Roundtable: Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Episode II
Episode II: The Premise and Characters of The Last Jedi: Innovation or Inconsistent?
Same Galaxy, New Rules
Anton: I mentioned in our previous Roundtable that writer-director Rian Johnson boldly, even brashly, plays around with the rules and mechanics of the Star Wars galaxy. For example, characters can do things with the Force that no one did, or likely could do, in Lucas’s films. For example, Snoke (Andy Serkis) can Force-push First Order officers across vast reaches of space. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) communicate telepathically from Cloud City to the Millennium Falcon flying around the city. In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) communicate across the galaxy, and Luke can even project an image of himself that far.
Johnson also plays around with lightspeed, exploring some new uses for the well-established concept. While Han Solo (Harrison Ford) always had to take a moment, or too many moments, for the Millennium Falcon to calculate the jump to lightspeed, Poe (Oscar Isaac) uses lightspeed fast and easy to do an insta-jump up-close to get past the defenses of a First Order Dreadnought. Later in the film, in a memorable moment, a ship at light speed is used as a weapon.
While I found the film’s use of the Force to be too much, making Force-powers too extreme and too easy to use, the play with lightspeed was pretty fun.
That said, if one can use lightspeed to jump not very far ahead, why doesn’t the First Order simply jump just in front of the fleeing Resistance, and blow them out of the water?
Anders: One thing I really liked about the ships slowly trying to catch each other is the way it gives the chase with the capital ships the feel of old seafaring tales, like the ships in Master and Commander chasing each other at the ends of the earth. In fact, one of the most imaginative things about this film is the way that it imagines new things to show us in the existing Star Wars universe. So, we get bombers, giant slow moving ships and nimble fighters. What Johnson does is bring more of the feel of the old war films that Lucas literally used when cutting together the dogfights in A New Hope here. The Last Jedi feels at moments like an honest to goodness war movie.
Aren: I really appreciate aspects of the premise and I don’t want to become a “plausible” so I’m not going to nitpick whether Hux’s (Domhnall Gleeson) Star Destroyers could outrun the Resistance cruiser at sublight speeds or whether any old ship could shatter a fleet of Star Destroyers if it were to ram them at lightspeed.
In general, the premise of the film is interesting, both novel and familiar.
Anton: Come on, the First Order can’t even send smaller, faster fighters ahead of their big ships? The Millennium Falcon could always outrun the Star Destroyers, so Lucas had to invent ways for the narrative to generate a chase. So, the Millennium Falcon needs repairs, etc. I don’t have to be obsessed with “plausibility” to find the premise unconvincing.
Aren: Dude, there’s an actual part in the film addressing your issue. When Kylo Ren and his First Order Tie Fighter pilots go off to attack the Resistance fleet and they blow up the bridge of Leia’s cruiser, Hux tells Kylo to retreat as the Star Destroyers cannot provided artillery support at such a distance. So Kylo retreats because otherwise he’d be helpless against a Resistance attack. I think you need to watch it again and give it a little more credit for thinking through its worldbuilding conceits.
Anton: The fact that I would need to watch it again is a strike against it. Star Wars has always boasted clarity not ambiguity.
Aren: It’s not ambiguity if it’s directly addressed during a sequence of the plot. Forgetting about that sequence is your fault, not the film’s.
Anton: It’s called redundancy. It’s why characters repeat points again and again in classical Hollywood style. So I don't have to think. It's not the only way to make a movie, but it's the style Star Wars operates in. But fair enough. I’m still only one watch in.
Aren: At least we can say that The Last Jedi is in no ways merely replicating a film from the Original Trilogy like The Force Awakens replicates each beat of A New Hope. Of course, there are aspects of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in central plot points: the sequences on Ahch-to draw on Luke’s journey to Dagobah; the sequence on Snoke’s Star Dreadnaught recalls both Luke falling into a trap on Cloud City and the throne room on the Second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, and the Battle of Crait is an obvious callback to the Battle of Hoth.
However, there are new elements here. The entire Canto Bight sequence is new for the series, even if it recalls some elements of the prequels, like Obi-Wan’s (Ewan McGregor) trip to Kamino. The way that we’re denied certain elements that we expect, like Luke training Rey in a conventional manner, or the throne room confrontation to be Rey versus Kylo Ren and not Rey and Kylo Ren versus Snoke, is also new. There are conceits here that have never been fully explored in the series, like the aforementioned sublight starship chase and bombing run, but also hyperspace tracking and the military industrial complex of the galaxy. The opening moments don’t draw on Star Wars but instead the incredible first episode of Battlestar Galactica, “33.” I actually kind of wish the Resistance plot had more heavily stolen from that idea because it’s such a good conceit.
Anton: I agree. Constant jumping and tracking would have been much more exciting. And the fact that people, like Finn (John Boyega) leaving to Canto Bight, can jump away and then jump back to this slow-motion chase, make it even more outrageous. Why doesn’t the First Order call in some back up?
But, the First Order seems terribly incompetent throughout, so at least there’s some consistency there. How did these guys take over the galaxy?
Aren: Well, they did use Starkiller Base to obliterate both the Republic government and fleet, so there’s that.
All in all, The Last Jedi brings a lot of newness to the table. And what it does borrow from the old Star Wars series, it spins around in new ways. Perhaps that is why people are so disoriented by it; in imagery, theme, and plot, it is often unfamiliar.
The New Characters: Where are they, how are they used?
Anton: The sense of unfamiliarity and difference extends to the film’s treatment of the new characters and the old cast. As in The Force Awakens, the new cast is a blend of old types and fresh uses.
Aren: One of my big takeaways from The Force Awakens was a desire to see more of Poe Dameron, so I’m glad we got plenty of him in The Last Jedi. It’s sad, however, that the film breaks up the characters, which doesn’t allow us to watch Finn and Rey together and enjoy John Boyega and Daisy Ridley’s incredible chemistry. Instead, they have to add in a new, plucky character for Finn to team up with as he moves through the weakest subplot of the film. However, The Empire Strikes Back breaks up Luke and Han for the majority of the runtime and even Return of the Jedi only lets us have brief moments where the whole gang’s together.
Anders: That’s true. I would question how much we really get to see the new characters as a unit at all in The Force Awakens, so I’m not as disappointed per se, though it is something a bit lacking in these Disney films. Finn and Rey have lots of screen time together, but Poe fandom does strike me a bit as forced.
Anton: What do you mean, Anders? Forced, on the part of fans or the films?
Anders: He’s pretty much absent for huge chunks of the first of The Force Awakens. There is no real “trinity” structure between the characters in quite the same way there is between Luke/Leia/Han, Kirk/Spock/McCoy, or Harry/Ron/Hermione here. Though if there are analogues, it’s Rey-Luke (The Force), Poe-Leia (Rebel leaders), and Finn-Han (Rogues).
Anton: I really enjoyed Finn in The Force Awakens and he had tons of chemistry running around with Poe at the start of that film, so I was unhappy to see him get saddled with a ultimately pointless subplot and the lamest, dullest, most artificial new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). I am not sold on her at all.
Kylo Ren and Rey continue to be my favourites, and the most interesting of the new cast.
Anders: With the unforeseeable and tragic death of Carrie Fisher (which we will get to), I would have liked to see Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo stick around as a Rebel leader, as much as her self-sacrifice lends the film one of its most memorable and stunning moments.
Rey and Kylo as fan surrogates
Anton: In our Force Awakens Roundtable Part 2 we talked about that film incorporating meta-commentary into the diegesis, that is the world of the movie. I then asked, “could we think, for instance, of Kylo Ren’s obsession with Vader as meta-commentary on how many fans worship a villain, linking Kylo’s misguided fetishization of Vader’s mask with the adoration of certains fans for the ‘badass’ Vader?”
In Episode I of our Last Jedi Roundtable, Anders highlights the very important line from the movie about the need 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 think this is an example of meta-commentary on the previous Star Wars movies. In some ways, Johnson’s approach to the previous movies is parallel to the actions of Kylo Ren.
To extend the idea, perhaps the next generation of characters aligns with the next generation of fans Disney is trying to breed. But remember, generational conflict is at the heart of the Star Wars saga, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before that theme was acted out in the filmmaking.
Is Rey, then, the new fan that wants to preserve the old legacy? A fan who wants the Jedi to keep on being the guardians of law and order in the galaxy, in the films?
Anders: This idea of Rey and Kylo Ren as stand-ins for different kinds of fans is something that began with The Force Awakens. On my last rewatch of that film, I tempered some of my criticism of it as being too slavishly indebted to the original films when I realized how much the film is a self-conscious working through of aspects of the fandom. So, Rey, in her introductory scenes is introduced in the Rebel helmet and Kylo Ren has his grandfather’s burnt helmet. Each has latched onto this iconography of the originals.
It’s been said before that any criticism of Kylo Ren as not being menacing enough, or too much of a cheap rip off of Vader is missing the point entirely. The Force Awakens sets him up as a temper-tantrum prone fanboy, obsessed with exactly the wrong aspects of his grandfather’s legacy. He’s not supposed to be as cool as Vader, because, in fact—and here again the Disney films tip their hat to the Prequels—Vader himself isn’t actually meant to be as cool once you know his whole story! I think we commented before that Adam Driver even brings a bit of Hayden Christensen’s petulance and whininess to the role.
Anders: In The Last Jedi, they take it a step further. Snoke tells Kylo Ren to get rid of his “ridiculous helmet,” whereupon Ren smashes it in the elevator. The helmet is replaced by Adam Driver’s distinctive face (is there a more unique looking leading man in Hollywood today?), supposedly freeing him from the legacy of his grandfather (and the recycling of the past). But the film also gets that resemblance is more than simply visual appearance; Kylo Ren cannot, and chooses not to, ditch the legacy of his family. His teaming up with Rey, while raising a temporary hope that he will turn back to the light, is actually a doubling down on Vader’s plan for him and Luke: “Join me and we will rule the galaxy…”
Anton: That’s an interesting thought. He’s not rejecting Vader. He’s actually doing the thing Vader wanted to do, but never did. He's fulfilling and superseding Vader’s onetime plans.
Anders: Rey, likewise, despite the difference from Luke in gender and appearance, repeats the same impatience and foolhardiness of Luke from the Original Trilogy. While it’s possible to see her impatience with Old Luke and her non-training as new ground, it too repeats beats from The Empire Strikes Back, as she races off without training. It’s easy to criticize this as a rejection of the Jedi, but it is basically what Luke did in Empire, and I don’t think that we’re supposed to read Luke as wrong in that film—especially in light of the Prequels. His boldness does save Han and Leia, even if it costs him his hand.
Aren: I hadn’t actually thought of Rey’s fleeing to the Supremacy having the same thematic and emotional significance as Luke’s flight to Cloud City; I only compared them for their plot function. That’s interesting, as it again suggests that The Last Jedi is not as subversive as some are claiming.
Anton: I actually think we are invited, if not encouraged, to read Luke abandoning his training in Empire as wrong. He does lose a hand for his impatience and foolhardiness after all. If we bring in the Prequel Trilogy, what we get is a debate about what heroic selflessness is and what the limits of control are when using the Force.
The Prequels balance Yoda’s comments that you cannot, and should not, try to control everything with Anakin’s fundamental desire to control, to the point that he wants to prevent the death of his wife, the fear of which consumes him. However, in a sense, if Anakin does actually fear that Padme (Natalie Portman) will die, and the Jedi wouldn’t act to prevent such a death, how many of us can at least sympathize with Anakin’s desire to preserve what he loves?
In Empire, Yoda says Luke should value the cause more than his friends, and let them die so that he can actually train and eventually defeat Vader. Luke doesn’t listen, sort of succeeds in freeing his friends, but doesn’t defeat Vader. But in Return of the Jedi, Yoda says that Luke is now ready. So was that all a test? Did Luke make the correct choice? In the end, his familial devotion to his father pays off.
I feel like the films invite some questioning about how selfless and how personally motivated a hero should be. In some ways, they reject total selflessness as cruel if not impossible. On the other hand, Anakin’s turning to the Dark Side hinges on his lack of selflessness. I think there's a tension in Star Wars between a Buddhist-style rejection of the self and a more-Western valuation of the individual, the personal, and the familial. So, between two major influences on the films.
The question will be, where does Rey go? So far, she's chosen people, while Luke lets his self go.
The Big Death
Anton: Since The Force Awakens kills off Han, I thought Leia would die in this one, not only to continue that pattern of removing an old protagonist, but also because Carrie Fisher’s actual death obviously throws a wrench into how to finish off this new trilogy.
I didn't think Luke would end up being the big death.
Aren: I don’t even know if you can qualify Luke’s death as the big death here, considering that the death is entirely his choice and treated more like Ob-Wan's or Yoda’s deaths in A New Hope or Return of the Jedi than Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens.
In a sense, I’m annoyed that we don’t get to see Luke absolutely destroy the First Order with his Force powers. Luke even derisively mocks this impulse in Rey, saying that she’s foolish to think that Luke Skywalker would head out with a laser sword and face down the entirety of the First Order. The joke is that, in the end, in a sense he does just that when he appears as a Force Projection on Crait.
Anton: The joke is on us, the audience, which is why I don’t like that ending. It’s part and parcel of the film’s refusal to give us certain kinds of satisfaction.
Aren: But couldn’t you then say that any surprise ending or upheaval of expectation and satisfaction in a film is a joke? I know there’s nuance in how certain films defy expectations, but do you actually think Luke’s Force projection is openly mocking audience expectation, as opposed to doing the usual movie thing of surprising people?
Anton: Well, I don't know, but the lightsaber toss and Snoke’s death practically say “Ha ha! Fuck off!” to certain kinds of fans.
Aren: I mean, I know that my desire to Luke go all out with Force powers is just pure fan selfishness. Luke is my favourite character from the Original Trilogy and I always wanted to see him unleash his full Jedi powers on the big screen. It’s kind of like how I appreciate that Man of Steel lets us see Superman punch his way through buildings and fly at jet speed. There’s a certain pleasure in seeing childhood fantasies play out on the big screen, but they are still childhood fantasies. Not having Luke pull down a Star Destroyer with his Force powers is not a weakness of The Last Jedi. It’s a fan quibble.
Anton: I disagree. First, the film does go crazy with Force powers, but just not in cool or badass ways. Force chat, anyone?
Second, I think, after all the set up in The Force Awakens, it’s perfectly acceptable for an audience member to find this film’s handling of Luke to be questionable at best. We spent a movie searching for this guy for him to do nothing? It didn't have to be a Star Destroyer pulled from the sky. Just a great fight, for real. How amazing would that have been? It would be legendary, one of the great film moments, not a controversial choice at best.
While Johnson’s choice to remove Luke from actual combat might have thematic resonance, that doesn’t mean that its frustration of audience desire is totally fair. Rather, the thematic resonance only works because it knowingly subverts and overthrows our desires.
In other words, the film doesn’t get a pass for its constant thumbing its nose at old fan desires, even if its subversion of our expectations and desires are written into the film’s very themes and concerns.
In Johnson’s defence, he’s said that he gets it if people are angry. You can’t play the impish game he's playing and then cry if people get mad. And to his credit, he hasn’t.
Aren: I do think it’s fair to disagree with how Luke is employed by the film. I’m just saying that not seeing him, like, rip apart an AT-AT is not a legit criticism. Having issues with how the character is dealt with as a whole is completely legitimate. Not having him unleash ridiculous Force powers in the ways you’d like is not.
Anton: It's still a huge lost opportunity. In the end, Luke never comes back and never saves the day. The Resistance could have escaped with just Rey.
Aren: That's not entirely true, as Luke stalls them so that the First Order cannot give chase to the Resistance inside the base. As Poe says, he's "stalling."
As I said in Episode I, I’m much more on board with Rian Johnson’s direction and the controversial choices after my second and third viewings, but I can understand the annoyance with how Luke isn’t fully utilized by The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. I too was annoyed, at first anyways, and I’m still not 100 percent on board with everything this film does with Luke.
Anton: I still think it's a misreading and rewriting of the character of Luke Skywalker. But I get that that's the whole point. I just don't and won't like it.
Aren: And I just think you’re deliberately being a bit obtuse about elements of the film and its themes.
On a final note, I’ll be baffled if we don’t get Luke back as a Force ghost in the next film. Because Luke died in the same manner as Obi-Wan and Yoda (who both have appeared as Force ghosts in subsequent films) and because Han Solo is dead and Carrie Fisher is dead, a Force ghost Luke is the only way to have one of the original trio in Episode IX. (Unless we get Lando, which really ought to happen at this point.) He should be back to guide Rey and bug Kylo Ren. In fact, his last line is: “I’ll see you around, kid.”
Anders: I think I’m less upset about it than I am about something Anton referred to, that we will never get to see all of the original three heroes—Luke, Leia, Han—all together one last time having an adventure. Like Luke says in Return of the Jedi, “Just like old times.” (“That bad, huh?”)
But this is a function of what Abrams left Johnson to work with. It’s hard to blame this film for that unfulfilled desire when that possibility was dashed when Kylo Ren killed Han in The Force Awakens. Of course, one could argue that Johnson has now returned the “favour” to Abrams, but a further wrench was tossed his way with Fisher’s death. From what I’ve heard, the entire plan was for the third of these “bridge” films—which is what they are—to feature Leia in a central role, after The Force Awakens focused on Han and The Last Jedi on Luke.
So, I’m confident we will have Luke as an Obi-wan Kenobi-esque Force ghost in the next film, so it’s not so much that Luke is dead, but he’s transcended the realm of the physical. It’s interesting in that. I like the image and it really pushes the Eastern metaphysical aspects of the series that Lucas himself leaned on.
Anton: This is what I said back when we talked about The Force Awakens: “Luke, Leia, and Han no longer get their happy ending. I know it makes sense if you want to create a whole new run of films, but it tarnishes the joy of the Return of the Jedi’s ending.”
Now I’ll say this: all I ever wanted—and I think many people would agree with me—was Han, Luke, and Leia back at it for one episode, but the new Star Wars team screwed up and now it's never possible because Carrie Fisher is dead. That's the huge problem J.J Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Rian Johnson will always have to answer for and live with. They didn't do it because they wanted to make Star Wars their own thing. And now that chance is gone and lost forever.
That's really the essence of my issues with both films.
Anders: Yup. But like I said, that started with Abrams in The Force Awakens.
Anton: Totally. It’s not just Johnson’s fault.
That said, I totally think Mark Hamill scaled back his criticism of the film’s handling of Luke following the team’s guidance. In other words, it gathered some fan attention, and he probably decided he didn’t want to discredit his new film.
I am super curious about Lucas's drafts for VII, VIII, and IX though. I think he honestly thought his treatments would be the rough outlines for the new movies. But Disney couldn't let him still control things that way. So, Lucas too is at fault. He should have done the last three. He has so much money and lots of time, or at least not many other projects. He got lazy. He should have finished his saga before selling it off.
Wow, now I’m just lashing out at anyone involved in Star Wars. You too, Kasdan! Ha ha.
Aren: You know, in retrospect, I don’t know why they didn’t make Han, Luke, and Leia’s attempts to create a new Republic and Ben turning bad Episode VII. Then, Luke can disappear at the end of that film and the second one becomes The Force Awakens, which brings these new characters into the mix and is all about finding Luke. And then the final film in the trilogy would be The Last Jedi, which wipes the old characters off the board and rebuilds the Rebellion. And then we could get a whole new trilogy with none of the old characters and solely focusing on the new ones.
I actually think the biggest issue with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is that we’re missing a bridge film between Return of the Jedi and them.
Anders: I agree. Instead, as I alluded to above, these films themselves serve as a bridge; but a bridge from a Skywalker focused Star Wars saga to an open-ended, never-ending Disney Star Wars universe (overseen by Johnson). But what we all really wanted was the true "Sequel Trilogy." Instead, we get films that are not quite satisfying as a Skywalker saga capper, but also not fully cut loose from the original films, in part because the fans demanded seeing Han/Luke/Leia again!
I think one solution would have been simply to drop the saga numbering right off the bat. Don’t pretend these are the sequels to Lucas’s Skywalker saga. Just free yourself. “Let go. Breathe.”
Aren: Yeah. It’s as if most of our issues with these new films are that we don’t get to see what happened between the Original Trilogy and the Disney films.
Aren: We never see Snoke showing up and creating the First Order. We don’t get Han, Luke and Leia trying to make things work and reshaping the galaxy. We never get Han and Leia as parents to Ben. They even have to force flashbacks in this film to make up for this error. Could it be that simple? That the episode numbering is off and we started at the wrong time for these new stories?
I have to say, I think it is.
In Episode III, we’ll get into the film’s politics, discuss its new creatures and vehicles, and highlight some memorable visual moments.
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.