Failure plays a crucial role in The Last Jedi.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is proving to be a much more hotly debated chapter in the franchise from a galaxy far, far away than its predecessor, The Force Awakens as audience opinions about its overall quality have been wildly divergent.
Though this is a debate that may never be resolved, I know why I personally love the film and think it will one day be considered one of my favorite episodes of the franchise. And that’s because of its rich philosophical and spiritual themes.
While I appreciated The Force Awakens for what it was and thought JJ Abrams sufficiently got the world ready for more Star Wars, it probably was the most superficial film in the series. Rian Johnson’s follow-up, however, is more than just an effective, surface-level adaptation of the original films; Johnson actually has something to say.
He has lots of somethings to say. And one of those somethings concerns failure.
Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.
Failure plays a crucial role in The Last Jedi. Almost all the major characters fail and are forced to learn from those failures.
First, Rey tries to convince Luke to return with her. Luke doesn’t come with her. Then Rey makes the same choice Luke once made in Return of the Jedi and willingly turns herself over to Snoke in order to seduce Kylo Ren back to the Light Side of The Force. But, unlike Luke, she fails. While Kylo proves he holds no particular loyalty to Snoke or the machinations of The First Order, he’s not interested in joining up with the Jedi or The Resistance either.
But, in the process of her failure, Rey’s confronted with her worst fear, that she comes from nothing and is not special. She learns vital truths both about herself and about her enemy, Kylo. Plus she makes off with The Journal of the Whills from the ancient Jedi Temple, which will certainly aid the next chapter in her training now that Luke’s gone.
Poe, Finn, and Rose hatch an elaborate plan to save the day that ultimately completely fails as well. Yoda once warned Luke not to crave a hero’s reputation, but that’s exactly Poe’s problem.
He’s the dark reflection of Han Solo’s cowboy, rugged individualism, too much of a hot head to trust orders from above him in the chain of command that he doesn’t immediately understand.
This has been a highly criticized plot point because quite often story conflicts that can easily be resolved by characters just talking to each other prove to be poor writing choices. And some audiences are baffled by Admiral Holdo holding back her plan.
But there’s nothing unusual about this in a military setting. Poe is just a fighter pilot. He may be the best fighter pilot they have but he’s also just been rightly demoted for insubordination. And Admiral Holdo never watched The Force Awakens and has no past history on which to determine whether her secret plans are safe with him.
So Poe sends Finn and Rose off on a rogue mission that nearly gets them killed. The mission completely goes sideways anyway. And tons of more Resistance troops are unnecessarily killed because Poe didn’t trust a superior he’d just met and tried too hard to be the valiant hero.
But he learned something and manages to help in a far less showy and dramatic fashion. Also, he successfully turned a sizable number of Resistance fighters into mutineers. If only he can temper his instincts towards what Padme once called “aggressive negotiations,” Poe Dameron might make a great leader one day.
Finn and Rose
Finn and Rose fail to achieve their portion of the plan as well but, through his interactions with the cynical and opportunistic DJ, Finn sees a dark reflection of himself.
Benicio Del Toro’s character goes unnamed throughout the film but is credited as DJ. This is likely a reference to the slogan on his hat, which reads: DON’T JOIN, a concise summation of DJ’s whole philosophy.
Like Jengo Fett, DJ is “just a simple man trying to make his way in the universe” and is uncommitted to any side in the war. According to DJ, “larger causes are for fools.” Finn too once saw himself as unaligned, breaking free from The First Order and only playing the role of a Resistance fighter to secure his escape.
But Finn is no longer the man Poe first met; he’s seen too much and has come to care too much about the people in The Resistance, not to mention those unfortunate souls Rose exposed him to scenes earlier who have become collateral damage in the war. Through DJ, Finn comes to realize he’s come too far to turn and run now. Not joining is no longer an option.
And it’s through her adventure with Finn that Rose, a mechanic who looked up to heroes of The Resistance learned how to become one herself.
Luke failed with Kylo and has been living in shame ever since. Yoda once warned to stop looking to the horizon and be mindful of what’s in front of you. But Luke let his fears about what Kylo could become in the future get the better of him and created a self-fulfilling prophecy as a result.
Despite his status as Master, Luke even still pointlessly clings to ancient Jedi texts he’s never read and which couldn’t show him the path even if he did. But it’s through his conversations with Rey and Yoda as well as a reminder of who he used to be that Luke finally learns from his failure and achieves enlightenment.
Finally, there’s Kylo, who failed against Rey in the previous film, failed to convert her to his side again, and is then humiliated by Luke. In his final moment in the film, Kylo is crestfallen as he realizes his entire assault was an exercise in futility. Even his reclaiming his father’s lucky gold dice prove a mere illusion as they bitterly dissolve in his hand, reminding him of a reconciliation that can never be. Whether Kylo will learn from his failures remains to be seen.
Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.
Heroes learn from their faults and ultimately choose to change, whereas villains can’t recognize or accept their weaknesses and, as a result, can’t bring themselves to ever change. Being wrong is a fact of life. There’s no shame in being wrong, only in failing to acknowledge it. The heroes of The Last Jedi make terrible mistakes, mistakes that get people killed. But it’s their capacity to learn from those mistakes and grow that makes them heroic.