A dashing, psychologically unbalanced, absurdly talented villain begins spending time with a pretty, talented young girl with a savior complex. They go together like fire and water! That’s right, Star Wars: The Last Jedi was written by a bunch of emotionally stunted and middle-aged Avatar: The Last Airbender fans with deviantart accounts. And it shows.
In Which Rey Has to… Wait, Never Mind
Rey! Our heroine! Our favorite character! Or main-girl, protagonist, the locus of the story! How do we know this? Everyone in the movie told us so!
Let’s review where we left Rey in the previous Star Wars installment: standing on a secluded and distant planet, meeting a legend for the first time. Luke Skywalker, presumably about to train her in the ways of the Force, has been found with her help. She alone defeated the violent and chaotic Kylo Ren, her adversarial rival and experienced Sith apprentice. She alone rescued herself from the clutches of the First Order and their interrogation chambers. She alone wooed and impressed the washed-up once-hero Han Solo enough for him to offer her a job.
Unfortunately, the story presented in The Force Awakens is little more than the depiction of a sequence of events. The writing does not even pretend to depict Rey as a character who grows or learns anything, nor even one that seems capable of making a mistake. Her steadfast resolve to fix her own problems—and the narrative’s willingness to indulge in her every ability—forbids any character from giving her a helping hand. Far from developing friendships, Rey has, by the close of The Force Awakens, accumulated a handful of pets who look up to her but whom she has no direct connection to. Chewie hangs around because he likes the ship she stole, BB-8 is a robot, and Finn, as covered in the previous segment, is never given enough of an arc to even discover his own motivations. For all we know, Finn likes Rey because she’s the first girl who ever looked at him without a helmet obscuring his face.
And so The Last Jedi opens: a girl who has no particular need for anyone comes to the great Luke Skywalker for help. Director Rian Johnson is left trying to figure out who exactly Rey is, what her motivations are, and why we’re supposed to care about her, since the last movie gave its protagonist only a few charming smiles, a couple ugly grimaces, and a handful of throw-away lines about mysteries and parents. Or at least, that’s what we’d expect, if the movie made any sense.
The truth is that Johnson doesn’t seem compelled to figure any of that out. Rey is every bit as enigmatic at the end of The Last Jedi as she is at the beginning—more so, perhaps, given the bizarre twists her plot makes through the film. Somehow, Johnson succeeded at making her even less interesting and even more mysterious than she was at the end of The Force Awakens.
So how does this happen? Apparently, pretty easily. You stick to the formula that failed in the last movie: depict Rey as a strong, spirited young woman whose purpose it is to set the record straight, talk down to the people trying to help her, and violently fight anyone who might stand in her way. Naturally, this makes her out to be a bit of an impulsive and arrogant protagonist who, one would think, could have all sorts of possibilities for growth. Luke, after all, matured from a whiney farm boy looking for adventure into a young but talented man out of his depth between Episodes IV and V, and then finally, to a hero willing to die in order to save his father in VI. Over the course of two movies, all that has changed for Rey is her profession.
It takes some time for Rey’s arc to really get out of control. This is due in part because Rey’s arc isn’t well defined at the beginning of the film, and because the audience has no idea what to expect as to where her development is supposed to go. With Finn and Poe, as pointed out in the previous section of this analysis, the answers to those questions were obvious. Finn had to learn where he belonged and, in so doing, he had to overcome his natural cowardice. Poe, meanwhile, had to learn to obey authority in order to better understand the nature of leadership. The fact that those two arcs were intentionally and nonsensically subverted into out-of-control dumpster fires is irrelevant to the point: it was at least clear that their characters had directions and intentions.
Rey, on the other hand, lacks all of that. All we know is her mission—to receive Luke and bring him back to the Resistance leadership—and her personal interest in being trained in the ways of the force. But that’s the extent of her known intentions, and it all lacks punch. Poe had motivations—his interest in preserving the Resistance and winning the war. Finn, likewise, had clear motivations inferable from his intentions: his interest in saving Rey and his conflict over leaving his home in the First Order. Rey’s motivations, however, don’t seem to make any sense.
What we’re told is that she’s looking for her parents. This seems to be the same motivation she had in The Force Awakens for leaving Jakku, yet very little is elaborated on. Based on the general sense of emotional, psychological, and moral maturity that she demonstrates throughout both films, it’s hard to see what impact growing up alone had on her. This is one of the biggest problems with her character entirely: her origin doesn’t coincide with her actions. If anything, a girl who grew up having been abandoned would have had a woefully underdeveloped sense of right and wrong, particularly if she grew up around smugglers, thieves, and bandits, and that’s assuming she wouldn’t have simply been a slave. What we’re presented with instead is a somewhat rash heroine of a girl whose scope of competence well exceeds the expectations placed upon her. Even her outbursts of anger are depicted simply as manifestations of her loveable rashness.
In any case, if suspending our disbelief on this matter is possible, The Last Jedi’s elaboration on her motivations do more to obfuscate than clarify whatever drive she has. She is tempted by the Dark Side as it seems to offer her answers regarding her parents, but what she’s given instead is a confusing and apparently nonsensical sequence involving a room full of mirrors. The film’s attempt to portray the mind as a mirror reflecting itself—a fairly well-known Buddhist metaphor—comes across as a confusing existential tangent that ultimately has no payoff. She claims that the Dark Side gave her no answers despite seducing her with them, and yet the audience isn’t even sure what answers she’s seeking in the first place. Who her parents were? Where they are? Why they abandoned her? If they’re alive? Rey comes across as so completely lost on the subject that she herself doesn’t even know where to begin. She behaves simultaneously as a lost child who has a hard time grappling with what’s expected of her as well as a tough girl strong and empowered woman who knows what she wants out of life and is determined to go and get it. The problem is that these two character modes are mutually exclusive.
There is, of course, another angle to all of this: the Rey’s seduction to the Dark Side itself. What she says is that she was drawn to it during the brief segment of her time at Luke’s island because it offered her easy answers. The Dark Side she’s referring to there is the surrealistic mirror sequence. But there’s more to it than that. Rey’s flirtation with the Dark Side is stamped all over her interactions with Kylo Ren throughout the movie. She is quick to jump to conclusions, extremely distrustful, and highly judgmental—all elements which point toward a central arrogance and pride which define the Dark Side. This extends to her interactions with Luke, a Jedi master who she ostensibly wanted to train under in order to learn the ways of the Force, but who instead she disregards at every turn and even has the audacity to lecture him on his misdeeds while holding him at the end of his own lightsaber. Far from a bright-eyed cadet eagerly interested in becoming a Jedi, Rey comes across as a spoiled brat who’s interested in training under Luke more for the cred than for the experience.
But this isn’t the half of it. These examples could point toward her rashness interfering with her pursuit of virtue—an aspect of her character which, in a normal story, would imply her embarking upon an arc that redeems her from rashness and into a more reasoned and clear state of mind. Instead, she’s given a harrowing scene in which she undertakes a journey to the Dark Side that would have made old Emperor Palpatine proud: bludgeoning an unarmed old man in the back of the head in anger and in pride, and then taking up a lightsaber and threatening her downed opponent with it. Her actions, motivated out of personal indignity and rage, carry all the markings of one who has actively failed in their pursuit of virtue and Jedi knowledge. And yet, where in previous Star Wars films, cinematic cues would dramatically reveal a psychological conflict at the heart of a protagonist’s temporary embrace of evil, The Last Jedi treats this instead as though she’s simply a rash girl and that this is to be expected when her Jedi master is being a silly old petulant curmudgeon.
Contrast this with Anakin’s fall from grace in Attack of the Clones. In a more extreme example of losing his temper, Anakin, having discovered his mother just before her death, slaughters an entire tribe of sand people. He returns to Padme, riddled with grief over his mother’s death, guilt over having been too late to prevent it, and more dramatically, a deep emotional conflict over the knowledge that what he did was wrong and the knowledge that, if given the opportunity, he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Everything in that sequence of scenes, from the lighting, the acting, the dialogue, and the music, indicate Anakin’s dramatic indulgence in evil. The movie does everything it can to reveal to the audience that this point marks his turn from a rash, impulsive young cadet into a psychopathic murderer, and that this isn’t a good thing at all.
The Last Jedi, on the other hand, lacks every ounce of this drama. Admittedly, Rey doesn’t slaughter a truckload of women and children, but it’s important to note that of all the major characters in the Star Wars saga, the only ones who ever assault unarmed men (Leia’s effeminate slaps notwithstanding) were always seriously bad guys. Worse still, Rey’s motives for attacking Luke—she was simply upset with his reaction to her force powers and he refused to give her information she wanted—mirror the sort of behavior one would expect out of a Dark Side psychopath. Threatening him with a lightsaber then goes beyond the scope of being merely rash and fully into the sphere of evil behavior.
This occurs, it should be noted, after Luke catches her communing with Kylo Ren, known patricidal psychopath and follower of the Sith.
So where exactly is her character trying to go? She begins as an over-skilled, rash young woman friendly with everyone she meets at the beginning of The Last Jedi, rejects every lesson that the man set up as her mentor tries to give to her, flirts with the Dark Side both literally and figuratively, learns no more about the Force than she states at the beginning (it’s a way of getting what you want and making rocks float around), and—as expected—fails at the one thing she sets out to do, although without significant consequence. She didn’t really fail at bringing Luke back to the Resistance, even if the reasons for his returning were idiotic. And she didn’t fail at getting a few hours of training in on Luke’s getaway retreat island paradise, either. The failure at the center of her arc was one that we don’t even get to see play out on screen: redeeming Kylo Ren.
In fact, their showdown plays out more like she’s a sad, lonely idiot wandering into a trap that had been set for someone else. But before we get to that, let’s look Kylo.
In Which Kylo Has to Redeem Himself
So what the hell is Kylo Ren, anyway? He’s the son of Leia and Han Solo, the most recent descendant of the Skywalker lineage, and a generally psychopathic madman with very, very deep misgivings about the direction his life has taken since he met his current master: the evil mastermind as ridiculously named as he is powerful in the Dark Side: Snoke.
Snoke, naturally, is no one important. The Last Jedi, again subverting the audiences expectations, leaves nothing of his presence explained and unceremoniously kills him off before the climax of the film even comes about. That is pretty anti-climactic and, within the context of the Star Wars universe, fairly unbelievable, but we’ll give it a pass for now.
All of that aside, Ren remains one of the only two characters who almost has an arc by the end of The Force Awakens. His internal conflicts are brought out into the broad snow-packed daylight of the superweapon during the climax of that film, yet, as is typical of these sequel films, whatever investment the audience made into his possible redemption had already been cut short when he killed his dad. It’s hard to come back from that, but Darth Vader slaughtered children and everything eventually turned out okay for him.
Kylo begins The Last Jedi, as everyone else does, exactly where he was left at in The Force Awakens, but Rian Johnson seems to have been a little unimpressed with the general conception of his character as a snotty, pathetic, school shooter-esque psychopath. His first act in this film is to destroy his silly evil duck-beaked mask, followed somewhat quickly by his attempt and then conscious decision not to kill his own mother from long-distance during a dogfight. But his wingmen unleash hell on her anyway, forcing her out into space and presumably killing her—were it not for strange force magic that allows her to survive only for no one to mention that this even happened ever again. It’s a little strange to include it in the film, given that it accomplishes nothing for Kylo Ren’s character and succeeds only in putting Leia into a coma for half the movie’s run time, which is something that could easily have been accomplished without an unnecessary display of Marry Poppins powers or baiting the audience with one of Ren’s more human moments. There’s no particular payoff to that scene either way.
Ren’s entire arc is based around one simple concept: let go of the past and embrace the future. This will be mirrored by Luke’s arc, but we’ll get to that in the following section. It seems like the future is personified by Kylo Ren himself, although how exactly this works is left completely ambiguous. For all his talk about leaving behind the dogmatic principles behind his training in the now-defunct Jedi order of Luke, as well as ignoring whatever training he received under Snoke, Kylo seems to fulfill all of the expectations of Dark Side apprenticeship. “Let the past go,” he says, and yet he is the very embodiment of the fact that you can’t let the past go—every pattern he tries to undermine or subvert simply leads to a critical failure somewhere along the way. It’s almost like there’s a reason all these traditions and practices exist among the different sects of Force users, and that ignoring all of those teachings just makes you an obtuse idiot. Does that sound familiar? That’s pretty meta when you think about it.
Kylo’s arc is already known to the audience before the movie even begins. His whole character hinges around the possibility of redemption. If this possibility isn’t pursued or toyed with, any drama surrounding his existence gets immediately undermined by his general incompetence and unlikeable psychotic traits. He’s not heroic by any stretch of the imagination, but his inner conflict is made relatable by the possibility that he isn’t all bad and will eventually choose a path to virtue when given the opportunity.
If this sounds like a rehash of his presence in The Force Awakens, that’s because it is, except somehow, it’s done a lot better. The Kylo Ren of the previous film wasn’t one to steadily mull over possibilities, meditate, or act calmly and on a reasonably rational basis. The Kylo Ren of The Last Jedi, however, demonstrates most of these qualities in spades. He spends more of the movie in a state of detached cool, especially with regard to his various unprompted interactions with Rey. Where Rey comes across temperamental, judgmental, petulant, and rash—unwilling to hear him out and, in fact, shooting first until it’s clear that shooting him doesn’t do anything—Kylo’s curiosity gets the better of him. He doesn’t jump to conclusions, tries to understand whatever Force magic is occurring, and eventually tries to connect with Rey.
It’s conceivable that Kylo cynically uses their connection purely for his own gain, which is to bait her into the trap he springs on Snoke toward the end of the film. On the other hand, if his purposes were just to kill Snoke and to use Rey to achieve his own goals, then his character just spun his wheels for another entire movie installment and the possibility of his redemption—far from being a subverted expectation—was just a cheap red herring the whole time. That’s not good writing. It’s just stupid.
Kylo’s arc effectively ends after he’s killed his master and offered Rey the opportunity to join him. She refuses, of course, realizing that her own goal of turning Kylo back to the Light Side has been a complete failure and that she was basically played for a fool the entire time.
This brings us back to Rey, and specifically, how their arcs are intertwined. Kylo’s development throughout The Last Jedi implies a young man who has rejected his birthright in order to pursue power, largely due to the mistaken actions of a man who was supposed to guide him as a mentor. His character’s origin is one of accident and betrayal, which led to his fall prior to the events of the story. This gives him a particular end that is the natural outgrowth of his origin; redemption, overcoming his feelings of betrayal, and ultimately forgiveness for the awful things he’s done as a result of the things done to him. The tension in the drama hinges on the audience’s expectation of a miracle to play out in the narrative. We saw it happen with Vader in Return of the Jedi already, so we know it’s possible within the context of the Star Wars universe.
Rey, on the other hand, has no particular origin and thus no particular end point for her arc. It could be considered that her character is positioned to figure out what her end is in the first place, and then to spend the last segment of her arc fulfilling it. However, by the end of The Last Jedi, the second part of this three-act play, she still seems every bit as lost and confused as she does at the beginning of it, it seems unlikely that we’ll get any sort of fulfilling drama in that regard. It’s possible that Rey’s ultimate end is to redeem Kylo from the Dark Side and be the catalyst for that sort of miracle, echoing Luke’s sacrifice to redeem Vader. If this is the case, then her failure to do so during her arc’s climax in the throne room would be consistent with the nature of the second act.
There’s a big problem, though. Rey doesn’t pay for her failure. Luke’s failure in Empire Strikes Back results in the near-death of his best friend, the loss of his hand, and the psychological gut punch that a genocidal maniac was both his enemy and his father. His arrogance cost him physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Rey’s failure in The Last Jedi results in her simply having failed to do what she naively thought was possible—she, a girl too confused to even sort out her own life, acts on the arrogance that she can sort out the life of her sworn enemy after holding his hand one time. Rey’s arrogance didn’t cost her anything except the friendship of someone she was trying to shoot in the head a mere hour beforehand. Her failure, in other words, means nothing. It carries no weight.
Kylo’s failure, which culminates at the very end of the film when he faces Luke on the salt flats, results in a massive loss of face before his entire army. He meets his old Jedi master for a dual, wastes a few minutes dancing around in the sand, and then finds himself beaten by someone who wasn’t even there. For a character as self-conscious and erratic as Kylo, the damage this should inflict on his pride should be a higher cost to pay than losing a limb or two. Unfortunately, we don’t see that get played out. Like much of the movie, it’s brushed over quickly and never mentioned again.
So there we have it. Rey reaches the end of the movie alive and has come away without a lesson—perhaps having learned only that failure has no consequence and evil men have no hope for redemption. Kylo, on the other hand, reaches the end of his arc but has nothing to learn at all. He has thrown redemption to the winds and fully embraced the Dark Side, but his decision seems to have been done purely on the spur of the moment. Having killed Snoke, he takes control of the First Order and then simply continues the pursuit of the Resistance. The audience can’t help but wonder, why? He has no particular dog in the fight against the Resistance, and the only thing he’s shown a distinct interest in the entire film has been Rey, Snoke, and Luke. The Resistance was only ever just a means to an end for him, and that end was fulfilled with Snoke’s death.
Nothing about their entire exchange has changed their positions. Kylo is still a really bad, patricidal psychopath, and Rey still knows nothing about the Force except how to levitate some rocks. Their mutual failures have meant nothing.
Part four will return to some of these themes as we look at Luke Skywalker’s role in this and the manner in which The Last Jedi undermines any coherent moral framework that the Star Wars universe functioned according to throughout the previous installments.