“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” That’s the quote I kept thinking of as I watched The Last Jedi. Someone must have been channeling Friedrich Nietzsche because the meaning of his famous quote is woven throughout the 2.5 hours of cinema paradiso that is Star Wars VIII. Here’s what The Last Jedi can teach you about storytelling.
This blog post contains no spoilers, and I’m not going to say review the movie because I don’t do that for a living. The movie isn’t just a story, it’s a visual delight. I even caught a very specific visual reference to classic scene in the old Wings movie. You’ll know it when you see it.
Point #1 – Stick to the Basics – One thing you’ll probably notice about The Last Jedi is how it goes back to basics, like the James Bond franchise did with Casino Royale and Skyfall. I suspect this will turn out well for them and to that, I say ‘bravo.’ It’s not about the gadgets, it’s not about laser swords. It’s about people, it’s about saving what we love, not killing what we hate. As we see in The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren’s personal philosophy is based in the well-intentioned desire to live free of old baggage. Johnson’s point through Kylo Ren is a powerful message to us: ‘if you just go around killing everything, you’ve missed the point.’
Point #2 – Go back to the Mythology – Here’s something else ‘The Last Jedi’ can teach us about storytelling: Star Wars is all about mythology and ‘TLJ’ continues that tradition. In a nutshell, this is an able, faithful execution of powerful, ancient myths in a sci-fi fantasy context. Behind the action are very powerful statements about the battle between good and evil, the good intentions that can be turned against us, and the need to let go of the past. Anyone who becomes a hero becomes tied to the myths and expectations about themselves. Anyone who goes out to defeat evil must also defeat the evil within themselves. In every opportunity, there also lies danger. The Last Jedi spends every frame of the movie reminding us that you don’t need a Death Star to be powerful, you just need an idea.
Point #3 – Ask yourself, what do you want your audience to know? – In the tradition of another powerful Star Wars film (Empire Strikes Back), TLJ isn’t afraid to show us the protagonists’ weaknesses. Remember when Luke sees Yoda pull the X-wing out of the swamp and goes ‘I don’t believe it,’ and the Yoda just says ‘… that is why you fail.’ BOOM. That line stuck with us … FOREVER. Why? Because Yoda was helping Luke understand where and how he needed to grow.
In like manner, TLJ is showing us how to grow, too. We need to learn from failure, learn to be resilient, strip away the baggage that keeps us at good when we should be striving toward greatness. Pointless sacrifice is meaningless. Rian Johnson and the rest of the Star Wars franchise want us to know that, and now through TLJ they have told us what they wanted us to know.
Wrapping It Together
Look, none of this excuses the flat notes of TLJ. They’re there, we all know it. It’s okay. Ignore the bad stuff, and take these three lessons home for yourselves – you don’t have to look far for good stories. They’re all around us. Instead, find good ways to explore those ancient themes. Grab your audience’s heart. Apply Rule #14 of the Pixar Storytelling Rules and tell us why you must tell this story.
When in doubt, remember what Luke Skywalker said in the Last Jedi trailer: Breathe. Just breathe. Now reach out. What do you see?
So yes, these three points represent what ‘The Last Jedi’ can teach you about storytelling. Don’t overthink it. Keep it simple. Never let anyone accuse you of having a story that ‘is not a page-turner.’