahamic family; those who are born heirs of the Abrahamic covenant can, through their choices, forfeit those blessings altogether.
When you descend into darkness looking for answers, the only thing you’ll find there is yourself. Ok, this was the weirdest part of the movie, and I don’t fully understand it. But Rey descended to the dark side — physically manifested as a pit of darkness — looking for answers. But darkness had none. It never does. It can only reflect ourselves. This is because darkness is a lie. It is a tree that does not bear fruit; food that does not nourish, a spring that brings for no water; water that does not sate; light that does not reveal. And ultimately, it fills our view with self, so completely that we see nothing else.
Legends larger than life can be exactly what people need. To some extent, whether the story of Luke’s battle with Kylo Ren that is now being shared throughout the galaxy is factually true or not doesn’t matter. The legend is what matters, because it is the legend that inspires faith. For the record, I believe that the scriptures are true. I believe that they are far more factually true than many critics assert. But it does not matter to me whether the flood literally covered the earth, whether Jonah was really swallowed by a fish, or whether the languages of the earth really began at Babel. It is the purpose of these stories that matter: they teach us about the character of God, and His ongoing endeavors to redeem us.
I find it hard to think of another Star Wars movie with more things to think about than this one. I have a hard time drumming up even a couple similarly profound themes from The Force Awakens (despite the fact that The Force Awakens had far fewer flaws as a film). This doesn’t necessarily make it a superior movie, but it does make me wonder if screenwriters can do more to engage audiences’ minds than they currently do. The Last Jedi shows us some compelling storytellings that invites us to ponder — and although there are missteps, those missteps do not undermine the project.