“The Last Jedi” is a Classic only in Theory

Star Wars has been betrayed and destroyed by its fans.

I’m not just talking about the backlash The Last Jedi (which I reviewed here) got. It is increasingly clear that this nu-franchise stood no chance to be anything more than stylized junk. Instead of honoring yet updating the legacy of the high-concept pulp sci-fi operatic artistic masterpiece, these Disney knockoffs operate like dub-step covers of folk classics – cold, sterile, and only impressive for technical work.

All because fans asked for it. Prequel-phobia grips us all to an unhealthy degree; thus Disney offers little more than the banality of retro gimmicks.

My words on the Prequels are already written here, and I won’t repeat them. Suffice to say, they are paradoxically the most valuable terrible films ever created, and have the inverse legacy of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Griffith made a technical masterpiece – a perfectly realized artistic expression of his ethos, yet few today appreciate the quality because his cinematic genius was tragically employed in the service of crafting one of the most grotesquely racist, morally treacherous cultural messages we’ve ever seen. Conversely, George Lucas’s Prequels are packed to the brim with insights about the erosion of republics, the dangers of dogmatic religious institutions entangled in government, the struggles of an energetic, idealistic prodigy in a complex galaxy, the means by which insidious men manipulate all of the above, and the nature of myth-making itself. These are ambitious, ingeniously-conceived cultural messages that no other IP in history has ever come close to replicating. Yet few today appreciate them because they come packaged in a “movie” without arms, legs, or a spine because of its top-to-bottom terminal lack of coherence.

After two decades, with many fans “growing up” to have kids of their own, you’d think we’d have learned by now to only dump the bathwater without throwing out the twin babies. Alas, this fandom refuses, eternally resolved to sustain its delusional view of both itself and those Prequels at any cost. This is a fandom that invents sob stories about The Phantom Menace’s release date as the 9/11 of childhoods while hyperventilating over Easter Eggs in Rogue One that tie back to them. This is a fandom that pretends to have elite, sophisticated standards for art consumption because they recognize the obvious fact that the Prequels are bad movies – a conclusion most reached only years later – after wearing out the DVDs, buying all the toys, and then, after turning into college hipsters looking to hate those movies, seeing a terrific piece of criticism by Mr. Plinkett that explained it all for them.

The same fan base that accused George Lucas of repeatedly killing Star Wars thinks too highly of itself to see the real culprit in the mirror. Their internet tantrums are how you get a circle-tracing exploitative trailer like The Force Awakens. It and Rogue One ironically reflect the shallow immaturity of its audience by scurrying around with the aimless exuberance of a child in a Disney theme park. That’s all Star Wars is now – something which they would never have become fans in the first place.

The Last Jedi was created against this backdrop, and fails largely due to its slavish beholding to it. There’s a lot going on, much of it serving as writer/director Rian Johnson’s attempt to engage with, and break free from, the Star Wars tradition – in a film that Disney made look like just another normal entry in the franchise it’s safekeeping from anything that might make fans “suffer” Jar-Jar flashbacks.

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

The Last Jedi opts to turn the lightsaber sideways. Luke tossing it over his shoulder was the first clue – hinting at the film’s greater intentions to subvert the pre-existing rules and assumptions of Star Wars.

And in the case of Star Wars, particularly a sequel trilogy featuring the heroes of the original, making a movie about the necessity of discarding the old and rote is not a bad idea.

…in theory.

The franchise has been trapped in its own creative black hole since peaking at Empire, with “I am your father.” Everything since has tied back to the lineage of a special family, inadvertently leading many, including the girl herself, to believe that Rey must be in there somehow. The Force had chosen that family as its instrument of finding balance. It works out, but a whole lot of horrible things had to happen to that galaxy first.

So if a direct sequel took place in this galaxy, the unavoidable implication is that since balance was restored to the Force, something has gone horribly wrong. And that means someone somewhere screwed up.

…in theory.

And 30 years later, with a new generation having grown up with myths of our heroes and their legendary exploits, none of the former galaxy saviors are in a good place, with Luke as the most depressed shell of his former self. This is, after all, a series where fathers and figures are the ones in need of saving. Luke internalizes the failings of the Jedi Order due to his failure with Ben that destroyed his heroic legacy. His arc is accepting Rey and confronting his failure, using its hard lessons to step up, make a difference in lives already touched, and attain peace with yourself in the process of doing so. It doesn’t make sense for him to just raise his X-wing and swoop down. He has to one-up and overwhelm the morale of his foes and ignite a new spark of hope into his sister and what remained of the Resistance – showing off the power of the Force before becoming one with it.

…in theory.

The larger point here is that special families can’t be the savior anymore. In that respect, it really is time for the Jedi to end. The Order was comprised of medieval knights with elements of the Samurai and the Shaolin monks – with new recruits being special people “discovered” at young ages, by a master who comes and “uplifts” them from the rut of their established lives. Luke thought he could re-establish that system with Ben as patient zero, both believing that their family’s natural affinity with the Force would empower them. Instead, that is the secret to their undoing. And now arrives Rey, this curious new vergence who seemingly can do what the best Jedi could without even learning the basics of how the Force works in the first place.

But she comes from nothing. She knows the whole time, but doesn’t want to confront that truth because it would destroy the lie she thought empowered her. The mirror under that cave isn’t just for Luke, but Rey as well.

…in theory.

The inherent classist, aristocratic undertone of Star Wars, all of which came from that pivotal reveal in Empire is made further explicit by The Last Jedi, sending two characters off to a Mos Eisley/Mos Espa-for-preening-Vegas-dwellers type of planet. It isn’t that the system is unequal, but that it’s exploitative and conflict-perpetuating.

…in theory.

With Rey’s parents revealed as no one going hand-in-hand with that final shot of a slave kid Force pulling himself a broom as he watches the Millennium Falcon pass like a shooting star, The Last Jedi seeks to show that overcoming genetics for Jedi and overcoming classism for the Galaxy at large are two sides of the same coin operating as the currency for the now-awakened (or “woke” if you prefer) Force. They are not Jedi yet, but the Force is with them.

…in theory.

Whatever your political hangups, that concept is really good. That’s how you begin a sequel trilogy. With all due respect to Mark Hamill and his terrific performance, that’s how you close the book on an era, and that’s how you pass the torch and kill off a legendary character in a way that isn’t flippant or forgettable like Han Solo’s death was in The Force Awakens.

Except The Last Jedi doesn’t really do all that. It only does those things… IN THEORY.

“Every word you just said in that sentence was wrong.”

The Last Jedi has not the structure, scope, nor narrative framework to accomplish any of these objectives. It banks on the novelty of its themes and ideas to compensate for its ever-constant straining under the weight of its ostensible duty to massage its franchise for fans. The result is a diminished film in not just one respect, but nearly all of them.

Let’s start with an infamous example – the space princess.

Forget the absurdity of it. This is a universe where parsecs are units of time instead of distance. Physics aren’t exactly a priority. And fans have yearned to see Leia use the Force since news of Episode VII released. Yet that sequence is the most disrespectful treatment of an iconic character you and I have probably ever seen. And it’s doubly disrespectful to Carrie Fisher herself that they left it in after she passed.

Imagine John Wayne doing one more film after The Shootist while still clinging to life in his battle against cancer. The hypothetical film puts him in a scene atop a speeding train in China. Before it hits a bridge, you see the Duke do a triple backflip off the train, landing onto a motorcycle, which he then proceeds to tunnel into the core of the earth, only to come up from underground in the Mojave desert completely in one piece. Would that kind of Fonz shark-jumping insanity by one of the all-time greatest actors and all-American icons feel remotely appropriate as tribute to his legacy? Now imagine how much more you’d have hated the nuclear-resistant refrigerator in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull if Harrison Ford died before the film released, and thus you went in knowing that you were never going to see him in any other movie ever again? This is the kind of last impression of Leia the movie wants to impart? This is the final memory of Fisher’s stardom it leaves us with?

This is not who Leia was or what she meant to us. This is not who Carrie Fisher was or what she was known for. A sequence in which she survives not only the vacuum of space but a direct bombing by Force floating herself to safety in the first and only use of her powers does violence to the integrity of both the character and actress.

But even that isn’t the worst part.

Leia is rendered unconscious and taken to the medical bay, as if that’s supposed to make what we’ve just watched feel less absurd. She’s kept there until the plot needs her awake. But the only plot they have to be important enough to wake her up is to stop Poe Dameron’s insurrection and clear up a simple misunderstanding between two obscenely stupid characters. For the rest of the film, Leia is a near-complete non-factor until Luke kneels down in front of her. And even then, all she can offer is a platitude about the dozen-member Resistance having all it needs – something that, again, only makes sense IN THEORY.

At least Fast and Furious 7, a movie in a franchise built on physics-defying car stunts, providing a moving reason for keeping Paul Walker alive – ending with a familial tribute that put global audiences in tears. But The Last Jedi just tries to get it all by on ideas that don’t resonate with you in your bone marrow.

Star Wars is visceral enough on its own to convey almost anything it needs to. The Last Jedi is soaking in rich inspiration in everything from the bomb bay racks (Twelve O’clock High) to the rush dueling (Three Outlaw Samurai) to the salt surface battle to everything on Canto Bight. But none of it is actually in service of the themes the actual story is going for. They’re just there to fancy up the ostensibly rhythmic continuation of the original’s highlights. The recycled plotting here is so bludgeoning, you can’t appreciate any of the new things if you want to.

The most obvious example is the salt battle. This is potentially the most visually splendid color palate in the entire franchise, and all it’s used for is a reenactment of the Battle of Hoth. The second reenactment as it turns out, with the opening sequence trying to mine the evacuation side of it. It stages a horrendous suicidal bombing raid after yo-mama joking its way through the first interaction, and then wants us to believe that we’re watching a climactic sacrifice by a character we’ve never seen and in context we don’t yet have.

But then an even worse narrative decision was to use over half the movie’s length in a snail chase as a means of establishing the stakes. Now you’ve got audiences checking their watches the longer Finn and Rose overstay their welcome on Canto Bight because the movie has told us that they have less than six hours to get back to the fleet and sabotage the chase. Turning a mission within a mission, which isn’t even fully explained, into an ostensibly life-altering adventure with half the greater themes of the movie stuffed into it might have worked if it had a payoff beyond the final shot. Instead Finn just gets to confront Captain Phasma (another waste of Gwendoline Christie) again, and we get another callback to Return of the Jedi with BB-8 in the AT-ST.

And yet, somehow, even worse than that is the fact that the Resistance has such horrendous intra-communication habits and brain lapses that I was beginning to wonder if that might have been a point in and of itself. It isn’t, of course; the resolution is simply that Poe Dameron needs to shut up and obey his superiors (of all the things to have happen in a Star Wars movie…).

But before staging that coup, Poe has nothing to do but wait, and apparently not notice a planet nearby, even though it’s close enough that every radar would pick it up. And Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern just as wasted as Christie) gives an empty rally speech but doesn’t tell anyone that the plan is to hide out on a planet that every single ship can easily see even if they didn’t have radar. By itself, this plot is just badly written. But weighed in the aggregate, its function is solely to keep the chase alive long enough for Rey to board Snoke’s dreadnought in order to reenact Luke’s confrontation in Return of the Jedi.

Every character in the non-Luke, non-Rey, and non-Kylo Ren plot-line, save only Rose, is robbed of any tangible purpose beyond making utterly nonsensical decisions that only serve to set up more callbacks and references to the original trilogy. That’s why Rose saving Finn from his suicide run doesn’t make any sense. It’s why her explanation afterwards makes even less sense, and why after she kisses him, poor John Boyega has a look like he’s wondering if he should be joining #MeToo. Even Kylo Ren’s complexity and tragic pathology gets blown out the airlock when the throne room is clear because the movie wanted a Vader-like ground commander for the final battle. For a movie that so desperately wants to be about breaking free from Star Wars’s creative sinkhole, The Last Jedi, in form, remains as much a slave to it as the boy with the broom. Its style does not match its intended substance, and the substance suffers.

“The First Order is dead. Long live the First Order.”

The Force Awakens strained so badly to rhyme with Star Wars that it did everything except make an actual coherent movie out of itself. Yet in so many ways, The Last Jedi is the bigger disappointment because of what ambitious heights Rian Johnson’s sights are set on. This is a real film trying to tell a real story, and reaching out with the Force in ways no Star Wars film has done before. Yet it is repeatedly compromised, dulled, and trivialized by its routine, tail-chasing fan service. The result is a film that should have been a great one, but can’t realize its own brilliance beyond a moment or two. Just as bad, because of how much it equally strains to remain within the orbit of the original trilogy, everything it tries to do differently feels like an imposition.

It all ties back to the fans – that moody rabble still willfully determined to be defined by their pretentious hipster-dissatisfaction, hyper-purism, and imaginary nostalgia. Ironically, many fans have turned on The  Last Jedi for ostensibly promising a familiar, mystery-answering story and then ripping the rug out from under them. And it just goes to show how out of touch they are with the essence of their favorite property. But at the same time, one can hardly blame them. The Last Jedi fails not because it promised the same only to reinvent itself, but because it looked to the horizon with starry eyes while scuffing its feet in a continuous twisted loop. And thanks to that, there stands a probable chance that Star Wars will never be good again.

It will only do that… in theory.

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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  • I think you’re reading faaaaar more into Star Wars than was ever intended. I can’t fault your logic (in theory) but I can disagree with the thinking that these films need to somehow achieve the holy grail of cinema by being THE VERY BEST MOVIES EVER MADE because they aren’t. They just aren’t. Even the original SW has its issues, sue me. None of them are perfect, at all.

    In and of themselves, the Star Wars films exist as entertainment first, logical and flawless narrative structures second. It’s why you can have that stupid Canto Bight animal chase sequence sit alongside Holdo’s magnificent sacrifice in the same film and feel the emotional range you do. My childhood wasn’t ruined when The Force Awakens killed off Han, and it sure as shit wasn’t affected when Luke became one with the Force (which I wasn’t expecting but really enjoyed) so most (if not all) these arguments are redundant to my enjoyment of the movies.

    People who argue that the OT films are “artistic masterpieces” need to realign their expectations of true cinematic genius when it comes to Disney’s continuation of the saga. I’m happy to accept my Canto Bights with my Rogue One Vader Slaughters (yeah, I really liked Rogue One and I still to this day can’t understand people who sit there like petulant, sullen children hating it) if it means I get more Star Wars from filmmakers I like and enjoy. I know not everything will work, but I can handle that. There’s some out there in “fandom” who obviously cannot.

    If you struggle to accept change or experimentation, my friend, you’d hate Doctor Who. That’s a show that never makes sense and would absolutely frustrate the hell out of you. You should watch it. It’s brilliant.

  • Vivek

    I love “Blink.” It’s the only episode I’ve seen but I thought it was great.

  • Vivek

    But if I’m composing a serious response to you, your last comment above suggests that you didn’t actually read my article, or at least you skipped one of the most important parts – i.e. the part where I EMBRACED the new direction for “Star Wars” and complimented the film and its creators for trying to forge ahead, only to then… not do that at all. The change isn’t what bothers me. The sloppiness and bad filmmaking does.

  • I think you and I have different ideas about what constitutes “bad filmmaking”. There’s the crux of our argument: a subjective opinion on good and bad, a philosophical difference that I doubt we will ever reconcile.

  • To be honest, Blink is still the best episode of nu-Who to-date, so you’re starting the bar at the top.