Wednesday, December 20, 2017

We Are What They Grow Beyond: The Coming of Age for a New Star Wars [Contributor: Melanie]

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Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi lie ahead.

The thing about this series is that it spans 40 years. That’s a long time to keep something going, to hand it down from one generation to the next. But Star Wars endures and with Rian Johnson’s addition to the series it does more than that. It thrives. It’s a tale that has always ever been a story told in the traditions of epics and legends of our world. It was a story of spaceships and laser swords rooted in the human tradition of a call to adventure, a meeting with a mentor, and face down with that which holds the most power in life of our hero. The Last Jedi does not break this tradition, no story ever could. It’s encoded in the DNA of our storytelling that we walk through the steps of a Hero’s Journey but Johnson’s film does everything it can to make you second guess the clean and quick nature of this story telling method and ask yourself… well, where do you want the story to go?

“Why are you here, Rey from nowhere?” 

The fact of the matter is, I’m not entirely convinced that they didn’t change Rey’s backstory during the mysterious rewrite period in early 2016 when filming was delayed so Rian Johnson could rework the script. I saw this because a lot of supplementary material pointed to Rey having an actual plot connection to Kylo Ren and what happened at the temple. But, if she ever was a Skywalker or Kenobi, it’s evidently been tossed in favor of the story of Rey from Nowhere. She is a King Arthur, complete with her own proverbial sword she pulled from a proverbial stone, but no Uther Pendragon to gift her a birthright, no connection or obvious place to the story she’s inhabiting. (That is, assuming, we take Kylo Ren at his word. After all, we didn’t find out about the twins until Episode VII and that was after an uncomfortable twincest scene in Empire so fake outs happen...).

Is it such a bad thing? We all, myself loudly included, wanted a heritage story with a fight for the Skywalker legacy (or even the Kenobi one). And we still might get it. Perhaps the story of Rey’s shrouded heritage isn’t over. But let’s assume it is, what does it mean for Rey? We know she has major abandonment issues. That apparently lead to some identity issues as well. Maybe she herself was hoping to find herself a member of the Skywalker family. What she learns is that her parents were anonymous drunks who traded away their child for money and died in some anonymous graves in the desert (again, according to Kylo Ren).

There’s more weight to her choices now. Being a Skywalker is about reacting, making a choice under a predetermined context of good and evil. They all faced the same forked path: darkness or light. Rey is a blank slate. She comes from nothing, her heritage does not matter, so all that matters is what she chooses to do. And it’s clear her choices are not about Sith or Jedi, darkness or light, but simply about what is the right thing to do. She’s setting up her own Skywalker legacy and the black and white of the original films and prequel trilogy faded away with Luke Skywalker under the twin suns. Rey’s not picking sides or worrying about making one wrong move and letting it “forever dominate (her) destiny.” She’s just trying to protect her friends.

So why is Rey from Nowhere here? Well she’s got a job to do, people who are counting on her, and friends to protect. And I’m kind of super on board with that. The Jedi did not own the Force, though they behaved as though they did. If the failures of the Jedi and the failures of Anakin Skywalker are to be purged from the new narrative, it will have to center on someone untainted by a connection to either of those things. Or at least someone who believes she is unconnected to it all.

This film did not paint our hero in a gray light so much as it painted her in a human one. The Jedi asked for perfection and instilled it since birth in their disciples. The result was a group of warrior monks for hire who thought their moral high ground and perceived control of the Force put them above others. The Order is gone. But a single Jedi - the last Jed i- someone who utilizes their connection to the Force for protection and light, got away on Crait.

“It surrounds us, and binds us…”

We know from scientific over explanation in the prequels that the ability of certain individuals to feel and manipulate the Force happens at the cellular level, something present in the DNA. Which makes it sound infinitely less cool but let’s run with this for a second. Traits are handed down, eye color, allergies, cheekbones. But on the macro level we hand down generational attributes. All humans became bipedal, became hairless, became intelligent. And we all know we come from the same family tree. The Force, I imagine, will act in the same way. It’s a genetic trait, a rare mutation. But it’s also something connecting the entirety of life in the galaxy. The Force is in everyone, with a select few who can actually wield the abilities it offers. We see at the very end of the film there will be others, a future generation of Jedi under Rey’s tutelage.

But… if everyone’s super, then no one is.

Perhaps it’s the converse to the Rey Nobody argument. The Skywalkers were a unique bunch. The Jedi were already rare but the Skywalkers, a family line literally born out the Force itself were even more unique. And we all want our characters to be special, to be the chosen one. Rey is the person who happened upon Anakin’s lightsaber. It may have well happened to any one of those children we saw in the last seconds of the movie who show apparent Force sensitivity.

There’s a cultural need for our heroes to be divinely ordained. Odysseus was favored by the gods. King Arthur was chosen by the Lady of the Lake. Even Harry became the subject of prophecy because he was literally chosen to be the one it referred to by Voldemort. We want to believe there is a cosmic purpose to our heroes, the possibility of superhuman uniqueness. So was it the will of the Force that BB-8 came across Rey and the adventure began? Or was it just luck?

For all of Rey’s importance in The Force Awakens, this movie strikes down everything about herself she thought might be special. Ben is the only Skywalker. Snoke simply wants to use her to get to Luke. Luke himself does not consider even her unique and powerful abilities worth teaching. She wrestles with that lack of importance in the scene in the cave. When Luke entered his own cave to face down the demons in his head, it was Vader and the possibility of himself becoming him that he fought against. When Rey did it, it was the repetition of seemingly millions of exact copies of herself, painting her as one of thousands who could wear her face, do what she does. It was her fear of no identity that she looked down in the mirror.

But the film paints this as a good thing. Yes, anyone could be standing where she is. Anyone could have found the lightsaber. But she is the one standing there. She was the one the lightsaber obeyed when it was called by both her and the grandson of its original owner. And with our young friends at the end of the movie, showing us there are still allies in the galaxy for the Resistance and a future for the Jedi, show that, as Maz says, hope is not lost today - not in Rey’s underwhelming personal truth nor in Luke’s departure - it is found - in Rey’s natural inclination to care for her friends and the sense of fellowship that bonds the Resistance.

“Heir apparent to Darth Vader.”


Anyway… Kylo Ren does have a lot in common with his grandfather including emotionally manipulative relationships with the women in their lives and a thirst for control of the galaxy. In Anakin’s story, at least he thought he was doing something good. It was misguided and stupid, but he believed politics and the Jedi both to be corrupt and wanted to establish peace and order. Kylo Ren basically just wants to prove that his dumb af choices weren’t made for nothing. He got himself up his own creek with SEVERAL paddles thrown at him but decided to ignore them all and see this thing through. Where Anakin asked Padme to join him because his entire effed up decision making process was based on protecting her, Kylo asks Rey to join him simply because he wants attention from someone who he thinks will understand him.

And Rey is having none of that.

A story that could have so easily slipped into a damaging tale of siphoning emotions for the sake “saving” our bad boy with a good heart, Rey literally slams the door on his face. This is especially good considering it was a HIGHKEY problematic move to have Kylo Ren tell Rey that he, essentially, was the only person who would ever find her important. Her terms were clear: she came to recruit him to the Resistance, not redeem him, not save his soul, or any other bs like that. When he refused to be an ally, she noped out of that situation and went back to help her friends. She pities him, she does want to help him, but only if he will help himself. If he’s not going to meet her halfway, she’s got more important things to do.

Ultimately, Kylo Ren’s story is about a bratty kid who took his temper tantrum a bit too far and now doesn’t know how to pump the breaks. He grew up in a busy household, we know that Han and Leia both had careers to attend to and sent him to Luke in the hopes that Luke could give him the attention and training he needed. But Leia checked in regularly at the Jedi temple, we know from Bloodlines. She received holos from her brother and son until, one day, they stopped coming. For his part, Luke made a very poor snap decision and Ben’s actions to defend himself turned into an act of violence that murdered dozens of innocent students. He then went on to murder an entire village on Jakku, play party to the creation of a devastating weapon of mass destruction that destroyed an entire system, and murdered his own father.

He’s a piece of crap. But he’s a complicated piece of crap.

Is he worth saving? Probably not. He seemed to have made his choice here when Rey offered to help him several times. He was pretty quick to flip the switch then, angrily ordering her ship to be blasted out of the sky when he spots her again. Are we done with this line of thinking though? Doubtful.

The Force Awakens was about a return to our familiar world. The Last Jedi was about crossing the threshold and leaving that world behind. This is a character-driven Star Wars trilogy that, as look warned us, doesn’t always go the way we think.


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