Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Self-Begotten Rey

I didn't plan on seeing The Last Jedi again yesterday but I did. I was at the mall with my friend Tim and he wanted to see it. I didn't have a flu this time, though I was still a little congested--in any case I enjoyed it more this time though most of my opinions from my first review remain the same.

Spoilers after the screenshot

I did spot the Jedi texts in the Millennium Falcon this time, which made me feel better, but I still think it was a bad idea to make Luke sound like he couldn't be bothered to finish reading them. I can understand why Mark Hamill, and so many viewers, felt Luke was written out of character for this movie. That being said, I still mainly like the way Luke was written, aside from his short attention span when it comes to books.

He is very different but I accept the change not just because it's natural for people to change drastically after decades of new experiences. There are logical reasons why the Luke in the original trilogy would turn into the Luke of Last Jedi.

The more I look at Last Jedi, the more ways I see how it explores the same ideas as Empire Strikes Back. One of the main differences is in the amount of ego you see in Rey as compared to Empire Strikes Back era Luke--that is, Rey seems to have none. She's more focused on connecting with other people--with people in the Resistance, with the parents she longs to find, with Luke, and then even with Kylo. Luke always wants to do the right thing in the Star Wars movies but he's also more interested than Rey in being seen as a hero, as powerful. When Dak says he feels like he can take on the whole Empire by himself, Luke knows just how he feels. Luke constantly asserts his own opinion over Yoda's on Dagobah--Luke insists he can be trained, that he's not afraid; he can't lift the X-Wing because he doesn't truly believe Yoda about size not mattering, and he takes weapons into the cave even after Yoda tells him not to. And then, of course, he ends up being surprised to find his nemesis has his own face behind Darth Vader's mask.

This is why people are on the wrong track when they write about how glorious it is that Last Jedi breaks with the Lucas movies' emphasis on bloodline. When Luke finds out Darth Vader is his father, he's not exactly pleased.

Luke's horror has much to do with his vanity--how can the great hero be the son of the ultimate evil? So in Last Jedi, Luke attacks the Jedi Order on the grounds that it was vanity for them to assume any custody of the Force. Luke is like someone who was made to feel guilty about his sexual urges as a youth and so overcompensates as an adult with excessively harsh rebukes of any perceived perversion. Except Luke's enemy is pride and vanity instead of libido (who knows where that went, but that's another kettle of fish).

This is partly why Empire Strikes Back remains the stronger film--its hero has a much bigger flaw that interacts with the rest of the story in a more complex way. Which is not to say Rey's story is bad at all.

I quite like her version of the cave journey which is in some ways an echo of Luke's but in other ways its precise opposite. Luke's face in Vader's mask is a clue regarding Luke's parentage but he didn't go in there looking for his father. Rey specifically asks the mirror to show her her parents and she's disappointed when the image turns into her own reflection. But this isn't as meaningless as you might think. In a sense, Rey is her parents. She's forced to create herself in the absence of mother or father. Luke in the original trilogy might envy her position. As Satan puts it in Paradise Lost:

That we were formed then sayest thou? and the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learned: who saw
When this creation was? rememberest thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native Heaven, ethereal sons.
Our puissance is our own; our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try
Who is our equal . . .

Rey's horror is the opposite of Luke's. He's horrified by the meaning of his heritage, Rey is horrified by the absence of any emotional connexion with the parents who traded her and abandoned her.

I feel like audiences are growing increasingly intolerant of flawed heroes which is why the only new character with truly intriguing, tragic flaws is the villain, Kylo Ren. Ren isn't interested in self-creation, either, he wants to be Darth Vader 2. So he and Rey do have an understanding--both want connexion. Vader also extended his hand to Luke, proposing that they together overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy together. Ren's plea to Rey is much more vulnerable--he needs the emotional connexion more than Vader did. But by choosing the Dark Side he chooses powers of destruction which, like the Sith with their tradition of apprentices killing masters, is inevitably isolating. He also doesn't understand his own motivation--he talks about killing the past but the rage you see in his disappointment that Luke was never actually there to face him comes from the denial of the traditional showdown. As many observed, killing Han in the first film was almost traditional for the films which involved the killing of a mentor in the first film of each trilogy. Killing Han wasn't about killing the past but about taking Vader's place in the cycle. He tells Rey it was about severing the weakness of connexion, but Luke is right when he tells him killing his father in anger forever links him to him. And in imploring Rey to join him Ren shows he's in no way ready to go it alone.

There's also no sense that Ren is driven by any desire rule the universe based on an internalised philosophy. In Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin makes clear he wants to rule the galaxy in the effort to bring peace, which Palpatine literally promises him. That's why he went to the temple to kill younglings, because the arrogant Jedi Order had to be obliterated if the Empire was going to work. In wanting to destroy the memory of the Jedi Order, Luke's actually not fallen far from the tree.

So both Ren and Rey aren't asking themselves how they can achieve the ultimate power, so much as wanting to know what their place is in all this, where can they fit into a scheme already in motion. In saving the Jedi Texts, Rey makes the message of Last Jedi more about preserving the past than about killing it.

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