NOTE: There are spoilers for The Last Jedi in this article. Please stop reading if you have not seen the movie yet.
When I started writing this article, the first paragraph detailed my excitement for Star Wars: The Last Jedi and how the only expectations I had were that it would be a good movie. At one point in the original article I wrote, “I was happily absent of expectations before the film.” It felt true when I wrote it; it really did. As I kept writing, I realized it was not true. It was actually far from true! I had many expectations for the film beyond it being good. I was just unaware of them all.
There is a moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda warns Luke not to take his weapons into the cave. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda responds, “Only what you take with you.”
The Last Jedi is a Rorschach test of a film.
Consciously and subconsciously, we all have expectations about what Star Wars should be. And when The Last Jedi challenges those expectations – or openly subverts them – it triggers an anxiety reaction. How we monitor and process that reaction likely goes a long way to determining if we thought The Last Jedi was a “good” movie or not.
I’m not here to tell you how to react to The Last Jedi. What I am suggesting is to review the expectations you had about the film and franchise because I was unaware of many of my own expectations. Overall, I thought the film was brilliant, and I would like to harness the nervous energy I experienced during those two-and-a-half hours while watching the movie on opening night.
Because that feeling of plunging into the unknown was pure electricity.
My response to the Rorschach test of The Last Jedi is below.
Unlearn What You Have Learned
As the release date approached, I kept myself in a media (social and otherwise) bubble to avoid spoilers for The Last Jedi. The closer it got to opening night, the more anxious I got. I entered the theater with no information about the movie other than the two official trailers. I knew less about The Last Jedi than I did going into The Force Awakens in 2015. The feeling of uncertainty was palpable. My one unrealistic, fanboy hope was that a Force-ghost Hayden Christensen would show up to give a 2-3 minute, Oscar-worthy performance.
(I felt like this was a possibility, or at least was considered as an option by the story group at one time. I mean, Young Anakin talking to old Luke could have produced some strong emotional moments. I’d love to hear that conversation, probably because I lost my father when I was 8 years-old and talking to him as an adult would be so meaningful. Instead, they had Yoda serve in a similar capacity in the film with Luke, which I certainly have no complaints about.)
My somewhat silly interest in Hayden getting some redemption with Star Wars fans aside, I attempted to go into the film with an open mind. I just wanted to experience it mindfully. Throughout the film, I was riveted, enthralled, and thoroughly invested. When the credits rolled after the movie, I turned to my wife and said, “I’m sweating. My entire back is clammy.”
“That’s gross,” was her only reply.
It was not overly warm in the theater, so why was I sweating? The sweating was the result of my nervous system operating at lightspeed as my heart and mind absorbed new details about characters I have carried with me for more than 35 years. I cannot recall another movie-going experience that resulted in so much activation during the film.
In all honestly, I doubt another film could.
What other film universe have I been invested in for that length of time? What other character for me has the same level of emotional real estate as Luke Skywalker – last seen (except for mere seconds in The Force Awakens) in 1983 celebrating with his friends after successfully redeeming his father. I was born in 1976 and grew up with the adventures of Luke Skywalker. I spent years of my life drawing pictures of his adventures and playing with his toys. When they stopped making movies, I continued to read comics and novels that carried on the Star Wars story. Luke continued to be a hero; he traveled across the universe to solve problems and right wrongs. He trained new students and even got married.
He continued to be the Luke I grew up with.
The Last Jedi immediately challenged these memories and conceptualizations of Luke Skywalker. When I first met Luke, he was a wide-eyed kid that wanted to explore the universe and make a difference; now I learned he just wants to be left alone because he believes the only difference he can make is to cause more problems in the universe. Call it a slap in the face, a gut punch, or a kick in the nuts – it forced me to challenge thoughts and beliefs I held about Luke. It was distressing to see Luke in this state.
It created dissonance because the new information about Luke contradicted my prior beliefs.
It was uncomfortable.
My expectations and assumptions about Star Wars and Luke Skywalker were being threatened. When our brain perceives danger, it activates our fight-or-flight response to fight back against a threat or prepare us to run away. Symptoms of that fight-or-flight response include faster heartbeat, shallower breathing, tighter muscles, and increased perspiration.
The Last Jedi activated my central nervous system by challenging expectations and contradicting my beliefs about Star Wars – many of which I did not really know I had before the film arrived.
It’s why I was a sweaty mess at the end of the film, and truly loved the experience.
The Empire of the Trilogy
A commonly held expectation for The Last Jedi was that it would replicate the tone of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s the second act of the new trilogy, and the first act, The Force Awakens, closely resembled A New Hope – some would say to its detriment. As The Last Jedi starts, we are thrown into a situation similar to the Battle of Hoth. The Resistance is fleeing a planet as The First Order closes in, and a space battle ensues. The opening felt familiar, and added a thought bubble in my mind, “They are sticking with the Empire blueprint.”
Only, not exactly. The action sequence results in many Resistance casualties, and Poe is admonished and demoted for his “flyboy” antics. Meanwhile, we return to Rey’s meeting with Luke and he unceremoniously tosses his lightsaber – a weapon he last wielded in 1980’s Empire – over his shoulder.
I laughed when he did it, perhaps a bit uncomfortably.
The tension of that moment between Luke and Rey had built up over two years since the credits on The Force Awakens scrolled in 2015. His response seemed like a fun way to subvert my expectations because I still figured he would yield to assist Rey, “Oh, I get it. He’s playing hard to get. I mean, it’s Luke Skywalker – of course he’s going to train Rey and set her on a path to fight against The Dark Side.”
These thoughts were going through my mind as I continued to consume the movie. However, with that single gesture, Luke communicated to Rey (and the audience) that he does not give a damn about his legacy, and that nobody else should either. It’s the first of many moments that challenged my assumptions and expectations about Star Wars.
There were many others during the film.
While Rey’s pursuit of Luke’s mentorship mirrors in some ways Luke’s pursuit of Yoda’s during Empire, it is hammered home that Luke is not testing Rey to see if she is worthy or hesitant to train her because she’s “not ready.” He truly just wants to be left alone. It is uncomfortable to see Luke so damaged, and it is frustrating to have the story held up because he’s not playing along. His role is to train Rey so she can take on Kylo and Snoke, right? That’s what’s supposed to happen, isn’t it?
The Last Jedi kept me guessing about its intentions and directions. While I never felt cognitively comfortable during the film, I was enthralled emotionally. I was immersed in the movie, and mindful that this experience was truly special. I was getting the opportunity to watch the story of characters I have cared about for decades unfold before my eyes – and I had no idea what was going to happen next.
It was exhilarating.
As Rey and Kylo were connecting psychically like Aragorn and Arwen in the film version of The Lord of the Rings, I was wondering if the outcome to their feud was going to be a romantic relationship. (For the record, the psychic connection between Rey and Kylo was fantastic, and I imagine there is a treasure trove of Reylo fanfic already available for your consumption!) A romantic union of sorts seemed plausible, and as they are together in an elevator heading to meet Snoke I thought, “Wait, this isn’t just the Empire of the series. They are smashing elements of Empire and Return of the Jedi into the first half of this film? WHAT IS HAPPENING!?”
The scene between Snoke, Rey, and Kylo was fascinating. It played out much like the interaction between The Emperor, Luke, and Vader in Return of the Jedi. But my expectation was that it would conclude in a different way. Surely they will not kill off Snoke in the second movie! He had to survive until the next film because – well, he just had to, right?
Kylo kills Snoke, and teams up with Rey to defeat his armed guards.
My head was spinning: Where does this story go now? What is happening? Who was Snoke? Are they just going to move on and never explain him? Are Rey and Kylo on the same side now? Wait, doesn’t this movie have another hour or so left? WHAT IS NEXT?
(As an aside, the audience never knew much about The Emperor in the original trilogy. Besides showing up in a hologram in Empire, and being an old, creepy, evil dude in Jedi, what did we know about him? Do I want to know more about Snoke? Sure, but let’s not pretend we’re entitled to more answers. We didn’t have them 30 years ago for The Emperor.)
The parallels to Empire were long gone. The expectations I had – conscious and otherwise – were shredded, and what was left was my rapt attention for where Star Wars was going next.
Going into The Force Awakens, I assumed Han Solo would die. I had read enough backstory about Harrison Ford wanting Han to die in Return of the Jedi that I figured the only way he would come back for another film is if the franchise killed off Han. So it was not surprising when Han was killed by Kylo, especially since it was spoiled for me by some jackass spamming #TheForceAwakens hashtag on Twitter with “Han dies” minutes before the film’s opening. (If you want to know why I was nervous about spoilers before The Last Jedi, then this is Exhibit A) With the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, I assumed Leia would die in The Last Jedi.
And she does.
As The First Order closes in on The Resistance command ship in a scenario that reminded me of the classic Battlestar Galactica episode, 33, Leia and other members of leadership are blasted into space as the bridge explodes. Poor Ackbar! It was sad, but seemed a tidy end for Leia’s character and the situation with Carrie Fisher not being available for additional filming. Only Leia instinctively wakes up in space and uses The Force to fly back to the ship to stay alive.
It was an amazing scene; I don’t even know the emotions and thoughts that went through my head at the time. I was dumbstruck. It once again challenged my expectations, and not only did Leia survive the space battle – she remained alive at the end of the movie. I recall reading this quote about Carrie Fisher from Kathleen Kennedy, “The minute she finished, she grabbed me and said, ‘I’d better be at the forefront of IX!’ Because Harrison was front and center on VII, and Mark is front and center on VIII. She thought IX would be her movie. And it would have been.” I figured they would change things to have Leia die in this film because that would be the easiest way to navigate a difficult situation.
Now I’m guessing Episode IX will move forward a few years and Leia’s death will be covered in the crawl or perhaps it’ll start with her funeral. However, any expectations I have about Star Wars should be put out on the curb given how much The Last Jedi played against such expectations!
Equality Can Feel Like Oppression
Outside of Lando, Leia, and one scene with Mon Mothma, the original Star Wars trilogy is mostly white men talking to each other. Padme and Mace Windu aside, the prequels did not do much to change that dynamic. One of the great aspects of The Force Awakens was the diversity it introduced to the Star Wars universe through casting choices. Rey, Finn, and Poe are central characters, and they are played by a woman or non-white actors.
The Last Jedi goes further to broaden the representation of non-white and non-male characters. I believe more women had speaking roles in the first 15 minutes of the film compared to the entire original trilogy combined. We see more female pilots and crew members throughout the film, and Laura Dern’s character, Vice Admiral Holdo, is in a position of authority. Another new character, Rose, is played by an Asian-American woman, Kelly Marie Tran, and the plot has her teamed up for most of the film with Finn, portrayed by the British Nigerian person of color, John Boyega.
Representation of non-white and non-male individuals may not be important to some fans of Star Wars. It may not be something they have ever thought about, and that is a position of privilege. If you are like me – a 41-year old, white male – then you are already represented well in the Star Wars universe. There was no additional mental leap required to imagine yourself in that universe because you were represented by multiple characters. Now that the Star Wars universe is featuring more non-white and non-male characters, it may be threatening to fans that grew accustomed to the less-diverse dynamic.
It is another aspect of The Last Jedi that can create discomfort because it is different from what people have known. As mentioned above, anything that violates our expectations can feel like a threat to our brain, which in turn engages our anxiety, fight-or-flight response.
Meanwhile, those that have not been traditionally represented well – or at all – in the Star Wars universe are thrilled. Representation matters!
Earlier this year, I interviewed a fellow gamer, Duane Sibilly, and he spoke about how powerful it was as a person of color to watch the trailer for Black Panther with his son. He talked about enjoying the hobby of tabletop roleplaying games and struggling to find other players that looked like him or game content featuring characters that looked like him. The lack of representation also extends to action and comic book movies, so the fact that Black Panther features numerous persons of color in a widely advertised, major motion picture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is meaningful to him and his son.
The fact that Star Wars is representing a broader range of diversity in the new movies should not exclude longtime fans from enjoying the movies. However, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression. A women or person of color getting equal screen time with white males may feel threatening and create tension during the movie; you might not even be aware of what’s driving that discomfort.
Monitor these expectations. One of the insidious aspects of privilege is how unaware those in privilege can be that they are benefiting from such privilege. It is why efforts to increase equality or “spread the wealth” can feel like a threat. To be very clear, I am not offering that anyone who disliked The Last Jedi is sexist or racist. That would be an absurd position! I am not saying that. What I am saying is to check your assumptions and expectations. Be aware of them.
I once heard that knowing is half the battle, though I think that was another franchise….
I have so much more I want to say about The Last Jedi, and I certainly will discuss those topics until the end of my days. I want to thank everyone that worked to make this film possible, and signed off on the sheer number of chances it took with the Star Wars universe. It was a two-hour exposure therapy session that took me back to watching Return of the Jedi in the theater in 1983 when I did not know the outcome of my favorite characters while saying, “Oh, you think you know everyone about Star Wars? You think you know how everything works? Well, how about this!?”
How often do we get surprised by our film franchises now? The superhero movies are great fun, but there are no surprises. The heroes are going to suffer some complications and eventually overcome them. It’s a formula, and I’ve enjoyed watching it play out in dozens of movies over the past 10-20 years. Perhaps we’ve all been spoiled by the We Get What We Want formula. The closest comparison to The Last Jedi might be the last season of Game of Thrones, which is beyond the source material from the novels meaning we are all in the dark about what’s “supposed” to happen next.
I wish I could reach the level of rapt attention and wonder I had while watching The Last Jedi on opening night more often, though I get a similar vibe when I watch my 11-month-old son walk around and experiment with the world. The Last Jedi was not perfect, and it’s completely fine if others did not enjoy it as much as I did – or if the reasons for my enjoyment seem alien to other viewers. I have only seen the film once, and I cannot wait to go back to theater to drink in the movie again without the burden of decades of assumptions and expectations, especially now that I’m more aware of them all!