In the same way that “This will begin to set things right” was the synecdoche line for The Force Awakens, “This is not going to go the way you think” encapsulates The Last Jedi almost too perfectly.
I’m writing this on Saturday morning, after first having seen the movie at a Friday afternoon matinee. So I’ve not had a lot of time to process it. And this is a movie that requires some processing. This will be a bit scattershot, but hopefully fun to look back on later.
Organization (playing with page jumps here, bear with while I sort them out, or just scroll down):
- Big stuff/random thoughts
- Star Wars movies and time
- Rey is not a Mary Sue
- Echoes of Empire
- Institutions vs ideas
- Parting shot – for now
The movie is not afraid to break new ground, both in terms of universe-building, and in subverting our expectations of what a Star Wars movie can be. That almost doesn’t need saying – every review I’ve seen, both pro and con, has mentioned that fact. Some people love it, others not so much. There was a lot of trepidation beforehand that TLJ was going to rehash ESB in the same way that TFA recalled ANH. And TLJ does echo ESB in some subtle and I think clever ways. But maybe it hews most closely to ESB in defying expectations based on what had come before.
I love it that Rey’s parents turn out to be nobodies (and I really hope future films don’t retcon that). I love it that Snoke dies one movie early, compared to expectations set up by the OT. I thought Admiral Holdo was going to survive to carry the torch so Leia (and more importantly, Carrie Fisher) could gracefully quit the stage. Nope. And of course, Rian Johnson and crew couldn’t have known that Carrie Fisher wouldn’t be around for Episode IX. But I think that’s okay – Poe was given enough of an arc in this movie that it won’t seem forced if he assumes military command of what’s left of the Resistance next time out.
The unexpected narrative directions play very well with the OT-like (and very un-prequel-like) “wrong place at the wrong time” nature of the protagonists. Both Rey and Finn are explicitly told that they come from nowhere in this movie. They’re not Important People with Grand Destinies, they’re nobodies to whom circumstances present a choice: become heroes and maybe die, or run away and hide and maybe live. After 7 movies of increasingly baked-in Skywalker destiny, that is beyond refreshing.
By the midpoint of the movie, it is clear that our expectations about what is going to happen are going on the trash heap. But simply because it is a middle movie with ESB-like bits, I was expecting a betrayal at some point. And given how the Canto Bight subplot established that arms dealers were supplying both the Resistance and the First Order, I was really worried that Admiral Holdo was leading the Resistance to their doom. And I was very happy to be wrong about that.
I am a little irked about the fact that Holdo wrecked Snoke’s flagship by hyper-jumping into it. I mean, it was flat-out awesome on-screen, with some of the most kickass visuals and sound effects ever, but it’s one of those things that kind of breaks the universe a bit. In the same way that Picard and crew should have just beamed a shitload of warheads onto the Borg cube in “The Best of Both Worlds”, since they could beam back and forth with impunity, now that we know that you can destroy capital ships in Star Wars by hypering into them, it’s not clear why the Rebels/Resistance don’t have robotic ships doing this all the time. The RPG neatly dodged that question by having hyperdrives fitted with mass detectors that would throw the ship out of lightspeed if such a jump was intended – that was even a plot point in one of the old EU books.
This could easily be a post of its own, but I’ll condense it so I can cram it in here and then springboard off it. The OT movies are not only a time abyss, and seem like things that could only have happened “a long time ago” – both of the past, and in the past, you might say – they also are strangely timeless in their telling. What I mean by that is that there are few to no on-screen clues about how long the events of each movie take. Except for eliding the night between the double sunset and Luke setting out to find the droids, ANH could almost be playing in real time. Or, depending on how long hyperspace travel takes, it might have been days, or even possibly weeks (but for Vader’s “This will be a day long remembered”, one of those few internal clues). Ditto for ESB. Turning to ROTJ, we know that at least one night passes while the Rebels are on Endor, but it possibly was only one night. So each of the OT movies could plausibly be taking place in as little as 2-3 days, or maybe, at the outside, as much as 2-3 weeks, assuming that almost all of the off-screen time is taken up with hyperjumps, Jedi training, and sneaking around in the woods.
I noticed this a long time ago (heh), and I think it’s one of the great strengths of the OT, because it contributes to their mythic feel. What matters in those movies is relative time – events and their causes and consequences – but not absolute time. Which puts them in a very different category of cinematic experience than a ticking time bomb thriller or spy movie scenario. The Star Wars movies aren’t technothrillers with a little magic sprinkled on top, they’re fairy tales with cool machines as set dressing.
TLJ breaks that tradition more than any previous Star Wars movie, with an explicit counting-down-the-hours time pressure. On one hand, I think that might have been a mistake. The time pressure could have been just as real and urgent if it had been presented without units. “The fleet doesn’t have much fuel left”, rather than “The fleet has 18 hours of fuel left”. That would have hewed more closely to the fairly tale aesthetic than the technothriller one. And it pretty unavoidably compresses Rey’s training on Ach-To to a very short window, a few days at most. But then, how much time do we think Luke had on Dagobah? Conceivably it was just as little.
I think this is a lazy, stupid criticism, I always have, and I still do. After TFA, people asked, “Why was she such a great pilot right out of the gate?” Well, let’s look at the facts:
- She’s shown riding a speeder as part of her daily routine. So the basics of piloting are right there.
- One of the first things out of her mouth once the Millennium Falcon gets into space is, “I’ve flown before, but never off-planet.” Implying that she’s flown ships before, just not into space.
- The movie makes it pretty freaking obvious that she is not a great pilot right out of the gate, with easily the bumpiest lift-off ever committed to film. She and Finn survive what comes next, but clearly out of desperation, a little dumb luck, the resilience of the Falcon (which gets hit by the TIE fighters several times), and maybe a pinch of Force.
And of course there is the point that Luke is shown to be a kickass X-Wing pilot on his first time out, despite having only flown airspeeders before, and that only by verbal report (“my T-16 back home”). Rey gets more on-screen pilot-background-establishment than Luke did. So if people aren’t equally up in arms about Luke in ANH, I’m calling shenanigans – specifically, an ugly double standard.
The criticism that Rey can do Force stuff so quickly and easily in TFA is even stupider. Every thing that she does, she’s seen Kylo Ren do before. She’s not a miracle, she’s a quick study – which is exactly why Kylo and Snoke are so interested in her!
Now with this movie, people are asking why she’s such a good fighter. Uh duuuh – she’s been fighting with a stick for years, and a lot of that previous fight training ports over to using a lightsaber. I mean, we should be able to figure this out on our own, given that we see her fighting very effectively with a staff in TFA, but the movie goes ahead and makes it explicit in her solo practice session. This isn’t her first time using telekinesis or telepathy or calming her mind and letting the Force guide her actions – all of those things happened on screen in TFA.
So in sum, can we please let this dumb, lazy, sexist idea die?
I’m sure I’ll think of many more as time goes on, but here’s my growing tally of ways that TLJ recalls ESB:
- Rebels/Resistance pilots fight a delaying action at the beginning of the movie, in a woefully undergunned and outclassed David-vs-Goliath scenario, to buy time for everyone else to escape their doomed base.
- Speeders vs walkers on a white planet, in another woefully outclassed, David-vs-Goliath, buying-time-to-escape scenario.
- Luke left Yoda, who wanted to train him, to go try and save his friends, putting his feelings ahead of what is best for the galaxy (Yoda says this to his face). Rey leaves Luke, who doesn’t really want to train her, to go try and save her enemy, putting what’s best for the galaxy ahead of her personal feelings. Also recalls Luke going to try and turn Vader in ROTJ. Anyway, it’s interesting and rather satisfying that in ESB Luke leaves because he’s less mature than Yoda, but in TLJ Rey leaves because she’s more mature, or at least more morally driven, than Luke – not just ESB-Luke, but also TLJ-Luke, at least until he comes around.
- I see a lot of people complaining about the Finn/Rose/codebreaker subplot as a red herring that goes nowhere. Um, it’s also pretty much exactly what Luke does in ESB – go off on an ill-advised rescue mission that ends up not only failing, but leading into a trap. But in both cases, we learn a lot about the characters and a lot about the galaxy. And both of these emotionally-driven would-be rescues lead to important confrontations, Luke with Vader and Finn with Phasma. (For more on how this subplot is not a red herring, see the following post.)
- In both ESB and TLJ, a man-woman team on the run is delivered into Imperial/First Order hands by a scoundrel. The major difference being that Lando does eventually break away, free Leia, and try to rescue Han, whereas DJ just makes a run for it. Will be interesting to see if he turns up in Ep IX.
- Kylo vs Luke in TLJ in some ways recalls Luke vs Vader in ESB. It’s interesting that in both cases, all of the logistical advantages are on the Imperial/First Order side. In both cases, the younger fighter survives, while learning something about how badly he is outmatched by the older.
It’s interesting how skeptical this movie is about institutions, even – or maybe especially – the supposedly good ones. There’s the obvious deconstruction, in every sense of the word, of the Jedi. (Side note: man was it satisfying to have Luke just come out and admit what a bunch of blinded morons the Old Republic Jedi turned out to be.) But there’s also DJ’s cynical take on the Resistance, voiced both on Canto Bight and on the ship he steals (the TLJ books inform me this ship is called the Libertine).
It’s furthermore surprising, to me at least, how much the movie makes good on that skepticism, by doing a LOT of table-clearing. By the end of the movie Snoke is dead and Luke has transcended, leaving the future of the Force in the hands of Kylo and Rey. The Resistance is whittled down from a few hundred folks – I believe the number 400 is thrown out at one point while they’re fleeing on the Mon Cal cruiser – to just a handful that can all fit on the Millennium Falcon.
[Update, 2 days later: On reflection, the (inevitable?) failure of masters – Luke, Snoke, maybe even the Resistance leadership – emerges as a pretty solid theme, which ties in nicely with the institutional skepticism mentioned above. The movie seems to be saying, “Don’t put your faith in your leaders or their institutions. Put it in ideals and let those ideals lead to actions.”]
But then there’s that divisive closing scene, which makes good on the line – repeated twice in the movie – “We are the spark that will light the fire that will burn the First Order down.” It’s not the Resistance as an entity that will win, it’s the act of resisting. That is a pretty darned interesting message, one year into the Trump presidency.
It is by now well-trod ground – particularly here on this blog, between Mike and me in various posts and comment threads – that Star Wars started out with Alan Dean Foster’s line from the novelization, “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so naturally they became heroes”, and then progressively destroyed that illusion over the next five movies, by showing Luke to be a pawn in a decades-long ploy by the last two Jedi to revenge themselves and the galaxy on Vader and the Emperor.
The Last Jedi is a thorough volte-face. Decades-long plans end in disaster. The powerful are struck down unexpectedly. The downtrodden rise from nothing to shape the fate of the galaxy. This isn’t what Star Wars is always about. It’s not what it’s been about since 1977. But here we are, 40 years later, returning to the original and most hopeful message of the first movie. I dig it.