Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Meta Metaphor
[major spoilers ahead]
The Last Jedi hit theaters this past weekend, and inevitably the tidal wave of opinions, reactions and rants washed over this galaxy, ranging from the usual ‘best since the original’ to ‘sucks worse than ever’ and all shades between. Throwing my own personal reaction into the vast sea of criticism for where The Last Jedi sits in the quality of the series’ canon would be like firing a single lone blaster shot into the death star explosion (and really, our review is of course the only opinion you should trust.) However, since I wasn’t actually on The Last Jedi episode to relay this, I thought I’d lay out and expand my (semi-serious) theory on the commentary I believe the film is making. It’s one that we at The Lost Signals formed the basis of during our discussion of The Force Awakens, when the new trilogy began, and have continued to flesh out with each new film. It is thus: the direction the series is taking represents a sort of lens through which the zeitgeist of the Star Wars fandom at large is being examined and challenged to evolve.
First let me be clear and reiterate something I’ve said in the past, both on and off air and in other articles as well: I am neither the biggest Star Wars fan nor a dogged detractor of anything within the franchise. I enjoy the story and characters etc. in a general sense while having reservations about some aspects. In fact, anyone familiar with my sensibilities might know that I have the most affinity for a few of the videogame titles that were attached to the property (specifically Shadows of the Empire and Rogue Squadron, while almost any gamer invariably agrees Knights of the Old Republic is a classically great game regardless of any bias for or against Star Wars itself) versus the cinematic world/mythos. In my younger, formative years, I was more invested in that handful of games rather than any of the films or expansions thereof in other media, such as the tie-in novels and cartoons.
That said, as I matured in my outlook and analytical abilities, and encountered more of the Star Wars fan base and its relation to pop culture at large, I began to become more familiar with certain features and, if not ideologies, then perhaps agreed-upon suppositions of it. Heavily tied into that is the prevailing sense of nostalgia that plagues the current pop landscape, for good or ill, and Star Wars is certainly no exception. Given that, and the fact that this IP is probably one of the most recognized on the planet, it’s ripe for applying what I deem to be the “meta metaphor” idea to it, and specifically to this latest entry.
So let’s look at a few key moments and interactions in The Last Jedi that highlight what I mean by the above. The first of these come from the scenes between Rey and Luke Skywalker, who I hold to represent the newer generation of Star Wars fans and the old guard who hold a candle for the 1977-1983 originals, respectively. In light of this angle, Daisy Ridley as Rey is the audience avatar/surrogate for those fans who see Mark Hamill’s Luke as a legend that they grew up hearing about but don’t directly have the connection to as say their parents, i.e. the older generation do. She arrives at his isolated island planet in search of meaning and her place in the grand scheme of things, naively confident that Luke can both provide the answer and will return to aid the Resistance in (I use this phrase in jest, but it still imparts what I mean) “making the rebellion great again.” She’s heard so much about him (ala how that generation of fans have heard from their relatives how great Star Wars is) that she’s come to see for herself and ask him directly what all the fuss is about.
Here is where the subversions start and the real meat of the “meta metaphor” begins. Almost immediately after their introduction, Luke asks Rey, “Did you think I was going to walk out with a laser sword and face down the entire First Order?” Not only is that a pretty funny line, but it’s almost a rebuke to those die-hard fans who were hoping for that very thing, or something very much like it to happen in this film. He shortly follows that up with explicitly telling her, “This is not going to go the way you think.” Of course in both cases, the character is ostensibly speaking about internal plot-related elements, but they could both be taken as directed to audience members themselves and their predisposed expectations. I don’t think it’s an accident that these lines are delivered by such an iconic character in that particular situation and context. The film is trying to tell that portion of fans that the series is moving on, and they should prepare to do so too. Rey has met her idol, and he’s not exactly living up to the version she had built up in her mind.
Elsewhere but relatedly, newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) encounters Finn, (John Boyega) now established as another “hero” of the Resistance. Rose basically fan freaks out at meeting Finn, before realizing he’s about to leave, immediately disappointing her and perhaps shattering her illusions of who he really is. This is what I imagine the actors themselves must constantly deal with from the well-meaning, but possibly intrusive fans. They want to be polite and thankful for the recognition and hero-worship, but at the same time, they’re just people too, trying to go about their lives. The scene represents the real-world interactions that the faces of the franchise (both old and new) have to endure as well as when fans realize the characters and the actors are not one and the same. Later in the story, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren (more well-rounded this time around) tells Rey that she should, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” An obvious callback to his murder of Han Solo in The Force Awakens, but it also can be taken as the most glaring parallel to what I said above about the film’s attitude toward some of its core audience.
The Last Jedi also sees Carrie Fisher as Leia symbolically pass on leadership to Oscar Isaac’s Poe, who embodies another section of the new generation of fans. At the same time, he respectfully acknowledges her indispensable contributions to the cause. There is even a touch of humor about this earlier, when Leia is about to wish, “May the force be with you” to Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo, at the very moment Holdo is about to say it to her, Leia stops herself and points out, “You go ahead, I’ve said it enough.” Holdo adds a sincere, “...always” at the end of the line as they part ways. It’s a touching send off and in memoriam for a beloved character and the actress who shaped so much of Star Wars history.
Another much-revered character appears briefly as well, to offer thoughts on the state of affairs. Yoda’s force ghost proceeds to destroy the ancient Jedi scripts housed in the temple, remarking to Luke a little tongue-in-cheek how, “page turners, they were not.” A subtle dig perhaps at the debate over the wavering quality and canonical status of the aforementioned tie-in expanded universe novelizations et al. that I couldn’t help but notice, whether it was intended as such or not. It’s another inclusion that could apply both in and out of the actual story, again delivered by an original character who is essentially moving on himself. His final Jedi lesson being, “failure can be the greatest of teachers.” The perceived missteps of the previous films can lead to better things in the aftermath. And as can be seen from the fact that Rey seemed to save some of the books, not everything from the past needs to be destroyed either. One might say a sort of...balance can be achieved.
Lastly, Luke gets a fitting and epic send off through his showdown via force projection with Kylo, before peacefully fading away into the literal sunset (The Last Jedi, if nothing else, has some top-notch cinematography) This rather definitively closes the chapter on his role in the mythology, and sets the stage for Rey and co. going forward. The closing stinger shot of the stable boy who was given the Resistance ring off-handedly using the force is aimed obviously at the youngest generation of burgeoning fans, kids about 7-12 years old, who will soon be in the best position to take up what the film offers, to inherit and interpret the story, characters, and themes anew.
So there you have it. Perhaps in the end this is all merely some Waldo-esque application of imparting a pet theory onto a work that only I can see, but I do believe the evidence is there and I’ve submitted my examples for your approval, make of them what you will. Until next time, I’ll be at the casino on Canto Bight, coming up with more over-analysis for your preferred pop culture property.