WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI BELOW
After two years of nervous anticipation, Rian Johnson’s newest entry into the Star Wars canon brings us the scene we’d all been waiting for since J.J. Abrams left us on a literal and figurative cliffhanger in The Force Awakens: Rey (Daisy Ridley) bringing Luke’s (Mark Hamill) lightsaber back to its owner, in the hopes of enticing him back to the fight against the Dark Side. Rey, like us in many ways, only knows of Luke as the legendary Skywalker, who fought the evil Emperor and his Galactic Empire, bringing balance to the force in the process. Therefore, her expectation for this encounter matches our own on every level. Approaching the mighty Jedi, she passes him his lightsaber, arguably foreseeing the moment where he activates it, ready to charge into battle against the First Order, the newly polished successor of the Empire. The music swells. The scenery gives the scene a grandiose spectacle. And??? The mythological Luke Skywalker tosses the saber over the ravine, without a care for its symbolic significance, strolling past Rey as she stands, amazed at the undesired result of her eagerly awaited meeting with the legendary Jedi Master.
This effectively sums up a number of the reactions towards The Last Jedi: that’s not the Luke I know, this isn’t my Star Wars, what the hell was all the wait for? But the significance of this sequence, in relation to those responses, is that this is how we are meant to feel. Perhaps it was intended to have a humorous undertone that may not have sat well with all viewers. But overall, it was meant to leave us feeling surprised, confused, a little awkward: Rey is our hero, so, by identifying with her, we are meant to feel as she feels, so our frustration mirrors hers.
What is the moral of this short scene, that which constitutes the film’s wider purpose? Breaking down the legend, bringing us into the realisation that expectation never matches reality, it never could and accepting that, we can better move forward for ourselves.
This may seem like a grand notion for a Star Wars film, but that’s the phenomenal thing with The Last Jedi that somehow makes it an equal to Empire Strikes Back in my eyes: it tries something monumentally different, by questioning narrative, nostalgia and fandom.
The storyline between Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the definitive example for this point. For both of these characters, Luke symbolises something greater than they are. For Rey, Luke is the ultimate hero who will teach her the ways of the Force. For Kylo Ren, Luke is the ultimate villain whose death will bring him the clarity he needs to focus on building a new Empire for himself.
But Luke is not the ultimate hero: he teaches Rey everything that is dangerous about the Force, how the figure of Skywalker is an overblown myth, that he is not the strong pillar of good that everyone believed him to be. Neither is Luke the ultimate villain for Kylo Ren: irrespective of Luke’s power, the future rests in the hands of someone who does not belong to the holy bloodline of the Skywalkers, that being Rey, one who’s parentage is insignificant, who’s power comes from within rather than from teaching, proving to be Kylo Ren’s final foe.
Expectation is wholly subverted with this narrative trickery. The rug is pulled out from under Luke, revealing his inconsequentiality to the wider circumstances. No doubt this has angered many, the series’ fundamental champion reduced to a mere pawn, inferior to the queen and king of Rey and Kylo Ren respectively.
But what many have forgotten is that director and writer Rian Johnson hasn’t betrayed Luke, unbeknownst to the character. Instead, he has provided Luke with this revelation as his decisive lesson. The imperative scene that emphasises this point is Luke’s unexpected reunion with his own master, Yoda (Frank Oz). Luke has hit his lowest point, his morally irresolute spirit broken by Rey and her adamant belief that Kylo Ren can be turned to the good, that peace can be restored, that the Jedi can still live on through herself and Kylo, once living under the name of Ben Solo. Whilst he prepares to burn the sacred Jedi texts, ending the historical timeline of the Jedi for good, Yoda appears to Luke to provide him with one final message. I will crudely paraphrase it as ‘Failure is the best lesson for success’. Yoda follows this by supposedly burning the texts for Luke, destroying the past in order to encourage Luke to fight for those of the future.
‘Let the past die’ is a line that runs throughout the film, but here we see it in the flesh, or the fire so to speak. It has the metaphor of failure looming over it, courtesy of Yoda’s message. One could see these as negative sentiments, dilapidating the optimistic aura of the Jedi and their lore. But this lore, this past is not important, as Yoda suggests. Neither is the constant need for success. Yoda’s lesson about failure can be expanded for the film as a whole, related to the theme of expectation.
History creates heroes, villains, epic narratives for life. Star Wars is one of these narratives and it will never die. It also revels in its success stories, to teach us how to better ourselves. Star Wars does the same: Luke’s success in coercing his father, Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) to turn back to the light, is inspiring. But the past does not teach the most important lesson: failure leads to success, disappointment is inevitable, it is about coming to terms with that fact that one can move on from it. What franchise, other than Star Wars, can be more appropriate to the notion of the indisputability of dissatisfaction?
Even more specifically, for the character of Luke, the key to this lesson is his physical and emotional reaction: through the power of the Force, he meets with Kylo Ren on the battlefield, distracting him in order to allow Rey and co. to escape the clutches of the First Order, to fight another day. His message for Kylo? Luke is no longer the last Jedi, the Resistance will fight on, the war is not over, his death is meaningless to Kylo’s cause. Luke, rather than bathing himself in immense power and significance, reduces himself to a mere ghost, passing away in solitude, in peace, committing a simple act for the greater good. How can this willingness to sacrifice everything for a slither of hope be considered a betrayal of Luke’s character? Because we expected him to lift the entire army of the First Order off the ground and throw him into the stratosphere? Why is power and glory Luke’s definitive trait, when, as a sentinel for good, he should simply desire the chance to protect those he cares for, those he believes will carry on the work of the Jedi?
I will leave these questions unanswered because I know, for sure, that many of you will know the answers, the undeniable truth that I am reporting. Just because it did not go the way you expect, it does not mean that it is not worth its time.
Segueing somewhat, the issue with Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) death is one that has vexed me in a similar vein. Why must the film spend a good portion of its runtime explaining the depths of Snoke’s backstory, when it could instead engage in the here and now, the conflict resting at the heart of our core characters, the ones we care for and love the most: Rey, Kylo Ren, Luke, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Leia (Carrie Fisher)? Snoke’s death solidifies the moral of the film: expectation is toxic and it can never be fully fulfilled. If one needed proof, even in his final words, Snoke speaks through expectation, believing Kylo Ren to be bending to his will, only for it to be revealed as the opposite result, leading to his demise.
But as Kylo says, ‘let the past die, Snoke, Skywalker, all of it’. It’s irrelevant, expectation can never be satisfied fully, narrative fulfilment is entirely impossible with a franchise as legendary as Star Wars.
So Rian Johnson took the ballsy move. He made this his narrative throughline, confronting the impossible fanbase – sorry if you disagree but it’s a fundamental fact – with characters that face exactly the same situation: heroes, villains and stories that don’t match up to their preconceptions. Luke is not the almighty prophet of the Force. Snoke is not the devastating villain that corrupts the do-gooder and lives on to become the final boss. Instead, Rey and Kylo surpass these characters, they break away from the past, aware that their own actions are what is important. This is an allegory for our necessary separation from nostalgia, from the toxic expectation that everything has to be related, explained and mythologised. Instead, the series goes on, stood on its own two feet.
This can only be a positive in my eyes, not dragged down by expectation that characters such as Luke and Snoke should be one thing or the other. Johnson doesn’t appease our every desire for the characters we grew up with, he doesn’t concede to fan need. But rather than simply rejecting it, he creates a narrative that understands this, that feeds off of this. Our characters experience the same disappointment: our expectation isn’t met. By presenting us with this fact, perhaps we can finally come to terms with the possibility that not everything will go the way we hope and that we should be grateful that we simply have Star Wars films coming our way, with their own original content, characters and narratives. Then maybe Rian will get the praise I believe he deserves: he does not pull a J.J. Abrams, by following the rule book, instead crafting a film that burns the rule book for our own benefit.