Since its release, Star Wars Episode VIII: The First Order Strikes Back has been both praised and savaged for daring to radically break with the past.
One by one, it’s being said, the legendary heroes of this franchise are stepping down to give way to fresh blood. But in my never humble opinion, the film wasted a great opportunity to be even bolder, and instead fell into the trap of changing everything so that everything will stay the same.
The trailers promised that Luke would put an end to the Jedi Order. As we watch him reluctantly train Rey, Luke gets us to agree with his assessment that the Jedi were a complete failure, and not only because the prequels were done badly: having the Light confined within an exclusivist, hierarchical system was a bad idea since the start.
When we hear Luke say that no one holds a monopoly on the Light, a touch of Martin Luther is visible in his attitude as a reformer of a decrepit organization that out of misguided hubris set itself as the sole gatekeeper of spiritual gifts that come from the universe itself and therefore should rightfully belong to everyone.
For a brief moment, it’s refreshing to see that the Luke we first met as a boy eager to follow his elders has matured to the point where he’s willing to let go of outdated traditions, but that side of him can make us forget how a few scenes earlier he chastised R2-D2 for using foul language in the vicinity of the first Jedi temple, a place that, notwithstanding his criticism of the Order, he still thinks is sacred. Near the end of the film, he’s still too attached to the symbolic weight of the Jedi scriptures, and shortly afterwards looks incongruously happy to announce to his enemy that the Jedi aren’t finished after all.
What were all his speeches for? Why make so much emphasis on the Force being much bigger and deeper and richer than the teachings of one defeated group? The movie’s plot gave us a short glimpse of a Star Wars unburdened from its past, but became too scared of the open possibilities and instead held a firm grip on its lightsaber and returned to its comfort zone.
This dissonance between what the movie promised and what it delivered could have fixed with a single line. When he stands in front of the First Order’s artillery to give the Rebels time to escape, Luke could have finished his speech by saying something less constraining to the future of the franchise.
He could have said that the Light would keep shining even without anyone being formally called a Jedi, or that the opposition of Light versus Dark was the wrong way of understanding the Force, or anything except the lazy cop-out of “I will not be the last Jedi.”
As a result, the movie is not true to its promise and not even true to its name. The last Jedi turned out to not be the last, and the franchise as a whole missed the chance to explore what its universe would look like without its most iconic defenders.
After over two hours of speeches on how the past needs to be left behind, it’s disappointing that the film couldn’t bring itself to discard the sharp light/dark dichotomy that has always filtered how the Force is accessed in the Star Wars universe. After we were promised a galaxy with no more Jedi, we ended up getting more of the same.
Even Kylo Ren’s literalist approach to discarding the past would have been more interesting to watch than what we got. Instead, once again the spotlight of all hope is focused on one barely trained teenager from a desert world and uncertain parentage. Once again, a nondescript old guy in a throne seeks conquest for conquest’s sake, only to be killed by a whiny emo kid with an obsession for black clothes. And once again, we didn’t get Gray Jedis.
I get it: Disney wants this franchise to last forever. But that doesn’t mean its stories have to stay stuck at the same position with every iteration. It’s time for new ways for the Force to manifest itself other than along the same two eternal battle lines. It’s not too late for that child with a broom to change the direction of this story.