Roundtable: Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Episode I

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Episode I: The Last Jedi and the Star Wars Saga — The End of Things or a Fresh New Beginning?

First Impressions of the New Franchise’s Third Installment

Aren: Here we are again: another December is upon us and another Star Wars movie to debate.

Anton: “Another December.” That, as much as anything, indicates that we’re experiencing a new era for Star Wars.

Anders: Yes, Star Wars used to always come out in May. And we used to line up outside to buy the tickets in advance and then again on opening night, to get a good seat. 

Anton: And now we buy the tickets online and have reserved seating. So much more convenient, but certainly some of the experience has been lost. But we digress.

Although the release date and ticket sales certainly alter how we experience the movie, as I mentioned two years ago when we discussed The Force Awakens, as huge fans of the series, seeing a new Star Wars movie is always an exciting and disorienting experience. I’ve never walked away from seeing a brand new Star Wars movie without having some strange feelings mixed in with the wonder and enjoyment. 

Aren: The disorientation has always been there, for sure. But unlike, say, last year’s Rogue One, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is hugely, not mildly, disorienting. As you can see from the sharp divide between critics’ appraisal of the film and the diehard fans’—in short, the critics loved the film while diehard Star Wars fans have aggressively back-lashed against its bolder choices—this is a film that didn’t merely upset expectations; it completely upended them.

Anton: This is the first really new and different entry in Disney’s rebooted Star Wars franchise. The Force Awakens approached A New Hope and the rest of the Original Trilogy with reverence, and accordingly it consciously worked with a limited palette. Rogue One is essentially a fan movie for those who wanted another episode set in the Original Trilogy era. In contrast, The Last Jedi not only takes and reworks the Original and Prequel Trilogies, but it also plays around with the workings of the galaxy. For example, the movie does stuff with light speed and the Force we’ve never seen in any of the other movies. The Last Jedi is bold and strange and a lot of fun. It's better than most blockbusters out there, but it also takes the most significant missteps of any of the Disney Star Wars movies, in my opinion. Or, to put it another way, if the other two movies took only baby steps beyond the vision, themes, and storytelling of Lucas, The Last Jedi is happy to leap forward—or blunder off the path, depending on your taste and opinion of Lucas. This makes for a rich and resonant film, but not one I, a disciple of Lucas, found fully satisfying or correct in its choices. 

Anders: I agree with both of you in noting that The Last Jedi is more disorienting than the comforting The Force Awakens or fan-service heavy Rogue One. The Last Jedi is in almost every way a more bold, wild, and weird film than The Force Awakens. It seems to take to heart Kylo Ren’s pronouncement, featured prominently in the trailers, that one needs to “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That's the only way to become what you were meant to be.” I guess we all should have taken the marketing seriously.

Anton: To add to your point, just like in The Force Awakens, the approach in The Last Jedi to the rest of the saga is thematized through the dynamics of the story. How the younger generation of characters approach the past within the world of the film parallels the film’s approach to the earlier trilogies. I'll say more about this later on. 

Anders: My first positive take away is that The Last Jedi shares with Rogue One the expansion of the visual palette of the Star Wars universe (something that was my major reservation with The Force Awakens’ retreading of the same ground). But in other major ways The Last Jedi is Rogue One’s opposite, as the earlier film functions to fill in a corner of the existing canon, while The Last Jedi blows it apart with, what I think we all agree to varying extents are, mixed results.

For me, The Last Jedi’s highs are very high indeed, which we’ll get to in our next installment. While you suggest, Anton, that the film “plays around with the workings of the galaxy,” I would argue it does so not entirely dissimilarly to the way The Empire Strikes Back expanded and reconfigured our understanding of the original film. It’s impossible to rewatch Star Wars (or A New Hope a.k.a. Episode IV) and recapture the way that it would have been received as, and functioned as, a stand alone film. The weight of what followed retroactively changed the meaning of the original. That experience is lost for us and has never been available in our lifetimes. I think we forget how much the subsequent Original Trilogy films rejigged things, especially because of the way the Original and Prequel films ended up forming a whole, even if it was constructed ad hoc.

Anton: I wouldn't call a lot of what happens in The Last Jedi “rejigging.” The Force operates more like in those Clone Wars cartoons than in any of Lucas’s films. It's the difference between the original Superman, who leaps and bounds over buildings, and the later godlike Superman.

Aren: Yeah, there are definitely echoes of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars in its use of the Force, which I kind of dig.

Anders: But the reservation I think I do share with you is a sense that as the Disney films move away from Lucas’s vision, for good or ill, they lose something of a sense of wholeness that, illusion or not, the films once had. And subsequent entries do in fact retroactively change our understanding and approach to earlier ones, as I noted in the case of the Original Trilogy (and Prequels). To hold on to Lucas’s vision as somehow complete now requires a compartmentalization of canons and a letting go.

I also think it is important to note that subversion is not in and of itself a virtue. While many critics are praising The Last Jedi’s willingness to go against the grain of fandom, this narrative move of “killing the past” is as much, or more, a commercial necessity to extend these films ad infinitum than a purely creative decision. And that gives me pause in singing its praises.

Aren: Yes to your comment on subversion. The value of subversion entirely depends on to what end it is utilized. In terms of The Last Jedi, the subversion is partially artistically-motivated and partially-commercially-motivated, which explains our mixed feelings, perhaps.

Obviously, The Last Jedi is significantly the brainchild of writer-director Rian Johnson. He is a lifelong Star Wars fan, but from what we get here, I presume his affection for the series hinges on some elements outside of the norm. For instance, I don’t see Johnson as someone who was ever bothered by Boba Fett being handily dispatched by Han Solo and the Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi, so here, he is content with having Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) show up only to duel Finn (John Boyega) and lose. 

In a more significant sense, he doesn’t seemed enamoured with the codification, elitism, and institutional aspect of the Jedi and master-apprentice relationships, and instead takes inspiration from the egalitarianism and democracy of the Rebel Alliance and transfers the spirit of the latter to the former. Thus, the ways that The Last Jedi surprises by moving sideways from the interests of the Original Trilogy is largely a result of Johnson’s particular obsessions.

But there’s also the commercial aspect and the perfunctory nature of these films. Disney wants to own Star Wars for the rest of eternity. This new trilogy was primarily meant to reignite the fan base’s passion after the largely-derided Prequels, but also to separate the Star Wars universe from George Lucas and the Skywalker Saga. Thus, these films were never meant to be the fabled Episodes VII-IX that Lucas discussed back in the day, which would’ve continued the stories of Luke Skywalker and his family. Instead, these are meant to let Disney make Star Wars movies that have nothing to do with the Skywalkers and the type of storytelling that George Lucas envisioned. (That Rian Johnson has signed on for a three-picture trilogy divorced from the Skywalkers proves this supposition to be true.). Luke, Leia, and Han are only along for the ride to placate fans and provide a smooth transition. Thus, the fact that The Last Jedi has little interest in Luke as he appeared in the Original Trilogy—and the fact that the new trilogy has no interest in being about Luke, Leia, and Han and their friendship—is hardly surprising. Disney Star Wars is not Luke’s story; it’s Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) and it’s Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver).

I also think that critics are largely overstating how subversive or innovative The Last Jedi is. It is radical...for a Star Wars film. As a blockbuster, it is still playing by most of the rules established by Spielberg and Lucas that have dominated Hollywood for decades, with long climaxes, dramatic reversals, fast pacing, and heist-plotting. As you said, Anton, it works much better than the vast majority of blockbusters out there. And if I’m to view it purely through the lens of being a movie, I have to say The Last Jedi is very good, great even.

As the only one of us who has seen the film more than once—I probably liked it the least on first viewing and thought it was substantially better on each rewatch—and probably the one who likes it the most now, I feel like I have to temper my criticisms of it, or at least acknowledge that I have very mixed feelings about what this film does to my conception of Star Wars, while still thinking it’s a very exciting, good film.

I also think that it’s all too easy to mistake what the critics are focusing on in the film for what the film is actually doing. In everyone’s excitement about the film’s representational politics and its egalitarian messaging, they’re missing a lot of what the film is doing and ballooning smaller aspects of its thematic storytelling. For instance, The Last Jedi does not indicate that anyone can become a Jedi, even if it posits that the Jedi Order is outdated. To rephrase Obi-Wan, reviews can deceive you so don’t trust them.

How does it fit with the Original and Prequels trilogies?

Anton: There's a lot to love about The Last Jedi, but here's what it gets wrong. In Lucas's vision, the galaxy hinges on the actions of a handful of individuals, and at the centre are the Jedi and the Force. Johnson comments on this and essentially rejects the idea. Luke talks about how he has learned that Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy was hubris. But in the end, what ignites the flame of hope? The story of Luke Skywalker. But both Luke and the movie itself place emphasis on the Resistance. The real hope is Rey and maybe Ben, according to the characters and the film.

Aren: I’m not following your argument here. Are you saying that the film is arguing that the Resistance ignites the spark in the stable boy, or that the story of Luke Skywalker does? Because even if the Resistance ignites that individual spark, Rey is inspired by Luke and all of her actions in this story are reactive to his life experience. As well, the kids are telling stories of Luke’s final showdown with Ren and the walkers. Luke has once again assumed the mantle of legend and allowed people to believe the Jedi stand for hope. It’s a little more nuanced than an either-or. Also, the Rebels and the Jedi are intimately linked in the Original Trilogy. The success of the Rebels means the resurgence of the Jedi and vice versa. Why can’t it be the same here with the Resistance and the Jedi?

Anders: I agree that this is, as Anton notes, in a significant way a shift away from the Star Wars saga as the story of a single, privileged family. I think this reflects a growing discomfort with stories of class privilege or noblesse oblige, etc. and a desire for democratization. However, this misses, as Anton has mentioned in conversation, that Luke is both an ordinary person and marked as special. His specialness emerges from his ordinariness to some extent. 

Anton: Does the movie actually think we need Jedi? At the very least, it seems they don’t need training or textbooks

Also, to be clear, Luke was not “privileged” in the typical sense of the word today. He’s a poor farm boy on a crappy backwater planet. It is revealed he is part of an important family, but that family only endows him with a natural ability to use the Force. But we’re probably arriving at a stage where natural endowments and blood heritage might rub some of us the wrong way. However, Luke doesn’t achieve renown or status because of his family, which, for most of the movies, is only known by a select few. His heroic, selfless actions are what do. But, yes, the Original Trilogy has no interest in our twenty-first century concerns about “privilege” and current understandings of democracy. Lucas sought to make a timeless text, and so he draws on the age-old stories of heroes.

In response to Aren, I’m saying that the movie is inconsistent. It both wants to reject the centrality of heroic individuals in the previous Star Wars saga, but in the end the movie seems to confirm what it wants to reject. Near the end of the movie, it’s sort of said that what matters is that the Resistance lives on, in the hearts of people around the Galaxy. What I’m saying is that the Resistance should not be the ultimate source hope, just as the Rebellion wasn’t the “New Hope” in Episode IV. It’s Luke (and maybe Leia), and the resurgence of the Jedi, and Luke’s the one who makes the Rebellion achieve it’s great victory. 

Anders: I think it’s fair and even important to consider our emotional and philosophical reactions to a film, even when we admire and acknowledge skill in the act of filmmaking. I for one cannot separate my enjoyment of Star Wars from my emotional reaction. The best moments of these films literally give me goosebumps, and there was at least one moment in The Last Jedi that did as well.

That’s why complaints about The Last Jedi that dwell primarily on perceived “script issues,” as if there is some schematic “right way” to do this fall on my deaf ears. That said, the film also presents an emotional subversion of the way that Lucas approached the story that is understandably disconcerting, and, really, makes me realize that these new films, no matter how exciting, well made, inventive, will never recapture what I loved about the Original or Prequel Trilogies.

Darryl A. Armstrong raised a good point in his review of The Last Jedi that the film presents a “clear pushback against the hero’s journey, the now famous framework by Joseph Campbell that by popular account George Lucas based his original idea for Star Wars around.” This is probably what the film does that probably irritates many fans, either consciously or unconsciously. Emotionally, this may answer why many fans are not as keen and why critics who crave “complexity” love it.

I’m of two minds. On the one hand I have a hard time with jettisoning that framework because the mythic aspect is so important to my enjoyment of Star Wars. But I also love a lot of the off the wall and unexpected stuff. Especially the parts that deal with Kylo Ren and Rey and how it challenges and frees the story from the hero-villain and master-apprentice framework.

As I noted above, one word that has been thrown around with regard to this film is “subversive,” in the suggestion that The Last Jedi subverts the themes and values of the previous films. I’m not sure it entirely does, no more so than the idea of the Midichlorians or other ideas from the Prequels subverted expectations of fans of the Original Trilogy—including the idea that the Jedi themselves were at least partially responsible for the fall of Anakin and the Old Republic, an idea The Last Jedi picks up on.

Anton: I think a worthwhile framework for understanding its subversion is the difference between the Greek tragedians. Aeschylus, the first we have, presents much more mythic versions of the stories. Sophocles brings in some complication and psychology. And Euripides subverts and upends a lot of the stories, adding a lot of complicated psychology and undercutting who we think the heroes are in the stories.

Anders: I think this has a great deal to do with the fact that under the operational oversight of Disney, Star Wars is now an open-ended series. While it was never based on a preexisting mythology (unlike almost all other fan-driven SF/Fantasy series), at least none apart from what George Lucas created with his six films, Lucas did have at least the rough idea that this was a finite series (whether six, nine, or 12 films, as the story changed over time). Each film has reworked or expanded on things that came before, but there was an idea that this was one overarching story, episodes in an adventure serial like the ones Lucas watched as a kid. Under Disney, finitude is not an option. Onward and upward.

Aren: Exactly! Disney cannot let the IP extinguish, so they have to reshape what kind of storytelling Star Wars is to match that commercial directive.

Going back to your comment about the jettisoning of the hero-villain and master-apprentice relationship, I think these are both natural progressions of the previous six films and some of the best elements of The Last Jedi. In regards to the hero-villain dynamic, Darth Vader was only an archvillain for one and three-quarters films. Because it is the most widely-known spoiler of all time, it’s impossible to envision approaching The Empire Strikes Back without knowing that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. As such, we’ll never know the expectation shattering of that experience, or how The Empire Strikes Back would have fared in a social media age where fans have direct access to arts’ creators and demand satisfaction at every turn. Beyond that, with the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father, the series’ archvillain transforms into a tragic villain who is eventually redeemed. And the Prequels flesh this out further, firmly making him an antihero.

With all of this in mind, it’s impossible to approach The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi with the idea that Kylo Ren is an archvillain. He’s more complicated than that, capable of both good and evil, and not always driven by hatred—as Rey mistakenly presumes when she presses him on killing his father, Han Solo. If our main villain is the son of our fan-favourite hero who idolizes his antihero/villain grandfather (who we know was both a great hero and villain in his time), it’s impossible to return to a simple duality in the hero-villain dynamics.

In terms of master-apprentice, the approach of The Last Jedi is largely influenced by our modern times, where elitism and social hierarchies are frowned upon and egalitarianism preferential. However, it’s also another logical progression from the past films. The master-apprentice relationship is largely a relic of the Prequels and the times of the Republic, with both the codification of the master-padawan dynamic and the two-Siths rule. Once the Republic fell and the Sith came out of the shadows, the dynamic was shown to be faulty and more valuable for evil than good. 

Beyond that, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi dabbled with decreasing the significance of master-apprentice. Obi-Wan does very little training of Luke and even Yoda doesn’t emphasize old rules you’d have found in the Prequels. Here, Luke takes this approach even further, showing that Rey can largely forgo formal training and instead fall in tune to the Force to draw her power. So I think some of these significant elements of The Last Jedi are actually more natural to the series than they seem on first glance.

Reworking the old films

Anton: In many ways, The Last Jedi rewrites The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, so I wonder where the last one will go. The battle on Crait parallels the Battle of Hoth. The confrontation with Snoke, with Rey and Kylo trying to turn each other, parallels the confrontation with the Emperor, Vader, and Luke in Return of the Jedi. In Empire, Luke, the apprentice prematurely leaves his master only to fall into a trap, which happens in a slightly different way for Rey. However, this time it’s the masters, both Snoke and Luke, who are wrong and don't really know what's going on. 

Anders: What about the appearance of an “old friend”? I kind of loved the Yoda scene the more I think about it. This is the goofy, laughing Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

As far as the idea of subversion and reworking of old themes, I think it’s worth noting that the sequence where Luke wants to burn down the tree with the Jedi library is not as subversive as it initially appears. When Yoda says that Rey already possesses all that she needs, he is speaking literally (and messing with Luke the way he and Obi-wan do in the OT). At the end of the film we see that Rey has taken and stowed the Jedi texts on the Millenium Falcon, so the Jedi legacy will go on. Though, I guess the films have jettisoned the idea of the Jedi Holocron? It makes me wonder what was in the texts of the Jedi Library on Coruscant if all the information can be contained in those handful of books?

Anton: I think that’s just obvious inconsistency between trilogies. 

Aren: If we want to theorize, it’s possibly similar to Christian texts. Those Jedi texts would be like the New Testament, while everything in the Jedi library on Coruscant and the Jedi Holocron would be all the church teachings and theology in the intervening 2000 years. They’re great to have, but are they necessary for the religion to survive? So in some ways, Rey and those texts and re-understanding the nature of the Force as one of balance with nature is a “back to basics” or “Return to Eden” approach to religion.

Anders: So, perhaps The Last Jedi represents a kind of Protestant/Evangelical rejection of organized and hierarchical religious dogma to recover an originary “pure” religion? If that’s the case, it suggests that the past is available to use in some kind of pure, untainted form. I’m enough of a historical materialist to believe that’s a fool’s errand, which is interestingly reflected in my earlier comments about how it’s impossible to go back and experience the previous chapters entirely unaffected by subsequent changes. If that’s the case, then consider me skeptical of this move and its philosophical underpinnings.

Anton: The Last Jedi is more radical than Protestant Evangelical emphasis on conscience and personal experience versus hierarchical dogma. Rey doesn’t even need training. She just seems to naturally be able to do things that no Jedi before could. This might be Johnson just messing with the rules of the Force (as he does throughout—the overuse of Force-projection, anyone?), or it could be a statement that Rey is actually the most powerful to ever be, and she doesn’t come from a family of Jedi, emphasizing that anyone can be the great hero.

Aren: I’m only theorizing, so I could be entirely off-base here. Still, I believe this “Return to Eden” idea is a distinctly modern one and part of The Last Jedi’s particularity to 2017. The idea of utopianism, either by recapturing a past purity, as championed by Evangelical Protestantism, or by achieving a social utopia, championed by social progressives, is distinctly modern. It is also skeptical of institutions and tradition, which also plays into The Last Jedi. This would explain the film’s wariness at the institutional religion of the Jedi and its emancipation of the Force from the Jedi’s singular control. Recall Luke’s line: ”The Force does into belong to the Jedi. To say the Jedi die, the Force dies is vanity.”

That being said, I think there is nuance to this reading that I don’t want to immediately dismiss due to its whiff of modernity. I’m working through Shūsaku Endō ’s Silence right now and it’s making me reflect on the notion of Christianity apart from “the Church.” Was the faith of the Kirishitans in Japan any less than the faith of the Jesuits in Portugal, even if they lacked the ritualization and particulars of the faith? In some senses, yes, but in other senses, their faith was stronger than that of the priests. 

I know this is a strange digression, but to say that The Last Jedi removes the spiritual significance of the Force by removing it from the purview of the Jedi Order seems similar. Perhaps Rey and other eventual Jedi, like the stable boy on Canto Bight, will connect to the Force in ways stronger than Mace Windu and the old Jedi Order. Only time will tell and I’m willing to let my conception of the Force expand. Being overly dogmatic about something like Star Wars seems self-defeating, in a way. I’m open to being surprised.

Anton: I think, as Anders noted earlier with Kylo’s line, that this film flatly rejects the old films’ centrality of the Jedi. The Original Trilogy is fairly conservative or traditionalist in its fondness for a past that needs to be recovered—I’m thinking of Obi-Wan’s line to Luke about lightsabers: “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon... for a more civilized age." This was Lucas also commenting, in the late seventies, on the need to recover a more elegant, timeless kind of storytelling in film.

Also, that line suggests that we’re forgetting that the Jedi aren’t simply a religion, they are also knights, a warrior caste. 

Second, the Original Trilogy has a reverence for a lost past, similar to the feeling that pervades The Lord of the Rings. The Prequel Trilogy does something different, and The Last Jedi really upends this view. The bad guys, the First Order, are fanatic diehards trying to revive a lost recent past (the Empire). So what’s up with Kylo, their leader? Is he just using them? Is Luke the Last Jedi, or is Rey? Is Rey going to be something new and different? 

In Episode II, we’ll talk about the characters and the story of The Last Jedi itself, and explore what the film is trying to do and whether it achieves it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, USA)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson; based off characters created by George Lucas; starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Frank Oz, Benicio del Toro.

OTHER STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI ROUNDTABLE EPISODES:

Episode II: The Premise and Characters of The Last Jedi: Innovation or Inconsistent?