Film title aside, nobody has to be the last of anything
It seems like one cannot go two clicks or scrolls across any of the horrible discourse tapestries of the internet right now without seeing an argument about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Some love Rian Johnson’s entry into the storied space opera. Others absolutely hate it. And honestly, there are great arguments on both sides. The movie is jarringly different from what Star Wars has traditionally been in some ways. Any kind of big step will inevitably be both loved and hated.
But I don’t sit here to write about my personal views on the film as a whole, nor the conversations about it in grander strokes. Love or hate The Last Jedi, there are things it tries that Star Wars has never done before. One of the most significant such things is its focus on a wider group of characters than the original trilogy ever set out to do. It’s the size of that group, and the purposes driving that group, that gets a different light shone on it than the original Rebel Alliance ever had. Star Wars: The Last Jedi humanizes the Resistance as a collective entity in ways those fighting for freedom never really did in the originals.
Second verse, different from the first
In the original Star Wars trilogy, there was never any question of whose story it was we were watching. It was Luke’s first, and then Han and Leia’s slightly behind. Arguably, it was also Darth Vader’s right behind that. Star Wars was always a story about individuals.
Luke is the singular hope for the future of the Jedi. Leia is cast as the singular survivor of her home planet’s destruction; we know there must be others, but she’s the only one in focus. Han is probably the most about individuality. He’s the one who spends two movies constantly ready to flee. To care about himself, the individual. It’s true in the prequels, too. For all the talk of space politics and boring bureaucracy, the prequel trilogy are, more than anything, about Anakin Skywalker as an individual growing up, trying to come to terms to what he desires versus what those around him tell him he can and cannot do. And sure, he gets coaxed by Palpatine and seduced by the dark side, but in the end, what Anakin does is based on his own individual wants. His own individual idea of what’s best for himself, and for Padme.
The Force Awakens is about individuals too, I think. Look at how far apart everyone is as it starts. Finn is an individual distinguished from the stormtroopers around him, first by the visual marker of a bloody handprint and then by his escape from the First Order. Rey is all alone on Jakku. Kylo Ren has a certain loneliness to him, too. As teen angsty as it is, his persona is absolutely that of one who feels so pressured by what it is he is meant to be that it cripples his ability to be happy with what he does.
Together in the face of death
Then you have The Last Jedi, and The Resistance as a group. The film opens with Poe doing Poe, in a manner very similar to his snark in The Force Awakens. Then that gives way as we see him interact more with Leia and other members of the Resistance as they begin to flee their First Order pursuers in the chase that becomes the driving force of the film. We see the faces of a few key Resistance fighters in their ships as they communicate and coordinate with Poe. We see into some of the bombers as they try and fail to launch strikes on the First Order ship hunting them. We watch the woman who we will later learn to be Rose’s sister sacrifice her life to send a volley of bombs flying.
And it all tells us something. Not something specific, but it feeds us information that will remain. We see these faces and are given more to remember when we see the surviving ones in later scenes. There are a couple characters in these opening scenes, and the ones that follow, who will go on to help Poe and Finn and Rose in their plan. Lieutenant Connix is a recognizable face from the fringes of The Force Awakens, and here she comes in at a few key moments to help Poe in distracting attention away from Finn and Rose as they jettison off.
In The Force Awakens, our two main faces for the Resistance were Poe and Leia. Here, we get to see the two of them working together. Poe as an overzealous but extremely accomplished flyboy, and Leia as the one both trying to reel him and knowing how good he can be when left to his own devices. The violet-haired Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo comes in as one of the more unexpected new characters of the film, taking the helm after Leia’s incapacitation.
And again, it all informs. Holdo knows the plan and has to stick to it, and as a result, she doesn’t exactly work well with a wild card like Poe Dameron. We see them argue in a room of Poe’s superiors and equals alike. When he turns on her, it’s only with the help of those more loyal to him than to her. And all through it, the film focuses on just small enough a group of Resistance members that we remember names, we remember faces.
Traitor turned hero
Of course, Finn and Rose are part of it, too. Rose’s loss isn’t of the same magnitude of Leia’s when she watched her planet being destroyed, but she gets into the personal nature of losing a sister that’s pretty striking. She struggles with loss while also still carrying hope and spunk in her actions, spurred on nicely by having to call out Finn for trying to escape the Resistance’s plight when they meet.
Finn himself goes through some changes, too. When the movie opens, he is an individual with individual goals, focused on getting to one other individual (Rey). By film’s end, he has completely engrossed himself in a mission for the good of the Resistance as a whole. It’s when he’s fighting for the good of the Resistance, not when fleeing, that Finn shines brightest. When he makes an attempt at self-sacrifice, he is giving himself over, serving as tribute to the group he has chosen to fight for.
Rebellions are built on hope
The Last Jedi revels in being about its groups more than its individuals. It’’s not the first Star Wars movie to try it. Rogue One attempts to look at its cast through a similar lens. The difference there, I think, is the knowledge of the fates of those involved. Rogue One is a story of a group of people dying for what they believe in. And people do die in The Last Jedi, to be sure. But, for the most part, the deaths feel more purposeful. When Holdo sacrifices herself, turbo-boosting her ship through the imposing magnitude of Snoke’s cruiser, there’s more weight to it, because the viewer knows that it probably didn’t have to be this way. Both movies try to send a message of characters choosing their fate, but The Last Jedi arguably does it better.
Rogue One and The Last Jedi mirror each other in being about someone(s) sacrificing themselves for the survival of others. But, whereas the focus in Rogue One is unilaterally on those committing the sacrifice, The Last Jedi spends its time more equally focused on different parts of the Resistance. Even Luke, in his astral-projected fight against Kylo Ren at film’s end, isn’t fighting for his own survival, or to protect Rey, really. He’s fighting for an ideal. Fighting for the future in the broadest of strokes.
Seeking a friend at the end of the galaxy
Rey herself is probably the most individually-focused in The Last Jedi, but even so, her whole mission when she arrives on Luke’s hideout island is to take him back to the Resistance. She has the most personal internal conflict to deal with. But even as she deals with the light side and the dark, with questioning her parents’ identities, with trying to figure out her own place in things as well as Ben Solo’s, it puts everything else in contrast. Again, it informs. It shows us someone cut off, often by choice, from the rest of the world. It makes us appreciate the need for found families in this chapter of the Star Wars universe.
And really, it seems that The Last Jedi is about found families at its heart. The original trilogy isn’t about the Rebellion and the Empire. It’s about Luke Skywalker learning how to be a Jedi, and coming to terms with who his father is. The prequels aren’t about the Old Republic and the Separatists. They’re about Anakin Skywalker growing up, falling in love, and allowing that love to be manipulated. The Force Awakens is about lost people, each alone and each in need of something, who eventually find themselves connected. The Last Jedi, then, is about the strength of those connections, and what they can get people through.
The Last Jedi is about the need to not be alone. I don’t think Star Wars has ever really been about that before, and I think the direction is beautiful. May the force be with them all.