Warning: Major spoilers for The Last Jedi follow!
When our favorite moptop farmboy barreled into an incarcerated sovereign’s holding cell and proudly declared, “I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you!” it was the first time in his life that the name really meant anything. We know that the Skywalker sigil had carried weight long prior to Luke’s ad-hoc rescue mission of the princess-in-repose; we know that Luke’s father had ridden his name through the ranks of Jedi training and, subsequently, to the head of the Galactic Empire. His mother did the same for nobler causes.[/nerdist_section]And yas, we know that Luke’s sister—the complete stranger he’d made it his business to spring loose from a heavily guarded Imperial vessel —had used her adopted handle Leia Organa to reign with diplomacy over Alderaan, and what’s more, to bring liberty and salvation to the known galaxy.
But when the world first watched Tatooine’s hometown boy tear off his stormtrooper disguise and proclaim his mission with a full heart and an open nasal cavity, all we knew of Luke Skywalker was that he was here to rescue you. And that’s all we needed.
For the three years between the original picture’s release in 1977 and the 111th minute of The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars was a story about a nobody—a big-dreaming bumpkin raised on a moisture farm—who became a somebody by way of heart, courage, determination, and a little help from an enterprising messenger robot and a manipulative shaman. Though to no small degree the beneficiary of chance, the doe-eyed Jedi-in-the-making nevertheless earned his claim to heroism, not on the Skywalker of it all, but on the Luke.
It wasn’t genealogy that drove Luke’s adventure in that very first movie—how could it be? All that the original Star Wars’ audiences knew of the boy’s family were some vague details about his father’s death and his aunt’s affinity for cerulean dairy. Instead, the first chapter of the Star Wars saga rested its laurels on the idea that anybody, even a naval-gazing schmendrick like Luke Skywalker, could harness the Force, take down the Empire, and become a hero.
That the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back comprised one of the great twist reveals in cinema history is in no small part to thank for our collective absolution of the film for undermining the very message from which its predecessor was ostensibly born. It wasn’t just Luke that changed with Empire, but Star Wars on the whole. What was once a story about character and choice begat another about bloodline and destiny, a shift cemented in Leia’s induction into the Skywalker clan in Return of the Jedi. By 1983, it seemed as though Star Wars had changed its mind about heroes, adopting the mentality that you’ve got to be born one.
I must confess, I wasn’t around for the world’s introduction to self-made-man Luke, nor the revelation of the Skywalker boy’s preternatural grandeur. But I was born in time to witness another of that faraway galaxy’s great spiritual reversals, and one that has not enjoyed quite the same fanfare.
Sorry, everyone. We’re talking Midi-chlorians now.
While I may have lost a few friends asserting that the reveal od Darth Vader as Luke’s father is a critical blow to Star Wars’ established identity, I’m sure none of my readers will disagree that The Phantom Menace‘s introduction of Midi-chlorians into the series’ canon was damn near fatal. Of all the missteps of the prequel trilogy—baby Anakin, trade embargos, CGI Yoda, teen angst Anakin, sand getting everywhere, baby Boba Fett, racist stereotype aliens, Amidala dying of a broken heart, and, of course, Jar Jar—it’s Midi-chlorians that arouse the bitterest resentment.
An ill-conceived effort to replace the magic and mystery of the Force with half-cocked microbiology, Midi-chlorians drove Star Wars even further from A New Hope’s tacit prophecy that anyone could be a hero. Empire and Return may have insinuated that only certain people could be heroes, but Phantom Menace doubled down withy the idea that even those people were only heroes because of a blood mutation.
Fans’ contention with the factor of Midi-chlorians has taken form in any and all of the traditional stages of grief. My own revulsion with this narrative transgression has set up camp in denial, allowing for a just-crazy-enough-to-work reading of every onscreen mention of Midi-chlorians. For me, they’re more closely comparable to our own world’s anti-Vaxxer movement. Are you really going to trust Qui-Gon Jinn, a known zealot with poor judgement?
The new Star Wars movies take the noble route of simply pretending Midi-chlorians never existed. At no point is the new trilogy’s rejection of the prequels’ microbial retcon more evident than in The Last Jedi’s biggest dramatic moment: the disclosure of Rey’s parentage.
When our beloved bunhead survivalist dodged the piercing glare of her Dark Side counterpart and whimpered a defeated, “They were nobody,” it was the first time in her life that she admitted to herself that her name really didn’t mean anything. But we know she’s wrong about that.
That Rey comes from nothing, just as we once believed to be true of Luke Skywalker, is precisely what makes her something. That the world’s first vantage point of Luke decried the shackles of humble beginnings and an ambivalent vast cosmos is why he rang so valiant to the Average Biggs in 1977. That Rey used her own helping of heart, courage, and determination (and, yas, a little help from an enterprising messenger droid and a goofy reformed stormtrooper) to overcome isolation, poverty, and a universe without any grand plans for her is why she reads the hero here and now in 2017—a time when this breed of hero is in particularly great demand.
The Empire Strikes Back may have retroactively armed Luke Skywalker with the benefactor of destiny, on which The Phantom Menace upped the ante. But per The Last Jedi’s revelation of Jakku’s adventurous orphan as born of “nobodies,” we know that we can credit whatever glory she achieves throughout her story not to bloodline (or, quite literally, blood), but to Rey.
The Last Jedi embraces this more diplomatic viewpoint of greatness, assigning the white-collar folks of Canto Bight with superlative villainy and closing its run on the hope of another young nobody as the future—better yet, a future—of the Force, the Rebellion, and the good fight altogether.
Though I’d be crazy to die on the hill that Star Wars should never have named Darth Vader as Luke’s father, nor Leia as his sister, I will brandish a similar flag: Here and now in 2017, what we could really use is not a story of family sagas, but of nobodies coming from nowhere to do something. That’s what the world got in 1977, and it’s what Star Wars returns to with The Last Jedi.
All we know about Rey is that she’s here to rescue us. And that’s all we need.
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.