The Last Jedi - a Study in Failure


Contains spoilers for The Last Jedi.

I love The Last Jedi for all the obvious reasons. I love that it does unexpected things but that those  unexpected things are driven by characters rather than by some overarching narrative need. We might not have seen these twists coming but, when they do, they make sense. It shows that even the people in Space Wizard Opera Spectacle grow in ways we couldn't have foreseen when we first knew them. You know, like real people in real life.

But what struck me the most is how much failure there is. The whole movie is full of it. Those unexpected decisions our heroes make might be exciting in their unpredictability, but most of them lead to disaster, to death, to everyone finishing further back than when they started. Take Poe Dameron - daring, heroic Poe. His gallantry wins minor victories but contributes to the Resistance losing the big fight. Holdo can't trust him so leaves him out of the decision making and Poe, full of entitlement and an ego-driven need to be the catalyst for victory, facilitates Finn and Rose's trip to Canto Bight. This leads directly to their betrayal by DJ and the Resistance transports being picked off one by one. Poe is, in a sense, one of the villains of this movie. He has a lot of blood on his hands. He fails and it's his own fault.

Everyone ends up losing out. Kylo Ren might be the new Supreme Leader but, despite his power, the mantle sits awkwardly on this shoulders. Darth Vader was an evil bastard, but at least he was consistent. Ren thinks he knows what he wants but really he's a post-adolescent mess. Some people need a leader to help them see clearly, to go beyond the fog of their own internal conflict and just follow orders. Without Snoke, Kylo Ren is mired in his own troubled motivation, almost a strange reflection of Poe Dameron, a man wrestling with a belief in his own importance and how to reshape the world to fit his vision. By the end of the movie, Poe has acknowledged his flaws; Kylo, unable to see past his own rage, has still to understand his limits.

As ever, watch out for the characters who make decisions rather than the characters who react to the decisions of others. Who actually drives change in narrative terms or in their fellow protagonists? Arguably, Rey is the only one. She could easily have been just a pawn, a bridge between Luke and Leia, one-dimensionally sticking to her job of dragging Skywalker back into the world. Yet Rey's need to discover her own place is the thing that drives the only really meaningful change in the movie. Just as Luke assists her in opening up to The Force, so she reminds him of his place in the universe, that his isolation, reflecting or forgetting his failure, is not good for him, his sister, or the galaxy. In narrative terms, all Luke does is buy the Resistance time to escape - as well as showing up Kylo Ren for the arse he really is. While the conflict in others holds everyone back from victory, Rey ultimately uses her own inner turmoil to help her friends. If Luke won't use his power, then she will use what power she has, though raw and unformed. After all, what has she to lose? Everyone else is running away - Rey faces down the conflict and pushes Luke into doing the same. Her only failure is to misread Kylo Ren, to think he can be turned.

Rey represent the biggest difference between the The Last Jedi and its most obvious counterpart, The Empire Strikes Back. That, too, is a study in failure, but when the naive young hero leaves his mentor to help his friends, it just causes more failure - he loses his hand and Han remains Boba Fett's captive. In The Last Jedi, Rey abandons Luke to go and make a difference, to save what remains of the Resistance and to represent the future, to embody Hope.