STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: Unlearning What We Have Learned

Originally posted on the now-defunct Birth.Movies.Death.

When Luke Skywalker unceremoniously tosses away his lightsaber at the start of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you’re either with the movie, or the lightsaber. The Last Jedi is a movie about how to move on – or more crudely, “let the past die” – for more than just its characters. In order for Star Wars to move forward, we must, as Yoda once said, unlearn what we have learned.

The Last Jedi is the first feature in many years to meaningfully expand this fictional universe, and the first to truly follow up The Empire Strikes Back’s ethereal Force philosophies. Far from revisiting past glories, it opens up new horizons, twisting familiar tropes to communicate something fresh and exciting. It’s the most mystical movie in the series so far, yet also absolutely about demystification, serving as a rebuke to the Hero’s Journey-centric storytelling that Star Wars helped to popularise and perpetuate from the ‘70s until today.

We’ve had it baked into our skulls for decades that heroes are destined for greatness, even born for it. Luke Skywalker may be a nobody when we first meet him, but even by the end of A New Hope he’s endowed as being the son of a Jedi Knight. Subsequent films render him the offspring of a virgin-birthed Force Messiah and a literal queen. As a result, when Rey’s parentage was left unconfirmed by The Force Awakens, fans naturally assumed she was of “significant” descent. The Last Jedi puts paid to such ideas: she’s a true nobody, in the way Luke never really was.

In her cave vision in Ahch-To, Rey asks to see her parents, observing two faceless silhouettes merging into one – which itself resolves into her own reflection. The only figure that matters is Rey. It’s almost the inverse implication of Luke’s own cave vision in Empire, which suggested he was fated to follow in his father’s dark footsteps. Rey only sees herself, as herself. That she achieves what she does despite her origins is an incredibly powerful statement; along with Finn’s escape from the First Order, it asserts that it is our actions – not our backgrounds – that make us who we are. Believing the opposite, placing people in positions of authority because they were “destined” to be there, got the Jedi exterminated.

Yes, The Last Jedi, with Luke Skywalker as its voice, finally addresses the tragic flaws of the Jedi Order: namely, their arrogant belief in their own legend. Just as the old Jedi Order allowed (and arguably even expedited) Darth Sidious’ rise to power, so does Luke blame himself for Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side. Though the film’s disagreeing flashbacks present different perspectives on that, Luke’s involvement in Ben Solo’s past can’t be denied. Luke was as blinded by his own legend as the Jedi were by theirs – and only by opening his mind to change and learning does he become able to achieve his final task. That’s important for character, too: self-doubt is absolutely on-brand for Luke, and seeing him express such introspection is as powerful and empathetic as Star Wars has ever been.

Notably, the power in the film’s core master-student relationships does not lie with the master. The Last Jedi is smart about teaching and learning, depicting it as the two-way street that it is. Rey ends up teaching Luke as many lessons as he teaches her, pushing him to get over the new legend – one of incompetence and failure – that he’s built for himself. “We are what they grow beyond,” observes Yoda. Legends must step aside, implies the deceased Jedi as a sacred temple burns, to enable new growth. This is true organically for the film’s heroes, as Luke fades peacefully into the Force, and violently for its villains, as Kylo Ren kills Snoke and takes his throne.

It would be tempting to say, as he walks out with a laser sword and faces down the entire First Order, that Luke ends the movie having returned to his former heroism. But it’s not quite the trench-running, AT-AT-crashing heroics of his yesteryears. Rather, his decision to show up via astral projection is a synthesis – an understanding that icons have value, inasmuch as they can grant hope and draw enemy fire, but also that granting hope and drawing enemy fire is the best course of action. In devoting his final moments not to killing the bad guys but to saving those who will grow beyond him, he overcomes his earlier failures, but carries their lessons with him – unlike Kylo Ren, whose scorched-earth policy to the past only guarantees that history will continue repeating.

And what happens when more traditional heroism outright fails? Poe’s insubordination against Vice-Admiral Holdo, following his demotion for recklessness, cannily plays on the audience’s learned assumptions about heroism. We’re meant to distrust scolding, cautious Holdo, and trust heroic, risk-taking Poe, so that when his complicated, doomed plan to infiltrate Snoke’s dreadnought fails later, we learn from his mistakes alongside him. YouTube critics might scream that the failure of Poe’s plan means it shouldn’t have been in the film, but its failure is precisely why it matters.

Central to The Last Jedi is the notion that failure is – again, according to Yoda – “the greatest teacher.” Sometimes you don’t land the one in a million shot. Sometimes the torpedoes only impact on the surface. Whether it’s down to bad decision-making or pure shitty luck, you’ve got to own that failure and learn from it. Rebellions take work and alliances and trust, not drastic heroics. Thus, Star Wars deconstructs its own myths, and it’s thrilling.

In shrugging off the portent and prophecy of the past, The Last Jedi has done something else: created its own iconography. Star Wars Kid reference or not, the decision to close The Last Jedi not on a tableau of heroes, but on a child looking up to the stars, is significant on multiple levels. As the moon’s glint turns the child’s broom into a lightsabre, the film closes on a simple, powerful visual statement that rebellion starts with the common folk, not just chosen heroes. Fan theories abound as to the identity and plot significance of this kid, but such theories miss the point: he’s a nobody, just another of the galaxy’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

General Leia’s final line, reassuring Rey that the Resistance already has everything it needs, says it all. Their troops may be depleted, their fleet reduced to one beat-up Corellian freighter, but the spirit of the new Rebellion is alive and growing. Unlike the First Order, whose power stems from military might, and which spends the final battle literally dragging a symbol of its Death Star-obsessed past behind it, the Rebellion is all about love, heart, belief, and moving forward. The natural world above the mechanical. Friendship above hatred. Truth above prophecy. Self-improvement above stubbornness. Just as the Rebels leave the First Order in the dust, so too does The Last Jedi leave behind outdated limitations of what Star Wars can be.

It all comes back to that lightsaber toss. Ultimately, Star Wars is not about the fighting – the space planes and the laser swords and the ray guns – but about the characters. As such, it must move forward with character – with heart, with compassion, and with humanity.

“That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”