Nobody is from nowhere – self-actualisation and identity in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

by Danielle Ryan

Director Rian Johnson is no stranger to films about identity, as illustrated in films such as Looper and The Brothers Bloom. And while Johnson’s latest effort, the divisive The Last Jedi, can be interpreted in many ways, it too is an exploration on the theme of identity. Many of the characters struggle to figure out who they are after their previously constructed identities fall apart. Whether it’s the walking edgelord Kylo Ren or the series’ golden boy Luke Skywalker, characters on both sides of the Force must forge new narratives for themselves.

WARNING: The following exploration of themes contains major spoilers for The Last Jedi. Don’t read if you haven’t already seen the movie.

Luke’s shattered sense of self is perhaps the most controversial among fans. Not only does he fall prey to the Dark Side by giving in to his fears about young Ben Solo’s power (albeit momentarily), but he locks himself away from the galaxy and the Force not wanting to put himself in that situation again. Because he failed in this one instance, he feels as if he’s failed completely, that he’s failed destiny and the Force and everything he’s supposed to be as a hero. Some fans feel this way, and many have decried Luke’s failure as character assassination.

Disenchanted with the Force, lonely and angry, Luke goes to burn the sacred tree that holds the collected knowledge of the Jedi Order. Yoda visits as a Force ghost and uses lightning (a previously Dark Side-leaning power) to burn the tree. Luke’s journey toward self-actualization forces him to learn that the Force can be used by anyone, that the rules of light and dark aren’t necessarily right, and that his failures don’t mean that he’s no longer a hero.

Luke couldn’t handle being the hero he thought he was supposed to be, but he is able to be a hero in his own way in the end. He uses a Jedi mind trick, something that would have delighted the younger, less jaded version of himself, to save the lives of the last of the Rebellion and defeats Kylo Ren, who was once his beloved nephew Ben, without drawing a drop of blood. Luke did what was right on his own terms. When he dissolves into the Force after giving hope one last chance through Rey, he has completed his arc. He went through Campbell’s heroic journey and eventually reached the hermit phase of Buddhist and Hindu faith – all things hinted at in the original trilogy. For Luke to reach enlightenment by letting go of the self is deeply Buddhist in nature, and a fitting end to his story.

Luke’s arc directly influences those of his two students: Ben Solo/Kylo Ren and Rey. The two mirror one another as they seek to define themselves. Kylo has taken the idea that he’s evil to heart and has his worst tendencies reinforced by the manipulative Snoke. Rey is told over and over that she is nothing, and when she finds the mythical Luke Skywalker he’s just another in a long line of disappointments. She challenges what he tells her about the Force and runs headlong into the Dark Side in order to understand it. She stares directly into the abyss and has a failure or two of her own, but she learns each time.

Kylo tries to use some of his master’s manipulation on Rey. He brings her up only to remind her of her worthlessness in his eyes. He tells her of her immense power, of the universe the two of them could rule together, but he never treats her as an equal. Because her parents are nobodies, because she’s not of some important lineage.

Rey’s heritage is a great surprise and another twist in this subversive take on Star Wars as a whole. Many a thinkpiece has been written on who Rey’s parents might be. The potential parents ranged from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Han and Leia to Luke and others… instead she is, to use another fandom’s vernacular, Muggle-born. Her parents were junkers and sold her for booze money.

So what do you do when you find out your heritage means nothing, you come from a planet that is essentially nowhere, and your last hope and hero turns out to be a green-milk drinking hippie hermit? You figure it out. That’s what Rey does, and her fearlessness and abundance of hope make her a compelling heroine in a time when hope is a rare commodity. (Even Leia had something to say about it – “hope is like the sun; if you don’t believe in it when you can’t see it you’ll never survive the night”.) Rey has that hope within her and uses it to frame her new identity. If she can’t rely on others, she knows she can rely on herself.

Rey’s counterpart, Kylo Ren, goes the opposite direction. He’s been told that he’s the chosen one for so long that he decides to chase that identity even at the expense of his master. Like Rey, Kylo has been failed by his elders. His parents weren’t available, his uncle and master briefly considered killing him, and his Sith Lord only wanted a malleable, powerful follower, not someone to take his place.

In order to become a Sith Lord, one has to kill their master. While Kylo does this for reasons even he doesn’t totally understand, it’s interesting to note that Rey does it too. She doesn’t literally kill Luke, of course, but she kills off her ideas of him, her idealized hero. She lets her preconceptions and desires die in order to learn what she can from the truth.

The theme of identity and how others perceive us permeates the rest of The Last Jedi, too. Finn is still trying to figure out who he is after leaving the The First Order, and while he tries to run he’s reminded by Rose that he’s a hero of the rebellion. Finn spends most of the movie trying to figure out what it means to be a hero, and he thinks it means sacrifice. That’s all he’s ever known, after all. Heroes give it all up in order to defeat the enemy.

Rose, as one of the film’s wisest characters, teaches him another lesson about heroism. “It’s not about destroying what we hate, but saving what we love.” Instead of perpetuating his identity based on violence and propaganda from both sides, Rose wants Finn to just be the best version of himself he can be.

That’s the primary lesson of The Force Awakens, to those who look to fiction for inspiration. There are a million ways to be a hero, and anyone can be one. You don’t have to have famous parents or special powers or special training. Instead you have to build on the skills you have and remember that we are all connected by this magical thing called the Force, and that it excludes no one. Make your own rules, do the right thing, and burn the tree. Stop letting the world tell you who you are and how things should be, and be the hero of your own story. Isn’t that what Star Wars has always been about?

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