Being a giant, mythic fairy tale, Star Wars is built around the themes it provides. Just as stories from The Odyssey to Snow White were created to teach lessons and build character, Star Wars is meant to provide us with lessons we can apply to life in order to become better people. Certainly it can be seen as swashbuckling fun, but look deeper. “It’s so much more.”
Looking back to the original six films created by George Lucas, we see major themes of hope, friendship, love, and the importance of doing what you feel is right. There are examples upon examples of these ideas coming to the forefront, but there is one in particular that often gets overlooked.
First, there was Ben Kenobi sacrificing himself so that Luke, Han, and Leia could escape the Death Star. Then there are the pilots of the Rebellion going on a suicide run for a slim to none chance of defeating that same monstrosity. To get to that point though, the Rogue One team had to sacrifice their lives for the greater good. Luke is even on the verge of sacrificing himself to defeat Vader, who eventually does sacrifice himself to save his son.
Of course, one could dig to find other instances, but if one did, one would never find such a tremendous plethora of examples as there are in The Last Jedi. The newest Star Wars film has not only revived the stalwart theme, it has mastered it and helped it explode to the forefront like an Amilyn Holdo going to hyperspace.
Speaking of Holdo, one would be remiss not to start with her sacrifice, as it sets forth a chain of events that will, although we know not full how, shape the galaxy. Holdo flying her ship through the massive heart of the First Order armada did not just bring light, it caused light to explode forth. Light that shined the way to Crait. Light that taught Poe Dameron his most valuable lesson in leadership. Light to ignite the spark that will “burn down the First Order.”
Looking into the eyes of Holdo as she says goodbye to her longtime, and clearly dear, friend Leia Organa, you can see that she is at peace. She knows that this is her final move and, even though it is not a checkmate, it sets the board for a series of moves that will change the game going forward. For one, she teaches Poe what the most important part of leadership is: always put the good of others in front of your own desires. Moreover, it creates a bond among the Resistance members that was not there before. Before there was discord and mutiny, but after Holdo’s explosive play, the air around the Resistance palpably changes. “She was more interested in protecting the light than seeming like a hero.” She lead them to unity, and in turn survival.
Finn learns that lesson, in part at least. He gets that people will have to die for the cause, he just misses the why. Rose, though, gets it perfectly. “That’s how we are going to win. Not by fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” This is the same thing Luke learned on the second Death Star. He loved his sister so much, and hated the idea of Vader turning her, that he acted out of rashness and anger. It wasn’t until he saw what he was becoming that he threw away his lightsaber and committed to love over hate.
Holdo does this. Finn does not. Holdo’s love is different in that it is focused on an idea rather than a person, but it is love nonetheless. Finn, however, hates the First Order, understandably so; he hates them enough to die rather than let them win. Yet, if he were to do that, he would only bring more hate and anger into the galaxy. It is very much a reap what you sow scenario. If Finn flies into that cannon, he may hold off the First Order for a second, but ultimately they would break through to the Resistance. By doing so, there would be a butterfly effect of catastrophic proportions. First, the First Order breaks through. Second, because he is not there to help provide to the plan, the Resistance doesn’t escape, the First Order kills every last Resistance fighter, and hate is spread through the galaxy again. Reap what you sow.
Holdo sowed love because she gave herself out of love. She gives the Resistance something to circle around, to believe in, to know that what they are fighting for is worth dying for. That is the love that doesn’t just win wars, it changes galaxies.
That same love is seen in the third and most important sacrifice, that of Luke Skywalker. Some thirty years prior, Luke all but sacrificed himself to save the galaxy. Thankfully that play played out in a manner that allowed him to survive, but it created a ripple effect that lead to a Rebel victory and the establishment of the New Republic. After that, however, he failed. He failed to realize that what makes a hero a hero is not just doing what you think everyone expects you to do, it is making the hard choice at the hard moment. Somewhere in the time after Jedi, that message got lost. Luke lost sight of himself. Once he had been willing to commit suicide rather than turn to the dark side, despite that fact that his father, whom he had always wanted to meet, stood right in front of him. Once he had thrown his weapon away, choosing love and peace over fighting and aggression, in the face of the two most evil, tyrannical beings in the history of the galaxy. Yet somewhere he lost that person in the midst of his own legend.
Instead of sacrificing himself, Luke tried to sacrifice his nephew. That may seem a bit drastic to say, but it is true. Luke Skywalker was willing to commit murder, if only for a fleeting, shameful second, because of who he was “supposed to be.” Vanquisher of evil. Master of the Force. Hope for the galaxy. Legend.
This is the final lesson Luke had to learn. It was the lesson Rey taught him that he never could have learned on his own. Despite the way some people may feel about the character arc, it is within reason that Luke would go this route. The original trilogy shows his legend growing from farm boy to hero, from hero to salvation, from salvation to legend.
There was no template about what to do next. No one in the Jedi Order has ever been in his shoes before, and therefore there was no one to guide him. Now his boy who found is place has become a legend seeking his place yet again. Only someone who, like Luke, had been seeking his or her own place in the galaxy could help Luke do the same.
This is never an easy path to traverse, and it is a path Luke fell down on: Rey helps pick him back up. Luke sees her, willing to die rather than let Kylo Ren and Snoke put their final manacle on the galaxy and it sparks something in him. That farm boy is reborn. That Jedi who knew that love was not to be explained at the end of a lightsaber. That hero, not of legend but of humanity.
This brings him to a point wherein all of the lessons he learned can come together for the good of the galaxy. The young farm boy full of hope proclaims, “The Rebellion is reborn.” That brash young kid who was willing to die rather than turn to evil, who gripped his lightsaber firmly in preparation to fight the man he’d been searching for his whole life, walks through the fire of the First Order to stand in the face of its new Supreme Leader, and his nephew. That man who was full of love comes to speak a final farewell, but not a goodbye, to his sister before he stands in front of Ben Solo and admits his mistake. And it is that Jedi, that ultimate Jedi that wins with love rather than a lightsaber, sacrifices himself in the most Jedi way possible, by meditating and then truly becoming one with the Force.
Sacrifice is not just dying, it is a full and complete giving of self. It is loving something, or someone, so much that you would rather die than watch it be destroyed. But it is not only about dying, like Holdo and Luke. It is about standing up for something you believe in, even though it may result in your own pain and agony. It is Rose flying in to save Finn. It is Luke going to save his friends, even knowing it is a trap. It is Anakin risking everything in a podrace to help a bunch of strangers. It is Rey and Finn constantly looking for each other. It is past. It is present. It is future.
And it is the heart of Star Wars.