Revisiting The Last Jedi

I hadn’t watched The Last Jedi since I saw it in on opening night and met it with a resounding ‘meh’. According to my diary entry from that night, it was “fun” and I loved Rose, but I was disappointed about how Rey’s plotline was tied so closely to Kylo Ren and his, and I quote, “weird dumb creepy shippy vibes.”

Well, since I saw The Rise of Skywalker, I’m apparently into those “weird dumb creepy shippy vibes” now, so I was intrigued about what I’d find in my rewatch.

To my surprise, on second viewing, I found The Last Jedi… well, remarkably like The Rise of Skywalker. I feel like that’s a heretical thought to have, since it seems on the internet you’re supposed to either LOVE The Last Jedi and HATE The Rise of Skywalker, or the other way around, but in the end… I had similar thoughts.

The Last Jedi has the edge with its opening. The start of The Last Jedi is absolutely fantastic. It left me wondering why I hadn’t loved this movie before, and feeling certain that this time around, I was definitely going to adore it. But after that, the film peters out somewhat. Now that I know that Rose and Finn’s plotline isn’t actually going to affect the rest of the story in any major way, I found it difficult to be engaged by it. What did it matter? This whole story arc could be lifted out and it would change absolutely nothing, except maybe Captain Phasma would still be alive. Their main function was to give Poe something to rebel about, and even that is shaky at best.

It was dissatisfying. The Force Awakens hooked me, despite having seen it many times before. I’d forgotten a lot of the details of The Last Jedi, and I still found myself reaching for my phone in the middle.

Which is disappointing, because this time around, there were elements that I really, really loved.

Not necessarily the Kylo Ren/Rey force-bond stuff. I remember, when I saw this for the first time, being torn. I wanted a great story arc for Rey, but one didn’t seem to be appearing for her beyond her connection to Kylo Ren, so part of me just wanted the movie to go full trashy shippy… it wasn’t the movie I’d wanted when I went to the theater, but at least it would be fun. And despite coming into the movie with quite a different perspective on that entire arc this time, I still found most of the force-bond scenes to be… strange. Weirdly done. I liked the idea of them, but the execution was almost cheesy feeling. It could have been more.

But this time, I definitely found Rey and Kylo Ren’s plotline’s the most compelling, and the entire showdown in Snoke’s throne room — which I remember enjoying a lot the first time — was phenomenal. If the entire movie had been like its start and its conclusion, I would have been absolutely blown away.

I’ve seen The Last Jedi described as a spit in the face to old Star Wars fans, throwing out everything that came before and insisting we start anew. And in my opinion, that is absolutely, 100% not even slightly the message that The Last Jedi is trying to send. The Last Jedi is full of characters struggling with the past in different ways, and every single character who tries to ignore or erase the past ends up wrong. At the movie’s start, Luke throws his lightsaber away, and later he’s willing to burn the Jedi texts, to end the Jedi once and for all. But in the end, it’s the invocation of his legend, and his use of his force powers, that not only saves the remnants of the Resistance but also inspires more people to join the fight.

In fact, Luke’s attempt to sever himself from the past only forces him to repeat it, the visual echo very clear when he finds Rey with Kylo Ren and destroys the building around them in his anger, like the area around him was shattered when he first fought Kylo Ren. He fights another apprentice, and fails them again, because he is so unable to move on from the past.

On the other hand, we have Rey, still desperately clinging to the past. Kylo Ren tells her she has to let go of all her past hurt, that meaning won’t come from there, and as cruel as he can be, he is right. She has to reckon with the idea that she’s ‘nobody’ to look ahead and become the somebody she was always destined to be.

And then, of course, there’s Kylo Ren. He attempted to sever himself from his past by killing Han Solo, and as Snoke makes clear, it hasn’t worked out at all like he hoped. And how could it? Even in the moment that Snoke tells him he’s still clinging on to those old feelings, he taunts him about how he recruited him simply because of “the potential of your bloodline,” to be “a new Vader.” Now, he says he fears he was mistaken. So Kylo Ren is simultaneously told that he must cut himself off from Ben Solo entirely, and also told that his only worth is the power that comes from that family.

Although Poe’s story arc about recklessness and the true meaning of heroism is compelling, and Rose and Finn’s story is watchable and intriguing if not all that impactful on the overall story, I think Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren are the three most important characters here. They are all struggling with their fear of the past, in very different ways, and they are all crippled by it. But while Rey and Luke are able to face those fears by the end of the movie and grow, Kylo Ren cannot. He kills Snoke and fights his guards with Rey, and for a moment, everything between them hangs in the balance. But he is still obsessed with severing himself (and now Rey) from the past completely, and that throws him back into the Dark Side.

On reflection, I really like Kylo Ren’s storyarc through this movie, and especially the way that it ends. The movie goes to great lengths to humanize him, to show that he is a villain, but to also let us see how he thinks and how he ended up in the place that he did. We can see it, too, in his decisions at the end of the movie, even if Rey cannot. I think, based on The Rise of Skywalker, that both Kylo Ren and Rey were seeing different elements of same future when they touched hands — they would join forces, as Ben saw, and he would turn back to the light, as Rey saw, just not on the schedule or in the way they expect. But I’m intrigued by this idea that Kylo Ren is, in a way, looking for belonging after being brainwashed by an evil Sith lord as a teenager and then his uncle literally trying to kill him. I’m intrigued by the idea that, from Kylo Ren’s perspective, he reaches out to her in the throne room. He reaches out to her, and she rejects him, leaving him unconscious on the ground. The key moment in this scene for me isn’t when Kylo Ren tells Rey to join him, but what he says a moment later: “please.” The way he says it, he’s almost begging. Please join me. Please don’t leave me alone. And then she does. So, in his fury and pain at being found wanting again, he lashes out against the Rebellion, against Luke, and against any part of him that sympathized with her.

(I’m not, as a side-note, saying that Rey is wrong for refusing and then getting the hell out of there. But I do think it’s an interesting character moment and an interesting arc).

But, as we see in his last shot in the movie, he cannot sever himself from the past. He’s as wrong to attempt it as Luke was. He finds Han’s dice on the ground of the rebel base, a reminder of everything he’s been trying to forget, and although they fade away, only ever there through the Force, we hear in the voiceover that “no one is ever really gone.” Kylo’s journey is not finished. The Jedi texts are safe on the Falcon. The story continues.

The key, The Last Jedi seems to say, is in the balance. The balance in the Force, balance between accepting the past and looking to the future, maybe even the balance between the Light and the Dark. Luke is afraid that Rey will fall to the Dark Side, but it’s not necessarily temptation from Kylo Ren that’s causing it. She fights furiously, both against Luke and later against Snoke’s guards. She screams with battle rage, kills those attacking her, and even attempts to kill Luke with her saber in the heat of the moment after he finds her speaking with Kylo Ren. She choose the light side of the Force, and is declared the Last Jedi, but perhaps, the movie suggests, it is not as simple as that. Perhaps she will fall to the Dark Side eventually. Or perhaps the answer is not as straightforward as dividing people into light and dark. Perhaps that’s main purpose of Finn and Rose’s story arc — that you can’t easily split things into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

When I first saw this movie, I was frustrated that Rey got pulled into that old familiar story trope of the female character trying to save the male character from himself. I was especially frustrated that she seemed to become incredibly naive in order for it to happen, insisting that Ben is good and that flying onto a Star Destroyer is definitely going to have a positive outcome. But I’m seeing it differently this time around. Now, I think her naivety there makes sense. Like Kylo Ren, all Rey wants to belong. She wants to save the Resistance, but she also desperately wants someone who understands her, and through the Force Bond, she feels that that person could be Ben Solo. And I don’t think that’s a weakening of her character at all that she feels that. She was rejected by her parents. Her replacement father figure was murdered. Luke keeps refusing to train her and generally rejecting her. And here is the universe, the Force itself, connecting her to somebody and trying to send her a message about them. I think it makes perfect sense that she thinks this must be the answer, and that she feels a deep sense of betrayal, as deep as Kylo Ren feels about her, when she turns out to be wrong.

What I’m saying is, there’s good stuff here. Really good stuff. The beginning and the ending are fantastic, and I’d pick a few scenes out of the middle to keep too. But even though The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker had different writers and directors, I can see a lot of similarities between them. Strong ideas, strong thematic stuff going on, but a lot of unnecessary stuff crowding it. I love the ideas; I’m just not so convinced on the execution.

What do you think?

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