Monday, December 18, 2017

Star Wars for the 21st Century: The Last Jedi

Whenever I see a Star Wars movie in theaters, I’m immediately watching it as the 8 year-old kid I was when I first experienced them in theatres in the early 80’s. I have vague memories of watching The Empire Strikes Back umpteen times (movies were so much cheaper back then), and I vividly recall when my mom took me to attend the opening week of Return of the Jedi shortly after school one afternoon. I’ll never forget how people booed as Darth Vader came striding down the ramp in the half-completed Death Star, or how people cheered when he threw the Emperor down the seemingly bottomless shaft. I would feel ashamed today to even applaud after a movie’s closing credits...I last remember that occurring after Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. 

These digressions aside, I’m still that child who comes to be amazed, transported, wowed, and inspired. I don’t watch a movie with my PhD diploma in hand (that stays mounted on my office wall). I don’t even expect that much from a film, and certainly not as much as I expect from a class reading Mansfield Park or Beowulf. Just give me some memorable characters, an interesting, twist-turning plot, a dash of surprise, and an ending that makes it all seem worthwhile. I don’t care if I’ve seen the plot before or there characters recycle dialogue from a dozen movies I’ve seen and loved...just make it seem new, seem exciting, and seem like the first time I sat down to enjoy a Star Wars movie—particularly if it is a Star Wars movie.

The Last Jedi was exactly that first Star Wars movie to me—and then some. I realize that you can’t discuss this movie without acknowledging the endless vitriol and praise coming from both sides, though by far the loudest voices are from the detractors. Reading through these on-line, the main criticisms seem to be it doesn’t answer the questions from the first film; the pace is too slow; the time-lines don’t add up; the plots are full of holes; the villains are dispatched too easily; the humor is too contemporary and slapstick; it doesn’t feel like a Star Wars film. Hmm. These are tough points to argue against, and all of them, I’m sure, are more or less valid. However, I would equally argue that these points can be made against any Star Wars film, including the holy duo, The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope.

Isn’t the Emperor introduced in one movie and then killed only a handful of minutes later (never mind that he had a brief cameo in Empire)? A New Hope’s Death Star plot hole was so vast that it took an entire movie—Rogue One—to fill it, though that caused a few plot holes of its own. Humor has always been a hallmark of Star Wars, all the more so in the OT, which had its share of slapstick with Yoda and the droids. And in Return of the Jedi one of the greatest side characters (Boba Fett) was dispatched in the most ridiculously comic matter possible (and granted, fans remain annoyed as hell by that one). And as for much did Empire answer about Anakin Skywalker or Obi-Wan? Or the Force? Or what Yoda’s line “no...there is another” means? Even Return of the Jedi barely answers that one, and then doesn’t follow up on it.

My point being, that in this internet age, any movie can be picked to death like dogs fighting over a chicken carcass in a dumpster. As a kid, I never approached a movie as “what didn’t work,” but rather “what did I love?” If I didn’t love very much, it wasn’t a good movie. I think as adults, we’re trained to start mentally subtracting from the “bad” parts until only a modicum of “good” is left—and even that’s not worth considering. Often, I’ve enjoyed a movie so much that, when I go back and start subtracting as an adult, I can’t figure out why I seemed to like it so much. Perhaps we watch too many movies, or read too many reviews, or simply enjoy being armchair critics so much that we’ve forgotten how to enjoy art on a visceral level. Or even worse, perhaps we don’t want to let other people enjoy things that we can’t take pleasure in ourselves.

Whatever the reason, I entered the movie to see The Last Jedi with the sense of “if it’s good, great, and if not, oh well, at least I saw a new Star Wars movie.” I knew it would be good mere minutes into the film, when the bombers start their run on the Dreadnaught. The image of these slow, hulking ships approaching that ungodly monolith was so iconic and so Star Wars: it looked like something out of WWII translated to the future “long, long ago, but far, far away.” That’s the essence of Star Wars—the past and the future looped together in one artistic present. “Ah, they got it right—that’s exactly how it should look,” I said to myself. Even the desperate attempt for the one doomed pilot to climb down and press the button to release the bombs...that’s totally out of 1943. A high tech world that comes down to a single, modest, and forgotten act of heroism.

What made me fall in love with the movie were moments like this. Naturally, the film is writ large—massive visual expanses of space, planets, ships, and technology. And yet it seemed like a backdrop rather than in the spotlight. In fact, my biggest criticism of the Prequel films is exactly that: the entire movie is cold and mechanical, a computer program rather than a story of individuals facing impossible odds. Lucas once said that the technology—the ships, guns, etc.—should be there, but only fleetingly. In the same way, we wouldn’t linger over cars and cell phones in a contemporary movie; they would just flash by, part of our world but not the world itself. Lucas forgot that motto in his next trilogy, which gave us one CGI mash-up after another, and worse still, robbed Yoda of his spark of life by demoting him to a pixelized prison.

The Last Jedi avoids this mistake by making speak, move, and talk to one another behind a fantastic backdrop. Some of my favorite scenes were on Ahch-To Island, which had little more than Luke, Rey, and the odd CGI effect. These were deeply human and emotional scenes, such as when Luke tosses his old lightsaber over his head, or when Luke rubs Rey’s hand with a leaf and she thinks it’s the Force, or even when the two have a brief sparring match over his history with Kylo Ren. Only a true Star Wars movie would do this, giving us characters learning from one another rather than just blasting each other to smithereens. While these moments echo The Empire Strikes Back in having Rey seek a reclusive Jedi Master, they probe new depths by suggesting the Master’s limitations and guilt. I love how she’s come all the distance expecting her life to suddenly make sense, and the man she’s come to revere (as has half the galaxy) just tells her to “go away,” and that “the Jedi have to end.” The man she was expecting to instill her with hope has lost all hope and has nothing more to offer. The end.

Again, like The Empire Strikes Back, the new film is a story of the “losers.” The Resistance is losing and in full retreat. The First Order is toying with them, chasing them down cruelly and methodically—but much as a cat toys with a mouse. Sure, they could have obliterated them at once, as some point out, but why? They want revenge for all the indignities they’ve put the First Order through. Thus, they want to pick them off ship by ship, giving them a thin thread of hope which they gradually snip away. If that inevitably gives the Rebellion time to formulate a plan of escape, so be it...isn’t that how all these movies work? You can’t blame The Last Jedi for playing on the conventions of the genre, can you? Of course, the film is clever enough not to play them by the numbers. There are so many tricks and sleights of hand that will confuse and mislead even the most avid Star Wars fan, and possibly frustrate quite a few of them. But what do we want: a new film or the same old film blow-by-blow? Are people disappointed because they secretly wanted another Empire and didn’t get it? Is that what all this is about?

To me, the cleverest move of all concerns Rey. She doesn’t turn to the Dark Side. She doesn’t turn Kylo Ren to the Light. She doesn’t have Skywalker parents, or Palpantine heritage, or any Jedis to speak of. Her parents—if we can believe Kylo Ren, and why not?—is that they were unremarkable, greedy traders who willingly gave her up. I’ve always felt it a shame that Lucas had to make Luke and Leia descended from Naboo and Force royalty. Why couldn’t Anakin just have been a ne’er do well slave boy who had great force powers, and not a case of immaculate conception (ick). Why couldn’t he have married a commoner who caught his eye instead of a dethroned princess who acts like a two-bit Leia Organa? Well, now that’s exactly what we get...Rey was a nobody, and even a nobody can change the world. After all, most titled aristocrats were soldiers and cutthroats who merely supported the right king. Nothing noble about that!

The scene where she and Kylo butcher Snoke and his guards is one of the highlights of any Star Wars film, and to me, comes close to surpassing Darth Vader’s dramatic turn of allegiance. Yet it’s more sinister, and therefore unexpected, in that he doesn’t turn at all—he does it to become supreme leader himself along with his ‘queen,’ Rey (if only she would have accepted him, that is). Isn’t that the story of every Sith Lord? Don’t they always betray and murder their masters? So that’s all this was...we expected a dramatic change of heart (signaled when he fails to kill his mother), but instead we get cold, hard ambition—as well as a little love. He wants Rey’s affection and understanding. But quite predictably, she’s repulsed. This will create a powerful wedge between the two and cause some fascinating sparks in what I assume will be the final chapter of their story (Episode IX).

More and more, The Last Jedi is a story of class struggle—not the people who make the decisions and sit on the thrones, but the grunt pilots, the engineers, the soldiers, the slaves. The scenes on Canto Bight have been criticized as a pointless diversion, but only if the point of the film is to escape from the First Order. Sure, that’s one plot strand, but not the overall theme of the movie. The overarching theme is that the world needs to be swept clean of the Imperial rot of the Old Order and re-imagined by a new generation. The scenes in this casino royale are beautiful in how they showcase the decadence and blind allegiance to profit alone—ships sold to Rebels and Imperials alike, men who will help anyone for a price, and betray them for nothing.

A scene that resonates in my mind is Rose setting free the slave animals and talking with the slave children—of which she, herself, was one before she joined the Rebellion. We can’t just tell stories of space princesses and kings; not in this age of war and corruption. We have to have new heroes, people truly of the working class, even in our space operas and fantasy epics. It may seem obvious, but it ties into the very roots of fantasy itself, which was born of the Romantic imagination by figures such as Coleridge, Keats, Blake, and Shelley (both of them—Percy and Mary). Trust in the human in all its forms, whether slaves, or aliens, or droids—anything that can love can save the world. Or, as Rose more fittingly says, “This is how we win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.” Obvious? Perhaps, but how few films set in the far-flung future seem to find our humanity hiding in the stars.


  1. I saw the movie with my nephew Hank Jones who sent me this article... I went from liking the movie to LOVING the movie. Thanks!

    1. My pleasure! I actually was ready to be disappointed since I heard so many bad reviews, but was completely blown away (as you can see). I'm happy they went in this direction, though I look forward to seeing it again to deepen my understanding of why they did. Thanks for reading!