Warning: this article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Two years ago, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, we returned to the galaxy far, far away to find it just the way we left it. Everything was the same, from the soaring John Williams score to the dice on the dashboard of the Millennium Falcon. For one glorious moment, we were all little kids again… and then Rian Johnson came along and smashed our model Death Star to bits. Starting with Luke Skywalker casually tossing his lightsaber over his shoulder, The Last Jedi basically tears up the rulebook of what to expect in a Star Wars movie. It’s proved surprisingly controversial; so much so that enraged fanboys have started a petition to have the film removed from the canon entirely. Yet to understand Johnson’s message in The Last Jedi it helps to look back – before even the release of The Force Awakens – to 2014, and the release of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s excellent animation The LEGO Movie.
LEGO and Star Wars have always been natural bedfellows: just this year, the Danish toy company released a 7,500-piece model of the Millennium Falcon, their most expensive model to date. The Falcon even makes a hilarious cameo in the middle of The LEGO Movie. But the two movies are linked by more than a mere cameo. Scratch beneath the surface, and both films are about the place their subjects occupy in our shared popular culture. And they both reach the same conclusions: that change is inevitable and – perhaps most importantly – it can come from anywhere.
One of the most controversial elements of The Last Jedi is the reveal of protagonist Rey’s lineage. In true J. J. “Mystery Box” Abrams style, The Force Awakens had the internet buzzing with theories about Rey’s origins. Was she a Skywalker? Another Solo child, the twin sister of Kylo Ren? Could she be a Kenobi, the result of that one time Old Ben gave in to temptation in a Mos Eisley back alley? As it turned out, none of these was the answer. In a dramatic speech, Kylo Ren reveals that Rey’s parents were… nobody. Nobody special, anyway. They were scavengers, who sold their daughter for drinking money and ended up buried in paupers’ graves.
It’s easy to see why this feels deeply anticlimactic at first, especially after two years of anticipation. It’s not until the closing moments of the film that the full implications of this twist become apparent. On the casino planet of Canto Bight, a young boy listens as his friends retell the tales of “Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master.” He’s chased outside to sweep by his master, and as he goes he reaches for his broom – which flies into his hand of its own volition. The young boy can use the Force; and as he stares at the stars and the John Williams score swells, we wonder how many other children out there share his special ability. Now it’s not just Skywalkers who can become Jedi and save the world, it’s anybody.
The LEGO Movie takes this message one step further. The parallels with The Last Jedi are pretty clear to see: a ragtag band of rebellious heroes fights against the supervillain Lord Business, who wants to use a super-weapon called the Kragle to bring order to the universe (in this case by literally gluing it together). At its core, it’s a pretty standard telling of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth – the idea that inspired a young George Lucas during the writing of A New Hope. But the real genius of The LEGO Movie – like The Last Jedi – is in how it subverts the classic framework.
Throughout The LEGO Movie, protagonist Emmet is told that he is “The Special”, a Messianic figure destined to save the day. But in a late plot twist, his wise mentor reveals that the prophecy is a lie; nothing more than an attempt to make Emmet believe in his own creative abilities. Yet slowly, this crushing blow actually inspires the ordinary people of the world of Bricksburg to build amazing inventions to help defeat the villain. It’s not just that anyone can be The Special; everyone can be The Special.
In The LEGO Movie, this plot twist is inspired; a clever spin on the tired YA “chosen one” narratives that the film could have easily stuck to. In The Last Jedi, it feels downright revolutionary. Throughout its history, the Star Wars saga has felt oddly exclusionary – telling stories about a small group of people around a central bloodline, closely watched by hawkish fans for any deviation from the sacred canon. But in this brave new galaxy, where women and people of colour are finally getting a fairer share of the screen, the possibilities suddenly feel endless.
By resisting the urge to make Rey a chosen one – to make her The Special – Rian Johnson has created a very special Star Wars movie. Which is why the fact that J. J. Abrams is returning to direct the next installment in the franchise feels like such a letdown. Abrams is a filmmaker fuelled by nostalgia and a reverence for the past; one wonders whether he’ll take as bold a leap as Johnson has. Still, for now at least, we have The Last Jedi. For now, everything is awesome.