The Last Jedi: A Force push against the backlash
Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi
There’s only one thing all Star Wars fans can agree on: there is imbalance in the Force.
The Last Jedi has won overwhelming praise from critics and is stomping across the global box office like a rampaging AT-M6 gorilla walker, but it has also fiercely divided the community of admirers who make up the vast Star Wars fanbase.
Writer-director Rian Johnson acknowledged the division Thursday in a tweet, saying: “The goal is never to divide or make people upset, but I do think the conversations that are happening were going to have to happen at some point if [Star Wars] is going to grow, move forward and stay vital.”
Maybe it’s the era we’re inhabiting. Lightning-fast reactions mean sides are separated and battle lines drawn immediately. And with anything this widely seen, $600 million in ticket sales after one week, it’s going to be impossible to please everyone.
But while the critical reception on Rotten Tomatoes stands at 92 percent, the audience reaction is stuck at a stubborn 53 percent. That’s disconcerting. (By comparison, Rogue One has 87 percent fan approval and The Force Awakens has 88 percent.)
I’m not going to say those who don’t like The Last Jedi are wrong, but I felt differently. So here’s my defense of what I think stands as one of the finest of the Star Wars movies.
Since it involves spoilers, let’s move this conversation to the pages ahead …
I adored this movie. I was exhilarated that it pushed me, and surprised me, and subverted expectations and tropes. Even when my hopes for certain storylines were dashed, I was satisfied with the alternate direction Johnson chose to explore.
Some might say I’m swayed by being too close to the moviemakers and Lucasfilm. Having written about this film so intensively, how could I possibly be objective. Fair enough. (That’s why the beat reporter on a film doesn’t also do the review.)
I think something similar happens with reporters who cover political campaigns or sports teams, but my enthusiasm and coverage of, for example, The Dark Tower movie didn’t change the fact that I was deeply disappointed in its total collapse of narrative.
But some of the quarrels people have with The Last Jedi are exactly what I liked about it:
Poe vs. Holdo
You could argue that this entire conflict could be settled by one conversation between Poe Dameron and Holdo:
“I have a team ready to recruit a hacker to break into their destroyer and disable the tracking device.”
“Great, I have a plan to evacuate unnoticed to a nearby planet. Let’s pursue both plans in case the other fails.”
But the whole point of this subplot is that Holdo and Dameron don’t trust each other enough to have that conversation, even though they’re on the same team. Surely the parallels to our own world don’t need to be pointed out here. We so often undermine each other with friendly fire, even as something more ominous and hideous looms behind us.
Poe also learned a little about respect and listening. He’s a great fighter, and a decent guy at heart, but his arc involved waking up to the fact that he’s a loose cannon at times. And loose cannons don’t have great aim.
I liked that he was wrong, even though we thought he was right. And I was moved that he eventually came to see this himself.
Oh, and the “Holding for General Hux” joke that Poe makes in the beginning? Come on, that was hilarious. Yes, the whole “can you hear me” gag is lifted from our world, but not so much that it felt out of place in the Star Wars galaxy.
Remember Han Solo speaking into the intercom on the Death Star? “We’re fine. We’re all fine here, now, thank you. … Uh, how are you?”
Okay, on to Finn and Rose’s resistance play …
Finn and Rose’s resistance
There’s an argument that Finn and Rose’s mission to Canto Bight is irrelevant, since we later learn Admiral Holdo had her own plan to escape the First Order pursuit.
Fair enough, but they were going rogue to do what they could, independent of the leadership. They rebel against the rebellion, and this gives them both character arcs that sitting on the ship could never provide.
I feel there is a vital lesson in this, too: We don’t always succeed, but we fight nonetheless. Do or do not, as the little green guy says.
Two people can make a difference. And so can one person who sells them out.
I didn’t mind that they didn’t actually save the day. It reminded me a little of another Lucasfilm movie — Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think about it: If Indiana Jones had just stayed at the university, what would have happened? The Nazis would have discovered the ark of the covenant, flown it directly to Berlin, and Adolph Hitler himself would have melted like a grilled cheese sandwich.
The best laid plans go oft astray.
Rey and Kylo Ren: A Failed Redemption
A reader wrote this to me: I hated it because Rey’s hero’s journey was given a Twilight treatment with the man who abused her, hurt her bff and killed her dad figure, and it’s gross.
My response was: “If you want to reduce the original trilogy down to those terms, Luke’s hero’s journey is defined by trying to win over his serial-killer deadbeat dad.”
I think Rey, like Luke before her, is a true believer who wants to think that decency and goodness can be found in anyone, even the utterly deplorable. In our own world, I think that’s why we see so many journalists venturing into crimson-red counties to ask voters: Are you sure? Are you still sure? Are you sure-sure?”
This reader may feel the same way about my and my view of the film. People on opposite sides have a hard time believing why anyone would take the other view. It seems so obvious to them. And yet, Rey’s contempt for Kylo Ren and his past is clear. But when she sees the possibility of goodness in him, she is drawn to it, like a preacher who thinks she has saved the soul of a death-row inmate.
I didn’t see the relationship between them as romantic at all. That shirtless scene? The opposite. Rather than feel allure, she rolls her eyes like someone who just walked in on their annoying roommate getting changed. Her response isn’t attraction. It’s literally: Can you put something on?
The tension between this hero and this villain has been ratcheted up for Episode IX not because they are so diametrically opposed, but because for a moment, all too fleeting, they were so close to being on the same side.
THE BROKEN LUKE SKYWALKER
Star Wars means a lot to me. Luke Skywalker was my Lone Ranger as a kid. So if this movie went wrong, I’d be ready to pull out the lightsaber and slice it off at the knees.
But as a 41-year-old, I found the same inspiration in the story of aging, exiled Luke as I did when I was 6, imagining myself as the young wannabe-Jedi in the original trilogy.
While some, including Mark Hamill, were less than thrilled with Luke turning out to be a broken man, retreating rather than facing the resurgence of evil in the galaxy, I could relate to feeling tired, weary, and wondering if the fight back is merely making things worse. Is it better to just stand down, step aside, and check out?
No. The answer is no. The answer Luke Skywalker comes to is no. No, and no, and no. A thousand times.
But this is a lesson Luke needed to learn. An arc and evolution for his character to pursue. Even Yoda seemed a little impatient that didn’t have this together yet, but as Hamill told me in a recent interview, “Luke is not the sharpest tool in the box. Things are right in front of him, and he doesn’t get it. Like when I’m looking for Ben Kenobi and I don’t recognize Alec Guinness for who he is. I shoo Yoda away, ‘Get out of my rations, I’m looking for a great Jedi warrior!’”
It’s not that Luke is dim, he’s just blinded by his expectations. I think that may be something he shares with some of the dissatisfied Star Wars fans. Luke doesn’t bend, he breaks. Maybe he gets that from his father.
The tossing of his old family lightsaber? That worked for me. It was funny, but it fit. He knew what it was, he knew what it meant to his past. But Luke Skywalker had already thrown himself away. It was easy to toss that old artifact, too.
Overall, I was deeply moved by what Johnson did with Luke in this film. I haven’t been around nearly as long as Yoda’s 900 years, but in my own time I’ve picked up two pieces of wisdom: It’s easy to go wrong while trying to do the right thing — and the good guys don’t always win, but sometimes it’s enough to just keep being good.
It’s a nice fantasy to imagine that once you grow up, once you become strong, you stay that way. But I appreciated that Johnson took our mutual childhood hero and made him an adult one, someone who traverses the line between right and wrong and wonders if he can still see it clearly.
The Last Jedi made me happy because Luke does figure it out. He proves that the Force is about more than clashing lightsabers or throwing objects. He uses it to literally project an ideal across the galaxy.
I was a little sad to see him go. But that time comes for all of us. He learned these new lessons, and once that journey was complete it was time to move on.
I actually don’t believe Luke Skywalker died. I think he was transfigured. He ascended.
Eventually, I believe feelings about The Last Jedi will, too.