It troubles me as an author, and one who hopes that someday his work will be adapted to the visual medium, that one film could have such contradictory interpretations embraced by large percentages of its audience. Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi, has been read as subversion or deconstruction of the original films, or as blatantly rejecting the essential vision of Star Wars. It seems to me however that this is a superficial, indeed baseless interpretation. A writer who has the opposite opinion of myself used the term Hermeneutic of Continuity to describe the other interpretation of The Last Jedi, and it seems apt. While by no means a perfect film, its key strengths are in its themes of Failure, Wisdom, and a vindication of the Jedi, which form the thematic continuity with the Original Trilogy. Be warned, spoilers will follow (if you have not seen the film please do so).
The Star Wars films have always been an interesting mix of Western and Eastern, rightist and leftist, and at times almost gnostic philosophies. However, as with any story built upon an eternal truth, a deeply Catholic reading of the films is possible. The knightly Jedi are the servants Light Side of Force, a type of Divine Providence guiding and connecting all things. There is however, a void of Darkness which the Light must ever fight against, a void which disrupts the natural balance of the Light, without which balance, as exemplified in The Force Awakens, the galaxy descends into chaos. The way of the Light is Wisdom, the way of the Dark is disordered passion. The Light inspires heroism, the Dark only self-obsession.
Now one of the most common criticisms of The Last Jedi is that it is unabashedly against such heroism, and nothing could be further from the truth. What it presents in the arc of the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is not a polemic against heroism, but similarly to Luke’s character arc in The Empire Strikes Back, is rather a presentation of heroism untempered by prudence. The virtue of the prudence, exemplified by Leia, is what Poe lacks to turn his recklessness into true heroic virtue. His arc reaches its culmination when he becomes the leader of the Resistance, having learned through the example of his superiors the true measure of heroism. In the same way, Finn’s attempt to futilely sacrifice himself is thwarted because, although “greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends…”, to throw one’s life away without serving a higher purpose, is not heroism but a dereliction of duty. Indeed, the message of the scene (although somewhat poorly executed) of the duty to save those good things we truly love is the true meaning of heroism, elevating it above mere recklessness or rash actions.
Abandonment of duty is the main struggle of an older Luke Skywalker. Throughout the prequel films, the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, presented us with a Jedi Order which had failed, no longer the guardians of justice and peace, but shortsighted politicians. Some have criticized The Last Jedi as taking this deconstruction to a new level and seeking to reject the existence of the Jedi. However if one follows the development of Luke’s character through the movie, this is shown be the exact opposite of the movie’s major themes. While it is true that Luke is initially presented as a cynical broken man who believes he has failed and that the Jedi way must end, we are shown that underneath this exterior he still believes in the Jedi. Rey, now his student, at first seeks answers from the Dark Side, but there she finds only a void, empty of anything outside of herself. Taking with her the Jedi texts, she sets out to accomplish the redemption of Luke’s nephew Ben Solo, as Luke himself redeemed his father. When tempted to the Dark Side, and told by Kylo Ren (Ben) to kill the past, Rey embraces both the light and the past, the way of the Jedi.
Conflicted, Luke is then confronted by the embodiment of Jedi wisdom, his old master, Yoda. This confrontation moves him beyond his failure, reuniting him with the Light Side of the Force (although he had separated himself from the Force, he had never embraced the Dark Side as the version of Luke in the old Expanded Universe stories once did). His return to his former, wiser self, his final act of heroism to save and inspire the Galaxy he loved, are a triumphant vindication of the Jedi against his earlier cynicism. His final act of presenting himself through the Force to his nephew fills the void of his failure and removes the final obstacle to his complete union with the Light (Providence). The film directly contrasts Luke’s death having achieved wisdom, with Supreme Leader Snoke’s death in the arrogance of false knowledge. Whereas Snoke’s death weakens the followers of the Dark, Luke in so becoming “more powerful than you could possibly imagine” ensures the continued existence of the Jedi way.
Nowhere is this vindication of the Jedi more visible than in the final scene of the film, which foreshadows the future within the ancient tradition of the Jedi of a young idealistic boy (like a younger Luke Skywalker) gazing into the light of the stars of the Heavens. This scene not only wonderfully symbolizes the role of the Force or Providence and the universal call to virtue, but also the beauty of that which is ever ancient and ever new. As the Saga reaches its climatic episode, redemption and salvation for the galaxy are still possible. The tradition of heroes shall continue, despite the failures of the past, guided by Providence to the ultimate victory of Light.
None of this is to suggest that The Last Jedi is a flawless film, or one that ought to be universally liked by everyone, or even that it was executed as well as it could. Indeed it is an interesting philosophical question whether a film in which a major theme is failure, can be a success. However, I hope I have shown that the true meaning of the film can only be understood through a Hermeneutic of Continuity with the original films, and that any attempt to interpret it as a complete rupture misses the deeper themes of the story. Regardless of whether or not I have succeed, these are simply my opinions on a film which I myself enjoyed and liked, and which seems to have become an object of unwarranted disdain.
As I mentioned in my little piece, I’m sympathetic to this reading of the film. In fact, I think it works so long as one leans into it, filling in holes or disconnects, mentally expanding what is lacking. E.g. expand Luke’s sense of failure – he’s seeing everything that happened before happen again and is despairing of breaking the cycle. Poe works so long as you really build up that he’s this well-respected second-in-command of the General and not just her hotshot pilot (something more than, say, a Wedge Antilles) learning a deep lesson about respect of authority. Huldo works if you assume she was keeping people in the dark so as to protect the plan (which did fall apart as soon as it was made known, with the First Order picking up on it).
But I think there’s a lot of leaning in and building up necessary. It almost becomes Straussian in trying to read the real intention of the work. I didn’t see this reading upon first experience. And I think it forces the viewer to assume to much. And it’s clearly not what a majority of the populace got out of it and is becoming gristle for many on “the right side of history” – see the commentary on https://bittergertrude.com/2017/12/20/this-is-not-going-to-go-the-way-you-think-the-last-jedi-is-subversive-af-and-i-am-here-for-it/ and http://www.slashfilm.com/the-last-jedi-defense/ and similar studd.
Perhaps the movie can be brought into the fold in another time and climate, a reading made dominant which recognizes it’s Christian foundation, but I think for now it needs to be Indexed until that reading can be better assured. Even Aquinas, John of the Cross, and many other Saints’ writing, writings of far more import than a silly sci-fi (which I take far too seriously), went through similar things.
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The Hapsburg Restorationist said:
Thank you for your response, you bring up a very good point. I’m not sure whether “holes” or “disconnects” are really that, or whether they were more of failure of execution than story intention. Then there is the question of whether the audience ought to have very little to assume, or whether it’s better that certain things need only to be there implicitly. In a story such as this I do believe it needs to be read in the context of the other films (good and bad; in your post you called the prequels fundamentally traditional, but I don’t think that this holds true without the context of the original films). I think that ignoring this, as “the people on the Left side of History” seem to be doing, leads to a superficial and more contrived reading of the film, it only works if one starts with that ideological or cultural context to read into it.
An interesting note connecting the two interviews you linked to, the theme of “letting the past die” is the ideology of the main villain (who may yet be redeemed, we still have to see in Episode IX) and is ultimately rejected by the main heroes. I think it says something more about the reviewers than the film itself if they take to heart the message of one clearly spiraling into what the film itself is telling us is darkness. (Incidentally this is why George Lucas filmed the scene reexplaining Luke’s parentage in The Return of the Jedi: the audience by and large refused to believe something said by the main evil character.)
Maybe you’re right, maybe the cultural context is too strong for this reading to become prevalent, and it needs to be indexed until then. Although it’s true too that the cultural context surrounding the original Star Wars films was anti-traditional, and that did not prevent us from being able to “hold fast that which is good” in those stories. A good example of the complete subversion of an original work is the “reimagining” of Battlestar Galactica , a complete deconstruction of more or less traditional values of the original (another silly sci-fi with deep themes that I personally really like (the original not the remake)), and The Last Jedi isn’t that. My experience of The Last Jedi was a vindication of that original vision of the Jedi that had been lost in derivative works, a vindication that has weight because the cynical view is given its chance, but is ultimately refuted.
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