The Last Jedi’s Balance of Nostalgia and Progress

The Last Jedi’s Balance of Nostalgia and Progress

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is a divisive film, to say the least. Many consider it “childhood-ruining,” while positive reception commemorates a rejection of nostalgia and subversion of fan expectations. However, the film is not the anti-nostalgia manifesto many believe it to be. It celebrates the beloved strengths of the series while reconciling its faults and looking to the future because, just as Rey learns, everything is a balance of extremes.

Past and future collide not only through the events of the film and its characters, but the sequel trilogy’s metanarrative on Star Wars fandom as well. The Last Jedi continues how in Episode VII: The Force Awakens the new characters connect with established characters, objects, and concepts like fans of the franchise would. It all comes to the forefront with the story between Rey, Luke Skywalker, and Kylo Ren on navigating the past, present, and future.

Of course, this post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi.

By the end of The Force Awakens, Rey rides her hope on Luke Skywalker based on the legends the audience knows as the original film trilogy. She extends Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, and all the history it carries, to him. Rather than open on that moment, The Last Jedi turns to how even when the Rebellion’s success against the First Order comes at the cost of lives. Eventually Luke takes the old lightsaber, only to toss it aside. The solution to defeating the First Order won’t come so easily: Luke has sworn off training Jedi, just like his master Yoda in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Supporters of The Last Jedi are quick to point out the similarities between it and The Empire Strikes Back as (initially) lambasted darker sequels to optimistic favorites. After The Force Awakens “very consciously tried to borrow familiar beats” of Episode IV: A New Hope according to director J. J. Abrams, it makes sense the parallels continue. Both films involve physical separation of the main characters across their missions, reluctant Jedi training in a remote location, questions and revelations of identity, temptation to darkness through hastiness, detour to a lavish location, and heroes downtrodden but hopeful by the end. Though The Empire Strikes Back was criticized for having “no plot structure, no character studies let alone character development, no emotional or philosophical point to make” when it was released, the world recognized it as a work of art over the years. Maybe history will repeat itself. Like The Force Awakens with A New Hope, The Last Jedi lovingly incorporates elements of The Empire Strikes Back with its own spin.

However, The Last Jedi has plenty in common with the more crowd-pleasing Episode VI: Return of the Jedi too. Both have physical separation of the main characters across their missions again, three-way confrontation in a throne room, attempt at redemption from evil, Luke stopping himself in a moment of bloodlust, death of a mentor figure, and even marketable alien critters. On an emotional level, The Last Jedi follows screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s philosophy that “the movie has more emotional weight if someone you love is lost along the way; the journey has more impact.” Return of the Jedi wouldn’t be the same without the loss of Yoda as Luke’s master and only remaining Jedi, and The Last Jedi follows suit from Paige’s stage-setting death, to Holdo’s heroic sacrifice, and of course to Luke becoming one with the Force. The Last Jedi manages to pay tribute to two original trilogy episodes at once (which leaves room for more originality in Episode IX), while creating something unique.

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Parallels to original trilogy episodes aren’t are only callbacks to Star Wars past, either. R2-D2 prods Luke by playing Leia’s “you’re my only hope” message, Yoda is puppeted by Frank Oz rather than being computer generated, Luke watches dual suns as John Williams’ “The Force Theme” plays, and more. The icons of the original trilogy, like Anakin’s lightsaber and the Millennium Falcon, are inherited by the next generation and work in tandem with the story. The respect for Star Wars history nearly crosses into “fanservice” levels, not anti-nostalgia. That history includes the prequel trilogy, by addressing the corruption of the Jedi Order that created Darth Vader and bringing the three trilogies into a cohesive whole. The Last Jedi recognizes the importance of the prequel trilogy despite its flaws and derision from fans.

Luke and Kylo’s recounts of that night at the Jedi academy, arguably the most critical scenes of The Last Jedi, call back to the history of Star Wars in a more abstract way. The samurai films of legendary director Akira Kurosawa were an influence on George Lucas in creating the original trilogy, and this time the franchise pays tribute to Kurosawa’s Rashomon. In Rashomon, three characters recall the same events in ways that portray the speaker as the most virtuous. In The Last Jedi, Luke frames drawing his lightsaber as a short-sighted attempt to save his loved ones. It’s not unlike when in Return of the Jedi he lashes out at Vader for threatening to capture Leia, then looks at what he’s done and stops himself. Kylo had no way of knowing Luke was about to stop this time, so reacted defensively. As Obi-Wan would say, both accounts were “true, from a certain point of view.” Like the prequel trilogy, Obi-Wan’s explanation of lying to Luke is often mocked by fans, but The Last Jedi incorporates it as a main theme.

Kylo’s point of view self-justifies his reaction of burning the temple and slaying his fellow students, which gets to the heart of the sequel trilogy: what you do in the present in relation to your past is more reflective of your character than your past itself. The Force Awakens introduces this with Finn: how he was raised to be a stormtrooper, but abandoned that life when he realized it was wrong. He learns to be honest about his past, and Paige and Rose find him heroic knowing the full story. No matter how threatened Kylo felt in that moment or how badly Luke messed up, murder and fascism go too far. No matter how gifted or upright he once was, he must be stopped now.

Rey tries to “save” Kylo based on his better past, but it doesn’t work because he’s resolved to ruling the galaxy. Her character embodies the future, as the new protagonist, yet she’s focused on the past. Rey wants to know the ancient ways of the Jedi, upholds Luke’s younger self, reaches for “Ben Solo,” and searches for answers to her mysterious background. Relics like Anakin’s lightsaber and individuals like Luke are sacred to her, and she believes they can be used for the sake of the future. It makes sense she points out Luke saved Vader, since familial connection redeemed him and she desperately forms bonds with others (Finn, parental figures, Kylo, etc.) She sees the positives while Luke and Kylo only see the negative, so of course she takes the Jedi texts. She’ll become the first in a generation of Jedi, with personal attachments setting them apart.

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On the other hand Kylo embodies the past, as the descendant of iconic characters, yet looks to the future. His position is a paradox like Rey, but unlike her doesn’t create anything innovative from the blend. At first he seems to move on from the past, with his Vader aesthetic left behind and forced to find his own identity, but he’s still simply recreating Vader and Snoke’s rulership. (Maybe time will tell in Episode IX, but for now…) He can’t escape or deny his past, since it made him who he is, which results in being unable to kill his mother Leia as much as he wants to “let the past die.” It’s impossible to forget the past completely, because it will always be part of you and there must be balance.

If Rey and Kylo symbolize the future and the past, Luke represents the present. He has become the opposite of his role in the original trilogy, where he embodied the future as “a new hope” and the past through history with Vader. He’s abandoned his past (his family, the Force, the Jedi) as well as the future. By refusing to train new Jedi and planning to die on Ahch-To, he’s in stasis. Impostor syndrome, feeling unable to live up to legend, and survivor’s guilt, blaming himself for the death of his students, have tainted his memories. Luke calls the legacy of the Jedi “hypocrisy, hubris” while others like Rey celebrate them. He’s just like any person who finds themself unable to approach something once important to them when they realize its faults.

Enough has been said about their different relationships to the past, when value of the present and future depend on a certain point of view as well. In the moment, Snoke assumes Kylo drawing his lightsaber on his enemy means Rey and it costs him his life. Poe and Holdo’s opinions on each other depend on the information they have moment to moment, as do Finn and Rose’s. Rey and Kylo receive the same vision of fighting Snoke’s guards together in the throne room, but believe the other has joined their own side. It leads them to collaborate once, but find themselves at odds afterword. Rey takes the remains of Anakin’s lightsaber, while Kylo may assume it’s been destroyed. Perception relies on interpretation and what feelings you bring to it, and how you move forward.

In the end, Luke is able to accept the past (and even embrace it) and progress like Rey encourages. Kylo has been given every opportunity to redeem himself and doesn’t, while Luke does. He picks up the mantle again to face Kylo in the third act on Crait because “the galaxy may need a legend.” However, he doesn’t bring a real weapon because he’s learned from what can happen when he’s armed. The ideal Luke Skywalker does not exist because as Mark Hamill puts it, “reunions are inherently disappointing.” The ideal can only exist as an illusion, but that nostalgic illusion can still “spark” hope in others for what lies ahead. (Or for Kylo, enrage him as much if not more than the real thing.) Therein lies the thesis of The Last Jedi: balancing the past and future by supporting them both–anything but stagnation.

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The Last Jedi navigates the baggage of Star Wars to tell a new chapter externally as well as internally. In Rian Johnson’s words, it begs the questions “what do you keep from the past and what do you not? What is the value of the myths you grew up with? What is the value of throwing those away and doing something new and fresh?” It means not only analyzing the failings of the revered original trilogy, but acknowledging the merits of the loathed sequel trilogy too. Fans may revere classic Star Wars and want to integrate it like Rey, but see issues and consider abandonment like Luke. In the process the film lays problematic elements of the series to rest: biological determinism of Force-sensitivity, undercurrents of white supremacy, the Jedi Order’s doctrine of emotional repression, and more. The sequel trilogy reconciles these with a diverse cast and new thematic directions. Luke explains that “the Force does not belong to the Jedi,” opening the door for anyone in the audience to imagine themself capable of power. “I will not be the last Jedi” finishes the thought: they have not been put to rest, but that anyone can step into their history. Even if things change, it’s still Star Wars. Maybe some fans weren’t ready for that, but Rian Johnson believes “the conversations that are happening were going to have to happen at some point if sw is going to grow, move forward and stay vital.”

We can learn from the mistakes of the past, without abandoning it completely. The Last Jedi has respect for the old more than anything, which is exactly why it looks at them critically. As Yoda tells Luke, failure is the greatest teacher. We don’t have to simply retread the past either, because understanding the faults of previous works and creators is necessary to progress. More and more works have reflected on and deconstructed the flaws of their backlog, from hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity in The Lego Batman Movie to white supremacy and imperialism in Thor: Ragnarok, resulting in the best iterations of the franchise. In the age of reboots, we may as well focus on saving what we love.

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