I have a lot of thoughts about Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, but not that many feelings. Some fans are convinced that, since their favourite Skywalker didn’t turn out the way they’d always imagined in their headcanons, the world is ending. Having spent the last month researching and writing about climate change, I’m reserving my outrage and despair for the actual end of the world. I’ve outgrown their level of investment in a galaxy far, far away… although now, more than ever, I wish I were there, and not here.
When Episode VII: The Force Awakens came out in 2015, I took my four-year-old to the cinema to help indoctrinate a new generation into the saga that, in many ways, defined my own. I was about four myself when I first saw A New Hope, and it lived up to its name in ways that George Lucas and his creative team couldn’t possibly have guessed. For me, and millions of kids like me whose imaginations were just beginning to bloom, the first Star Wars defined both “new” and “hope.” There was simply nothing else like it, and it was ours. And it broadcast a vision full of adventure and opportunity – a future (or futurized past) in which any whiny farmboy can become a galactic hero.
My kid was duly impressed with TFA in 2015, but not anywhere near to the same degree. Nor could I begrudge that lack of enthusiasm; as the first Star Wars film released in 10 years, TFA felt new-ish, but it didn’t show viewers anything they hadn’t seen before. In fact, director J.J. Abrams, under creative mandate from Disney, the franchise’s new owners, had made a film so heavily dependent on the tropes and tone of previous Star Wars films, it almost felt like a lost installment from the first trilogy, back in the 80s (or a “Special Edition,” CGI-enhanced version, at least).
Because TFA was so heavily derivative, what few new elements there were stuck out like droids in a cantina. The film was buoyed by a cast of newcomers who (a) didn’t all look the same, and (b) had decent acting chops. As a cis-het white male, I have no personal investment in seeing the galaxy populated with more people of colour, or damsels-not-in-distress, or rebellion bros with same-sex chemistry… but I welcomed them with open arms, because without their contributions, TFA would have been a carbon copy of A New Hope.
That was in 2015. Since then, I’ve acquired a good reason to celebrate the representation of minorities on the big screen. When I took my kid to see The Force Awakens, I thought it was a father-son excursion, but it turned out to be a father-daughter deal, instead. Now, there aren’t any trans characters in the Star Wars universe (that we know of), but diversity is good for everyone. That has become my “new hope” in the 21st century: big-budget escapism for everybody, not only for the white dudes who claim a monopoly on fandom.
Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi has infurated those fanboys, or a vocal minority of them. So great is their hatred, they’ve used bots to flood meta-ranking review sites like rottentomatoes.com with negative reviews – an odd tactic for convincing others to dislike the same things as you, but one that makes sense if you believe your opinion has more weight than others’. Because of all the spam and hashtag static, it’s hard to pinpoint their greivances, but near as I can tell, they boil down to these spoilers:
- Luke Skywalker demonstrates poor judgment for a fraction of a second;
- General Leia uses the Force, in contravention of unspoken patrilineal rules;
- Non-white males perform slightly more heroic acts than white males do.
By nearly any measure, these are poor criteria for judging a film. Curiously, The Last Jedi seems to anticipate the fans’ irrational need to cling to past narratives: the dialogue circles around again and again to variations of “Let the past die,” and at one crucial point, we watch as a beloved character literally burns the sacred texts of the Jedi. The plot is also refreshingly populist, throwing out decades of futuro-feudalism and fantasy-style “chosen one” legacy BS. The subtext is clear: just as anyone can be a Jedi, so too can anyone be a fan.
But as Admiral Ackbar would say, it’s a trap!… to buy into evaluating the film in purely political terms. Any film is a product of its time, but a Star Wars film has to be more. So, is Episode VIII any good? As I said at the start, it didn’t provoke too many feelings in me, and that’s never a good sign – but I think it may say more about where I’m at, in my life, than what the film is capable of.
The Last Jedi is a sprawling, grandiloquent mess. It careens wildly between pathos, farce, and epic tragedy. It has more characters than it knows what to do with. It contains many audacious twists, including a Rashomon-style series of unreliable flashbacks. And, at two and half hours, it has at least three endings. This sounds like a heap of criticism, but in fact it’s right in line with the sort of films I used to love: Apocalypse Now, Magnolia, The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Visually, it owes much to Japanese cinema, including the later films of Akira Kurosawa, especially Ran, another lifelong favourite.
Hollywood doesn’t make those sorts of films much anymore. To be sure, there are messes aplenty, but the Grandiloquent Mess requires an auteur’s passion and ambition, and filmmaking has become too corporate, and too cowardly, to let new visions flourish. So I think it’s inspiring and exciting to see Rian Johnson, who directed TLJ, throw a gorgeous, holy mess across the screen, especially when he must have known it was going to alienate a lot of old fans.
I don’t think my six-year-old could follow everything that happened in TLJ, but she enjoyed it. And I enjoyed it too, in my jaded way. I am an old fan – one of the original sky-walkers – and yet I am one hundred percent behind the credo, “Let the past die.” Because while A New Hope may have whispered exactly the right things to my generation, we are living in the future now. Let the past die.
But not Admiral Ackbar. Why’d they have to kill him? That poor fish-faced, trap-anticipating bastard. May the Force be with him always.