Move Forward, We Must: What THE LAST JEDI Tells Us About Letting Go of the Past

Fair warning: this isn’t going to be a typical review of The Last Jedi. I’m not going into plotlines or performances or whether or not I think it’s an overall good or bad film. I’m not going to focus on whether or not it should be Star Wars canon, nor am I going to focus on either enabling or disproving fanboy complaints. What I do want to pursue here is a discussion of what makes this film important, and as we’ve now had time to sit with it and reflect since it’s been in the box office for a few weeks, the importance of it has become even more clear. More so than the other films in the franchise before it, The Last Jedi has things to say and advise — themes about letting go of the past, letting go of hangups, letting go of the things that keep us from moving forward. It’s kind of funny to think that an arguably silly sci-fi fantasy film is telling anyone to get real, but that’s exactly what The Last Jedi does – and by god, we deserve it.

 

LET GO OF THE PAST

Let’s start off with something kind of light. How about that milking scene? It’s probably the most bizarre and disturbing (aka, great and fantastic) scene ever to be included in a Star Wars film, and it seems as if Rian Johnson made it that way on purpose. Fans have always loved that magical-looking blue bantha milk Luke Skywalker drinks as a kid on Tatooine (evidenced here by some nerdy mixologists), so in what one might think could be a nice nod in fan service, Johnson instead shatters all that rosy nostalgia by having Luke’s daily routine during his hermitage on the planet Ahch-To include milking the teat of a hideous yet oddly complacent giant creature. We see Luke take a big swig of the milk this animal produces, the colorful liquid dripping down his beard, and a scowl on his face that could objectively haunt our dreams. Basically, in this moment, with that disgust in his eyes, Luke is done with Rey’s bullshit, the Rebellion’s bullshit, and by proxy, our bullshit. The scene is grotesque, just like fandom can be grotesque, and perhaps Johnson’s aim was to set us up to let go of even the little parts of the past (even if they’re seemingly so insignificant as a glass of milk), because still, these smallest bits of nostalgia can be detrimental to a fruitful present existence.

But more seriously, some of the majorly shocking twists of The Last Jedi serve as reminders of very important lessons. When we think about the world we live in and all the tragedy and hatred we are perpetually forced to endure, a likely source of our heartache is people who just can’t let the past remain in the past. Let’s consider groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (and their like-minded non-members peppered throughout the South), who — however innocuous they view themselves — cling almost desperately to the idea of some kind of elite heritage, refusing to see how outdated and irrelevant their perceptibly prudent Confederate heroes are for the growth of our modern society. This type of skewed devotion is what fuels worship for fictional characters as well, so we tend to assign more meaning to backstories or epic tales than is ever necessary. So, in The Last Jedi, one of the most unpredictable and righteous moments is Kylo Ren using the Force to literally bisect Supreme Leader Snoke with a lightsaber, proving to the audience that the mythology or mystery surrounding Snoke is meaningless to the rest of the story; that in order to focus on what’s important moving forward, we have to be willing to let go of whatever ideal we have of the past. Our future as Americans doesn’t concern itself with Robert E. Lee, nor does the future of the Star Wars saga concern itself with Snoke. What we have to do is take inspiration from within ourselves, and not bog ourselves down with these ideas that decisions must hinge on “the old way” or the way we’re most comfortable with, otherwise we’re doomed to let the past take ownership over us. These things or people from the past that we falsely deem important or significant start to act as blinders, keeping us from reaching a true understanding of how to progress.

Likewise, we cannot concern ourselves with who Rey’s parents might be, because, ironically, all of that gets in the way of her destiny. The Last Jedi smartly changes the conversation from princesses and other royal figures to more broadly accessible figures with legitimate means. It really does not matter if Rey comes from a line of nobility, because in this expansion of the Star Wars universe, any person — no matter their class lineage — is Jedi potential. Previously, the Jedi were thought of as a sort of elite class in themselves, and what this movie does is completely dismantle the tired old mythology surrounding them. It’s a revelation, really, to see this saga handled with such freshness, to see it be so inclusive rather than exclusive. This film teaches us that if we let go of how we have always thought of our heroes in the past, we can build an immeasurable universe where inspiration is virtually unlimited.

 

LET GO OF HANG UPS

Let’s talk about the Force. For a long time, the Force has been treated as a religion, and like many aspects of Judeo Christianity, that religion is compulsory. Let me explain my meaning: scriptures and texts and sacred idols aren’t as important as we say they are; we only place importance on them. Right now, culturally, American Judeo Christianity holds on to these concepts and ideals that, though they are there in the texts and scriptures, get in the way of what the real point is about the golden rule and being good to each other. All the other stuff subjectively doesn’t matter, and the false importance we place on it gets in the way of the potential for an actual utopia (all the while determining our politics and influencing our friendship-making/breaking). In the grand picture of it all, none of the hills most Judeo Christians are willing to die on (e.g. gay marriage, abortion) matter too much at all; ultimately, theirs is a nuanced philosophy built on shaky foundations. And that’s what we get with the long-held tradition of the Force, a faith based on archaic tenants that, looked at from a progressive perspective, isn’t relevant anymore. In this light, The Last Jedi is amazing because it addresses the Force in a revolutionary way; the film simply takes the stoicism and idolatry out of it, and makes it spiritual.

But, what even is the Force in this? In another, maybe more loving dig at fans, Rey answers Luke’s question of what she knows about the Force by saying, “It’s a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and make things float.” But what it really is, we learn, is a life essence. Luke tells Rey “it’s so much bigger” than what she can currently comprehend, which gives the audience the opportunity to learn along with her. The Last Jedi’s version of the the Force is conceptually huge, a connective tissue stringing together the reality of its universe. It’s a balance, a cause and effect, a reason to learn and grow and understand — and, in this episode, it’s a reason to experience emotion instead of hiding it away like Jedi had always been taught to do. What this film is doing, similar to the case of the New Testament, is telling us to let go of old hang ups and preconceived beliefs, and open ourselves up to new ideas in order to shape them into a new paradigm. To illustrate this: a monumental scene in The Last Jedi is Yoda’s spirit appearing to Luke on Ahch-To, just as Luke is considering destroying the ancient Jedi texts housed on the island. Yoda makes the decision for him, magically invoking an electrical storm that ignites the texts in flames, and telling him, “Time it is, for you to look past a pile of old books.” Luke’s outrage is squashed by Yoda insinuating he’s never even read the texts (Luke neither confirms nor denies, but we get the picture that he hasn’t), which, in my opinion, is a direct allusion to those Judeo Christian “believers” who place more importance on the physical words printed in their sacred texts than any real-world application of what any of those words truly mean. Further, even though this film is taking a deserved jab at religious hypocrisy, it never turns dark or cynical, which I must say is pretty nice, but the overall message of relinquishing personal hang ups to get things done never loses its focus.

 

LET GO OF THINGS THAT KEEP US FROM MOVING FORWARD

There’s a notion that comes from existential philosophy that says without failure, there is no ethics. The makeup of our characters relies on failure in order for us to be fully realized humans. In The Last Jedi, failure is one of the key elements to the story, showing us that we have to experience failure in order to learn and grow as people. Even Yoda knows this, reminding Luke that “the greatest teacher, failure is,” and there are several times throughout this story where that principle applies. Poe being a reckless tough guy, Finn trying to sacrifice himself on Crait, Kylo Ren pushing for a borderline nihilistic tabula rasa, Luke burying his head in the sand for decades. None of these approaches work because they’re relying too heavily upon ego-driven impulses, but in order to learn that, they all had to initially fail, and learn to place humility before ego (well, maybe with the exception of Kylo, but his journey is just beginning). To be successful, we have to look beyond ourselves; again, it’s always a much bigger picture. We have to keep moving forward, which means learning what we can from past failures and successes, and then using that knowledge to build a better future outcome. So, in the Star Wars universe, and in ours, failure is absolutely integral to a fulfilled state of being.

Fans are rejecting this film because no one wants to look in the mirror, which is exactly what Rey had to do. She sees the harsh truth while isolating herself inside the cave on Ahch-To. At that precise moment, she sees that looking inside herself is all that matters, and furthermore, believing in herself is all that matters. As we’ve established, her parents certainly don’t matter, and asking questions about them only distracts from the bigger picture. At this point, the clarity she gains alludes to her character’s existential purpose, and presents to us probably the most important advice of all: get over our preoccupations, get over our anxieties, get over ourselves. Figure out what we need to do, and do it. Wasting time on questions that can’t be answered only clouds our judgement and holds us back. In short: be real. In this installment, Rey starts out both physically and emotionally clumsy, and then, as she learns how to control and utilize her intuition, her confidence soars. As they say, this could be us.

The Last Jedi is extremely successful because it does away with the familiar, forcing its audience to confront their belief structures, not only within the Star Wars mythos, but in their real lives. It’s a lot to process coming from a silly space adventure flick, but putting aside previously held impressions of this epic franchise is crucial, as its takeaway is vital to a peaceful and thriving future existence. By telling us to let go of so much heavy baggage and get real, The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film with intellectual seriousness, and is absolutely essential viewing for any and all of us, no matter if we’re fans of series to begin with. So please, watch this film — I hope you’ll find it as personally enlightening as I do.

And now, on to that blue milk cocktail.

 

Elbee

Elbee grew up in Tennessee, but please don't hold that against her. She (mostly) lost her Southern accent by taking a radio job in high school -- a career that, for some reason, she didn't pursue. However, she's still living the dream by hosting and appearing on podcasts, and by writing lengthy articles on movies that may or may not deserve it. She now lives in South Texas ("basically Mexico") where she's discovered the bliss of chamoyadas and Hot Cheetos with cheese.
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