Not Your Mama’s Galaxy
The release of 2017’s The Last Jedi was perhaps more surreal than 2015’s The Force Awakens. The latter movie brought with it an unprecedented fever-dream of excitement. It had been ten years since a theatrical Star Wars release, and twenty-two years since an (arguably) good Star Wars theatrical release. (This isn’t the time or place to get into the Prequel trilogy, though I’d love to dive into that sarlacc pit at some point). My point is, for better or worse, the Prequel Trilogy is a different generation of Star Wars. I saw The Phantom Menace in 1999. I was twelve. See, the Prequel Trilogy could have been my Star Wars. It may have been, had I not seen the original trilogy first. The galaxy had different plans for me.
I watched the prequel trilogy in theaters as each movie was released. Excited, sure. Hell, I enjoyed them. Only years later would I be able to articulate what was wrong with those movies. And I may have forgiven some aspects of the prequels, had they been my Star Wars. But they were not my Star Wars. My Star Wars, at least on celluloid, would never continue. That story had ended with Return of the Jedi in 1983.
Years passed, and I waited. Not even knowing I was waiting. I played Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2. We’re talking multiple playthroughs of these games, at give or take 40 hours a play (yeah, it was worth it). I researched a lifetime’s worth of novels, comics, and shows–part of something now called the Expanded Universe. Here, the story of Luke, Leia and Han continued to unfold in a sometimes convoluted yet always intriguing manner across tales of inconsistent quality. Yet these adventures, thrilling as some may be, are lost to a general public for whom Star Wars is an important cultural touchstone, and not a world to be meticulously researched.
Then that Force Awakens trailer crashed into my life at lightspeed. I watched it… too many times. I may have cried. Luke, Leia, Han. The Force. This was not just another Star Wars. This was my Star Wars.
The Force Awakens came. Better yet, it was good. My heros fought alongside up-and-comers. And while I had expected this, I didn’t quite expect them to pass the torch, especially so damn deliberately. This new trilogy was my Star Wars… but the endgame was for it to transform into someone else’s. Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe; I still think their success of assuming such an impossible mantle remains to be seen. So far, they’re doing a fine job. And while we wait to see them function independent of their predecessors, (something I believe the third movie will largely explore), for now they hold their own among legends.
I remember waiting in line with my wife, a friend and his girlfriend–one of the longest lines for a movie I personally had ever stood in, unable to believe it was happening. I’d encouraged (made) my wife to watch BOTH trilogies leading up to this movie. My buddy had seen the original trilogy. He isn’t a huge movie guy in general. I don’t even know what his girlfriend’s Star Wars status was. Yet we’d all come together for this moment. It was bigger than all of us. The dream was real. You could feel it, in everyone standing there, waiting, jittery, laughing. The dream was real, and it was now.
And the Star Wars fans never woke up. We didn’t have to. The dream did not disintegrate. Somehow, someway, the dream just became reality. Star Wars every year. New trilogies planned. Side-movies. The story continues.
Enter The Last Jedi. Everything from the trailer up until I stood at the theater looking up at the showtime didn’t make sense. A sequel to Force Awakens. We all knew it was coming. And once it had arrived, it was simply there. Nowhere close to the same level of hype as Force Awakens. How could there be? It was not the harbinger of a dream. It was real. It was accepted. Only one question remained:
Was it worth it?
The Last Jedi sets itself apart in the weight of one word: speculation. Of course we speculated about Force Awakens. We live in an age where trailers are dissected like frogs, deconstructed and reconstructed to study and hypothesize every part. But by the time we saw the first glimmers of Last Jedi we already knew the new world that had been built. We knew the rules of the new game.
We knew the stakes. Because Force Awakens had already weaponized nostalgia, while at the same time purging the old for the sake of the new. It had to. That movie’s job, more than anything, was to remind old fans why we loved Star Wars, and to show new fans why they should. It didn’t have to be good movie, it had to be everything to everyone.
What would Last Jedi be, then? An answer to The Empire Strikes Back? Would it play it safe, like Force Awakens? Would it take risks? Would those risks pay off?
Whose Star Wars would it be?
The answer to most of these questions is essentially yes and no. Here’s what I mean:
Yes, Last Jedi answers Empire Strikes Back in that it acts as a dark middle chapter, leaving our characters in a pickle that opens room for a triumphant rise in the third movie. No, it does not have nearly the same dark emotional resonance as say, Luke’s arm being lopped off by his newly revealed father, while Han and Leia are separated by Han’s imprisonment in carbonite.
Yes, Last Jedi plays it safe. You’ll read elsewhere it “defies expectations,” and it does, but not where it matters. Rey’s parentage is revealed, Luke unleashes himself in combat, Kylo Ren has a turning point as he struggles with Dark and Light–none of these things (and more!) happen quite how one would expect. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. The trajectory is set, and though we take some interesting detours to our destination, there aren’t any meaningful consequences. I could, and in fact hope, that I am proved wrong by the third movie. The pay-off, then, is to be determined.
There’s a lot riding on that third movie. Last Jedi throws a lot of balls in the air, without catching many from Force Awakens. Still wondering who Snoke is? You won’t find out here. Who are Rey’s parents? Joke’s on you pal. Do Finn or Poe have a larger roles in all this? Not yet (and maybe not ever!). And that’s the thing–the third movie will be juggling so much, the thought of it catching everything is now daunting. Which is never a good sign. And perhaps more concerning is the notion these new movies don’t really care if they catch anything at all. Because the movies tell you it doesn’t matter. It’s not about that. It’s about new new new. It’s about Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren, and you know what? Nothing from the past matters. Because this ain’t your Star Wars.
This is Star Wars: The Next Generation. I give it kudos for passing the torch. I understand the need to move on. I’m down for more of these new heros, even. But make no mistake, this trilogy, and Last Jedi especially, marks the YA-ification of the franchise, at least in the core trilogy. This is marked by the ages of our new characters, by the aesthetic, by sloughing off old heroes, by the fact that youth is right, grandpa.
This is not a bad thing, in and of itself. Maybe not what I wanted. But this is not quite my Star Wars. And that’s okay. However, this new aesthetic permeates even the pacing of the movie. I swear, a lot of issues I’ve mentioned could be remedied if this movie would simply slow the fuck down. All those risks the movie kind of takes? Show us the impact. Let’s linger in the small moments, get to know these new heroes. Finn confronts Phasma near the end of the movie—by all means an altercation that could have dripped with emotional weight and consequence. Who’s Phasma, you ask? Right. What are the ramifications of Rey learning the truth of her parentage? Beats me. She’s off Luke’s island of angsty old man solitude in no time to confront Kylo Ren. Plus, it doesn’t matter because Rey is a force-master. Anything Luke can do, she can do better. She can do anything better than Luke.
We move from scene to scene with little time for character development or world building. In fact, sometimes I had the sense the galaxy had disappeared. Aside from one zany side-mission to a casino planet, this new galaxy is comprised of the first order, which is I guess as strong as the Empire, even though the Empire lost the war, and the Resistance, which is I guess one ship and a couple hundred people.
I get that J.J. Abrams (director, Force Awakens) and Kathleen Kennedy (producer) shied away from bogging us down with needless politics and exposition–shots frequently fired at the Prequel Trilogy–but in doing so the pendulum swung far in the opposite direction. A lot of what’s going on in this new galaxy deserved a little explanation.
Let’s start with Carrie Fisher. Damn. What an unfortunate and untimely loss. I’ve read rumors Leia was to take center stage in the third movie, following Han in Force Awakens and Luke in Last Jedi. As it stands, she shares a lot of the “old hero” spotlight with Luke in this one. Though she’s taken out for a portion of the movie, boy does she have a moment–and it actually ties into a revelation about her lineage revealed in Return of the Jedi. In fact, the only distracting part of her character is her reaction to Poe (Oscar Isaac), who is pretty much chaos incarnate and actually almost ends up getting a lot people killed while playing maverick.
Mark Hamill gives Luke Skywalker life once more. The years are written in his face, the loss, the guilt. He won, and nothing turned out how he thought. Hamill plays it subtly and beautifully. In fact, the treatment of Luke and Leia, coupled with Hamill and Fisher’s performances, may be worth the price of admission.
Adam Driver continues paint Kylo Ren in brutal yet nuanced strokes. Driver is a great actor in his own right, but he also has the most material in Kylo Ren–conflicted, angry, with a goal of usurpation that (we’re told, but not really shown) will be of a different ilk than simply Dark Lord.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) are fine. Certainly both are extremely capable actors. My qualm is more with how these characters are written. I get the sense Ridley could certainly play the intricacies of Rey had the character been fleshed out. She is perhaps too new an actor to showcase this on her own, without time allotted for character development. Boyega fairs a bit better. While still underwritten, he conveys a sense of purpose in his eyes, his movement. As if there’s more to him than what we’re show. This worked well in Force Awakens, and still does in Last Jedi, to an extent. The less clear and more inconsequential Finn’s purpose seems to be, the less effective Boyega’s mystery becomes. But if that third movie catches all those balls…
Now, I want to talk about the odd ducks. Laura Dern seems so out of place as Amilyn Holdo. She’s fine in the part, but her recognizability, and the choice for the character’s hair, had me thinking she’d stepped out of a Dr. Seuss book. Or The Hunger Games. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the same head-scratcher he was in Force Awakens. Isaac is one of my favorite actors (A Most Violent Year is up there with the best movies of the last decade) but I still don’t get why he’s Poe, a character who could really be played by just about anyone; there just isn’t much there. Finally, we have Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Trico. She is the least “Star Wars” character I’ve seen thus far, in any of the movies. She broke tone for me. Most of the time she was on-screen, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was watching the YA-ification of the movie, personified. That’s not to say she’s bad, because she’s not. But this character was written for a select audience, and that audience is not me. I’m okay with that, but it doesn’t change how I felt. I hope Rose becomes more realized in the third movie. (Boy, that third movie.)
Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) directs, but how much of himself he injects into the formula is difficult to decipher. He’s a “dark” director in a sense, and Last Jedi is dark, in a sense. The risks, for what they are, were Johnson’s to take, but the payoff for these movies seems sure to fall in line with Abram’s and Kennedy’s vision. Like it or not, Star Wars wears many hats these days, and they all have to fit.
How far we’ve come from the lightsaber duels of A New Hope. Choreography, direction—these new battles are something to behold. Rey and Kylo have an extended, unexpected sequence together that tops their original duel in the previous movie. And Luke unleashes himself in the display of power we’ve always wanted, masterfully weaving in and out of Kylo’s onslaught, using the force in a way we’ve never seen before (yep, this turns into one of those defied expectations).
Leia handles her spiraling situation aboard her ship with, grace, gravitas, and a little help from the Force itself, showing us a glimpse into an alternate take on what could have been. (For a badass and hilarious play on this see Josh Scully’s The Last Jedi Fixed video on twitter https://twitter.com/josh_scully/status/1003996810749173762?lang=en) Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher. As a writer, actor (from Star Wars to 30 Rock) and a fighter, you are still an inspiration.
Yoda comes back! The interplay between Luke and his former master is poignant and riveting all at once.
Luke and Leia reunite in one the movie’s best scenes. These two share a history, a deep connection that goes beyond words, and it really comes through in their glances and soft words. It made me wish the old core three had shared some screen time, but alas, with Han’s death we knew that would never be so.
What is your endgame, Kylo Ren? I’m strung along if just to see where Driver takes this part. I dig Kylo, perhaps more than all our plucky heros, because like Luke, Leia, and Han (read: my Star Wars), Kylo’s a realist. He doesn’t have the “you knew the right thing all along, you can do better and forge your own way!” mentality. He’s been broken. He’s flawed. But there’s still hope somewhere, thrashing, screaming to break free. Of any character in these movies, he’s the true bridge between the old and the new.
So, Is it Worth It?
The Last Jedi stands as a reasonable and excellent follow-up to The Force Awakens. Less predictable structurally, but not strong enough to completely forge its own identity or vision. Having said that, let’s take a moment to really appreciate the burden this movie bears.
- It must honor its legacy.
- It must forge ahead.
- It must push boundaries.
- It must appeal to everyone.
- It must be a toy commercial.
- It must fool you into thinking it’s not a toy commercial.
- It must have resonant themes of light and dark.
- It must make you laugh.
- It must be serious.
- It must be goofy.
- It must be for the old fans.
- It must draw in new fans.
- It must be a blockbuster.
- It must be intimate.
And gee willikers, it does all these things! That’s the beauty of Last Jedi. My only real grievance is the pacing. If only I knew these characters a little better, their struggles would’ve matter all the more. And okay, maybe it trips over its own feet, but that’s only because it’s feet are enormous! Look, a lot of this movie is not for me, or for you. But I recognize that the parts that aren’t for us, whatever they are, are still done well. The biggest hurdle to jump here is coming to terms with the fact that this Star Wars is not your Star Wars. But that doesn’t make it bad Star Wars!
Had the movie alienated or favored one demographic outright, it would’ve risked its millions in profit. And perhaps that’s what this core trilogy is now–the funds for our side stories, for our new trilogies (one rumored to be headed by Rian Johnson himself, the other by Benioff and Weiss of Game of Thrones). Perhaps, tonally and thematically, one of these new movies will pick up where Return of the Jedi left off. Or give us something with real risks, something fresh and new that honors the way it feels to watch a Star Wars movie: those elusive elements of adventure, of the struggle between light and dark, and of wonder at the galaxy beyond.