Balancing the Past in ‘The Last Jedi’

It is not, by any means, ground-breaking to assert that one of the central themes of the Star Wars franchise is balance: “bringing balance to the Force” has been the perpetual task of the Jedi throughout the series. However, The Last Jedi – like Rogue One before it – takes pains to show just how difficult this balancing act is, foregrounding the process as much as the act – the process of trying, failing, and trying again to build something new and bright and better than what was there before. This is embodied in the character arcs of all the protagonists – most notably Rey, Luke, and Kylo Ren – but Finn and Poe, too, have baggage to overcome. While the film is long and at times dawdling – it clocks in at just over two and a half hours, the longest film in the franchise – it is carefully plotted, with a consistent approach to these themes. The meandering narrative structure is intricate and impactful in its own way; and if it is at times too much or not enough for some viewers, The Last Jedi remains a film unafraid to deviate from its origins and stand on its own.

Luke and Rey’s relationship is arguably the primary storyline of this film, and one which parallels the central relationships of many of its predecessors. The master-student dynamic is a core part of Star Wars – the franchise is obsessed with intergenerational relationships, with the passing on of knowledge and skills, and with what and who will come next. The Last Jedi, however, makes explicit the tensions and anxieties inherent in this connection: eventually, the young will take the place of the old, either by naturally surpassing and replacing their mentors or by seizing new roles through violence. In previous films, we have seen characters like Anakin and Kylo turn against their parents and mentors; in this film, venturing into Kylo’s backstory, we see Luke’s fears of the next generation’s power get the better of him. While Snoke claims that Kylo’s raw power is what every teacher wants for their student, Luke finds that same power terrifying. Rey is desperate for a teacher and role model; Kylo wants to stand alone. The Last Jedi, through the arcs of these characters – and a cameo from a certain old favorite – makes explicit this interest in intergenerational relationships, and asks what kind of student-teacher dynamic is really desirable.

hkiyoko (1)Image: Disney | Lucasfilm

The Last Jedi is preoccupied with origins: there’s Rey’s quest to find her parents; Luke’s retreat to Ahch-To, the home of the first Jedi temple; Kylo’s obsession, continued from The Force Awakens, with his grandfather, and his troubled relationships with his parents and uncle; Finn’s beginning as a “glitch” in the system. Everyone, in one way or another, obsesses over the past. And yet, one of the central messages of the film is the necessity of making peace with it. Kylo insists that you have to “let the past die”, even “kill it”, but his murderous frenzies are hardly recommended as a course of action. Instead, the way forward is to recognize the events of the past, to take from it what one can, and to look to the future. Luke spends most of the film – and has spent the last six years – looking backwards, reliving his mistakes; but only when he finally accepts his past actions, and commits to moving on, can he find peace.

Perhaps the most important part of Luke’s arc in The Last Jedi is learning to live with his failures – not only as it enables him to let go of the past, but also as a reminder to all of us that he is fallible. Rey, at the beginning of the film, almost worships him: “Luke Skywalker”, she says, wide-eyed, as she begs him to return and save the world. As the narrative unfolds, though, Luke Skywalker the man is very different from Luke Skywalker the legend. He has made terrible mistakes, mistakes too large and complex to be rectified with one swing of a lightsaber or swipe of a hand. And this is the message of the film: that mistakes are as natural – perhaps more natural – than success; that no one is ever done learning, or improving, and that even teachers, even intergalactic legends, must keep striving to be better.

In The Last Jedi, the past is something to be utilized, but ultimately left behind. Luke is reprimanded for blindly revering the ancient Jedi texts, without ever having read or learned from them – the past is not, we are told, inherently worth preserving. Making peace with the past means taking what it has to offer and ignoring the rest – which is what this film does with much of the previous canon and imagined backstories. Popular fan theories about Rey’s parentage, various romantic subplots, and Snoke’s backstory are all gleefully dismissed in favor of a narrative which highlights the importance of moving forward.

 

When Buffy is 16, she dies. When I am 17, I watch her die. (1) Clinging to the idea that you can one day become the best – the best Jedi, or the Supreme Leader, or the best pilot – actually prevents growth, blinding the characters to their own flaws.Luke’s final act in the film is to exploit Kylo’s biggest weakness – his obsessive desire to obliterate the past – so that the rebellion, made up of younger, forward-looking fighters, can escape.

The Last Jedi, then, not only encourages this search for balance, but literally enacts it within the Star Wars canon, taking what is useful from the franchise and abandoning the rest. While The Force Awakens was, perhaps, too reliant on the earlier films to do anything truly new or original, The Last Jedi is irreverent, constantly pushing boundaries in search of innovation. Some fans of the previous films have, inevitably, found fault with this approach – but renewal is vital for the continuation of the franchise. Just as the characters – both new and familiar ones – keep striving to do better, so must our filmmakers; we are all, after all, perpetually engaged in a process of becoming. •


Nicky  Watkinson recently finished an MA in contemporary literature and culture at UCL, and is in love with London but too broke to live there. She mostly writes about books, theatre, films, and Taylor Swift. She can be found caring too much about pop culture on Twitter at @nickyjwatkinson.

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