My Correct Views on The Last Jedi
Why Rian Johnson's Star Wars sequel stirs so much debate. (Because of decadence, of course.)
There was another around of arguments on Twitter last weekend about the quality, or lack thereof, of The Last Jedi, the Star Wars sequel that divided fans and critics and found itself swept up in the Trump-era culture wars. New York Mag’s Matt Zoller Seitz, who is only occasionally wrong about pop culture, issued this pro-Last Jedi subtweet:
This happens to be one of those rare cases where Seitz is wrong — but not entirely so; it all depends on what you mean by “landmark.” The Last Jedi is not a successful movie (here’s my original unfavorable review), but some of the hatred it inspired is misdirected or overwrought. The combination of its multi-ethnic Millennial-generation cast, its jokey impiety toward Star Wars iconography, its gestural class war themes and its palpable desire to move on from the architecture and mythos of the prior movies quickly earned it a reputation as the most “woke” Star Wars — forget the ancient Jedi texts, it’s time for the successor ideology — which in turn set it up for a familiar kind of ritualized apologetics and critiques.
But these arguments mostly circle around the core failure of the movie. The problem with The Last Jedi isn’t Johnson’s desire to move on from the prior Star Wars arc, but rather his inability to figure out how to accomplish that escape within the constraints imposed by some combination of studio demands, what J.J. Abrams handed him with The Force Awakens, and his own artistic imagination. So the movie ended up being iconoclastic to no real purpose, undercutting the heroic deeds of the original movie and undermining the coherence of its universe while being pulled back into its own form of disappointing repetition.
Here The Last Jedi has something in common with the George Lucas prequels. To watch its two hours is to watch a storyteller trying to take a work of popular art in a new direction, to mix up something novel out of familiar elements, and finding himself unequal to the task. Like Lucas with his admirable fall-of-the-republic ambitions and ponderous, over-CGI’d results, the Johnson Star Wars entry is a case study in how the mere artistic intent to break out of stagnation and repetition is not enough: Decadence is powerful and not so easily escaped.
The difference is that in the prequels the problems are spread equally across the story, in failures of screenwriting and characterization and dialogue that run pretty consistently from movie to movie, scene to scene (though, yes, they’re at their worst in Attack of the Clones). Whereas in The Last Jedi there’s a pretty stark contrast between the part of the movie that works and the parts that just participate in the franchise’s decadence — and more than that there’s a clear moment, a single scene and a single character’s decision, when the effort to escape into creativity crests and then collapses.
The part that works is the triangle between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren and Mark Hamill’s grouchy, disillusioned Luke Skywalker. Rey is being trained as a Jedi by a knight who thinks the Jedi failed and ought to perish; Ren is trying to seduce her but also seems open to being seduced by her, pulled back from the Dark Side as they’re pulled closer together. In a more predictable story Ren and Luke would be simply rivals, competing to yank Rey this way or that way, like Vader and Yoda in Empire Strikes Back. But here they’re actually offering the same general message, with Ren’s insistence that “it’s time to let old things die” finding vindication in Luke’s grim assessment that “if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure.” This leaves Rey, in effect, as the last Jedi believer — even the last fan, if you will — trying to will the heroic narrative of the Force back into existence in a story that keeps pulling her somewhere different.
The attitudes of Ren and Luke also place The Last Jedi in an interesting dialogue with the prequels. Luke’s cynical view of Jedi tradition is one of the things that some fans didn’t like about his character, and the movie’s dismissive attitude to the sacred Jedi texts (“not page-turners,” says the ghost of Yoda) was recently cited by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry as exhibit A in the film’s woke antinomianism. But the not-even-all-that-Straussian teaching of the Lucas prequels is that the Jedi are, in fact, a failed elite: An arrogant and insular and untrustworthy group of armed mandarins who mouth New Age slogans while being outmaneuvered by the Sith at every turn. So to have Luke come to basically this same realization at the end of his long hero’s journey is an interesting idea, suggesting a post-imperial future for the galaxy, and for Stars Wars storytelling, that wouldn’t just recapitulate the Sith/Jedi, empire/republic battle in the way that The Force Awakens did.
But meanwhile all the rest of The Last Jedi is engaged in exactly that kind of recapitulation, giving us the same basic beats as Empire Strikes Back, its second-movie-in-the-trilogy parallel, but with weaker characters and dialogue and plotting. The imperial pursuit of the rebel fleet — sorry, the First Order pursuit of the Resistance fleet — is just the imperial hunt for the Millennium Falcon all over again; the sojourn on the casino planet is just a reworking of the sojourn in Cloud City; Benicio Del Toro’s cynical trickster is standing in for Lando; Poe Dameron’s battles over strategy with Vice-Admiral Holdo and Leia echo Han’s romantically-charged battles with a younger Leia. And this kind of boring repetition is actually much more damaging to the original trilogy than Luke’s revisionist cynicism about the Jedi: The latter recasts the mythos of A New Hope but it doesn’t nullify the Battle of Yavin, whereas returning to the exact political-military setup as Empire, with desperate rebels on the run from an all-conquering imperium, requires essentially saying that nothing that Luke and Leia and Han did in those movies made any political difference whatsoever.
(Though even in this lousy repetition there are hints of interesting notions: The idea, introduced by Del Toro’s character, that the galaxy has a lot of rich and powerful people who just get rich watching the First Order and the Resistance blow each other up is cut from the same cloth as Kylo and Luke’s shared skepticism about the Sith and Jedi.)
For the first two-thirds of the movie the creative storyline and the repetitive one are mostly separate. But they begin to converge when Rey and Ren are brought to the throne of Supreme Leader Snoke, who’s observing the pursuit of the Resistance. Together the two young Force-wielders kill him and then fight off all his Praetorian Guards, in a legitimately solid battle scene, at which point Rey insists that they have to go save her Resistance friends and Ren … has a different take:
Now, look: I understand all the reasons why Rey doesn’t go along with him, why she goes off to save her friends instead, leaving him to take over the First Order and continue the Sith/Jedi war. It’s a big-budget blockbuster in the Marvel age, a franchise that exists to sell merchandise to kids: You don’t take your girl-power heroine in a dark or ambiguous direction; you can’t have your Luke Skywalker stand-in join your Darth Vader epigone at the crucial moment in the trilogy; however many ambiguities you introduce you need to have a nice good-versus-evil showdown at the end. It’s a Disney movie, for God’s sake!
But dramatically, artistically, all the good and interesting choices that Johnson makes in The Last Jedi point toward Rey taking Kylo’s hand. (And, I would argue, point toward an endgame for the larger saga where Force users writ large, not just the Jedi or Sith specifically, are the real problem and we should be rooting for the non-Force-users to rule the galaxy instead … but that’s a subject for a more overtly fanfic post.) So when she doesn’t go along with him, when she says no to the man in black just like Luke in Empire, the interesting narrative collapses back into the repetitious one, we get a Hoth-style battle — oh, but on a salt planet, not ice planet, a totally different kind of whitescape — and an Obi-Wan-esque sacrificial ending for the no-longer-disillusioned Luke, leading to an ending that matches Empire (imperials triumphant while rebels barely manage to escape) but with some prequel-level dialogue thrown in for good measure.
Which in turn sets us up neatly for the terrible hackwork of The Rise of Skywalker. The final movie’s Return of the Jedi rip-off is Abrams’ fault, sure, but it’s the fruit of Johnson’s own choices as well, because once you’ve thrown Kylo and Rey back into the dark/light dichotomy and maneuvered the empire and the rebels back into their original-trilogy positions, why not bring back Palpatine and just play the hits again?
To be clear: Rise of Skywalker has nothing so interesting as Last Jedi’s best sections, it’s a terrible movie in almost every way. But that’s just Abrams being Abrams and Disney being Disney: The chance to break out of repetition was there for Johnson, and he’s the one, for however understandable a set of reasons, who let it slip away.
Which helps explain, I think, the resilience of the arguments about The Last Jedi. It is a landmark, of a sort: In its best scenes and sequences you can see creativity bubbling up through cracks in the entombing ice of current Hollywood, and in the more unjustified aspects of fan outrage you can see how lots of people prefer decadence to change. But then taken as a whole the movie shows how, if you want to do something new with a property like Star Wars, you need a comprehensive plan, not just a couple of good ideas, because otherwise the combination of commercial imperatives and creative inertia will pull you back and back into decadence — leaving you with something more disappointing, in certain ways, than if you’d never tried at all.