The Last Jedi and the Sacred Past
“Who are you?”
That was a question asked in the trailers of The Force Awakens. It's a question that persists as the story unfolds in The Last Jedi. It's on the character's mind as much as it is constantly on our own. Who are we?
To answer that, we look back. What choices have we made? What action have we taken? Were we idle? The past holds power over us whether we want to admit it or not. It forces us to accept our victories and failures, and we can do nothing but move forward with those impressing on us.
Interesting that a movie that examines the past as a main theme has fans reacting to it with the past as their shield or sword against it. People hated this; people loved this. It was the best and worst.
For those of you who haven't seen it yet, uh, why have you even gotten this far? The spoilers are coming, so be sure to stop yourself now.
The past is a powerful thing, and for something as big as the Star Wars franchise, the past holds a lot more than just a few hours of films. It holds memories, nostalgia, things from childhoods, and feelings that can't be limited to a single article. Any new Star Wars movie will disappoint someone at this point. The past is at stake. Do you kill it, or do you keep it sacred?
Neither and both.
This new string of Star Wars films have been about honoring the past from the very beginning. They are obviously made by people who loved Star Wars growing up, and the joy of being able to work on new ones seems to show itself directly in their making.
The Last Jedi takes this a step farther and looks at the past as a part of its narrative. Luke Skywalker has made mistakes that haunt him. Rey has awoken a sleeping part of herself and needs to get answers about who she is. General Leia fights for everything that the Rebellion did decades ago that is suddenly crumbling around her. Kylo Ren must deal with his choice to kill Han and face why he turned to the dark side in the first place. Finn must find something worth fighting for and face his impulse to run away. Even new characters like Rose fight for the past they have lost.
The past is as much of a character in this movie as any of the cast.
One of the more surprising elements of The Last Jedi was how Luke and Rey's narrative dealt more with uncovering Luke's motivations rather than Rey training. I love that Luke shares some hard truths about the Jedi and makes a convincing case for why the Jedi Order was a failure. He is in a tough position as the last Jedi that holds the remaining secrets to train future generations, but fears that his mistakes will make more Sith, not more Jedi.
He keeps the original Jedi texts in a place of sacred safety while at the same time tossing his old lightsaber over his shoulder. This is the most interesting version of Luke we have ever gotten out of a Star Wars film. He is a character in deep conflict and wants to avoid the mistakes of his past. There is fault in what he has done too; it's not just him feeling guilty about the fall of Ben Solo for no reason. The prequels tried this line of narrative when Obi-Wan yells that he failed Anakin, but there wasn't much in the movies where we can see how this is the case. Obi-Wan seemed to do just fine, and Anakin fell for his own reasons.
Here, however, Luke is tempted to let visions of the future guide his hand to kill Kylo before he has a chance to bring the destruction to everything Luke once fought for. Did he see a vision of Han dying I wonder? There's some real temptation here for Luke. He has been pushed to reckless action before in The Empire Strikes Back cutting his training short to save his friends based on a blurry vision of the future.
Luke ultimately holds back. He has grown wiser as a Jedi Master, but the damage is done. Ben sees what he thinks is Luke getting ready for the killing blow.
The past is more complicated than this happened or that happened. Many times its something in the middle. Luke first tells Rey that Kylo needed to be stopped and never speaks of the temptation to murder a young Ben Solo in his sleep. Kylo tells Rey that Luke was full of hatred and he did what he had to for his own protection. Later the real story is more complicated about Luke's temptation and resistance of that temptation.
The tricky thing about the past is that it's in motion almost as much as the future. The past is what we make it. The truth can get left behind just as much as the memories and never has a Star Wars film been so complex in its characterization in this way.
Then there's Kylo. He has killed his father and now must take his anger in other directions. Snoke belittles him, taunts him, and uses him. This causes him even more conflict than was already there. Even after what he did in the last movie, this film does a great job showing that there is still some good in him. He is unwilling to pull the trigger on killing his mother, and he connects with Rey, albeit with the intent to turn her innocent goodness into cynicism. If that's not a reference to the too hardcore old fans ruining something good for the new fans, I don't know what is.
Eventually, we discover Snoke was manipulating the entire thing and caused the link between Rey and Kylo. Kylo has to sit there, watching Rey being tortured, and accept that his dark master just used him for his own ends. It's hard to forget in this moment one of Han's last words to Kylo. Snoke wants him for his abilities, and once he has everything from him, Snoke will crush Kylo. It seems this is already coming to fruition.
So, Kylo takes a stand with Rey. Shit, it's one of the best sequences in any Star Wars period. If your heart isn't pumping watching Kylo and Rey take out the red guards, then you fell asleep. The whole scene mirrors the throne room scene in Return of the Jedi as the two new characters take a very different approach to solving the problem. It's almost as if the scene itself is a symbol of how the future of Star Wars will feel like the past but go in totally different directions.
It's here that Rey finds out her lineage. She's no Kenobi or Skywalker. Her parents were just junkers on Jakku selling her off, never to return for her. Her past is a normal one. Well, tragic, but normal in the sense that she has no connection to people we know. She's just a little girl of no importance.
Yet, Rey is becoming a Jedi.
Her past doesn't bind her. Kylo's past doesn't bind him. They can be who they are destined to be, based on who they are now. It's the choices they make that guide their destiny, nothing else. This is the most kick-ass inspiration you could possibly ask for out of Star Wars. Anyone can be a Jedi. Anyone can be a hero.
The original Star Wars started with a farm boy that brought an Empire to its knees. Since then we have been obsessed with Skywalkers, Solos, and Kenobis. All this is a return to the initial hope Star Wars set up in the first place. The power of our past is what we choose to do with it as we enter our future. It doesn't matter who we are or where we come from; we make a difference.
This isn't a destruction of the past or a sacred repetition of it. It's something more. It's a message that one single person has a destiny. That destiny is in their control. There is both victory and failure, but we grow.
It's a force-sensitive boy looking up at the stars and seeing his future, not his past.
You can follow Chris La Porte on Twitter here: @chrismlaporte