Save What You Love, and Let the Past Die

(I assume you’ve seen The Last Jedi, but a warning if you haven’t: Verbal Kint is Supreme Leader Snoke.)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I.

last-jedi-1.jpgWhat do you give Star Wars fans who have everything?

They already have the full arc of Anakin Skywalker, from precocious tyke to conflicted Jedi to redeemed old man. They’ve seen the birth of twins Luke and Leia, and their adventures trying to defeat the Empire. Obi-Wan as a pupil and mentor, struck down to become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. The mercenary Han Solo, who saved Luke’s ass several times only to be frozen in carbonite and then killed by his own son. The rise and fall of an emperor. Jar Jar Binks, midi-chlorians, and Ewoks. The Force, talk of prophecies and destinies, and the bad feelings about this. Cool-looking villains easily dispatched. Three Death Stars, easily destroyed. A movie whose primary purpose was to close an apparent plot hole in the first film. A notorious Christmas special. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” perhaps the least-self-aware line ever spoken in a movie. And Rey, arm extended toward Luke, holding his dad’s lightsaber at the end of The Force Awakens.

Lucasfilm gave them Rian Johnson, the writer/director behind the wildly entertaining and alive genre-bending time-travel crime saga Looper, and the director of three of Breaking Bad’s most-heralded episodes. Among the people tapped to helm movies in this latest round of Star Wars, he alone felt like the perfect choice.

But would he be satisfied putting his considerable technical acumen in the service of recycling, as J.J. Abrams did? Would he pull off a shocker to forever alter the balance of the Force, as The Empire Strikes Back did 37 years ago? Could he find anything new to say or do after 40 years of Star Wars movies, books, and television shows? The only safe bet — made even safer by the movie’s trailers — was that it would look great and have some awesome shots.

I was hoping that The Last Jedi would indeed be the equal of Empire, but I’m more than pleased with what I got instead. For worse and mostly better, Episode VIII is truer to Star Wars than most people — particularly its loud critics — want to admit.

It’s a skilled high-wire act of divergent tones that highlights defeat in victory and mines hope from a desperate situation.

Johnson throws out jokes by the fistful, from our favorite Wookiee shamed into foregoing a meal to our heroine conked on the head with a lightsaber to beefcake Kylo Ren to Maz’s union troubles to Finn’s obvious-but-just-right exclamation that “They hate that ship!”

He gives them dark, because it starts with the Resistance nearly eliminated and ends with it in even worse shape. The opening sequence, in any other Star Wars episode, would be treated as a triumph, but in The Last Jedi it’s a showcase for poignant sacrifice and a way to show the cost of Poe’s reckless behavior. General Leia Organa can barely manage a wan smile at the Resistance “victory,” and things get no better for her band of fighters. (Johnson seems alone among Star Wars creators in understanding that the rebels always win the battle and lose the war.)

He brings them the confrontations they expect, but — as promised by Luke in the second trailer — they veer off in unexpected directions.

Johnson and his team also deliver a handful of stunning moments huge and minor, with the climactic throne-room scene a sterling example of everything going right: It’s gruesome, gorgeous, exciting, funny, startling, and wholly consistent with the main characters.

As good as that section is, it doesn’t boast the best bit in the movie — a breathtaking silence reinforcing a theme.

And the throne-room battle isn’t the best extended sequence, either. That honor goes to the final climax among the many, which somehow manages to be satisfyingly surprising even though every component of it tells you what’s going on.

In short, Johnson gives fans just about everything they could want, assuming they didn’t require The Last Jedi to follow the story beats, narrative cleanliness, and relatively consistent tone of The Empire Strikes Back.

II.

That, of course, means that Johnson has given a large number of fans what they didn’t want. So many jokes. The trip to the casino, and everything that happens there. The superfluous porgs. The tracking premise so precise in its plot-driving conditions that it can really only be seen as a front-end deus ex machina. Captain Phasma once again barely used. Luke refusing to be drawn back into this eternal conflict.

But where The Force Awakens was faithful to a fault, effectively if safely replicating the formula, motifs, and themes of George Lucas’ original trilogy, The Last Jedi is slavish to the actual spirit of Star Wars in a way that’s charming even as it basically begs for backlash. To my eyes, it’s charming almost because it begs for backlash. Johnson embraces even the weakest elements of the franchise, and mostly succeeds in making them work.

The porgs recall Ewoks. The field trip to Canto Bight looks and feels like a nod to the prequel trilogy — primarily in its “modernist” urban aesthetic in stark contrast to the “primitive” harshness of Tatooine, Hoth, and Dagobah, but also in its use of children (as in The Phantom Menace). Phasma is another bad-ass bit of merchandising that amounts, in terms of narrative importance, to virtually nothing — just like Boba Fett and Darth Maul. The jokes, dumb and smart alike, bring to mind all the bits of “funny” business that Lucas felt were essential for making his universe inviting to children while indulging his own inner eight-year-old. The grim realities of war and the merest flicker of remaining hope nod heavily to Rogue One. And Snoke is no different from the original trilogy’s Emperor or Jabba the Hutt in being a disposable, hideously ugly Big Bad. (Yes, I’m aware that Lucas spent three movies telling Palpatine’s backstory, but few complained that he was basically the anonymous face of evil for the 16 years.)

As for the tracking-the-remaining-Resistance conceit, it’s clunky but not much worse than the fatal flaw in each iteration of the Death Star.

III.

Still, I understand why some people are frustrated by the fairly obvious “weaknesses” of The Last Jedi, and I even empathize with those who feel they significantly or wholly offset the movie’s strengths.

But I think they’re missing the point. The eight movies prior to Episode VIII represent a deeply mixed bag — no matter which chapters you like.

As much as I want to forget that Lucas’ prequels exist — I find literally nothing in them of merit, and I hated two of them immediately — there they are. Most fans have reasonable and serious complaints about everything outside of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, and — to borrow from Luke in The Last Jedi — that’s not a great track record.

Entire movies don’t work. They repeat themselves ad nauseam. Lucas’ “special editions” messed with our memories and with cultural history, and I will argue until I die that seeing Jabba in A New Hope substantially diminishes it — and his appearance in Return of the Jedi. Jar Jar Binks. Three damned Death Stars.

Johnson’s work here, then, is consistent with at least the past 34 years of Star Wars, and probably the whole enterprise. At some point we have to acknowledge that the persistent bugs are features, and that cute porgs totally belong in a fantasy universe that gives starring roles to teddy bears and racist comic relief. I can’t think of a single element in The Last Jedi without precedent in Star Wars.

So the first defining characteristic of Johnson’s movie is a thorough mining of all of Star Wars — the juvenile with the serious, the bad with the good.

If that’s a problem for you, you haven’t been paying attention, or hope obscures your experience.

IV.

last-jedi-2.jpgThe second defining characteristic of The Last Jedi is its willful destruction of the franchise’s core elements.

In approaching Episode VIII, Johnson had two possible paths: sending the series down the rabbit hole of repeated arcs and ever-more-insular Star Wars mythology, or making a clean break so he could steer it into fresh territory.

A certain group of Star Wars buffs expected (or needed) the former tack. They called for answers to three questions raised by The Force Awakens. How did Maz Kanata get Luke’s lightsaber, last seen falling with his severed hand in Cloud City? Who is Snoke really? And who are Rey’s parents?

But the premise of the last two is that the answers must be tied to the larger mythology, which is a no-win situation. Any revelation will be obvious, or it will be too far-fetched to be credible.

Instead, Johnson consistently chooses the clean-break route, showing no interest in continuing to build the Star Wars mythology backward into a tidy collection of interconnected stories of Sith and Jedi and Skywalkers.

So each of those three questions is addressed with something approaching a shrug, and only the last one gets an answer at all — and it might be a lie designed to cleverly manipulate Rey’s need to be part of something like a family.

Luke’s first action in the movie is to show how little his father’s lightsaber — a nearly sacred object in Star Wars lore — means to him. That thrilling, pregnant moment closing The Force Awakens, and the two-year anticipation of its resolution, are tossed aside as a deft joke.

This is the first indication that Luke has turned into a cranky old Jedi, not much different from Yoda, and the action might feel cheap if it weren’t so deeply embedded in the movie’s earnest theme of discarding the old ways. The trailers prepared us for this in the twinned sentiments from Luke and his former pupil Kylo Ren: “It’s time for the Jedi to end” and “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”

That’s where Johnson gets into trouble with some ardent fans of Star Wars. As a petition seeking to strike The Last Jedi from the canon claims, the new movie “destroyed the legacy of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi.”

There’s truth and untruth in that assertion, but the idea that Johnson could have opted to not burn it all down neglects a hard reality.

The challenge faced by anybody charged with continuing to expand Star Wars at this point is simple: Once you’ve built your universe (in A New Hope), broadened it with a huge paternal wrinkle (Empire), and largely resolved the conflict (Return of the Jedi), the narrative choices are limited. Repeat yourself, fill in blanks, or try something new.

But the first two options have been done already. Four movies fill in the blanks of the first three, and The Force Awakens was a pretty thorough rehash of the original trilogy — which earned it justifiable criticism for being almost entirely derivative.

As much credit as I give Johnson for The Last Jedi’s singular visuals, great moments, and shapely articulation of themes, I don’t want to give him too much praise for the large arcs, because he made smart but ultimately necessary decisions. The only real way forward is forward, not backward and not along yet another circle.

V.

No, Snoke is not Darth Plagueis, because that’s the sort of retcon job that was prequel trilogy’s reason for being. (Okay, he might be Darth Plagueis, but it’s a moot point now.)

No, Rey is not Kylo’s twin sister, or the daughter of Luke Skywalker, or a descendant of Ben Kenobi, because we’ve already been down that road.

And, yes, Luke and Kylo and Rian Johnson are on the same page — for different reasons — that the interminable cycles of Star Wars must be broken.

For Johnson, it’s about allowing for the possibility that something different can happen in the Star Wars universe. That’s the only way this tree will bear new fruit.

For Kylo, it’s about grabbing power and using some smooth talkin’ in an attempt to bring Rey into his fold. We can end this destruction if we’re not always fighting.

For Luke, it’s a long-overdue acknowledgment of all the problems the Jedi and the Jedi Order have caused. The unbending belief in absolute light and absolute dark, Jedi and Sith, has done far more harm than good. That dichotomy — and the oft-spoken promise of “balance” in the Force — are almost by definition mandates for perpetual war.

Yes, Johnson destroyed the legacy of the Jedi, but it had it coming.

VI.

As for Luke, I don’t see it. Upset fans got some ammunition from Mark Hamill’s pre-release comments that he either didn’t like Johnson’s vision for his character or took some convincing that it was the right path.

But it makes perfect sense. As with Obi-Wan and Yoda before him, Luke has become a hermit disillusioned by his substantial failures. Just like the little green guy, he becomes a reluctant mentor, convinced that his latest charge might not be ready or suitable for training.

Anything else, I’m convinced, would have been an actual betrayal of what we know about the Jedi. They’re not exactly quitters, but ... well, they’re kinda quitters. And then they aren’t.

Johnson brings Luke’s story to a proper and resonant close, with the perfect metaphorical vehicle. Obi-Wan fulfilled his dying prophecy to Darth Vader as a spirit — guiding and being available to Luke and Yoda at crucial moments — but Luke understands that his greatest power will be as a symbol, not as a hero or martyr or ghost.

VII.

I do have problems with The Last Jedi, although a second viewing alleviated concerns that it was a bit shapeless.

I still don’t like Leia’s space walk, and the casino detour is by any measure pretty weak.

Still, at each point in the story, Johnson is working with discernible purpose. We finally get to see Leia manipulate the world around her, which (at last!) gives a sense that Yoda and Obi-Wan weren’t entirely wrong about her Force potential.

One needs to work harder to justify the Canto Bight mess, but for me it’s primarily an opportunity to be playful in a few senses while laying some groundwork for long-term payoffs.

It is defiantly silly, with the running gag involving BB-8 that climaxes wonderfully.

On the other hand, there’s the parking ticket, which you might consider the laziest, stupidest, and most-out-of-character device to advance a plot in the whole of Star Wars. All those things would be true if Johnson intended you to take it as his best attempt to plausibly get from Point A to Point B. He doesn’t; it’s a simple joke.

In the grander scheme of things, the casino section is really just a fun bit of misdirection. Finding the code-breaker is but one element of what’s already a longshot plan, and then Rose and Finn hook up with a different code-breaker — a no-allegiance Han Solo type with a stutter.

That the plan finally doesn’t work, and that Benicio del Toro’s mercenary turns out to actually not have any allegiances, might strike you as a lot of wasted screen time. I prefer to think of them as correctives to schemes that always succeed and the idea that it’s always easy to tell the good guys from the bad.

Admittedly, neither the Leia bit nor the casino section is essential to the core plot of The Last Jedi, and both could have been easily written out in some early draft without much harm.

But I appreciate that Johnson got and indulged the license to mess around with expectations — Could Leia actually die in the first third of the movie? — and a big ol’ MacGuffin. They weren’t good choices, but I can live with them.

VIII.

last-jedi-3.jpgEven if I found those parts more problematic, they would amount to minor complaints. The Last Jedi worked phenomenally well for me, in the hoped-for large ways but also in dozens of touches — light, dark, and in between, important and trivial — that show Johnson’s care, love, rigor, and fancy.

And because the movie has been met with such a vigorous backlash, I feel compelled to collect a substantial number of its pleasures.

Porgs nesting in the Millennium Falcon. The reminder and implication of “Where’s Han?” The weapons of Snoke’s guards. Conversations across space between Kylo Ren and Rey. R2-D2’s cheap but effective play.

The wisdom of Rose’s naïveté. The sound of BB-8 with a full belly. A flashback shown three times, building toward truth. Blood-red sand. Finn’s reliable tendency to fall for the closest female.

Hamill’s displeased line reading of a simple greeting, indicative of his revelatory performance. The Falcon’s shadow. C-3PO’s terrible poker face. No lightsaber-on-lightsaber action in the story’s present. Domhnall Gleeson’s steadfast refusal to play Hux as anything but a gasbag flunky.

The gleefully impish stomping of feet. Chewbacca’s porg annoyance. “Live free. Don’t join.” The Dark Side’s courting strategy with Rey. The assertion that being stuck on hold, like parking tickets, is universal.

A final Jedi lesson for Luke. Finn’s undignified emergence from his coma. Rey’s lightsaber drop. A brief Skywalker reunion with a hair joke ... and a simple emotional resolution that requires a minimum of words. Three acts of self-sacrifice, and one that’s foiled.

A glimpse of Phasma’s human face. A bolt of lightning. Another Jedi training cut short. Finn’s willingness to flee. A new spin on Obi-Wan’s final words.

The evil version of BB-8 ratting out its kin. Adam Driver’s continued excellence as Kylo Ren, his rage now mixed with cunning. Snoke’s Hugh Hefner outfit. That kill following that other one. And, finally, the casual transfer of leadership giving Leia and Carrie Fisher a presciently graceful exit.

Those of you looking for the next The Empire Strikes Back can continue to wait, but I promise: It’s never coming. At this stage of Star Wars development, there’s too much water under the bridge to re-create that magic — a narrowly focused, surprising, and wholly fresh continuation of an emerging story.

In place of what will never be, The Last Jedi offers an embarrassment of riches — more than Star Wars has given us in a long time, and perhaps ever. I’ll happily take it.

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