The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, and Heroism in the Age of Trump

While Rules of the Game is largely intended to reflect on the rules, regulations, and incentives that help influence our lives, occasionally something hits close enough to home that I feel compelled to write about it on this blog.  This is one of those times.

SPOILERS ABOUND

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Let’s get this out of the way first.  The Last Jedi is a poor film (91% fresh!).  As a Star Wars film, it’s even worse.

Before breaking down The Last Jedi, I feel it’s important to make some disclaimers.  I have attended Star Wars Celebration.  Multiple times.  I have a robot BB-8 and a Millennium Falcon pillow. My wife dressed as Padme Amidala for the release of Episode II.  My Internet handle has been (and apparently always will be) a major Star Wars character.  From any angle in either my formal or home offices you can see something from Star Wars.

I am invested.

With that as context, I sat down last Thursday with hope in my heart ready to be taken on another journey to that galaxy far, far away.  While The Force Awakenswas not my favorite Star Wars film, it was a decent enough re-entry for the franchise, and I was excited to see what the series could do outside of the long shadow of A New Hope.  I had no particular “theories” about where the story would go, or what Writer/Director Rian Johnson and Disney would do with some of the hooks that The Force Awakens had left to them.  I simply wanted to be told a good story.

Roughly three hours later, my excitement was largely dashed, and more than anything I was surprised to find how negative my reaction was.  I didn’t feel I had “over-hyped” the film in my own mind going in.  I knew that it had received strong critical reviews, but I had not read them, and I had been relatively luke warm (no pun intended) towards the two trailers I had seen.  But still, Last Jedifelt like a punch in the gut.

Only days later do I feel I’ve digested enough about the film to understand what I think went wrong.

Let’s dive in.

 

Last Jedi is a Rambling, Poorly Paced, Over-Long Film

 

 

The majority of the plot of Last Jedi can be summarized as follows: The Resistance “fleet” flees from its destroyed base in the world’s longest chase (18+ hours!) while various players from The Force Awakens seek to help.  For Rey this takes the form of pounding on Luke Skywalker’s door for hours at a time, periodically pausing to cut rocks with her lightsaber.  For Finn and Poe this means, to various degrees, organizing a casino heist, a mutiny, an infiltration mission, a meet-cute, and a suicide run (but not together, never together).

In between, our stars learn a little something about not believing in heroes, the importance of chain-of-command, the dangers of needless risk-taking, parentage, war profiteering, casino operations, horse racing, zero-G force bubbles, facetime, animal cruelty, unfettered capitalism, floor sweeping, and (very little about) each other.

Like Empire Strikes Back (to which Rian Johnson clearly turned for inspiration), Last Jedi does not feature a traditional three act structure.  Unlike Empire, which leaned on the burgeoning romance of rogue pilot Han Solo with princess and leader of the rebellion Leia Organa, in Last Jedi our three main heroes are kept entirely apart for the bulk of the movie’s screentime.

This has two effects.  First, it separates the various plotlines much more than one might expect, resulting in a movie that feels like an elaborate (and high budget) Netflix series binge watched all at once, rather than a cohesive narrative.  Second, it prevents our three main leads from growing the bonds between one another that we would expect to find leading into the third and final movie of this “trilogy”.  They are effectively unchanged (as between each other) from the end of The Force Awakens to the end of this one.  As a result, it is very easy to become bored while watching Last Jedi, particularly if one (or more) of the disparate plotlines don’t work for you.

Making matters worse, Johnson clearly had a mission statement for Last Jediwhich is framed by series favorite Yoda in a delightful scene with Luke Skywalker: “The best teacher, failure is”.  So not only do the leads very rarely interact, they also generally fail at whatever they set out to do.  This results in a very shaggy, meandering film in which, for the most part, nothing of note is accomplished.

Because of the acute separation of the various plotlines until the very end of the film, it is easy to imagine a version of The Last Jedi where, say, Finn’s casino adventure, or Poe’s fleet mutiny are cut for time.  Given that Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars adventure by a fair amount, it seems that a tighter editing pass may well have resulted in a better, more effective movie.

So why then did critics like it as much as they did (93% Fresh!)?

Critics in general are asked to see a lot of movies (obviously, it’s their job).  Because of that, they tend to enjoy big screen blockbusters, known for their explosions and broad characterizations, less than the average moviegoer.  When a major blockbuster goes off the beaten path like Last Jedi inarguably does, they are more likely to treat it positively and to perhaps look past some of its shortcomings.

In other words, critics love a non-blockbuster blockbuster and generally always have.

 

 

 

Last Jedi is more interested in being Subversive than in telling a Coherent Story

 

One of the things that Last Jedi is getting a lot of credit for in some circles is the “risks” that it takes in telling this brand new Star Wars story.  In particular, how it subverts the audience’s expectations at every turn.

Long lingering shot of Rey holding out Anakin’s lightsaber? Boom. Luke chucks it over his shoulder like he’s in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Rey wonders for two movies who her parents are?  Boom.  They’re nobody.

Supreme Leader Snoke, the strongest force wielder in the galaxy and seemingly older than most of the cast?  Boom. Sliced in half.

Poe’s going to save the day (twice)?  Boom. Everybody dies.

Finn’s going to save the day (twice)?  Boom.  Everybody dies.

Carrie Fisher’s gone (rest in peace) so surely she’ll die here (twice)?  Nope.  In fact, she’s the only original trilogy character to survive.

On and on, The Last Jedi goes, and because Rian Johnson is a more than competent director, at each given point there is a certain amount of entertainment value in the shock of it all.  He plays it well.  But at a cost.

Crafting a compelling narrative comes with certain rules (of the game), not out of some centuries old adherence to an ancient text, but because the arcs of characterization, growth, and plot matter to whether an audience can engage with the story that is being told.  In Last Jedi it seems clear that Rian Johnson prioritized shock above all else, whether or not it made the story more compelling, better, or even coherent.  One event simply happens after the next, and the characters react.

Part of the reason for this may well have come from Disney’s signing of multiple directors to handle the trilogy while apparently giving each free rein to mold their individual stories.  One can hardly blame Rian Johnson for not being terribly interested in the hooks put forth by JJ Abrams and The Force Awakens.  It wasn’t his movie.  That said, there is a certain amount of glee with which Last Jedidispatches with Force Awakens plot points, so much so that it can come across as a deliberate shot across the bow to some of Star Wars‘ biggest fans.

It’s worth noting as well, that despite what some Last Jedi proponents are saying about folks dismissive of the value of these shocks, the expectations for receiving real plot advancement and “answers” from the film did not come (entirely) from over-eager Star Wars fans.

It was The Force Awakens that ended on the lingering helicopter shot of Rey’s handoff to Luke.  It was The Force Awakens that had the primary antagonists speaking to a 100 foot projection of a man with a caved in head that they referred to as Supreme Leader. And so on and so forth.

Regardless, the end result of this “shock for shock’s sake” approach is a movie that feels like a series of separate vignettes with “failure” as a theme, rambling slowly forward until the projector (and Resistance Fleet) runs out of gas.

 

 

Last Jedi is not a Star Wars Film

 

I framed my Star Wars bona fides up above as a disclaimer, because as more and more folks have spoken about Last Jedi online (positively or negatively) it has become the rallying cry for the film’s proponents to point to “hardcore fans” or “Star Wars nerds” and exclaim that such folks are simply unhappy with the film because they didn’t get what they wanted out of Star Wars.

I admit that this is true, in part, but not in the way that they imagine.

Last Jedi is a very modern (or post-modern) film.  Where the original trilogy (A New HopeEmpire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) is comprised of sweeping tales of heroism of almost mythological stature, Last Jedi is small, concerned primarily with establishing that there are no real heroes and that the actions taken in the original trilogy would more likely end up killing people than saving the galaxy for freedom and the force.

And I don’t think that Last Jedi is wrong…exactly.

There are no heroes in the real world, not as we know them in movies.  It’s foolhardy to rely on “one shot in a million” or “the odds are three thousand seven hundred and twenty to one” to save the day, and if your leadership does so then people will most likely die.

And yet.

Star Wars has always been about heroes accomplishing the impossible.  Of believing in the smallest glimmer of hope to see light through the encroaching darkness.  Last Jedi stands as a deconstruction of that, and as an essay, an academic whitepaper, one might even find it well-considered, nuanced.

But it is not Star Wars.

The backlash isn’t (entirely) about who Snoke is, or who Rey’s parents are, or even how Luke treats his father’s lightsaber after 30 years of separation, it’s about ordering a pizza and receiving a hamburger.  The chef could explain to you that the hamburger is comprised of Wagyu beef on handmade rolls cooked to perfection over open flames crafted solely for this burger experience, and…it still wouldn’t be a pizza.

Sometimes people just want to believe in heroes.

 

 

In “Deconstructing” Luke Skywalker, Last Jedi does Lasting Harm to the Legacy of Star Wars

 

 

Here’s where things become a bit more important to a Star Wars fan (rather than a fan of cinema in general).  Luke Skywalker.

To understand why Last Jedi is so destructive to the legacy of Star Wars one first has to understand what Luke Skywalker has represented for more than 30 years.

Luke is the kid growing up apart from it all who wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself.  The kid we all wanted to be.  In that quest, he found a mentor, he found his father, he found power (and the force), and he found a legacy of both good and evil that would define him and his story.

The most powerful scene in Star Wars, to me, has always been the “throne room” scene of 1983’s Return of the Jedi.  In the scene, you may recall, the Emperor revealed to Luke that the Rebellion had been lured into a trap and is doomed, but that Luke can save them all if he would but “strike him down”.  It is “The Last Temptation of Luke”, and when Luke succumbs for the period in which he and his father exchange lightsaber blows, the darkest music of the trilogy punctuates the steep fall we are witnessing.  It is a transformative scene, and for my money, one of the best in cinema history.

It is after this fight, after Luke removes his father’s hand and reflects on his own, that he comes back to the light.  He had originally surrendered himself, after all, because he knew there was “still good” in Vader.  The man who had killed younglings, exterminated the Jedi, force-choked who knows how many officers, and stood guard on the dreaded Death Star.  But he knew there was still good.  He could “feel it”.  And in that moment he throws away his lightsaber, sacrificing himself to the will of the Emperor.

“I am a Jedi.  Like my father before me.”

And with that self-sacrifice, the Jedi are returned.

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Fast forward 30 or so years, and Last Jedi does away with all of that.  Completely.

As we learn over the course of the film, Luke Skywalker has hidden away on his island mountain solely to die.

He had been training young Ben Solo (the former name of series antagonist Kylo Ren) when he discovered that Snoke had “got to him”.  Peering into young Ben’s mind while he slept, Luke saw unimaginable darkness, and in that moment ignited his lightsaber with murderous intent.  It passed, but unfortunately, Ben awoke at such same moment, and Kylo Ren was born (as might be expected given that his mentor and uncle was set to murder him).

Faced with such grievous error, Luke could not face his sister, his best friend, or the force again, and chose to allow Kylo free reign over the galaxy, hiding out on Porg island to die.  Or so Last Jedi tells us.

This is not Luke Skywalker.

To head off complaints at the pass, I am not beholden to treating Luke Skywalker as an untouchable paragon of saintly virtue.  Bringing him back in the sequel trilogy was always going to require him to have some form of character arc, which was going to roll back at least some of his growth.  That is the nature of revisiting otherwise completed stories.  What I am beholden to is treating the characters we know and love, the very characters that gave Disney its multi-billon dollar prize in the first place, with respect for their previous characterization and what they accomplished in their previous films.  Their “legacy” and the legacy of Star Wars itself.

I don’t envy the task that Rian Johnson was given by JJ Abrams.  Coming up with a reason that the hero of the galaxy absconded to drink green milk direct from the source while the galaxy burned, his friends were killed, and his sister put in danger is a tough nut to crack for anyone (which is probably why JJ set it up and then skedaddled).

That said, if there is one thing we know about Luke Skywalker, arguably his defining characteristic, it is that he believes in the redemptive power of the good in everyone.  Further, he had his entire belief system actually reinforced in his darkest hour.  This is not someone who should be swayed by future premonitions of darkness, especially when even in the current timeline we can see how much light is left in Kylo.  It’s Kylo’s entire arc that he is trying to snuff that light out.

If there is one thing that should not have been the cause of Luke’s exile it is overreaction to the darkness in someone or not believing in the power of the light.

Compounding this significant mischaracterization are Luke’s actions immediately following his error.  In Last Jedi we are told that he flees the scene after causing the birth of Kylo Ren.  This singular act of cowardice results in the submission of the galaxy to a new empire, the death of his friend, and who knows what other atrocities.  All while Luke possesses the power to stop it (or at least fight the good fight%2