What Is Really Challenging: Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi

The Rise Of Skywalker, supposedly the last of the mainline Star Wars saga is coming soon. And even so, people are still talking about Rian Johnson, and The Last Jedi. Even me. There is something about the eighth Star Wars film, and Rian Johnson’s own responses to fans that I’ve tried to explain, and put into words.

I mean, I even wrote an article for Sequart on The Last Jedi itself, and while it isn’t perfect, I knew the moment I saw it, it was going to become a classic: if only because of how controversial it was, how final it felt, and jarring, and experimental in some ways, while being conventional in others.

Then, I came across this article from IndieWire. It’s title is practically a thesis statement, and it doesn’t hide what it is: Rian Johnson Says Catering to Fans, Rather Than Challenging Them, Is a ‘Mistake.’ This title, combined with the subheading “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard,” left me with quite a few strong thoughts on the matter, and I want to attempt to communicate them as clearly, and lucidly — as both a writer with critical background, and as a Star Wars fan myself — as much as possible.

A lot of what I am going to write is something that has already been written, or talked about, before. After reading the article, which derives its points from an interview Johnson made, and then states that some critics apparently believe The Rise of Skywalker is “disrespectful” to Johnson, his work, and the originality of what he was attempting to do, I was reminded of something.

In 2015, I took took classes in Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp. And, in those classes, we learned many lessons not just about comics writing, but writing, world-building, and even franchise-making and supporting fandoms around it. It wasn’t completely indepth, but there was something Ty mentioned about “supporting a fan club.” Let me try to explain it as best I can recall.

Everyone likes to feel like they belong somewhere. Everyone, to some extent, also likes to feel smart, and informed, and included. Ty taught us about creating emblems, and certain recurring phrases, and the value of “always bringing a character home” each time for each new story or episode: figuratively, and literally. I don’t think about forty or so years, I need to explain how that concept particularly applies to a franchise like Star Wars. But there is something in particular about this that I want to make clear.

A lot of the time, fans will speculate on a work, or details within it. And, sometimes, they will come up with an idea of where something is going to go … and they will actually be either close to it — or completely right. And especially in this Age of Information, these speculations and their conclusions are more accessible and widespread: along with the means of more rapid and open communication.

There is nothing quite like figuring something out, and realizing that you were right. And, while some fans or audience members might be like Rian Johnson and say something like: “‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me,” there is another contingent that will feel pleased, and enlightened. They might even feel a sense of belonging to that fan club. Of course, you can take that too far as well into the pedantic and condescending, but I think every story has a common source: especially human stories like mythology. Like Star Wars.

Back in ancient times, if you look at Greece, you have plays being created. And everyone knew about Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, Lysistrata and the like from oral tales but they still watched the plays. The point I’m trying to make is that even if someone does predict a story, or they want something to happen, you can still give it to them … in the way that you want to give it to them. You focus on the details, on the buildup, the pacing of the narrative, on especially the character development. You don’t do it to give the fans what they want when and how they want it. Likewise, you don’t change the story, or the way something is going to happen just to “subvert expectations.” You do it to make a point, or make an interesting twist: to focus on the story itself.

There are a lot of interesting elements in The Last Jedi that I appreciate, such as Johnson’s critique of the cycle of violence in Star Wars itself. There is a bit of preaching and condescension, and the mess that is Canto Bight but there is also the meditations on the Force itself, the stop motion illustrating an ecosystem and circle of life and death, some words about self-actualization, and even a metaphysical look on how to break out of the cycle. Then you have the milking creature, and Luke Skywalker not learning anything after the lessons of thirty years ago when dealing with his nephew.

But all the Star Wars films are flawed in some way. I mean, I don’t even have to go into the Prequels now, do I? Or even some of the questionable decisions about clunkily revamping character origins like Ventress’ or Maul’s in The Clone Wars cartoons.

I can see, for instance, that The Last Jedi was meant to be an Empire Strikes Back as Johnson put it in the article. You have a story and even advertising build up to make you think A New Hope was going to lead to the enemy being defeated in the next film, but then you get that bombshell: only Johnson attempted to do this by subverting tropes and themes in a very heavy-handed, but clever manner.

The problem is, to imagine Yoda stating this point as I did in my other article, cleverness does not always for good storytelling make. And sometimes what some might see as challenging, can also be perceived as condescending.

This is especially true when you consider all the build up and hype towards Rey’s origins, Snoke’s and then … nothing. It’s supposed to show that those expectations are irrelevant and it is the current adventure and the concepts of overcoming war and hatred that matter more, as well as friendship and love being ascendant. But they are particularly abstract concepts. So is the cycle between good and evil, of course, but then we have the other issue.

What changed as a result of The Last Jedi?

Did the concept of war get challenged? Did the Light and the Dark Sides of the Force get scrutinized and be seen beyond a simple binary good verses evil dichotomy? Did Rey and Kylo Ren realize they didn’t have to be enemies and go into a Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis Hegelian dialectic: two opposites meeting to make something new, and challenging for the next film. According to the Indiewire article, as I mentioned critics are annoyed that Johnson’s innovations are seemingly being downplayed to “pander” to fan and fandom expectations for Star Wars in The Rise of Skywalker. However, it was Johnson himself who kept Rey and Kylo Ren on different sides. Rey is still on the Light Side. Kylo Ren is still motivated by the Dark Side. Perhaps they are challenged, as fans are supposedly challenged, but in the end their resolve is more or less the same: except for the regret in Kylo, which doesn’t matter as he continues on from that point until, presumably, the next movie by J.J. Abrams.

I could make a compelling case that Johnson uses the aesthetic or the seeming of innovation and subversion, but really just makes opposite, contrary trope choices that ultimately lead right back to the status quo. And this seeming of change or challenge, doesn’t really change anything. And it wouldn’t if it were simply a standalone film with its own story, but the issue is that it is supposed to be part of a nine film saga arc in which seven of those films said something else entirely. It’s jarring. And it does sometimes feel like he is subverting tropes to make it look clever, instead of actually focusing on character development and working with what came before, and making something cohesive after.

It reminds me of those creators that imitated the style and edginess of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s comics works, but didn’t really look at the content or spirit of them. I’m also reminded of something EA Games apparently did where, apparently, when some fans figured out a major plot point in the Mass Effect series, the creators went out of the way to change it so as not to seem “unoriginal” or to have people guess their story, and not want to play their game. But they forgot the lesson: that the fandom, in solving that puzzle, would only make it more interesting because even they couldn’t realize all of the details, and it’s one thing to know something — like an ancient Greek tragic story — but it is a whole other thing to see it play out, even with that knowledge or good guessing.

I don’t know. Sometimes, I think that Rian Johnson in how he has dealt with the criticism of his work can be as condescending as some of the fans who also have a tremendous sense of self-entitlement.

Either way, it is all right to like The Last Jedi or this Sequel Trilogy. It is also valid to dislike it. But I do think that if it is ridiculous to think one is insulting a fandom over the change in a film in a forty year old franchise, it is just as silly to believe a writer is being slighted when something else is being written in a different tone from his own work: which is what he did to begin with, and even then he ultimately went right back to where it all started despite that finality of a child with a broom sweeping away the past, readying for the next words to be shown on a screen.

Long, Long Ago is Now: Star Wars The Force Awakens

If love and hate are two sides of the same impulse, then so was the prospective hope and dread that many fans potentially felt — that I certainly experienced — while waiting for the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fact is, if you read this article, right now, you will be skittering close to the dark side of The Force Awakens reviews known also as Spoilers. Remember, you can draw back from the abyss and recall the patience and calm that you need to actually watch the film, if you haven’t already. Or you can succumb to the quick and easy path, right now, if random comments on the Internet didn’t cut off your hand and leave you wailing like Luke in despair on Cloud City.

First, let’s start with what really works in this film.

The introduction.

I’m not kidding. Instead of the Prequels, where we got deluged with taxes, politics, and nebulous “heroes on both sides” that didn’t happen in the actual movies, we have the place where Return of the Jedi left off: namely, Luke Skywalker is missing and the Resistance against the First Order is searching desperately for the last Jedi. There. Right there you have an introduction, after the monumental “Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away” and the glory of the Star Wars logo that hooks you. It feeds into the questions that the film’s multimedia campaign has raised in many of us. Where is Luke? What is going on? And where in the nine Corellian hells that may, or may not still be canon, is this going?

Force Awakens Attack on Jakku
The First Order likes to make a dramatic first appearance, just like the Empire before it.

Then we see the slow reveal of the First Order and their deployment on the desert world of Jakku. The First Order also wants to find Luke Skywalker: so that they can outright kill him. Three characters are introduced at this stage: Poe Dameron, Finn, and of course Kylo Ren. Poe Dameron is with his now iconic droid BB-8 getting part of a map to find Luke Skywalker, while Kylo Ren and his First Order troops are there to also get that information and kill all witnesses. It seems pretty standard, at first when you consider how events in Star Wars movies often go: but it establishes right off the bat who the heroes and the villains are in this saga. Or so it seems.

"It was a pleasure to burn."
“It was a pleasure to burn.”

This is where J.J. Abrams begins to change the script a little bit, as it were. As Kylo Ren executes the leader of this settlement and orders the deaths of the villagers, and Poe Dameron hides but also tries to defend them, something else happens. Even as stormtroopers and flametroopers are causing death left, right, and centre, we see Poe kill some stormtroopers. Now normally that would be the end of it. Stormtroopers are generally a dime a dozen, but then … one of them falls into the other’s arms. You see blood come from the fallen trooper as his comrade holds him and he dies in his arms. Three streaks of blood mar his comrade’s helmet and you see the latter genuinely shaken.

That is the beginning of Trooper FN-2187: whom we find out later is one soldier out of many who were recruited and indoctrinated into the Storm Trooper Corps and assigned only serial number designations by the First Order as children. Abrams manages in that one scene to do something none of the films really had done. He shows us that the stormtroopers are thinking and feeling beings just like anyone else: and that they can suffer pain and post-traumatic stress like any soldier … and begin to question orders.

" Take four red capsules. In 10 minutes, take two more. Help is on the way."
” Take four red capsules. In 10 minutes, take two more. Help is on the way.”

We also get a look at some new Force powers and a visual cinematic representation of some old ones as Kylo Ren manages to casually freeze a blaster bolt in midair for several minutes, and use telepathy and mind-probing on a captive Poe Dameron. The first Force application was definitely something I wasn’t expecting and it actually raised my expectations of Kylo Ren just a little bit. And that mind-probe skill comes into play later: for all the reasons that Kylo Ren doesn’t want it.

Mind probes: for when you can't find the droids you're looking for.
Mind probes: for when you can’t find the droids you’re looking for.

Of course, our trooper friend finishes questioning orders after a cold encounter with his commanding officer Captain Phasma and actually decides to act against them. He ends up freeing Poe and they escape in a new and modified TIE Fighter that actually has two seats, and may well even possess a hyperdrive. The banter between Finn and Poe is excellent. Poe is a hotshot pilot and soldier for the Resistance, but that is only one part of who he is. While many people call him this film’s Han Solo, he is actually the opposite of the smuggler’s jaded and cynical nature: still managing against capture, torture, and conflict to be idealistic, optimistic, and overwhelmingly positive. He is the one that gives Finn his name and they celebrate their escape with adrenaline-fueled screaming together even before they are shot down and they crash land onto Jakku in order to find Poe’s droid: who has part of the location of Luke Skywalker in his databanks.

And all of this happens even before we are introduced to Rey.

There is some very excellent character development and promise in The Force Awakens to look at. I’ve already talked about Poe’s incorrigible spirit, and Finn’s sense of conscience. But then we have Rey. Rey is a scavenger on Jakku. You have probably heard enough about her at this point: she is self-sufficient, hardened by the desert world of Jakku, canny, and curious. You can also tell that she has a great of experience in self-defense: particularly in wielding her staff. But it’s not until she meets BB-8, who finds her in the middle of the desert, and she has the choice to sell him for a massive amount of food rations — as that is how the scavenging economy on Jakku seems to work — and she decides to keep him that you see her real character: her sense of integrity.

Some things are worth more than rations.
Some things are worth more than extra rations.

Right here, we have our hero. Anakin Skywalker was an idealistic slave child with his mother on Tatooine who flew in deadly podraces. Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer on that same world who was raised by his aunt and uncle while whining and dreaming of greatness. Rey seems to have been raised by no one after being abandoned on Jakku when she was five. Her dream is the hope that one day her family will come back for her: whoever they are. In the meantime she grows up a free and solitary woman on a harsh world where just survives … until a little droid comes into her life and changes everything.

He kind of grows on you.
He kind of grows on you.

It’s hard to talk about one character without looking at how they interact with others. This is another strength of The Force Awakens: interpersonal development. Finn is stranded on Jakku after his stolen ship is destroyed and Poe Dameron seems to have died: his newest friend and fellow liberator since the death of his stormtrooper comrade. He has no idea what to do now and is constantly afraid of being hunted for his betrayal. When he encounters Rey and BB-8, he is wearing Poe’s jacket and they think he is a thief. Then he pretends to be part of the Resistance, which encourages Rey to help him as she wants to get BB-8 back to the Resistance: realizing that there is more to her life than just waiting for the family that seemingly abandoned her. She makes that active choice because, again, it is the right thing to do.

Sometimes doing the right thing is hard.
Sometimes doing the right thing is hard.

In fact, aside from the absent and presumed dead Poe Dameron, Rey is the only one who sets out from her familiar life to do exactly that: the right thing. Finn runs because he is afraid and also wants a sense of belonging. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca, who they meet after finding the Millennium Falcon appropriately in a junkyard, are just on their next job on the fringes: having become alienated from Leia Organa and the Republic years ago. She is the unifying point to remind them of what is important: and she doesn’t stop there.

Starting, and continuing, down the dark path ...
Starting, and continuing, down the dark path …

In contrast to Rey is Kylo Ren. Unlike Rey, he knows exactly where he comes from. But right now, he is following what he thinks is a legacy. In fact Ren is actually the product of a few legacies. Being born to a founder of the New Republic, a legendary smuggler and General, and the nephew of the last Jedi are just a few of the expectations he has discarded. You can imagine the amount of pressure to conform to those expectations too and perhaps the role they’ve played in Ren’s decision: especially when you consider the one legacy everyone involved wanted him to avoid.

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“I will finish what you started … minus losing all my organic limbs, getting burned all over my body, accidentally destroying everyone I love and, well … having children I knew nothing about.”

But Kylo Ken is not Darth Vader. On first glance he seems like a shadow of the Sith Lord. He displays perfect control and ruthlessness when dealing with a situation well in hand. When he’s told by a subordinate that they lost BB-8, you think he is going to pull a Vader: that he’s going to Force-choke the man and levitate him off the ground and let him die in midair for his failure. Instead, after a pause, he draws out his lightsaber and proceeds to slash the computers and technology around him in a purely psychotic rage. It’s that moment that makes you realize that there is a major difference between Darth Vader and his successor: that when Vader caused damage, it was purely calculated to punish incompetence and cause fear, whereas Ren lacks focus and control. He is a young man who is perpetually angry and follows Supreme Leader Snoke and the legacy of Darth Vader in an attempt to actually deal with the insecurity and instability inside of himself: and for most of The Force Awakens it isn’t working when he needs it to be.

Everyone has a Kylo Rage once and a while. Some more than they'd like to admit.
Everyone has a Kylo Rage once and a while. Some more than they’d like to admit.

What we have with Kylo Ren, at least through most of the film, is a young man who hasn’t proved himself yet. It’s like seeing Padawan Anakin Skywalker alternatively whining and raging, or Luke Skywalker whining and fumbling to find his own heritage: except that while the first two sought to grow in the light side of the Force, Kylo Ren chooses the darkness for reasons that haven’t been yet revealed: which are hopefully more than just impatience and for the sake of rebellion. We are looking at the growth of a darksider and his own self-perceived hero’s journey into realizing what he is, and the prices he will pay for getting there.

I won’t go further into a recap of the film, except to say that there are a few scenes that were utterly striking. The first and foremost was Rey gaining a hint of what her destiny truly is: with the vision she gained as Luke’s old lightsaber — which we could sense from its treasure chest with all the sounds of screaming and agony — summoned her to it.

Your father wanted you to have this ... whoever he is ...
Your father wanted you to have this … whoever he is …

There was also the apex of Kylo Ren’s own character arc where he kills Han Solo — his own father — as his personal sacrifice to the dark side in order to drive the light away from him forever: and to earn the undying enmity of fans everywhere. It was … hard, watching the Solo Luck finally run out in the worst possible way.

But watching Chewbacca shoot Ren with his bowcaster is utterly satisfying. The only thing more satisfying, would have been if Han had already known his son was irredeemable from the start and as Ren thanks him, a dying Han touches his face and says, “Don’t thank me”: pressing a trigger to the series of thermal detonators he was wearing under his vest: trying to take his murdering son down with him.

But what actually happens next is epic.

We have Finn actually facing his fear, after running for so long, and fighting and losing against Ren: only to have Rey step up and take her destiny.

It's on now.
It’s on now.

The Force Awakens is primarily about Rey’s own awakening. After Kylo Ren captures her and tries to tear the information on Luke’s whereabouts from her mind, he inadvertently activates her latent Force potential: which she uses to mind-trick and rescue herself. She sees into his mind: and sees his fear. She makes him confront it.

Up until this point, you have to figure: Kylo Ren has only dealt with non-Force sensitives. He has encountered other Force-sensitives through his seemingly untrained mother, his fellow Knights of Ren, and his former fellow Jedi trainees that he slaughtered. The only people that he perceives to be more powerful than him, with his Skywalker bloodline, is his uncle Luke and his Master Snoke. At Starkiller Base, Kylo Ren is wounded but he draws on his physical pain, pounding his ribs where Chewbacca shot him, and uses it to augment his power in the dark side. He has been trained, he has defeated the obstacle of killing the man he loved — his own father — and it is still raw and untempered. And he thinks he is the only one, perhaps even the Chosen One, that can do what must be done.

"You're afraid you'll never be as powerful as Darth Vader."
“You’re afraid you’ll never be as strong as Darth Vader.”

In an inadvertent way, Rey also helped him. She revealed his fear: that he would never be as powerful as Darth Vader. But he did something that not even his grandfather could do: he killed someone he loved in order to embrace what he thinks is his destiny. Rey has also helped him to awaken in a warped and twisted way. But he severely underestimates her. At her age, Luke was still getting his ass handed to him by training remotes. And even Anakin was still a Padawan with questionable judgment. Also remember that Rey grew up on a desert world with no luxuries, and where battle is not training and is ultimately a matter of life or death. She has incredible Force potential, she’s already already learned not to shoot blaster bolts at Ren, and she is fighting to save her new found friends. I know I rooted for her when she brutally and efficiently beat Ren down.

And it could have ended right there. It could have ended with the destruction of Starkiller Base and Rey returning to a grieving Resistance General Leia Organa — a development that I thought was excellent given Leia’s background in guerrilla warfare and rebellion compared to her previous political fate in the now Legends continuity — and promising to see an unconscious Finn again before riding off on the Falcon — the ship she basically inherited from Han — to find Luke Skywalker.

But the film doesn’t stop there. Instead, it stops at that point in time where she finds him. She actually finds Luke Skywalker: and presents to him his old lightsaber. The look of grief and heartbreak on Luke’s face after the destruction of his Order before it even began by his own nephew, his possible farsight of what occurred in his absence, the sudden appearance of a blade that had a mixed place in his own past, and the look of hope and desperation on Rey’s face says it all. It all comes full circle and you can see — right there — that the legacy is going to continue.

Luke having memories about the good old days with his lightsaber: getting shot by training remotes, barely being able to summon the lightsaber to him in the Wampa's cave, his own father cutting off his hand, not to mention the lightsaber ending the lives of children by his father's hand. Ah, those were the days.
Luke having memories about the good old days with his lightsaber: getting shot by training remotes, barely being able to summon the lightsaber to him in the Wampa’s cave, his own father cutting off his hand, not to mention the lightsaber ending the lives of children by his father’s hand. Ah, those were the days.

Of course, there are the other aspects of the film to consider as well. I have to admit that seeing Poe Dameron just appear out of nowhere after he supposedly died did seem kind of anticlimactic: though it was also good to know he is going to stay around.

Don't worry. Not only do I explain how I escaped, but you might be able to see how it happened in the novelization.
Don’t worry. Not only do I explain how I escaped, but you might be able to see how it happened in the novelization.

But I think my main quibble with The Force Awakens is Starkiller Base and the New Republic. The Republic really dropped the ball on this one: underestimating the First Order as an Imperial remnant with all of these resources clearly on hand. It also strikes me as hilarious that Snoke seems to order the use of the Base’s star system destroying lasers as something of an afterthought. And it is never clear in the film if it was just the Republic’s capital world and Starfleet destroyed by the lasers: or if it was all of it. If the First Order just destroyed all of the New Republic in one shot, it just seems to be a little bit of a cop-out to me: not the least of which being the fact that this film didn’t really need another “Superweapon of the Month” my Death Star is bigger than yours element.

"You'd think we would have seriously learned by now."
“You’d think we would have seriously learned by now.”

Also, Supreme Leader Snoke’s CGI Voldemort meets Gollum appearance was a little off-putting in a movie that used less computer-generated special effects. And there are many things that have happened, gaps in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens that have yet to be explained.

But these are minor quibbles really.

Many fans and writers have already covered one other aspect of Star Wars The Force Awakens. They say that it is highly derivative. But perhaps it is more apt to state that it parallels elements from the other films. And even if it is derivative, with its hearkening to deserts, ice planets, forest worlds, Force visions, the wise old mentor dying, rebellions, the destruction of life, heroes journeys, and light and darkness vying against each other in self-referential ways, or with acute self-awareness of their tropes, so what? Mythology itself is derivative. Storytelling is derivative. Stories come from somewhere: from a convention of ideas, events, and feelings.

Star Wars is a mythology that draws on the archetypes of interactions with certain environments and situations and certain characters. Of course its latest movie is derivative. But I think there is another consideration to take in when thinking about mythology. Even though stories are derived from other stories, the best ones are those that tend to add something new to the mythos. The question you have to ask yourself is this: does Star Wars: The Force Awakens add anything new to the Star Wars cinematic universe?

Personally, I think that if it already hasn’t with the way it is has subverted some of the tropes, I think it will. After all, Kylo Ren had clearly been suffering from a lack of focus or certainty in embracing his power: and he is not going to stay that way. He will awaken too and hopefully realize that he should do more than live up to Vader. He has to surpass him.

Still a better antagonist than Jacen Solo from the Star Wars Legends continuity.
Still a better antagonist than Jacen Solo from the Star Wars Legends continuity.

And as for Rey, it is pretty clear she is going to learn the ways of the Force, continue to kick some ass and struggle with what is important. She might even learn about what she came from and integrate it into where she is going. And I look forward to seeing what J.J. Abrams, LucasFilm, and Disney will build from this impressive beginning.

Rey is a bad ass.
Rey is a bad ass.

Luke Skywalker Did Not Fall to the Dark Side

There is going to be an awakening, gentle-beings. That’s right. In just a few weeks we are going to be seeing Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens come to a theatre near us. But in all the promotions, teaser-trailers, trailers, TV spots, and promotional material we haven’t seen any sign of the Old Trilogy’s central hero: Luke Skywalker.

Luke Skywalker

As such, there have been a whole slew of online articles and videos focusing on one idea: that Luke Skywalker has gone to the dark side and has become “an agent of evil.” Their arguments are similar, more or less. There are claims that Luke had fallen to the dark side by the end of Return of The Jedi. Yoda gets quoted for stating that, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” It’s also pointed out that Luke didn’t finish his Jedi training before rashly going out to rescue his friends at Cloud City during The Empire Strikes Back. We have the “he is too old to begin the training” sentiment. His actions at Jabba’s Palace and his choice of wardrobe attire are referenced. Luke also apparently fails the test at the Cave on Dagobah. Then there is the fact that Mark Hamill pitched the idea that he could see his character falling to the dark side and that the film-maker and producer of the first two films Gary Kurtz states that the original ending to Star Wars was going to be grim and more nuanced.

The arguments go on. However, I can sum up my baseline opinion of these ideas in one word taken from an essay whose thesis statement we had to pinpoint on an exam back in Grade 11:

Baloney.

First, Luke Skywalker does have a presence in the promotional material. First, we hear his voice in one of the first initial teaser trailers:

However, it can be reasonably argued that these are just edited and remastered versions of his lines to Leia Organa from Return of the Jedi. But then we have this image to consider along with its possible implications:

Star Wars VII Artoo

Who do we know that spends a lot of time with Artoo-Deetoo, has a bionic hand, and wears a cowl? We don’t know the context of this image, or that it’s necessarily Luke with Artoo, but it seems pretty likely. And if we really have to go into colour wardrobe schemes, while this figure is garbed in a dark coloured hood, he also seems to be wearing white underneath. Take from that what you will.

It admittedly isn’t very much, even if the trailer stopped at this image when look states with regards to the Force, “I have it.” But let’s look at the arguments that Luke had already been falling to the dark side from the Old Trilogy.

So first we have Yoda, in The Empire Strikes Back, stating that Luke is “too old” to begin Jedi training. Most Jedi are taken from their parents from infancy or six years of age to be trained in the Temple proper. There was obviously a lot of hesitation to do so with Anakin Skywalker as he was already nine and full of attachment and fear for his mother. But was Anakin the only Jedi that fell to the dark side during the Clone Wars?

Not at all. Barriss Offee was a model Jedi Padawan who embraced the dark side to stop the Jedi Order from being involved in the Wars: planting a bomb at the Temple, killing others, and framing her friend Ahsoka Tano for her crimes. Pong Krell was a Jedi Master and General who decided to defect to the Confederacy and kill his clone troopers so that he could be on “the winning side.” 

And Count Dooku? Dooku was once a respected Jedi Master and one of the Order’s Lost Twenty. He was Yoda’s Padawan and Qui-Gon Jinn’s Master until his differences with the Order’s politics and the death of his former apprentice. Then he became the Sith Lord known as Darth Tyranus. 

So what do all of these fallen Jedi have in common? Most, if not all of them were presumably raised and trained by the Jedi Order from infancy to early childhood – and all three of them fell despite it.

But all right: at least most of them finished their Jedi training, right? Luke already had much anger in him and could be construed as an “accident waiting to happen.” All right. Well look at the so-called failure at the Cave on Dagobah. It was there that Luke confronted his fear and possible future. Recall that Yoda stated that “Always in motion, the future is.” When Luke cut down the phantom of Vader and saw his own face in his smashed up helmet, he was visibly shaken. This event, this vision, is something that Luke would probably have on his mind for a long time to come.

Luke in Vader

He didn’t just walk away from this and not learn anything. Even when he ignored Yoda and brought his weapons in with him, he learned something in that Cave. And if Luke did fail in the Cave, failure is an excellent teaching tool. It can be argued that you learn a lot more from failure, and correcting it, or understanding it than you would just by succeeding each time. After all, Luke certainly learned something when he failed and almost gave up on levitating his X-Wing after it sank into the swamp.

As for Yoda’s words to Luke as he had visions of his friends suffering, they were a warning. He was at a delicate stage in his training and mindset: and there were things that neither he nor Obi-Wan revealed to him yet about Vader. Also remember this: Yoda is not infallible. Palpatine hid his true nature under Yoda’s nose for decades. Yoda immediately told a nine year old Anakin Skywalker and Qui-Gon Jinn that he was too dangerous to be trained. Imagine what would have happened if the Order hadn’t taken Anakin in: especially after being told the Sith had returned … and ignoring Qui-Gon’s warning. He most certainly didn’t see Dooku turning to the dark side. And while Yoda has a tremendous sense of farseeing, it is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: in that by alienating Anakin when he was young and fresh from slavery, he and the Council planted those seeds of mutual distrust. And not to mention the fact that Yoda and the Council exiled Ashoka Tano, Anakin’s apprentice, from the Order and let her go on trial for crimes she did not commit.

Even in the Old Trilogy Yoda believed that once you start down the dark path, it will dominate your destiny. But look at what happened to Vader by the end of Return of the Jedi. Unless all of Yoda’s and Obi-Wan’s warnings to look were the equivalent of martial artist genre psychological tests of will and “benevolent manipulations” in the form of making Luke embrace the philosophy of “a certain point of view,” either way the fate of the galaxy and the future of the Jedi was ultimately up to Luke’s judgement.

But let me just stop here and pose a hypothetical scenario. What if Luke did turn to the dark side? Let’s ignore the now non-canon Dark Empire series (where he wasn’t even fully corrupted), and argue that this did happen in the Old Trilogy. All right. When did this take place?

Was it … when he had telekinetic debris thrown at him and his hand brutally cut off by the Sith Lord who would destroy his dreams and reveal himself to be his own father? Because that would have been a really good time for Luke to turn. He was physically battered and critically injured, he didn’t know if his tormented friends were all right, and he was psychologically damaged by the revelation. Imagine finding out that the father you idolized, that Obi-Wan built up to be some kind of hero, was alive, a mass-murderer, and cut off your freaking hand. Then think about the fury that the dark side would offer you at that point and a horrible temptation to join a being that actually seems to understand you and even offer to change the Empire and save your friends.

Luke at Cloud City

So what did Luke do? Did he call on the dark side of the Force? Did he join Vader in hopes of turning on him for the sake of his friends and the Rebellion? No. Luke decided to fall down the shaft of Cloud City and accept death rather than become like his father. Because, you know, that is something a potential Sith Lord would totally do.

But let’s get to the meat of it: namely Return of the Jedi. It’s true that Luke uses Jedi mind tricks and even Force choking to get into Jabba’s Palace. He is definitely skirting on the edge between both sides of the Force though, if you recall, so did Mace Windu against General Grievous in the first Clone Wars cartoons. Even Old Ben Kenobi – the model Jedi himself — in Mos Eisley, despite the fact that he warned them, had no qualms about cutting down and amputating the criminals threatening Luke’s life.

Yet it’s what happened on the Second Death Star that gets cited a lot about Luke’s supposed turning. Before he went to confront Vader and Palpatine, Yoda told Luke that once he confronted his father his Jedi training would be complete. And that is, more or less, what happened.

Did Luke almost give into the dark side on the Second Death Star? Of course he did. At the very least, he gave into his anger and rage. The first time was Palpatine who had, very admittedly, orchestrated an entire massacre of his friends and everything he believed in. There was no other way that Luke could deal with the Sith Lords aside from continuing to run and hoping both of them would find him and he could strike them down separately.

So here is Palpatine gloating and enjoying in the suffering of all these beings fighting in the Battle of Endor. Of course Luke is angry, but in the self-righteous anger that is similar to what his sister Leia feels. If you recall Revenge of the Sith, Yoda said to Obi-Wan, “Destroy the Sith, we must.” Perhaps they didn’t give into anger, though I’m sure they felt it after their Order was murdered, they were quite willing to destroy a life to save many others. And the only difference with Luke is that he is inexperienced and his emotions are affecting him: and it is damn personal.

Just like a certain other Jedi whose mentor and father-figure got cut down in front of him and was none too pleased about the situation.

Obi-Wan Verses Darth Maul

But when Vader intercepts him, he actually evades Vader for quite some time before the Sith Lord threatens his sister. And now we have the breaking point, right? Here we are. Luke is genuinely furious in a manner similar to Anakin. He defeats his father, leaving him on the ground with one less hand. The dark side is beckoning. So what does Luke do?

Well, naturally he kills Vader right? He cuts him down and then joins Palpatine in despair and rage with the hopes of destroying him later on. Or maybe he kills Palpatine as well: reflecting his own lightning back at him with his lightsaber and cutting that cackling old tyrant down and taking control of the Death Star. It’s perfect right? Luke no longer has to lie to himself about his rage and he has a Sith Master who will teach him how to use it: whether it’s his father who he rejected before and whom he teams up with to destroy Palpatine in the false visions of Mara Jade in the now non-canon Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, or he takes Palpatine’s side instead. Or just uses the Death Star to destroy all of the Empire’s space fighters.

Luke Looks at his Hand

Except none of these things happened. Instead, we know what happens. Luke looks at his artificial hand, at his father’s cauterized stump, and realizes that if he keeps this up he’s going to become “an agent of evil.” So he stops what he’s doing and throws his lightsaber away. Because that is what a potential Sith Lord does right? A young man in his twenties who just met his father about a year ago after the man chops off his hand then spares his life, throws away the one thing that could protect him against the Sith Master, and hopes that those conflicting feelings in his father will make him throw his Master down into the Death Star shaft.

It’s a brilliant plan made on the spot and worthy of Jar Jar Binks, right?

Darth Jar Jar

And there it is. Luke’s grand plan, made in the last couple of minutes, is to manipulate his father into redeeming himself from the dark side and save him. And when Luke burns his armour on Endor, Luke looks totally angry and filled with self-loathing instead of a sad, but calm resignation for the Jedi that he knew his father was in his best moments instead of the monster he had allowed himself to become.

Luke Skywalker on Endor

Also, I am pretty sure that Force ghosts – the spirits of at least Jedi – who can only ascend when they eschew greed and embrace love and self-sacrifice will totally watch a future Sith Lord with smiles of acceptance on their faces: including the former Sith Lord who is his father who has now been redeemed. And yes: when the Rebels and the Ewoks are all celebrating along with Luke’s friends you can totally see the false smile of serene happiness on Luke’s face as he sees Anakin Skywalker join his mentors in the afterlife.

I mean, you can totally see Luke rejecting the mysteries and everlasting peace and consciousness in the Force alongside his mentors and family out of a sense of petty vengeance by the end of Jedi, right?

Force Ghosts

So now that we’ve looked at Luke in the Old Trilogy and seen his “corruption” and all of his opportunities to further it occur, let’s address the structural issues of the Star Wars series itself for clues. George Lucas liked to create mirrors of situations and characters in the series such as it was: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, Chancellor Palpatine cuffed to the chair on The Invisible Hand and Emperor Palpatine sitting on his throne on the Second Death Star, Dooku and Vader, and Anakin and Luke.

But here’s the thing. The Prequel and Old Trilogies did not tell the same story. While many characters shared the same roles, they were not the same. While the others were mirrors, perhaps it’s more accurate to call them parallels. Luke and Anakin start off in similar, but different places. Anakin was a child slave who lost his mother and Luke begins as an eighteen year old young man who had an early life of family, ethics, morality, and love. When Anakin’s mother dies, he slaughters the entire Tusken Camp that killed her. When Luke finds Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen, he is devastated but looks utterly determined to find justice for this. Anakin never forgives: ever. Luke tries to find the good in Vader even after everything he has done.

Luke Saves Anakin

The Prequel Trilogy was supposed to be about tragedy: about a good man with power who starts out with good intentions and ends up destroying himself and the Galaxy. The Old Trilogy is about the hero’s journey and the genuine miracle of redemption: about a young man who defends his friends, reaches out to his father, and shows him that it is never too late to do the right thing. Luke Skywalker is not his father.

As for Mark Hamill, he made Lucas a pitch. He said he would have enjoyed playing a Luke that went to the dark side. Hamill, as Luke’s actor, could see this happening. And even though he “pitched” this to J.J. Abrams, Abrams was in no way influencing Star Wars at that time.

As for Gary Kurtz, he actually provides us with a fascinating look at what could have been. Except even here all he says is that the Rebels would have been in tatters, the Princess Leia would have to get used to being a Queen, Han Solo would have died, and Luke would have gone off by himself into the sunset in a Clint Eastwood fashion. Nowhere in that explanation was there any mention of Luke turning to the dark side of the Force. If anything, by that interpretation Luke would be assuming Obi-Wan’s place somewhere along the line as the wise old Master in exile: reluctantly waiting to teach the next generation, find inner meditative peace, and hope not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Of course, I could be wrong. According to what we’ve been told, The Force Awakens takes place thirty years after the Battle of Endor. A lot of things have happened during that time that we don’t know about yet. Perhaps Luke could have changed during that time. Maybe the seeds of it were planted during the Old Trilogy. However, in response to those who felt that the ending of Return of the Jedi was something of a cop-out with celebration instead of tragedy, let me ask you this:

Don’t you think that after everything Luke Skywalker has gone through that it would be even more of a cop-out to just suddenly show him as a dark side adept or Sith Lord with no explanation aside from what we’ve seen in the Old Trilogy? Wouldn’t that feel disingenuous after all those years?

And we know that someone wants to finish what Vader started. It is Kylo Ren whom we know for a fact is not Luke Skywalker. Even Supreme Leader Snoke of the First Order is played by Andy Serkis: though he could, admittedly, only be voicing the character. So perhaps Kylo Ren is working for Luke?

Darth Vader Helmet

What I do know is that we all have a lot of questions. And unlike the identity of Khan from Star Trek: Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams is keeping these secrets well. We will just have to see what happens, then, on December 18, 2015.

The Force be with you. Always.

ETA: At the time I wrote this, I didn’t realize that Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars mini-series was no longer considered canon by the Lucasfilm Story Group. So, perhaps, Mace Windu’s Force-grip of General Grievous did not happen. However, during the height of the War itself Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Mace Windu did attempt to use the Force to compel Cad Bane’s mind: causing him pain and eventually just getting him to volunteer to bring the children he helped steal for Sidious in “Children of the Force.” While it was, from my understanding, utterly necessary and Bane himself was a ruthless bounty hunter and killer, I would not exactly say that these actions were completely benevolent — or considered in tune with the Light Side — so this in itself can be seen as a precedent for some of Luke’s subsequent actions as well.

Star Wars Episode VII and The Knights of Ren

The following contains fan speculation and possible spoilers. Reader discretion is advised. 

It’s been a confusing time for older Star Wars fans: or at least an older fan like myself. Imagine two time lines: one you knew, and one that is still forming; The latter is overwriting the former while you still remember it. Legends series and the new Star Wars Expanding Universe aside, it’s also intriguing to watch LucasFilm and Disney at work in fleshing out the mythos using only the six films, the CGI Clone Wars and Rebels series, and the new comics and novels.

But what I’d like to take a look at today are the Knights of Ren.

For something that we’ve heard a lot about, we don’t know very much else. One potential element of confusion is considered that the Knights of Ren are either working for, or are an extension of the First Order: a galactic organization created from the remnants of the Empire and its own ideologies. But what are the Knights of Ren?

So let’s make an experiment. Let’s see if we can construct a plausible story as to what the Knights are from the revised Star Wars continuity. It might be hard for some veteran Expanded Universe fanatics and even I expect to make some errors along the way due to some of my own lack of familiarity, but it could be fun and it might shed some light on this new and infernal venture into Star Wars villainy.

Perhaps in order to know about the Knights of Ren, we need to review what we know about the Sith. We know that by The Phantom Menance that the Sith had supposedly been extinct for a thousand years. In addition, we are told by the end of that film that there are only two Sith at one given time: a Master and an Apprentice. So we could assume that with Palpatine and Darth Vader’s deaths at the end of Return of the Jedi that the Sith are not coming back.

Of course there is that age-old adage about assumptions, the fact that the Sith were thought to be dead before, Count Dooku’s training of Asaji Ventress (and that training bout with the unfortunately named and created Savage Oppress), treachery being the way of the Sith, and that the new continuity may retcon any mention of the fact that the Sith were once more than two. But for now, this isn’t about the Sith, even though it may well be definitely related to their actions.

Star Wars Inquisitor

Think about what we know about the Empire now. It was created and controlled by the Sith Master and Apprentice. However, it also had Force-sensitive agents. Rebels makes this very clear with the introduction of the Inquisitor: that and the fact that there are more of them. Inquisitors seem to be dark side acolytes or adepts created to hunt down Jedi fugitives, other Force-sensitives, and generally anyone trying to ruin the Empire’s day in any real way.

Inquisitors wouldn’t violate the Sith Rule of Two as they are not Sith, but rather agents and minions that serve the Sith. This is no new idea. All you have to do is look back further at The Clone Wars and see Dooku and Ventress. Palpatine knew about Ventress as a dark side agent and had no issue with her: provided that she wasn’t being trained as a Sith apprentice. I mean, she was — supposedly — but again we are looking at treachery being the way of the Sith.

The point is that Darth Sidious and Darth Vader died: leaving the Empire in a very precarious and potentially lethal situation. So what happened to all of those Inquisitors?

Star Wars Rebels Inquisitors

I mean, some of them might have died. Certainly hunting Jedi and displeasing Darth Vader could be death sentences in and of themselves. Perhaps some of the people that accompanied Palpatine onto the Second Death Star, sinister robed beings that they were in Return of the Jedi, were more than just close political advisors and retainers. And just what were Palpatine’s plans for the galaxy once Luke and the Rebellion were dealt with?

Aside from some sanctioned experiments from outside sources as some of the Darth Vader comics delve into, I think there is the Clone Wars “Children of The Force” episode to consider. While its execution seemed really unseemly to me at the time, as a fan of the Old Expanded Universe, Palpatine securing Jedi information on Force-sensitive children throughout the galaxy makes a certain level of sense. He apparently wanted to make an army of “Sith spies” from the kidnapped children. This plan failed, but the mentality was still there.

Star Wars Children of the Force

The theory that I would like to make is that the Inquisitors were the next step in Palpatine’s regime: to create a dark side leadership over the Empire and sentience. It’d be similar to how he was operating in the now defunct — for good or ill depending on what fan you talk with — Dark Empire comics series. But he and Vader died before anything like this could become completely commonplace: and before the last of the Jedi could be purged or turned.

But these Inquisitors, if there were any left by Return of the Jedi, probably weren’t all dead. While the remnants of the Empire maintained their control over various sectors, became warlords, defected to the power of the Alliance, or entered into civil turmoil I also doubt these remaining Inquisitors would remain idle.

Imagine it. They always knew about the Sith and the potential that they could receive further training one day from either Vader or Palpatine. Then both of them are gone before one can succeed the other through the usual method of betrayal. Then their Empire, the one they’ve been serving and enforcing, begins to collapse in on itself. Three decades pass and despite their efforts Luke Skywalker seems to be bringing back the Jedi Knights to help the New Republic, or at least is training his family members to oppose them. This is the man who killed both their Masters seemingly at the same time. What do they do?

They help found the First Order.  The former Inquisitors have the resources they gathered over the years to pool into this Order along with many disaffected Imperial soldiers and politicians. Maybe they appeal to Humanocentricism. J.J. Abrams himself mentioned that his team modeled the First Order after the idea of what if former Nazis reorganized themselves in collaboration in Argentina.

Supreme Commander Snoke of the First Order, who is said to be a powerful figure in the dark side of the Force, may well be a surviving Inquisitor or a potent successor to an Inquisitor. I imagine he or his predecessors would have seen the threat of the Jedi and realized they needed something to counter it. The Sith seem to be destroyed. But they never lacked for followers. So the Supreme Commander creates the Knights of Ren: an organization of dark side Force-sensitives to fight against the Jedi Knights.

Again it is more fan theory assumption but think about it in another way. Whatever the Knights of Ren are, J.J. Abrams and his team have a lot of pressure on them. They are expected to return to the magic of what the Star Wars Old Trilogy meant to so many people. Even the special effects of the film seem to be minimizing reliance on CGI: being hand-made and material props instead. They are going back to the basics, and wouldn’t be interesting if Abrams and his team even went so far as to look at The Star Wars Rough Draft and were inspired by the Knights of the Sith: those that fought the prototypical Jedi-Bendu?

Of course, LucasFilm also hasn’t ruled out incorporating other elements of the Old Expanded Universe into the new continuity either, so the Knights of Ren could have many different inspirations: whoever or whatever they are.

But they are interesting: in that while Abrams has stated they are not Sith, they have a similar naming ritual. Instead of their title becoming a prefix like Darth, Ren becomes their new surname: with perhaps a new first name as well. So my thoughts are that the Knights of Ren are an order of dark side adepts that work for the First Order and under Supreme Commander Snoke: if the fact that Kylo Ren working under him is of any indication.

Kylo Ren

Yet what of Kylo Ren. Well we have been presented with the idea that Kylo Ren will be the main antagonist of The Force Awakens: or at least a visible one. He has created his own strange cross-guard lightsaber and he is very obsessed with Darth Vader. Perhaps his obsession is original to him, though if we go with the theory that the Knights of Ren are the successors to the Inquisitors, who were given partial training in the dark side by the Sith, the Knights might also be dedicated to finding any Sith lore they can get their hands on: to further their own training and power. Who knows: maybe one of them wants to become the next Dark Lord.

Darth Vader Helmet

However, it is possible that Kylo Ren’s interest might be more … personal. I just find it fascinating how there are theories that he is the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo. Yet there is also another interesting point to consider. There is also Luke Skywalker. There are rumours that Luke went into exile and that the events of The Force Awakens begin to bring him out of it.  But if Luke was in exile, why would he be? I’m obviously not saying that Kylo Ren is Luke, as it wouldn’t be in character and Kylo is portrayed to be a much younger man.

Kylo Ren Unmasked

I do think the problem is the importance that George Lucas placed on Anakin Skywalker as the Chosen One and being genetically the most powerful Force sensitive in the Prequel Trilogy. In this way, it kind of undermines any attempt to make someone not related to the Skywalker bloodline a potentially powerful Jedi or dark side user in their own right. However, I could be wrong. Perhaps Abrams has his own ideas and we might get more plot twists than we know what to do with.

Many people in the Star Wars galaxy believed that the Sith had been extinct for a millennium. Many more believed the Jedi had been extinct for almost two decades. But if there is one thing that hasn’t changed about Star Wars, it’s the following. Whether it is about family, ideology, philosophy, or war Star Wars has always been about legacy: and I want to see how this legacy is going to play itself out.

On The New Star Wars Video: Feeling That New Hope

The last time I talked about Star Wars here on GEEKPR0N I was talking about how it was made of mysteries. I thought that was what made the Old Trilogy so effective. You saw characters that died before you could get to know them more like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and even characters you didn’t ever see despite the lead up into thinking you would see them like Bail Organa on Alderaan. These are the stories that, at the time, could have been and it just added another layer to the story that we already had right in front of us. But there is more to Star Wars than mystery.

I eventually found out about the Old Trilogy when I was eleven or twelve years old. Before that, I’d only known about the Ewoks and Droids cartoons, but I never thought they were part of something much more potentially vast. Even so, I loved those stories as they conveyed that age and feeling that I couldn’t name at the time. Then, of course, I saw the Old Trilogy and that specific feeling exploded inside me more fiercely than an obliterated Death Star.

There’s nothing I can really say about the behind the scenes video of Star Wars Episode VII shown at the San Diego Comic-Con of 2015 that hasn’t already been said before. However, there is one thing I can tell you. A little while ago, Kevin Smith was invited onto the set of Episode VII and he described how he felt, without violating confidentiality, just how he felt to be there: especially when he came across the set of the Millennium Falcon.

I know that I’ve shown a lot of hesitation when thinking about more movies in the Star Wars universe after much of the disappointment inherent in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. I mean, as a fan I will be honest and say that I will be seeing these films no matter what, but that hesitation — in hoping to avoid more disappointment — is hard to overcome. But my reaction to this behind the scenes video of Episode VII drew on the interest I started to feel in the first full trailer of the movie and it hasn’t been until now that I’ve been able to name that feeling that I had when I first encountered and watched the Star Wars Old Trilogy.

Kevin Smith said it best when he stated that he felt wonder. He felt magic. This is precisely what I felt was missing from the Prequel Trilogy and even a lot of the work drawn from it. But when I did watch this behind the scenes trailer, I’m not sure how it happened really. Perhaps its because J.J. Abrams is insisting on the creation of actual sets and props. Maybe it’s due to the selective use of CGI that will hopefully be implemented to complement instead of overwhelm. Or it could be due to the use of real locations. And yes: the inclusion of the original cast is also a selling point.

But since the Sequel Trilogy and the Star Wars standalone films had been announced, I’m actually starting to feel a bit of that wonder again. I’m starting to really hope for the magic and the movies many of us have been really waiting for since the end of Return of the Jedi.

Yet more than that, watching this behind the scenes video of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens reminds of another feeling from my childhood that perhaps maybe of us could relate to. Han Solo himself said it, and is hopefully going to say, it best.

“Chewie, we’re home.”