When I came out of my first showing of The Last Jedi, I was ready to say I liked it. By the time I exited my third showing of The Last Jedi, I was ready to say I really liked it. I was still struggling to figure out where to place this film in my larger emotional and intellectual experience of the Star Wars Saga but I was able to say, as a film, The Last Jedi was well done. I was not ready for the heatedly divisive storm that followed. As someone who needed a year and a half to be able to like The Force Awakens, I certainly appreciate the pain many feel over this film. I’m just a bit surprised, given reactions to The Force Awakens, this film caused such an uproar. Anyway, I’m finally ready to delve into my thoughts and feelings on The Last Jedi. Be warned MASSIVE SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. So if you haven’t seen it, I suggest you come back and read this once you have.
To begin, as regular readers may surmise, I can overthink things. That’s just how my brain works. Given how long I’ve lived in the world of Star Wars – not just emotionally but also academically – I needed time to get my head around this film. So I saw The Last Jedi three times in the first eighteen hours it was open (a personal best!) and then twice more over the next three days. What can I say? I needed several viewings and much time spent in quiet contemplation to begin to process this. My family and friends have teased me but whenever anyone’s asked me what I thought of the film my honest reply is, “Well…that’s a complicated question.”
I’ve come to fully realize something that should have been obvious with The Force Awakens yet it’s taken me years of consideration (with three films, a new cartoon show, and many novels and comics) to accept. Under Disney, Star Wars no longer serves as mythology. It’s a folk tale and, as such, must be approached with different expectations.
I can easily say this was a wonderfully entertaining film! In The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson gave me just about everything I look for in a fun movie. My first viewing (as well as the subsequent ones) saw me cheering, laughing, gasping, and crying. I was literally on the edge of my seat, pumping my fist in the air, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) battled Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis)’s Praetorian Guards. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite lightsaber battles! Seeing Poe fly around with BB-8 in their X-Wing also made me want to fly an X-Wing more than I have since I was a kid watching Luke in the Original Trilogy! So I was certainly invested in the film on an instinctive, emotional level from the very beginning. Heck, the very first scene had me :). I still chuckle when I think of the “holding” joke with “General Hugs.”
Before I go on, a word about the humor. I know the one-liners were one of the film’s divisive factors. I agree, at times, the humor seemed out of place. But I think it was essential all the same. The Last Jedi is an exceptionally dark film. Without the jokes, awkward though they may’ve felt at times, this isn’t a film for kids. As much as I love Star Wars as an adult nerd I firmly believe Star Wars should always be for children first. Making a grand space adventure, a fairy tale for a new age of children, was Lucas’s goal. He wanted children of the 1970’s to explore classic issues of morality, ethics, and spirituality as he did growing up with 1950’s Westerns. He just wrapped it all in packaging of laser swords and ray guns that go “pew pew.” If these things bother us as adult nerds (the humor in The Last Jedi, Jar Jar Binks, etc.) but kids love them…maybe we need to take a second look at ourselves and who we believe the main audience of Star Wars should be.
Just last week, Hannah and I finished our in-class screening of The Empire Strikes Back. In our discussion that followed, one of our newbies to Star Wars remarked, “I liked it. This was a really funny movie.” You know what? She’s right. It was something, just having seen The Last Jedi, Hannah and I discussed as we watched the film too. We think of Empire as dark – and it is – but there’re also a lot of one-liners and goofy moments with Threepio and Artoo. However, most of us came to Empire as children ourselves or as adults who knew it’s “a classic.” Could that be why we’re more accepting of the humor in Empire than we may be in The Last Jedi? It’s worth pondering.
Returning to The Last Jedi, I appreciated the growth of the (new) main characters. Poe (Oscar Isaac), relegated to a side role in The Force Awakens, shines here. His charisma and humor, coupled with a lesson learned in tragedy, all opened the door to the real growth of a rich character in The Last Jedi and (hopefully!) in Episode IX as well. Finn (John Boyega) begins his version of Han Solo’s journey in the Original Trilogy, deciding who and what he’s willing to die for outside of his own self-preservation. Rey boldly embraces the life of a Jedi while never relinquishing the rage and aggression that help drive her, giving us scenes in this film that beg to be deconstructed and laying the ground work for a complex journey in IX. And Kylo Ren…aaaahh! What do I say?? Watching him purposefully reject the Light for the Dark Side so consistently was haunting and harrowing. I can’t wait to see where he goes in IX.
I loved our newbies too. ROSE!!! I was in love with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) from her very first awkward interaction with Finn. Her passion, moral compass, and vision were the heart of the movie, as far as I was concerned. I adored Vice Admiral Holdo (Lauren Dern) too. Her moment of self-sacrifice was one of the film’s most powerful scenes. I only wish, with Carrie Fisher gone, Holdo could have survived to help lead the Resistance in IX. Benicio Del Toro’s character was brilliant as well. We’re so used to the scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold that meeting someone who really is just out for themselves raises interesting issues to consider.
More than just character development though, I feel Rian Johnson introduced some theological and philosophical points for the viewer to consider. For me this has to be a part of Star Wars and it’s one of the reasons I struggled with The Force Awakens for so long. George Lucas read over fifty books on world religions as well as delving into Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology before he wrote Star Wars to make his story authentically function as a modern myth. I never got the sense J.J. Abrams (handcuffed as he was by Disney expectations and Lawrence Kasdan’s assholian desire to spite George Lucas with the script) really opened the door to this sort of discussion in The Force Awakens.
When Johnson has Luke instruct Rey on the nature of the Force, he has her reach out and describe what she feels. She finds the light, the dark, life, death, peace, violence and the balance between them all. In that space between everything she feels “a Force.” The “a” is so, so, so, sooooo important! It opens the door to theological speculation! Lucas introduced the Force in Star Wars to get kids thinking about what the Divine could be. Who or what is God? What does/can God do? Where do we find God? The Force was never intended to be God but rather to get people – especially children – speculating about the nature of the Divine. This is often lost. We, as fans, live so fully in the world of Star Wars we can forget it’s supposed to teach us about real life and instead focus on what is true in that universe. What the Force is in the stories of Star Wars is always less important than what it makes us consider about God. By having Rey say “a Force” instead of “the Force” Johnson is reminding us, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and “the Force” is just a name for a larger, intangible reality. The door is then open for us to contemplate just what this reality is.
I also love when Luke cautions Rey, “To say if the Jedi die the Light dies is vanity. Don’t you see that?!” One of the brilliant things Lucas does in the Star Wars Saga is give us a fractured and broken Jedi Order. In the Original Trilogy, it’s only Luke himself who fully embodies who the Jedi are supposed to be. We see it when he throws his lightsaber away, refusing to kill his father, and tells the Emperor, “I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Both Obi-Wan and Yoda, for all their wisdom, couldn’t see the potential for Anakin’s redemption in faith and love. In the Prequel Trilogy, despite all their talk of being “keepers of the peace,” the Jedi don’t even hesitate to jump into a war they don’t even fully understand. The Light is more than the Jedi and, in the films, the Jedi rarely fully embody the Light. In a more general sense, this line can open a discussion on religious extremism and intolerance – illustrating the inherent danger of believing you and you alone (or, rather, you and your faith alone) hold the exact truth about God. That mindset has led to so much needless bloodshed, condemnation, and hatred through history. Yet, in reality, the Light (and by extension, God) can be reached through many different avenues.
As a final example, I think it was beyond brilliant – in a series of films all about war – Johnson finally introduced a discussion (and a resounding condemnation (thank you Rose!)) of the sinful horror of the arms trade. All of the Star Wars films have shown us the glory/excitement of war but none have really touched on the human cost (save some episodes of The Clone Wars). The obscenely wealthy on the casino-pleasure planet of Canto Bight make their money through the selling of weapons. They are merchants of death or, as Bob Dylan so perfectly puts it, “masters of war.” In his searing condemnation of those who profit from the building and selling of machines that kill, Dylan sings, “You might say that I’m young / You might say I’m unlearned / But there’s one thing I know / Though I’m younger than you / Even Jesus would never / Forgive what you do / Let me ask you one question / Is your money that good? / Will it buy you forgiveness? / Do you think that it could? / I think you will find / When your death takes its toll / All the money you made / Will never buy back your soul.” In these all-too-short scenes we, along with Finn, look closer as Rose urges and see the ugly horror of this world of careless wealth and privilege bought at the cost of lives.
So, clearly, I enjoyed The Last Jedi. I didn’t walk out hating it, as I felt after seeing The Force Awakens. I like what Rian Johnson has done with our new main characters. I thought it was an entertaining film with something to say and, after five viewings, I know there is a lot in the film to explore and discuss. However, this isn’t Star Wars. I’ve come to accept, with George Lucas gone, it never will be again.
I want to clearly explain what I mean by this. It’s not a matter of hating Disney, begrudging them profit, not seeing my theories realized, or even not enjoying the films. I do enjoy them! Rather, for me, the very nature of Star Wars is deeply tied to the fact that George Lucas intentionally set out to create modern mythology – to tell an ancient story in a new way. As Joseph Campbell, one of the 20th Century’s leading experts on comparative mythology makes clear, a myth is for spiritual instruction while a folk tale is for entertainment. Over the course of six films, George Lucas successfully created a breathtaking example of modern mythology. Yes, his films are fun and can be experienced solely as escapist fantasy. But they hold so much more. George Lucas’s Star Wars Saga teaches deep spiritual lessons. Disney just wants fun movies. The excitement is there. The intrigue is there. They’ve succeeded in making really fun movies! But there is no longer a functional mythic framework in the stories they tell.
George Lucas intentionally modelled Star Wars on what prominent Historical Jesus and Early Christian Church theologian Marcus Borg calls, “one of humankind’s most widespread archetypal stories: the ancient cosmic combat myth.” He continues, “The cosmic combat myth appears in many cultures, ancient and modern, and it takes many forms. The archetypal plot is a story of cosmic conflict between good and evil. In the ancient world, the conflict was between a god (or gods) of light, order and life against an evil power of darkness, disorder, and death.” Borg makes the connection to Lucas’s work directly himself, writing:
In our own time, this ancient myth is the central plot element of the Star Wars movies; the battle between good and evil symbolized in the conflict between Jedi knights wielding light-sabers against an empire of darkness whose most vivid representative is Lord Darth Vader, commander of the ‘Death Star.’ The popularity of the Star Wars saga is due not simply to the stunning special effects, but also to the re-presentation of this ancient story. The series taps into something deep within human memory and consciousness: the awareness of conflict between good and evil and the yearning that good will triumph.
The central feature of this myth is the assurance that, no matter how dark it becomes, good will triumph in the end. Lucas was very conscious of this. Everything, in both his Original Trilogy and his Prequel Trilogy, builds toward and gives power to the soul-stirring conclusion of Return Of The Jedi. Lawrence Kasdan (infamously) hated the ending of Jedi, calling it “wimpy” and tried to push Lucas to take a darker turn, saying the film would have more weight if a beloved character died. Lucas told him, “I don’t like that and I don’t believe it…This is a fairy tale. You want everybody to live happily ever after…The whole emotion I am trying to get at the end of the film is for everybody to be real uplifted, emotionally and spiritually, and feel absolutely good about life.”
For the myth to function as myth the entire narrative must serve this end. The central spiritual truth George Lucas teaches with the Star Wars Saga is the truth of the ancient cosmic combat myth – good will win in the end. Good triumphs. Faith is vindicated. Love redeems. Salvation comes. This is the message of Star Wars. Disney has openly abandoned this core message of Star Wars; they’ve made no secret about it either. In an article for Wired, coming out in the weeks before the release of The Force Awakens in December 2015, Adam Rogers explained, “if the people at the Walt Disney Company…have anything to say about it, the past four decades of Star Wars were merely prologue. They are making more. A lot more. The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets. Let me put it another way: If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first Star Wars film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It’s the forever franchise.” To be clear, if the wars in the stars never end then good never really wins. The lesson is lost. There is always another conflict. This is great for selling movies and entertaining audiences but it’s not mythology. Disney has abandoned the central spiritual message of Star Wars. Returning to Campbell’s definitions, they are now creating a folk tale not mythology.
In addition to abandoning the cosmic combat myth that structured all of Star Wars, there is no coherent message of any kind unifying the Star Wars films of the Disney Canon. One spiritual truth has not been exchanged for another. Rather, the idea of an overarching message has been tossed aside. We see this clearly in the character of Rey. Speaking at the Tribecca Film Festival in 2016, J.J. Abrams said, “Rey’s parents are not in Episode VII. So I can’t possibly say in this moment who they are. But I will say it is something that Rey thinks about, too.” Rian Johnson did give us an answer in The Last Jedi but this may not be the final word on the issue. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly Johnson said, “I can’t speak to what [J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio are] going to do. And there’s always, in these movies, a question of ‘a certain point of view.’ But for me, in that moment, Kylo believes it’s the truth. I don’t think he’s purely playing chess. I think that’s what he saw when they touched fingers and that’s what he believes. And when he tells her that in that moment, she believes it.” Abrams had no answer for who Rey is and where she comes from. Johnson created the story; her parents were nobodies who abandoned her. Abrams and Terrio may do their own thing. Each new writer can tell whatever story they want, regardless of what’s come before. You can make fun, creative movies this way but you cannot create mythology without a clear vision of what you’re saying and where you’re going.
I’m not saying the Disney Canon films aren’t entertaining. I’m not saying they aren’t fun, sci-fi/fantasy stories. Nor am I saying they can’t raise some interesting points to consider or offer lessons to teach (as I outlined above). BUT they are NOT mythology. As such, they are not now, nor will they ever be Star Wars to me. Star Wars has always been more than wizards, laser swords, and ray guns that go “pew pew.” Star Wars is modern mythology, teaching us spiritual lessons about the power of faith, the nature of redemption and salvation through love, and assuring us with absolute certainty that good will always win in the end, no matter how dark it may become.
Disney has abandoned the structure, the meaning, the spiritual truths Lucas so brilliantly wove through his entire Saga because they want a new movie every year. That’s their prerogative and I don’t fault them for it. But I also won’t pretend it’s the same thing or their product carries the weight and purpose Lucas’s films did. Yes, Lucas made lots of money from Star Wars, but profit never came before the message of his stories. Disney has no message, no meaning, no goal outside of making fun movies people will enjoy (and see again and again (and buy merchandise to go with it)). Star Wars was never really about the ships and the lightsabers and the characters – it was about the lessons those characters with the cool ships and lightsabers were used to teach. Those days are gone.
Just as there is nothing set about the nature of Rey, nothing of the nature of Lucas’s characters and the spiritual lessons his films taught are sacrosanct in the Disney Era either. To see this, we need look no further than Luke Skywalker. Mark Hamill delivers a stunning performance in The Last Jedi and Rian Johnson uses Luke’s journey in the film to teach an important lesson about failure – owning it and coming back from it. I believe there’s great truth to what Luke teaches us in this film. I believe those scenes are gorgeously shot and powerfully structured. I think it’s important! However, in using Luke as he did, he abandoned all Luke was in the Original Trilogy. Luke Skywalker’s journey in this film comes at the expense of everything he teaches us in the Original Trilogy.
Luke Skywalker is, in Kierkegaardian terms, the Knight of Faith. For Kierkegaard, the knight, “had faith and did not doubt. He believed the absurd.” In this belief he knows, “Everything is possible spiritually speaking, but in the finite world there is much that is not possible. This impossibility the knight nevertheless makes possible by his expressing it spiritually.” Luke believes when everyone else can’t. In his faith, he can do the impossible.
Even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda – the wisest Jedi Masters we meet in the films – believe Darth Vader is too far gone to save. Yet in Luke’s faith he finds the strength to love unconditionally and, in his love, he finds the road to redeem Darth Vader. In Vader’s redemption, the galaxy finds salvation. This is not the character who buckles. This is not the character whose “instinct” has him ignite his lightsaber and consider killing his young nephew as he sleeps. This is not the character who runs away. This is not the character who gives up hope. Luke Skywalker is the new hope the galaxy needed! Yes, I fully admit seeing Luke so disillusioned and broken is jarring and carries great emotional weight. Yes, I thought this was an interesting narrative angle. A broken, hopeless Luke was something new and I think his character was changed to teach an important lesson. So I do appreciate what was done. But I’ll still affirm this isn’t Luke Skywalker.
So this isn’t Luke Skywalker and this isn’t Star Wars. At least, this isn’t Luke Skywalker and this isn’t Star Wars as they always were. Disney bought Lucasfilm. Disney wants a movie a year. Disney wants Star Wars to never end. Disney doesn’t want mythology. Disney wants fun, entertaining, and (at times) thought-provoking folk tales. That’s their right and I’ve become okay with it. It took a while, but I am. This is a new era with a new type of “Star Wars.” This is the Disney Canon and the rules have changed.
I’ve come to accept, without the creator, Star Wars will never be what it was. George Lucas is a once-in-a-generation visionary, a genius who gave us the dual gift of six brilliant films that also teach powerful, deeply spiritual lessons. He created a new myth, in every sense of the word, and we are all so much better for the truths his Star Wars Saga have imparted. Knowing this age is forever gone, accepting the reality that Disney has no desire to try to follow in this tradition, has made my life easier. I didn’t feel the anger, betrayal, and depression I felt leaving The Force Awakens. Rather, I was able to celebrate all that was right in The Last Jedi. I knew what to expect, in a sense, going in and so I was able to enjoy the film. I go forward excited to see what this new age of folk tales will yield.
Perhaps the idea that Disney could replicate what George Lucas did (had they wanted to try) was always a fallacious dream. When Vonnegut or Dante or Picasso or Michelangelo or any number of iconic artists through history have died or stepped away from their craft, they left behind many who owed creative debts to them as well as many who tried (with varying degrees of success) to follow in the footsteps of these great masters. But no one can ever really do what they did. That’s part of what makes them masters, geniuses, visionaries. The best a Story Group can offer is a pale committee-designed imitation. The best a talented writer/filmmaker can forge is a stirring homage. But it will never be the same. That’s okay.
Meeting the Disney Canon of Star Wars on its own terms opens the door to really enjoy some entertaining, exciting, and innovative films. It allows me to see the fun and the value in this new type of Star Wars as opposed to being lost in my frustrations and disappointments. I’ve done that before. I don’t want to be that fan. I don’t want to dwell in the negative. As I entered The Last Jedi I wasn’t looking for or expecting mythology. For that, I have Lucas’s work. Instead, I was ready for an exciting and entertaining modern folk tale and I greatly enjoyed what Rian Johnson and company delivered.
Okay, so I know I wrote a lot here but if you’re still craving a little more The Last Jedi action, you should read this incredible piece Kalie wrote about Kylo Ren. BONUS! She and Jeff pretty much wrote a second essay in the comment section. Enjoy!
 Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A Life, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016), 179.
 John Caputo, On Religion, (New York: Routledge, 2001), 79.
 Chris Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 126.
 Laurent Bouzereau, Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, (New York: Ballantine, 1997), 35.
 Bill Moyers and George Lucas, “Of Myth and Men: A conversation between Bill Moyers and George Lucas on the meaning of the Force and the true theology of Star Wars,” Time, April 26, 1999, 90.
 Ibid., 92.
 Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, (Columbia Records, 1963), “Masters Of War.”
 Moyers and Lucas, 93.
 Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 71.
 Marcus Bord, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 281.
 Ibid., 282.
 Ibid., 282-3.
 Taylor, 266.
 Adam Rogers, “The Force Will Be With Us. Always. Star Wars and the Quest for the Forever Franchise,” Wired, December, 2015. Accessed December 28, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2015/11/building-the-star-wars-universe/.
 Hilary Lewis, “’Star Wars’: J.J. Abrams May Have Revealed Big Clue About Rey’s Parents,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 15, 2016. Accessed December 28, 2017, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/jj-abrams-reys-parents-not-884438.
 Anthony Breznican, “The Last Jedi spoiler talk: Did Rey learn the truth about herself?,” Entertainment Weekly, December 16, 2017. Accessed December 28, 2017, http://ew.com/movies/2017/12/16/the-last-jedi-spoiler-rey-parents/2/.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1985),54.
 Ibid., 73.