SOME THOUGHTS ON THE LAST JEDI – CONTAINS SPOILERS
(This post is probably of no interest unless you are a Star Wars fan, and possibly not even then. It also draws a lot on analysis I’ve read elsewhere, so I’m making no claims to original thought here, just putting together various observations that I agree with.)
The first time I watched TLJ, I was mightily confused, and not entirely sure whether I was disappointed. Partly it had to do with pacing. There is a hell of a lot going on in the movie; there are, I think, slightly more frequent jump-cuts than in its predecessors, and no contemplative sequences similar to the beautiful introduction to Rey’s scavenging in TFA.
Another point that bothered me was the shift in tonality, and in particular, the daft humour. Star Wars has never been sophisticated (I mean, lol), but this film takes the goofiness to new levels. See also: everybody shitting on Hux; Luke tickling Rey with the leaf; and the First Order laundry room. (Hilarious though that admittedly is, it seems straight out of Eddie Izzard’s Death Star canteen or that SNL sketch about Matt the Radar Technician. I don’t generally really like overtly self-conscious movies and it seems a departure from Star Wars.)
Relatedly, the dialogue doesn’t always feel as natural in the mouths of the characters as it did in TFA (where I think the sheer wonderfulness of the characters and the new emotional and thematic questions more than make up for the reuse of original trilogy plot devices). There are also some “out of galaxy” language moments. Instead of bantha fodder and scruffy-looking nerf-herders strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark, we have references to “rabid curs”, “murderous snakes” and “cops”, all of which really ought to have been easily corrected to appropriately dorky alt-galaxy mood music. Even that great move from Hux where he spits out “Long live the Supreme Leader” is tonally somewhat out of place in a galaxy which is not supposed to share our culture.
But the biggest issues for me were those of theme and plot. Many people have pointed out that the Canto Bight side plot seems entirely superfluous because the mission fails and it seems, at first glance, to change nothing about what has happened. And while I think Kylo Ren emerges as a superbly realised character, simultaneously drawing the viewer in and endlessly disappointing us in equal measure, I had Feelings about the apparent unavoidable conclusion that he is a simple asshole who will only ever really be overcome through simple violence. Of course it would be hard on any serious moral analysis to ever properly redeem him (hello, genocide), but I feel for Han and Leia, damn it, and I didn’t want Han’s death to be in vain. TLJ seems to snuff out any last hope for even facile Vader-style “redemption”. I found it painful and discordant and on some level unacceptable that even Luke and Leia, at the end, are willing to write him off.
On re-watching, I’ve come round to really liking the film. One analysis I read of the business with Canto Bight is that it was about the danger of impulsiveness and individual heroism instead of collaborative trust. This seemed merely half-convincing at first, when the mission seemed to be “only” a failure, I became much more convinced when I saw it pointed out that it was only Poe blabbing to Finn and Rose that enabled DJ to sell information about the transports to the First Order – thus significantly changing the course of the battle. The mission did, after all, have stakes. They just weren’t the ones I was looking for (ahem).
I also realised that much of my impatience and failure to understand the plot with Poe and Holdo stemmed from my own (wait for it) sexism. Holdo, and I think this may be intentional, pushed a lot of prejudices for Star Wars fan. The perfectly coiffed hair and elegant robes activated suspicion in me; I found myself wondering from the start if she would be a “traitor”, and because Poe is set up as a straightforward hero, Poe’s own suspicions seem to validate the viewer’s. It was actually a great set piece about interrogating our notions of heroism, which of course, the whole film is about.
Likewise, I realised that my own investment in Kylo Ren’s “redemption arc” was something that Rey shared, and which impelled her to go running off to “save” him to begin with – despite the flimsiness of the “evidence” that he was going to come! back! to! the! Light! To appreciate the film’s moves in this respect, I had to be willing to critically distance myself from that investment. And if I laud the move to make Rey’s parents “nobody”, because I didn’t want heroism to come from bloodlines, why should I keep the original trilogy’s insistence that if all is put right in the royal Skywalker family, all is put right in the galaxy? Why does the “fall to the Dark Side” of Ben Solo need any more special explanation than Jabba the Hutt’s villainy? Why should this one asshole’s redemption take up three films when Finn conscientiously objects from day one of TFA?
In all, I think that TLJ has done something pretty cool in terms of taking viewers’ expectations about heroism and critiquing and subverting them. I think those of us who love Star Wars ought to come out doubting, because the film questions some of the sources and forms of that attachment, but in an intelligent way, in the cunning construction of story, and without losing the overall celebration of true heroism – with lessons learned by Rey, and Poe, and Luke alike. One moral of the story is, per Kylo Ren, LET THE PAST DIE. KILL IT IF YOU MUST. I don’t know if the world needed more Star Wars movies (probably not), but I accept that if it’s going to have them anyway, they may as well do cool new things. And I think TLJ did.
PS: I accept that there are serious logical inconsistencies in the warfare tactics etc. but I don’t really care. In TESB they appear to be able to walk around in the mouth of an asteroid-dwelling space slug without pressurised suits. Light craft have their own gravity fields (and the bombers can “drop” bombs in space?!). It’s Star Wars. It’s not supposed to make sense – in fact, the “explaining” in TLJ was one of the things I didn’t like so much about it, and which I felt set up unnecessary expectations of sense-making.
Also, given that new Force powers have been added in just about every single movie (Vader throws shit around in TESB, Palpatine Force lightning in ROTJ, Kylo stops blaster bolts in TFA), I’m just not wedded to any fixed canonical concept of what the Force can do. (Though I’ll accept Han’s insistence that Finn is probably wrong on the subject.)
PPS: I’ve also come round on the subject of the villains, which I had initially been lukewarm about, for fear that they just wouldn’t be very imposing in IX. The First Order is scary shit even without a figurehead. Kylo Ren may have been a fool in the moment but it may be a very different story with the triggers in his personal history- Luke, Han and Leia – out of the way. It’s true Hux is subject to a lot of physical comedy and made to seem a bit ridiculous, but I don’t think we should underestimate him – the infinite flexibility of his toadying is actually quite formidable; as I saw pointed out somewhere, there’s something pretty impressive about how smoothly he drops the next “Supreme Leader” on Crait. And I’m looking forward to the inter-villain conflict which has now been telegraphed for IX.