Oh, what a time we live in. When I was a sprat the news that George Lucas was going to revisit the Star Wars franchise blew everyone’s minds. We were so ecstatic and grateful to get another look at that universe that it took weeks, almost months to realize how awful they were. Such is the effect of spectacle, which is the man’s real gift: the ability to make a thing that causes an audience to go “ooh” but then the feeling passes. And when the prequels came out it was mostly people like me with far too much disposable time on their hands who kept talking about the films after everyone else had gone on with their lives and significant others or whatever, instead we dissected and complained ad nauseam amongst ourselves. And 20 years later, in the no-longer-nascent era of the Internet, a film’s quality can be debated and debunked within seconds of walking out of a theater. Enter Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest entry into the series, that has polarized the fanbase almost instantaneously and in a way that brings a kind of evil smile to my face for a couple of reasons. For one, I am a Star Trek guy at heart, I have nothing against the Wars, they just never appealed to me the way the science and imagination of Gene Roddenberry’s creation does. And I’ve been watching his vision being steadily disassembled and destroyed for years now, ever since JJ “I never watched Star Trek growing up because it was too cerebral for me” Abrams got his big stupid hands on the franchise. So watching something I love die is an experience I’m familiar with and the fact that a lot of die hard fans of Lucas’ universe seemed to be experiencing that same sense of alienation from the The Last Jedi, well, amuses me. If that’s a little dark, well, shrug, at least Luke didn’t show up riding a fucking dirt bike for no particular reason.
Anyway, it also makes me smile because the die hard fans, while not wrong in the sense that writer-director Rian Johnson disregarded every fan theory they had going into Episode 8, had such a level of entitlement and expectation that there was no way they wouldn’t be disappointed. It was an odd choice to go from Abrams and The Force Awakens with its reliance on what he refers to as a Mystery Box approach, i.e. the method of only telling one half of the story as a technique to get your audience invested, to a Rian Johnson, who is a gifted storyteller in an entirely different way, in that he actually tells a complete story and this presents a massive departure in style and approach. If the first works better for you, the open ended questions in The Force Awakens were probably enthralling and you had some expectation of resolution which is, sorry to say, entirely your fault. You probably also expected Lost to actually be going somewhere after six seasons but if you didn’t figure out after they got that hatch open that they were going to keep fucking with you to no end, you deserve what you got. My point is, The Force Awakens, regardless of your feelings about Rey or Snoke or Han Solo’s fate, is purely a fan-service movie.
I don’t believe you’re wrong if you enjoy it anyway, that’s what movies are for, so go nuts, but the fact that it is a paean to the Original Trilogy with a plot that is 100 percent recycled from A New Hope is beyond debate at this point. And if you went into The Last Jedi expecting the same tropes, some reveal about Rey’s parentage being somehow tied into the Skywalker clan, or Snoke being some kind of mutant holdover from an earlier trilogy, or really any of the same catering to the wants and needs of the Memberberries generation, I entirely understand your disappointment. Rian Johnson, much like Luke at the beginning of this movie with his lightsaber, hucked those fan theories and the desperate affection for nostalgia over his shoulder and made a movie that is admittedly incongruous with the rest of the Star Wars canon, which I am entirely cool with.
Now, I’m going to say some nice things about The Last Jedi because I unapologetically enjoyed it but I’ll also be the first to admit that it’s far from a perfect film. It somehow managed to feel both really long and really short at the same time. A lot happens in what is really only a few hours of time within the film’s context. Some of the subplots both felt and were entirely pointless except to pad the running time or to make an entirely unnecessary social/political statement. And most importantly, the two most important characters in the saga, Luke and Leia, felt badly mishandled. The former fell short of what should have been a by-the-numbers bad ass moment and the latter had the perfect opportunity to exit the story in a powerful sequence that was, inexplicably, immediately undone for no clear reason. These felt like tremendous missteps and are just a few of some issues that can be raised in all fairness.
But those things aside where the film excelled, to me, was developing it’s new characters. Poe Dameron is by far the strongest of the bunch and doesn’t feel like the two dimensional dashing fighter pilot who only fighter pilots and dashes. Instead, he has something that Abrams will have to Google: an arc. The dynamic between Rey and Kylo was genuinely compelling and added some much needed depth to both of their motivations. Both are struggling to figure out a sense of identity and purpose. Both have been, in different ways, misled and deceived by parental figures and both will have to move out from under those shadows in the next installment. Although I’m sure the reveal about Rey’s parentage probably infuriated a lot of people, I found it to be deeply satisfying and even, to a degree, antithetical to the whole idiotic Midichlorian explanation from the prequels. This concept that the Force can come from anywhere and anyone, that anyone can be a part of this great power that surrounds everything is a lovely concept and reminded me of what was so special about the very first Star Wars. That before the big twist in Empire Strikes Back, even a poor, lowly farmhand from some backwater desert planet can stand up against an evil empire and make a difference.
This is why I believe the movie succeeds and I found it inspiring in that way, with it’s recurring themes of hope and a final sequence that sent chills down my spine. While it definitely has plot holes and unanswered question throughout, so did the Original Trilogy. So do the prequels. So does The Force Awakens. Random Twitter user: “#LastJedi the closing minutes of Rogue One with Vader in the hallway is a million times better than this entire movie.” This guy right here makes my point. A lot of fans, in a lot a ways justifiably, really just want to see their favorite toys smashing up against each other on screen. And that’s cool. I understand you didn’t get that this weekend. Instead, we got a movie by a different auteur director, a movie about hope and identity, about new characters taking over an old franchise and while I’ll never blaspheme to the point of comparing it to Empire Strikes Back, a lot of people didn’t like that one when it came out either. You know what we loved right away? The Phantom Menace. I’d be willing to bet with a little time and perspective some of this vitriol is going to die down and it can be appreciated sincerely for what it does right and if it doesn’t, well, at least JJ is coming back to save/recycle the day for the die-hards.