I have a complicated relationship with Star Wars. I wanted to open this piece by saying that I never used to care about it, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. When I was growing up in the early 90’s, seemingly everyone around me loved it, which just made me more determined to actively not care about it. I used to be like that. Unfortunately, making an effort to not care about something is often just another form of caring. And either way, try as hard as I could, eventually the original trilogy wormed its way in to my affections. When all is said and done they are difficult things to dislike, those movies. They aren’t perfect by any measure, but they are genuinely very enjoyable to watch, and the sense of wonder the stories are imbued with is undeniable.
They have a titanic cultural power too. A power that makes them basically impossible to ignore, especially for a pop culture writer. Star Wars has tremendous clout, both because of the huge cultural cachet we as a society imbue it with, and the colossal (evil) dollar power of Disney behind it.
Quite aside from stat boost it gives to their Corporate Villainy attribute, there is another negative side to Disney’s handling of Star Wars. In their omnivorous quest to rule all, the company has of course annualised the franchise, and there’s something very dispiriting about this. At least to me. Permit me to quote myself here when I say that it’s:
Like any remaining magic is being slowly and methodically drained out. There was good in The Force Awakens and Rogue One, but it seemed like it was in spite of the controlling hand of the puppet master, rather than because of it.
So these days I tend to have a peculiar attitude to the movies. I know they are going to come out and that there is nothing I can do about it. I also know that I’m gonna end up seeing them, and that there is even less I can do about that. But I’m not particularly enthused about the state of affairs, to say the least, and I haven’t been able to properly get invested in things.
That is, until now.
See, both Force and Rogue had me in a weird limbo, my emotions pinging back and forth between enthralment and disinterest. That was especially true for Rogue, where there were quite a few glimpses of the potential and excitement that Star Wars is supposed to elicit, but that were ultimately heavily watered down by disappointment and compromise. I felt myself at a cold remove throughout these movies, and I couldn’t help but be analytical about things even while I was watching them unfold. ‘Oh, that’s a story beat lifted straight from A New Hope.’ ‘What a strangely paced scene this is.’ ‘Jesus Christ, who okayed this CGI monstrosity? Poor Peter Cushing.’ That’s no fun. It all felt depressingly like I was marking someone’s term paper. That’s not why I go see Star Wars, man.
So it was that I walked into a screening of The Last Jedi with expectations healthily lowered. This despite my great love for the writer-director behind it. I knew the power of Disney when it came to curtailing daring creative vision.
I walked out two-and-a-half-hours later, cursing Rian Johnson’s name. ‘Fuck you, Rian! I was just about ready to let this damn franchise go already! Why’d you have to reignite the fire, huh?! Why’d you go and make me feel alive with childish excitement again, you glorious sonofabitch!?’
I have had some time to cool off since that initial flare-up, and I have to say: I stand by my initial impressions. Forget the previous two entries in the new Star Wars run. The Last Jedi is different. This is a Star Wars that—like its Resistance heroes—ignited a spark within me. A spark of excitement for a series I had basically given up on. Let me be clear: I am by no means calling Rian Johnson’s film a perfect masterpiece. But the way he decided to tell and show this story means it is leaps and bounds above every other entry in the series aside from the original trilogy. It has certainly made The Force Awakens and Rogue One look like childish imitations. Don’t get me wrong—they’re fine. You might stick them up on the fridge for a week or two. The Last Jedi you laminate, frame, and put up on the wall above the sofa in the living room.
I keep thinking about why I was so taken with the film, and again and again I come back to that word: Wonder. Over the years, age and lacklustre movies had numbed me to feeling any awe out of Star Wars. But Johnson’s treatment felt like redemption. His take on this vast universe full of good and evil and magic felt right. It felt fresh. After all the narrative dead ends and the retreading of old Skywalker-centric stories that we have been seeing for years, suddenly it felt like there were all-new avenues that could be explored. Yes, that dysfunctional family and their original trilogy escapades were still very much in focus, but now here we were, actually branching out.
In so many ways The Last Jedi is, of course, a meta-commentary on its own existence. On its values and goals, as well as those of the series as a whole. Kylo Ren hits it on the nose perhaps a tad too much when he says, ‘Let the past die. Kill it if you have to,’ but that is exactly what this series needs to do if it is to be saved from a fate similar to that of a nostalgic travelling sideshow, wheeling out old surnames and legacies in exchange for the cheap buzz of recognition. We need new stories in this saga, and one of the best parts of The Last Jedi—which was also one of the most hated by some (but more on that later)—was the revelation of Rey’s parents. What a gloriously perfect touch, to have our main hero’s lineage be that of dust, instead of starlight. It is such a powerful moment, this exchange:
Kylo Ren: Do you wanna know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? And you’ve just hidden it away. You know the truth. Say it. Say it.
Rey: They were nobody.
Kylo Ren: They were filthy junk traders who sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead in a paupers’ grave in the Jakku desert. You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me. Join me. Please.
It is powerful (and scary, sure) from a storytelling standpoint, because it frees up possibilities and expands boundaries; it is powerful from a philosophical point of view, because it’s announcing to us that this movie has decided to tell a story in which literally anyone can be a hero, never mind what special family they happened to be born into or not; and it is powerful on a small, character scale, because the moment between Kylo and Rey feels so true to them as people—both are clinging to the past and desperately trying to escape it at the same time, and in this moment their nuanced, layered bond resonates the loudest and foreshadows the repercussions it will have for the galaxy. Rey and Kylo, already quite good characters in The Force Awakens, here become great. In isolation they are both interesting and layered, but it’s in the space between them, in the interplay of darkness and light within the two, where everything sings. Rian Johnson understands: Write great characters like this, have them clash, and the rest almost takes care of itself.
Rey and Kylo’s bond (and the fantastic space-Skype innovation facilitating it) is what everything pivots around in The Last Jedi. And that’s a great move. Because going in you would expect the focus to be on Luke, and Leia, and the shadow of their father. But that would be looking backwards. The movie knows where to train its eye. Luckily it also knows how to balance things, and the two Skywalkers are anything but ignored. In fact its treatment of the two Skywalkers is another of the movie’s strongest suits (though, again, something that has attracted much internet ire). The multiple layers added to Luke’s personality are especially praiseworthy. Here is a character who was once basically a cipher, a blank slate. He was our hero many decades ago, sure, but let’s be honest: He wasn’t exactly the most interesting of personalities. Now, wracked with guilt in a self-imposed exile both from humanity and The Force, he lives out his days, awaiting death. He tried to do good, and he failed. Perhaps, he thinks, it is best to leave things to develop as they will. He has no interest in getting involved anymore. That is, until Rey comes along. Little unknown Rey, who comes from nowhere and nothing, and yet who carries inside of her a power and a conviction that terrifies Luke and forces him to reckon with his past and with his mistakes. Initially turning away from the challenge and abandoning Rey and the galaxy to their fates, he finds the strength to rise up, to assist the struggling Resistance, and to give hope to the galaxy before finally finding peace within himself.
That’s a motherfucking arc and a half! That’s the kind of character development that reaches decades back into the past, and adds depth to the the Luke Skywalker we know in the original trilogy.
I have read numerous complaints about The Last Jedi since seeing it. The vast majority seem either born out of bad faith, or a peculiar and poisonous trait that’s often inherent to fervent fandom (and that’s without even bothering to dive into the toxic masculinity side of things): The craving for change sitting alongside a toxic adherence to stasis. We, as fans, so often demand innovation while decrying it when we actually see it. It must make a creator’s head spin. Rian Johnson somehow found a perfect way to walk this tightrope. He took old, beloved characters, and he gave them depth, forcing them into unknown territory. And for that, he has been lambasted by some. In The Last Jedi, Johnson is giving us a Star Wars story in an almost perfect way: With adherence to established laws and traditions, but with a meaningful expansion of the universe; with resonant emotional arcs, but with enough humour—both silly and less so—to keep things from getting too grim; with absolutely gorgeous and iconic imagery that recalls the original trilogy as well as its influences, and that pushes the boundary for the next generation.
The structure of the movie, too, is bold. Away from The Force chapters featuring Luke, Kylo, and Rey, we have the Resistance versus The New Order. Told as one long hopeless-seeming retreat where effort after effort fails, and in which characters have to think fast and innovate, often clashing over ideals and plans, it’s riveting and tense viewing. The opening bombing run is one of the best filmed openings to a blockbuster I have seen for some time, and the subsequent, disaster-laden chase is paced expertly. The sewing together of this ragtag, ground-level resistance movement and the larger, mystical goings on in the universe is a very satisfying watch.
Really, though I respect and value (almost) everyone’s opinions, truth be told: I find it very difficult to understand the complaints.
There is a sequence in The Last Jedi that I think is worth mentioning here. It’s the ‘space Monaco’ segment in the middle, when Finn, Rose, and BB-8 travel to the Canto Bight casino in search of their hacker. It’s probably the weakest part of the movie, but it also contains three of its best features. The first is the brutal reality that Rose helps Finn to see, overcoming his starry-eyed gaze. Finn’s initial swooning over the glitz of Canto Bight gives way to an understanding of its seedy underbelly, and of the casualties of war, as well as the zero-sum game at play in the galaxy. The second is when the duo find out that even in space, capitalism is as opportunistic as ever. Arms dealers sell to both sides in the galactic war, making no distinction between the Resistance and the First Order. This injection of realpolitik, small as it is in the moment, is quite incredibly subversive stuff for Star Wars. With a few lines Rian Johnson dynamites a lot of rules, and if it is followed through properly at some point it could lead to a vastly richer and more complex universe in which to tell these stories. The final touch is one that is close to The Last Jedi’s central thesis: The sparking of hope. Finn and Rose’s jaunt through Canto Blight leads to them encountering some downtrodden servant children. At first these children are unwilling to help, having had their spirits all but broken by the occupying force, but eventually they do, and Finn and Rose’s heroic actions and daring escape ignite something in these children as a result. Where before there was resignation and defeat, there is now defiance, light, and The Force.
The Last Jedi has its flaws. Of course it does. It could be nitpicked to death like almost any movie. I think, though, that that would be the wrong approach, and it would betray a skewed perspective. It would mean losing sight of the bigger picture. Because what Rian Johnson has done here is something quite remarkable. He’s taken a franchise that has every reason to play it safe and to rely on mining nostalgia, and he’s torpedoed that strategy to pieces. Instead he’s pushed the boat out beyond the safety of the harbour. He’s allowed a nobody from Jakku to become a grand, conflicted hero. He’s shown us a servant child using the Force, gazing up at the stars with a fire in his eyes. He’s given Star Wars fans a reason to hope again.
Header Image Source: Walt Disney Studios