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Do Not Underestimate the Dark Side of Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy

‘The Last Jedi’ solidifies what ‘The Force Awakens’ established: In a war-torn galaxy far, far away, hope has never been a harder sell

Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ends with an epilogue that’s supposed to be inspiring. In the moments after bidding farewell to Finn, Rey, and, likely for the last time, Leia, we see the young casino slave from earlier in the film. Hounded by his overseer, the kid consoles himself by going outside, looking up at the stars, and brandishing a broom like a lightsaber — which he calls to his hand with the Force. On his finger sits the secret Resistance decoder ring that he got from Finn and Rose.

The brief, un–Star Wars–y conclusion reinforces two themes from the film: first, that “the last Jedi” is a mostly meaningless construct, because the Force will find a way; and second, that greatness can come from humble origins, with no immaculate conceptions or Skywalker bloodline required. It also sends the signal that the cavalry is coming, even if it hasn’t hit puberty. The Last Jedi’s closing scene is one of director-writer Rian Johnson’s several unsubtle allusions to hope, all calling back to Episode IV’s subtitle and the last line of Rogue One.

By the end of The Last Jedi’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, though, hope was a hard sell. I was more in the mood for thinking dark thoughts about Casino Kid growing up to be Star Wars Kid, Admiral Ackbar’s last thoughts (So that was a trap, too!), and Chewie chowing down in a Millennium Falcon freezer full of filleted porgs. I liked The Last Jedi, but if not for the smiling little girl in a picture-perfect Rey costume posing next to the poster as the crowd filed outside, I would have left the theater more demoralized than I’ve ever been by a Star Wars movie. (Well, one without Jar-Jar.) For all of Episode VIII’s emphasis on humor and hope, Star Wars’ bleakness has escalated quickly.

Given The Last Jedi’s middle-movie status in this trilogy, comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back are inevitable, just as they were with the gritty Rogue One (which seemed to have its darkness toned down during reshoots). For decades, Empire was the “dark” exception to Star Wars’ typically buoyant tone: the one where the Rebel base is discovered and destroyed; where Luke loses a hand, discovers he’s Darth Vader’s son, and leaps into nothingness; where Han is tortured, frozen, and turned into wall art after being betrayed. With the release of The Last Jedi, Disney has made two-thirds of a trilogy much darker than that — darker, even, than Rogue One, a movie in which every main character is killed. Star Wars has never offered fewer reasons for hope, even as it’s made Hope into an oft-mentioned, uncredited character. In addition to the standard setbacks that Star Wars heroes have always faced, the current trilogy traffics in a different kind of darkness. The threat that The Last Jedi makes isn’t just that its heroes will fail, but that they’ll succeed and evil will win anyway.

Although The Last Jedi borrows elements of Empire — the physical separation between core characters on non-overlapping quests, the Dagobah-esque interlude on Ahch-To, Kylo’s “Join me” moment — the current trilogy’s structure is fundamentally more dispiriting than the original’s good-against-evil arc. To resurrect Star Wars in a way that would appeal to most of the franchise’s fans, Disney needed faces and names that the audience knew: Han, Luke, and Leia. But because drama comes from conflict, the original trilogy’s leads couldn’t come back just to tell us how great retirement is. They had to be facing another existential threat — as it turns out, almost the same existential threat, right down to the Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers, and hateful, helmed relative. That meant untying the bow that Return of the Jedi (particularly in the Special Edition) stuck on top of the trilogy: the Emperor and Darth Vader dead; rejoicing crowds toppling Palpatine statues on the Imperial capital planet; Force Ghosts smiling benevolently amid dancing, singing Ewoks.

The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi unapologetically trample on that implied “happily ever after.” When the former film begins, Han Solo, once a certified hero in a royal relationship, is a seedy, single smuggler again. Luke, who’d completed his training, resisted temptation, and embraced his role as a Jedi, is in self-imposed exile on a backwater planet, cut off from the Force. And Leia, who nearly lost everything on the front lines of the fight, never (according to the EU) got to govern the galaxy she helped free from the Emperor’s tyrannical rule. Instead, she’s still leading a desperate splinter group against a seemingly insurmountable foe. Star Wars was back to square one.

The Last Jedi doesn’t make that picture any prettier. The new movies offer almost no explanation of how and why the Republic allowed the First Order to fester instead of stamping out the remnants of a totalitarian regime that destroyed a damn planet, among other atrocities. The additional details that the Expanded Universe provides about the years between Return of the Jedi and the current trilogy suggest that a combination of cowardice and weariness was to blame: It was easier to appease the enemy or pretend that the danger didn’t exist than it was to keep fighting. Consequently, history repeats itself: Just as the old Senate is dissolved in Episode IV, the new Senate winks out of existence in Episode VII. All we see of the Republic that resulted from the Galactic Civil War is a few frightened faces under a reddening sky as an entire system is destroyed. By the end of The Last Jedi, the remains of the Resistance literally fit inside the Falcon, and the entire galaxy gives its SOS the silent treatment. Thirty years after the Rebellion beat the Empire, Leia’s movement is worse off than it was when white gowns and braided buns were in. If this is what the aftermath of victory looks like, it hardly seems to matter whether the Resistance loses its “spark.”

And then there’s Kylo: a compelling character, but not an encouraging one for those hoping for a happy ending. George Lucas’s span of six movies hinges on the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, Kylo’s grandfather. As tragic as Anakin’s story is (or would have been, with better writing and acting), we understand his descent. Like Broom Boy, he’s born a slave, raised by a single parent on a planet that’s hostile to life. Freed (but torn away from his mother) by Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, he starts his training too old, after he’s formed attachments to Padmé and Shmi; then, though not really ready for the responsibility, he’s elevated early by a first-time teacher who trusts him too much and a wartime Jedi Council that’s been blinded by the Sith. On top of those troubles, he has sex without ever being taught about birth control. It’s not a surprise that he has a tough time in his 20s.

Kylo/Ben, by contrast, has a (presumably) less traumatic upbringing and, in his heroic, Force-sensitive family, the galaxy’s greatest support system. Yet he gravitates to the dark side, too, choosing to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps instead of his mother’s, father’s, or uncle’s. Neither Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams nor Johnson has chosen to tell us how Kylo knew Snoke or how Snoke turned him, which is probably for the best; Snoke is a means to an end who doesn’t have to have a history. (When we get Snoke: A Star Wars Story, we’ll known Disney is out of ideas.) But without a sympathetic backstory to explain his undoing, Kylo breaking bad comes off as an almost inevitable byproduct of being born with hard-to-harness power; given enough Force sensitives, one will end up adding hands-free choking to his or her particular set of skills. And even if Rey redeems him, as Luke did Anakin, it won’t ensure that the next generation of Jedi likes its lightsabers blue. If Kylo can fall so far, then so can the kid in the uplifting epilogue.

Ultimately, even Anakin’s redemption has been rendered almost meaningless by recent Star Wars events. Anakin overcame his long-lasting Sith phase to overthrow the Emperor. But as Luke alludes to in The Last Jedi, the balance that Anakin brought to the Force was fragile. One would think that a balance momentous enough to be mentioned in an ancient prophecy might have lasted at least a few decades. Instead, it was one stable step along a never-ending tightrope.

It’s only in fiction that we feel we can count on tidy endings like the one Return of the Jedi (and even the more teary Rogue One) delivered. That’s why the latest Star Wars trilogy is so dark: It’s looking more and more like real life, where the credits never roll and problems can always recur. The Empire’s resurgence as the First Order isn’t so far from the transition from Kaiser Wilhelm to Hitler or, for that matter, the Nazis to the neo-Nazis who plague us today. Disney’s Star Wars didn’t set out to be the proverbial movie we need right now; for one thing, “right now” feels a lot different today than it did four years ago, when Episode VII’s script was in the works. But the new installments do end up resonating right now, at a time when the country is embroiled in battles that briefly seemed to be behind it. The Last Jedi premiered a few hours after we learned that the FCC had reversed its stance on net neutrality; we all sang “Yub Nub” back in 2015 when that vote went one way, but we know now that the war wasn’t won.

For every surface feint that The Last Jedi makes toward not twisting the knife — Kylo not killing Leia, Rose thwarting Finn’s suicide run, Rey rejecting Kylo — there’s a feeling of futility that undercuts the relief and makes all the “hope” hard to swallow. Empire was great because it gave us a glimpse at a dark time for the Rebellion. The Last Jedi is great because it makes us wonder whether there’s any other kind.