I’m going to regret this…
I’ve put this essay off for far too long. We’re nearing the anniversary of arguably the most divisive blockbuster in modern memory. One which, at the end of the day, earned more money than most feature films could ever hope for and, paradoxically, was a wake-up call for distributor Disney and producer Lucasfilm.
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Reading and watching the response to this movie would have you believe that Writer/Director Rian Johnson had secretly released two individual films. The critical response to the film was near unanimous in its praise of the film’s bold new direction and forthright disregard of the stylistic trappings of the franchise’s past. Meanwhile, response from the audience was….
Why am I rehashing this? You know this story. Some people loved it, a lot; others hated it, a lot. As far as I’ve seen, you’re supposed to fall into one of two camps:
- You loved the movie and so-called “Star Wars fanboys” were chaffed that they didn’t get a film that aligned with their fan-fiction. The man-babies strike back! Or…
- You hated this movie because Disney, Rian Johnson, and Kathleen Kennedy shat on your childhood heroes with the wanton disregard of a boot smashing an ant-hill. SJWs have ruined Star Wars!
I’d argue that those are two, gross misrepresentations of the fandom as it stands today.
As for me? I prescribe to neither. The Last Jedi is not a spectacular film. It truly isn’t. Not even for a Star Wars film – and that’s a surprisingly low bar. What The Last Jedi is, above anything else, is a proxy for the type of resentment that two groups of people – separated by ideology and little else – would hurl at one another in nearly any other context. The failure of The Last Jedi wasn’t its inability to appropriately convey Luke Skywalker’s descent into self-banishment, nor was it its sloppy editing; no, the failure of The Last Jedi is the underlying philosophy employed during its production and the studio’s unwillingness to acknowledge it. Not that its shortcomings should in any way justify the culture war waged in its honor.
But it was made with divisiveness in mind. It was intended to shock, to alarm, and to overtly subvert the audience’s expectations. Not, as you would think, by providing a new or particularly exciting narrative experience. But instead by traversing the same tired, over-worn plot elements and imagery of the other films. The Last Jedi follows the same narrative pathways, ones which prime a well-conditioned audience member to expect a specific outcome, and then delivers the exact opposite. More than anything, that was the goal of the film.
It is not creative. It is not innovative. And I’d like to ask you, dear reader, is The Last Jedi worth all the YouTube videos and essays? Is it worth the cacophonous call-and-response bickering, harassment, and self-superior grandstanding by supposed long-time fans and media executives alike? Those camps I listed above? I mean it. They barely exist. There are no angry mobs of hateful, anti-social justice zealots calling for the blood of Kathleen Kennedy. There is no grand scheme percolating in the shadows of executive boardrooms, where pixie-haired transsexuals with gauged ears plot to dismantle the patriarchy – one blockbuster action film at a time.
That narrative, and I’m aware this may sound nihilistic, is a microcosm of the current American social dynamic. It sells papers, so to speak. When one party airs a grievance, so too does it create the opposing faction. This is an imagined argument, one that was given true, violent form the more it was engaged with online. Disney and Johnson expected some backlash, but not this.
Some personal context.
Yes, I grew up watching Star Wars. I unashamedly gush about A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, but here’s why.
Those are good films. Revolutionary. A New Hope redefined the nature of the film-blockbuster. Adjusted for inflation (the number of tickets sold) it’s the second highest grossing North American release of all time. The only film to come close over the last twenty years has been, unsurprisingly, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That’s the undisputed power of the Star Wars legacy, and it all started with A New Hope.
Empire is often cited as the greatest sequel ever made. Dark, murky, mysterious, nuanced – filled to the brim with visual symbolism and given life by a masterpiece of a musical score by John Williams. The characters, the settings, the plot-points, the music, and the very elements of the movies themselves have become archetypes.
Return of the Jedi is, in my opinion, a sub-par sequel to two masterclass cinematic experiences. It’s cuddly bears and ridiculously hammy dialogue, bookended by an iconic character turn and a surprisingly emotional lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader. An entertaining film with little on offer to offend or excite until its closing moments.
As far as I’m concerned, Star Wars should’ve ended there.
The prequels have few redeeming qualities, and their continued popularity is owed to the bevy of video games and memes made in their wake (all of which offer more entertainment value than the movies themselves.) The only defense one should tolerate of the prequels is John Williams’ musical treatments for each. The man is a magician, but really – who’s arguing that?
When Disney acquired the rights to produce a new trilogy of Star Wars films for the meager sum of four-fucking-billion dollars, I felt similarly to many long-time fans of the original trilogy. Please, Disney, don’t fuck this up. We just wanted Star Wars to feel like Star Wars again. Who better to deliver on such an order than the largest mass-producer of easily-digestible misogyny and harmful gender-stereotypes in the world?
The Force Awakens, for all its coddled safety, blockbuster logic, and retro-aesthetics was, by and large, pretty good. Really, it was passable. Look, Disney and Lucasfilm had to play it safe before they could take risks. The problems with the franchise, that philosophy I alluded to earlier, hadn’t settled in until The Force Awakens had broken every conceivable box office record available.
Disney needed to strike while the iron was hot, because money. Hence, Rogue One. Not only is Rogue One the kind of franchise film that lends nothing of value to the franchise as a whole, it does so in such a way as to pad out a film with worthless characters, worthless dialogue, worthless revelations, and use them to tie directly into a film from the original trilogy. It’s pandering, from the aesthetics to the use of classic characters. “Well, duh,” I can hear you saying, and you aren’t wrong.
Rogue One is every bit as tepid and underwhelming as The Last Jedi, but there’s one glaring inconsistency – where’s the backlash? Sure, critics weren’t quite so warm on it, but the film made nearly as much as The Last Jedi eventually earned at the global box office. Audiences saw something it it, at least a portion of them did. In fact, many of those critical of The Last Jedi are quick to assert that if Rian Johnson had wanted to subvert our expectations, work with a diverse cast led by a prominent female actor, and apply the soothing balm of fan-service to the proceedings, than he should have followed the formula Gareth Edwards used when making Rogue One.
Except, he kind of did. More than you’d think. And yet, the critical response was lower and audience approval far higher. A diverse cast, female led: check. Audience pandering at every available opportunity: check. Retro aesthetic reminiscent of the original trilogy: check. Idiotic subplots that don’t serve the overarching narrative: check, check, and check. What gives?
It’s our fault, actually. And Disney’s.
America was angry in December of 2017, primarily at itself. No doubt a condition brought about by a year of prolonged exposure to Donald Trump and his brand of politics, not to mention the explosive resurgence of long-festering and oft-ignored social and political divides. What was once a bastion of the inundated, complacent, and placid-eyed consumer became the exact same thing, but a little louder. Like a horse swatting its tail at flies, the social discourse of late has consisted of quick, dismissive repudiations and petulant foot-stomping. The line in the sand is a river, people at either shore. The kind of divide that forces people to pick a side and galvanizes support among the ranks on whichever hill they choose to die.
What the hell does that have to do with The Last Jedi?
I’d argue it has to do with pretty much everything. Rian Johnson was, I feel, concerned primarily with making a good movie which he felt would surprise a great many people. However, his vehicle – the stoic, unchanging sacred lamb that is the Star Wars mythos – couldn’t have been more ill-suited to his intentions.
Pop-escapism is a tricky thing. Subvert expectations too brazenly and too frequently, and a sect of the Star Wars devout might feel alienated; too subtly and you run the risk of boring your audience. Should Star Wars carry with it that level of social responsibility? Use its perch high atop the pop-culture hierarchy to mend the growing divisions between the American people? A force for good and unity, beholden to the themes featured prominently in the films’ narratives? Of course not – it’s only advertised that way. It is, to quote both sides of this argument, just a movie.
Star Wars carries with it a security, however. If some banks are too big to fail, so too was Star Wars, for a time. Follow the script, like J.J. Abrams, and you have a cash-printing machine on your hands that, in two years’ time, is considered the cinematic equivalent of dry-humping – well-intentioned, but just going through the motions.
That isn’t to say the film is devoid of merit, but the audience got what it wanted, in no uncertain terms, and Disney set a shaky precedent. Their first two entries into their new Star Wars universe relied too heavily on the original trilogy. They were going through the motions.
From the outside, which is where I’m sitting (comfortably on my couch), it looked like Disney reached a crossroads. Continue their efforts to capitalize on the Star Wars brand by appealing heavily to its cult-like following, or blaze new trails with the eclectic young trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe? Lean on the old, or trust in the new?
By choosing to do both, and effectively neither, Disney and Rian Johnson crippled their film to controversy before shooting even began. And we really, really weren’t in the mood for it.
What about the movie??
What about it?
For all this talk about external factors, the various pervasive political undertones visible in the public’s response to the film, and for all those heart-breaking images of Mark Hamil clearly having a hard time supporting the film, one thing gets lost in the static: Was the actual film any good? Not because of what it represented, or what the director intended, or which actor went through what hardship to master their performance; no, from the opening crawl to the credits – was the film any good?
Again, I can only posit my own opinion as fact on my website, so take this as a grain-of-salt shaped book of pop-culture gospel (I’m kidding), but here goes nothing. This is as close to a review as I’ll ever provide for the film here on the blog.
From the beginning of the film to the end, there are stunning visuals, excellent character moments, underdeveloped plot-lines, missed opportunities, salt, plot-holes, all of Disney’s corporate mandated original trilogy pandering, and the overbearing bludgeoning tool that is Rian Johnson’s hand – present only to subvert your expectations.
This was a film designed to be familiar, but purposefully antithetical to the logic presented therein. And by recognizing that, it’s possible to disrupt and dismantle the two pervading arguments surrounding the film – both of which, I assure you, exist in a far different light than either extreme would have you believe.
It follows the exact same narrative structure of both Empire and Jedi. It allows itself to mimic the imagery and plot-elements of both original trilogy films, up to and until where major revelations occur, and it insists on doing the exact opposite. No, not something new, just the opposite. It’s a visual checklist of message-board hopes and dreams, and the film treats it like a hit-list. Is subversion a bad thing? No. Not at all. But The Last Jedi isn’t satisfied to subvert your expectations. It wants to take you down a familiar road, one you’ve walked a hundred times, and as you take your last step before reaching your destination, you’re suddenly shoved to the ground and told to dust yourself off. The Last Jedi isn’t doing anything new, it’s being annoying.
It’s frustrating to want to watch a movie, to understand the many nuances and twists and turns, but to have it devolve into this bizarre series of “gotcha!” moments. Not only is it annoying, but actively spiteful.
To those of you dying on this hill, scooch over:
I don’t care about Holdo having purple hair. I don’t care about Poe getting put in his place. I don’t care about how the bombs fell without gravity. I don’t care who Rey’s parents are or aren’t. I don’t care if Snoke is sliced in half halfway through the film. What I care about is clarity, consistency, and originality. If the film is touted as being “different” or “groundbreaking” for the franchise, I need to see it.
I saw a young Jedi learner seek out a master, only to have to run off to face the villain herself. I saw an old curmudgeon of a Jedi master give her a hard time and refuse to train her. I saw Kylo and Rey in an elevator, framed to the centimeter as Luke and Vader were in Jedi. I saw the new trilogy’s only interesting characters – Rey, Finn, and Poe – each get sidelined by a script that cares only for their presence in the face of the old. For a film sold with a single line, “let the past die,” it certainly wastes no time aping the imagery and the narrative of the past.
Following those plot-lines to their natural conclusions (as has already been done) would’ve been derivative; following those plot-lines up to their natural conclusions, then awkwardly supplanting those conclusions with their literal polar opposites, is both derivative and annoying.
The film’s central chase is shot against a star field, muting all sense of speed or urgency. Add to that a distinct propensity of the script to conjure up an explanation for every awkward plot-point present in the film. If someone needs to get somewhere, expect a lengthy, break-neck diatribe about why this-or-that can’t happen. My assertion is that there were set-pieces before there was a script, and to allow for a string of set-pieces to occur, dialogue had to be created to explain away any plot-holes discovered by the audience. Given that, it stands to reason that the backlash from the more ardent portions of the fan-base were expected as well.
To those of you claiming this is a film pandering to “social justice warriors.”
Fuck off. Seriously. Do not graft your delicate dispositions and rancid intolerance onto the mediocrity of this movie. It’s disappointing for far more than Holdo not telling Poe her plan or for the Leia Poppins scene. It’s disappointing because of Canto Bite and Crate literally being Hoth despite the “salt” line. It’s disappointing because Holdo received the most devastatingly stunning visual of a sendoff, worthy of all praise, and not a single character reacts on screen. It’s disappointing because our villains are cartoon characters, capable of no genuine harm to our protagonists. It’s disappointing because the strongest element of an otherwise disjointed movie, Rey, is relegated to the sideline of her own story. She is at the mercy of her male counterparts, Luke and Kylo, and is offered no narrative solace for her suffering.
And to those of you claiming this is a film directed at children, and should therefore not be held to the same standard of criticism as literally any other film.
What in the actual frozen hell is that logic? Fine, then. Unless you’re eighty years old, you can’t tell me that Grumpier Old Men doesn’t hold more cinematic influence than Citizen Kane. I’m sorry, but you aren’t allowed. It’s good until your age matches.
Look, The Last Jedi is disappointing for offering so many interesting ideas, trapping them in a familiar casing, and letting them wander off into deep space in favor of slapstick humor, jarring and abrupt narrative developments, and wonky editing. It can’t adequately re-purpose the old, and it struggles to elaborate on the new. The Last Jedi separates itself from the original trilogy in that it promises much, but never delivers.
But in no way is any of this worth sending threats out on the internet, or capable of justifying harassment of an actress to the point that she no longer feels safe using social media.
So, here we are.
The Last Jedi being an underwhelming amalgamation of two antithetical design philosophies shouldn’t have exploded like this. It was, to a degree, like reliving November 2016 all over again. Two warring factions, emboldened by their respective echo-chambers, pitted against one another – the very soul of Star Wars hanging in the balance.
But to insist such a thing is not only outright whimsical, it’s irresponsible. It’s hyperbolic and catchy. It’s the sort of thing that ascribes an individual to a side of this nothing of a conflict.
Solo didn’t tank at the box office because the fans were boycotting it, not at all. Yes, there were some fans who stayed home, but you have to consider the fact that in early 2018, the internet was still bickering over The Last Jedi. If anything, the only tangible effect The Last Jedi levied against Solo was fatigue; not of the franchise, but of talking about Star Wars. Rest easy, Bob Iger, don’t cancel all those projects just yet. This wasn’t entirely your fault.
Solo was a weak sell, green-lit years ago, and an attempt for Disney to course correct their release schedule after The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi had all been delayed from their initial summer release dates. No one was interested because the room was still aching with the noise of fans shouting at one another.
The great, unifying property of Star Wars faded, no more impervious to the stain of political unrest as anything else.
No, Rian Johnson wasn’t trying to make a movie which pandered to the “SJWs.” Yes, Disney saw the positive public response to the film’s already diverse cast and included it in their pressers. The subversion of expectations in the film, handled with the subtly of a lumberjack using an ax to slice his toast, rubbed a particular group of people the wrong way. Some of those people prioritize their ideology above the elements of any one film, and saw Disney, Kennedy, and Johnson promoting their film’s inclusivity. As they opined, so too did the voices across the isle.
The debate about The Last Jedi has little to do with the quality of the film, and more to do with a nation suffering from a prolapsed civil disparity. The issues of inclusiveness and equality are older than Star Wars. It seems, though, that Rian Johnson’s greatest mistake was making a film which resembled, at passing glance, the world it was born from, and garnered the appropriate response.
As for everything else?
No, it is not the worst Star Wars movie, nor is it the greatest. What’s disappointing, more than the film or Disney’s odd defense of it from any and all criticism, is that both sides of this argument – each emboldened to an emotional fever pitch several months ago – have both categorically misrepresented one another. Those that like or dislike the film for purely ideological reasons and have waged an online comment-war against one another, proclaiming the other to be the instigator, have ruined the ability for the rest of us – the overwhelming majority of people – to discuss the film’s many merits and failings calmly, with civility, and without sharing pictures of Mark Hamil and Rian Johnson pouting at one another.
Liking or disliking this film shouldn’t prescribe a pejorative to someone. When it happens, and it does, the argument is defined by those pejoratives and the willingness to use them, not by discussion of the film.
It’s okay to love this film. It’s okay to hate this film. And it’s okay to talk about it.
Until next time.