Geiger's Culture Counter: We are what they grow beyond
It took 34 years to move away from the colossal shadow of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” was the first to progress the plot forward in 2015, but it wasn’t until 2017’s “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi” that the epic saga was able to escape references and rehashings.
Each modern “Star Wars” installment has been arguably better than the previous. “The Last Jedi” has the same grit as “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” but unlike having the outcome known since that was a prequel, this opens the entire galaxy to infinite plot possibilities.
Note, I will be spoiling scenes from “The Last Jedi” in this analysis. If you haven’t seen the movie and want to, stop reading now and save this column until the credits roll.
With an aesthetic that feels both advanced and ancient, the movie’s central theme is about forging new paths and finding one’s own destiny. It follows the story of a space janitor, a desert scavenger that sees rain for the first time, and a mechanic as they subvert trends and tropes. They’re a generation of war orphans saving the galaxy from more decades of darkness and stolen childhoods.
Finn, the storm trooper turn cloak, is the most obvious example of cleaning the slate. He defied his indoctrination and training in “The Force Awakens” but here he gets closure when he conquers Captain Phasma for good, symbolizing the death of his past.
Luke Skywalker, hiding in the ruins of the first Jedi temple, is stuck in a liminal state between the past and present. He sunk his treasured X-Wing, yet left it within sight, and gives up his sacred texts. Though he eventually submits in helping Rey, he abandoned teaching others and shows us this isn’t the “Star Wars” we’re used to. We’ve seen a master teach padawans before. Director and writer Rian Johnson didn’t need to shows us it again.
Like Finn, Kylo Ren moves away from his old master. He destroys his useless helmet—a fashion choice to look like his grandfather Darth Vader—in an attempt to find his own identity. In the movie’s climax Kylo defeats his mentor Supreme Leader Snoke rather than the captive Rey.
X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron mutinies against Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, despite his demotion and the expectation to atone for his behavior. Every character has some element of themselves they want to change in their personal arcs, adding tremendous development to a movie that has nonstop momentum.
The literal plot of the film is about constant progression, wanting to be out of range of the encroaching First Order’s weapons as much as possible. Each escaping ship succumbing was like sloughing off a legacy established by the earlier films. Admiral Ackbar, made iconic in popular culture though he had limited screen time, dies instantly with little fanfare. Vice Admiral Holdo in turn sacrifices herself when she knows that she is no longer needed. As an old member of the resistance falls, a new fresh-faced recruit steps up to the plate.
“The Last Jedi” also discards expectations set by the movie’s writing itself, thereby tearing Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” to shreds. Rey is just a nobody. There is nothing majestic about her heritage to explain her Force powers. As Kylo Ren says, “This isn’t your story.” Dameron is not a flawless pilot and his unheroic hot-headedness gets people killed. Kylo doesn’t ultimately turn to the light side as telegraphed and because Snoke is dead his identity remains a mystery. Holdo doesn’t act like Leia Organa, showing that leaders aren’t perfect, yet she should have been trusted because her plan was sound. Luke doesn’t singlehandedly stop the First Order. If he did—and if of those beats went as smoothly as anticipated—it would have been hollow wish fulfillment and deus ex machina.
Yet the movie doesn’t blindly toss away the past without thought. Instead, it honors the shoulders of giants on which it stands. When Yoda says “The greatest teacher, failure is,” the wise master is both addressing Luke and saying that “The Last Jedi” was only possible due to the franchise’s past stumbles. The same can be said when Luke tells Leia “No one is ever really gone.” We can rewatch Luke on Tatooine or Carrie Fisher free Han Solo as Leia though she passed. Additionally, Dameron learns when to abandon the mission because of past casualties and Kylo still looks up to Vader, showing the film is both reflective and trailblazing.
There can’t be Jedi masters or classic flicks without them doing something right initially. The original farm boy, princess and smuggler heroes were misfits too. Now, the franchise can evolve. Like Yoda says “We are what they grow beyond.” It may not be Rey’s story, but its everyone’s story. The people, their heart and passion, chart a new path to hope. Whatever happens next, whatever fiery adventure is the result of this newly lit spark, I’ll be there.