“I don’t know” and “conflicted.”
Those were the bells tolling through conversations, phone calls and text messages amongst my fellow Star Wars acolytes and I in the hours following the release of The Last Jedi.
Real talk: I’ve never walked out of a Star Wars movie without a smile on my face before. I was twelve when Attack of the Clones came out and damnit I loved it. But The Last Jedi had me at odds with myself. Over the course of the movie I began to feel as though something was amiss, but gradually I fell in love with it and was all in at the conclusion of the film’s first massive climax. However, in a final act filled with bold decisions The Last Jedi lost me and I left the theater in a cloud of uncertainty. The kind of uncertainty that makes you stop and think to yourself “oh shit, these are just movies, aren’t they?”
And then, somewhere in the twelve hours between my initial and second viewings, the film hooked me. Hard. And I fell in love.
The Force Awakens was a film that went straight to my heart. Though it certainly rewarded later consideration, it resonated in me with an emotional immediacy that required no thought.
The Last Jedi is not The Force Awakens. It made its way to my heart through my brain. In the wake of The Force Awakens I found myself immediately reminiscing about moment after moment, reliving the emotional highs and lows while I daydreamed between viewings. Days after The Last Jedi, and three viewings in, I don’t find myself reminiscing about moments from the film so much as I find myself actively engaged with it, sifting through every scrap I can recall, configuring and reconfiguring them to examine the proceedings from every angle.
The Force Awakens had to usher in a new era of a beloved franchise. It was no easy task to be sure, but it was a matter of emotional authenticity. The Last Jedi finds itself in the more tactically nuanced position of needing to pivot from resuscitating the heart of Star Wars to ushering that heart forward into a future in which there is no longer an end in sight, in which Star Wars is expanded and extrapolated on annually. The Last Jedi is the Star Wars movie that has to grapple with what it means to be a Star Wars movie in the oncoming endless deluge of Star Wars movies. It does so by examining some important facets of the franchise that haven’t necessarily gotten to linger in the spotlight previously, but were otherwise poised to weigh heavier and heavier on the franchise with each installment.
By the time the events of The Last Jedi roll around the galaxy has basically been fighting the same damn war for, like, half a century. It’s a conflict that is exciting movie to movie, but the prospect of war without end gets fatiguing and begins to feel futile when you look at the saga as a whole. What does any one victory on either side matter when this is where our heroes and villains find themselves again and again? While The Last Jedi certainly never promises anything resembling an end to the titular Star War, it grapples with the prospect of warfare without end in ways no previous entry in the franchise has. How does a war like this keep going? How is it fueled emotionally? Mentally? Economically? What does it mean to you if you don’t have a lightsaber or an X-Wing or a TIE Fighter?
Most grandly, however, The Last Jedi also takes on the power of myth and its limits in reality. It juxtaposes the Original Trilogy’s Jedi of legend with the Prequel Trilogy’s Jedi of flesh. Indeed when we meet Luke Skywalker and spend real time with him for the first time since Return of the Jedi, he too has essentially seen and had to contend with the Star Wars prequels. Just as the Jedi of yore fall short of both his expectations and ours, Luke now finds himself in a position in which he is being held up to that same legendary, and therefore impossible, standard.
At the end of The Force Awakens Rey looks to Luke with an uncertain hope for the future, she looks at a grizzled old man whose name is larger than life in much the same way myself and countless other fans look at the renewed future of this film franchise that has somehow become “more than just movies,” yearning for something at once unexpected and yet highly specific. Luke’s reaction to Rey’s extended lightsaber is a brusque reality check for all concerned.
Luke, like the franchise he embodies and more specifically the movie he embodies (this one!), finds himself tasked with being all things to all people. He sees Rey looking at him with those Original Trilogy nostalgia goggles and knows that, like the Prequel Trilogy he’s now internalized, he is bound to let her down because just as The Last Jedi is ultimately just a movie he is just a man. The Luke Skywalker Rey is looking for does not exist. He never did. He is a legend. The legend Luke Skywalker destroyed the Empire singlehandedly. The man Luke Skywalker refused to kill his dad then got tortured until said dad bailed him out.
Luke Skywalker’s narrative in The Last Jedi is what initially broke the film for me. It’s bold and at first came off brash and out of left field. But upon a second viewing Luke’s storyline is choreographed with great care, the variables are all put into place so that the grandiose mathematics of it all ultimately add up. This isn’t the Luke Skywalker story I wanted and, for me, that ultimately makes the Luke Skywalker story I got all the more affecting.
If The Last Jedi is the film you expected it to be then I guess you’re a filthy liar.
The Last Jedi isn’t the Star Wars film I expected. It’s not the film that anyone I know expected. It is a film that realizes that filmmaking toward expectations is at its worst an exercise in utter futility and at its best a complete waste of time for all involved. But it doesn’t defy expectations heedlessly.
Writer-director Rian Johnson has given Star Wars fans a gift in The Last Jedi. Love it or hate it, more than any other Star Wars film it is a film made to be discussed. In fact, it’s in discussing it with my friends that I really began to fall in love with it. Whether it is or isn’t your idea of Star Wars, I won’t hear the argument that this is a bad movie (postscript, December 20th: yeah, okay that’s a bit brash). The decisions Johnson makes are done with thought and care, there effects are not haphazard accident, they are not flimsy means to flashy ends. Whether those decisions were cool or god awful will fuel some excellent discussion among fans for the entirety of the franchise and its fandom’s future.
For my money, they were, after some deliberation, dope AF.