The (Second) Last Jedi: How I would approach the Star Wars sequels pt2

As I said in my previous post on this topic, I thought The Last Jedi was good, but had serious flaws. Matthew Colville did a pretty great YouTube rant about the movie where he made an apropos reference to Hitchcock’s “refrigerator test”: You enjoyed the movie while you were watching but a couple hours later you’re at home, you go to the fridge and suddenly you realize the movie had a number of issues.

One of Colville’s points that I certainly agree with is that Disney seems to be under the impression that Star Wars isn’t (perhaps even shouldn’t be) about anything. That a Star Wars movie can’t have a theme. So long as they nail a number of stylistic elements (tone in particular) then they’ve done their job. To some extent this is true. Many Marvel movies make no attempt at thematic heavy lifting and they’re still infinitely preferable to Batman V Superman with all its shallow gestures at lofty ideas.

This is surprising because Disney is home to Pixar, which boasts some of the best storytellers in the business. Indeed, some of the best writing principles I have learned have come from interviews with Pixar writers. I love checking out the “making of” featurettes on Pixar movies. I’ve even listened to the director’s commentary tracks multiple times, especially for WALL-E (yes, I’m that much of a fucking nerd). So if Pixar can regularly explore sophisticated themes in kids movies, why can’t Star Wars?

With The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson set up several possible themes, but failed to follow through with any of them. As a result, the movie has too many spines. A solid screenplay picks one main idea and carries that out to its logical conclusion. Let’s take The Empire Strikes Back. For me the central idea of that film is that the Empire is bad because they’re fascist and reduce individuals to indistinguishable pawns, whereas the Rebels are good because they embrace individuality and represent freedom. We see this most explicitly when Vader encases Han Solo in carbonite. The Empire has taken one of the most dynamic and spontaneous of characters and frozen him.

What is the theme of The Last Jedi? Well, as far as I can tell there are several 1) What must be done about the past? Luke and Kylo both want to destroy it in their own ways. Rey wants to preserve it. 2) We must redefine what it means to be heroic. We see this with Poe Dameran’s arc. 3) Cynicism is bad. We see this with DJ, Benicio del Torro’s character. And 4) We must fight for the things we love, not simply destroy what we hate. Rose Tico says this explicitly to Finn.

I think these are all worthy ideas. But we have to pick one. Or at least a coherent synthesis of a few. I’ll try my best: In the fight for the good we must be willing to find new ways of thinking. So what does that mean? Firstly, I think Star Wars entire raison d’etre is to affirm our culture’s most basic mores. It is space opera after all, a modern fair tale. I will try and unpack how this theme/moral argument cashes out in The Last Jedi.

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Much like Empire, Last Jedi can be broken into two plot pathways A) The Jedi and B) The Rebels. Empire divides the story between Luke on Degobah and the Milenium Falcon trying to escape the Empire. Similarly, Rey, Luke, and Kylo have their plot while the First Order and the Resistance have their own. Eventually, they all cross paths in the end.

So let’s start with the Jedi.

Luke and Rey were both my favourite aspect of the movie and the greatest disappointment. There was the groundwork here to do something really interesting with the Jedi Order and enrich our understanding of the Force. But the movie misses this opportunity. They touch on something the original movies do quite well: showing how the student must move beyond the teacher. In the originals, Luke is right when he disagrees with Yoda and Obi-Wan. Ultimately, Vader does still have good in him. In The Last Jedi, it’s unclear what Rey learns from Luke or how she moves beyond him.

Firstly, I loved Mark Hamill’s performance. It was probably his best in the entire series. He steals the show. I like Johnson’s direction with his character, too. But his motives are kinda muddled. I would still have Luke be grumpy etc. but his motive to destroy the Jedi are more legitimate. I mean, why did he bother discovering the first Jedi temple anyway? What I was hoping to see was that Luke had discovered a new way to interpret the Force. That instead of succumbing the binary of the Light vs. the Dark, he’d found a third way, which subverted the conflict. And this is what he teaches Rey.

So, Rey arrives on the planet, hands Luke the lightsabre and he tosses it. She tries to convince him to re-join the battle against the First Order. He’s uninterested. Like he says in the movie, “You think I’m going to show up and single handedly take on the First Order?” (A line that telegraphs the finale nicely.) Then R2 comes along and shows him that hologram of Leia. (This was such a great moment in the film). Luke says to Rey, “OK, I won’t fight, but I’ll teach you what I know about the Force–and why the Jedi must come to an end.”

Luke explains that what he’s learned here is that there is no Light or Dark sides of the Force, there is only the Force. It is a force of nature and is therefore neither inherently good nor evil; it just is. (Yeah, we’re getting a little Nietzsche up in here). The problem comes when we try to use the Force towards political goals. The Sith are obviously evil because they use the Force for personal power. However, the Jedi aren’t much better because they impose all kinds of limitations on the Force. The Jedi are too cloistered, too righteous, that’s why at the height of their strength they were taken apart by Palpatine. (Colville makes another interesting point about the prequels that is somewhat along the lines of what I’m getting at.)

So when the “Dark Side” is encouraging Rey to go down that hole, it’s Luke who encourages her to follow where her intuition is leading her. “There is conflict inside you, there is an anger, a confusion. The Force is trying to help you understand it, to reconcile it. Don’t be afraid.” As such, Rey goes down into the hole and has a vision about her parents. They were lowlifes who’d sold her for booze money. She can no longer resist that deep down in her heart she knows this to be true.

After this breakthrough, she’s visited by Kylo. He’s trying to seduce her to his side. She tells him that Luke is training her. He tells her about what happened when Luke tried to kill him. She confronts Luke about this and he admits it is the truth. He explains that for a moment he wanted to kill his nephew because he thought it would be for the greater good, that he could avoid a great deal of suffering if he prevented the new Darth Vader. But then he realized this was wrong, only too late.

Luke explains that it was this failure that led him to realize that he needed to understand the Dark Side better. He came to the first Jedi temple because needed a deeper knowledge of the Force. He learned that had he been more open to what the Force was trying to tell him about his Dark impulses, then he could’ve helped Ben, he could’ve seen the error of his own ways. He thought the Dark Side was something to be resisted, to be fought, but no it is something to be understood.

Rey says that she sees the conflict in Kylo, much the way Luke saw the conflict in Vader. She believes that if she can go to him, she can convince him to turn against the First Order. Luke refuses. This is all part of the problem, he says. Rebels/Empire, Resistance/First Order, Light/Dark. Free yourself from these conflicts. Rey’s like, that’s all well and good if you want to be a hermit, but my friends are dying. She says refusing to fight for the good only helps oppressors.

Colville makes a great point again when he says that Rey and Kylo need to have a moment where they almost come to an alliance but can’t reconcile that one last important ideological difference. So, let’s keep the throne room scene and at the end Kylo says “Join me, Rey. I can end this war. Your friends don’t have to die. Join me and we can build a better, more just universe.” And she says “With the Republic.” But that’s where they stop. Kylo doesn’t believe in democracy and the Republic.

I would keep the ending pretty much as is. A lot of people are saying Luke had the most anti-climactic death ever. Really? Y’all seem to have forgotten Padme dying of a broken heart. Fuck outta here. I liked that Luke used the Force to project himself across the universe. For me, it goes back to what he said in the beginning. He couldn’t actually take on the First Order by himself. But as an image, as a symbol, he could. As the Wisecrack team explains, Luke’s gambit pays off in the sense that he becomes a legend. Word goes around that he took on all these AT-ATs all by himself. This (we’re lead to believe) rallies people behind the Resistance. Luke’s theatrics is a better recruitment tool than Leia’s call for help. It plants the seeds for the long term battle against the First Order.

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Phew, now we get to the other half of The Last Jedi.

Laura Dern was another big disappointment for me. I think she’s a great actress but her role in this movie made no sense to me. And Rose Tico? It’s terrible the racist bullshit that actress is having to deal with, but sorry girl your character was awful. I didn’t enjoy any of the interactions she had with Finn. Finally, there’s DJ, del Torro’s character. More on him in a bit, but I thought he was criminally underused.

There’s just way too many new characters here. They should’ve used Last Jedi to explore the main characters like Finn, Rey, and Poe more deeply. I really can’t see what Holdo or Tico brought to the table. Why not keep the conflict focused on Poe and Leia? Furthermore, why not send Poe and Finn down to Canto Bight to further develop their friendship.

I couldn’t understand what they were trying to say about heroism with the contrasting of Poe, Holdo, and Finn. Leia admonishes Poe for getting a bunch of bombers killed in the beginning. Then Holdo sacrifces herself to save the Resistance. But when Finn tries to do the same, but then it’s bad? Sloppy storytelling.

By cutting down some of these characters, not only do we get to gain a richer understanding of the characters we’ve already come to love, but also focus on a new character that actually brings something to the table: DJ. He provides an important contrast to our heroes. He’s a cynic, like Han Solo if Luke hadn’t inspired him to join to Rebellion. This is what Rey is fighting against. That nothing matters and you should just get yours. Unfortunately, we don’t get enough screen time with DJ to really explore this concept.

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So now we have some nice foils between our character. At the bottom is DJ, who is totally cynical and only fights for himself. Then there’s Kylo, who believes in something and fights for it, but is on the wrong side. Luke is also hesitant to fight, but it ultimately inspired by Rey. And finally we have our hero Rey, who believes in something and fights on the right side.

Rey embodies the central idea of redefining past institutions in order to continue fighting for the good. She wants to move beyond the past, unlike Kylo who is obsessed with it and wants to destroy it at all costs. Unlike Luke she’s not paralyzed by the past. And finally, unlike DJ, she isn’t a cynic.

Despite the fact that The Last Jedi missed some great storytelling opportunities, I’m content with a movie that passes the refrigerator test. People seem to take for granted nowadays the value of a competently made film, even if it isn’t a gamechanger like its predecessors. Rewatch the prequels and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Cheers,

-b

~ by braddunne on January 1, 2018.

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