Everything after this is a spoiler. You have been warned.
2015’s return to the Skywalker Saga, The Force Awakens, was released to generally glowing reviews. Although it was a fairly simple retread of the same beats we had seen before in the original 1977 Star Wars*, after the disappointing mess of Lucas gave us in the prequel films, it’s not surprising that there was a collective sigh of relief that J.J. Abrams could take the reins of the Star Wars franchise and give the world a new film in the old Lucas style. Whatever Abrams’ weaknesses as a director, he is a master at imitation, giving us the best non-Spielberg Spielberg film (Super 8) and the now the best non-Lucas Lucas film (The Force Awakens).
Having re-established the franchise on a firm footing and proven that Disney could give fans new releases with the same touches we loved in ’77, ’81, and ’83, the open question was where would Disney Wars go next? More of the same or a change of direction? “Burn it all down,” said Rian Johnson.
Abrams proved that Disney could give us the old magic we love; Johnson set out to prove that Disney could give us something new—something that we weren’t necessarily asking for. Say what you want about Episodes I-VII, they were not exercises in deep introspective cinema. There’s no gray in the Lucas palette. You have good guys and bad guys, light and dark, and you are either on one side or the other. It’s a simple fantasy story in space, with the rogues, clerics, princesses, and knights on one side and the highly mechanized forces of fascist empire on the other. Not much nuance there.
Johnson gives us a lot more gray—almost nothing but gray—as he sets out to step by step subvert every trope of the Star Wars universe. To whit:
1) The same daring, selfless missions that brought victory in Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, and even Rogue One are now at best Pyrrhic victories—the Deadnought bombing in the opening sequence—or foolish wastes of time—Finn and Rose’s attempt to shut off the tracker on a New Order ship. To really hammer the point home, we see Finn preparing to run his skimmer at full speed right down the maw of the First Order’s nifty laser battering ram, only to be forcibly knocked to safety by Rose. “We won’t win by destroying what we hate,” she says, “but by saving what we love.” The rebels have a new ethos. No more suicide missions—we’re going to try to save what we have left.
2) On a similar point, the tendency to disregard the orders or advice of your superiors that we saw previously when Jyn Erso ignored the Rebel council to retrieve the Death Star plans from Scarif, or when Luke left Dagobah to save his friends, is now taken to a foolish and devastating extreme in Poe Dameron’s mutiny against Admiral Holdo. This time, the old guard really does know best, and Poe’s insistence on going his own way endangered the rebels in general and Finn and Rose in particular.
3) There’s no one left who believes in the nobility and wisdom of the Jedi order. We thought that Luke retreated to the original Jedi temple to go deeper into the mystical ways of the Force and rebuild the order, but he doesn’t care about that at all. He’s never even bothered—in months and months alone!—to read the ancient Jedi texts. He’s cut himself off from the Force. And whereas Obi-Wan spoke reverently of the lightsaber—“An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age”—Luke tosses his away and dismissively calls it “a laser sword.” Even Yoda is ready to literally burn it all down, calling Luke’s bluff and destroying the sacred texts himself, saying there’s nothing in them that Rey doesn’t already have within her. Rey, we have already seen, doesn’t really understand what the Force is at all, and is begging for a teacher. This is a far different stance than Yoda took when Luke was in his early 20s and Yoda believed he was already too old to start gaining the wisdom and discipline it would take to become a true Jedi. Apparently Rey doesn’t need discipline and training. She’s ready just as she is. (And she’d better be, with the texts destroyed and the only person who can teach her dissolved away into serene nothingness.)
4) We’ve grown accustomed to people being marked out for a special destiny because of the circumstances of their birth, either to royalty (Amidala) or because of a miticlorian miracle conception (Anakin) or within a family which seems to have a genetic propensity to force sensitivity (Luke/Leia/Ben). The Force Awakens created a mystery about Rey’s parentage, around which fans have created myriad theories—She’s a Kenobi! A Palpatine! Yet another freaking Skywalker!—all of which were gloriously shot down with the revelation that her parents were poor junk traders who had no special gifts. They sold her off for some scraps and are now buried somewhere in the desert. She’s nobody in particular, from a nowhere planet–and we haven’t ever seen someone like her have such powerful control of the Force.
5) Finally, the extreme bifurcation between Light and Dark, Good Guys and Bad Guys we saw in previous movies is ended here as both Luke and Kylo Ren, in their own ways, want to break down the Jedi/Sith system. One of the chief strengths of The Last Jedi is how it used Kylo Ren, a petulant man-child in The Force Awakens, to begin to explore what it might look like to be strong in the Force but reject choosing a side. He has been conflicted, but now that he has struck down both Han and Snoke he seems ready to find his own path. Where that path will lead is unclear.
There are some fans who are deeply disappointed in Johnson’s insistent deconstruction of the usual Star Wars tropes, wanting more Abrams-style neo-Lucasism. They can hardly be faulted for wanting another trip to that particular well, and I can imagine being understandably upset at Johnson, the interloper who turned Star Wars into something darker and much more nuanced. If you came to The Last Jedi hoping for a few more chances to burst out into applause at the unlikely victory of our daring heroes—well, you probably hated this movie a lot.
That’s not my problem with The Last Jedi. The Star Wars universe was long overdue for this kind of deconstruction, and Johnson’s direction rescued the problematic Kylo Ren character and turned him into perhaps the most interesting person in the entire franchise. Breaking down the facile dichotomies are welcome turns as well. On paper, this seems like the necessary maturation of Star Wars, and I’m sure if I had been on the production staff I would have cheered Johnson every step of the way as he tore down the expectations that have been built over these last four decades. It’s a turn in the story that is both daring and essential. However, all this rampant subversionism came with a cost, which is that apparently Johnson doesn’t know how to do that and also make a movie that is interesting to watch and has consistently realistic characters.
There are three storylines overlapping in The Last Jedi: the Rey/Luke/Kylo Ren exploration of what the Force is and the nature of the Jedi/Sith orders, the Poe exploration of the limits of loveable rogue-ism, and the Finn/Rose exploration of yet-another-plan-to-infiltrate-an-enemy-ship-and-flip-a-switch-to-“off.” Of those, only the first really works. All things considered, if I can only have one of those three storylines work, that’s the one to pick—it’s at the center of the mythos and produces the most interesting questions and character arcs. On the strength of the Force arc, I’m giving a The Last Jedi a tentative thumbs up. But it’s really tentative because:
- I can’t buy into mutinous Poe. Foolhardy, maybe. Addicted to high-stakes, high-adrenaline missions, sure. But mutinous—no. And if you are going to have a character commit mutiny, there need to be some consequences for that. He’s already been stripped of rank once. It’s time to throw Poe in the brig or kick him out of the rebel alliance altogether. There need to be more consequences for his actions than Holdo giving Leia a wry smile and saying “I love that rogue.” It’s good to subvert the repeated “million-to-one odds” missions. At some point, basic statistics are going to catch up to you, and C3PO’s going to be proven right. But this was a frustrating and unbelievable way to do it. It would be far better writing to have the bombing mission against the dreadnought go disastrously wrong. All the bombers get destroyed, the dreadnought is barely dented, and Poe loses one of his best friends. Leia dresses him down hard and busts him down another rank for insubordination before throwing him in the brig. There he gets plenty of time to himself to wrestle with the consequences of his hotheaded actions. Later in the movie, when the rebels are again in dire straits, Leia visits Poe in the brig and tells him it’s time to go on another risky mission to save the rebels. This time it’s Poe who refuses and insists on finding a smarter, lower-risk way. Introspection! Consequences! Stakes! Real character growth! Either way you go after that, something interesting is going to happen. Maybe Leia was right and we really need to roll the dice sometimes, but we have to be careful about when. Maybe Poe was right and it’s time to change tactics altogether. But Johnson gave us unrealistic character beats with no personal stakes or consequences—a dissatisfying move.
- Everything about the Finn/Rose mission to Planet O’ Rich Gamblers bored me, and in a film generally dedicated to nuance, that was as un-nuanced as possible. Evil rich capitalist exploiters and child labor! Boo, hiss! That whole subpoint was an exercise in one futile action after another, all adding up to nothing. I could feel my heartrate slowing down everytime we cut back to Finn. There was nothing to make me care, and my extreme lack of caring wound up being retroactively justified when nothing they did made any difference anyway. Now, as a sort of avant garde approach to filmmaking—Wouldn’t it be interesting to have an entire third of the movie make no difference to anyone whatsoever?—I guess I can see the temptation, but Star Wars isn’t really the venue to explore the virtues of tedium. Nothing about the Finn line worked for me.
So, I’m giving the Force storyline a strong A, the Poe storyline a D, and I am expelling the Finn storyline from my class and putting it on academic probation.
Other assorted thoughts:
- It is genuinely great to see more diversity in the Star Wars universe, and to have male and female heroes of various ethnicities to cheer for. Rose and her sister are welcome additions to the pantheon. And Laura Dern rocked it as Holdo—wonderful to see another middle-aged woman in a central role.
- How much equipment does the First Order lug around with them? They just happen to have a laser door ram in case the rebels flee to someplace with a big reinforced door? Why not just blast it? They don’t care about casualties. What else are they carrying with them? Laser drill for underground lairs?
- I’m not sure Rose’s philosophy is consistent. She thinks it’s wrong for Finn to sacrifice himself to try to save everyone, but then she hurts herself badly to try to save just Finn. She needs some Star Trek in her life. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
- I really don’t get why Holdo doesn’t just explain to Poe what the plan is. She knows it looks futile from his perspective, and she knows what kind of nonsense he gets into when a situation seems hopeless. One quick “we’re not trying to escape this area; we’re trying to sneak to an abandoned base nearby” would have saved a lot of trouble and gotten Poe working with her instead of against her. Yes, that would have required a massive rewrite, but that rewrite needed to happen anyway.
* Look, it was Star Wars when I saw it, and I’m going to call it Star Wars here. You might know it as A New Hope. To each his own.