My earliest memories involve Star Wars. I lied to my mother about having seen it so she would rent it again. When she caught me lying, she wouldn’t let me watch it. I remember drawing pictures of Jabba’s palace as a kid and wondering how Luke was going to defeat Darth Vader. When the Zahn trilogy was released, I was over the moon – here was something new, something that filled in the void of what happened after the Battle of Endor. I went right along with everyone else to happily see Phantom Menace and the rest of the prequels in the theater and read almost every one of the expanded universe books that followed the Solo twins and Anakin Skywalker through sacrifice and loss. For me and many who grew up in the 80s, Star Wars became part of our deep story. May the Force Be With you was something we all said, something that partially acknowledged our own nerdiness for loving a piece of fiction that at the same time, filled a spiritual role.
When Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, I was nervous and excited. As the news built towards The Force Awakens, I grew more and more excited. Even as Disney banished twenty years of books and Star Wars fiction to the dust bin, I held out hope because here was finally the time to see what our heros were up to on the big screen where this world was born.
I loved The Force Awakens. I can totally and shameless acknowledge that it absolutely was a retelling of Star Wars A New Hope – and I was totally fine with it. I knew that the original actors wouldn’t be with us forever and that they were most likely not going to be a part of the story very long. I heard mixed reports about Rogue One but still we were there opening night, watching with awe as they actually changed how I saw A New Hope. They made it fresh, they made me care about a Star Wars world that did not involve the main characters. And I loved it. I loved that it was a war movie. I loved that I could care deeply about characters and a story that did not revolve around the Skywalkers and Vader and still be deeply moved.
The same anticipation built for the last two years as we marched toward The Last Jedi. I was giddy at work. Here was the payoff of all the story set up in The Force Awakens. Here was our chance for an explanation of who was Snoke and how was he powerful enough to turn Kylo Ren away from his family? How did the First Order arise? Who was Rey and how was she connected to Anakin’s lightsaber? Why did Kylo Ren need to kill Han? All of these questions were unanswered, left hanging for two years and I needed to know.
XXX Spoilers Below XXX
The Last Jedi isn’t terrible and the purpose of this post is not to crap anyone who enjoyed it. I’m not here to ruin anyone’s joy. In fact, if I’m being honest, I’m jealous that I couldn’t walk out of the theater filled with that same sense of joy and anticipation for Episode IX.
I left the theater in tears but not because Luke died. I saw that coming and I was mentally prepared to be upset. But the level of devastation I felt leaving the theater was something deeper. Something more important was missing from this story that, for me, was Star Wars in name only.
I don’t hate the Last Jedi. I’m decidedly not agnostic about it, having spent the twenty four hours following my first showing of it in deep, eschatological meltdown, the kind of which only happens when something deeply important to you is violated.
The Last Jedi is pointless and it utterly misses what makes Star Wars special to millions of people spanning at least three generations. Again, for people who loved it, I am genuinely happy for them. But for me, it’s missing a critical piece of Star Wars deep story.
Deep story is the idea that the stories we tell ourselves represent fundamental ways of seeing ourselves and our place in the world. Deep story it doesn’t have to be true but the emotions have to be real. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild says deep stories are “the stories we tell ourselves to capture our hopes, pride, disappointments, fears, and anxieties” [i].
Star Wars’ deep story always involved hope. Hope that the fight was worth it. That there was something more important than money. Even as American trust in institutions faltered over the last forty years[ii], Star Wars was there, showing us that even the bad guys can be saved. It showed us that there was a purpose. As Palpatine eroded trust in the Senate and seized power, at least we knew he was there, pulling the strings – there was some grand design. That it wasn’t just nihilistic chance favoring the lucky.
What the Last Jedi is missing is that sense of deep story that is fundamentally Star Wars – that there’s a purpose, that somehow, despite it all, the sacrifice and loss of fighting the Empire or the First Order is worth it. That the characters are complicated and alien but fundamentally human in their failings and their victories.
We needed to know why Kylo Ren turned to the Dark Side. What power could have drawn that boy away from the light? Instead, we get nothing. We saw him murder his father – but we held out hope that maybe, just maybe, there was some compelling reason. Some way to forgive him. The idea of redemption is also part of Star Wars deep story. Even Vader – who destroyed entire planets – could be forgiven.
Instead, with Kylo Ren, we get nothing. No reason why he killed his father. No reason why he was turning to the Dark Side to begin with.
We needed to know why Snoke was so powerful? What was the source of his power? How was he able to rise to power? How was he able to seduce Ben Solo away from the Jedi and from Luke and presumably from parents who loved him? For all the faults of the prequels, at least we knew that Anakin Skywalker was turning to Darth Sidious because he wanted to save Padme.
And we knew that Darth Sidious was powerful not because he told us how powerful he was but because he showed us. We saw him playing chess through three films – outsmarting the Jedi, slowly drawing Anakin away. We knew he was evil and we saw his brilliant use of his evil. Snoke was a caricature of evil. Palpatine manipulated Anakin but he never humiliated him. Instead, we see Snoke dismiss Kyle Ren with a toxic flick of his wrist. This is supposed to engender loyalty? We’re supposed to believe that Kylo Ren gave up everything for this guy? When the bad guy has to tell you how powerful he is, he’s probably not.
Another betrayal of the deep story is Luke and Kylo Ren. Luke wouldn’t kill his own father – not even when doing so would have saved the fleet at the Battle of Endor. He wouldn’t cross that line – and we knew how evil Vader was. We’re supposed to believe that Luke Skywalker was going to murder his nephew because of potential evil? The entire speech about how he was Luke Skywalker and had started to believe his own hype? It was empty and soulless and a complete betrayal of a character’s ethos that everyone believed in for forty years.
The final betrayal of the deep story of Star Wars was in completely missing what made Star Wars about hope. The hope was not embodied in a single person – it was never embedded in saving Leia or Luke. The hope was that people, working together, could restore justice – not order – to the galaxy. What made the Empire terrifying was the seizure of legal power – and there was a tiny bunch of misfits out there, which help from friends, working to restore justice. That restoring order was not about money or power. Not about heroes. It was about justice.
Many of us who have deployed in support of Iraq and Afghanistan have deeply questioned our purpose there. Were we fighting the good fight or were we merely enriching war profiteers? Star Wars was always about good fight – until we see the thief take the money and run. Until we see that the war profiteers made their fortunes off selling weapons to the First Order and the Resistance. There’s no mastermind. Only greed. Et tu, Star Wars?
In The Last Jedi – Leia tells Poe to send a distress signal to the galaxy – someone will come. Not because they need to save the Resistance but because they need to save Leia. That without Leia, the Resistance is dead. Her line at the end of the movie – that they had everything they needed to spark a rebellion is based on the flawed premise that Star Wars depends on Luke and Leia and Threepio and Chewie and the Falcon. It was never about them – they were what connected us to the deep story. It was always about getting the Death Star plans to the Rebellion or defeating the Empire. The heroes enabled us to connect with the larger story – that the fight, the sacrifice was worth it.
That’s what The Last Jedi is missing. It was absolutely an ending of the old Star Wars – the Star Wars that made people grow up and want to join the rebellion and fight the good fight. It was an end of a deep story that connected individual people to something larger than themselves.
Instead, it was hollow, repeating itself that it was about hope and about sparking a rebellion. But we never saw that. When Leia called, no one answered. Why would they continue to fight a rebellion that no one supported?
When Leia tells Luke, “I’m glad you’re here with me, at the end” – she’s right. It was the end of Star Wars as a force of meaning for people who grew up to see every single institution around them fail. Deep story doesn’t have to be real for it to feel true. And that, ultimately is why The Last Jedi disappointed me and so many others.
It betrayed the deep story that was Star Wars. And for me and millions of others who are reeling from this, it is the loss of the last institution that gave us hope.
[i] Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land.
[ii] Gauchat, “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere.”