Expectations and Experience: The Last Jedi
Unsurprisingly, I have seen Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi three times now. I have had time to think about what it said, what it did, and why it is that way. I've had the opportunity to see things I missed and reevaluate what I knew. With that said, here's what I thought. And shocker, spoilers.
In nearly any trilogy or series of movies, the second or middle chapter is the hero's/heroes' darkest hours. The Avengers in Age of Ultron, Harry Potter in the Goblet of Fire, and Batman in Dark Knight. Star Wars is no different. Empire Strikes Back (ESB) is the low point of the Rebellion and the small band of friends. Revenge of the Sith, though not the second in the prequel trilogy, is right near the middle of the Lucas-age saga. This difficult trial is a well-known part of the Hero's Journey, which is a familiar framework for Star Wars. The Resistance is close to death, the First Order poised to seize galactic control, and Ben Solo forever lost at the end of The Last Jedi (TLJ).
The new age of Star Wars under Disney cannot escape this framework, but it can change it. I am a supporter of Disney's management of the Star Wars franchise, and I have not been subtle about that in the past. I thought The Force Awakens (TFA) was the only and even the best way for J.J. Abrams to jump-start a story many thought had ended. He relied upon familiar themes and images in a way that sometimes felt copy-paste from A New Hope. I mean, Han Solo even mentioned how similar it all felt when commenting on blowing up Starkiller Base. But this familiarity was more of a blanket of nostalgia to make new characters palatable to a fan-base bruised from the prequels, rather than an unoriginal attempt at space opera.
The new characters Abrams introduced are for a new generation, and are exciting, full of potential! Granted, these characters were not explored much. Poe is a go-get-em ace pilot, and that's it. Finn deserts the First Order and befriends Rey, but what else? Rey is a scavenger that somehow can use the Force and whose past is mysterious, but we are left with no answers to why. Kylo Ren is by far the most complex character, full of familiar Star Wars angst and conflict, but without much background for his path to the dark side. Abrams deliberately set these characters up in a way to be accepted broadly in a comfortable plot, while providing plenty of room for expansion.
That's what The Last Jedi is all about, to widen the vast universe that is Star Wars. Nearly every major character was given new dimensions, and they bloomed in fascinating ways. In TFA, Finn deserted the First Order to fight and escape fascism; in TLJ his sole mission is to save Rey. He grows from hating the his enemy to loving his friends, and that becomes his new cause. In TFA and most of TLJ, Poe is a trigger-happy fly boy, but through the formidable and fearless example of Vice Admiral Holdo, and a stun shot from Leia, he comes to understand that victory doesn't look like an enemy ship exploding. It is a small spark that won't go out, a light that is preserved beyond reason. Rey begins to conquer her fears of abandonment, and accepts that, maybe, she comes from nothing, and that's OK. Even Kylo Ren grows beyond Snoke, beyond his vision of being the new Vader, and becomes his own source of power.
The Last Jedi isn't about character development only, however. It seeks to explore new aspects of the galaxy. We've always known the Empire (and its successor the First Order) are the baddies, bent on destruction and domination; and the Rebellion (now Resistance) is pursuing freedom and justice. But, besides the Death Star(s) what makes the Empire so evil, and the Rebellion so good? A difference in how government should be structured? I agree totalitarian regimes are bad, but that's hardly the basis of such a storied conflict as Star Wars. No, what makes the Empire and First Order evil is the infrastructure that underpins them. A vast network of war profiteers, slavers, and strip miners who feed off of conflict; and apathetic systems who ignore the cry for help. The First Order isn't bad just because it wants to rule with an iron fist; it's bad because it wants to keep a system like the one I just described in place. Rose's comments to Finn are perfect--the Resistance isn't just fighting against the First Order. It's fighting to create a better world.
But this better world is difficult to create. Mistakes will be made, like the New Republic neglecting to confront the First Order before it's too late. Some would rather avoid those mistakes altogether and do nothing. Luke Skywalker was so focused on his failures, on the possibilities of renewed failure, on the weakness of the Jedi, that he forgot why he became a Jedi in the first place. He didn't sacrifice himself to the Emperor in Return of the Jedi to defeat Palpatine. He went there to save his father, to bring Anakin back to the light. He forgets that lesson of rescuing good from evil until Master Yoda returns and chastises him as he did way back in ESB. It's why, when Luke goes to confront his nephew, he isn't trying to defeat Kylo, but to preserve the spark that will light the fire of hope once more. "The Rebellion is reborn today, the war is just beginning...and I will not be the last Jedi." I get goosebumps just writing that!
This is all exciting stuff. Every generation has its story, and here it is. It is familiar, a tragic tale as old as time. An evil empire prepared to crush the heroic rebels. But it breathes of new life, where our understanding of the world is refreshed and insightful. We don't fight the giant dragon just for the glory of defeating it anymore; we fight it so that we may protect what is precious to us. We are not strong because of noble blood, but because we have goodness and power within ourselves to make true and lasting change. The story seems so similar, but the motivations renewed. This movie did more for the saga since ESB. It deserves its place as one of the best in canon.
Sure, like any movie it has flaws. Leia's Mary Poppins moment could have been done (a lot) better. The casino subplot, while necessary, took too long. Finn and Rose didn't jive well, even if Rose offered key insights. And while I love the fact that Snoke died in such an unceremonious way, I think fans could have been given just a bit more from him. That said, most of these criticisms are cinematic problems, not story problems. I think what happened with a lot of people is they wanted something so badly (Rey's parents, Snoke's identity, the Knights of Ren (which, as my brother predicts, may come in Episode IX)) that when it wasn't given to them, they were beyond disappointed. The anger and resentment for this film surprises me. Star Wars doesn't belong to any one type of fan. In fact, it doesn't belong to fans, period! It belongs to a multi-generational culture that, yes, influences what happens in the saga, but does not dictate it. Fans expected--demanded--something, and when they didn't get it, practically pouted. I went in with no expectations (about the story, not the quality), and came out extremely happy.
The Last Jedi invites us to question our notions of this great mythos. As I've said before, Star War isn't just a franchise and series of movies--it's a commentary on life and culture, a common story with impact that goes beyond the silver screen. Rian Johnson, the director, challenged us to rethink Star Wars. Don't reject the past, he asks, but look at it and the future with new eyes. He was faithful to the essence that is Star Wars while giving it a new energy we've not seen in a long time. For those who see this saga as an epic opera of tragedy, love, and hope, TLJ was an opportunity to push boundaries. The limits we as fans once imposed on this universe--the characters, the visuals, the Force--are gone. We are in a new era of Star Wars, one that is not yet defined, but one that is still true to the heart of the story, and one I can't wait to see continue.