The response to The Last Jedi has been divisive to say the least. Some love it because it takes Star Wars in a bold new direction; some hate it for the same reason. While I enjoyed a great deal of the film, it profoundly depressed me, and here’s why: The Last Jedi killed my childhood, but not in the way you think.
I understand the issue here. “Killing my childhood” evokes the far more common “ruined my childhood,” a petty term that merely means someone hates a modern instalment or version of something you loved as a kid. “So-and-so ruined my childhood!” cannot be said meaningfully; it can only be whined. The Last Jedi ruined neither my childhood nor the Star Wars franchise.
So when I say it “killed my childhood,” I mean it only personally.
I was born in 1977, and I grew up with Luke Skywalker. I was one of the multitude of kids who watched the films religiously. I can’t even imagine how many times I’ve seen A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. I loved a lot of movies and cartoons and toys, but it was always Star Wars first and foremost, and Luke Skywalker was my hero. It’s not that I necessarily considered him the best hero in pop culture, it’s that he was The Hero. The other good guys in my pop culture life were just that – other.
A regular part of the makeup of hero stories is that there’s a problem – a monster to defeat, an issue to solve, an institution to topple — that the older generation has either allowed to happen or is actively participating in. It requires a young hero, a new generation, to solve the problem that the older generation can’t, or won’t. Older characters can at best act as mentors to the heroes – but they must fail so that the heroes can succeed.
For a kid, it’s an intrinsic, powerful story. It makes up the bulk of Western mythology, from the stories of Greek heroes like Perseus, Theseus, Achilles, to the tale of Beowulf. It connects to kids fundamentally. That’s why people have been telling stories about heroes, just like this, for thousands of years. But with few — very few exceptions – these heroes don’t get old. We don’t want to see our heroes turn into mentors, because we don’t want them supplanted. There’s something inherently tragic about ageing from a hero to a mentor (or even worse, the hero becoming part of the problem). The message is that no one stays a hero forever. It’s why this part of the story is usually left untold.
But this story is effectively told in the Star Wars sequels, just as it had to be told. Once we learned Luke Skywalker, Leia, and Han Solo would appear in the trilogy, we knew there would have to be a problem they couldn’t solve — a conflict beyond their powers that could only be won by Rey, Finn, and Poe. It couldn’t happen any other way. If it had, it sure as hell wouldn’t be Star Wars.
When The Force Awakens came out, a movie I loved, I bemoaned this fact. My childhood heroes had won their war against the Empire in the original trilogy, but TFA showed that they didn’t bring peace to the galaxy. The New Republic Leia fought so hard to establish was broken even before it was destroyed. Luke’s attempt to bring back the Jedi ended in such tragedy that he had been living in self-imposed exile for years. Han Solo not only failed to keep his son from the Dark Side, he was murdered because of it.
I hated learning that their hard-won accomplishments in the original trilogy were for naught, that after the end credits of Return of the Jedi their futures would be filled with disappointment and pain. But when The Force Awakens ended, despite Han Solo’s death, there was still hope. The Resistance survived. The battle against the First Order had just begun. Luke Skywalker had been found.
I knew The Last Jedi would be a darker, more tragic movie; second acts invariably are (which is why the rumours that TLJ would be the Empire Strikes Back of the new trilogy were so useless). But The Last Jedi does more than leave the story at a low point. It ends with the galaxy nearly consumed with evil, yet a small hope remains – a flickering candle in overwhelming darkness, to use TLJ‘s constant metaphor, that could bring light… someday. In the future. Presumably Episode IX.
The reason this small light isn’t extinguished is because Luke Skywalker makes the ultimate sacrifice to keep it burning. He projects himself across the stars to confront Kylo Ren, buying enough time for the tiny remnant of the Resistance to slip away. It’s a noble act. And Luke is successful at keeping that, well, new hope alive. But Luke dies tragically.
When he becomes one with the Force, things are infinitely worse at the end of The Last Jedi than they are before A New Hope begins, before Luke starts his journey. Evil rules the galaxy. There are no more than a dozen members left living in the neo-Rebellion — not even enough to fill the Millennium Falcon. His adventures, his sacrifices, his victories in the three movies that dominated my childhood accomplished nothing, meant nothing.
I turned 40 this year. I’ve had a mild, rather traditional midlife crisis at the realisation that I’m likely at the midway point of my life, but my love of the entertainment of my youth — buoyed both by the immensely popular and profitable nostalgia entertainment industry, as well as the fact that my professional career keeps one foot stuck firmly in my childhood — has kept me at least partially in a state of arrested development as I approached middle age. I recognised this, but I saw no downside to remaining young at heart. I still don’t.
Watching Luke die, not to achieve something as much as to prevent an unfathomable defeat being total, made me ache with sadness. I hated that he died, essentially, a failure. I hate that the movies I lived and breathed as a kid (and for decades after) meant nothing to the Star Wars galaxy. This past weekend I happened to glance at the original trilogy DVD set on my shelf, and had to look away because I didn’t want to think about Luke Skywalker’s fate. The Last Jedi has made me so upset I don’t want to think about Star Wars at all.
I would suspect that those people of my generation who were as obsessed with A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi as I was feel the same — like the Star Wars franchise has been wrested away from them, by taking the focus off the original heroes, by killing Luke off, and by essentially negating the movies I loved so damn much. Those who grew up with the prequels, or who enjoy Star Wars but don’t feel a proprietary ownership over it, probably think I sound like a self-entitled arsehole.
This is because I am being a self-entitled arsehole. Because despite my feelings, The Last Jedi is the best thing that could have possibly happened to the Star Wars franchise.
The Last Jedi is a direct, not-even-slightly subtle message to hardcore, original trilogy-obsessed fans like myself that Star Wars is more than those three movies (or the three prequels that served as one long, terrible prologue to them). It completely resets the battle between good and evil, putting good in more dire straits than we’ve ever seen in these films. It introduces several brand new Force powers. It expands the universe in ways no one expected (or in ways purists like me wanted). And it removes the old heroes to fully make way for the new.
It proclaims boldly it’s time for a truly new Star Wars saga, for a new generation of kids to fall in love with, just like I did. That Star Wars can be more, should be more, than the original trilogy and its prologues and epilogues. That the franchise belongs to more than just those born in the late ’70s and early ’80s. That it’s time for me, like Rey, to let go of the past. It has been that time for a while now.
This is all exactly how it’s supposed to be. The franchise needs to do more than just ape the original trilogy in order to evolve, if not outright continue. I shouldn’t be holding Star Wars hostage. Lucasfilm and Disney shouldn’t be making these movies just for me. They can’t if they expect to continue for the next decade. And god knows I’ll get to experience plenty more of the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han for decades to come. As long as I and my ilk keep spending money on them, someone will keep churning out ancillary Star Wars products targeted to our nostalgia.
My brain knows all this, but my heart is still broken. When the Skywalker saga came to a close, so did, in a very real way, that last remnant of my childhood. Star Wars is so representative of my inner child, of my nerdiness, that when Luke faded away into the Force I truly felt like I had lost someone close to me, and the loss was profound. The fact that The Last Jedi‘s incredibly tragic end makes it so uniquely, horrifyingly perfect for 2017 makes it even more powerfully depressing to me.
The Last Jedi was made with other fans in mind – especially the new ones. This isn’t only a good thing, it’s the right thing. If you grew up with the prequels, or your first Star Wars experience was The Force Awakens or TLJ, you almost certainly wouldn’t have latched onto the original trilogy heroes in the way that my generation did. How could you? Why would you? If you were born in 2007, why would you be any more sad about Luke dying than we were when Obi-Wan sacrificed himself in A New Hope? Rey, Finn, and Poe are the heroes now. And whenever Episode X rolls around, maybe in 2021 or so, another new generation of heroes will emerge, for a new generation of kids to be inspired by.
The Last Jedi is a good Star Wars movie. It just wasn’t made for me, or the legion of other fans my age. After 40 years of having Star Wars basically tailor-made for us, it was well past time.
But Luke Skywalker is still dead. And with him, part of my childhood died, too. I mourn them both.