Themes and Lore of The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi has been around for a couple of weeks now, and everybody seems to have a strong opinion one way or the other. There have been plenty of good and even a few great articles written about how the disruptive nature of its narrative is a positive direction for the franchise, while some supposed fans have complained that it is too much of a departure, that it is somehow no longer Star Wars.

This latter complaint is the one I want to address, because I believe The Last Jedi to be VERY much in line with Star Wars lore and (more importantly) its thematic elements. Those who want it removed from the canon are not only ridiculous but also clueless about the fact that this movie continues traditions that are in every part of the canon.

I will not be addressing scene-by-scene questions that other people have called “plot holes” in the movie. I have found that multiple viewings with these questions in mind demonstrate that Rian Johnson already put the answers to nearly every one of them in the movie itself (from “why doesn’t Holdo tell Poe?” to “how does DJ find out about the shuttles?”). Nitpicking lesser details may be possible, but that’s true of every Star Wars movie, including the supposedly holy Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars has never been perfect.

Rather, I want to talk about two primary themes of The Last Jedi and how they relate to the rest of the canon. I will talk far beyond the 9 theatrical movies and delve into shows and books and games as well. You see, I like Star Wars. And I am tired of people who only like two and a half movies trying to tell everyone else what Star Wars is about.

[SPOILERS below for pretty much all of Star Wars.]

The Force Belongs to Everyone

One common complaint about this movie has been that it weakens the Skywalker legacy. The fact that Rey really is so strong in the Force even though she’s nobody, that Ben Solo is the last keeper of the Skywalker blood but is a whiny man-child, that Luke wanted to end the Jedi – these are all seen as rejections of the rest of the Star Wars universe. But that ignores one very important point: the Skywalkers are an aberration.

For tens of thousands of years, the Jedi located and recruited Force-sensitive children from around the galaxy – most of them “nobodies.” We see the younglings in the prequel trilogy, and we see more of their experiences in a few episodes of the Clone Wars series. It was only in the latter days of Republic that the Jedi became bureaucratic and obsessed with the prophecy of the Chosen One. Into that environment, there appears an immaculately-conceived boy (fan theories suggest Palpatine had a hand in that, but that’s irrelevant) who kills the younglings and whose children the few remaining Jedi look to for salvation.

For those who know earlier Star Wars lore, this is a historical travesty and a clear indication of how far the Jedi have fallen. Obsession with Force-sensitive blood purity was a trait of the Sith Empire in the days of the Old Republic. This is why the Emperor was willing to consider Anakin’s children as potential converts – the Skywalkers represented a restoration of the Dark Side, not the Light. Ultimately, Kylo Ren is the true manifestation of the Skywalker legacy. It would be contrary to the history of the Force to pretend otherwise. Those who wanted Rey to be a Skywalker, a Solo, or (Force forbid) a Kenobi were asking for her to be a continuation of the Force-based hierarchical thinking that was so wrong in the Sith of old.

But did Force sensitive children suddenly stop appearing around the galaxy? Were the Skywalkers the only possible channel for the Force after the fall of the Jedi? Of course not. Ezra Bridger in the Rebels series is a prime example that the Force continues to appear in random places. His character was a clear signal by Disney that they were planning to tell stories of non-Skywalkers with the Force. Rey is no more of a surprise (in both power level and nobody-ness) than Ezra.

The Last Jedi offers a clear indication that the Force has continued in spite of Luke’s isolation. He is absolutely correct to suggest that the Jedi were arrogant in believing they were the arbiters of who gets to use it. But at the same time he is mistaken in some of his assumptions about them because – and let’s be clear about this – he was NEVER A JEDI in the classical sense. Yoda trained Luke a bit, but that was quite late in Luke’s life and not for long. Luke never received extensive instruction in Jedi history, lore, and ethics. He gets what he knows from books that he admits to Yoda he does not manage to read thoroughly. In Rebels, Kanan repeatedly tells Ezra that he is not going to be able to train him enough for Ezra to be considered an actual Jedi, yet Ezra gets a LOT more training than Luke ever does.

The Last Jedi is therefore not a rejection but a continuation of all of these threads of Jedi lore, including Luke’s incomplete training. At worst it is a rejection of the supremacy of Skywalker blood, which is an idea that SHOULD be rejected for pertinent historical reasons.

Heroes and Leaders

One element that many people have complained about in The Last Jedi is the idea that reckless heroics are no longer celebrated the way they were in the original movies, that the writer/director chose characters who would have succeeded in past movies and intentionally made them fail. Once again, this represents a shallow reading of the Star Wars universe and even its stylistic heritage.

People who like to flaunt their Star Wars knowledge are quick to tell you that A New Hope is based to a large extent on The Hidden Fortress, with C3PO and R2D2 playing the roles of the two peasants that the movie follows to bring the audience into the action. But we rarely reflect on what it means that Star Wars is a samurai movie. And The Last Jedi is probably the closest to a samurai movie that Star Wars has ever been.

In samurai movies (and in many Japanese movies), there exists a tension between the concepts of the ninjo (“human feeling”) and giri (“duty” or “obligation,” especially to one’s superiors or community) that drives much of the story. Depending on the philosophical direction of the story, a movie may lean towards one or the other, but this tension is always present.

Star Wars has always weighed in on the giri side of this debate. It is there in how the Light and Dark Side are described. Characters like Padme, Leia, and Hera are its paragons. Entire story arcs are built around showing characters accepting it – Han’s return in A New Hope (“I knew there was more to you than money”), Sabine’s family obligations in Rebels, and the tension between Saw Gerrerra and Mon Mothma in Rebels and Rogue One. And of course Anakin’s entire fall can be seen as a turn away from giri.

Poe, Finn, and Luke all struggle with this tension in The Last Jedi. Their arcs are built around the gradual acceptance and understanding of giri. Luke finds peace because he once again embraces his obligations (in one of the most samurai-style sequences since Obi Wan vs Maul on Tatooine in Rebels). Finn stops thinking only about Rey and expands his concern to the whole community, and Poe finds balance between his personal desire for glory and his duty to the Resistance as a whole.

But why, then, do these arcs seem so deconstructive to the original trilogy? I believe that’s because Luke and Han were never put into leadership positions. Luke becomes a wing commander during the Battle of Yavin, and Han commands a small strike force during the Battle of Endor, but they never lead the Rebellion. So they never need to learn how. Leia does.

If you want to see Leia’s arc of leadership, watch for her appearances in Rebels and then read her recent Marvel comic series, followed by the Aftermath trilogy. She learns the same hard lessons that she then watches Poe learn in The Last Jedi. And Poe and Finn NEED these lessons because they must become leaders in the same way that Leia did but Luke and Han did not.

The Last Jedi shows us the shift from hero to leader for Poe and Finn in ways that other characters (like Sabine Wren) experience outside of the movies, but not as often within them. (Rogue One does so somewhat, but it’s still on a smaller scale.) This is why it feels jarring to people who haven’t focused on the rest of the Star Wars canon. But it is most certainly there.

So what does all this tell us? It tells us that the reasons The Last Jedi may feel different from A New Hope to some are the very reasons that it is authentically Star Wars. It’s not the same story, but the time for the same story is over. With the new trilogy, we have a new story that is still very securely seated in the lore of Star Wars.

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