When The Force Awakens was released two years ago, I wrote:
Although the majority of fans have embraced the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, even its most ardent supporters acknowledge that The Force Awakens cannibalizes much of its overarching plot structure from A New Hope (which itself drew heavy inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s theories on the monomyth). While I cannot deny the parallels between the two films (a lowly droid carrying vital information guides the inhabitant of a desert planet to a greater destiny), I do not view them as an inherent weakness. After all, a story’s “shape" tends to arise from its central thematic concerns, and Episode VII concerns itself almost entirely with the burden of legacy and the need to escape the past in order to forge a better future.
In The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson builds upon these themes, navigating the treacherous waters of the (ahem) darker side of nostalgia in order to reinvent this beloved forty-year-old franchise in as radical a fashion as when Darth Vader revealed the truth about Luke’s parentage at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
Consider the circumstances under which we reconnect with the esteemed Master Skywalker: faced with his shortcomings as a mentor (not only did he fail to redeem Ben Solo, his misguided actions may have directly contributed to his fall from grace), he has retreated into self-imposed exile, spiritually broken and thoroughly disillusioned with the ways of the Jedi. His reputation as a hero of the Rebellion has become a weight he can no longer bear; from his point of view, at least, he was arrogant enough to buy into his own myth, and so he resigns himself to a life of solitude, where his hubris can’t cause any more harm. In his own words, he traveled to Ahch-To to die, secure in his conviction that all hope was extinguished from the galaxy the day he confronted his prized pupil, blind to the fact that in his absence, tyranny has prevailed.
Kylo Ren, meanwhile, grapples with his inability to live up to his grandfather’s legacy. True, he managed to successfully strike down his father, as the Supreme Leader commanded… and that act has left him utterly devastated, fragile, and arguably more indecisive that he was before (to the extent that he hesitates to open fire on the Resistance flagship because he knows that his mother is on the bridge)—a weakness that Snoke mercilessly exploits. Enraged by the conflict splitting him down the center, he shatters his iconic mask, symbolically abandoning his aspirations to become the next Darth Vader and resolving to forge his own destiny, whatever the cost. Yet despite his zeal to “let the past die,” he lacks a concrete end goal, reducing him to little more than a child throwing a temper tantrum.
Even Rey’s quest to convince Luke to train her in the Jedi arts ties into her ongoing search for the family that abandoned her. After the disgraced warrior refuses to fill the “gruff father figure” void left in the wake of Han’s demise, our tenacious heroine turns to the Force to find answers, convinced that discovering her parents’ identities will further illuminate her role in the war (for surely, like Luke and Anakin before her, she was chosen for a reason)—a process that draws her dangerously close to the Dark Side, and indeed, leaves her vulnerable to the villains’ manipulations.
All three characters allow these various legacies to become a chain which holds them back, failing to realize that they don’t truly belong to them; rather, they exist to inspire future generations to rise up and become the spark that will light the beacon of hope. The film’s closing scene succinctly reinforces this premise: the poor, oppressed stablehands of the Canto Bight racetrack huddle in the dark, sharing the tale of Luke Skywalker in hushed tones, reenacting the most dramatic moments with crude figurines. Later, the youngest of these urchins steps outside, uses the Force to fetch a broom, and sets to work sweeping up hay. Soon, however, he pauses to admire the night sky and—like a lonely farm boy gazing at the twin sunsets—dream of an adventure of his own.
That is how Luke Skywalker will save the galaxy: not by singlehandedly eradicating the First Order, but by giving his successors an ideal to strive toward.
[Originally written December 26, 2017.]