I once joked that the The Last Jedi is essentially fifty expectation vs reality memes strung together, and it is that challenging of expectation that has made it so polarizing among viewers. Some have lauded it for flipping the saga on its head and pushing new boundaries, while others have raged against how much it breaks from Star Wars tradition. But in revisiting the film two years on from its release, what strikes me the most about it is actually how much it rhymes and echoes against the films that came before it, something that I think has been very obfuscated amidst so much focus on what expected pay-offs it doesn’t deliver.
When Luke says to Rey at one point, “This is not going to go the way you think,” he is warning not just her but also the audience, as over and over, the film sets up and tears down expectation of what is going to happen. Both expectation based on earlier films, and especially The Force Awakens, as well as in terms of story and how the different plotlines turn out.
Poe appears to lead a heroic effort against the First Order, but then is exposed as reckless as many rebels and ships are lost. Holdo seems to be poorly leading the resistance while Poe comes up with a plan to save the day, but she ends up being the one with the plan while Poe’s efforts come to nothing. Finn and Rose’s entire subplot revolves around a mission that seems like it must be the resistance’s saving grace, but they fail to complete it and instead further endanger the resistance. The film devotes considerable time to the resistance’s efforts to send out beacons to their allies to come to their aid, but no one ever does. Maz Kanata directs Finn and Rose to find a specific codebreaker, building anticipation around him, but they never even meet him. When DJ rescues Rose and Finn on Canto Bight, agrees to help them, and later returns Rose’s necklace, it seems he will surely be an ally, yet he then betrays them. Rey goes to find Luke who will surely help and train her, but he tosses the lightsaber away, refuses and denounces the Jedi. The Jedi texts are the sacred foundation of the Jedi order, but even Yoda makes light of burning them and dismissing their importance. Then even this is a double layer of altered expectation as we later find out Rey has taken the texts, surely to Yoda’s knowledge. Snoke, set up as an extremely menacing and mysterious all-powerful evil overlord, is abruptly killed halfway through this film and the trilogy before we really see him do anything or find out who he was. Rey starts out hating and disgusted by Kylo, but then turns empathetic and hopeful towards him. She has a vision that he will not kneel before Snoke and has all the faith in this, but he does kneel. But then he turns on and kills Snoke and fights alongside Rey. But then despite this, his built up connection with Rey and all her conviction about the light left in him, and the earlier scene where he balks from shooting at his mother’s ship, still he betrays Rey’s expectation again and goes into a berserker rage against her and the resistance. Luke shows up for an anticipated epic showdown with Kylo, but merely messes with him and then reveals himself not to be there at all. And after having spent the film in a tirade about the Jedi needing to end, he does another 180, announcing that he will not in fact be the last Jedi.
In the most layered instance, the story of what happened between Luke and Kylo, thought to be a matter of Kylo turning on and attacking Luke, is exposed as Luke actually attacking him, then exposed again differently as Luke grappling with a moment of darkness. And then, the most polarizing one: after so much anticipation set up around Rey’s parents, they are revealed to be no one.
The list goes on; in ways big and small, this is how everything in the film plays out, as continuous “reveals” expose things to be one way just as they seemed to be another. In many ways, this dismantling of expectation is one of the main points the film seeks to make: That things don’t always go the way we expect, things are often not what they seem, plans don’t always work out, and we very often fail, and yet — the most important thing is to learn from that failure, and grow from it, and find the hope that lies beyond it.
It’s in the build up and execution of all this that I think the film fumbles, as some of these reveals land as compelling twists, while others feel overdone and at times like pointless plot filler, particularly in the case of the entire Canto Bight subplot. The film feels at odds with itself, as it pivots from the breathtaking escalation of scenes between Rey, Luke, and Kylo to the comparative tediousness of the resistance’s repeatedly failing plans, like it didn’t know precisely what to do with those characters. My main gripe, more than anything in the actual plot, is how the juxtaposition of all this is often jarring and disjointed. The editing of the film is messy, and frustratingly throws off the tone: A touching moment of Leia at a window Force-feeling towards Luke cuts abruptly to her slapping and demoting Poe. In the scene where Leia guides herself back to the ship with the Force, rather than let the high emotion of such a pivotal moment linger, and carry over to Luke in the Falcon watching R2D2’s old recording of her, the two scenes are madly separated by a Chewie vs porgs humorous bit. The gripping intensity of Luke’s final confrontation with Kylo is interrupted at the oddest moment by Finn dragging Rose back to the base and asking for medical help, a scene that surely could have happened earlier on. And so on. The film also has a problem with laying things on too thick and often overstating the obvious, with characters repeating themselves or each other or voicing what can plainly be seen or inferred. Most maddeningly, in the scene where Kylo kills Snoke, Snoke’s overkill narration of how Kylo is “turning the lightsaber to strike true; he ignites it, and kills his true enemy” is so on the nose as to give away the twist before it happens, cringeworthy every time. All this just further contributes to muddling the tone of the film; where it should grip you all the way through, it alternates between gripping and perplexing, with lines not always landing and the different plotlines not as tightened and streamlined with one another as they could have been.
But what the film does accomplish as a common thread across everyone’s arcs, even as they are all off in different situations, is challenging the characters’ preconceived beliefs and notions of right and wrong, through continuous situations where the “rightness” or “wrongness” of their actions is based on their own point of view, and what they perceive to be the right course. Rose sees Finn as a deserter, but Finn sees that he’s just trying to help Rey. Poe thinks he’s being a hero, but to Leia he’s being reckless and thoughtless. Poe and Holdo are both trying to save the resistance but are at odds with each other because each is approaching the situation from a different perspective. In Canto Bight everything looks beautiful and glamorous, but Rose then points out its underlying corruption. DJ demonstrates on multiple levels how good and bad are often mixed up together.
And so, too, are the Jedi. For so long upheld as representing the light side of the Force and everything good that will defeat the dark and restore balance, Luke now disagrees, even as he was once proud to call himself a Jedi. He speaks of their hubris and failure, leading in turn to his own hubris and failure, with Kylo, and thus his belief that the Jedi need to end. Yet by the end of the film his perspective on this shifts yet again.
It gets even more complex with Rey and Kylo, who start out as enemies, Rey hating Kylo, calling him monster and snake, but then finding empathy for him as she sees more of his perspective — he thinks his own uncle tried to kill him. She thought Luke would be her hero, but changes her mind about him and turns instead to Kylo, going so far as calling him “our last hope”. She puts her faith in this man she once hated, joins forces with him against Snoke. But then they diverge again, because Kylo wants to destroy everything and start over — something that, in his view, is a viable “right” path that Rey may really join him on. Rey’s view of him changes yet again; she refuses and leaves.
Was she wrong all along? Was there no light in him at all? Was Luke right? Kylo goes into a destructive rampage, at the end of which he is conflicted all over again, as he watches Rey fly off with the resistance, leaving him alone in the rubble of his rage. What is right, what is wrong, what is real in everything he has believed in up to this point? Isn’t he justified in hating Luke? Did Luke really try to kill him? It’s all just… a certain point of view.
Those infamous words of Obi-Wan’s to Luke: “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” And again: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Obi-Wan’s words might as well be directed at every one of us, as we each cling to our own notions and understandings, about right and wrong, about how things should go, and no differently in the case of Star Wars with a wild spectrum of opinions on how the saga should go, and how much The Last Jedi, or any of the films for that matter, do or do not align with that.
This reality is exactly what Luke does find, as he reevaluates and reevaluates and reevaluates the Jedi as a truth so idolized and clung to. The Last Jedi is a development of that very thread, and those very words of Obi-Wan’s. And so yet another expectation is dismantled: For decades the “certain point of view” quote has been something of a mockery in Star Wars discourse, Obi-Wan’s poor excuse for lying to Luke; yet The Last Jedi spends two hours qualifying it.
Obi-Wan’s words here are really at the heart of the saga. Because even as Star Wars is perhaps the most iconic story about good vs evil, what it is about more than anything is the murkiness and grey areas that we fall into between those two things. To be sure: there is clear distinction between good and bad, light and dark. But not everything that appears “good” is always entirely so (the Jedi) and nor everything “bad”, hence: redemption being an integral theme of the saga. Vader is the ultimate villain, but even he can come back to the light. And this is the whole point of making an entire prequel trilogy to literally explain Vader’s “cool motive”; to give us the story from his point of view; to expose the hubris of the Jedi and their contribution to Anakin’s downfall. As it culminates in the final showdown between him and Obi-Wan, Anakin declares, “If you’re not with me then you’re my enemy!” To which Obi-Wan responds, “Only Sith deal in absolutes.” And this is his saddest irony, because he has written Anakin off — absolutely — from having any light left in him.
“I have failed you, Anakin. I have failed you.”
“I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over!”
“Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!”
“From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”
“Well, then you are lost!”
All of this, their final deterioration, is a literal “you’re the bad guys/no you’re the bad guys!” argument, each mired in their own point of view. Not unlike, really, the state of real world social and political discourse, the endless back and forth, the mental blocks of all our preconceived notions and paradigms, the loss of nuance and empathy, especially with the rise of power and greed…
Anakin has been tragically misled and manipulated by Palpatine, but also driven to desperation as a result of circumstance dealt to him by life and exacerbated by the Jedi and their dogmas. He and they clashing with one another, each with utter stubbornness, until it all falls apart and they are all left broken in one way or another.
Obi-Wan failed Anakin, yes. Not simply because Anakin fell to the dark or because the Jedi Order’s own rigidity and hubris helped push him there. But because Obi-Wan then gave up on him. And this is the tragedy of Obi-Wan, whose nature has always been of supreme tranquility and grace even in the face of unspeakable loss, and whose faith in and love for and pride over Anakin, even in the face of the opposite from the Jedi council on which he sits, have been unshaken until this, his breaking point. From there to his own death Obi-Wan is trapped in this belief that Anakin is destroyed and can never come back to the light. But this is only… his point of view.
Luke’s is different. Luke believes there is still light in Anakin, and proves it to be true. Luke swells with this triumph, with the pride of being a Jedi and a Skywalker, his father’s son, and with all earnestness seeks to impart the same to his nephew later on. But when he fails, loses Kylo to the dark side and maybe even pushes him there, leaving him and his Jedi training temple in ruin and flame, he finds himself standing exactly where Obi-Wan once did with Anakin.
The Last Jedi has been praised for “letting go” of the older movies and not sticking to their themes or their “precious” focus on the Skywalker legacy, and in equal turn lambasted for the same. But in reality it lets go of none of that; rather, it brings things absolutely full circle.
Just as Anakin once fell to the dark side through a combination of Sith influence and Jedi hubris, so too does Kylo. Just as Obi-Wan gives up on his student, is devastated and hides himself away, so too does Luke. And as Rey calls out Luke’s true failure here, she is highlighting Obi-Wan’s as well: “You failed him by thinking his choice was made — it wasn’t, there’s still conflict in him.” Where Luke could see this once with Anakin, as Rey does now with Kylo, his inability to do so anymore, like Obi-Wan before him, is down to the compounded horror of repeated history, and the darkness he saw in Kylo to the extent that it brought out darkness in himself.
This is what I wish the film would have fleshed out more, as to offset angry and confused reactions towards Luke “running away” from facing Kylo and the First Order and abandoning Leia and the resistance. Luke’s triumph in Return of the Jedi is not only in finding the light in Anakin and bringing him back, but also in not giving in to darkness in the heat of his anger and the threat of losing all he cared for. For that Skywalker dark streak to resurface in him so many years later, and take over to the degree that he come close to attacking his sleeping nephew: this is what terrifies Luke more than anything. What being around Kylo and facing him might do to himself — on top of being at such a loss now in regards to his understanding of the Jedi way. So much so that he not only retreats to a far-flung hidden island, but also closes himself off from the Force, from all danger of falling into that again. When he sees Rey slip into that darkness without any attempt to resist it, we see that terror come rushing back to him.
Luke saves his father by throwing his weapon aside in a moment of pure light, and then loses his nephew by raising it in a moment of darkness. It’s no wonder then that he throws the lightsaber aside when Rey hands it to him. This is no middle finger to the prior films, no metaphor for throwing out the old to usher in the new: throwing his weapon aside is vintage Luke. The Last Jedi introduces no radical notions with Luke saying that the Jedi need to end, but rather the natural culmination of a saga that has only ever exposed problems among the Jedi and validated Luke’s judgement over his mentors’. He has tried to follow the Jedi tradition and ended up in the same devastating wreck as Obi-Wan, and worse. Once proud to be a Jedi, like his father, his viewpoint now shifts as he grapples with the viability of the Jedi way. There is more to the Force and the light than just the Jedi, he tells Rey, trying desperately to impart to her a more holistic understanding of the Force.
And this is where the legend and legacy of Luke, and the Skywalkers, is anything but overturned in The Last Jedi.
Luke is the freeborn harbinger of light in the face of his father’s life of utter turmoil and darkness under the thumb of new masters at every turn, from being enslaved as a child, to indoctrination under the Jedi masters, to serving the Emperor until a brief few moments of liberation just before his death. The most heartbreaking line in the entire Star Wars saga, to me, is in Return of the Jedi, when Vader says to Luke, “The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.” This assumption that Luke must have some previous master that the Emperor will now replace, for Anakin has not lived a day in his life without a master. But Luke has not lived a day in his life with one. Anakin’s final triumph is in his children escaping that cycle.
In The Last Jedi, Anakin’s tragedy is reflected at every turn: In the slave children on Canto Bight, and the exploitative fathier races echoing Anakin’s slaveowner endangering him in podracing as a child; in Kylo Ren, “the frightened boy whose master had failed him”, the “child in a mask”, torturedly kneeling before a manipulative master before finally mustering the courage to turn on and slay him (lightsaber through the midsection, mirroring the way his namesake, Obi-Wan, killed a Sith lord once before); and in Rey, born to obscurity and hardship on a desert planet, desperately searching for her place in the world.
After all, Anakin was no one once. And from the child on Canto Bight looking to the horizon in search of hope, to the Jakku scavenger girl, to the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, everyone is part of this story, and has a part in the balance of the universe, of the Force.
And so when Luke tells Rey, “I failed. Because I was Luke Skywalker. Jedi Master. A legend.” Everything she has come here wanting him to be, this is his ultimate legacy: Being the one to intuit the pitfalls of the cycles of the past, learning from all of his and the Jedi’s failures, and genuinely understanding what it means to bring balance to the Force, a sense of balance that he so urgently seeks to impress on Rey. That it doesn’t rest on any definition of the Jedi or what the Jedi have been, and ultimately, seeing in Rey instead what the Jedi can be, through her. And without the need for any Jedi master over her, preaching of the old ways, although she may find lessons and value in those texts now in her possession. A new point of view, for a new generation, for a new future. Just as Luke once was when Obi-Wan passed the baton to him, clear-eyed to what his old mentor was not. And deeply resonant with our real world needs for new leadership and paradigm shifts in the face of broken institutions and an old and tunnel-visioned generation in power. Luke represents the bridge between one and the other, the leaders who pave the way for our generations to follow, and build and grow.
“The galaxy may need a legend. And I need someone to show me my place in all this,” Rey responds to him. In the end, Luke does this for her, and sure enough for the galaxy as well, as he imparts to her not what she expected but what she didn’t know she needed from him when she sought him out. And further when he surmounts all of his own demons and confronts Kylo through Force-projection, and proclaims that he will not in fact be the last Jedi.
One of the saddest obfuscations of this film is the reading by some of this scene as weakness from Luke, because he doesn’t physically show up and engage in a badass fight with Kylo. What this fails to see is how much what Luke does here takes immense strength and conviction. Not just on the level of the absolute feat of channeling the Force in such an unprecedented way, but also in the restraint of not engaging in a fight, which is the very distinction between him and Kylo, who has just manically launched the full force of his military firepower at the mere sight of Luke. In the end, this Force-projection does more to unsettle and devastate Kylo than anything else Luke could have done. “Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you,” Luke smiles, echoing Obi-Wan’s serene farewell to Anakin all those years ago.
And this lack of engagement through violence is, again, vintage Luke: Just like his refusal to fight both his father and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, which was then as it is now, part of Luke’s active struggle against his own inherent impatience and volatility, inherited from his father; laid bare in the original trilogy and having shaken him once again in his last altercation with his nephew. And though it is another instance of The Last Jedi doing things too on the nose, the most mocked line of the film, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love,” is a direct allusion to this: Luke won against the Empire exactly by refusing to fight and give in to hate, and instead saving his father who he loves.
And then Luke is gone, with — as Rey senses — peace, and purpose. Purpose that she now carries, forward, a new hope.
“Let the past die, kill it if you have to,” Kylo entreats Rey at one point, which only further pushes her to abandon what faith she might have had in him. His twisted way of looking at things is exactly what The Last Jedi is urging against. It is never about ending or letting go of the Jedi or the Skywalkers or the past. It is only ever about learning from their failures in order to move forward.
From Luke’s larger arc, to Poe’s subplot of learning from his rash mistakes and at last urging his fleet of speeders to retreat from a suicide mission in direct contrast to how he lead a similar situation in the film’s opening, this is the ultimate message of the film. Yoda says it plainly in his brief but vital appearance: The greatest teacher, failure is. And this is the enduring legacy through which the Jedi will live on.