By Stephanie Rosalyn Reynolds
Now that I’ve said what I needed to say, let’s talk. I think we just need to talk.
I could give a list of reasons why this film, as a main-story Star Wars film, is less than satisfying. I could talk about how the plot seemed juvenile (like if The Phantom Menace had only consisted of Qui-Gon and Padmé looking for parts on Tattooine), how there was just NoT eNoUgH tImE, how I wish they had built up some romantic tension between Finn and Rose before that kiss, and how I was really confused as to why I was weirdly attracted to both Ben and Rey when they were fighting Snoke’s guards. (That last one might be a me problem ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)...
But, I won’t. There’s too much at stake in this installment of the narrative for me to focus on those details. While I think they are incredibly important, and while I think they should be addressed in the next film, I think to dismiss The Last Jedi for these details alone is to dismiss a very important thing they’re trying to do: bring us into a new way of interacting with the Star Wars universe, and maybe - just maybe - show us how to do the same with other, more pressing narratives.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
From the opening scenes of the film, something is very, very wrong. Well, it’s different, and that can feel wrong. Instead of a high-octane scene in which the heroes execute a well-planned strike on the dreadnought, we get a slow clip of a young woman struggling to manually release her bomber payload when her comrades have all fallen, we get to see the determination in her kicking a ladder to free a remote, and we see her cherish a necklace as her life ends in the explosion she creates.
Pilots in Star Wars die all the time. and none of us care. They say, “I’m hit!” and then they go away in a flurry of sparks, then the hero goes in and gets the job done. But this is different. I’m not supposed to watch, up close, someone sacrifice her life to take down an enemy ship, and she is DEFINITELY NOT SUPPOSED TO BE THE SISTER OF AN ELECTRICIAN THAT FALLS IN LOVE WITH FINN.
This is valid. I think we’re allowed to ask, “What gives? Where is all this coming from?”
I have a theory. In my professional life, I’ve been looking at representations of interiority and constructions of identity in postmodern literature. Something I keep finding is that contemporary literature often depicts a breakdown of objective meaning, a deconstruction of established boundaries. This can happen to the boundary between self and other (think Santiago’s season 1 relationship with Captain Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine), between self and other versions of the self (the conceptualization of time in the Netflix series Dark is an exceptional example of this), between binary opposites (Amy Dunne from Gone Girl is both victim and victimizer, and it’s nearly impossible to flatten her character into a categorization of either good or evil).
When this happens, characters often plummet into an obsessive quest to reclaim the original sense of stability offered by their previous ways of thinking, or they content themselves with the fact that the world, and the people in it, are a lot more complex than their old framework allowed. Either way, there’s an anxiety generated with that breakdown that demands some form of response. I see this both in The Last Jedi narrative and in the reactions to that narrative. It broke the barrier between what is Star Wars and what isn’t.
Like the characters who experience this boundary break, we tend to not like this feeling. As a response, we could just flatten the film out, make it easier for us to swallow, more palatable. Various dude-bros have already started doing this, writing dismissive hot takes of the whole thing because it’s something with which they aren’t comfortable. Some dudes actually flattened it so much they edited all the women out. (I’m not even mad about it. It’s so pathetic, it’s funny.)
But flattening a text isn’t just for dude-bros. Even academics like myself like to fit texts into neat theoretical structures in order to derive meaning. This goes for Last Jedi, too:
- Freudian theory - id is dark side, superego is light side, ego is Rey. Rey plunging into the dark side = death drive, don’t @ me
- Lacan - omg when Rey goes to the dark side of the island she sees a mirror and a bunch of different versions of herself so obviously this is a commentary on the imago and the mirror stage
- Feminism - women in the narrative are represented in complex ways, but ultimately it’s up to the love of women (Rose) to tame the self-destructive ego of man (Finn), and that iS A PROBLEM
- Ecocriticism - Luke survived on the milk of thala-sirens and the death of spetan channelfish
- Animal studies - omg look at those fathiers (space-horses) running free
- Thing-theory - ok, but can we talk about the sacred books for a second and also - idk - the entire force moving between humans and objects
- Postcolonial theory - Canto Bight and neocolonialism...discuss.
The best approach, from my perspective, is for the critic - both professional and armchair academics - to open up to the possibilities unfolding in the narrative, to self-orient toward the narrative first, and to think seriously about what the narrative asks of its audience.
The Last Jedi asks us to be comfortable in the in-between. We exist in a moment in which it’s extraordinarily difficult to define things in terms of either/or: either self or other, light or dark, good or evil. We are witnessing a shift in the story, and as much as we’d like to, we won’t be able to go back. We knew this to be the case when Rey emerged from the dark side of the island unscathed, uncorrupted. The Jedi will no longer be synonymous with light, nor will they be the saviors of the universe. Luke is right. To say that the light dies with the Jedi is vanity. The Jedi are subservient to the Force, and the Force is not some special magic given only to the Skywalkers.
No, it has a will of its own, moving now to build the resistance from what little numbers they have.
Notice the boy at the end. He Force-pulls the broom to him and stands at the opening of the stables, looking to the stars. We might never know who this boy is, or his background, or what he will do, but the point is that the Force exists outside the Jedi.
We have to let go of Luke. We have to let go of Han. We will, however painful, have to let go of Leia.
We have to let go of our idea of what the Force is and what it can do. As much as it cannot be contained by the Jedi, it cannot be contained by our understanding of it.
As much as this movie is about the events long ago in a galaxy far, far away, The Last Jedi reflects the current global situation in which we find ourselves. No longer can we construct comfortably our identities without some possible problems inherent to reducing ourselves to a single narrative. Even more difficult it is to construct a single national identity that does not fail in some way to account for difference. As ourselves and as nations we are constantly both/and, and we are terrified of that, but we have to let old things die. I want this next film to show us how to do that, and do it well.
I think what scared Luke wasn’t that Ben had darkness in him. I think what scared Luke was that Ben’s power came from a perfect balance of darkness and light.
I want to see Ben return to this balance, and I don’t want Rey to teach him. I want Finn to become a Jedi. I want Poe to fall in love with Finn. I want the First Order to be destroyed. I want Rose to destroy it. I want Rey to become the most powerful Jedi the Star Wars universe has ever seen, and I want to see her and Ben square off against enemies together again. (Again, that’s probably a me thing, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).
In the end, I want to see Ben and Rey training younglings in the balance of the Force in all its contradictions. I want the love of which Rose speaks to open up possibilities for persistence and resistance, but I want it to be nuanced, complex, and subversive.
The Last Jedi may not have been what I anticipated it would be, but I felt a shift in the universe, and I cannot wait to see what they do with it next.
Stephanie Rosalyn Reynolds is a stereotypical Irish-German writer with a propensity for sarcasm and wit. She spends her time reading, writing, and ignoring her roommate’s cat as he cries for attention. She has a bachelors degree in English language, literature, and writing, and she is currently pursuing her MA in literature at Eastern Michigan University, where she also teaches first year writing classes as a GA.