Star Wars: The Last Jedi was the most controversial Star Wars movie of the Disney era so far. But despite the elements that have been subject to criticism, its handling of the dark side was as good as any Star Wars film to date.
The dark side has been something of a monolith since the first Star Wars movie hit theaters in 1977. The dark side was just the big bad; there wasn’t much complexity to the characters or their goals. It wasn’t until the final moments of the last act of Return of the Jedi that we saw crossover from the dark side to the light. Before Darth Vader turned on Darth Sidious to save Luke, good and bad were black and white in Star Wars.
The prequel trilogy put a higher emphasis on exploring the complexities of the dark side. The story of Anakin turning to the dark side inherently begged for that exploration. But even there the allure of the dark side was a false promise at best.
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Anakin turned to the dark side out of paranoia. He wanted to save Padme from death, but in a King Oedipus-esque twist, Anakin’s efforts to prevent a prophecy ended up being the actions that fulfilled it. The dark side had again lost its allure. It couldn’t help Anakin; he was only there because he had been manipulated by Darth Sidious.
The changing dark side
But then the sequel trilogy came along. They cast an attractive, young man as their lead bad guy. The Force Awakens showed Kylo Ren without his mask. It spent as much time exploring his vulnerabilities as it did establishing his cruelty. He killed Han Solo, but not before tearing up. Kylo Ren often came off as a confused kid who was in over his head.
The Force Awakens and Kylo Ren laid the groundwork, but Rian Johnson went all in with portraying the dark side as a viable temptation in The Last Jedi. It started on Ahch-To. After finally working him down and getting Luke to train her, the first thing Rey does is lean toward the pull of the dark side. It had something to show her. Rey searches the cave beneath the island in a psychedelic sequence, but no definitive answers were there.
Photo Credit: [Solo: A Star Wars Story] LucasfilmMeanwhile, Rey and Kylo’s force meetings were growing gradually less hostile. It was Kylo’s telling of what turned him to the dark side that made Rey perhaps briefly question her own allegiances. Kylo, then Ben Solo, woke up one night to his uncle, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, standing over him with his lightsaber withdrawn. Kylo was just a kid at the Jedi Academy to learn the light side of the force and he awoke to his master attempting to murder him in his sleep. From there, Kylo’s subsequent actions seem more sensible. Rian Johnson had realized his goal: Kylo Ren was a sympathetic character.
Doing for Rey what it couldn’t for Anakin
Back on Ahch-To, Rey confronts Luke on Kylo Ren’s origin story. Rey goes to convert Kylo Ren back into Ben Solo following a brief duel with Luke. After their defeat of Supreme Leader Snoke and his guards, the answer to the question Rey had been asking herself for her whole life came from the last living face of the dark side: Kylo Ren told Rey her parents were “nobodies”. It might not have been what Rey hoped to hear, but the dark side delivered on its promise of answers.
The dark side isn’t what it used to be. It’s no longer a monolithic display of dark cloaks and red lightsabers; it’s a complex temptation that can be appealing to vulnerable or betrayed characters. And even worse, it now can be a legitimate provider for what those characters seek.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is currently streaming on Netflix.