‘The Last Jedi’ provides new thrills … and a familiar feel

I think I’m done with the business of ranking Star Wars movies.  “The Last Jedi” has done me in.

I could make a pretty compelling argument for this being one of the three best movies in the franchise.

I could also make a pretty great case for it being one of the three worst movies in the series.

It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me to spend time or energy trying to come up with a proper ranking at this point, especially with it still being so fresh.  There are probably better pursuits a person can engage in.

Such as ranking porg appearances!

Just kidding, but yes I wanted to put some thoughts about the new movie down for posterity.  And its capacity for keeping folks like me unsure about its place within the saga is as good a place to start as any.

NOTE:  I WILL BE DISCUSSING SOME TOPICS THAT MIGHT BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS FOR THE LAST JEDI.  PLEASE BE AWARE OF THAT BEFORE CONTINUING.

“Star Wars” as a concept evokes many different things for different people.  Some harken back to the swash-buckling, Flash Gordon-like cheese factor of the original film, bad effects and all.  For them, “A New Hope” will always be “Star Wars,” and moreover, it will also always be the absolute ideal Star Wars movie.  Conversely, there are others who welcomed the new grittier, more emotional and somewhat more realistic (or at least more tactile) feeling of its sequel “The Empire Strikes Back,” and for those, that movie has become the ideal.

Each subsequent film has brought new elements to the overall story and new fans as well.  For most, I suspect, the introduction a person has to the movies will be their version of the “ideal” Star Wars that all of the other movies are then weighed against.  If you’re a 20-year-old who got started on the prequels, chances are your favorite Star Wars movie is “Revenge of the Sith” or even “The Phantom Menace.”  If you’re 40, you probably prefer New Hope or Empire.

Of course there are exceptions, so it’s no hard and fast rule.  We aren’t necessarily chained to our first love, after all, so it stands to reason we can change and evolve as we are exposed to new things.  Differences in aesthetics and story and characters and all that jazz will appeal to all of us in varying ways.  But I will maintain this phenomenon, of growing attached to our own “perfect” version of Star Wars, contributes to a complicated, intense reaction to new entries.

And this might be why for me at least, “The Last Jedi” is a conundrum.  It has been written and said by others that this Star Wars movie is different, and that’s both true and false.  It shares closely in visual design and appearance (and in cast and story lines, naturally) with its direct predecessor “The Force Awakens,” though in terms of narrative structure and themes, its closest relatives are without a doubt “Revenge of the Sith”, Empire and perhaps even “Attack of the Clones.”  The Sith parallels are striking.  The viewer joins a fierce space battle at the very beginning, many significant players in the story are wiped out, our hero/heroine is faced with a temptation, and the good guys suffer setback after setback until a major standoff at the end between titans results in the villains maintaining/taking control over the galaxy and our heroes on the run in the shadows.

There are other callbacks.  A message of hope is similar to what we find in “Rogue One” – indeed the viewer is beaten over the head with it – while the training/growth/temptation/failure of our heroine, Rey, is certainly reminiscent of the other “middle” parts of each preceding Star Wars trilogy.  Hell, there are direct callbacks to “Return of the Jedi” (the Millenium Falcon’s joyride through the crystal mine shafts) and Menace (themes of austerity) that you don’t have to squint to see.  In short, the list of comparisons for previous Star Wars films is a long one.

However, it’s the new that really sticks with the viewer.  This is how it’s always been, of course.  For many fans, a new scene, theme or even detail can be extremely jarring, to the point where a common refrain after the fact is, “[blank] didn’t seem very Star Wars-y.”  Expectations eventually adjust, and the new canon is accepted.

Within this film, there was much that was new.  The most shining example for me was the thrilling throne room sequence in the middle of the film.  Yes, we’d had similar setups before, most notably in Sith and “Return of the Jedi,” but narratively, they’d looked considerably different.  And yet everything that transpired here in Last Jedi fit within the characters we’d previously established.  It was fresh and unpredictable, but all exceedingly plausible … and it worked.  It worked so well it has become an instant favorite scene(s) for many, myself included.  It was literally breath-taking.

The “force connection” between our leads was a new twist we hadn’t seen before (as was the similar “force projection” we eventually saw from fan favorite Luke Skywalker later on … a clever callback).

What I was particularly struck by was how director Rian Johnson used these new elements — an incredible throne room sequence involving shifting allegiances and the “force connection” between potential romantic partners — to touch on a theme we haven’t spent much time on in previous Star Wars movies:  toxic masculinity.

Ben Solo is clearly damaged coming into this thing, making him a more sympathetic figure than Hux or Snoke, who are paper-thin figures of evil.  That they should be shallow is appropriate, given their intentions.  They are scared little men, reigning destruction on everything around them because … they are scared, little men.  It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.  Given our current political climate, this seems appropriate.

But Kylo is a tangled mess.  This provides genuine drama when we are presented with the possibility of him turning to good (he and Rey connect throughout the first half of the film, and we are made to better understand how he and Luke had their falling out), and then immense satisfaction when he briefly teams with Rey to kill Snoke and then wreck shop against Snoke’s guards.

This is cathartic because we hold out hope he can be turned, but also because we get glimpses of what kind of abusive relationship he is engaged in with Snoke, who lashes out at the slightest show of weakness or offense.  It’s very easy to look at Ben as being an abuse victim, like a child in an unsafe home, who eventually grows up to the point that they are able to take all that hatred and damage and funnel it into something positive.

It is not meant to last.  Once the foes are vanquished, Ben’s thoughts turn back to domination.  He expects Rey to meet him on his terms … her own feelings are invalid.  He asks that she turn from the past, yet he doesn’t reject his own ambitions of subjugating the galaxy to his will.  He is a hypocrite.  It’s clear he finds value in Rey, yet it’s also clear he has expectations of the woman bending to his needs and wants … and not meeting her somewhere in the middle (as many fans had hoped/expected when Luke told us previously of the Jedi needing to end).  There are no “gray” Jedi here.  In the end, he falls into his comfort zone of destroy, destroy, destroy.  (This by the way is a direct callback to the final confrontation between Anakin and Padme in “Revenge of the Sith:” She wants him to reject hate; he wants her to endorse his poor decisions.  One could make a good case for this dynamic being a commentary on addiction.)

We also see plainly obvious examples of men behaving poorly elsewhere, from Poe’s repeated misguided attempts to circumvent Holdo (and being properly put in his place as a result) to Finn’s affinity for making poor choices being corrected into better ones by the ever helpful and hopeful Rose.  We even see a literal deification of the matriarch Leia as she floats through the stars in the wake of an attack that by all rights should have killed her.

Do we go too far with this?  I don’t personally think so, as Luke’s ultimate sacrifice — clearly the right decision for the fate of the galaxy given where the story had taken us – came from his own desire to do the right thing and make amends for previous failures.  A lesson he took not from Rey, but from the esteemed Yoda (whose appearance I must admit caused me to gasp in the theater … yes, I am a dork).  And it is Luke who saves the day, again.  Yes, it’s symbolic, but in the end we can’t deny that Luke has given the galaxy hope once again.  Maybe the galaxy shouldn’t have put Luke on a pedestal to begin with, but there he sits anyway.  He handles the burden of responsibility well (eventually, anyway).

Star Wars has always been about the boys first, but it has historically been ahead of the Hollywood curve in terms of giving the girls their heroes too … Leia held more agency over her own destiny in 1977 than many women traditionally have before or since.  And in the sequel trilogy when Luke hid away to lick his wounds and Han fell back into bad habits when things got tough, it was Leia who stood up and fought, doing what needed to be done.  It is also worth noting the three most recent Star Wars movies have all had female protagonists.  Still, “The Last Jedi” is the most feminist of all the Star Wars films by a country mile,* and it’s appropriate perhaps that it came along in the same year that “Wonder Woman” did.  Our girls have some genuine role models to point to right now, and that is indeed a fantastic thing.

* Let me give credit to J.J. Abrams (among others) for setting the table brilliantly with “The Force Awakens” though … the chess pieces were set in such a place as to allow Johnson and co. to take it even further here.

I have several issues with the movie, not the least of which is the tear down of the mystical talisman theme that was so prevalent in previous Star Wars movies (and in the Indiana Jones films) and makes for a whole damn lot of fun.  Like seriously, it’s some of my favorite stuff … and Johnson blows it all to hell here.  I also think it’s fair to say that his ambition outpaces his execution at times, a trait this movie shares with the much maligned “Attack of the Clones.”

But in the final analysis, I am once again thankful for another chapter in the Star Wars film universe.  And given its ambitions and themes, I think it should be considered a particularly welcome entry.  In the grand tradition of Star Wars movies, it’s new, it’s old … it’s a little of both.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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