There are those in the Critic’s Guild who believe Star Wars is inherently reactionary. That the original trilogy ended an era of American film – the so-called “New Hollywood” era – that at least tried to make movies with some manner of “relevance” to the society that created them, while Star Wars is about weird space aliens fighting a bullshit war in another galaxy. Please ignore the fact that, not even a decade after the US lost the Vietnam War, Star Wars comes along to tell the story of a rag-tag band of rebels from across the galaxy’s social classes and ethic backgrounds uniting to defeat a technologically superior Empire, ruled by evil wizards who’re dumb enough to think they can predict the future.
Of course, some things are predictable. For example, this is our third time ’round the bend and we should all know how this goes by now: the middle film in a Star Wars Trilogy is always the slower, character-focused entry with the downer ending where someone gets their hand chopped off. It usually has a clearer vision and a more forward-moving plot than the other two and it usually does its director’s career no favors. Irving Kirshner hasn’t done a damn thing since RoboCop 2…though that’s probably more RoboCop 2‘s fault. The hellish tales of that production make the Disney Star Wars franchise look like a functioning, well-oiled machine. And as for ol’ Georgie Boy…well, we all know what happened to him.
At least Rian Johnson made Brick, and nothing can take that away from him. Brick is good, folks. Check it out if you haven’t. Looper‘s okay, too, unless you’re one of those time travel pedants who can’t even get it up if your time travel movie’s plot comes without a flow-chart. I haven’t seen Brothers Bloom or Knives Out, so no comment…but by now I’ve seen many a hot shot indy director captured and digested by the studio system. Josh Trank, Gareth Edwards, the poor bastard who did Kong Skull Island, Jordan…oh, god, I’ve already forgotten how to pronounce his last name. Somebody put some protection around Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the co-directors of Captain Marvel. Or is it already too late?
Nowadays, I watch the latest bumper crop of indy films roll out of the Festival Circuit with the sinking sensation that at least one (if not more) of their directors will be helming a Big Name franchise within the next year or five. They’ll spend months doing pre-release press junkets saying say some version of, “Yes, growing up watching [insert franchise name here] it was always my dream that I’d wind up directing one.” And then, when the movie comes out, that dream will quickly turn into a waking nightmare. Partially because, during the 2010s, we all got fooled into thinking that joining Twitter would be a good idea. A necessary step on our path to “success”…whatever that means.
Practically, it means everyone gets to be their own PR agents in a world where anyone can yell at you at any time for any reason. And your multi-billion dollar employers will do absolutely nothing about it. They won’t even have the decency to say, “Fuck you – you’re contract work.” Hell, they seem to like it when their employees get into flame wars on their public feeds, or straight-up delete their accounts because they’re sick of the abuse. From a cold, calculating, machine-learning standpoint, “controversy” (a slippery, blanket term that covers everything from death threats to polite disagreements) creates attention and attention creates mo’ money. And when all you really want is all the money in the world than you don’t have to give a shit. Like Benecio del Toro says to Finn about halfway through this picture, “It’s all a machine, partner. Live free. Don’t join.”
Hard as it is to recall now, the hype train for this flick was already running at Ludicrous Speed before Force Awakens even left theaters. Driven by rampant speculation over all the plot-threads J.J. Abrams intentionally left dangling off of his life’s work. Who are Rey’s parents? Who the fuck is this Snoke guy? Where’s Luke and what’s he been up to All This Time, as blinkered neo-fascism’s once again risen to torment the galaxy? And what the hell happened to turn the Son of Solo and Organa to the Dark Side, anyway? Last Jedi takes the stance that only two of these questions really matter, and this counts as a bold subversion of expectations in my blinkered, neo-fascist country. Leading the reactionary anti-fans of Star Wars to turn “expectations subverted” into what they call a “meme” when they really mean “a thought-terminating cliché.”
But I don’t want to talk about them anymore. Fuck ’em. We should do what they do and just say all their criticisms in as snide and dismissive a voice as we can muster. Because if there’s anything years of watching YouTube videos have taught me, it’s that when you say something in a snidely dismissive tone, it magically goes away…like the dagger in this guy’s left hand between edits. “Continuity error.” (In a Star Wars fight scene. Something we’ve never seen before.) “New Force Powers” (Because these movies should be exactly like McDonald’s happy meals – the same shit every time, or people will riot.) “Rose Tico.” “Blasian Romance.” “Laura Dern. And her purple hair.” (And the fact she’s the only one acting like a commander on this boat-load of children.) “Low-speed space chase.” “Concerns about space fuel…” Okay, I am actually curious why this, and its immediate successor Star Wars movie, are so damn concerned about space fuel…but if there’s anything looking into Solo taught me, it’s that the answer is probably dumb enough to make me dumber for knowing it.
Well, that was fun. Now let’s talk about why I actually liked this one more than its successors, or immediate predecessors. And why this might, in fact, be the Only Good Disney Star Wars To Date. Principally that’s because it pulled the same kind of crass, emotional manipulation on me that R2 pulls on Luke to try and bring him out of retirement. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. We want our art to effect us and, in an era where the vast majority of pop art leaves you feeling some species of “meh,” we should celebrate when it happens. It’s the way they go about it that bugs me more and more with each rewatch.
As with Force Awakens, Last Jedi‘s primary method of effecting the audience is by echoing stuff we’ve already seen in the Star Wars series. (“It’s like poetry – they rhyme.”) Instead of referencing old sci-fi serials or the old samurai films that helped extend the Western genre, modern Star Wars is in the hands of people who grew up with (apparently) no reference base outside of Star Wars. Just as Force Awakens was clearly a remake of New Hope disguised as a sequel, Last Jedi is a remake of both Empire and Return of the Jedi, disguised as a sequel to all seven previous films by a corporation that’s at least smart enough to know that, if they did remake Star Wars, people would actually riot.
As I’ve aged, I’ve started going back and forth on whether Empire or Return is my favorite, and I know I’m not alone, because this movie does the same damn thing. Sometimes Return is my favorite because it’s where all the dramatic tensions of the series finally resolve in a series of big explosions – both literal and emotional. Sometimes Empire‘s my favorite, not because it has the better ending (as some depressives would have it) but because it has the better structure. The Force Sensitive main character goes off to have a training montage with some old fart while the Normie Characters are forced, thanks to the temporary-but-dramatic intimacy of a chase movie, to interact with few people besides each other…and maybe some random person who winds up suddenly but inevitably betraying them. They come up with a plan to extract themselves from their chase movie and it fails miserably, forcing the Force Sensitive main character to save their assess at the eleventh hour, preferably after a lightsaber fight.
Once again, I’d have to try a lot harder than I just did to graft Attack of the Clones plot onto Empire, and that’s my major criticism of this Episode, just like last time. Not only is it too referential to the Originals, it’s too eager to please. People can recognize this eagerness and, because karma is a stone cold bitch, some of them hate it. Even I kinda hate it, sometimes…but it’s like hating children or cute, fuzzy animals – I can’t maintain the hate. I’d never cut it on the Dark Side.
Speaking of which, this film opens literal hours of Force Awakens‘ end, as the Resistance evacuates in their moment of triumph and Rey discovers that Luke Skywalker has become a grumpy old man. There’s no time to deal with the fallout of the First Order’s preemptive strike against…what was that planet’s fucking name again…? Gods, the happiest moment I’ve had with this New Trilogy was when I thought they’d destroyed Coruscant. Hard to take a bolder, anti-prequel stance than that. “Oh, you made a review of the trilogy that’s longer than the films themselves? How quaint. We turned the planet where 65% of the that trilogy took place into a cloud of vapor!” But it turns out they just destroyed a planet astonishingly similar to Coruscant where the New Republic moved their government at some point in the past, for some reason – The Hosnian System. See, that’s been a problem with Star Wars for awhile now: if you don’t know your way around Wookipedia, you might as well not even try keeping up with current events. Most don’t, and so they are easily lost by the plots of these so-called children’s films.
“You’re not Vader,” Supreme Leader Snoke says to Kylo Ren early on, “You’re just a child in a mask.” Ah, but what was Vader? Did the prequels not contend that he was still a child when the Emperor put him in that mask? Wasn’t that what made all the anti-fans shout “Betrayal!” fifteen years ago? But the Dark Side has an ultimately self-defeating habit of recruiting angry man-babies, just as the Light Side has its habit of running away from the galaxy’s real problems. And depending on how much EU material you’ve read, you know these has been major issues for either the last fifty, or the last thousand in-universe years.
The other problem with Star Wars is, if you don’t read the tie-in merchandise, you’ll miss critical pieces of backstory that these films may or may not assume you know. For example: that tie-in novel I mentioned back in the Force Awakens review, Bloodlines (set a few years before Force Awakens opening), reveals that General Leia’s political career completely flamed out after the revelation that she was not, in fact, the daughter of Bail Organa, former Senator and founding member of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, but was instead the daughter of Darth Vader, notorious mass-murdering, planet-enslaving psychopath. Her brother Luke’s character also got assassinated on the floor of the New Senate, and someone (or three someones, to be completely accurate) neglected to inform their son/nephew/padawan of his illustrious/ignominious lineage until it became public knowledge. Sure would be nice to see that references on screen. Might help paint our villain in the sympathetic light this film desperately wants to paint him in, making things easier on the shippers.
Not the Rey-Finn shippers, of course, or the Fin-Poe shippers, gods help them, but shout-out to all you Rey-los. You got a fraction of a second of thigh grabbing. And a whole movie where your chosen two get to angry-flirt through the Force. Including this bit, where, after Rey calls him a monster and he says, “Yes I am,” Kylo has to wipe some water off his face. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes obvious metaphors are obvious. We have now entered the Oral Stage.
In most fantasy stories, once you kill the evil emperor, the story ends and everybody goes home. But in reality, reactionary shitheads have always been, and will probably always be, with us. They always grow and gather strength in the dark corners of society, getting each other angrier and angrier, until one of them does something stupid. Afterward, they always fall to denial and in-fighting, before finding newer, darker corners to scatter into. In my lifetime, and my galaxy, the last time this happened it was the militia movement, the Oklahoma City bombing, and Alex Jones. In 2017 it was the Alt-Right, the assassination of Heather Hyer by the Coward Whatever-the-Fuck-His-Name-Was, and 8chan. And as Star Wars grew to conquer comics, novels and video games, it eventually sewed this facet of our world into the fabric of its universe. What else is the (seemingly) eternal war between Jedi and Sith if not an expression of this awful truth? Again, to quote Benicio del Toro (I’m not even going to pretend he has some other, in-universe name) “They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow. It’s just business.”
Some people hate the fact Luke Skywalker became a bitter old man between trilogies, but I embrace him. It’s clear to me that, during his quest to find students who weren’t blood relatives, he recovered enough galactic history to discover the Jedi’s fatal flaw, and the fatal flaw of the Republic they supposedly served. (Outsourcing your galactic peace and justice guardianship to an order of prudish warrior monks was probably a bad idea from the start.) But I’d go one further and suggest Luke’s read the Old Republic comics – or whatever their in-universe equivalents might be. The Sacred Jedi Texts. He knows that the Jedi and Sith have been trapped in a false dichotomy for the last thousand generations, created by their own self-defeating ideologies. Which in turn only exist to justify the two order’s monopolization of the Force. “The Force is not a power you have,” and it never was – it’s something that “gives” power to you – to anyone sensitive enough to feel it. The Jedi’s complicity in concealing this truth is why “It’s time for the Jedi to end.” A phrase some of the Grey Jedi of yore might’ve gotten on board with…oh, gods, do I have to explain who the Grey Jedi were?
No I don’t. Like any band of apostates from a hierarchical religious tradition that lasted as long as the Jedi, they never really had a united, coherent ideology of their own. In consequence, most wound up swallowed by either one side of the Eternal Battle or another. It’s like how Benicio betrays Rose and Finn as soon as they get caught. Try not joining all you want, you’ll eventually be forced to pick a side by someone who has real power. And who has the most power in the Star Wars galaxy? Is it the pack of fascist losers who keep wasting all their resources on planet-killer lasers? Is it the people who oppose them? Or is it the people selling all these high tech weapons while they sit back and enjoy their space champagne at their space casino?
The Canto Byte sequence should be the most important in the film. So, of course, most of my fellow Americans reviled it and considered it “pointless,” because the film itself largely does as well. It’s a plot cul-de-sac that could’ve pointed a way forward for the Star Wars galaxy if it stopped to think about its own implications for more than a moment. Most of the movies about the rich bastards who actually run our world are documentaries, a genre notorious for its lack of space ships, explosions, and box office numbers. But even those rarely deal with the people who keep the military industrial complex spinning us all into the empty pit of endless wars. Even I don’t know all their names. Hell, the names change every time they get better jobs. I know the names of some of the politicians they’re bribing, but those change at about the same rate, and for the same damn reason. Blow up all the warships you want – hell, split them in half with your own ship in a light-speed kamakazi run – it won’t make a damn bit of difference if the line of warship-dealers stretches out the door and back into the casino.
So The Last Jedi correctly diagnoses the problem of Star Wars: that it’s trapped in an endless, ultimately pointless cycle of escalating violence, driven by the profit motives of people we rarely see in these films. Unfortunately, as a consumer product, driven the the profit motives of people we rarely see outside of the pages of Forbes or The Wall Street Journal, the only solution it can really offer is “more Star Wars.” Not the way I’d like, where Rose and Finn go back to Canto Byte with something that packs more punch than a herd of floppy-eared rabbit horses…but in a way that will maintain maximum brand recognition.
The thing everyone likes about Star Wars is that it feels like it takes place in a vast universe where tons of shit could theoretically going on at any given moment. But thanks to the need for maximum brand recognition, these movies always center themselves around the Eternal Battle between the Light and Dark Sides of the dang Force. Rose offers the only thing close to a Message of this film, since all the other messages are eventually proven wrong. Turns out, sometimes, the Force really is about lifting rocks and the Old Master really will stride out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order all by himself. Also the Light side will, apparently, win, not by “fighting what we hate,” but by “saving what we love.” And…excuse me, but, why not both?
Sometimes you have to do both. Sometimes you have to do both at the same time. Sometimes you have to do the one in order to do the other, in a sequence. And that scares some people, who’d prefer to only see that in fiction. I can’t help you get over that fear – I’m probably the least-qualified person to help anyone get over anything. I can only argue that the boundaries between fiction and real life have been breaking down for quite some time, and it’s best to prepare yourselves now, because the war is right outside your door…but you don’t have to listen to me. I’m just your friendly neighborhood movie critic. And we were talking about Star Wars, weren’t we?
I read Star Wars as a Vietnam War movie at the start of this ungangly rant, but filmatically – is that a word? – from a film-making standpoint, Star Wars owes a lot more to World War II stock footage. Meaning the generation that fought the Clone Wars was the so-called “Greatest Generation” of this galaxy. The Boomers were those who fought and won their war against the Evil Galactic Empire, and just like in real life, they all got fat and lazy afterward, allowing fascism to rise again. This sequel generation are the Xers – raised to believe they can change the world by people who actually did, only to be slapped in the face at every turn by their historical circumstances. Just like Adam raised a Kane, the Skywalker twins and Han Solo raised a Kylo, so the only equal and opposing force (har har) to that is someone raised by the hardcore streets of Jakku, as far from the halls of galactic power as one can get. And just like the real Xers, she is herself a Star Wars fan, meaning she’s bound to learn all the wrong lessons from this, just like the Xers did in real life.
If I’d done this last year, I could’ve ended with a spark of hope, like the ones the Resistance keeps talking about. I could’ve said something like, “Now that they’ve remade all three Originals, at least this leaves everything in an interesting position for the final film of this Trilogy.” But like I said in the Solo review, I’m sick of the kayfabe, including my own. The Last Jedi may be the Only Good Disney Star Wars, but it’s still annoyingly “meh.” The best thing I can say about it is it didn’t actively piss me off, but is that really all we can expect from the eighth film in a series? Star Trek: First Contact and Jason Takes Manhattan are both eighth films…but then again, so are Freddy vs. Jason and Hellrasier: Hellworld. By the eighth films in their franchises, James Bond was Living and Letting Die and Godzilla had become a single father. Star Wars is still holding on to its past. It really should learn to let go…but we all know that’ll never happen now.
And with any luck, you’ll all be arguing over whether, or how much, I dissed those movies in the last paragraph, (they were literally the first “eighth films” that popped into my head) or adding your own. And I can finally think about something other than Star Wars…until the next time.