Once again I followed my absolutely watertight plan of waiting a really long time after a movie to come out to go see it and desperately ducking spoilers until finally getting into a theatre. Today I became approximately the last sentient collection of cells to watch The Last Jedi. I’ve got some thoughts. This is gonna be a long one. (Sorry, Brandon)
I did manage to go relatively unspoiled, but of course it was scarcely possible to avoid seeing at least some of the reaction to the film. It was, even more than for Force Awakens, mixed. Some people loved it. Some people hated it. So (once again) I went in with a little trepidation. I saw someone on Twitter (really can’t recall who) say it was like a Harry Potter movie except that Hogwarts turns out to have been a terrible place and Harry is now a cynical failure. (I mean, Hogwarts’ is clearly a terrible place, but never mind that for now)
I don’t get it, not really. We learn that Luke failed in training Ben Solo – which we already knew. He’s not actually wrong about the Jedi, as an institution. The Jedi have always been fuckups, since the first movie, so this revelation is also nothing new. They were supposed to be the guardians of the galaxy (heh) and they let the Empire happen. They’ve always made questionable decisions. Ben Kenobi flatly lies to Luke about his father, and when he’s caught out in it offers one of the very lamest justifications ever. Luke buys it because he’s still really an extremely innocent kid not far removed from being a Tatooine dirt farmer, and because he desperately wants to believe in the Good Guys.
And this is where some of the problem comes in – I think a lot of times Star Wars fans conflate ‘Jedi’ with ‘The Good Guys’, as though the one label necessarily means the other. One of the things I love about the Star Wars universe is that there are unambiguously Good and Evil characters and they face off. I was juuust a little concerned with some of what I had heard about The Last Jedi that they were taking that away. But they didn’t. There are still Good characters and Evil characters, it’s just that Good and Jedi aren’t necessarily exactly the same. The Jedi screwed things up in the past. Luke screwed things up again, thinking he could bring the flawed institution back.
But even the idea of using the Force for good ends is still very much there. (Are we still gonna call that being a Jedi? It seems like by the end of the film, we are, or at least Luke says so, and I’m not gonna argue with him) Luke Skywalker is still, in the end, an unambiguously heroic character. It’s okay for a heroic character to screw things up (I mean, listen to Yoda if you don’t want to listen to me) and it’s ok for Luke not to actually have all the answers. That’s how it is. We do our best – and Luke did, by any standard, very well – and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. What he needed to learn (and I like that among the messages here is that you’re never done learning) is that failure is okay, and you pick it up and keep going on. (It’s maybe not a surprise that Luke has a problem with that, seeing as he more or less grew up surrounded by people telling him that he was the last hope and that if he dropped the ball it was all over)
So I’m perfectly fine with the movie’s take on Luke Skywalker, the Jedi, and the Force. I think it actually all hangs together really well. The Jedi were an institution that was probably past its sell-by date and weren’t doing what they were meant to be doing any longer. Great Problems Ensued. These will not be fixed by just trying to put things back the way they were. It’s gonna take a new approach, or remembering what the old approach actually was: Luke was too focused on the Jedi books and not enough on the Jedi idea. (By the way, If Luke Skywalker had showed up and fixed everything, that would be, first of all, terrible writing. You don’t create a bunch of new characters and then promptly undermine them by having them saved by one who has already done his time in the spotlight.)
Ok, so that was stuff that I kind of came into the movie thinking that I might not like and came away thinking was really good. What did I just straight up like?
I loved that there was no big clever answer to Rey’s parents. I adore that she’s ‘Rey from Nowhere’, and that’s your hero, not someone with a ‘special’ bloodline or someone long foreseen in prophecy. She’s ordinary, but she’s gonna do something special. Kylo Ren – so completely sold on the idea of destiny – tries to tell her, and probably desperately wants to believe, that she ‘has no place in the story’, but he’s wrong. It’s her story. She’s the hero. She’s the star. The person to restore the spark of hope to the Resistance isn’t Luke Skywalker, it’s Rey, or perhaps it’s the entire rag-tag band of them on the Falcon at the end. (I still kind of miss Han a little every time the Falcon is on screen.)
Now, Rey also appears to settle into this hero thing pretty easily. Just like Luke in the first trilogy, she has that perception of what needs to be done, and steadfastly goes and does it. Unlike some of our other main characters, Rey is actually right. That’s fitting for our main character. I also, however, love that in this film we have some characters learning to be heroes.
In Force Awakens, Finn mostly wants to escape the First Order and his first instinct (heh) is just to Get Away. By the opening of this film, he’s grown a bit – he’s looking to make sure he and Rey escape, but the rest of the Resistance, he’s prepared to leave – even buddy Poe Dameron, who we’ll get to in a second. It takes the events of the movie, and especially some perspective from Rose (about whom more, too) before he really buys into this cause bigger than himself, one that he’s willing to put it all on the line for. By the end of the movie, he’s proudly ‘Rebel scum’. It’s nice growth, and I expect great things in the final instalment.
Oh, Poe Dameron. What a fun character, and what a great example of a guy who has a hammer and so everything looks like a nail. He basically wants to solve every problem by blowing it up with an X-Wing (as General Organa points out) and that came across pretty positively in Force Awakens when the situation genuinely called for a lot of space fighter shoot-em-up. In Last Jedi, not so much. Poe fixates on blowing up something big in the opening scenes and sacrifices way too much to do it. (Arguably, this cues up the terrible problem the Rebel fleet ends up in afterwards) He’s still determined that there must be an Exciting Daring Plan to solve the next problem, so he doesn’t listen to Admiral Holdo, even though she’s a veteran officer and probably should know what she’s doing (and does, as it turns out). In passing, it’s certainly not a great look for him that he spends a lot of the movie not listening to qualified women and causing shit because of it. Hopefully he’s learned.
I think he has, because to Poe’s credit, as Admiral Holdo’s plan eventually unspools, though, and he sees that Holdo was far from a ditherer or a coward, and not only knew exactly what she was doing, but had the right plan for the situation (well, nearly), you can very nearly see the light come on. There are times to blow things up. There are times when that’s not how to win. Poe takes that lesson into the last set piece battle and realizes that there’s no sense in getting all his pilots killed. Time not to fight, time to live and stay in the struggle. Nice growth, again.
(I think it’s important that both Holdo, and Leia, ultimately realize that everything Poe does wrong is coming from a very good place – he wants to do well so very badly. It’s just that he’s also internalized a very dramatic, front-and-centre idea of what being a hero means, and that’s not always going to serve him well.)
Now, overall this is one of the lessons that The Last Jedi seems to want to hammer home – that we don’t necessarily win by blowing things up, as satisfying as that often is to do. It was the wrong plan in the opener. Holdo’s understated escape strategy was correct. Luke doesn’t show up to fight Kylo Ren, he shows up to stall and cover an escape. It didn’t make sense for Finn to die blowing up another piece of Imperial tech; the important thing was for him to live and stay in the fight. People matter. Surviving matters. Persevering matters. Sometimes the fight is not a literal fight.
I’m going to be very interested to see if they carry this through into the last part of the trilogy and give us a final victory that doesn’t come from a big space battle and something enormous exploding. It would kind of make sense if they did, because the Rebellion kind of already tried that and it didn’t end up really solving things. The amoral codebreaker (who I really hope we’re not actually done with) was right, in a way – one day they blow you up, one day you blow them up. The solution could be, perhaps needs to be something else. It’ll be very cool to see if, and how, they make that happen. (Of course things will still blow up. It’s Star Wars, after all)
I’ve seen several clever people say that The Last Jedi is a very 2017 movie, and in some ways I agree. Sometimes the galaxy lets you down: no-one shows up to answer Leia’s call for help. Sometimes there is no cavalry, sometimes if something’s important you gotta do it yourself. Moreover, the Resistance’s saviours are not coming from our old cast of characters – not Han, not Luke, not even (alas) Leia. The answer is emphatically not reaching back to the past, or assuming that because someone has a particular label that they’re The Answer. We need new ideas, new approaches, new heroes.
Speaking of, Rose is a great character. Like Rey, she’s not anyone Important. She’s not a Skywalker, she’s not a Princess, she’s not a flashy pilot or a cool smuggler. She’s a technician who is initially starstruck to meet Finn, but (somewhat like Bodhi Rook from Rogue One) she signs up for way more than she probably should because it’s necessary (or at least it appears to be). She’s able to convince Finn that the Resistance really is something pretty important. She saves his life for exactly the right reasons. Again, I expect great things.
I really loved a lot about this movie. I loved that ‘the worst place in the galaxy’ wasn’t another grungy dive bar, it was a glittering casino full of beautiful wealthy people who couldn’t find morality with a map. I love (as a friend of mine just pointed out to me) that the film suggests that the Force belongs to everyone, not just an elite caste of people with the right bloodlines and groovy robes. How great, not really incidentally, was that shot of the kid with the broom, almost looking like a lightsaber in the starlight, looking up into the night and dreaming of being in the fight. I love that the last shot of Luke was watching twin suns set, very nearly exactly like the first time we saw him.
Of course I have a few minor niggles with the film and places where I think perhaps things could have been done a touch better. But overall, I thought it was fantastic, far better than The Force Awakens, in large measure because it was a really different and new story. I can’t wait to see how it concludes.
Go get ’em, Rey from Nowhere.
(That’s a lot about this movie. I’m gonna stop here. I could write so much more. I’m just that excited about how good it was. Here‘s a good column that digs into some of the politics of the movie really well, and better than I really am able to.)