The Last Jedi And The New Star Wars 19/12/2017
Coming out of The Last Jedi at 3am, everyone I spoke to could pinpoint dozens of different moments in the film they loved: silent cuts, jokes, cameos, Johnson’s directing, shot choices, sudden reveals and narrative twists. But many felt that it didn’t quite add up to a great Star Wars film. It wasn’t what they wanted, what they expected, what they hoped for. I wondered why. During the film, I was swept up in the cinematic majesty of it all, as I am with all mediocre-to-great films. Over the years I’ve become better at recognising when that’s simply an effect of being in a cinema, staring at a big screen of light, loving the novelty of it all, and when it’s because I’m watching a genuinely great movie. With The Last Jedi, it was quickly apparent it was the latter. It’s a storytelling masterpiece, driven by character instead of plot and themes instead of visual ‘moments’, with all the benefits and caveats that come with this. Let’s talk about expectations for a moment...spoilers incoming.
Hours before the screening, me and a couple of pals re-watched The Force Awakens, and spent much of the film discussing our expectations: what we wanted to see and the mysteries we wanted answering. Rey’s parents, Snoke’s origins. Where was it all going, who did we want to see have a lightsaber duel, was Rey a Skywalker too, or even a Kenobi?! Was there going to be romance? Would Leia and Luke meet? Who are the Knights of Ren?
Not a single one panned out, not a single mystery was answered concretely. And it bugged the shit out of me for all of maybe 2 seconds. Until the absolute, unabashed pleasure of a narrative that goes where it needs to go, not where I want it to go, took over.
Let’s get it out there: The Last Jedi stands in exact opposition to The Force Awakens, refuting all its mystery and questions. In 2015, J.J. Abrams, in lieu of substance, gave us a film he knew would entice rewatches, online speculation and attendance at the next one. It’s a commercial endeavour through-and-through, successfully so and I’m not bashing that for a second. But when Adam Driver shouts in The Last Jedi that we should forget the past, and burn it all down, Johnson agrees. Which is why, of course, the film starts with Luke throwing Anakin’s lightsaber over his shoulder and moving swiftly on, undercutting the grand emotion Abrams had inserted into his final scene. Likewise, Johnson does this with Snoke, Rey’s parents, virtually every mystery of Episode VII that was teased and hyped is chucked over his shoulder unceremoniously. But never cruelly, never with glee or relish. It’s done purely in service of story, because at it’s base level, that is what every aspect of The Last Jedi works towards.
When Rey’s parentage is teased in a fun Dagobah-esque sequence, Johnson amps it up to a moment that had palpable tension in the packed cinema. Shots were extended. Rey moved closer and closer to her goal. Slowly, painfully slowly. You could almost here everyone move forward with her in their seats. Johnson builds it and builds it and builds it...and then he subverts it, with a non-reveal. But it’s a non-reveal that is completely in sync with Rey’s character and the whole point of the film, which is why when it happened there was no groan from the audience, no disappointment at having been ‘played’ and seeing the strings Johnson manipulated us with. When Snoke gets, for lack of a better word, decimated, it shocks. We didn’t see it coming. We perhaps expected resistance on Kylo Ren’s part, and maybe a fight. At least, I did. But what happens took me by surprise. But when you break it down on a base story level, of course that’s what was going to happen, it was inevitable. ‘Burn it all down’, remember? That’s been Kylo’s entire drive since the start of The Force Awakens, and so I had a moment of ‘well, duh’ afterwards, because again, it matches the character and his trajectory perfectly. Likewise, with Luke’s peaceful send-off perched atop a rock. Sure, he dies because of the effort required to Force Project like that but from a characterisation point of view, at the base thematic level it’s because he’s at peace. He’s done his bit, he’s accepted his failings and mistakes (something that seems to kill every Star Wars character that manages it. Seriously: Ben Kenobi, Yoda, Luke all get to dissolve right after accepting their mistakes), just like Yoda said he should. As such, he earns his passing as those before him. It’s not what we wanted, we wanted a big fight, a team up with Rey, The Big Showdown. But that’s not what the story needed, it’s not what Luke needed. The story needed him to die, Star Wars needed him to die because his arc was completed and we had followed it through the path Johnson had laid out for us.
Because Rey is the hero. Because in the end, who her parents are doesn’t matter. The entire saga so far is focused on lineage: on children and cousins and parenthood and fathers and that just seems so contrite and convenient. It’s an entire galaxy, there are trillions of people, on millions of planets, in thousands of systems. Why are the Skywalkers the only special ones? Why should they get to be the heroes? My biggest dream for a year was to grow up to be a Jedi, and why the fuck not? Great stories should make anyone feel like they can be the hero, that you don’t have to be the most important person in the world to make a difference. Neville Longbottom CAN save the day, Arthur Dent CAN save the world, Rey CAN be no one and yet be the hero.
After the film my friends were struggling to fathom where Episode IX could go from here. With no Luke, no Leia, no Han, no Snoke, no Knights Of Ren what could the story be? But that’s exactly what Johnson has set up, purposefully. A new story. A new Star Wars. One not in service to expectations or past films. There are new characters, that don’t have to share screen space with the icons, that don’t always now have to be compared to those from the original trilogy. Remember: Luke was no one in Episode IV, it’s only in V that he becomes Vader’s son. That the name Skywalker begins to mean something. And when Luke was no one, it was a story that absolutely worked. The classic hero’s journey from ‘no one’, to ‘no one that means something to us.’ Because that’s what matters, in the end. That’s the feeling that lasts and the one that moves us. We crave the instant gratification of pop culture deification, of story moments and film sequences that fill our desire for ‘grand narratives’ and intertextuality, the anticipation of what we expect to happen and to finally see it on screen, regardless of how we get there. It’s everywhere. Next year we get to see Thanos come to earth! This year we got Justice League and Defenders and we wanted more! We want superheroes to show up in each others films and M. Night Shyamalan to shoe-horn his own interconnected universe at the end of his movies. We wanted Snoke to be the big bad and we wanted the Skywalkers to save the day.
But what we want and what we crave isn’t always what we need. And sometimes that instant gratification can be replaced in the cinema by gratification that lasts. Slow burning gratification that builds and stays with you. Story Beats and thematic conclusions that earn it, and come up on you in that sneaky, inevitable, encroaching way that Johnson demonstrated in Looper and continued with The Last Jedi. That’s why Laura Dern’s entire arc was a 180 flip for us, but felt so thrilling and earned. That’s why Poe’s lesson was so clear, why Luke’s death while quiet and reserved feels momentous and grand, why Snoke’s death was a complete bait-and-switch but didn’t anger us and why Rey’s parentage was hyped to the nth degree and then brought down by her confirmation that she always knew they were no one. And why that image, of a wee boy looking to the stars and dreaming of better things, fit so perfectly at the end of the film and summed up what Rey, Finn, Kylo and Poe all embody. The idea that the baggage of your past and the associated expectations don’t have to weigh so heavily on you. That’s what Kylo has always fought against. It’s what Finn realises after being told to ‘save what he loves’ and what Poe realises when Dern’s plan is revealed. It’s what Luke learns before he dies, Rey when she accepts her parentage, Leia when she allows Poe to lead at the end. It’s what that wee boy sees, with his broom-saber and his Resistance ring.
And it’s what we realise, if we let ourselves. There is a lot of talk about what kind of a Star Wars film The Last Jedi is, how it relates to each of the previous films. But at it’s heart, The Last Jedi is simply a masterclass in character over plot, in knowing that the deepest and most rewarding drama and action comes from well-written characters doing exactly what they would do instead of exactly what the audience thinks they want to. I loved the film, yet none of my story-specific hopes and expectations were fulfilled. I obviously have no idea what I want. Rian Johnson showed me.