Roundtable: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) - Episode III
Episode III: Tradition, Invention, and the Future of the Star Wars Franchise
Johnson’s Unique Humour and Progressive Politics
Anton: Overall, I found Johnson’s sense of humour effective and fun. The Last Jedi boasts a wealth of humorous banter, slapstick, and sheer bizarreness (such as the milking of the alien sea lions that has a lot of fans incensed). The range and high dose of humour reminds me of that in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and, especially, The Hobbit trilogy, while some of the banter resembles that of Disney’s other lucrative property: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ll give Johnson credit for his light touch and deft balance of humour, action spectacle, and drama. The Last Jedi is nimble at a time when a lot of blockbusters feel clunky.
However, I did find the bits of overt social commentary to be clunky. Lucas's films operate as fairy tales and modern myths. They may speak to 20th- and 21st-century social and political issues, but in a way freed from contemporary anchoring. For instance, the Ewoks defeating the technologically-superior Imperial forces has often been read as commentary on America’s defeat in the Vietnam War. In The Last Jedi, however, we get blatant dialogue commenting on social injustice in the Star Wars galaxy, particularly during the scenes on the Casino planet.
Aren: I dislike some of the messaging in the Canto Bight sequence voiced by Rose Tico. In fact, I’m not a fan of Rose Tico in general, both Kelly Marie Tran’s performance and the way the character is written. At times, she seems more a mouthpiece for progressive politics than an actual character. At other times, she’s weirdly-obstinate in a childish way, but the film applauds this obstinacy as righteousness—her releasing the Fathiers on a tear through Canto Bight seems more like a child lashing out at injustice than a push towards any significant change (they’ll probably recapture all the Fathiers anyway and the only thing accomplished is a tantrum through the casino).
As well, the hatred of the casino types over the First Order soldiers is absurd. There have always been gangsters and non-affiliated bad guys in the Star Wars universe: the Hutts, the “scum and villainy” of the Mos Eisley Cantina, the bounty hunters like Jango and Boba Fett, and even the Trade Federation in the Prequels are not actively empire-builders but awful capitalists. The Last Jedi tries to make this type of bad guy even worse than the Space Nazis! It ends up being a misstep.
Anders: I get what you’re both saying, that in our current political moment it’s impossible to view Rose and the comments about the rich weapons dealers’ without thought turning to politics. I understand the idea that Star Wars is myth and fairy tale, and should therefore be apolitical. Star Wars is seen as escapist; the last thing I want is to be reminded of how awful the real world is when watching a Star Wars film.
But to offer some push back, this isn’t some late addition to the series. The Star Wars films have always had an affinity for anti-totalitarian, revolutionary politics, both liberal and left-leaning. In the original conception of the first film, Lucas imported some of his anti-Vietnam War ideas from his screenplay for Apocalypse Now into his fairy tale. He described the Emperor in his original story pitches as a “Nixonian gangster.” The way that a republic can fall into tyranny has always been part of the story. The Ewoks weren’t just “interpreted” as a stand-in for the North Vietnamese; real life guerilla fighters like the Viet Cong were an actual inspiration on Return of the Jedi. Lucas consciously put a strong woman (Leia) at the centre of his story, and introduced a black main character in the second film (Lando). In the Prequel Trilogy, Anakin’s line: “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” drew attention for its similarity to George W. Bush’s drawing of lines in the War on Terror. Obi-wan’s response—“Only a Sith deals in absolutes”—reveals something key to Lucas’s philosophical and political allegiances.
While I think the evidence suggests that to critique The Last Jedi for its so-called “identity politics” shows an unwillingness to look closely at the Original Trilogy, so does to lavish it with praise as if these were new developments. This is hardly the first Star Wars film to feature women in prominent roles (Leia, Mon Mothma, Padme, etc.), and the Star Wars films always had a diverse cast, in supporting roles in addition to Lando, and the series’ racial diversity extends to the Prequels (including indigenous Maori cast-members like Temuera Morrison). So, progressive fans don’t need to overpraise this one for just continuing what the Star Wars films have always done, which is frame a battle against tyranny through the tropes of fairy tale and myth. Such a response to The Last Jedi comes across as a bit much, and ahistorical to boot. In this, The Last Jedi simply fits with the series quite well.
Aren: OK, I’ll rephrase. I simply don’t like how the political commentary is handled; not its presence in itself. And I have absolutely no issue with The Last Jedi having a diverse cast with more women; this is merely continuing what Star Wars has always done. It’s the clumsiness of the film’s few attempts at political commentary that bother me, not that political commentary is present.
Anton: I never said Star Wars is or should be apolitical. Lucas’s films, particularly the Prequel Trilogy, are very political. And by political, I mean that they are actually interested in forms of government and how to order society. One of the central interests of the Prequel Trilogy, after all, is to examine at length how a republic and democracy can become an tyrannical empire, particularly through the degeneration and corruption of its institutions and legal frameworks.
What is different about The Last Jedi—and I’d say the same about The Force Awakens to a lesser extent—is the either poor understanding or outright disinterest in politics as governance, and instead its interest in politics only in terms of the evaluation and critique of societal power structures. So, the film is interested in politics primarily as power relations between people, and it leans towards a Critical Theory/intersectional theory approach, as most progressive works do right now.
Relatedly, what is completely lacking in the new films is a sensible portrayal of the new galactic government. This strikes at issues with the conceptualization of the First Order and the Resistance in The Force Awakens. How exactly did this youthful space-fascist movement arise? It seems to be stocked with young people in adoration of the Old Empire. Why didn’t the Republic stamp them out? Why did they let them freely amass arms and vehicles and technology? What exactly is the relationship between the Resistance and the Republic, and why didn’t the Republic fight the First Order? Why doesn’t it have an army, considering it rose out of the ashes of the Galactic Civil War.
Abrams’ desire to repeat the Original Trilogy meant that he had to devise a way for the heroes to become rebels again, and, frankly, the premise has never been entirely convincing in these new films. And it carries into Johnson, who shows no interest in explaining such things. What we need is a scene like the one in A New Hope, in which a bunch of Imperial commanders talk politics and we get a sense of the state of the galaxy.
In short, I concur with Aren: it’s not that Star Wars can’t be political. It’s that the political commentary in The Last Jedi is not handled well.
Anders: I do share your frustration over the fact that the actual governing structures of the First Order/Resistance are so sketchy and seem like an afterthought.
Aren: I will say that I like that DJ (Benicio del Toro) undercuts some of the earlier assumptions that Rose and Finn make, like that these weapons dealers sell to both the First Order and the Resistance and that for someone outside the struggle between Light and Dark, it’s just a constant shift in power dynamics. DJ adds some nuance to the whole endeavour and reminds us that there are individuals within the Star Wars universe who find the constant battle between the Light Side and the Dark Side a little tiring.
Anders: Yes, I’ve always wondered about what the majority of the galaxy thought of this battle between the Empire and the Rebellion. While the people of Alderaan and Hosnian Prime would probably disagree (and the expanded universe elaborated on the Empire’s subjugation and exploitation of various worlds), I’ve always figured that for many, whether the Empire or Republic was in charge, life pretty much went on the same. I enjoy this peek into a corner of the Star Wars universe that’s a little outside the usual plot.
Aren: I also thought DJ and the whole Canto Bight casino sequence were funny in an old 1930s and 1940s Hollywood way. Beyond the visual homage to Wings, with the endless dolly move over the casino tables, and the inevitable connections to films like Casablanca, we get strange characters trying to use BB-8 as a gambling machine and Justin Theroux’s awesome cameo as the suave Master Codebreaker. (I want that spinoff pronto.)
Even Rose’s lines sometimes carry a whiff of noir dialogue, which Johnson clearly loves as per Brick. Her line, “I’d love to put my fist through this whole lousy, beautiful town,” sounds like something out of an old Bogie film. Perhaps that’s why Rose’s dialogue sits awkwardly with the rest of the film. Star Wars has had clunky dialogue, but has never really dabbled with stylized dialogue. And it doesn’t help that it’s a pretty green actor delivering the lines.
Anders: Good point about the dialogue. Though, I enjoy much of it (I’d have to watch again as it didn’t stick out on my first viewing), I agree that the Star Wars films had what I’d call “mannered” dialogue (versus “clunky”), it was never very stylized.
Anton: I thought the Canto Bight sequence really deflated the tension that the chase is supposed to generate. So, that aspect hampered my appreciation of the setting. I’m curious whether I’ll enjoy it more on a second viewing.
Anders: Aren, you’re pointing out something we’ll get to in the next section: that The Last Jedi is inventive, drawing not only on Lucas’s own creations (as The Force Awakens and Rogue One do), but on the history of cinema.
Imagery and Invention
Aren: One thing that is a resounding success in The Last Jedi is the invention on display. The Force Awakens was content to mostly reuse designs from A New Hope, and its original creations, like Snoke and the Rathtars, were visually uninspired. The Last Jedi goes whole hog for creature and world design.
We get old starships like A-wings and medical frigates back, but we also get the modified B-wings that are more like bombing planes from World War II than other Star Wars vessels and the Dreadnaughts and Snoke’s Supremacy. We get the casino on Canto Bight which draws not only on 1930s dry comedies of the upper class like The Thin Man and the colourful characters of Casablanca, but also the casinos of Macau and Chinese comedies set in the early 20th century.
Anders: I watched Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture just before seeing The Last Jedi in December, and Canto Bight reminded me of those kinds of visuals. Worlds we haven’t seen before. I loved it.
In bringing back the variety of ships, and introducing new ones (whether for expansion of the visual palette or marketing of new toys, either way), Johnson literally responds to one of my issues with The Force Awakens, which was the shrinking of the Star Wars visual design back to X-wings and TIE Fighters; The Last Jedi is overflowing with visual inventiveness, making me want to watch it again just for that.
Aren: As for creatures and aliens, we get a lot more aliens that are incorporated into the story and the world than the medley of aliens in Maz Kanata’s castle and the few guys in the background on Jakku in The Force Awakens. On Ahch-to, we get the Porgs, which I kind of love, the Caretakers, and, best of all, the milk creature, the Thala-Siren, which offers the single weirdest moment in all of The Last Jedi and also the funniest, where Luke inexplicably milks the creature and takes a big swig of the green milk to spite Rey and try to gross her out. On Canto Bight, we get the Farthiers, which I don’t love, but have an almost Zelda or Miyazaki quality to them.
Anders: I kinda dug the Crystal Critters on Crait. Though they remind me of some kind of Pokémon.
Aren: There’s definitely a Pokemon aspect to the Crystal Critters, which is another indication that Johnson and Disney are drawing on wider visual influences than Lucas was. I have no problem with opening up the pool of inspiration for these films so long as they seem to fit in the world. Of all the creatures in the new films, the only ones that don’t seem to fit are the Rathtars in The Force Awakens and the Bor gullet in Rogue One, although the Bor gullet scene is so inexplicable and bizarre, I kind of love it.
Anders: Yeah, the Bor gullet is weird. But like you, I think it’s truly weird enough to be interesting. The Rathtars are just bad. But The Last Jedi has many memorable creatures. The Porgs are inspired and the biggest marketing coup since the Ewoks. My kids haven’t seen the film, but they love them in the picture books and other merch. It makes it even more fun to learn they were partly created as a response to the loads of puffins on the island during filming.
Aren: As for stunning imagery, The Last Jedi outdoes The Force Awakens. The only moment in The Force Awakens that is goosebumps stunning is Rey grabbing the lightsaber in the duel with Kylo Ren in the snowy forest (although I do love the shot of the Starkiller beam passing Kylo’s Star Destroyer, the Finalizer). Here, we get at least three moments of arresting beauty that are among the most beautiful in the entire Star Wars series.
One is Luke’s explanation of the Force as the balance between all elements of life and the galaxy. He asks Rey to explain what she see through the Force on Ahch-To and she says, “The island. Life. Death and decay. That feeds new life. Warmth. Cold. Peace. Violence.” Accompanied with each item is an image: of the craggy island, of a decomposing corpse, of plant shoots growing out of the earth, of sunlight, of water, of a Porg family and a Porg nest being swept into the sea. It’s an intriguing editorial departure for the series and a savvy way to illustrate the Force through imagery.
The second instance is the brief moment of slow motion as Rey and Kylo Ren turn back to back to fight the Praetorian Guards after Ren kills Snoke. In an interview with Business Insider, Rian Johnson mentioned it as the moment he’s most proud of in the film. I can understand that as it’s genuinely rousing, again using the “Binary Sunset” theme from A New Hope (it seems that these new movies save that musical cue for the big moments, as The Force Awakens waits until that forest showdown and Rey’s force pull to bust it out) to provide a lot of the emotion. The fight that ensues is also incredible, finding new ways to employ lightsabers and dispatch enemies.
The third moment is Holdo’s aforementioned sacrifice, where she goes kamikaze as she rams the First Order fleet at lightspeed with her cruiser. The few seconds of silence and degraded colorization and the explosive scars of light that radiate across the scene are stunning and reminiscent of Japanese artwork, both old watercolour woodcut paintings (think Princess Kaguya) and explosive anime moments, whether Akira or Dragonball Z’s bursts of energy beams or even Genndy Tartakovsky's anime-inspired Samurai Jack.
Anders: I’m with you on all of this.
Anton: In Abrams’ defense, I’d point out (as you mention, Aren) the red beam of death shooting out of Starkiller Base across space. My favourite shot, however, is of Rey driving her speeder across the desert beneath the ruins of a Star Destroyer. I think that shot is more evocative than anything in The Last Jedi. It might be one of my favourite Star Wars shots, for its potent melancholy and imaginative resonances. Something I could frame.
I agree, though, that overall Johnson is more inventive in his world building, but I didn’t come away with a handful of shots I was dying to see again. Perhaps I will after a second viewing. My mind was consumed with Luke when I left the first time.
Aren: There are also other moments of arresting strangeness here, whether it’s the infinite Reys moment when she descends into the cave beneath Ahch-to or the slight superimposition of Kylo Ren and Leia’s faces when he’s contemplating shooting missiles at the bridge of her cruiser. This latter moment is reminiscent of the intercutting during the raid on Palpatine’s Office in Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin and Padme are staring out their windows contemplating each other and the path ahead.
Anton: Or Leia on the Falcon and Luke hanging from Cloud City at the end of Empire.
Aren: That too. Oh, and there are all the Kurosawa references we get, from the armour of the Praetorian Guards and the helmets of the security guards on Canto Bight and the red of Snoke’s Throne Room to the blood-red streaks left behind the Skim Speeders during the Battle of Crait. Visually, there is a lot to love in The Last Jedi. Both in terms of filmic references and original creation, it’s wonderful.
Continuing the Style and Story of The Force Awakens or Going Even Further?
Aren: In our The Force Awakens roundtable, we discuss how that film contained a lot of visual continuity with the old trilogy, but lacked the focus on mid-and-long shots and the static frames of Lucas’s films. I think The Last Jedi is simultaneously closer to Lucas’s films in the camera style and more boldly original.
There are far more long takes here and cross-cutting between various action scenes happening simultaneously (parallel editing) than in The Force Awakens. The throne room fight scene is actually more similar to the throne room fight in Revenge of the Sith or Return of the Jedi than the lightsaber fights in The Force Awakens. The final showdown between Kylo Ren and Luke is very samurai-influenced and draws on Kurosawa; there’s lots of stillness and emphasis on footwork and stance, not so much a flurry of action. Johnson focuses on the deliberateness of each movement.
Anders: Yes. As much as I think that the lightsaber battle in the snowy forest is perhaps the most memorable and original image in The Force Awakens, the actual fight is weak compared with the fighting in the Prequels.
Aren: Other scenes, like the hall of mirrors in the underground cave on Ahch-To or the anime-style explosion of the dreadnought is completely new for Star Wars. However, the film is not such a departure from The Force Awakens as to be jarring. However, whether it’s Canto Bight or the lightsaber duel, I think there are more stylistic similarities to Lucas’s films (particularly the Prequels) than there are to Abrams’ film.
Anders: Yes, exactly. In many ways this film is more like the Prequels.
Aren: However, speaking of how the film plays off The Force Awakens and either continues or rejects what that film does, I have to say, they completely whiff on Snoke. In our roundtable for The Force Awakens, we talk about how Snoke could end up tying all the films together—for example, he could have bridged the Prequel Trilogy to the Disney films if he happened to be Palpatine’s master, Darth Plagueis—but now, Snoke is simply dead and I assume any discussion of who he is, why he matters, and how he came into play on the galactic scene is thrown to the wayside.
I think there’s truth in Ryan Holt’s comment on Twitter, that many complaints of The Last Jedi are based on the fact that it doesn’t solve The Force Awakens’ deficiencies in retrospect. This is a perfect case of that. Keeping Luke out of all the action in The Force Awakens and refusing to give any backstory on Snoke means that this film was left with the baggage of dealing with those unanswered questions. And instead of dealing with them, it seems that Rian Johnson simply refused to take the bait. In fact, I’m a little baffled that Johnson didn’t even offer a modicum of information for fans. I’m convinced he didn’t like Snoke as a character and in many ways wanted to completely eliminate him from the playing board. It fits with his entire focus on subversion for its own sake, which is both a strength and weakness of the film.
It’s also weird to think that my favourite moment in the film—Kylo Ren killing Snoke and teaming up with Rey to fight the Praetorian Guards—is also responsible for its greatest frustration. But again, J.J. Abrams is the one who introduced Snoke with zero exposition. That film bears as much responsibility in these frustrations as this one, even though you’d think that the Disney braintrust would ensure the question was dealt with appropriately. Apparently not, though.
Anders: I think Johnson was totally off with how he dealt with Snoke. Johnson’s defense, that we don’t know who the Emperor is and don’t learn his background in the Original Trilogy, but simply know he’s a evil Force user, just doesn’t wash. The Original Trilogy was laying groundwork, building without a foundation. But because we know what happened in the Original Trilogy and they decided to jump 30-plus years into the future with the Disney films—a decision we agreed in Part II is a major contributor to the problems here—there is some niggling issues here. You can say it doesn’t matter all you like, but given all we know about what came before we just need a little bit of an explanation of who this guy is. Extra-filmic sources, like The Last Jedi Visual Dictionary don’t even give us much, and just tease even more with stuff like the fact that Snoke is accompanied by tall purple guys who are “mute alien navigators who originated in the Unknown Regions.”
It’s easy to say, well it would be meaningless to Rey to know who Snoke is. But films are inevitably built for audiences. Even the much ballyhooed “subversion” of the film is built of fan expectations, so it’s not like they are truly just ignoring the fan desires. But what about Kylo Ren? He must know something about Snoke. I for one will be very frustrated if we get nothing more! It’s probably my biggest reservation about it all!
Anton: It’s bad storytelling, as far as I’m concerned. The Emperor was mysterious in A New Hope, but we gradually discovered more. The Last Jedi not only fails in this respect but it also lessens The Force Awakens.
Aren: This comment doesn’t really tie into the continuity with The Force Awakens, but I want to briefly mention how Johnson leans into a great tradition of having enemies team up for a brief moment by having Rey and Kylo Ren team up to fight the Praetorian Guards. It’s an instant where their objectives are aligned, so it makes sense from a character perspective while also frustrating the predictable notion of whether Kylo is turning back to the Light Side in the scene, which is an example of the film being clever with subversion. I always love these sorts of moments in films and TV, so the convention only adds further to my love of this particular scene.
However, it’s worth commenting that most of these sorts of team-ups happen on television—whether that’s Captain Sisko and Gul Ducat teaming up in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder in Justified or even Buffy and Spike in the earlier seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Usually, you need a longer continuity to justify the pleasure in such a team-up, which is why a similar example in a recent movie by the same braintrust as Star Wars—Star Trek Into Darkness when Kirk and Khan team up—fails as you don’t get the satisfaction that you should because a firm relationship is never established between these two individual characters in this specific timeline. That it does work in The Last Jedi shows that the film is working in the episodic tradition of television and another subtle instance of these Star Wars movies transforming into the feature-length blockbuster TV episodes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and not sticking to the tropes of finite cinema.
Connections to the Prequels
Aren: I want to close out our discussion with a brief look at how The Last Jedi connects to the Prequels. While The Force Awakens has only one explicit reference to the Prequels—”Perhaps Leader Snoke should consider using a clone army.”—Rogue One actually brought back actors from the Prequels to bridge the gap between the Prequel Trilogy and the Original Trilogy: both Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly), who was present in a deleted scene from Revenge of the Sith. Now The Last Jedi seems to play with visual and story references to the Prequel Trilogy in ways that I wouldn’t have expected, especially considering how much Disney distanced itself from the more recent Star Wars films once they acquired Lucasfilm.
Its most direct reference is Luke’s comment that “At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.” Not only is it notable that Luke says “Darth Sidious” and not Emperor Palpatine, but also that one of the main themes in The Last Jedi—that the Jedi Order is flawed and needs to end in its institutional form—draws almost exclusively on the evidence of the Prequel Trilogy. Luke uses the pride and blindness of the Jedi Order to point to the need to abandon the institution altogether.
Anders: I wonder if this means that Johnson is a Prequel fan?
Aren: As well, it’s fascinating that the sin that drives Luke to exile—Ben Solo’s turn to the Dark Side following Luke’s contemplation of murdering him in his sleep—echoes the attitude and actions of the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith. Once Yoda and Obi-Wan discover that Anakin has become Palpatine’s apprentice, Yoda orders Obi-Wan to kill him. There’s no discussion of trying to turn him back to the Light Side or trying to undo Palpatine’s influence. Obi-Wan’s task is simply to murder him. That Luke contemplates a similar way of dealing with Ben’s dabbling with the Dark Side is fascinating, as it shows how Luke essentially repeats the same errors as the Jedi Order in the Prequel Trilogy. It also adds an extra wrinkle to the controversial choice to have Luke suffer such a moment of weakness, which many people have pointed to as a flaw in this film’s depiction of the character.
At the very least, it’s drawing on something that is already present in the Star Wars series; to contemplate such an action is not new for the Jedi in these films. As well, the Prequels are in their essence an undercutting of the Hero’s Journey—Anakin is a fabricated “Chosen One” who is meant to destroy the Jedi by playing to their belief in that very myth. The Last Jedi continues that exploration and undercutting of the Campbellian narrative.
Anders: I think that at the same time people are overstating how much the decision Luke contemplates—and that Obi-wan and Yoda thought was prudent in Revenge of the Sith—undercuts the mythic nature of the films. There seems to be a vocal contingent of fandom that feels “My Luke Skywalker would never attempt to murder a family member,” forgetting that Luke almost did kill Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Sure, he tells Obi-wan, “I can’t kill my own father,” but when Vader goads him by threatening Leia, Luke gives in momentarily to the temptation. It is only his realization that he might become like Vader that gives him pause.
Also, it’s common in myth for legendary heroes to relive and repeat their failings in their old age. Think Beowulf or King Arthur (if Luke is a kind of aged Arthurian figure, this makes Kylo Ren a kind of Mordred figure complete with his Knights of Ren). I don’t believe Luke’s momentary temptation, no matter how disastrous, taints the character in any way.
Anton: Will we ever learn about the Knights of Ren?
In regards to Luke’s moment of temptation versus the character and Jedi in the earlier movies, the issue is a difference in manner and approach, not substance.
The Jedi have flaws. Luke is not perfect. But we also have to remember that the Jedi are knights. Warriors. Their martial aspect is held in tension with their contemplative one, and there’s always been that tension within the idea of the Jedi and their job of keeping the peace by killing people if need be. That explains why Obi-Wan will go kill Anakin. (He’s not going to “murder” Anakin, and if you don’t think there’s a difference then you won’t understand the Jedi’s chivalric dimension.) Anakin has aligned himself with the Dark Side, and so, as a knight, Obi-Wan will go and fight him to the death in a duel. Not murder him in his sleep. It is Luke’s utter lack of courage or honour in the moment from The Last Jedi that is shocking, not his desire to prevent great evil by any means.
Second, Kylo hasn’t done anything yet. It would be like the Jedi thinking about killing Anakin as a boy, because Mace and Yoda have grave concerns. Or maybe Johnson is noting that and pushing the idea?
Aren: I’m not sure Kylo has done nothing up to that point. There’s a comment that Snoke has already corrupted him by that time and that Luke simply pushes him over the edge.
Anton: You have to concede, though, that it is a bold new turn for Luke. Giving a moment of weakness to the hero who was never perfect, but never flawed in this way. It is in that respect that I think Johnson either misunderstands Luke or wilfully takes the character in a new direction. That’s his prerogative as a storyteller, but it’s my freedom as a viewer to say I disagree with the choice.
Frankly, I just don’t think Johnson understands the chivalric order, or is fundamentally opposed to it, as some of the film’s meditations on the Force might suggest, and as does Luke’s final sacrifice without actually fighting. Lucas’s films present the tension within the Jedi Order, between the monk side and knight side, but it uses them as warrior heroes first and foremost. Johnson might be saying we need the monks. Think about the film’s scorn for Finn’s attempt at sacrifice.
You are also wrong, Aren, about Anakin: he is the Chosen One. But he only fulfils his destiny through his redemption by his son (and yes, you can read Christology into that—does that make Anakin an Adam figure?). Anakin does kill the Emperor, but not until Episode VI. So, the prophecy is both misread but also comes to be true, just in a way no one could have expected.
Aren: I think that’s a highly debatable point; Lucas is very clear about Palpatine creating Anakin as a long con on the Jedi Order. As well, the prophecy of the Chosen One is to bring balance to the Force, not specifically to kill Palpatine. But the meaning of “Bring balance to the Force” is unclear throughout, so it’s not open-and-shut either way.
While the other references to the Prequel Trilogy in The Last Jedi are not as thematically rich as Luke’s comment on the Jedi Order and his failing Ben, I’d like to briefly mention them. Beyond the Sidious reference and the undercutting of the hero’s journey, we get the treatment of the spaceships as boats in space, which plays on how we see the Republic and Separatist ships battle in the remarkable opening of Revenge of the Sith. We get the race through Canto Bight which had touches of Obi-Wan chasing General Grievous through the corridors of Utapau.
In general, Canto Bight seems to reference the gaudiest aspects of the Prequel Trilogy, whether the Royal Palace of Naboo or the Senate on Coruscant. We get BB-8 riding the AT-ST through the wreckage of the Supremacy, which recalls R2-D2’s action scenes in the droid factory in Attack of the Clones. We even get a child slave with Jedi abilities with the stable boy on Canto Bight, who is very reminiscent of Jake Lloyd’s Anakin in his angry stare at his master and his almost “Yipee!”-like cheer when Rose and Finn release the Fathiers. I don’t think these references are accidental. Although Johnson has not stated as much, I feel like Prequel Trilogy were as large a point of reference for him as the Original Trilogy.
Anton: I don’t know know if Johnson’s evident affinity for or interest in the Prequels clarifies fan backlash, or complicates the narratives. Interesting to point out the nods to them, Aren.
Aren: One final comment about the Prequels and The Last Jedi. We have all (to varying degrees) been critical of this film’s treatment of the characters and the Star Wars world and have even questioned whether this film makes the “right” choice with the Star Wars franchise. I think there’s an obvious irony here as we’re all deep defenders of the Prequel Trilogy, which many fans think betrayed their notions of what the Star Wars series should be and made the wrong choice with how this world should be portrayed on screen.
While we lambasted such fan entitlement during the release of the Prequels, we now have lobbied some of that same entitlement at The Last Jedi. Are we being fair? How can we say that the fans who hate the Prequels because those films upset their expectations are wrong, but now that The Last Jedi has upset our expectations, we’re right? I know that there is more nuance to this than I’m suggesting, but I do think it’s something us three specifically have to wrestle with.
Anders: We definitely need to wrestle with it. My defense of the Prequels is based in large part on my contention that people didn’t understand what Lucas was trying to do, while I feel like, for all my enjoyment of the Disney films, I understand all too clearly how they are attempting to extend Star Wars. Perhaps that is arrogant on my part, but that’s how I feel.
That said, I’m not as harsh as some are on The Last Jedi. I still really liked it a lot! It’s one of my favourite films I saw all year. So, I don’t know that my reservations are due to it not fulfilling all my expectations, so much as it is the ways that Disney and Johnson seem so intent on leaning into “subversion” and clearing the slate for new films. If anything, the Prequels delivered what people expected, just in ways that weren’t necessarily how audiences thought they would. I mean, Revenge of the Sith ends with Obi-wan and Anakin fighting over lava. That was pretty much the expectation.
Anton: One: I don’t hate The Last Jedi. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I also left the theatre distressed about aspects. So, I have to admit the personal, emotional reaction in me.
Two: Whether I’m successful or not, I’ve been trying to separate my expectations from my concern about The Last Jedi’s alteration of the thematic and narrative concerns of the series thus far. So, while my personal reaction is valid as a response, my critical reaction is that Johnson is pushing things in a different direction and it doesn’t gel with the earlier films in important ways. The problem is, I think that’s what he wants to do. Is he successful at doing that? Yes. Do I think it was the best choice in regards to the material? Emphatically no.
Aren: That’s fair, but I also think people could use the same argument about Lucas’s treatment of his own films. And yes, I know that George Lucas invented Star Wars and could ultimately do what he wanted with the series while he owned it and that we could defend his six films as being his intended vision for the series, which protects his films from the accusation of there being an objective “right choice” for the series beyond whatever he wanted to do with it, but that’s too easy an excuse. We’re letting ourselves off the hook in defending those films and critiquing this one if we leave it at that.
Art does not remain the purview of its artist through all of time; the artist always dies and even before that happens, the art often falls into the hands of others who continue it in new ways that upset what came before. I can only assume that Star Wars will outlast George Lucas, so how are we to approach these films fairly without resorting to canonical arguments to qualify our opinions?
I do think the Prequel Trilogy is superior to The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, but I don’t think I can say that it’s better because George Lucas created it and leave it at that. I think we need to jettison the canon argument and get really get into what these films are doing as films and explore their own internal logic. Which we’ve now done, I believe, in our very-extended roundtable episodes. It’s just something we have to keep in mind moving forward into a world of endless Star Wars.
Anders: But I do think there is some value in bracketing off what Disney is doing from what Lucas did. Not because of authorial intent, or canon, etc. Not even for commercial reasons; Lucas profited and exploited Star Wars for merchandising as much as Disney does (in fact, Lucas’s talent for this kind of thing was probably one of the reasons Disney approached him in the late-80s to take over the company, and only settled on Michael Eisner when George said no).
For me it’s greatly attributable to the fact that when Revenge of the Sith concluded the saga, it was complete. I seriously doubt George ever really intended to make VII through IX, rough outlines or not. And I was content to let Star Wars go as an ongoing and unfolding concern. Now it’s back, and while I’m happy to see it and share it with my kids, I’m also aware that if Disney has its way there will continue to be a new Star Wars film every year from now to eternity. That just changes the nature of the beast.
I do look forward to exploring these films as films. For the record, I think that The Last Jedi is a very well made film that I will continue to watch. In some ways it has improved my esteem for The Force Awakens even. And given the attachment I have to Lucas’s two trilogies, that is an accomplishment.
Anton: I think, like Anders, bracketing is my approach going forward. Episodes I to VI will always be something separate for me, even if I continue to enjoy the new Disney Star Wars films.
Lucas gave us our modern Iliad and Odyssey. Other people are, and will continue, to take the characters and galaxy and tell new stories, and that’s fine. I may not like them all, but they don’t alter those first six, even if they offer new frames for viewing those films. We need to set aside comic book-continuity-oriented debates for a more mythic-centred appreciation.
I think the galaxy far, far away and a long time ago has a long future ahead of it. For good and ill.
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.