A personal response to Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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I don’t like Star Wars. Wait, stop, don’t go yet. Let me clarify. I don’t like Star Wars movies very much. When I was around 7 years old, I got both the Original Trilogy (hereafter OT) and the Indiana Jones Trilogy on VHS at roughly the same time. I started with Star Wars and found myself enjoying but not falling head over heals with the films. Then I watched the Indiana Jones movies and fell in love with them. Here’s a movie for me! Whips! Nazi punching! The best part of Star Wars given his own films and no whiny kids to muck it all up (ok, well, at least not in 2/3 of them). That isn’t to say that I cast Star Wars aside entirely. In fact, if you looked at my toy collection for the next 5 or so years of my life, you’d think I was the biggest Star Wars fan there was. I did love the extended Star Wars universe. I read a bunch of the books, ignoring the generally bad prose for the pretty fun world-(or universe)-building. As I got older I got really into a few Star Wars videogames, especially the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series and, of course, both Knights of the Old Republic games. When the Prequel Trilogy began I was 11 years old and of course I loved The Phantom Menace because I was the perfect age for it. I came home and fought the classic broom-handle-lightsaber battles with my friends. I played the terrible videogame that followed the events of the movie and the fantastic podracer game. I got Lego sets and the action figures. I made up stories of my own because the stories (and most of the primary characters) weren’t all that interesting to me. This is my Star Wars apostasy, I’m a spiritual Star Wars fan, not a fundamentalist. And that is why The Last Jedi is, for me, the first truly great Star Wars movie.

The Last Jedi corrects most of the problems I had with the OT (and even The Force Awakens). Yo, Mark Hammill is good as hell as an older, cloistered, and sad version of Luke Skywalker. Gone is the whine, in its place is a gruff harrumph. This not only removes a great annoyance but also makes sense for his character. His success at the end of Return of the Jedi has turned into a failure, and he has shut himself off from the Force because of it. Here is the first study of what failure can do to a person and what they do because of it. Another comes in the form of Poe Dameron, who begins the film with a failure disguised as a success and takes the whole film to learn his lesson. But the important thing is that he learns a lesson; he has real character traits and growth instead of a fun sarcasm and a cool coat, which is pretty much all he had going for him in TFA. Even Finn, who spent the whole last movie learning to stop running from something and start running towards something instead, grows further in this film, though its one major flaw is that the path to growth isn’t particularly interesting or consequential. Finn is definitively in a new place by the end of the film, I just wish that getting there was more meaningful. Speaking of meaningful, though, TLJ‘s best correction is in its reinvention (for the movies, at least), of the central idea of Star Wars.

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I didn’t make you read all those other Star Wars media that I engaged with earlier in this piece for nothing. They are the place where authors, game makers, and even yours truly were able to engage with the ideas present in the Star Wars films on our own terms. They are the places where the Force went from a pretty boring binary choice between Light and Dark sides to a wider range of possibilities. They were a place for (more) complex storytelling and further invention and elaboration that turned Star Wars from a myth into a real thing: a place with details beyond desert planet, jungle planet, city planet and stories that had characters who grew and came from other places. Until The Last Jedi, the Star Wars movies were the stories of a whiny adolescent who grew up into a great evil and a whiny adolescent who grew up into a boring hero. The Force Awakens started something new but was too focused on setting up mysteries to really give us solid ground to stand on as far as the new characters and their stories went. Audiences were caught up in wondering who Rey’s parents were and where Snoke came from. The Last Jedi doesn’t particularly care about the answers to these questions. On one it punts entirely only to set up a much more interesting story, and on the other the answer solves the biggest issue with of Star Wars forever (I hope).

I’ve tried to keep everything here pretty spoiler-free until now. Unfortunately, to talk about the best parts of Star Wars I have to spoil some pretty big things. With that in mind, here we go. Rey’s parents are nobody. Snoke’s backstory doesn’t matter because he exists for the same reason that the Emperor existed in the OT: he’s there for a character to kill in order to become somebody else. Rey’s lack of important parentage frees the Star Wars movies from the Skywalker saga it so boringly was for six movies and in so doing makes good on the fight between fascist evil and (militaristic) democratic good by removing the idea that one’s heritage is what makes them great. Rey’s insignificant backstory means that any audience member might see themselves in her. While broom-lightsaber fighting they won’t have to declare “I’m Luke” or whatever, they can be themselves. Because now, for the first time in a Star Wars movie (but not the first time in my experience with Star Wars), the hero is her own thing and so is the villain. Snoke’s backstory doesn’t matter because he stands in for the unmotivated (at least inside the OT) Emperor and even Vader. They were beings of pure evil whose only intention was to create more evil through destruction. They didn’t seem to have much of a reason for this, and their only motivation for trying to stop the Skywalkers was in ridding themselves of a roadblock. So too was Supreme Leader Snoke singleminded in his evilness. Not so for his replacement, Kylo Ren. We know Kylo’s motivations and flaws from two movies of solid character work. We know his reasons for trying to bring Rey to his side because he puts them out for everybody to see. We know why he hates Luke and we know that his hatred is both justified and somewhat ignorant. That’s a complex and fascinating villain, for once, and I’m glad that we get to see a whole arc for him rather than some backstory for Snoke that would have likely been unimportant. This also solves Star Wars’ problems. Both hero and villain have complicated and meaningful motivations and grow from one film to the next. Their power is not built upon revelations about their histories but rather on their qualities as human beings.

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An (internet) friend saw this movie before me and predicted that I would hate it. While it is true that The Last Jedi is an indulgent movie and does a lot of the kind of stuff I didn’t like in the earlier films, it turns out that my problems with those earlier films wasn’t with the content but rather the execution. Here’s a film that has a bunch of goofy humor in it, but it’s good goofy humor. There are a lot of hokey religions and ancient weapons, but now they aren’t the only thing. The Force is more expansive and it has become part of the extensive ecology rather than a thing that gives you powers. Indeed, one of the film’s best scenes is an explanation of what the Force is, and if you had told me that beforehand I’d have laughed in your face because I remember midichlorians. But this film pulls it off because there is a sense of craft brought by Rian Johnson and his team. His explanation of the Force is not just words but also images and cuts. The Force is magic, sure, but for the first time it is movie magic, too. The actors here are actually good–even the ones I didn’t like before–and their lines aren’t terrible! There are at least 5 amazing scenes in this movie, and I’m not sure there are that many in the entire OT. This film has the best lightsaber fight of all the movies and two fantastic space fights. It’s a little too long and there’s a big section that could have used a little tuning. But damn if I didn’t find myself loving every minute of The Last Jedi. And that’s a first for the series as well.

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