The following piece includes spoilers.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde quotes are often considered somewhat corny, but they can be quite poignant at times. In Brian Selznick’s novel Wonderstruck, a stunning work about finding one’s place in the world, the quote is pinned to a bulletin board. Ben, a young boy, will never forget about it. He is still a child and not quite able to grasp its meaning yet, but it sticks.
The stars always have been fascinating to mankind. Despite the fact, that we are nowadays able to fall back on scientific explanations and purge their mysterious shine into something less romantic, something very special inhabits the thought, that we can all look up and see them during a clear night. In that moment, it doesn’t matter who we are, where we come from and where we go. Thousands of us are gazing at the endlessness of existence and time and it calms us, because it makes us realize how small we are. This is not the most soothing thought on first glance, but it also implies that everything is possible and nothing is forever. Human suffering will never end, but we will always have these small moments that make it worth and they will come eventually. We just have to hope.
It’s something inherently human, but when the opressing systems surrounding us get too suffocating, most people don’t even dare to rise their head anymore. That’s the moment when all hope is lost, and people lose their human drive. The drive to make things better, to keep on fighting, to be happy. The complex and intertwined injustices of this world, destroy all the beautiful things that we are capable of inside. The stars become merely meaningless matter, floating through space, exactly like us.
The big picture is always depressing, but we as humans have (mostly) learned to push that aside and focus on the small things, like love and wonder. They make our stay on here worthwhile, and that’s why they are often what drives us into devastation. This world can often feel loveless and devoid of hope. We are too detached from each other to permanently express the love we need ourselves. And yet, we’re all in this together. We are all a part of what makes it so beautiful and worthwhile and terrifying and painful. It’s all inclusive in the experience of human existence. Some of us have the possibility to create something beautiful and inspiring, a spark that reignites the light in people that have already given up to some degree. Even when the spark eventually goes out, we have succeded as soon as we pass it on. That spark is what keeps us alive, because it’s hope for the future and it’s the reason we rebel against the status quo.
It feels very strange to open an essay on a Star Wars film like this.
Star Wars alway meant a lot to me. It stood for a promise of endless excitement, a sense of wonder and adventure. It was a fantasy that disrupted my life, even invaded it through the extraordinarily popular culture surrounding it. But it never managed to really be a cohesive comment, that effectively linked the incidents somewhere inbetween the stars back to reality. Don’t get me wrong, like all art, Star Wars is definitely inspired by the real world, but these parallels were always under a veil of soap-esque distortion and very tame and unspecific.
All art is political, and Star Wars established a complex and organic universe, but it has never been particularly successful at making its politics involving or immediate. It preferred to stick to personal stories, framed with the lense of an operatic, clearly structured escapism, that worked through carrying along the viewer with human emotion. Many movies do that, and many entries of the franchise have been excellent at it. We care about the things that happen, because we care about the main characters. But in the end, the range of emotions portrayed was often sort of restricted. That is a logical consequence of the narrative always having a certain distance to the viewer’s experiences, and having to desert to a broader, safer pathos, which is also the reason why it was and is so successful. It speaks to everyone in a very direct and simple way.
The LastJedi, a jam-packed, exhilarating and enthralling epic, is most of all a revelation, because it disrupts that attempt to storytelling and becomes a clear and inspiring mirror of reality. It doesn’t do that by overthrowing the entire universe and all what it stands for, in the contrary, it boldly and unashamedly uses tropes that it’s last few predecessors have mostly dropped. Instead, it redirects the purpose of the franchise and seamlessly weaves a rich layer of subtext and postmodern commentary into the narrative, that deepens its connection to us, the viewer, because it dares to get more specific and articulative.
There is a refreshing humanity and immediacy to the situation, which is mostly consistent of a sole, long battle between The First Order and the last remaining ship of the resistance. Rian Johnson structures the story more as a mosaic of experiences, rather than a focused arc. The experiences of every character are interconnected, but they all have their individual place and get the narrative space they deserve. The last franchise release, Rogue One, already had a similar attempt to its narrative, and was at its best in that aspect.
The keyword here is consequence, and it reconnects to my comment about the franchise blurring its politics in the past. For the first time, we see the direct effect of systematic oppression, particularly on the hypercapitalist planet Canto Bight, where Finn and Rose search for a code-cracker, who is supposed to disable the First Order’s hyperspace tracker. They are assisted by a group of enslaved children, who train some sort of The Last Guardian-esque creatures as racehorses, clearly against the will of both. These children are at the bottom of that bourgeois-controlled society of weapons dealers, people that are physically detached from the war and additionally profit from it. They obviously have no interest to ever let it stop and live shallow existences only consistent of business and self-amusement. There is no future for these children inside of that system. It’s a very simple and concise critique of capitalism and classism, and it gives the entire narrative much more heft, because we see what exactly is at stake.
Johnson frames the entire film much more explicitly with the theme of injustice, than any entry of the series ever has, and makes it crystal-clear what a contemporary attempt to the traditional dynamics of the Star Wars universe should really be about. The endless fight of the rebels against an oppressive system, supported by capitalism and realized by a violent, autocratic group at the top. The rebels are the ones who look for equality, but it seems to be hopeless. Almost everyone fails or even dies on their immediate mission. But in the end, the oppressed will always outnumber the oppressors, and that’s what gives their fight a perspective. The resistance will always survive, as long as it passes on their most precious weapon. The spark.
The film also diverts the future of the entire narrative of the franchise. Star Wars is not about the Jedi family tree anymore. Yes, Leia and Kylo are still alive, but The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film to successfully tackle the mystery of the force. It’s pushed more effectively into the centre of the narrative than in any franchise entry before. The film does the right thing by not trying to pull another “midi-chlorian”. When Rey goes beneath the island of Ahch-To to find the truth about her heritage, we all expect a twist that reconnects her character into one of the Jedi family trees. We also all expected to find out who Snoke exactly is. After all, fate is a major trope in the Star Wars universe. But Rian Johnson is smart enough to understand that the franchise needs to partly move away from that trope and set out to new horizons, if it wants to stay relevant and exciting.
Rey is a no-one and that’s really important. It establishes that everyone, no matter where he comes from, could become a powerful force wielder. But Johnson also erases the preconceptions of what the Sith and the Jedi are. In his charming cameo, Yoda’s ghost destroys the original scriptures of the Jedi religion, after Luke attempted to and failed. They have both different motivations to that step. Luke is desperate to erase every chance on a misuse of the force. He tries to disable force users to become Jedi, because he is scared that they might eventually cross over to the dark side, exactly as Ben Solo did. Yoda on the other hand, knows that the Jedi religion is something, that has no need to exist in this world anymore. Morals should be conveyed through humanity and love, not, as he puts it, “a pile of old books”.
Ben Solo crosses somewhere inbetween these preconceptions of good and evil. This is also what makes him the best character of the entire franchise. He disrupts the trope of Sith vs. Jedi, in that he doesn’t represent what the Sith stand for, and has far different motivations than them. He doesn’t solely want to destroy Luke because he lusts for power, but because he adapts his idea to erase all force users, and through that eventually all wars. To him, the Jedi are hypocrites, from his perspective, one of them tried to kill him after all. He doesn’t believe in something like “pure good”. This is an allegory on the intergenerational cycle of violence, one of the most complex fragments of human suffering. Like Luke, he sees the force as something dangerous and wants to erase it completely. It’s a misled thought, because destroying everything is not going to work, and in the end, the exact thing he wants to prevent. He is well-intentioned, but what he does is still evil. The force will always be there and strong force users could arise from everywhere.
When Luke says that he will not be the Last Jedi, he is right and wrong. The Jedi scriptures don’t exist anymore. Rey is not what a Jedi used to be, but something new. She follows the light side of the force, but by her own morals and experiences. She comes from nothing and isn’t a part of the Jedi religion. And yet, she is the same as a Jedi, a warrior for the good.
This finally gives the mythos of the force a thematic shape. It’s basically human nature. Strong force users have especially strong personalities and morals. They lean especially strong to one side of the spectrum and are the ones that can change the world, to better or worse. Faith in the light side doesn’t have to be taught by a book. It’s up to every force user to be a good person or not. Rian Johnson explicitely deconstructs religious faith and it’s relationship to morals in The Last Jedi, after decades of these themes being only vaguely touched upon. I could go much more indepth here, but I think the metaphor for misuse of religious canon should be clear.
What happens here thematically is astonishing. The entire cosmos of Star Wars gets reframed into our world and makes this a fascinating, epic and spectacular allegory on the human experience. There is something particularly interesting about the film being consistent of a single, continuous battle, a big situation that all other small ones reconnect to. The urgency of what is at stake increases immensely, and the entirety of this battle mirrors the big war.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…”
The iconic opening sentence of the saga that starts every film, gets a whole new layer of meaning. We are not in space yet, but there wouldn’t be much of a difference in the pain and joy we experience. It doesn’t matter where in the universe, or at what point of human existence we are. The wars are forever and everywhere. In the end, we are all trapped in the devastating nature of human existence.
In the astonishing final scene, every single theme of the film is concluded. After Luke dissolves into thin air, Rey learns to effectively use the force and thus enables the resistance to flee, we return to Canto Bight. A couple of the worker kids are sitting around and listen to one of their own, who retells the events of the film with self-made action figures. A warden disrupts them and the group dissipates. The little boy who told the story, exits the room on his own, casually grabbing a broomstick with the force. After a few strokes, he pauses and turns to the stars. A spaceship flashes by. He wears a ring with the symbol of the resistance. His gaze is hopeful and in the final shot of the film he playfully rises his broomstick.
This is a 4th wall break like no other. The purpose of Star Wars, it’s simple intention in face of the real world, is portrayed directly inside of the narrative. Generations were fascinated and inspired by the adventures and the wonders of that fictional universe. But we are at a point, where that is not enough. Rian Johnson realized, that this generation needs to be inspired for no other than this universe, the one we live in. We are all that boy, gazing into the stars by seeing and reading these stories. They make us realize how small we are in the face of everything surrounding us, even if we actually were in space. The spaceship that he sees flashing by, contains the brave rebels, from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, that now hand the spark over to us.