This is for all the haters. Specifically, it’s for all of you who hate The Last Jedi.
This isn’t blind fandom; I was ambivalent toward the movie the first time I saw it. I hated it the second time. Yeah, the fight scene with Rey and Ben in Snoke’s throne room is awesome, but Leia Poppins, Bitter Luke, and the Casino are not. But the third time around a few things clicked, and the more I watch it and pay attention, the more I love it. In fact, I’m to the point where I (cheekily) tweeted the other day, “If you hate The Last Jedi then you hate Star Wars.” Obviously, everyone from hardcore fans to casual viewers can think what they want about the movie. But here I want to try to argue that the hate for TLJ is unfounded.
From best I can tell, there are four main objections (in no particular order):
1. Vice Admiral Holdo – This objection actually consists of at least three subsets. Some fans object to Holdo’s general demeanor. I definitely felt this the first time around. It was weird seeing Jurassic Park lady in Star Wars, and something felt off about her acting. Another objection to Holdo is part of a broader objection to the movie’s supposed “feminist” streak. It goes something like this: “the men in the movie are all stupid and need to be rescued by women.” And the third Holdo objection is the infamous Holdo maneuver, which somehow is problematic for science or whatever (see also: bomb drops in space). This one comes up most often from the hardcore Star Wars fans.
2. Leia Poppins – This objection is self-explanatory. What’s up with Leia floating through space holding an invisible nanny umbrella? Besides just the fact that some viewers think it looks dumb, many also ask, “What’s the point?”
3. The Casino Sequence – The same main objection to Leia Poppins – “What’s the point?” – also occurs here, but this part of the movie also receives criticism regarding pacing and leftist propaganda re: American war mongering.
4. Luke – Lots of fans hate what the movie does with Luke’s story. This is probably the most important objection, as it has to do with a broader objection to the movie’s supposed treatment of the previous films and the franchise’s fans. Many viewers believe that Luke throwing his lightsaber when Rey hands it to him, Yoda’s dialogue with Luke before calling down lightning to burn the Jedi Temple / Tree, Rey being “no one” and Snoke dying without revealing his origin, and, most famously, Ben’s mantra to Rey about the past (“Let the past die; kill it, if you have to”) is somehow a collective middle finger to the entirety of the Star Wars franchise and its fans. Nothing is more infamous in this regard than the film’s treatment of Luke, which many interpret as making him nothing more than a bitter old man who dies alone.
So, what do I say to these objections?
First, I think it’s important to understand the film’s themes in order to answer these objections.
1. Deceit – The first theme that helped me appreciate the movie more than I did the first two times is deceit. Nearly every person in the movie lies or attempts to deceive someone else. This starts with Poe fooling Hux to take out the cannons and initiate the bomb drop on the Star Destroyer. Then Hux deceives the rebels by tracking them, Luke and Ben both lie (or at least twist the truth) to Rey regarding their confrontation at Luke’s temple, the thief double crosses Fin and Rose, and, climatically, Luke tricks Ben in the film’s final fight sequence. There are also attempts to hide the truth, even if it’s not lying, like Leia and Holdo hiding intel from Poe regarding the abandoned rebel base (which is itself an attempt to deceive the First Order). Another example is Yoda’s conversation with Luke after he lights the Jedi Temple on fire; his words are a double entendre. Luke thinks the texts are gone, and the way Yoda phrases it could confirm that. But the texts are actually with Rey, which Yoda may even be gesturing toward: “everything in them is now with her.” Literally everyone in this movie is lying!
Which is why, in the apex of the film, we shouldn’t believe anything that’s said in the throne room. Snoke wasn’t bringing Ben and Rey’s minds together; he’s lying just like everyone else. I know this not only because of the deceit theme but also because their minds are brought together again at the end of the film, as Rey is boarding the Falcon, after Snoke is cut in half. There are therefore only two explanations as to how this keeps happening to Ben and Rey: either someone else (Palpatine, presumably) is doing it, or Ben and Rey are really related. The Palpatine theory is possible but no one (maybe not even Rian Johnson) knew EP was slated for Episode IX. The more likely explanation is already there in TLJ – Ben and Rey are blood, just like the other pairs that mind melds in the movie, Luke and Leia and Leia and Ben. All of these are supposed to remind us of the OT melds between Luke and Vader and Luke and Leia. It should be obvious from that list that only Skywalkers mind meld (at least in films!).
This brings up the second big “non-reveal” in the throne room, what Ben manipulates Rey to say about her parents and then “confirm” with a bit of flourish. Again, there’s no reason to believe anything anyone says in this movie – especially not the guy who’s constantly trying to prove his commitment to the Dark Side and simultaneously convince Rey to join him. He’s already lied manipulatively once before in TLJ, when he tells Rey his version of what happened at Luke’s Jedi Temple. After I realized EVERYONE is lying, it took away what many consider the #1 reason they hate TLJ: Rian Johnson supposedly cutting all the threads JJ Abrams tried to set up in TFA, and especially through making Rey no one. It’s certainly still possible that Rey really *is* just a child of junk traders. One way to interpret Rey’s cave scene is that she doesn’t have parents who are important. That’s possible. But another way to interpret it is that Rey defines who she is, not anyone else. Who cares who her parents are? Her identity is rooted in her own actions, her own choices, not someone else’s. We should also note here that Rey, like Luke in ESB, may have left too early to try and turn her nemesis. And like Luke, that premature confrontation leads to a relational epiphany, but in reverse: whereas Vader tells the truth, Ben (in all likelihood) is lying. All of this took away most of my initial irritation and allowed me to watch the movie with fresh eyes. Doing so helped me see a number of other themes.
2. The Past – The second prominent theme I noticed is that TLJ is about how to relate to the past. This theme was brought to my attention by a post I read right after seeing the movie; unfortunately I can’t find it anymore. Here I’ll try to explain it in my own words. This theme intersects with all of the others, and so some of what I say here will have to be repeated elsewhere. How to relate to the past is primarily relayed through Ben’s and Luke’s storylines, and particularly their conception of what happened at Luke’s Jedi Temple. Both of them have a distorted view of reality at the beginning of the movie. On the one hand, Ben sees his uncle only in the worst light, refusing to acknowledge why Luke may have been scared of his growing inner darkness, an inner darkness which Ben only continues to confirm with every subsequent action (and especially his and the Knights’ massacre of the other padawans in the Temple; Vader, anyone?). Ben’s anger clearly has deep roots in this one event, as we see in his treatment of Luke’s hologram at the end of the movie. This anger toward his past is summed up in one of the most well known lines in the movie: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”
Luke, on the other hand, responds to this event with bitterness and isolation. Whereas Ben wants to destroy everyone and everything because of his shared past, Luke wants to isolate himself from everyone and everything – even the Force. All of what he says and does to Rey prior to her leaving, including throwing the light saber over his shoulder and the “lessons” he gives her, should be seen in this light. He’s speaking as someone who hasn’t yet confronted himself and his biggest mistake, and instead has chosen to isolate himself and drink his own bitterness for fuel. Luke swigging the blue milk is a visual of his heart – he’d rather remain alone and stew than confront the past truthfully and honestly.
One of the primary motifs of the movie is Ben vs. Luke, and in this case their juxtaposition is related not only to how they respond to the past but also how they respond to being confronted about the truth of the past. Neither Ben nor Luke sees the past appropriately at the beginning of the movie. Neither are willing to admit failure (more on this below). Rey confronts both of them with the truth. She is the only one among the trio to see clearly, at least prior to Luke coming to his senses. Ben responds by turning further into himself and to the Dark Side, giving in to his rage. This is no more clearly seen than when he fires “every gun” on Luke’s hologram in front of the abandoned rebel base. Luke, on the other hand, lays down the burdens of pride and bitterness and instead finally admits his mistake to Rey. He also is guided to see the truth about the past in his conversation with Yoda. Both of these confrontations, and really his confrontation of himself, free him from bitterness and allow him to become what he is at the end of the movie – The Last (and Greatest) Jedi. He is at “at peace” with himself and the world, free to do what’s right for the sake of others.
3. Failure – Ben and Luke’s relation to their past is predicated on avoiding and, only in Luke’s case, finally confronting their failures. Luke admits his failure to deal with Ben appropriately and finds freedom. Ben, on the other hand, refuses to admit that he was seduced by the Dark Side, by those who only wish to use him, by those who turned him against his family. And so he remains trapped in a prison of rage. But the seminal moment of failure for these two is not the only moment of failure in the film. Just like everyone lies in the movie, most everyone also fails. And to combine these two themes, sometimes those who fail try to spin it as success. Poe is the prime example of this at the beginning of the movie, failing to lead appropriately his mission. He still thinks it’s a success, but according to what measure? Hux also fails in the beginning, called out dramatically and forcefully in front of his crew by Snoke’s hologram. Snoke also throws Ben’s failure to capture or kill Rey at the end of TFA in Ben’s face at the beginning of TLJ. Poe fails again to understand the bigger picture in his confrontations with Holdo. Holdo probably should be charged with failure to lead well, since she simply dismisses Poe and doesn’t attempt to lead him to understanding, even if that doesn’t include passing on all the information she has. Poe fails again in his mutinous attempt to wrest command from Holdo. Rey fails to convince Luke to return with her. Snoke fails to understand his pupil’s motives and actions in the throne room. Ben fails to turn Rey in the throne room. Finn fails to destroy the battering ram. Hux fails to destroy the rebels and Ben fails to defeat Luke at the end of the movie.
And, most famously of all (at least for the TLJ haters), Finn and Rose fail in every possible way in their Canto Bight mission. “What’s the point of that sequence?” the haters crow. The point is pretty simple: every attempt to escape, defeat, or otherwise thwart the First Order in TLJ fails, and typically fails miserably. The casino sequence is yet another, and perhaps the most desperate and therefore outlandish, attempt to give the rebels a fighting chance. All the little sparks that are supposed to light the fire that will fuel the Rebellion are snuffed out, one by one. The casino sequence isn’t the very last spark (remember the dialogue in the cave) but it is nearly that.
There’s more to say about snuffing out sparks, but for now it’s important to realize that this theme of failure serves to again juxtapose the First Order and the rebels, and especially Ben and Luke. The First Order’s response to failure is denial coupled with violence. The rebels’ response to failure – once they own up to it – is hope (or belief?) and resilience.
We’ve already seen how Ben and Luke, when confronted with the truth about their failure, exhibit this juxtaposed set of responses. But others in the film do the same. Hux retreats further into fear and its symptom, projected strength, whereas Poe admits his mistake, gives up his hubris, and grows into the commander he should have been from the beginning. But in addition to these individual juxtapositions, this theme of failure serves to tell us something about goodness and hope and faith. Despite failure after failure, despite the fact that no one ever comes to their aid, the rebels literally never give up. In spite of overwhelming odds against them, and in spite of the literal and proverbial darkness that surrounds them, they refuse to let their spark be snuffed out.
4. Surprise – This brings us to the fourth theme, what I’ll call surprise. You might even call it eucatastrophe. Every time the rebels are between a rock and a hard place (again, think of the final sequence), something completely unexpected happens that saves them. Luke showing up to the abandoned rebel base is the obvious one here, but there are other surprises. Aside from the fact that many viewers hated them conceptually, I think this is one of the main reasons for both “Leia Poppins” and the Holdo Maneuver. Both are surprising saves in the midst of what seem like impossible circumstances. Leia’s use of the Force also adds an element of mysticism to it, while the Holdo Maneuver saves both the transports and Finn and Rose and, in some ways (psychologically), Rey as well.
5. Love – What distinguishes the rebels from the First Order, ultimately, is love. The rebels can confront the past and their failures and respond with repentance and faith and hope because they love each other. The First Order, on the other hand, only feels hate, for the rebels, for their fellow First Order members, for themselves. This theme of love v. hate is seen in reunions between characters (BB8 and Poe, Poe and Finn, Finn and Rey, Luke and Leia, etc.), relationships that develop (the infamous – but again, important once you recognize what it’s doing – relationship between Finn and Rose), and sacrifice (the Holdo Maneuver, Roses’s sister, Luke). Whereas the rebels exhibit abiding joy in reuniting with one another, deepen relationships with one another, and sacrifice themselves for one another, Hux, Ben, and Snoke turn on each other in hatred and violence. Once again this juxtaposition is seen in one rebel and one member of the First Order, this time Rey and Ben. Their mind meld connection is an opportunity to respond relationally to one another. Ben responds with attempts to manipulate Rey, whereas Rey responds with compassion and attempts to save Ben.
6. Balance – All of these play into, in one way or another, what I think is the major theme of the movie: balance. Themes of understanding the past, confronting our failures, hope, and love all serve to juxtapose the First Order and the rebels, and ultimately they serve to juxtapose those who are internally conflicted and those who are at peace with themselves and with others. Conflict leads to splits, while peace leads to balance. This is portrayed visually a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in the split lightsaber between Rey and Ben in the throne room. But Ben’s facial scar also reminds us every time we look at him that he’s internally conflicted (as Snoke loves to remind him). Snoke’s body is split in half. The Holdo Maneuver splits the First Order, who is already internally conflicted both as a group and as individuals. Ben tries to split Luke’s hologram in half. Rey and Luke, on the other hand, are at peace. Rey visually demonstrates this through balancing the rocks blocking the cave entrance at the end. But it is again Luke who is the focal point of this theme. He is so at peace with himself, so in tune with the Force, that he literally balances in midair over a rock at the end of the film. His assumption into the Force afterward is supposed to remind us of his first Master, Obi-Wan. Like Obi-Wan, Luke warns his wayward to disciple that to strike him down in anger will only make him stronger. And like both Obi-Wan and Yoda, Luke is so at peace that he is caught up into the Force. Luke at the end of the film is the Last and Greatest Jedi.
In light of these themes, here are some theses about TLJ and about the sequel trilogy (ST).
1. Luke Skywalker – This movie/trilogy is, in large part, about Luke. In The Force Awakens, the question is “Where is Luke?” The Last Jedi is clearly about Luke, and he’s the hero of the film. At the end, though, the question is “Where did he go?” In The Rise of Skywalker, I imagine one of the questions will be, “Where is he now?” This is still the Skywalker saga, and not just because Ben is a Skywalker.
2. The Future – FA pushes us past ANH/ESB/ROTJ recapitulation to expect something new (see my post on this from a few years ago). Of course, parts of TLJ recapitulate ESB, too (Hoth à abandoned rebel moon base). At least parts of TLJ recapitulate ROTJ (e.g. Ben killing Snoke to save Rey). If this is what’s going on, the PT is about how the context of the OT came about (the past), while the ST is about what how to understand the past in order to see what happens next (the future).
3. Balance – The fact that Snoke, Ben, and now Palpatine are still around after ROTJ means that Luke’s role to bring balance to the Force wasn’t actually complete at the end of ROTJ. Maybe Luke didn’t balance out the force because he didn’t kill Palpatine. The same thing happened in TLJ; Luke or Rey didn’t kill Snoke, Snoke’s disciple did. This just continues the cycle of violence endemic to the Dark Side. Even though Darth Vader turns back to the light at the end of ROTJ, maybe there’s something lacking in how he dealt with Palpatine, how Luke wasn’t involved, and what that means for bringing balance to the Force.
4. Continuity – I think TLJ is in continuity with the ST and with the entirety of the SW franchise. I mean, first of all, do we really think Disney would let Rian Johnson just wing it? Second, regarding killing off characters suddenly and the like, have y’all ever watched The Force Awakens? Han Solo, maybe the most beloved character in all of Star Wars besides Chewie, gets treated as a plot device. Luke Skywalker, hero of all Star Wars heroes, isn’t even in The Force Awakens.
5. Preaching – The last issue I want to deal with is the accusation that TLJ is just a progressive sermonic diatribe. Some of the crowing about TLJ and its preachiness isn’t reality. For instance, some people think Johnson took the opportunity to preach some kind of anti-male ideology via the film’s treatment of its male protagonists and their relation to women. Rey is better than Luke for most of the film, Finn is a bumbling idiot, and Poe is bossed around by Holdo and Leia. Well, for one thing, we’ve already seen that Luke’s, Finn’s, and Poe’s failures are all foils for their character development. Each of them respond heroically, not by might but by repentance. But there’s also the fact that at the end of the movie Leia turns to the rebel remnant and says “Follow him!” She literally turns over command to Poe. The issue at the beginning of the movie wasn’t that he is a man, it was that he hadn’t learned how to be a leader.
So, I think TLJ is a good movie. I think you can argue whether or not the particular ways Johnson executed some of these themes and theses isn’t the best (e.g. couldn’t Leia have used the Force to save herself in some other unexpected way?) But this movie isn’t dumping on Star Wars. It doesn’t mistreat Luke. And it doesn’t cut itself off from what TFA was doing. It’s a good movie.
 I make this caveat because some folks got weirdly defensive about fan culture on Twitter the other day, soooo.