It’s safe to say that The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, divided the internet a little. It simultaneously is and isn’t a Star Wars movie, in many ways subverting what we think we know about how Star Wars should play out. But one of the movie’s biggest strengths on my second viewing was the theme of failure in that galaxy far far away.
Read at your own spoiler peril. Go see the movie!
The heroes of Star Wars have always been pretty damn competent. Going back as far as A New Hope, Luke gets that one-in-a-million shot. They suffer their failures here and there, especially in Empire, but these are heroes that always rise to the occasion and save the day, make the right choices. When the heroes make mistakes, these are only moments in a movie that ultimately push them forwards. Even Revenge of the Sith gives Anakin and Obi-Wan wins against Dooku and Grievous and has Palpatine succeeding in his grand scheme. But The Last Jedi is a whole movie about every single main character fucking up pretty repeatedly, up until the last ten minutes or so.
In The Last Jedi: Rey fails to redeem Kylo, just as Snoke fails to control his Vader-wannabe of an apprentice. Although Kylo does successfully kill and overthrow his master, he does a much worse job in converting Rey, and on top of that allows the Resistance to escape. Kylo himself only exists because of Luke’s greatest mistake, and Luke views Kylo as the personification of his failures. Finn and Rose not only utterly fail in their mission, but their and Poe’s rebellious actions actually lead to the Resistance getting nearly completely destroyed. And of course Hux is just a failure in general.
At one point, in a surprising prequel reference, Luke talks about the failings of the Jedi in the prequels for allowing the Emperor to rise to power, which presumably feeds into why he feels so beaten by his own regarding Ben Solo. But Yoda’s surprise return as a Force ghost puts these feelings into a more interesting perspective. Failure is the greatest teacher and something no one is immune from. Just as Luke learned from Obi-Wan’s mistake, now Rey and the others must learn from Luke. It makes Luke and Kylo’s relationship much more interesting, as we see how each seemingly failed the other without intending to. Luke made an awful error in a moment of weakness, but Kylo also went to the most extreme possible response without ever contemplating forgiveness.
As much as I thought I wanted to see bad-ass Jedi Master Luke Skywalker as an unstoppable wrecking ball of the Force (as he often was in the old Expanded Universe books), The Last Jedi‘s depiction of Luke is just a man, just as he was when we first met him. By keeping Luke fallible, it keeps him as a character and not a plot device or wish fulfilment. We may expect iconic characters like Luke to be above such things, to be the perfect hero we remember him as, but really that would be boring. In a way it falls back into the so-called arrogance that Luke claims the old Jedi were folly to, the same that also leads to Supreme Leader Snoke getting Darth Maul’ed by Kylo.
The Last Jedi is all about humility and showing that the easy way isn’t the right way, such as Poe, Rose and Finn going rogue and ultimately making things worse for everyone by doing so. It was easy for Luke to disappear from galactic affairs and believe everyone was better off without him, but it’s a cowardly move and ultimately the worse choice for the galaxy. It’s much harder to come back and confront his greatest mistake head on, as he does at the movie’s climax at the cost of his own life.
And just as Luke does, the heroes of this story learn from their failure. Rey sets out on the path to be the Jedi that the galaxy needs, not the ones that allowed it to burn in the first place. Poe has learned his humility and makes the decision to flee rather than fight, a huge step forward from the hotshot pilot we met in The Force Awakens. The growth of all of these characters, of Luke, Rey, Poe and the others, together lead to the survival of the Resistance and they are decidedly stronger at the movie’s end than they are at its start.
But in contrast, Kylo Ren is left alone in his failure and this is where The Last Jedi does something different to the normal light/dark side conversations. His inability to learn or grow made him susceptible to Luke’s deception and made him lose his seemingly impossible-to-fuck-up chance of total victory. His weakness has been made public in front of Hux and the rest of the First Order and now he doesn’t have Snoke to fall behind.
Failure isn’t something new to Star Wars. Empire Strikes Back saw Luke lose his confrontation with Darth Vader, who himself only exists because Obi-Wan failed him as a teacher, just as Luke did Kylo. But more so than Empire was to the original heroes, The Last Jedi is a crucible to its main characters, putting each and every one of them in a situation where they end making the wrong decision. Failure and the chance to learn from binds the movie together and is a theme that, in my opinion, ultimately raises The Last Jedi higher.
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