The Last Jedi: Promises, Pitfalls, and What Sticks With You

Note: Spoilers for The Last Jedi

(YES ALL THE SPOILERS)

I came out of watching The Last Jedi, and was like, “Well, that was good, but I’m not blown away.” It had a lot of threads; it felt like three movies in one, and cramming all that story into one movie made it feel a little bloated. The story beats weren’t that clockwork structure that The Force Awakens and the original trilogy stuck to. There were a couple of massive emotional moments that needed to be paid off more than we got.

And yet.

And yet this morning I find that I can’t stop thinking about it. Stories are, at their heart, about characters. If I’m invested in the characters and their struggles, you can fall down on plot and no one cares. Fan fiction is all about character and the emotional journeys of those characters, not Hero’s Journey plot. Because TFA adhered so closely to A New Hope’s structure (even setting up similar shots and sequences), I came in expecting this film to mimic The Empire Strikes Back in a similar way, structurally.

It did not.

What it did do, however, was force its characters to make tough choices. What it did do was change the way we see the Star Wars universe, and give us some insights into how to fight darkness without necessarily blowing shit up all the time.

As someone who is currently struggling with how to tell different types of stories, ones that don’t rely on a massive Hero’s Journey where we just blow shit up to solve our problems, I appreciated a lot of what this film tried to do, thematically.

I love that Luke fucked up. That he was weak. That he tried to be this great Jedi teacher legend that everyone made him into, and that he failed at it. He was afraid. He was uncertain. He was, in short, the whiny farm boy we met back in A New Hope. What happened to Luke was so true to his original character that I admit it was a little refreshing. We expect heroes to go on particular sorts of journeys, to become particular sorts of heroes. Luke’s failure at that narrative was one of the more delightful and believable parts of the film.

I wanted more will he/won’t he with Kylo Ren – I admit I would have loved to see a bit more of him turning toward the light than we did, but Adam Driver made up for it with his delivery of a single line, when he’s asking Rey to join him in ruling the galaxy, and he says, “Please,” and you see who he really is, this terrified, lonely little boy whose teacher turned on him, and who started down a dark timeline and refuses to go back. Kylo Ren is truly the villain of our time: a privileged young kid who believes everyone has wronged him, and who wields great power he doesn’t know how to control, whether that’s a gun or his own physicality, or in this instance, the Force. We deserve this villain. If you think he’s angry, and over the top, and ridiculous, well, let me introduce you to some dudes who’ve shot up their schools, and movie theaters, and yeah, Gamergate and young white nationalist Nazis, and etc. These are the same angry, bitter youth, believing the world owes them something, and lashing out and destroying everything because they didn’t get what they felt they were owed.

I could certainly have used more of Rey, too. If Kylo was truthful about her parents being nobodies, then we should have seen that – the flashback to them abandoning her. That was the payoff she and we needed, as an audience. The fact that they didn’t do that bothers me. It leaves up the notion that Kylo Ren is an unreliable narrator, even though the fact that Rey is “nobody” and “this isn’t her story” is among the most powerful messages in the entire film. The whole sequence between her and Kylo Ren is the best in the whole film. It’s the choice between the dark and the light, between being somebody and being nobody, of choosing your side. But, again, emotionally we needed that reveal about her parents. That’s what the whole drive was for her story, it’s why she turned to the darkness beneath the Jedi temple, and it still leaves us wondering – if the darkness could have revealed her parents, would she have turned to the dark side? We don’t know. Rey being “nobody” is deeply important to the rebooting of the franchise, and so I hope it’s not a feint. The final image there at the end with the gifted young boy who yearns to join the resistance seems to say that it’s true.

Being “nobody” in this film is a theme throughout. I couldn’t stop thinking about that last bomber pilot and her sacrifice. The story relishes in the fact that Finn used to clean toilets, and Rose is a maintenance tech. What sets them apart is not who their parents were, or where they came from, it’s their exceptional bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. When we look at all the narratives in this film, there are a LOT. There’s Finn/Rose, there’s Poe/Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, there’s  Kylo/Rey and Rey/Luke. Each has something fairly original to the SW universe to say about heroism and choices.

Consider Finn/Rose and their own failures and betrayal. They work indomitably hard and sacrifice much only to fail – they fail to destroy the tracking device, they fail to stop the cannon. They fail and fail and fail. Finn is literally and figuratively saved by Rose, first when she stops him from running away in an escape pod and then when she stops him from killing himself to stop the cannon. While the whole, “We shouldn’t destroy what we hate, we should save what we love” line is great, I do hope there’s more payoff to that, cause there’s very little that everyone loves that got saving in this one. The set up for the love triangle was a bit tired, but I’m not convinced all of these characters are going to make it out alive. We’ll see. It’s certainly more interesting and fun if they do.

Finally, for me, the most surprising storyline was the Poe/Vice Admiral one. I loved it to pieces because it completely upended how a traditional story like this would go. We expect that Poe is in the right, that the mutiny is smart, that the Vice Admiral clearly doesn’t know what she’s doing (even when we’re told that she was a fucking hero during another battle and Poe admired her for it). The film plays on our expectations that Our Hero is making the right decision, that he’s not myopic, that even though the Vice Admiral is in charge, Poe is clearly going to save the day. In fact, Finn/Rose fail, Poe’s mutiny was poorly thought out, and the Vice Admiral really did have a plan in mind – get close enough to the rebel base for the cloaked shuttles to get away. There was no logical command reason for her to tell Poe any of this – she’s a fucking Vice Admiral and he’s a fighter pilot! And yet. Story expectations made us assume this would go another way. The Vice Admiral getting to sacrifice herself and blow up the command ship was just the best. This was “believe women,” writ large. There’s a reason these women are in charge. Trust them. When it comes to resistance, especially, it’s not having a bigger gun that means you win, it’s having better tactics. It’s outwitting the enemy. And we don’t see enough of that, either in the Star Wars universe, or our own, and that was deeply satisfying to see.

So while I walked out of the movie going, “Well, I guess that was a Star Wars movie,” and didn’t feel wowed and grateful the way I did after watching TFA, I am clearly still thinking over the film and its choices, the themes and the characters. And honestly, I’m thinking about them deeply in a way that I didn’t after TFA. TFA was a satisfying good time. This was a thick, soupy goo with a lot of shit going on, and I’ve found that though I can’t admire it for its structure, it’s emotional and thematic underpinnings keep bringing me back again and again.

What more could any creator hope for?

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