Part of why I like The Force Awakens is that its characters are, in many ways, Star Wars fans themselves. Rey and Kylo Ren both grew up on stories about the Rebellion and the Empire (though with different takeaways) and so want to live out their version of the stories. Kylo fashions himself into an ersatz Darth Vader, Rey sees the chance to join up with the legendary Han Solo and maybe become a Jedi like Luke Skywalker.
The Last Jedi, on the other hand, deconstructs those dreams (and those of the audience too). And since I’m gonna be talking about The Last Jedi, this is where I let you know that here there be spoilers. About character arcs and stuff, which as we all know is what really matters.
So anyway. Spoilers. And deconstruction.
Kylo Ren is called out by Snoke for being nothing except a shadow of Vader. Killing Han’s not good enough; Kylo’s just a fanboy. It becomes clear that Kylo will never come into his own so long as all he wants to do is imitate his grandfather. And so the character of Kylo Ren, as we knew it in Awakens, is dressed down and forced to forge a new identity.
Meanwhile, on Ach-To, Rey can only watch as Luke Skywalker casually tosses the revered lightsaber over his shoulder. Turns out Rey’s idea of Luke is terribly misinformed. Even her understanding of The Force (controlling people and lifting rocks) is wrong. Rey’s expectations are dashed and eventually she has to, in the words of another Jedi, unlearn what she’s already learned, and try and start afresh.
The Last Jedi sets fire to a lot of what we hold dear about Star Wars. Sometimes this is done through character (Poe is chastised for his propensity for reckless and costly space battles where they somehow overcome the odds) and other times it’s through the story itself.
Look at the Jedi.
They’re cool, right? With their dope lightsabers and all the heroing we see them do in the movies. Luke outright calls them fools, a prideful group whose hubris allowed the Empire to rise. He goes so far as to desecrate one of the finer points of the Star Wars mythos, derisively calling the Jedi’s weapon a laser sword. And Luke has a point. Maybe the Jedi weren’t all they cracked up to be (and, as we see in the prequels, they really weren’t the brightest of the bunch). The movie takes apart a chunk of Star Wars, and puts its pieces on display. The Jedi are flawed, overblown legends, maybe it’s time for them to end.
The response to this deconstructed Star Wars is embodied by the movie’s hero and villain. Rey and Kylo have both seen their goals tossed aside, goals that were, in essence, to emulate the Original Trilogy. They each respond differently: Kylo sees this as an opportunity to burn it all down and let the past die so he can remake the world as he sees fit; Rey, however, wants to rebuild from the ashes, learning from the mistakes of what’s come before. The epic battle between the light side and the dark side continues, though this time it’s one that these two have defined for themselves.
And that’s this movie’s relation with The Force Awakens. The prior one re-established Star Wars as we remember it, replete with high-flying romantic adventure. The Last Jedi takes apart those tropes, breaking down the notions of chosen ones, daring plans, and wise masters. But writer/director Rian Johnson loves Star Wars and so, now that he’s taken them apart, he can develop them deeper than before. Luke is bitter and stubborn, a far cry from an idealistic farmboy or a sage like Yoda. But he still has much to learn, especially from his shortcomings. The idea of a wise master who knows everything doesn’t stand up, but when we take that away we’re given a Jedi Master who is still learning. Which is a more interesting, deeper interpretation.
Rey is a nobody, but she’s still strong with the Force – all that talk about chosen ones and being descended from a great Jedi (like Kylo) is bunk, but, but but but, now anyone can be a Jedi. Luke Skywalker doesn’t swoop in to defeat the First Order, because that hero could be anyone, that hope is bigger than he is.
What Rian Johnson does seems almost anathema, counter to the distilling of Star Wars that is The Force Awakens. But Johnson gives these stories new room to grow, and so he forces Rey and Kylo (and fans like me!) to reexamine the older Star Wars movies and figure out a new what’s next. Kylo Ren isn’t gonna be Darth Vader, and Rey isn’t about to be Luke Skywalker.
And we’re better off for that.