Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an excellent addition to the Star Wars canon, precisely because it is not cowed by its predecessors. Instead, the new film is a surprising, occasionally subversive continuation of the saga—and a film designed to get at the heart of what makes Star Wars stories appealing, what makes them matter. It seems director Rian Johnson set out to make the essential Star Wars film, and in many ways he succeeded.
The film moves forward the stories of classic characters like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), alongside the new protagonists introduced in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, namely repentant stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and potential Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley). But it is two new additions to the cast who best embody the ethos of The Last Jedi, deconstructing the Star Wars tropes of chosen ones and rebellious derring-do and then rebuilding a new vision of hope and heroism. Mild spoilers will follow as we delve into why.
I loved many choices made by the filmmakers of The Last Jedi. They did not use CGI resurrection to shoehorn in a fuller send-off for Fisher as Leia (in the way a digital revenant of Peter Cushing was used in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). They laudably allowed the Force to be something mystical and sacred that could guide and chasten characters (no “midichlorians” or other hard sci-fi technobabble about the Force here). And the sad and self-consuming nature of evil was captured impressively (expanding on how the good guys had more fun in The Force Awakens). But the most important choice of all was to return the franchise to its scrappy, populist roots.
The first Star Wars movie had the science-fiction trappings of aliens and spaceships, but it was at heart a certain kind of fairy tale adventure: An ordinary farm boy goes on a quest to save a princess from a dark sorcerer-king. But the twists of the original trilogy negated the idea that Luke Skywalker was a normal young man who had stumbled onto a chance at heroism. It was revealed that the princess was his sister, the sorcerer-king was his father, and they were all part of a destiny-laden bloodline. The Last Jedi goes back to basics. Anyone can be a protagonist in this universe, no magic heritage required.
Luke Skywalker tells Rey (and us) that the Force unites all living beings, and it is foolish to think of the Force as the special purview of one family or even of the Jedi order. The movie bears this out with a satisfyingly anticlimactic answer to the question of who Rey’s parents were. And it drives the point home with Rose, a lowly Resistance mechanic who aids former stormtrooper Finn in a key plotline. Rose is played by Kelly Marie Tran, a relatively unknown actress of Vietnamese descent who is not “Hollywood beautiful.” She realizes the role marvelously as a winning everywoman who fights in defense of the innocent. Though she bears a Force-symbol pendant as a memento of her sister, a fallen Resistance fighter, she is not driven by a desire for vengeance. Instead, she honors her sister’s self-giving by taking the time to free children and animals from tyranny. In a climactic moment, she pulls Finn back from the brink of foolhardy sacrifice and delivers an encapsulation of the movie’s values: “We have to start caring more about protecting the things we love than destroying the things we hate.”
Rose is at the heart of the movie because she subverts the tired trope of destined heroism and shows how “ordinary” people can make a difference by fighting for good (as opposed to only against evil). Even in a galaxy far, far away, there is, as it were, a universal call to holiness. But another new character, and another subverted trope, had a more specific and less expected religious resonance. Vice Admiral Holdo, played by a pink-haired and poised Laura Dern, reminded me strongly of St. Thomas More, as depicted in Robert Bolt’s classic play A Man for All Seasons. Holdo’s arc interrogated the idea of heroic martyrdom and offered something akin to a Christian response.
Holdo is an even-keeled authority figure in the Resistance, and is almost immediately the object of Poe Dameron’s distrust and anger. Poe was introduced in The Force Awakens as the rebel par excellence, a true believer with dashingly tousled hair and a penchant for never-tell-me-the-odds, one-shot-in-a-million missions—the bread and butter of most Star Wars films. Right off the bat, Leia demotes Poe for losing the Resistance’s entire fleet of bombers when he defies her orders and leads them to a Pyrrhic victory. Poe then clashes with Holdo as she puts into practice a less showily heroic loss-minimizing strategy for the beleaguered Resistance. In some movies, Holdo would be the boss who just doesn’t understand, who needs to be defied. Here it’s clear that she’s right and Poe is out of line when he goes behind her back and rebels against the chain of command. His eagerness to die in a blaze of glory is presented as immaturity.
This film takes a risk by depicting its heroes failing repeatedly, often with disastrous consequences for themselves and others. The movement of the film is from fleeing failure to learning from it. This is the key to the main storyline, in which Luke Skywalker must learn to confront and accept his failures as a Jedi master. But it is also the case on the Resistance flagship, where the handsome and heroic Poe Dameron utterly misjudges what is needful and justified. He learns his lesson in leaderly wisdom from Vice Admiral Holdo, and finally follows her example: salvaging hope for the Resistance with a disciplined retreat rather than a desperate last stand.
It’s easy to see Holdo as a study in female leadership running up against boys’ club mentalities. It’s also easy to be reminded of great classical generals, like the canny Fabius Maximus, who outlasted Hannibal’s superior forces with delay tactics and guerilla maneuvers. In Livy’s history of Rome, he records Fabius advising a younger general: “Never mind if they call your caution timidity, your wisdom sloth, your generalship weakness; it is better that a wise enemy should fear you than that foolish friends should praise.” Holdo embodies this counsel because she’s unafraid to seem cowardly or overcautious if her actions can give the Resistance a fighting chance.
For me, though, Holdo’s storyline most vividly recalled St. Thomas More’s in A Man for All Seasons. The play (like the film based on it) is a meditation on what martyrdom is—and what it isn’t. More is emphatically not seeking martyrdom. He understands it is not licit for him to cast his life away in a gesture of glorious disobedience. “If they’d open a crack that wide, I’d be through it like a bird,” he says, indicating a miniscule fissure. But he knows he can’t give his persecutors what they say they want, an oath that Henry VIII is the rightful head of the Church of England. He has no interest in defiance for defiance’s sake, but he won’t do the morally impossible.
This is consistent with the Church’s teaching on martyrdom. Though she honors those who bear witness unto death, the Church sees martyrdom as a momentous gift rather than something the faithful can seek out. In this she follows Jesus’s instructions: “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another” (Matthew 10:23). Fr. Peter Joseph writes: “Real martyrs do not seek death but accept it when it comes. Some of the early Fathers told their more zealous parishioners, ‘Do not go to the officers of the law and denounce yourselves as Christians!’” Fr. Joseph offers this striking truth: “The Christian martyr does not die out of hatred of the enemy as a soldier might, but out of love for his killers, as Jesus taught and lived.” This is a beautiful intensification of Rose’s love-over-hate message in The Last Jedi. Our love ought to embrace even the enemies who persecute us.
Here is how we should understand martyrdom: We must bear witness to truth always, and shed our blood for it if absolutely necessary. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Vice Admiral Holdo proves she understands this. The moment is so shot through with religious resonance that the normal pseudo-religious utterances of Star Wars (“May the Force be with you,” and the like) are inadequate. Instead, there’s an oblique invocation of a more personal transcendent reality—“Godspeed, rebels.”
It is risky for a Star Wars director to tinker with the inner workings of the franchise and thoroughly reconfigure central tropes like the chosen-hero and the rebel-martyr. But Rian Johnson’s willingness to refashion the storytelling engine gives us a film far more original and interesting than The Force Awakens, one that expands what heroism looks like in a galaxy far, far away—and perhaps helps us better understand how to be witnesses to hope and truth in our own galaxy.
Alexi Sargeant is a theater director and culture critic who writes from New York.