Despite its roughly two hour runtime, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in fact a three-year long film — experienced before, during, and after. In this time, not only do fan theories rise and bake like clay, but the founts for these theories are arguably overinterpreted to suit them. Supreme Leader Snoke is overestimated because he is, again, three years in existence, despite actually existing for a few minutes. It’s unfortunate, but the similarly overblown “fan backlash” is essential to the metanarrative of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, now, and is mentioned here because an attempt to psychoanalyze the fans in question raises an issue about modern storytelling: the point.
With the release of trailers for Rogue One, which teased AT-ATs, I begrudgingly accepted that the new slate of movies wouldn’t follow in the serial tradition which inspired Star Wars to begin with. It all comes back to the AT-ATs, because in The Empire Strikes Back, their sudden arrival represents the inventive and the unexpected that science-fiction can offer. They’re consistent with Death Stars, cloud cities, slug gangsters, masked bounty hunters, and then undersea civilizations, robot armies, insect colosseums. And then, the AT-ATs remain significant when they’re repeated in Rogue One, a scifi film far more “film” than “science-fiction.”
The Last Jedi’s AT-ATs were, I believe, the first thing I knew about the latest installment. For all the reasonable hoopla that followed, they didn’t do much. Walked, somewhat, and only forward, but mostly they stood and fired lasers — they could’ve been stormtroopers on stilts. Granted, they gave the dramatic final ‘duel’ some nice fighting game mise-en-scène. In contrast, however, the prequel trilogy gave us General Grievous. And I don’t just mean a memorable-looking mini-boss, but the philosophy underlying his creation.
Lucas called for a “robot general,” and in a fascinating, somewhat horrifying video, we can see the process: robot general is opportunity for something inventive and unexpected. The First Order is entirely human, which does make sense, but the Resistance is also largely human, too. We get aliens in the film’s cantina scene, where again the creativity of designers is showcased, not utilized.
Star Wars interests me primarily for its contribution to our understanding and valuation of the science-fiction epic, which is otherwise either obscure, like, in book form, or ‘epic’ only by way of metatext: I’ve seen both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Prometheus described by critics as sci-fi epics, seemingly only because they’re venerated and high of production value. Granted, a ship moving from point A to B isn’t unimportant, as the best drama can transpire between two people in a room. Epic for me is only about scope and scale — the biggest kinds of stories.
However, much of The Last Jedi unfurls as a hilarious slow speed chase, which I imagine had the galaxy watching with rapt attention on their local news media. In fact, the movie is paced like an episode of 24: a time-killing premise sustains itself, incrementally developing with each cut to the next POV, and then there’s a payoff so good you don’t do the setup/payoff math, though “so good” varies between both the film in question and certainly 24. The fight in the throne room was incredible, and possibly the best lightsaber battle of the series, adding emotion and ferocity though lacking the over-the-top choreography of Episode III’s “duel of the fates.”
It shocked me how small-scale the conflict feels. Talk of lazy allies on the outer rim notwithstanding, the battle between a handful of First Order ships housing their top three commanders and the entire Resistance fleet doesn’t feel like the biggest thing happening in this galaxy. It couldn’t possibly be. The space opera’s grand sense of scale was best captured in the prequel trilogy, even the two bad ones, or really bad ones, rather, where the ‘heroes’ would visit alien worlds affected by the conflict. Like the gungans, remember? Eh, you probably don’t. Scars always heal.
We’re talking high standards here, because Star Wars is not only one of the top media franchises, “top” being however you spin it, so to speak, but it’s our fullest and most popular modern mythology. Flanking The Last Jedi, we have the cumbersomely titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as well as Han Solo’s solo outing, Solo, which solidify the expanded universe, hammering apocrypha into concrete shape. It’s like a train chugging along, and this train represents the forward progress of the overall Star Wars story. Meanwhile, individual Star Wars Stories build out compartments of the train, but the whole thing is running out of track ahead.
In micro, it’s Captain Phasma being defeated once more, about three-quarters of the way through movie two of three, and at the moment Finn delivers a one-liner, I remember there’s a Captain Phasma novel. An entire novel, as part of build-up to a payoff that’s worth about one one-liner. Supplemental material doesn’t feel like largess when the payoff is worth it, and so it practically shocks my delicate heart that the head of the train is so empty, so eager to dither and joke-write.
Now, the joke-writing has certainly improved since the last outing. The Last Jedi is genuinely funny, but it does hit this bizarre tone of borderline self-awareness, a welcome contrast to the prequel trilogy perhaps, where these characters actually say exactly what I’d say in this or that scenario. That can be fun, and even necessary, but without the strict discipline I feel the comedy lacks, the tone and the writing clashes with the mythic meta-scope. Comedy has a shelf-life when deployed for laughs only, given shifting sensibilities and the nature of what makes us laugh. The dialogue in the older movies may be lame, but it’s immortal.
The comedy, the small scale, the repetition — the new movies don’t feel like legends themselves, but what happens between the legends. But perhaps this is by design. Critics since The Force Awakens have commented on the new trilogy’s themes of legends and legacies, with Kylo Ren looking up to Darth Vader as a Sith Lord and movie villain, and Rey now rejecting the truth of her parents as awful nobodies instead of Skywalkers. Erik Kain fixes on this last point for Forbes, contrasting The Last Jedi to that old chestnut Game of Thrones.
But the wonderful thing about The Last Jedi is that it chooses to do away with the pretensions of its own mythologies without dismantling them entirely. It makes Luke more real and more human than he’s ever been before—not by diminishing the hero that he was in the original Star Wars trilogy, but by fleshing out his character and giving him new depth.
Rejection of Lucas’s monomyth, already on shaky ground according to this cringingly bitter article on Salon, allows some intriguing meditation on the nature of rebellion in a receptive American age, that it’s about grassroots, not chosen ones.
That’s interesting thematic endgame, and not so much more what the previous trilogies offered. It also lets the camera linger on the smallest in the galaxy, like desert scavengers and mechanics and slave children. The farm boys, roguish smugglers, and slave children of the previous films were chosen ones, anti-heroes, and chosen ones, respectively: though grass-rooted, they were archetypes. The new rebellion is made up of archetype-challenged nobodies and broader media representatives — it’s all of us.
So is the anti-epic nature of The Last Jedi on purpose? I don’t know, so this post isn’t about answers. It’s about that elusive endgame, for Star Wars Episode IX, for Star Wars, and for storytelling in general. This was the question that stuck on me during the first act: where is this ship really going? This spaceship, I mean, and even then, proverbially. Keep in mind, it’s an inhuman, postmodern critique to say a work has “good storytelling,” than to say a story “affected me.” Watching setups deflate and theorists thinkload more and further videos to YouTube, it’s something that affects me: what do we want?
Briefly researching wishlists, I see details: “confrontation over that creepy milking scene,” or “Captain Phasma’s face.” I’m more curious about the central elements, the foundation. And it’s likely we all want something different, which is why arguments get so heated.
In contrast, superhero fans want superhero fights, Alien fans want Alien attacks (or so I thought), war movie buffs want, well, accuracy. But genre is built on verbs; convention in action. Tomb raiders raid tombs, a Game of Thrones is played, Halos shoot aliens. Star Wars? Various rejection of the series title’s quintessence, Rogue One, either suggests it isn’t star war they’re after, or that the film’s curious lack of any subtext or meaning overrode the euphoria of its utter beauty, charisma, and excitement.
Ultimately, what draws the crowds is that something for everyone. There will be a space battle, a lightsaber fight, a tactical espionage action, and so on. And that’s where the ship is going, seemingly: more of that, repetition, like the destruction of the second — I kid you not — second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Episode IX, if true to Star Wars, will be Star Wars, but at that snake-eats-tail moment, the series becomes a self-fulfilling failure: it will never live up to its promise, because a promise was never actually made.
The Star Wars movies, often arriving in early childhood, power imaginations, sometimes for the first time. They give a lot, and it’s just enough for viewers to fill in the blanks. So what do the creators fill those blanks in with? Fucking AT-ATs, and thus, we have the creation of an impossible standard to follow up on.
I’m frustrated by Star Wars fans because, for all the falderal, I still don’t understand what they want out of all this. I know what they dislike: the pomp and hollowness of the prequel trilogy, diversity agendas, heroines. But I don’t hear much about the verbs. Ships, spaceships, and “awesome” don’t count; you can find those in surplus on a nighttime Netflix scroll. I’m not asking a rhetorical question here, I’m genuinely curious: what did you want The Last Jedi to contain? Not just “be,” but actually feature, specifically?
Maybe it comes back to the oldest wound: Rey. She surfs in on the cleansing wave of Disney which wipes out 80% of Star Wars canon (even though that’s more Kylo Ren’s fault), and is a girl. A girl! A girl who girls but who also inspired one of the great Star Wars mysteries. The mystery was probably solved in The Last Jedi, and this irked. But I wonder if the revelation that Rey is Luke’s daughter or Han Solo’s daughter or Snoke’s daughter would feed better into the story’s themes than what we have, or if it would simply satisfy a theorist.
Plus, she’s a girl, and when those certain Star Wars fans* complain about the Disney era, with its very liberal stance on diversity in a space opera resplendent with shapes and sizes, I also wonder about the substance of this disconcertment. Is it that they can’t identify with Rose or Finn, or that they’re still locked in an argument about identity politics, and don’t want to give ground?
It’s a big thing to say, but I do hope you guys aren’t keeping yourself from enjoying something because it’s politically inconvenient. I know I’ve done that before, but these new Star Wars movies are really very similar to the old ones. They contain the same kinds of adventures and elements, though they are more interested in the form than the invention, recycling and refining.
I don’t ask the question of “why” with Star Wars because I think there’s no answer and can sit back and cackle when your fandom is proven ill-born or misbegotten; this is an existential fear regarding all storytelling. Sometimes it’s immediately answered, but we’ve seen that answer grow more obscure when corporate conglomerates replace individual storytellers and schedule releases five to ten years into the future. Will I live to see the MCU’s endgame? Well, I don’t have to, because we have superhero fights as a running endgame. But Star Wars? Is Hux building a second Starkiller base? I mean, when those corporate conglomerates are in turn replaced by artificial intelligence, I can’t even imagine how bare the Xerox print will be.
Epic posters, though
These new Star Wars movies survive largely on their magnetic characters, bolstered by one of the most charming, handsome casts ever assembled, performers who are in turn adorably shocked by their sudden celebrity or quietly mysterious (Driver is almost Keanu Reeves-like) and who consistently provide the emotional center. After The Force Awakens, I shrugged and figured I’d skip the next two, but nevertheless, stayed curious about the adventures of Daisy, John, Oscar, and Adam, more than Glop and Bloop or the actual character names. That’s enough for me, but I know it hasn’t been for others.
On that note, I’m glad you asked, and here’s my ranking: Rogue One, then Revenge of the Sith. For many years, Revenge was the only Star Wars film I almost wholly enjoyed, mostly for its art design and epic feeling. It was a sweeping vision of galaxy-spanning space war, and remains the biggest of the movies in scale. Plus, it’s got Grievous. I mention it here because on Lucas’s play-by-play director’s commentary on the film (“in a broader sense, this scene is about…”), he mentions how the background space battle during Anakin’s duel with Count Dooku was entirely choreographed for the sake of a continuity nobody would possibly be looking at. It’s an interesting principle, that each layer of depth counts. There’s a shot in The Last Jedi that recalls this, not the obsessive attention to detail but the breathtaking depth, where Finn is dueling Phasma and BB8 is joyriding an AT-ST in the fiery background. For the most part, this kind of moment stands alone. If there is a key difference between the new and the original movies, it’s that the new strictly focuses on the foreground, for better and worse.
Star Wars, in its story of fathers and sons, eternally retold, is built of constants. One of my favorites is its habit of introducing very cool-looking villains to dispatch, quickly and humiliatingly: Jango Fett, Grievous, Phasma now twice over. If the only reason for Phasma’s return was to give Gwendoline Christie another huge paycheck, I can certainly accept that, but it still hurts. God, I want to stand next to her so badly, head to elbow.
*I paused for a few beats on the term “Star Wars fans,” in reference to the people who criticize diversity, being both weary and wary of sensitivity that no matter what, these guys are by default defined as fans, where others are newcomers or fakers, but nobody can have their fandom stripped from them. No matter how much of an asshole, you can still be a fan. We have good fans and bad fans for everything. Taking away their claim to fandom is their tactic.
Originally published January 3, 2018 on The Utopia Blueprint