So last night I finally went and saw it. I admit that for some reason, I’ve been far less jazzed about The Last Jedi than about prior Star Wars films. Blame that on over-exposure: there was a movie each of the last two years, plus numerous seasons of cartoons and books and whatnot. Star Wars no longer feels like an event to me, and while it will still end up being the biggest movie of the year, it seems like in 2017, that’s not saying much.
The Last Jedi, however, isn’t your father’s Star Wars. It is very deliberately, and almost painfully, not that. Oh certainly there are a number of repeated tropes and callbacks, but this is a film that takes great pains to destroy and subvert every expectation you have of the films you have been watching for the last forty years. Whatever you expected this film to be, it isn’t. Wherever you expected it to go, it doesn’t. It gleefully takes every moment of importance in the Star Wars canon and tosses it over its own shoulder — sometimes literally. What’s more, this isn’t just an exercise in setting up the audience and then giving them a twist ending; this is a deliberate and almost constant rebellion against everything you ever thought this movie franchise was or could be.
The question remains, does that make this film the smartest, or the dumbest, of the nine that exist so far?
When you set out to make a sequel of some sort, you’re always fighting the need to balance the past with the desire to make something truly your own. Certainly this is true in Star Wars, where every film seems to have a bit of a chip on its shoulder about all the films before it. George Lucas seems to have been stung by criticisms that the original A New Hope was too shallow, and he brought in better story consultants to make a deeper The Empire Strikes Back. The whole prequel trilogy was obsessed with leading you to the very moment where the rebellion started, which had been nothing but a throwaway thought in the first trilogy. The Force Awakens, coming as it did at the peak of anti-prequel feeling, doubled down on ties to the original film. And here, finally, director Rian Johnson does what no previous film about a rebellion does — he rebels.
That’s right, this film is a straight out slap in the face to every Star Wars film and most Star Wars fans. It says, “I will not give you the 1970’s-faced, toxically masculine, easily digestible film you want. I will not give you that STORIED MOMENT when the guy you’re rooting for gets to save the universe. You will not be re-enacting any scenes at home using broomsticks, you will not be quoting momentous lines, and you will certainly not feel like your place in the universe is secure.” The Last Jedi rebels against every possible idea and character you’ve grown up with and tosses them aside, giving you the freedom to experience something totally new… whether you want it or not.
Star Wars has always been about two things, if you really look at it. The first is politics. In 1977, when people sought escapism, that meant a monolithic and oppressive empire, something you destroyed and didn’t consider. For example, Luke never really stops to think about the thousands (or more) of people who die on the Death Star. Some were probably just normal people doing a job who had no interest in universal domination. They had to go, though, so the people at the top could be thwarted.
By 1999, there was a bit more understanding that politics is a messy business and that the desire to do right is often the source of the act of doing wrong. The prequel trilogy did its best to show a world where the weight of corruption and long history had created a perfect opportunity for the rise of something utterly different. It showed the ways in which a reasoned and thoughtful government could devolve into a jingoistic and singleminded dictatorship. Although the prequels are not well-regarded today, their message is still highly resonant as we all struggle with the complex ways in which major powers attempt to shape our world.
A generation later, this new Star Wars introduces a very new, and very timely, concept: populism. It doesn’t matter who you were born to be; your fate is in your hands and not in the hands of a “force” you cannot control. To be rich is not to be happy, to be powerful does not make you right, and every single person no matter who they are can make a difference. This message has always been part of Star Wars but it’s only been since Rogue One that we’ve seen it clearly said that you don’t have to be a “chosen one” or member of an elite family to make a difference in the universe. You just have to step up. No character in The Last Jedi reinforces this more than Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, who spends the entire movie in a janitor’s uniform and still provides the most heartfelt line in the film. In your parents’ Star Wars you could be the leader of the galaxy, so long as you were white and handsome (or pretty) and so long as you were destined to rule. It turns out that really, no matter who you are you can make a difference. That’s a very “2017” message, nothing like anything you’ve really seen from this movie franchise before.
The other thread running through Star Wars has been the struggle of youth versus authority. Coming as it did in the peak of the baby boom years, the original film reeks of the desire to install teenagers as our gods and goddesses and brush away the evil intentions of the previous generation. The prequels talk about this too. Anakin, perennially the youngest of his cohort due to his uncanny abilities, never really understands the way the adults around him conduct themselves and so, he destroys them with singleminded determination. A song written between the original trilogy and the prequels starts, “Every generation blames the one before, and all of their frustrations come beating at your door.” This is true of life and certainly true of Star Wars.
And so now we have episode VIII, where the millennials are squarely in control and the characters from the older films are now the established generation. What role are the new characters destined to play? Like their parents and grandparents, they seek first to brush away everything that has ever come before them. This film does so, with vicious cruelty that makes longtime fans feel betrayed and marginalized. As young people often do, this film shouts in the face of its elders, challenging them to disregard long-held beliefs and threatening them with a message that has echoed from generation to generation: give up your place in this world, you have already lost the fight.
If you are a fan over the age of 40, you naturally bristle at this. This movie should be yours, you say; you have carried it in your heart for decades. It belongs to you and the next generation should cherish it, just as it is. If you are a younger fan, you feel welcomed and validated. This is your time, these are your movies, and they should reflect you as they reflected the times before you. Although my younger years are long past, and I very much hate to say it, the kids are (all) right. This is their time and their movies should reflect it. They should reflect their rising understanding of diversity, of individualism, and more than anything their desire to stand up and seek justice unfettered by the shackles of what came before. This film gives them all that, delivering easy victories against everything “established” by previous films and showing, over and over, that a “nobody” can be a “somebody” simply by choosing to.
Still, a bit of warning to those young fans who think it is right and just to cast away the old in favor of the new: your elders once thought as you did. As we grew greyer, we realized the value of experience. We understood how good it is to be part of a larger and longer thread of existence. We learned that holding something dear, even if it’s flawed, is its own reward. One day another generation will come and take your crown, I guarantee it. What will you do?
Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi, to use its full title, doesn’t look toward the future and it certainly dismisses the past. It is a movie of this moment in time, for this audience. It’s flawed, a bit soft in the middle, inconsistent in tone, divisive and gives you more opportunities for argument than for resolution. It never gives you satisfaction and rather than true peril, it gives you dread and anguish. What little hope it leaves you resides not within its core but at its margins, where a few characters give all-too-brief moments of poignancy.
In other words, it’s the perfect reflection of 2017.