Star Wars: The Last Jedi (and the dangers of hope) — review
(I sense a great disturbance, as if a thousand spoilers were about to be revealed below…just so you know…)
After “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” set such a high standard, I was expecting greatness from “The Last Jedi.” Fortunately, I was not disappointed. If anything, the film has taken its place as my second favorite of the series, next to “Empire Strikes Back,” to which “The Last Jedi” is spiritual successor.
Much like in “Empire,” the majority of the film is spent with the heroes on the run from overwhelming odds, not only in physical combat but also in the struggle over who they are and who they want to be. It was a bold move to have most all the characters spend the movie in flight from an inevitably advancing foe, slowly getting worn down and killed off bit by bit. Much like “The Force Awakens,” it called on all manner of Star Wars tropes…and subverted them, in very clever (and often depressing) ways.
Finn and Rose’s last-ditch attempt side plot to get a day-saving maguffin? It fails. The deus ex machina of a codebreaker who appears to help the heroes save the day? Nope, he betrays them, turning out to be in fact what Han Solo claimed to be in “A New Hope,” just an opportunistic scoundrel. Rae’s determination to find the good in Kylo Ren, hoping to turn him at the 11th hour against his master, ala Luke and Vader in “Return of the Jedi?” Well, Kylo Ren does kill Supreme Leader Snoke to save Rae’s life…but then he turns around and becomes “Empire’s” Vader, offering Rae the chance to join him and rule the galaxy together. He doesn’t chop off her hand, but he doesn’t have to — he’s killed her greatest hope. Luke looks to the sun in what is by now an almost overdone homage…but it’s a cloud-obscured sunset.
Hell, for the first time we see the narrative “camera” of the series pull back enough to see that there’s this whole segment of ultra-rich weapons-barons who are making a killing off the whole war, totally uncaring about who actually wins, because both sides feed their bottom line…and by extension, the level of misery in the galaxy at large. And even if you want to argue the Resistance really are qualitatively different and better than the First Order, of course, by the end of the film, the Resistance is essentially destroyed.
Yet the moral victories, however tiny, are of immense significance. Luke forgives and redeems himself (more on this shortly). Rose helps Finn break the cycle of pyrrhic self-sacrifice (which the film starts with re: Rose’s sister, and continues with Admiral Hodo), declaring that saving each other is what they need to be doing, not martyring themselves to strike some symbolic blow against their enemies. Poe learns that maybe he does need to think a little more deeply before flying off half-cocked, whether literally in an X-Wing or making judgments about others. That, and unspecified hope for the future, is what we have leftto hold on to by the film’s end.
Why so dark? Leaving aside the obvious political parallels — — if the prequels were a response to the Bush era’s “manufactured war that bamboozles a democracy into destroying itself,” this film was a straight pitch to the shattered liberal fragments of today’s America, feeling defeated and powerless, except for vague hopes, in the face of a seemingly-all powerful opposition and wondering why no one is coming to their aid — the dark tenor is also a necessary part of the ongoing Star Wars franchise’s evolution.
The governing question of “The Force Awakens” was “how can we ever measure up to our legendary forbearers?” Recall how, in that film, Kylo Ren wishes he could be as badass as Darth Vader, the First Order wants so badly to be the Empire it overcompensates with ridiculously huge mega-weapons, the Resistance feels it can’t succeed without finding Luke, etc. It was a meta-question for the series, too — how can these new films possibly inherit the legacy of their legendary forbearers?
The governing idea of “The Last Jedi” flips that question around, and has the older generation ask, “how can we make peace with what we’ve done, then gracefully step aside to let our children have their own story?” Luke, the character who undergoes the most evolution in the film, feared the next generation so much that he ironically set in motion the horrors he was hoping to prevent…and now is so consumed with guilt that he’s shitting on everything he and the Jedi have ever done.
Naturally, it’s Yoda who comes back to slap some sense back into him. Stop flagellating yourself about your failures, Yoda tells him — they’re of as much, if not more, value for the next generation to learn from. Yes the Jedi were flawed and screwed up, yes, you made a boner move with young Ben, but it’s not all about you, idiot. “We are who they will exceed,” says Yoda, in my absolute favorite line of perhaps the entire Star Wars saga (not the least because of its timing in the arc of my own life), and that is what it really means to be a master. Meta-message for the series: “Okay, so there was cheesy shit at times, from Ewoks to Jar Jar to Midichlorians (and let’s not even mention the Christmas special). We’re learning from this, we’re going to go forward with these new films to make them something even better. It’s our time now and we’ll be new and different and it will be okay. We have Luke and Yoda’s blessing.”
Look to the villain for the clearest reflection of these two film’s messages: In the first film, Kylo Ren’s arch-crime is killing his legendary father. In this film, his crime is passing up his chance to make a new start, throwing the future down the drain and holding on to the past (even as, ironically, he tells Rey to throw away HER past and stop inquiring about her parents).
The past still has value — that’s what Poe and his short lived little “youth mutiny” have to learn — but that value sometimes is, as Hodo and Luke prove, the ability to gracefully step aside and pave the way for the new heroes to shine.
My single favorite SCENE in the entire Star Wars series has always been, in “A New Hope,” when Obi-Wan, in pitched battle with Darth Vader aboard the Death Star, turns to see Luke getting on the Millennium Falcon and smiles, knowing the torch has been passed…and then just lets Vader cut him down. It’s a scene brilliantly homage-d, when Luke uses his force-vision to see Rey standing in the Millennium Falcon hatch, and then just lets himself die. No Vader (or Kylo Ren) needed this time…Luke knows the time has come to step aside and doesn’t need the help.
So yes, says “The Last Jedi,” now we’ve shown that we can do this, we had Luke and Han and Leia and everyone to let you know we haven’t forgotten the roots of what made this series legendary…but now we are hoping you will see that the series does not NEED these characters. Hell, we killed off the whole Rebellion, with the endnote being the actual PEOPLE in the Rebellion don’t matter, it’s the IDEA, the hope that they represent. And hope survives.
Of all the First Order, only Snoke gets it — he’s the only one who declares their enemy as hope itself. Too bad for him that he (in a reflection of Luke’s own mistake) is so blinded by his own hubris that he doesn’t see his demise coming.
The movie’s shortcomings? My complaints are few and far between, but here they are: BB8 is too much of a freaking Mary Sue — seriously, why not just let the super droid take out the whole First Order by himself, since he can apparently do anything and everything?!? Also, the fact that every planet needs its own cute toyetic animal creatures was a little grating. Leia’s little float-through space to save herself was kind of ridiculous. Okay, she has the Force, fine…but what about everyone else who gets exposed to vacuum over the course of this movie? I mean, does vacuum not exist in the Star Wars universe? How many times did ships get holes punched in them in this movie, and no one get sucked out, gravity never fails, everyone has enough air to breathe, etc.? Especially during all those fights in the half-destroyed command ship at the end…we can freaking see that 3/4s of the ship is exposed to space, why is everyone running around talking and fighting as if nothing except the scenery has changed? I don’t expect Star Wars to be realistic, but when they pretty much much use a chainsaw on the laws of physics, eventually it starts to hit a breaking point, and you shrug and admit you wouldn’t be surprised if BB-8 appeared riding a magic unicorn that shot rainbows at the stormtroopers and made them turn into flowers.
Oh, and on that note…Captain Phasma’s stormtrooper armor…actually stops blasterfire!!! You know, the way armor is supposed to. The way stormtrooper armor never, ever once did. That’s not a gripe, that’s sort of an, um, anti-gripe?
On the subject of antigripes, “The Last Jedi” may well be the first ever of the Star Wars movies to pass the Bechdel test (to pass the test you need two female characters, who talk to each other, about something other than a man…it’s a test that an amazing number of movies fail.) Leia and Rey, at the very end, for about 10 seconds. Still! I guess this really is a new generation.
Speaking as one of the old fogies who is beginning the process of stepping aside…for my children, for my students, hell, for the rookie teachers in my school…this movie really spoke to something I needed to hear and feel. Speaking as a liberal raised on all tales of all these progressive legendary icons like JFK and LBJ and MLK (who all, of course, had their own huge failings) and victories over Nixon and Vietnam, but who has only experienced a world where those liberal values have just been squeezed and crushed and crowded out until it looks like they no longer have any influence, and “the other side’s” won total victory…it’s nice to be reminded that even vague hope, even without a clear view of a cavalry on the horizon, has value (I forget the exact line, but Hodo quotes Leia, when defending her tight lips about her escape plan, to the effect of, “if hope is something you can clearly see coming to save you, it’s not really `hope’ you’re talking about, is it?”)
I don’t know if the “little boy with the broom” who, um, has a Bernie Sanders poster (I dunno quite what the modern parallel would be), is even out there, and if so, whether that hope has meaning in a world so seemingly ruled by darkness. But at least I can say categorically that I have confident hopes about the future direction of the Star Wars series…it’s going to survive, and keep being awesome, and mean all new things to a whole new generation of kids who dream of being heroes. The Force will be with us, always.
Originally published at http://wombatzone.blogspot.com on December 17, 2017.