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How "The Last Jedi" Expresses Empathy In Ways "Star Wars" Never Has

The most emotionally-nuanced Star Wars movie yet has a lot to say about who lives, who dies, and why we should care whose stories get told. [This is for the LA Rotational Fellowship.]

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The Last Jedi marks departures for Star Wars large and small, overtly upending some tropes ingrained in the franchise’s storytelling while subtly shifting focus on others. Alongside the film’s deconstruction of heroes as myths and its argument for the merits of failure, I was surprised to find a greater sense of empathy in the filmmaking--a more caring lens with which to see this universe, both in who this story cares about and how it cares about them. Kinds of characters whose contributions have been ignored by Star Wars’ storytelling in the past this film decides to invest in and frame with compassion. Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is a revelation, and The Last Jedi feels like a redefining of the emotional landscape of this series not only because it makes Rose, an engineer outside the spotlight of the Resistance, integral to the plot and honors her experience and perspective—but it extends that attitude towards less developed characters. This significant push towards greater empathy is most evident in how this movie deals with death—and that starts with Rose’s sister Paige (Veronica Ngo).

The loss of a Rebel pilot is a familiar image in a Star Wars movie: In the midst of a dramatic space battle, a fighter is hit, the engine ignites, and the ship is blown away. In A New Hope and Return Of The Jedi these moments were explosive and abrupt, but for me they’ve never been gutting. Rebel pilots have been by design expendable, for the most part semi-anonymous red shirts whose ends raise the stakes and demonstrate the gravity of the situation for our heroes. As Rebel forces dwindle, the mission and survival of our main characters feel increasingly desperate.

Beginning The Last Jedi with the entire fate of the Resistance depending on the actions of an unknown bomber pilot announces a different treatment of anonymous characters. The battle has a familiar set of dire stakes not unlike the Rebels’ escape from Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back—the Resistance has evacuated onto a handful of ships in firing range of the First Order fleet—but even before Paige’s sacrifice, when other pilots and ships are destroyed it hardly feels routine. Director Rian Johnson allows for death in war as a random act of chaos, not just the result of fighters being destroyed by enemies. When multiple bombing ships crash into each other and their payloads ignite by accident, it’s harrowing. Narratively and visually, each death seems to have a weight of its own, and these losses weren’t just signaling the imminent threat to Poe, Finn, and Leia—their losses felt like the whole point. When the action narrows with fading sound and close focus on Paige, the last person alive on the last bomber desperately kicking a ladder to knock free the bomb trigger, it is gutting. It’s the end of a life, it’s a demonstration of how fragile the lives of anyone in this universe can be, and it’s clear how much depends on the unnamed and unseen characters in this story.

In any other Star Wars movie, a pilot would be introduced, tangle with a TIE fighter, and contribute to the progression of the plot for our main characters; their actions and what happens to them aren’t the point but serve the rest of the story. As much as we’d like to know and empathize with the individual stories of every pilot killed in action, there isn’t time for it—it’s Luke’s story or Lando’s or Poe’s, not Porkins’ or Wedge’s or Jessika Pava’s. Comics and novels have fleshed out the lives of some of these briefly-seen heroes, while onscreen they have functionary roles in other people’s stories.

By centering the story on Paige briefly and making Rose a major character, The Last Jedi aligns itself with those people who had been overlooked before in order to give them more complete stories, in-universe and outside of it. Meeting Rose in the immediate aftermath of her sister’s death is seeing embodied an experience of loss and grief likely happening all over the fleet with family and friends suddenly gone. Rose immediately proves to be tough and more earnestly dedicated to the Resistance than Finn, born of her brutal upbringing of forced labor and weapons testing. That she quickly loses her fan-like reverence for Finn supports that heroes can be anywhere and anyone, not only the flawed humans we’ve built into legends. Outside the film, Kelly Marie Tran plays the first Asian-American lead in a Star Wars movie, an incredibly significant casting for a franchise of this size when Asian-Americans are underrepresented in film and TV. True expressions of empathy in storytelling can be seen in empowerment and inclusion of those who haven’t seen themselves represented in stories before, and Rose is a fully-fledged hero at the heart of this film.

While not every minor character is as developed as Rose, they’re drawn with an emotional nuance that acknowledges their humanity and role in this story, and how they are treated in life is reflected by how they are treated in death. Before the rebel hangar is destroyed, one pilot shares a knowing look with another that suggests a relationship; when the captain of the support frigate goes down with his ship his message that ends “Godspeed, rebels” is one of pride at getting others to safety and hope for his comrades. This texture gives these characters specificity, making it more affecting when they lose their lives. Rogue One employed a similar strategy for its team of doomed heroes, but if those members of the mission to steal the Death Star plans are side characters to the story of A New Hope, The Last Jedi integrates the daring work and sacrifices that make rebellion happen into the same story as the Skywalkers’.

It’s one level of empathy to direct an audience to care that a character is dead—and it’s another to change what the living talk about when they talk about death, and The Last Jedi does both for Star Wars. Instead of depicting fighters being shot down to signal the direction of the battle, the movie casts them as heroes fighting for a cause and losing their lives with meaning—but through Leia’s words and Rose’s actions, it’s clear this movie’s empathetic reach extends beyond noble self-sacrifice. In A New Hope the Rebellion celebrated their victory against the Death Star with a joyful medal ceremony, and why shouldn’t they? They faced an existential threat and survived. The story didn’t see them dwell on losses suffered in battle, and when the monumental tragedy of Alderaan got a passing mention, a younger Leia advised that they’d have time for their sorrows after the fighting was done.

30 years later and the fight still going, Poe might agree with that sentiment, gratified by the destruction of the dreadnaught, but looking over the casualties lost in that battle, Leia is done with celebrating victory won at the cost of so many lives. Standing in contrast to Rogue One‘s philosophy, Leia tells Poe that dead heroes are still dead—rebellions can’t be built without living leaders. The heartbreak in her voice, heard again in her bittersweet goodbye to Holdo, underlines the emotional weight and practical toll loss after loss takes. Leia mourns more easily and appreciates the living; her choices complement Rose’s to save Finn from sacrificing himself. Through The Last Jedi’s lens of empathy, it’s not good enough to die with humanity and with a purpose. We need people to live.

In life and death the extension of empathy represents an extension of imagination as well. In the original trilogy and prequels, only certain kinds of people present in the imagination of storytellers became characters the story had the capacity to care about. We saw alien planets and amazing creatures—but few people of color and few women in major roles. Stories are all around us: They affect how we experience our world, see others, and live our lives. Everyone deserves to see themselves in our culture’s stories, and The Last Jedi takes important steps for Star Wars in telling stories with greater human imagination, with hopefully many more steps to come, especially for LGBTQ representation. By imagining and empathizing with people across its universe as specific humans, vital to the cause they fight in, and worthy of attention, stories, and life, The Last Jedi has set a benchmark for the next Star Wars movies to reach and exceed.

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