An Increasingly Inaccurately Named Trilogy: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
The obvious starting point is the dualism that creatively defines the sequel trilogy, with J.J. Abrams’s faithful recitations of iconography on either end of Johnson’s far weirder and more difficult approach to doing a Star Wars. Neither director needed to do Star Wars, but for very different reasons. Abrams had already defined himself as a classically minded reinventer of classic genre tropes, and the franchise was merely a bigger version of what he’d already done with Star Trek. Johnson, meanwhile, was a rising indie visionary with ideas of his own and while jumping over and doing a big genre film would no doubt open new options for his own work, he was doing perfectly fine.
There is virtually no way of describing the two where Johnson does not come across as the more interesting filmmaker. He is, frankly, a bizarre and unprecedentedly brave choice for the franchise—to put it with maximal uncharitableness, the first time a Star Wars film has ever been helmed by a real director. And it’s no surprise that the result is fundamentally unlike other Star Wars movies. We might start with the end, noting that the final shot, in which Star Wars merchandise becomes the next Guy Fawkes mask in a scene with none of the main characters, utterly removed from the main action, is simply not something that any previous film would ever have considered. It’s amazing, and we’ll return to what it’s doing, but the real jaw-dropping moment that requires us to stop and reevaluate the basic question of what a Star Wars movie is comes a few minutes earlier, in the fight between Luke and Kylo Ren. Ren directs the full force of the First Order’s weapons against one man, standing out in the salt plain, hitting him with a bunch of AT-ATs. The attack stretches on preposterously long, an act of blatant, childish overkill. And then, as the smoke clears, an unharmed Luke walks out and moves his hand along his shoulder in an imitation of a Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” a song from a distant galaxy in the far future.
Never mind that no previous Star Wars movie do this – had Johnson done it two-and-a-half hours earlier it would have come off as a complete misunderstanding of how to Star Wars. Doing stuff like this seems to be part of why Chris Miller and Phil Lord got themselves sacked from Solo. It’s the most mind-wrenching and genuinely astonishing shot in all of Star Wars, simply because it passes off something that should be entirely outside the grammar without so much as a fuss. What on Earth had he been doing for two-and-a-half hours that made that work?
Inevitably, there’s no one answer. Indeed, the crux of Johnson’s approach is to repeatedly do small and unexpected things, none of which feel like ruptures of what Star Wars means, but all of which demonstrate a willingness to ask not only what Star Wars can do that’s new, but to ask what it has thus far lacked. Setting aside the criticism of The Last Jedi that amounts to “I’m an alt-right shithead,” this instinct is probably the root of a lot of the unease a minority of fans have had with the film, because it involves an interrogatory engagement with the franchise that previous installments simply haven’t been interested in doing. This starts virtually from the beginning, with the giddily defiant piss-take of resolving The Force Awakens’s cliffhanger by having Luke chuck his old lightsaber off a cliff and storm off to milk a space cow. But it includes a host of other things – the stark silence of the hyperspace ramming, for instance, or the cross-galaxy shot-reverse-shots of Rey and Kylo’s Force conversations. There’s an interest in making the audience go “huh, I didn’t know we could do that” that simply hasn’t been on display anywhere outside of, well, from the conceit of this series, The Phantom Menace, but really A New Hope.
In this regard it is helpful to ground the film in Rian Johnson’s back catalogue. At first blush someone perusing his career for clues as to where he might go with Star Wars would gravitate towards Looper, his other action sci-fi film, but it turns out that the real precedent was his best film, The Brothers Bloom. This is not only apparent in their shared commitment to an irreverent comedy, but exists on a fairly substantial narrative level—Finn and Rose are basically in a heist plot, after all. The biggest giveaway, however, is once again the Luke/Kylo confrontation, which is a close cousin to Stephen’s final con, complete with death scene once the lie has been successfully sold.
What this comparison illuminates is a second front of subversion in the film, effectively summarized in dialogue by Luke’s “this is not going to go the way you think.” Over and over again the film plays the trick of setting up situations that turn out not to be as they appear. The lion’s share of commentary in this regard has gone to unpicking the Poe/Holdo dynamic, and fair enough. It’s unquestionably one of the thematic hearts of the film, which is why its resolution gets the ultra-dramatic cut to silence. And as a type specimen it’s suitably instructive. Its purpose is to subvert and interrogate sci-fi’s longstanding cult of the hotshot pilot, and that in turn points to the film’s intense suspicion of the heroic narrative in general.
In this regard, the biggest subversion, indeed the literal marquee twist, is Luke lapsing into the “failed exile Jedi” role of Yoda and Obi-Wan instead of being a straightforward ass-kicking hero. That this surprised as many people as it did—including, apparently, Mark Hamill—is mostly an artifact of the films’ release order, which imbued Luke with a special “original hero” status that’s clearly not part of the narrative’s intent when viewed in episode order. There it’s clear that every generation’s heroes eventually fail. Luke doing so as well is not just a necessary step along the way of giving the series to Rey, Finn, and Poe, it’s a part of the cycle—one that not only includes Yoda and Obi-Wan, but Qui-Gon and Dooku, who are presented as the failed heroes of a still earlier set of stories. Come Episodes X and XI it will be Rey and Finn’s turn to prove inadequate because that’s now very firmly how this story works.
Indeed, it’s worth noting the degree to which ring theory is having a very good sequel trilogy, validated first by Abrams’s somewhat slavish recitations of the past, and now by Johnson, who on the one hand faithfully mirrors the doubled plot of Empire Strikes Back—and by extension Attack of the Clones—but who also takes full advantage of the fact that the sequel trilogy can bend out of the ring in ways the two Lucas-overseen ones could not. (Indeed, this mirroring is in at least one occasion the source of a subversion, as Johnson slyly reverts Yoda to something much closer to his impish and comedic Empire Strikes Back portrayal.) And so The Last Jedi is about heroic failure in a way that previous films could not be. Yoda and Obi-Wan’s failures came in films made decades before those about their successes, whereas Qui-Gon and Dooku never had films. Johnson is the first filmmaker to have actually been in a position to do a film about a hero’s obsolescence that uses an established hero to do it, and he makes that the centerpiece of the film, using it as a foundation from which to ask larger questions about what heroism is if its legacy is always failure and being surpassed.
Several interesting questions branch off from this, but we may as well stick with the theme of subverted expectations and look at the dispatching of Snoke. This was not conscious audience trolling, in that the script for The Last Jedi predated fandom’s (mis)identification of Snoke as a mystery to be solved, but there’s still a conscious subversion in setting up Kylo Ren in the Darth Vader role of redeemable subordinate to a greater evil only to have him refuse redemption and seize the mantle of ultimate villain for himself. Equally interesting is the immediately adjacent jettisoning of the “Rey’s parentage” mystery—a move that could in theory be undone by Abrams (the scene isn’t quite definitive enough to be past retconning), but that it would be tragic if actually were. Not only does it fit well with the larger questioning of normative heroism, discarding the (ethically bankrupt) focus on genetic lineage implicit in all the “Star Wars is a family saga” rhetoric, like the early dispatching of Snoke it sets the sequel trilogy up to have to end in a markedly different place. Which, of course, it has to, at least if it’s going to be a serious project – for all their parallelisms, after all, the first two trilogies end in diametrically opposed places. A third loop through the cycle has to repeat everything in order to change yet again.
In this regard it’s worth finally turning our attention to the Canto Bight sequences. Unquestionably these are the film’s problem spot – a generic “casino world” devoid of compelling design and the exact opposite of the film’s drive towards subversion and unexpectedness. But it is also the plotline in which one of the three main characters has the closest thing to a clear-cut victory. Yes, Finn still fails spectacularly by wrongly trusting DJ, thus screwing Holdo’s escape plan, but it’s Finn and Rose’s exploits on Canto Bight that set up the triumph of the final scene. More to the point, Canto Bight is used as the vehicle for the film’s most explicit moral point, an attack on exploitation and war profiteering that, while certainly far from blistering and incisive political commentary, is still the most nuanced and intelligent attempt in eight films to actually make a point about fascism and oppression. And this theme is woven throughout, from the running not-joke of Rey constantly doing awful things to the natives to the Porgs attempting to convert Chewbacca to vegetarianism. Paired with the suspicion of heroism, this comes perilously close to just siding entirely with Luke and saying that this whole Jedi thing was just a bad idea.
What ultimately hedges against this are the notes the film opts to end on. For all that Luke is shown to fail, his death scene, with its visual callback to the twin suns of Tatooine, offers a moment of grace and reverence quite unlike what any other fallen hero has gotten in the saga. It’s a nod to his “original hero” status, yes, but only at the point where he’s removed from the narrative (or, more likely, reduced to an appearance or two as a force ghost in Episode IX)—an approach that allows the trilogy to have its cake and eat it too. But that means that it also functions as a path forward—a confirmation that heroism can exist, and that there is something for Rey to pursue.
The other note is the small core of remaining Resistance fighters escaping in the Millennium Falcon, described by Leia as everything that’s needed to fight the First Order. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Leia remains free of any failure narrative here. She remains a hero and the heart of the Resistance. The decision to leave her as the last surviving character of the original trilogy is well-justified, fascinating, and, of course, never going to get paid off. I maintain they should get Meryl Streep in to play her for Episode IX, but I honestly can’t tell if I’m joking anymore. Certainly the loss of Fisher is a bigger hole than it seemed a year ago, and something that actively derails a large amount of what two movies have been building towards. (It seems near certain that she was intended to get Kylo’s redemption scene. So one imagines that’s good news for Reylo shippers at least?
But that’s a problem for J.J. Abrams, and while it seems like one he’s profoundly unlikely to rise to (the phrase “from J.J. Abrams and the writer of Batman vs. Superman” is positively chilling, and I quite liked Batman vs. Superman), it still has naught to do with The Last Jedi. This movie is a stunner—a transformation of what Star Wars is that is as brilliant as it was necessary. Even without the Porgs, this would be the greatest Star Wars film ever.
- The Last Jedi
- Return of the Jedi
- The Force Awakens
- A New Hope
- Attack of the Clones
- The Empire Strikes Back
- The Phantom Menace
- Revenge of the Sith
- The Brothers Bloom
- The Last Jedi
January 22, 2018 @ 10:16 am
Thing is, when people talk about how different this film is (and it is, in a number of ways), the opening crawl (and thus the premise of the film) seems to have slightly bent the narrative into a more familiar shape, just so it can then subvert it later on. I know that narrative of the individual theme is more important than worldbuilding and such, but star wars also seemed, somewhat uniquely, to pride itself in a lived in and vaguely consistent world.
While it probably makes sense to use to familiar to ground things and lead into the unfamiliar, the opening narration implying the First Order has conquered the galaxy off-screen is rather annoying – since it’s supposedly only been half a day since the prior movie (though frankly the timeline of events is screwy). To be honest, I think it would have fit the themes a little better if it was clearer the vast majority of the galaxy was just, as is later implied, waiting to see what’s going to happen. But hey, I’m not as film-literate as you lot, so I’m probably talking out of my arse!
January 22, 2018 @ 5:19 pm
I agree with those comments, but I think the issue is that George Lucas prided himself on making a consistent world, and some EU writers did, and the sequel guys aren’t.
Basically, the new EU has argued that the First Order were funded by covert imperialists in the senate, and then the conspirators took over when the senate got blown up in THE FORCE AWAKENS. It works, but it feels that a STAR WARS film that successfully showed a conspiracy and betrayal would be more interesting than two films about two militias duking it out.
But Johnson and Abrams want Star Wars to be a set of signs to plug new characters into, which I feel is sort of lazy. America always acts like an eternal underdog, and this just feeds the myth the terrorists could win tomorrow if we don’t trust our militaristic cold warriors (Leia and Ackbar show that this is a Rebellion successor), and honestly, fixing STAR WARS as always at 1977 instead of letting it grow feels pretty stupid in the long run. Imagine DOCTOR WHO which decided that the Base-Under-Seige was the only story worth telling after Pertwee left.
I’m not sure this makes sense, but it’s my reaction to why the film is clearly vastly superior to THE PHANTOM MENACE and RETURN OF THE JEDI, but I’m fonder of the two films interested in presenting a world that changes, and shows new ideas (The Ewoks are brilliant, I’ll explain if anyone is interested) than this one.
January 25, 2018 @ 9:39 am
Please explain the Ewoks!
January 26, 2018 @ 9:04 pm
In short, the Ewoks, and the interactions they force on the cast, utterly destroy the idea that STAR WARS is trying to be cool, and instead let it be earnest. You can’t view it as some grand tragedy when they exist. It’s tonally daft, but that’s what works. Only something willing to go there could have the Ewoks cry over there fallen death.
But they also show a guerrilla force fighting for their right to exist, just in a silly space opera way. I can totally buy that the Empire sent an undermanned skeleton crew to a planet and then got destroyed by an indigenous population.
Fans that argued they existed to sell toys didn’t have a problem with the Imperial Walkers or the Empire’s Red Guards and Boba Fett (who, in particular, do nothing but stand around long enough to be recognisable in the shop.)
January 27, 2018 @ 8:16 am
The Ewoks are also perhaps the most subversive thing George Lucas ever attempted as they are the Teddy Bear Vietcong here to help bring down The Galactic Empire who’s chief inspiration was Richard Nixon’s America and have the audience cheer them as they do it.
January 22, 2018 @ 5:27 pm
The thing with Rey’s parentage in Force Awakens is that it seemed to me like it was never the point. I seem to recall shortly after Rey has the lightsaber vision, Maz tells her that she shouldn’t keep tying herself to the memory of parents who abandoned her to slavery.
January 22, 2018 @ 6:26 pm
Ray’s vision in the cave, where she goes seeking answers and sees only reflections of herself, is clearly there to set up the parentage revelation. Making it slightly weird that so many are saying it just came out of the blue. Agreed with Phil we can only hope it won’t be reversed in the next instalment.
January 22, 2018 @ 9:48 pm
I did worry briefly that the reveal was going to be an even more intense version of the Force Messiah thing from Phantom Menace, with Rey having no biological parents at all… Thankfully not.
January 23, 2018 @ 5:57 pm
On the other hand, it would have allowed for a whole tranche of ‘Immaculate Rey’ merchandise. I’m picturing a nativity diorama with three wise Jedi, in time for the Christmas market.
January 23, 2018 @ 9:25 am
It was never the point but it was still a character flaw/weakness to overcome for Rey.
January 22, 2018 @ 8:41 pm
“Inevitably, there’s no one answer. Indeed, the crux of Johnson’s approach is to repeatedly do small and unexpected things, none of which feel like ruptures of what Star Wars means, but all of which demonstrate a willingness to ask not only what Star Wars can do that’s new, but to ask what it has thus far lacked. Setting aside the criticism of The Last Jedi that amounts to “I’m an alt-right shithead,” this instinct is probably the root of a lot of the unease a minority of fans have had with the film, because it involves an interrogatory engagement with the franchise that previous installments simply haven’t been interested in doing.”
A fellow by the name of Movie Bob actually made a pretty compelling case that what Johnson really doing is not a deconstruction of any sort but a redemptive reading and affirmation of the fandom’s love all the way doing what you say it’s doing at the same time: https://youtu.be/qf_rqde7B0A
So basically Johnson is taking a page out of Steven Moffat’s book by creating a meta narrative of what Star Wars is for.
January 23, 2018 @ 8:09 am
Pretty sure that Jay-Z didn’t invent that ‘dirt off your shoulder’ move. I remember it from the playground, and I’m old enough to have done Star Wars the first time round.
January 23, 2018 @ 10:19 pm
Also Luke doesn’t even do the same move as Jay.
January 23, 2018 @ 10:02 am
I really like this reading about SW being a story about heroic failure. It fits, and it’s a very interesting way of looking at these movies.
I also agree that this was the best SW movie to date, mostly because it subverts expectations. But the problem with subverting expectations is that it can leave the audience feeling unfulfilled and frustrated. (That’s also my main problem with some of Moffat’s episodes of DW). Snoke is a good example here. I don’t think the audience misidentified him as a mystery to be solved. He was consciously placed in a position of narrative importance and so it’s only natural that people were curious about him. A powerful new Sith Lord? We expected at least a throwaway line about his origins, his motivations or his rise to power. Something to indicate his place in this story beyond “generic evil dude”. Instead after TFA he seems to come out of nowhere, much like The First Order does. A vague connection to the evils of the past – and that’s it. It fits this movie’s theme of letting go of the past but it still feels a little disappointing.
The flip side of this is the Canto Bight plot which I was very surprised to learn is widely regarded as the weakest part of TLJ. And while I can agree that in a movie as subversive as TLJ it seemed somewhat undercooked, apparently one of the main lines of criticism regarding this plot is that it’s “a pointless sidequest”. Apparently many SW fans believe that if a plot ends with the main character’s failure it becomes pointless filler. Nevermind the character arcs for Finn and Rose, nevermind the worldbuilding, nevermind the betrayal that affects the main plot in a major way: the quest fails to contribute to the Resistance’s victory and so it’s pointless. So perhaps the Canto Bight plot is the biggest subversion of expectations in the entire movie. A subplot so interested in exploring themes beyond “Empire vs. Rebels” that it disappoints audiences who wanted to see exactly that.
January 23, 2018 @ 10:04 am
” Instead after TFA he seems to come out of nowhere (…)”.
This line, of course, should read “Instead after TLJ”.
March 18, 2018 @ 5:58 pm
Tight bit of writing in that last paragraph that puts into words what I’ve been trying to articulate on SW fandom.
Austin G Loomis
January 24, 2018 @ 3:28 pm
I suspect (but obviously cannot prove) that the reason Colin Trevorrow was pulled off Episode IX, and Abrams brought back to replace him, is because Johnson played too many games with fannish expectations, forgetting that Lucasfilm, like 3DO, moves things, and then shakes them. In that precise order. (Similarly with the change of director on Solo: a Star Wars story.)
January 24, 2018 @ 4:24 pm
I talked about it a bit more on the other post, but one of my main issues (besides the pacing being rubbish and the idea of the ‘slow chase where you can nip off to space Vegas in the middle’ nonsensical) was that the film creates its own problem and then claims to be the one finally solving it – basically the idea of needing to move forwards, but TFA is the film that drags the sequel trilogy kicking and screaming back into the Original Trilogy mold of Empire vs Rebels.
TFA painted the First Order as more of this terrorist strike force sort of thing, Nazis coming out of Brazil with a superweapon for an attack on a galaxy spanning democracy, but in the space of half a day (or a title crawl) they’ve conquered the galaxy and the only ones standing in their way are a plucky rebellion SORRY resistance. Also the First Order has a ton of massive superships as well, which would have been useful in the last film.
(Actually, the worldbuilding for the sequel films is oddly rubbish. I have no idea what’s at stake. If you just watch TFA you don’t even know that the First Order is evil apart from the fact they are led by a man with a monster face – the film even equvilates the Resistance and First Order in the casino bit.)
But yeah, the film drags us back into that ‘Massive empire vs small rebellion’ mold whilst saying “oh no it is bad that Star Wars is always the same thing, I will fix it by moving forwards!” which makes that message ring false.
I also don’t understand why the film needs to kill everyone old like some sort of grim reaper. I fully expected Luke to die, but the way they did it was just bizarre and lacking in any sort of pathos (at least say he’s old / wanting to cross over / making it clear the force projection strain would kill him). And why kill Admiral Ackbar apart from to upset people? Why not just not have him in it?
I’m also upset that this is just one more film that has fallen into the trap of declaring all critics to be evil white male sexists who love Trump and hate women. At some point we need to realise that 1) People are allowed to dislike things and disliking things does not mean a major political stance and 2) Sometimes media that echos your political beliefs can still be crap.
The film just disappointed me and left me not really caring about any future ones. My sister meanwhile (who is certainly not a nerdy male neckbeard Star Wars fanboy, and who I remember falling asleep in the cinema next to me during the original Star Wars on the ’97 rerelease) was absolutely LIVID at TLJ and how let down she felt (she really liked TFA, along with a lot of the general public it seems)
Roderick T. Long
March 21, 2018 @ 3:36 pm
“still the most nuanced and intelligent attempt in eight films to actually make a point about fascism and oppression”
Actually the prequels were pretty good on this:
June 5, 2018 @ 4:50 pm
Canto Bight wasn’t the most problematic part of “The Last Jedi” for me.
The most problematic was the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. I found it disturbing, toxic and unrealistic.
What in the hell was Rian Johnson thinking? He managed to create another story arc that I believe was marred by the time span between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “THE LAST JEDI”. The whole Rey-Kylo Ren story seemed wrong within the Sequel Trilogy’s time frame. As I had earlier pointed out, not long after Rey had began her brief training into the Force under Luke, she discovered that some mental Force bond had developed between her and the man who nearly killed her, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. This . . . Force bond led Rey to discover what Luke had nearly did to Ren. And this, along with her telepathic conversations with Luke’s nephew and visions of him being redeemed convinced Rey that it was necessary to travel to Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy, and save Kylo Ren and convince him to give up evil; evoking memories of Luke’s attempt to save his father, Anakin Skywalker, in “RETURN OF THE JEDI”.
hen I watched as Rey decided to travel into “the bowels of evil” in order to save an overprivileged and murderous man child from himself and Snoke, I could not help but indulge in a massive face palm. Or groan. This was just simply ridiculous to me. Was I really expected to accept that Rey had developed compassion or any other kind positive feelings for Kylo Ren two to three days after what he had tried to do to her in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Does anyone realize how unrealistic that is from an emotional point-of-view? After all, only two or three days had passed since Rey had witnessed or experienced the following in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”:
*Kylo Ren kidnapped Rey during the First Order’s attack on Takodana.
*As he had done earlier to Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren tried to violate Rey’s mind in order to learn Luke’s whereabouts, using telepathy. Only she managed to defend herself using the same method.
*Rey, Finn and Chewbacca witnessed Kylo Ren’s murder of his father, Han Solo.
*Kylo Ren tried to injure or kill Rey by tossing her into a tree, near the Star Killer base.
*Kylo Ren maimed Finn during a light saber duel.
*Rey engaged in her own light saber duel against Kylo Ren, in which she managed to wound him.
During Rey and Kylo Ren’s telepathic interactions in “THE LAST JEDI”, she managed to develop compassion for him. And I am at a loss at why she would do this over a person, who had caused so much harm to her and those she cared about . . . in such a short period of time. When Rey asked Kylo Ren why he murdered his father, the latter explained – in a scene in which he was shirtless (a massive eyeroll) – that trying to cut out any sense of emotional attachment. WHAT IN THE HELL???? That was his excuse? And she bought it? And when Rey questioned Kylo Ren’s murder of Luke’s loyal padawans, he revealed how Luke had contemplated on killing him. Never mind that I believed this did not jibe with Luke’s personality. This was a lame excuse on Kylo Ren’s part. Those padawans had not played a role in Luke’s brief contemplation to commit murder. Those padawans had done nothing to Kylo Ren or anyone he may have cared about. And yet . . . Rey failed to continue questioning Kylo Ren’s murders. She expressed anger at Luke’s behavior, which I do not blame her. But she also decided to use this and Luke’s reluctance to save his nephew as an excuse to surrender to Snoke in an effort to save Kylo Ren, someone who had wronged her and those whom she cared about . . . VERY RECENTLY. As far as Rey knew, Kylo Ren was not related to her and a long period of time had not passed between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “THE LAST JEDI”.
Another problem seemed to manifest this story arc – namely Rey’s visions of Kylo Ren’s future. I am not claiming that he was redeemable. But did Rey ever consider that her visions had been manipulated in the first place? Did she ever consider that her telepathic bond was manipulated, which the movie later confirmed during Snoke’s monologuing? I realize that Rey was somewhat naive. But considering her recent past experience with Kylo Ren attempting to violate her mind, she never considered that this might be another attempt? Or that he had successfully found a way to violate her mind and try to manipulate her? Apparently not. Instead, Rey simply jumped up and rushed to Snoke’s ship in an effort to “save” Kylo Ren. It seemed obvious that Johnson had set up this whole scenario in order to plagiarize the Palpatine throne scene from “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Unfortunately for me, it failed on so many levels. Worse, it made Rey looked like “the Idiot of the Galaxy”. This entire story arc struck me as incredibly stupid.