THE LAST JEDI Was A Star Wars Fan's Star Wars Film... Until It Wasn't
It's been a year since the release of the eighth "saga" Star Wars film, Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, and I still don't get it.
Not the movie -- I "got" the movie by about its 2-hour mark -- but rather, the purported fan backlash to same; and secondary to that, the media's embrace of that backlash as The Last Jedi's defining characteristic. I don't get it, because I am a Star Wars fan, who thinks a lot about Star Wars (arguably, more than I should); and because from the moment the credits rolled on December 14th, 2017, one phrase floated to the top of my mind and has remained there ever since: that whether you liked it or hated it (and, even then, I suspected that many would hate it), one had to objectively admit that The Last Jedi was, from soup to nuts, a Star Wars fan's Star Wars film.
By which I mean, it was the first time I'd seen a Star Wars film that had clearly been made by someone who loved the series as much as, and had thought about it as obsessively as, me.
The Last Jedi opens and closes with two of the best pitched battle sequences in the entire Star Wars saga. It contains one of the series' all-time great lightsaber fights; it contains one of the series all-time most amazing feats of Jedi power. It offers the most compelling read of, and extrapolation upon, the nature and purpose of the Force since Yoda described it in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, repositioning the energy field that binds the galaxy together as the tense and essential state of balance between all the opposing poles of our experience of life.
And most crucially, it offers its cadre of lead characters -- plus one tag-along supporting player from the previous trilogy -- immense turning points in their stories' trajectory, all of which both reflect and interrogate the journeys taken by Luke, Han, and Leia in the original trilogy.
The Last Jedi is as thoughtful about the purpose and meaning of Star Wars as it's possible to be without being an audio pull-quote from George Lucas talking about midichlorians or Whills (or how, improbably, the two might be retroactively connected). In its structure, its tone, and its (much-discussed) treatment of characters and themes from the original trilogy, it is clearly a work of deep thinking on the legacy of Star Wars to the generation that grew up with it, and to the generation (the "prequel generation") that followed, and to the generation that followed that, which is seeing this latest Star Wars trilogy as they, too, are growing up.
The Star Wars prequel trilogy may have "cloned" (pun intended) themes and motifs from the original trilogy, and The Force Awakens may have used the original Star Wars film's basic plot framework to launch four incredibly compelling new characters into outer space. But The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars movie about Star Wars.
It is also, perhaps to its detriment among the fanbase that responded so positively to The Force Awakens' joyful sleight of hand with the elixir of nostalgia, a movie built almost painfully on difficult truths... in a decade and a century in Western popular culture (and outright culture) that seems purpose-built to ignore them. The Last Jedi is a film about failure. More specifically, it is about how failure forces change, growth, and (in the cases of our heroes, anyway) potential improvement, albeit at great cost. It is also a film about how our failures help us shed our delusions about ourselves, to arrive at more intact selves.
It is perhaps, then, justified -- in an entirely narcissistic, don't-feed-the-trolls sort of way -- that some splinter group of its audience were driven so insane by its message, and how it arrived at its message, that they continue to proclaim it one of the great artistic failures of modern filmmaking to to this day.
The splinter group of "fans" (indeed, calling them that seems to ignore the fact that they evidently interpret Star Wars in a wholly different language from the one I grew up with) bears addressing, although briefly. Surely, among them, there must be a group that Hillary Clinton would have called the deplorables: the racist, misogynist trolls who chased Kelly Marie Tran off social media, and who employ Gamergate-style tactics in online discussion to "shock and awe" their opponents out of the debate through methods no more intellectually advanced than proving they are the bigger asshole in the room.
I suspect -- and some evidence has come to light which supports -- that these are a statistically marginal portion of the overall group, bolstered by bots and the current right-wing zeitgeist, whose prevalence has been substantially over-emphasized by the media, and whose bulwark on twitter and the Star Wars Battlefront II online forums is merely an outcome of the fact that these losers were always there, and always will be there, for as long as unmoderated online communities exist.
Then there are the people who just didn't like the movie; or more precisely, who found it troubling, distancing, imperfect, or all three. I know a lot of these people. They aren't the purveyors of outright haterade mentioned above, but they still, it must be said, bear some accountability to that group -- just as rank-and-file Republicans bear accountability for the alt-right and President Trump. Not liking a movie is a fine thing (I do it constantly), but once the grist was in the mill on The Last Jedi, that group still stood up to be counted with an outright hate mob because they didn't like a movie, and because their entitlement to publicly weigh in on a Star Wars movie outperformed their internal perspective on who they were weighing in with, and to what ultimate purpose.
That matters. That idea, that one's customer complaints about popular culture (which often, importantly, serves as an identity-marker) is so significant that it must be expressed, regardless of context, is a seed of modern privilege. If this decade has been nothing else, it has been an object lesson in the dangers of momentum; in the importance of checking context; of "reading the room," before jumping into the current and letting it take you where it will. Great film writers have assessed in detail why so many fans of Star Wars just felt cold on The Last Jedi (Film Critic Hulk's mega-length article remains the gold standard), and that opinion is certainly as valid as mine. It's not an opinion I'll psychologize any further, because something else occurred to me at the moment The Last Jedi was over, which has (largely) remained with me since: that the film is a work of such blinding magnificence (to me), which I love so much (myself), that I could go the rest of my life and not worry much about arguing its worth with anyone.
I'm lucky. I'm biased. Of course I am. The Last Jedi plays to my own personal trove of want-to-see moments as faithfully as it disregards those of the people who wanted to find out what high school Supreme Leader Snoke went to, and what the Knights of Ren do on their days off. I, on the other hand, got to spend a whole movie with five of my favourite characters in Star Wars history and add a sixth (Rose); I got to watch Space Dern rip a freakin' Star Destroyer in half. I got to see BB-8 give the franchise's perennial "I have a bad feeling about this" line, right at the start of the action. (I love it when droids do that.) Perhaps most dizzyingly, I got the full validation of Rey discovering that her parents were not Kenobis or Skywalkers or anyone else we'd ever heard of, and that Rey therefore represented all the rest of us, who are just as much a bunch of potential Jedi as she is. That's right: I was team "Rey From Nowhere," and my team won.
These subjective thrills cloud some of the more objective truths of the structure and framing of The Last Jedi, but not completely. I was also aware, through that delirious first screening, that I was watching a Star Wars fan's patient and detailed close-read of the series. Many of us, I'm sure, have wondered what we would do if we ever got the tap and were called up to make a Star Wars movie of our own; The Last Jedi is close to an answer, for me anyway. From its first moment post-crawl, where John Williams' score directly quotes the piccolo riff that inhabits the same spot in the original film (the first time this motif has repeated in all eight films); to the final frame, of a kid who's just played with his action figures turning his broom into a lasersword and staring out at the stars, The Last Jedi rebounds with that sense of having watched Star Wars, and imagined what came next.
The kid in question -- Broom Kid, who will certainly not turn up in Episode IX, but will probably be the subject of a comic book someday -- is a slightly regressive note in a film that otherwise goes further than any Star Wars film has thus to be inclusive, but I think I know why. He's a blonde white boy; his playmates, a young storyteller of colour and a Pippi Longstocking-ish young girl, are offscreen. He is, unmistakably, Rian Johnson, age seven, when all of this (for him, for me, for many of us I'm sure) all started. It may be a regressive bit of representation, but it's an understandable one: it's the artist's signature upon the work, underlining that all of this, The Last Jedi, was about what the larger "all this" meant to him.
Here, too, Johnson has been inclusive, though not in the way I've mentioned above: he's been inclusive of the entire phalanx of Star Wars generations, which -- to the great dismay of the OG generation, I've found -- includes the pack that were young when The Phantom Menace was released, and love that film as much as I love, say, The Dark Crystal. Johnson also includes the kids that are falling in love with Star Wars right now, through these films and their flankers (comics, video games, television series, YouTube shorts, etc., etc., etc.). The Last Jedi isn't just a nostalgic return to the original trilogy (even The Force Awakens, accusations aside, was not really that); it exists fully within the nine- (now ten-) film continuity of the Star Wars universe, which only makes the efforts to de-canonize it all the more laughable. The Last Jedi is rooted in there like the old tree on Luke's island. Johnson went back to Kurosawa, back to McQuarrie. (Check out the cop costumes on Canto Bight.) The film positions a part of the germ of its story in the prequel trilogy ("at the height of their power the Jedi allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out"). It borrows what have been described as prequel-ish imagery for its Canto Bight adventure, a casino planet that visually and aurally recalls the Coruscanti opera-house in Revenge of the Sith and the podrace from The Phantom Menace.
These aren't mere affectations, however. They are part of the meaning and intention of the work. Canto Bight, for example, isn't there to piss fanboys off (much as they'd like to believe so); it's a setup for a short conversation later, where Rian Johnson is speculating (and we are invited to join) on those who might profit from the endless perpetuation of conflict. This is a layered idea: it's a useful point of consideration for the diegetic story of the Star Wars galaxy, which it interrogates; and for our own real, conflict-strewn world, which it addresses; and for the largest movie studio in the world that has just made over four billion dollars by telling us that the "decisive victory" at the end of Return of the Jedi... wasn't.
This latter point has been stuck in my craw since Disney announced the purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, until about five months before The Last Jedi came out, when I finally cottoned to the fact that whether I like it or not (and, I certainly do not), the human race as a whole does not seem to have learned anything in the wake of our own largest military "victory" against tyranny, other than that things were probably "great" back then and we should "make [things] great again." In other words, the idea that thirty or so years in the Star Wars galaxy would have been more than enough for an entire generation to forget that, I dunno, the Empire suuuuuuuucked; and start yearning for a return to that fascist state, no longer seems improbable; it seems downright prophetic.
But leaving plausibility aside, the other half of the "let's extend past Return of the Jedi" scenario is itself a Faustian bargain that some Star Wars fans seem to have been hard-pressed to understand or embrace. The reaction to Luke in The Last Jedi is part of this: they wanted to see more adventures of the star of the original trilogy, but... not like this. Not a grumpy old man living alone on an island, having abandoned the war; in spite of the fact that this scenario is the first thing we are told about in The Force Awakens ("Luke Skywalker has vanished!") and that his reasons for doing so are even elaborated upon about an hour later by no less an authority than Luke's best friend, Han Solo himself ("Luke felt responsible. He just... walked away from everything.") Not this Luke Skywalker. Not my Luke Skywalker. Make him cool! And brave! And give him back the green lightsabre!
This, of course, is part of the deal we strike as an audience when we want more. "More" can pretty much never be "the same" unless you're popping the tape of Return of the Jedi in the VCR. There have been plenty of attempts to make "more" where the basic principles of the story have, inexplicably, not changed; for the most part, those projects have sucked. (See: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Die Hard 5; The X-Files Season 11; etc.) It's perfectly all right to ask actors who are still alive to perform, like sock puppets, the lines and story beats we loved so much when we were kids; but it ain't storytelling. Storytelling, like life, requires growth and change. At its very core, a story requires the presentation of a problem to solve; on a character level, the problem must be a personal one, a stance or self-limiting belief that prevents the easy resolution of the action.
This requirement must be some kind of secret formula, however, because it's been my experience that most audiences in the world have no idea it's there. They enjoy stories without any functional understanding of what makes them enjoyable. That's fine, but can create short-circuits in their brains, like BB-8 ramming his head into the X-wing console. The trap of nostalgia-based projects is that their audiences want to return to a feeling they had a long time ago, while having no working understanding of how that feeling, a long time ago, was generated, or what it costs to get there.
I was watching some trailers for Star Wars: The Old Republic the other day and I thought I intuited part of the problem. Half a generation of Star Wars fans have grown up with that imagery; it's imagery scaled operatically, to impress, untroubled by human-size problems. Indeed, in that sort of framework, it may be impossible to even conceive of human-size problems, besides whose ass one particular human is planning to kick next. The reaction to Luke in The Last Jedi is rooted here: that it is simply inconceivable that a powerful Jedi would sit on an island feeling sorry for himself, rather than join a galaxy-spanning war effort... unless, of course, you count the two who did it before (that we know of). Unless you consider the possibility that Yoda was telling us the truth 38 years ago when he said that wars don't make one great.
These hypocrisies on the part of some fans gnaw at me only because, again, they suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of what are fairly core aspects of the work (like that time some neo-fascists were pissed off to discover that they had been the bad guys in Star Wars all along). Nonetheless, I allow that across a text as broad as Star Wars now is, a plurality of readings are not just possible, but likely. It may have been possible to grow up with a worldview of Star Wars that would never have planted the seed that Luke could have a problem as mundane and relatable as crippling post-traumatic stress, or that a 50-something man could have grown bitter over the way his life actually unfolded (versus the vision of himself he had when staring out at those twin suns, the first time), or that there actually is something intensely brave -- especially now -- about choosing to resist the call to violence. Or that Luke was a human being at all, in spite of the original trilogy being entirely about that fact. In the original Star Wars films, heroes are humans and so -- spoiler! -- are the villains. When that helmet comes off Vader's head, he isn't a robot or an alien or whatever else. He's a timid old man with regret in his eyes.
Indeed, on the pacifism point, it's worth highlighting once again that Luke's marvelous feat of Jedi power at the end of The Last Jedi is also a flawless expression of pacifism; he protects an endangered group of people without harming a single soul, except perhaps for bruising Kylo Ren's feelings (which are, by all accounts, incredibly easy to bruise -- not unlike his posse of fanboy lookalikes). Luke's Force-projection in The Last Jedi is the grand-scale redress of the final moments of Return of the Jedi, where he tosses his lightsabre away and refuses to fight his father, even though he knows the Emperor will kill him for it. Luke in The Last Jedi is not, I think, under any illusions that the effort he undertakes to stall Kylo Ren on Crait will push him past the level of strain that his body is capable of handling, and that the act will kill him. Like Ben Kenobi before him, Luke simply understands that there is more to be gained by doing so than merely his own survival. Luke was a young man who watched a "perfect" Jedi stand against evil and die, and was forever changed by it; apotheosis, perhaps, is found in his arriving at the exact same moment in his own life, and making the same choice, with a galaxy's audience watching (like we all did). Per his conversation with Yoda immediately prior, perhaps the older Luke has also realized that Ben was never perfect, and that perfection was never the source of his strength, his wisdom, or -- in the last days of his life -- his grace.
I return to the title of this piece: this was a Star Wars fan's Star Wars film. The Last Jedi isn't just a movie by a guy who watched and enjoyed Star Wars (like we all did); it's a movie by a guy who ruminated upon that experience (like some of us), and decided to play in the space of what the story has always been about. It's the work of someone who thought about the emotional dimensions of all of those moments we remember, not just their surface affect; it's about the ideas expressed by tossing that lightsabre away, or the hopes that might have been on Luke's mind when he was looking out at the Tatooinian sunset. Most courageously, The Last Jedi also dares to position the journey between those two moments as something that might have lasting, oftentimes painful, impact on the person who underwent it. The Last Jedi, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and many of the other good continuations of classic franchises -- even, most recently, Creed II! -- is about trauma survival.
Perhaps that makes for less fun Star Wars movies, or less fun movies in general. I don't know. Throughout my life I've found room for both the utterly escapist and the stories I'm interested in as stories, featuring characters I'm interested in as people. Star Wars is almost unilaterally dismissed as the former but I have quite a bit of trouble believing it would still be such a dominant slice of our culture if it weren't, at least a little bit, the latter. This doesn't solve the paradox at the heart of the equation; there will always people who claim (rightly or wrongly) to want escapism only ("keep your politics out of Star Wars!" they'll crow, as though politics weren't part of this deal from the start; as though politics can be kept out of anything, because "politics" as they are using the term actually equates to "values"). To toss it to another franchise, I've always said that there are two types of James Bond fans -- the ones who think James Bond is silly and the ones who think James Bond is cool -- and that at the core of it, they will never actually get along, because they want fundamentally different things.
To ease off on this slightly, there are a pack of people who just want Star Wars to be fun, and perhaps felt that The Last Jedi wasn't. For my part, I think The Last Jedi is fascinating and perplexing and moving for all of its first four acts (in a rarity for this franchise, The Last Jedi is unfurled in a five-act structure); and then when all the personal crises and large-scale failures have been accounted for and the characters have hit their rock bottoms, the fifth act -- cut to the whispering salt-fields of Crait! -- starts, and the movie is as much fun as anything I've seen in Star Wars since I was a seven-year-old boy on the balcony of the University Theatre in Toronto, with my legs flung forward, pretending I was riding along with the speeder bikes on Endor.
There is joy in those final moments of The Last Jedi, which is an emotion that heartily surpasses fun in my tally. It creates a sensation of what Roger Ebert called "elevation," in me, when Rey soars out of the sky in the Falcon, pinioning TIE Fighters three-at-a-time. There is a Star Wars fan's deep-code glee as Chewie dives into the gem cave and Rian Johnson and John Williams high-five one another and bring out a full-brass rendition of the gunport theme from Episode IV. There is power and purpose in Luke striding out into a red wasteland to face down the entire First Order with nothing but a lasersword (having, earlier, said he would never do that exact thing). That flip of the hand, brushing his shoulder? That is a man who knows shit's been bad, for a long time; and more importantly, that he's moved past it. That is my Luke Skywalker.
A final note: The Last Jedi ends as only a fan's Star Wars film can, by opening up the universe of Star Wars as wide as it has ever been in all eight episodes. When Leia and Rey and Finn and Poe and Rose are escaping on the Falcon to restart the Rebellion, as the First Order assumes total military control of the galaxy, while repressed children everywhere are starting to think of resistance, the roads down which Star Wars can now travel are as open as they could possibly be. We could go anywhere from here. Episode IX will arrive in a year's time and restrict some of those choices, some of those opportunities; it's almost a shame. I can't remember the last time I saw a Star Wars movie and was left completely satisfied, and would have remained so if it had turned out to be the last Star Wars movie of all time. I'm glad it's not, of course; but The Last Jedi is that movie to me. The imaginations can take it from here. It gives Star Wars back to everyone staring up into the sky, wondering what they could do with the power.