(Warning: the following article contains extreme spoilers about The Last Jedi, so consider that your warning, younglings)
As the internet debates (and debates) whether or not The Last Jedi is one of the best films in the Star Wars franchise or the worst in the saga to date, there is at least one thing we can potentially agree on: it’s certainly not a “safe” movie, at least not as far as mega-budget, mega-anticipated blockbusters such as this can possibly get away with being. More than any film in the series so far, The Last Jedi has the unique distinction of feeling controversial, even more so than the “but seriously, everyone dies at the end” finale of Rogue One. Call it the anti-Force Awakens.
In fact, on some level, The Last Jedi serves as a complete rejection of The Force Awakens. It’s fitting, I suppose, that early on the movie has a scene in which Kylo Ren literally smashes his mask–his “past” as it were–to pieces, moments after Supreme Leader Snoke mocks him for it. “Let the past die,” Ren says during a crucial scene before the climatic battle. “Let go of the past and take control of what you’re meant to be.” For better or for worse, director Rian Johnson seems determined to do just that with his Star Wars debut, serving as The Last Jedi’s screenwriter as well. He hasn’t made a sequel to what has come before so much as he has staged a borderline hijacking of the franchise.
Excited to find out who Rey’s parents were after all of that secrecy in The Force Awakens? Well, never mind, the “twist” is that they were “nobody” junk dealers! Want to know who Supreme Leader Snoke is? It doesn’t matter, because he dies in this one! Want to know how Luke Skywalker and friends are impacted by the death of their beloved Han Solo? They barely ever talk about him. There’s too much Vegas stampeding for that! Also, if you thought Finn and Rey had the Force strong between them, you were wrong. Finn has a new potential flame with a character who claims she…grew up under the tyranny of the First Order? Exactly how long have these guys been in power anyway?
This is not intended as an overly snarky “critique” of The Last Jedi, but it is to say that Johnson not only has no interest in answering the questions fans everywhere were asking after seeing The Force Awakens, but is perfectly content–dare we say even determined–to throw them into a space trash compactor and let them get eaten by a garbage eel. Johnson has said as much in various interviews, saying earlier this year that he had “no desire” to explore Snoke’s backstory since the prequels had already done that with Palpatine. But in more recent articles, he has discussed the film’s more controversial choices, including Snoke’s untimely demise. While talking with SlashFilm, Johnson claimed that his main reason for killing Snoke was that “he saw no place for him” in the series. And he’s said similar things about other moments in the movie.
Ultimately, this proves to be a double-edges sword (or lightsaber if you prefer). On the one hand, Snoke’s death does play out as an effectively cool moment, and the fight that ensues afterwards with Ren and Rey joining their combined Forces is one of the highlights of the movie. But then The Last Jedi–as it too frequently does–becomes confused with itself, unsure of what to do next. Kylo Ren immediately turns on Rey (for incredibly muddled reasons) and then decides he must destroy the Resistance even though he now despises the First Order. It’s a moment that arguably should’ve been held over for the next installment, as Snoke’s big slice feels like an “ending,” yet the movie still has 40 minutes left to go. And it hasn’t even let Luke Skywalker use a lightsaber yet.
Which leads us to the downside that comes with having such big “shocks” in a franchise as beloved as Star Wars, but more importantly to the ups and downs that come with letting a director create a “director’s film” with what is a major studio tentpole (a term which might be an understatement for a picture of this pop cultural stature). In a sense, it feels like Johnson has taken the path that J.J. Abrams began in The Force Awakens and completely changed directions. Yes, The Empire Strikes Back also found itself with a new director, but in that situation it was because George Lucas had a horrible experience helming Star Wars, and he still maintained full control over the story. Try to imagine for a moment what it would’ve been like in Empire if Vader had told Luke that his father was some dirtbag loser or if Han and Leia had shared no major scenes together. Taking risks is to be admired, but in the case of something so many people feel “ownership” of, should it really be pursued?
This has perhaps been most controversial with the film’s treatment of Luke Skywalker, something which The Last Jedi, for good or ill, attempts to have its blue milk and drink it too with (by the way, that “milking” scene? So gross!). When the jaded Jedi master finally agrees to be Rey’s master, he gives up on her after half a lesson, with him refusing to teach her anymore after she goes “straight to the dark side.” Yet all of the marketing–and even the movie itself–behaves as though Luke went through all of the required training with her, with Yoda’s ghost even telling him that the apprentice’s role is to “outgrow the master” despite the fact that he has already quit on her. Then Rey inevitably leaves after Luke ditches her, and the two of them never really get the chance to form any sort of a bond. Rey, intentionally or not, had far more in common with Han that she ever did with her supposed teacher.
And that may be where the (sometimes extremely strong) negative reaction towards The Last Jedi primarily stems from: for a very long time, it more or less encourages us not to root for Luke Skywalker, a hero as associated with being a pure force for good as Superman or Robin Hood. And by the time Luke finally does get to shine (for what, yes, is easily the movie’s most jaw-droppingly awesome scene), he inexplicably and rather unceremoniously dies soon aftewards, because if there’s one thing we learned from Revenge of the Sith, it’s that people love it when a beloved character passes away for confusing reasons. Yet it’s Luke’s attitude towards “killing the past” which is where the film is most bold….and also possibly most troubling. In the original trilogy, Luke’s primary character arc was that he refused to ever give up on his father, able to see the light in him when no one else was trying to. Here, we not only have a Luke who contemplated killing his own nephew because he pried into his dreams when he was sleeping and found Snoke “had already gotten to him” (and…how did that happen anyway?), but also one who sees his nephew as a lost cause. That actually goes against the central theme of the Star Wars saga as a whole, and it has yet to be seen if this is something the film itself is saying about Kylo or of it was merely Luke’s overly cynical perception of him (“Look, Rey, sometimes us Skywalkers want to kill kids! It kind of runs in the family, okay?”).
You may think at this point that I disliked The Last Jedi. That is not the case. If anything, I’m not sure what it is I thought about it, but have found myself discussing the movie’s odd choices more than anything whenever I talk about the film with someone. For instance, why does The Last Jedi take the time to give BB-8 an evil twin but never allow for the two of them to duke it out? Why does Rose tell Finn that the “only way” anyone in the galaxy gets rich is by “selling weapons” to the First Order when that notion is ridiculous? The Vegas sequence, which starts out fun, is possibly the most perplexing of the movie, as it’s apparently getting on its soapbox about…something, but I have no idea what. As an aside, the whole “it was good to make them hurt” line from Finn after they stampede space llamas throughout the streets (can you even imagine the internet’s reaction if George Lucas has come up with that?) is potentially even disturbing after the tragedy of Vegas last summer, and comes dangerously close to feeling like it’s in bad taste.
All of this is made most interesting in that Disney’s treatment towards Johnson is extremely different from how they’ve handled other directors on Star Wars so far, with Gareth Edwards doing millions of dollars worth of reshoots on Rouge One, Phil Lord and Chris Miller being fired from Solo mid-way through production and Colin Trevorrow being taken off Episode 9 long before any shooting had begun. Director’s movies, these have not been, which is why it’s notable for multiple reasons that Johnson has been able to get away with making one. He’s certainly far from the most “commercial” choice, with Looper being a high concept film which also split audiences (Bruce Willis has his younger self trying to kill him until the entire story turns into a “kid with superpowers” tale for some reason). Was Disney willing to take a gamble on Johnson since they thought he’d be able to win with critics?
In the end, that’s more or less what happened. Reviews for the film were almost unanimously positive, while audience reactions, as countless articles will tell you, have been much more divided. Some bloggers have tried to defend their views of the movie with headlines like “The Last Jedi destroyed my childhood…and that’s why it’s great!”, a sentence which doesn’t really make any sense to me, and speaks volumes about the pressure there can be in this age of ours to speak positively about something within the entertainment press (of course, this goes both ways, with many initial reactions to Justice League–by far one of the most repeat viewing-friendly action movies I saw this year–praising the film for being fun before critics decided to use it as another opportunity to collectively “hate” on Zack Snyder, but I digress). Mark Hamill, for his part, got involved in the discussion, making his disagreements with Johnson over the film no secret in a series of interviews, before someone at Disney presumably gave him a jingle and urged him to apologize (or maybe that’s not what happened. By most accounts, Hamill is a pretty nice guy).
The harm that comes from all of this, though, is how nasty the disagreements about the film have gotten on the internet, with the petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes over the movie’s critical success being unintentionally hilarious for plenty of rational people everywhere. It will be very interesting to see how Abrams–who will now be helming Episode 9–works with concluding the trilogy with The Last Jedi serving as the center of his cinematic sandwich. Will it be a return to tradition? Or has the past for Star Wars truly been killed?
Also, seriously, what does the term “Godspeed” mean in the Star Wars universe?