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‘The Last Jedi’ Issues the Same Challenge to Its Fans and Characters

Is it more important to hold onto the world’s iconic symbols, or to allow a new generation of totems and heroes to represent their values?

Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Luke’s deepest, darkest fear in The Empire Strikes Back is becoming his father. For Rey in The Last Jedi, there’s nothing scarier than being alone. Poe fears giving up the fight. The dino-nuns fear that Rey will crush them with a boulder. Old Luke fears failure. BB-8 … well, BB-8 has no fears. But the latest episode also revealed the fears of Star Wars fans, too: They are getting older, and their favorite story isn’t quite the same as it used to be.

There is no shortage of complaints on where the movie went wrong. The casino scene was too long. Snoke died too soon. Luke was an asshole. R2-D2 and Chewbacca were barely in the movie. The Force can’t turn Carrie Fisher into Mary Poppins! Porgs are just a scheme to sell toys. What if every rebel pilot just kamikazed at lightspe—[voices of dissent become indistinguishable].

“The world of it is me trying to capture what those movies felt like to me and what they were to me growing up,” writer-director Rian Johnson told The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey on The Big Picture. “So I guess first of all everyone’s going to have a slightly different interpretation of that.”

Much of the criticism is linked to The Last Jedi’s break from the norms and mainstays of the original trilogy, but Star Wars has never been about maintaining the status quo.

Star Wars has always been challenging,” Bill Slavicsek, author of A Guide to the Star Wars Universe, told me. “It broke the mold of what a movie and space fantasy was back in ’77 and ’80 and ’83. That’s always been part of the property. I think anything that’s good should challenge us a little bit, whether it’s challenging our expectations … you just don’t want comfort food. We can get that elsewhere. Star Wars is mythology. And mythology can and should have a deeper purpose.”

Kylo Ren’s “Let the past die; kill it, if you have to” line has become shorthand for The Last Jedi’s mission statement. From the cast to the plot structure to the new uses of the Force, the franchise has been altered by the corporate overlords who want to maximize brand appeal and sell as many tickets and new toys as possible. Yet if you listen to Johnson, The Last Jedi isn’t about killing the past—it’s about saving parts of it.

“If you think you’re leaving the past behind or cutting it off, you’re fooling yourself,” Johnson told Slashfilm. “The real way to move forward is ... by realizing what you take and what you leave from the past, not holding onto it too closely.”

In The Last Jedi, characters are forced to choose what to leave in the past, and what to take with them. The brilliance of the movie is that the same dilemma—what lives on, and what must change—is posed to the audience, as well. It’s a comment on the challenges of world-building and franchising, and how to tell a story that is surprising and vibrant. But it is also an exploration of what it means to be a fan, and what happens when the art we love is separated from the moment in which it was consumed.

Kylo Ren isn’t Darth Vader, but he doesn’t need to be. “There's a complexity and a kind of emotional vulnerability there, but … he's still an absolutely despicable guy who you hate coming into this because he killed Han Solo,” Johnson told The Ringer. Our new antagonist leaves behind the familiar imagery of Vader—the mask, the voice, the unpaid internship—because there’s no need for a mask that isn’t scary, nor a master when you’re the main attraction. By leaving behind the symbols, he becomes the true villain.

Rey traveled a long way to hand Luke his lightsaber at the end of The Force Awakens. The reuniting of a Jedi and his blade was so suspenseful that it served as the two-year cliffhanger after The Force Awakens—but when we return to this moment in The Last Jedi, Luke tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks away. Rey is just as confused as we are. She frantically whips her head from the lightsaber to Luke and back again. The exchange lasts only a few seconds, but her confusion encapsulates the challenge characters face throughout the movie. The Last Jedi forces its core players to make hard decisions about what to bring and what to leave behind.

Our introduction to Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose shows her sobbing and holding a necklace, which matches one that belonged to her sister, who died in the movie’s opening sequence. Moments later, Rose meets Finn. Rose is so starstruck from meeting a rebellion “hero” that she can barely speak. But when she realizes he is deserting the Raddus, Finn the Rockstar and Finn the Person are put at odds, and Rose has to choose between them. She stuns him to keep him on the ship. Later, Benicio Del Toro’s DJ asks Rose for her necklace as a down payment for his smuggling services, and Finn objects. “You have no idea how much that means to her!” Finn says. But Rose barely hesitates before tossing the necklace to DJ. Forced to choose between the signal and the signifier, Rose decides the necklace only represents her sister if she is willing to sacrifice it. The common thread among these choices, from Ren to Rose, is to prioritize carrying the flame, even if the price is the spark that started it.

Unlike other characters, Luke Skywalker’s struggle is that he is the symbol. He’s An Old Hope for lifeforms across the galaxy, but when we first see him in The Last Jedi, he has chosen to leave himself behind in the past.

“You don't need Luke Skywalker,” he tells Rey. “You think I'm going to walk out with a laser sword and take down the whole First Order?”

A legacy of Jedi failure––from the disintegration of the Republic to the creation of Darth Vader to turning Ben Solo to the dark side––has left Luke disenchanted. The best comparison here isn’t to another character, but to Star Wars fans themselves. Scarred by the prequels’ failures, many are as reluctant to trust another Star Wars trilogy as Luke is to trust another Jedi.

Rey leaves Ahch-To, and Luke goes to end the Jedi religion once and for all by firebombing the tree which (he thought) contained the sacred Jedi texts, only to hesitate at the last moment. Yoda’s ghost burns the tree down and lets out a cackling belly laugh.

“So it is time [for the Jedi to end]?” Luke asks.

“Time it is—for you to look past a pile of old books,” Yoda says, literally knocking some sense into his pupil. “... that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess. Skywalker, still looking beyond the horizon. Look! Here! Now! Beneath your nose!”

As Johnson told Uproxx, this scene is the pivot point for Luke:

The Last Jedi is Luke’s journey back to taking on the mantle of the legend of Luke Skywalker, basically—something he had rejected as being unhealthy for the universe. And him coming around to realizing that the galaxy needs this—‘I need to be the legend they need me to be,’ and taking that on his shoulders.”

Just as passing on the Jedi religion isn’t about old books, passing on Star Wars fandom isn’t about the original movies. Look past the pile of old VHS tapes and DVDs, because like Rey, the new generation of Star Wars fans already possess the essence of the sacred texts. Anyone who wants to watch the original movies can stream them online. To become a new generation of fans, they need fodder for their own nostalgia.

As Luke and Yoda watch the tree burn, Luke realizes he needs to spark the next fire. The Star Wars movies, just like the Star Wars past, will always be there. But a new generation of fans carrying the torch is not a guarantee. Disney has at least five more movies in the works, and fans must decide whether they want the symbols or the spark to survive.

“We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda tells Luke. “That is the true burden of all masters.”