In launching the Sequel Trilogy, The Force Awakens drew heavily on the two opening films that preceded it. Visually, thematically, and structurally, parallels to A New Hope and The Phantom Menace are easy to spot. Like Luke and Padmé before her, the film’s central protagonist, Rey, embarks on a classic Hero’s Journey progression over the course of the film. But The Force Awakens also staked out an original path for a Star Wars film by giving its other new principal hero character, Finn, his own Hero’s Journey path taking place in tandem with Rey’s. By the end of the movie, both characters had developed into individuals playing a role in galactic conflict that they had not expected or desired.
As the middle film in the new trilogy, The Last Jedi faced dual tasks: to tell a story that stands alone as an exciting Star Wars adventure while also advancing, but not concluding, the character arcs of the lead heroes. For the former, The Last Jedi unfolds primarily through the familiar beats of Vogler’s cinematic framework for the Hero’s Journey, though its story structure offers an unexpected twist in the concluding hour. This makes sense, because Vogler’s framing of the journey is constructed with movies in mind; even when it is part of a series like Star Wars, a mainstream action-adventure film needs a beginning, middle, and end that gives the audience a self-contained entertainment experience.
For the latter objective, on the other hand, Campbell’s framework of the monomyth is the better fit. Its origins in historical myths reach tales considerably longer than a two-hour Hollywood blockbuster. Campbell’s model has three overarching phases – the Departure, the Initiation, and the Return – and the two previous Star Wars trilogies demonstrate that these phases work on two levels: as the structure for a single film, and as the shape of a trilogy. Like The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones, the story of The Last Jedi in many respects serves as an extended Initiation for Rey and Finn. It tells the story of the metamorphosis that comes out of their Departure from the ordinary world in The Force Awakens and (presumably) leads into their Return in Episode IX, which for Campbell means synthesizing the lessons of the extraordinary and ordinary worlds to become the master of both. Along the way, the Hero’s Journey archetypes highlighted by Vogler continue to appear.
In addition to the two young heroes, The Last Jedi also gives significant screen time and character development to two other characters: Kylo Ren, the villain, and Luke Skywalker, the self-exiled Jedi Master. Both men take paths in the film that serve as twists on the classic Hero’s Journey. Kylo Ren’s is an origin story with many similarities to the rise of an heroic character like Rey, except inverted by choices leading him toward evil. Luke’s story, by contrast, portrays a very different kind of tale: an aging master, already having experienced cycles of heroic development several times over, undertaking one last journey to reach the pinnacle of transcendental heroism.
The Heroes of The Force Awakens: Rey Becomes the New Last Jedi
After an opening sequence establishing the overall plot of the movie – the First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance with the goal of annihilating them – The Last Jedi picks up and advances character arcs for Rey and Finn. In a literal sense, even, because unlike previous saga films the story has no time gap between Episodes VII and VIII. From Finn regaining consciousness in the medical ward and Rey handing the lightsaber to Luke Skywalker, the two characters are put through challenges of ever-increasing difficulty until they transform into the heroes they were meant to become.
The theme of Rey’s metamorphosis is her transformation from self-doubt to self-confidence in her relationship with the Force and her understanding of what it means to become a Jedi. The Force Awakens showed that in her ordinary world as a scavenger, Rey is courageous, bold, and confident, not only in the dangers she faces in the starship graveyard but also in her dealings with Unkar Plutt, Teedo, and Plutt’s thugs. On Takodana and Starkiller Base, though, Rey experiences the awakening of her strength in the Force. In this extraordinary world of galactic conflict and supernatural powers, Rey no longer has a firm footing on her sense of self.
Her time on Ahch-To puts Rey through a series of trials that compel her to accept that she must find her own path to her destiny, that no one else can provide it for her. Initially she expects a simple solution: that Luke will rejoin the fight to help the Resistance, and that he will train her as a Jedi. When Luke rebuffs her, Rey believes that her stubborn persistence – a trait well earned in her harsh life on Jakku – will wear him down. After finding the sacred Jedi texts she admits to Luke the personal reason she wants to be trained: she does not comprehend the nature or scope of her connection to the Force, and she needs help to understand and control it.
Rey quickly discovers that the extraordinary world of the Force is more complicated than she had imagined. Luke’s lesson about balance is seemingly a simple one, but the question of how a person finds and maintains balance is not so easy. Luke explains the flaws of the old Jedi Order and his own failures as a Jedi Master and galactic legend, further exposing difficulties inherent in mastering what the Force offers. At the same time, the Force telepathy between Rey and Kylo reveals to her that the man she at first calls a “monster!” is more than a caricatured nemesis. Rey goes looking for answers about herself in the Mirror Cave, but does not find them.
By the time her sojourn to Ahch-To concludes, Rey has learned what she needs to know but has not yet realized its significance. Rey sees that Luke is wrong about the Jedi needing to end, so she takes the sacred texts with her. She also recognizes that Luke is wrong about the galaxy needing the legend of Luke Skywalker back, so she offers him one more chance to take up the sword. Rey feels conflict within Kylo Ren, so she believes that turning him – a former Jedi apprentice – back to the good side is the solution to restoring the Jedi and the spark of legend.
On the Supremacy, Rey learns her final lesson and completes her metamorphosis. Kylo Ren does turn against Snoke, but not because he wants to return to the light. Instead of saving her friends, he offers Rey only a partnership in tyranny and, by implication, in the dark side of the Force. Confronted with this alternative, Rey accepts the truth: she can be a Jedi, even if neither Luke nor Kylo is willing to join her on that path. Rey chooses her own strength and her own moral compass. She becomes the Jedi guardian of the Resistance, drawing away the TIE fighters from the speeders and then lifting the rocks to free the survivors from the tunnels. As the film ends, Leia reaffirms that Rey has everything she needs to be a Jedi, and to begin rebuilding the Order.
- The Last Jedi and the Hero’s Journey – Part Three: Luke Skywalker and the Wizard’s Journey
- Leia Organa and the Wizard’s Journey in Leia At Risk Revisited: The Stakes After The Last Jedi
- The Last Jedi and the Hero’s Journey – Part Four: Kylo Ren
- New Insights on the Flawed Finale: The Rise of Skywalker Revisited - September 11, 2020
- The Story Process Origins of a Dissonant Redemption: The Rise of Skywalker Revisited - September 9, 2020
- Reconsidering Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi After Knives Out - September 4, 2020