Warning: this is not meant as a Last-Jedi-bashing opinion piece. The fanbase seems polarized on Last Jedi, pointing to it as the best or worst of the franchise films. I have a much more ambivalent view of the film: on the one hand, I think the “main” story thread of Rey training with Luke and then traveling to confront Kylo Ren and Snoke is some of the best material in the sequel trilogy. On the other hand, I find the Canto Bight scenes lacking in suspense or intrigue, and Poe’s storyline, while I understand his “arc,” is mostly uninteresting. The exploration of the nature of the Force, the failures of the Jedi, Rey’s ambiguous vision in the cave, her Force connection with Ben, the theme of learning from the past and the perils of simply rejecting it—all very well done. The meditation on what it means to be a hero, what defines good leadership, the weirdly shoehorned commentary on war profiteering, etc., seems either muddled or out of place in the context of the film. People’s biggest criticism—grumpy, disillusioned Luke Skywalker—did not bother me, although I found that his character arc was underwhelming, and his ultimate demise was more confusing than moving (he died of… fatigue? Okay).
But enough of that. I would like to touch on what critics seem to latch onto whenever discussing why Last Jedi is better than Rise of Skywalker. The idea has been commonly referred to as the “democratization of the Force,” and many film critics have pointed to Rian Johnson as the one who came up with this concept. The term came from a response to two items in the film: one, that Rey is a “nobody” with no Force lineage; and two, that “broom boy” is implied to have Force powers at the end of the film, suggesting that anyone can have the power of the Force and not just those of certain bloodlines. For some reason, critics saw this as a revolutionary concept after, in their words, previous movies focused exclusively on a narrow family lineage. Then critics cried out in dismay when JJ Abrams retconned Rey’s backstory in Rise of Skywalker.
Using the concept of “democratization of the Force” to praise The Last Jedi is, in my opinion, an incorrect analysis because it ignores the fundamental lore established in the Star Wars universe. The Skywalker family (and now, I suppose, the Palpatine family) is the sole exception to a fundamental rule of the Jedi: that the Jedi religion is one of celibacy and that, as far as the films have shown, no Jedi have come from family lineages—the “Force” running in a family’s genes has never been used as a reason for why someone was strong with the Force except for the Skywalkers because Anakin broke the rules and had children. The way the Jedi order worked, as explained in the films, is that they recruited Force-sensitive children when they were young and raised them within the Jedi order. In that sense, the Force was already “democratized”—do these movie critics forget that Anakin Skywalker himself was just some slave child from the outer reaches of the Galaxy? That there were ten thousand Jedi of all different races and genders enforcing the peace before the Emperor’s rise?
Let’s take a look at some other Jedi who have no described or implied family lineages of Force powers:
- Obi-wan Kenobi
- Mace Windu
- Qui-gon Jinn
- Ahsoka Tano
No one ever said, “Ah, yes, Obi-wan is powerful with the Force because his father was also a great Jedi.” (Okay, someone probably said this at some point, but you get the idea).
I’m not arguing that Rian Johnson was wrong, but rather that he was simply showing the way that the world(s) of Star Wars already functioned—not reinventing the wheel or even introducing anything new. Whether Rey is a Palpatine or a nobody shouldn’t really affect how powerful she is with the Force—she could have just been a nobody that was very powerful, like Yoda or Mace Windu. Rey being a Palpatine does not take away from the “democratization of the Force.” Does it feel a bit contrived, plot wise, coming on the heels of Episode 8? Sure. But to say that it implies that only those who are born from powerful families can be powerful too is to miss the point entirely. I think Rey being a nobody is an interesting concept that could have worked—the theme of Episode 8 was about Rey search for identity and the importance of forging her own path. In Episode 9, we get a new twist. It feels a bit out of left field, I will admit, but I also like the idea of Rey struggling to reject her family identity to find her own way.
Both movies are basically saying that we make our own destiny and that our true family are the ones who are there for us and the ones we choose to accept, whether our biological family consists of junk traders or evil Sith lords. Getting caught up in the details of literal biology, to me, is a very baffling route for movie critics to go. Star Wars is a franchise about family ties and destiny; the Force is a metaphor—it’s a power that the heroes have, the heroes we as an audience identify with—the power of intuition, of feeling, of choosing to do what’s right, etc.
For me, “Rey is a nobody” and “Rey is a Palpatine” both work for pretty much the same reason; in both cases, she must move past her biological family and find her own way. The movies would have been better off, in my opinion, sticking with one of those backstories and establishing it in the second film to give viewers a chance to process it before the third film, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. Regardless of the retconning or inconsistent views between films, the themes in both do mesh and the shift is not enough for me to become angry about as a viewer. Thinking that “Rey is a Palpatine” means the average person can’t ever be powerful makes no sense to me and also really misses the point that both Episode 8 and Episode 9 are trying to make. In the words of Qui-gon Jinn, the great Jedi Master who like all Jedi of his time came from some random family somewhere: “Your focus determines your reality.”
I also really like Rey’s story because it’s different from the other two trilogies yet ties into the same general theme. In the prequel trilogy, Anakin has a family (his mother, his wife) that the Jedi Order keeps pulling him away from, and ultimately, this leads to his destruction as a person. In the original trilogy, Luke finds that his family is not what he expected and yet still something he is able to (more or less) put back together by rejecting his own hatred and finding compassion. In the sequel trilogy, Rey has no family to put back together and must move on from her past and find a new family. Each trilogy has its own unique theme centered on family, and each protagonist has a poignant journey and discovery about the meaning of family in their own life.