Monday, December 18, 2017

"That's How We're Gonna Win This War...Not By Fighting What We Hate, But Saving What We Love": A Look At The Hopeful Heart of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

"He who has health has hope; and he who has hope, has everything." - Thomas Carlyle


2017 has been such a rough year, holy smokes.

Even removing the absolute nightmare U.S. politics has become in 2017 under President Trump from the equation, 2017 was still a difficult year for me considering the multitude of personal problems I went through, including a death of a close friend that, five months later, still rocks me to my core. Even given all the garbage I had to go through in this year though, I'm well aware that, being a cis-gendered white guy living in a suburban area of Texas, I didn't have to go through the specific anguish people of color and women had to experience this year as they the U.S. government make moves to remove their rights. Simply put, life felt like a constant battlefield in 2017 for myself and I know Im not the only one who felt this way.

But there were good elements to 2017, both in my own personal life and in the larger world as a whole. For myself, I got my first job, started doing weekly instead of monthly reviews for four different Texas newspapers and got my Associate of Arts degree. For the world as a whole, people acting heroically to stand up against tyranny in ways big and small were certainly amazing to see. The world can be such a terrifying place, but even seeing a small slice of human kindness can remind a person that it's not all hopeless, that there is a reason to go onward. Seeing the goodness of mankind reinforced offers up a little bit of....hope, that's the word, it offers up hope.

Hope is a powerful thing.

Perhaps that's why it's the very element Star Wars: The Last Jedi uses to make itself so thoroughly compelling.
"We have hope...rebellions are built on hope!" - Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

Despite a prominent critique of The Last Jedi being that it's too full of forced humor (I really don't understand that one at all, to be entirely honest), the film itself is far from afraid of exhibiting somber and bleak moments. The First Order towers over The Resistance for the entirety of the film, their ships and armies dwarfing the ragtag groups of Resistance fighters. Instead of using such a set-up to tell an overly grim tale of simply woe and tragedy, writer Rian Johnson establishes from the get-go that this will be a tale of finding the bright light of inspiration nestled within the pervasive darkness. Right in the stunningly well-filmed opening battle sequence, we get a harrowing depiction of Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo) sacrificing herself in order to strike a blow against The First Order. Dialogue is kept to a minimum here as we just see on-screen actions that clearly display an everyday person exhibiting heroism under horrific circumstances.

Paige is far from the only normal person to get highlighted in The Last Jedi. On the contrary, all our new main heroes are basically just average Jane's and Joe's getting caught up in a story far larger than themselves and trying to find their own place in that story. That's the interesting thing about these new Star Wars movies, they've moved away from focusing on bigger important lead characters like the tragic Chosen One hero of the prequels and even the Original Trilogy's protagonists of a powerful princess and the descendant of one of the leaders of The Empire. Here, we have Rey, a Force-sensitive scavenger who is forced to confront the fact that she her parents were random drunks who sold her off at a young age for money, Finn, a defected Stormtrooper whose grappling with his place in the broader story and Rose, the sister of Paige whose a scrappy 9-to-5 maintenance worker for The Resistance. The closest thing we have to a high-profile typical hero of the bunch is Poe Dameron, whose whole arc here is learning that sometimes heroic victories come in the form of small-scale actions that aren't glossy or grandiose.

Sometimes, to quote the tagline on various posters for Dunkirk, "Survival Is Victory", and for these scrappy everyday individuals headlining Star Wars: The Last Jedi, simply making it out of a large-scale conflict is enough of a triumph on its own. If they can keep themselves and their spirits alive amidst all the tragedy, that alone is a refutation of The First Order's primary desires. Make no mistake, the likes of Kylo Ren and General Hux want the members of The Resistance to suffer as much mentally as they do physically, why else would they bombard the main Resistance ship with laser blasts even though that ship has its deflector shields up? The First Order does this to the various members of The Resistance for the same reason Donald Trump tosses out so many cruel tweets day in and day out; it's a way for an evil person to constantly make their presence felt, to ensure that nary a moment can go by in a persons life without being reminded that that evil person exists and carries immense power.

It's easy to lose sight and hope when you're facing down such turmoil. On a personal level, Lord knows the wickedness of many events in world politics in the last year or so have frequently made me distraught, to the point that last years election results left me in such an existential crisis that I thought I could never write about movies again. What would be the point of penning my thoughts on art in the face of such anguish? Star Wars: The Last Jedi responds to that and other cries of "What is the point?" by offering up relatably realistic characters staring down the overwhelming barrel of danger & torment and daring to hold out hope that they can survive.

Yes, there's a sense of hope in every protagonist of Star Wars: The Last Jedi....except for one Luke Skywalker.
"The Force is strong in my family...I have father has have that power too." - Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)

In my proper review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I mentioned the intense backlash the film had produced in certain charming quarters of the Internet (the kind that write fan reviews on Rotten Tomatoes proclaiming the films female characters to be a bad form of feminism, for instance), with one recurring complaint being that Luke's journey in The Last Jedi didn't align with their expectations of how the character would act. For me personally though, I love where they take Luke here, with his very first moment on-screen, where he flippantly tosses away the lightsaber Rey has handed him, being an excellent subversion of expectations. We all though Luke Skywalker would be an Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque mentor to Rey, but instead he's become the "crazy old hermit" Luke once thought Obi-Wan to simply be.

To one extent or another, the character of The Last Jedi are consumed by the past and nowhere is that more apparent than in how Luke's handling of the darkness inside a young Kylo Ren has haunted the Jedi master for years now. Instead of learning from his failures, as Yoda later instructs him to do, Luke has simply wiled away his years in exile, with the very presence of another Force-sensitive youngster like Rey terrifying him instead of exhilarating him. In other words, Luke being so heavily consumed by the past has removed any trace of hope from his being, the horrifying consequences that have sprung from his actions have left him content to just spend his remaining days on an island populated by Porgs and turtle nuns.

The absence of hope and the inability to look towards the future have trapped Luke Skywalker, and while that may not be what certain diehard fans wanted to see from the return of their childhood hero, it's one that works incredibly well for the plot of The Last Jedi. Just as the likes of Rey, Finn, Poe and Rose are well-realized depictions of the hopeful future, Luke is a similarly sublime depiction of past mistakes made flesh, he's an elderly pile of regret in human form who rejects even the thought of there being hope in this doomed galaxy. Mark Hamill sells the hell out of this version of Luke Skywalker and makes the aching pain of the character appropriately devastating.

But by the time the third act comes rolling around, Luke manages to show up for the climactic finale, one that provides one of the movies best moments and boy is that saying something considering how many memorable moments there are here.
"That's How We're Gonna Win This War...Not By Fighting What We Hate, But Saving What We Love" - Rose (Kelly Marie Tran)

The third act of Star Wars: The Last Jedi really is incredible as a piece of writing as a multitude of character arcs find their way to their respective conclusions without overwhelming each other. It's low to the ground and small-scale as The First Order corners the few surviving members to The Resistance to a former Rebels base. Instead of evoking a typical summer blockbuster climax, this finale to The Last Jedi reminded me more of the final scene of The Battle of Algiers as ragtag rebels are cornered by their more powerful enemies in cramped corners. Amidst the intense climax, the two themes that have permeated the entire project, which are clinging to hope in dire times and embracing the possibilities of the future, coalesce once Luke Skywalker shows up to duel with Kylo Ren.

During this confrontation, Kylo Ren brags about how The Resistance has finally been defeated and that the Jedi once he's killed Luke, The Last Jedi. Luke responds to this by noting "Every single word you just said was wrong", a line that seems to just be a humorous callback that morphs into something more profound as it leads into a monologue that packs an emotional wallop and then some. Luke details how the war is only just beginning, The Resistance has been reborn on this day, and then, just as footage of Rey saving the Resistance soldiers plays, he comments that he is not The Last Jedi.

Luke Skywalker has found hope again. While Kylo Ren lashes out in rage at his former master as a response to a past that he has allowed to define his malevolent nature, Luke, the symbol of the past in the Star Wars universe, sacrifices himself so that The Resistance, the future of this universe, can live. The meaning here is clear; we must learn from the past and never forget it, but we also must not allow it to consume us. We must be able to gaze to the future and recognize the hopes that lie in it. Luke seems to realize this in his final moments, as he sits on a rock and stares at a pair of setting suns on the horizon. Once again, he has become the young farm boy staring off at the darkening sky as a cosmic battle far larger than him plays out far far away.

Maybe that's not what fans wanted to see Luke do, but it feels like the perfect capper for his overall story and for the specific plot of The Last Jedi,  which is all about learning to recognize the possibilities that are within anyone in the next generation, whether they're a budding Jedi like Rey or a maintenance worker like Rose. That latter character is handily one of the best elements of the entire movie, a brilliantly written character brought to absorbing life by Kelly Marie Tran's riveting performance whose entire being stands as a symbol for how much of a difference hope can make in a person's life. Like Kylo Ren, she's come from a troubled childhood, one that saw her and her sister being used as child labor and privy to pervasive animal cruelty.

But Rose, even in the face of that kind of childhood and traumatic events like losing her sister, she does not let the horrors of the past be all that she can see. No, she sets her sights on making the galaxy a better place, whether it's by helping The Resistance anyway she can or freeing abused animals or putting her life on the line to save Finn in the climax. We may not have aliens or Millennium Falcon's in the real world, but we do have people like Rose on Earth and they're the kind of people we all should strive to be like. Rose is, in essence, maybe the hopeful heart itself of Star Wars: The Last Jedi as she embodies the sort of optimism in the face of atrocities that can life anyone's spirits and even get a legendary Jedi master to commit an act of selfless sacrifice. Rose, as well as fellow lead characters Rey, Finn and Poe, they're the future and Star Wars: The Last Jedi beautifully shows why that's a future worth holding out hope for.

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