Ah, 1999, still the height of the dot-com bubble. I stepped into Star Wars: Episode I feeling…cautiously optimistic, only for my hopes to be dashed instantly by aliens speaking not an alien tongue with subtitles but a pidgin english. If the Ewoks were a shot across the bow, Episode I was the end of the respect I once had for George Lucas and his Power of Myth. I never even saw the subsequent two prequel movies in theaters. The only time I saw Episode III start to finish was a humorous foreign dub.
Then came the combination of hope in Disney buying Lucas out and trepidation in JJ Abrams taking the reigns, considering the damage he did to Star Trek’s legacy. Episode VII wasn’t horrible, but it was…repetitive and altogether unnecessary. I also, surprisingly, found John Williams’ score rather forgettable. Rogue One got really good reviews but I found its Saving Private Ryan approach to Rebels vs. Empire to be missing the mystical aspect that I found most compelling with Star Wars. The dogfights are great and all, but it’s sort of like AC/DC. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and the one thing George Lucas was good at in the prequels it was choreographing the dogfights. Episode III’s dogfights were just more exciting to watch than in Force Awakens or Rogue One.
Anyway, here we are at the tail end of 2017. I was 7 when I first saw Star Wars, and it was probably the single greatest transformative experience in my life, inclusive of my entire personal life. Now I’m 47 and almost jaded to the point of numb by big action spectacles, and I view the Star Wars franchise as heavily damaged, despite being the cash-cow that it is.
The big existential question remains as to whether even a good Star Wars film can come close to giving me the goosebumps that the original trilogy once did, or am I really too old for this sort of thing?
I have avoided any and all spoilers for this film. I know very little about the big-ticket plot points. I can speculate, of course, and I tend to be pretty good at guessing these things, but it’s rare for me to go into a movie completely cold.
I HAVE read a few spoiler-free reviews that mention that the film is padded in the middle and that the overal plot arc doesn’t move forward that much. What exactly does that mean? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. This time I really do want to keep my mind free of peanut gallery and see how it hits me.
I’ve decided to break my Last Jedi writings into half like this so I can compare my thoughts before and after. So here goes…
I am of a split mind when it comes to Star Wars. Filmmaking has gone in a progressively more “realistic” direction. The original Star Wars was very much in the realm of fantasy. The acting was broad strokes. It was a throwback to late 30s idealism. Empire has the best reputation because it added a dash of gravitas, but it’s still a far cry from the “grimdark” stylings of your Game of Thrones. Even Rogue One I felt, with its often hand-held style, seemed to tip its hat too much to “modern” filmmaking styles, more cinema-verite’ or news-footage-like. I liked the retro aspects of Star Wars and I don’t want those things to change.
At the same time, I can’t ignore the fact that I’ve changed. I may not beat to the same drummer as the rest of modern pop culture, but I’m not the wide-eyed idealist I was when I was 7 and the same cynicism I have towards the Star Wars franchise I also have about life in general.
If you can see where I’m going with this, it appears that there’s a vessel for Generation X’s disillusionment with Star Wars and that’s Luke. The shock and horror expressed by some at Luke being frightened and demoralized is understandable. He is a far cry from the paragon of composure expressed at the end of ROTJ. Generation X invested 6 years of our mindshare following that arc up to the point where Luke learned the value of mercy and forgiveness and we don’t want to see that flushed down the toilet by meeting up with Luke as a broken man.
At the same time, if Luke is meant to represent old-school Star Wars fans, then maybe it’s appropriate. His reasons for being disillusioned are in-universe, namely his nephew Kylo Ren turning to the dark-side and killing his best friend Han. But maybe the film’s tone is more meta (since I always see meta in things). Maybe it’s more like the philosophical question posed in Superman: Returns. While Superman: Returns was not a good movie, that central question the movie revolved around was valid, and put into even starker contrast by how Zack Snyder has handled him and uttering his memetastic “no one stays good in this world”
The original Star Wars came about immediately after Watergate and Vietnam. It bucked the trend of downer 70s cinema and restored a sense of idealism in Generation X. I think on some level there’s a desire to capture lightning in a bottle again. JJ Abrams is 4 years older than I am but I’d still classify him as Generation X. The Force Awakens, being so beholden to what came before, was too afraid to face how our world has changed. And maybe that’s OK if, as was the case in Star Wars, something like it came out that had a similar tone, but to simply recreate Star Wars brick-by-brick, it can never be anything more than a very elaborate tribute-act.
Chewie didn’t act like he aged a bit, and Han was put in basically the same clothes, doing the same stuff he did in Episode IV. Leia was markedly older, but had a pretty meager role to play, and Luke only had a non-speaking cameo at the end. The new characters never made that much of an impact on me. Rey especially was given a sort of speed-pass to force-mastery that turned my stomach and seemed in some way to be symbolic of Milliennial “entitlement” culture. So no, Force Awakens wasn’t a disaster, but after the prequels, it really had to be a slam dunk to make me a believer again.
From what I’ve heard in the early reviews, Rian Johnson has decided to largely ignore the momentum setup in Force Awakens and go down a completely different and unexpected angle. This is risky because what you want to do is look at the trilogy and see foreshadowing along the way. You don’t want to see plot-threads just dead-end and beats get contradicted by latter beats. But unfortunately, this sort of “make it up as we go along” quality has been a facet of Star Wars since the start.
The biggest bait-and-switch in Star Wars history was the revelation of Vader as Luke’s father. I remember feeling like this was a huge inconsistency with A New Hope, and this wasn’t resolved until Luke confronted Obi Wan’s force-ghost in ROTJ only for Obi Wan to utter this lame-ass excuse:
It wasn’t satisfying then and it still isn’t. The reality is that the story changed in mid-stream and they had to put a lampshade on it as a band-aid.
Fast-forward decades later and we now have the prequels that most would like to pretend never existed, or at least pretend they didn’t play out as clumsily and unsatisfyingly as they did, with the midichlorians demystifying force-sensitivity, Jar Jar, Vader Noooooo and more. So yeah, Generation X had Ewoks but they were nothing compared to the many waves of insults in the prequels, all the more frustrating given that Lucas the auteur was responsible for it all.
As you can see, I’m eating up reams of paragraphs whining about Star Wars. That’s my baggage, and it’s something I’m stuck having to carry into the theater to watch The Last Jedi. I don’t feel the new heroes have earned my interest in their welfare and I think Kylo Ren is just a whiny emo-Vader. I also do not like the way the triumphs of ROTJ were just brushed under the rug in the interest of doing a quasi-reboot so we can play through an Empire vs. Rebels style conflict all over again.
So my guess, based on what I’ve read in a few reviews, is that this level of pent up frustration and seeming futility of it all is what drives Luke’s inertia. While sure, Obi Wan was reluctant to participate as well in A New Hope, he was interested in motivating Luke to carry the torch. Luke, in this film, I suspect just wants to wash his hands of the whole things completely, analogous to a Star Wars fan who is just tired of being dicked with again and again.
I mean, Luke blew up a death-star and confronted the Emperor. He should not have to be dealing with this sh*t anymore just because Disney wants to rake in another couple billion dollars. He needs to be given a reason to give a crap if the needs of the plot require undoing all of his work like Sisyphus.
And as I look around the world today I see an equal amount of dejavu. Problems that I used to think we were solving weren’t really solved. That period in the latter half of the 90s was when the Soviet Union fell. There was a great deal of optimism during that time, and I was still in my 20s then. The world felt like my oyster. Then we had 911, the Iraq war, and pretty much the last 15+ years has been some mixture of crap. And at the same time, I stopped liking most of what came out of showbiz, whether it’s movies, music, or TV. So not to belabor the point, but I can relate to the Luke that I expect to see in The Last Jedi.
Mark Hamill said he expected a much more “zen” rather than tortured Luke, but that would have changed our perspective from identifying with him to being comforted by him in a paternal way. I think both approaches could have worked, but again, from the reviews I’ve read, Rian Johnson is opting to shy away from simply giving the audience what it wants and rather what he feels it needs.
So I feel that the purpose of The Last Jedi is to allow it to finally be allowed to “grow up” rather than to continue to be locked in an adolescent coming-of-age fantasy. The younger characters will continue the classic Hero’s Journey, but Luke’s role is to speak to the old fans.
That is my prediction.
Is that what I want? Really, I’m not that sure. I don’t know what it would take for me to get back into it. I just know that the slavish recreation approach of Episode VII left much to be desired. At the same time, it pains me to think of the suffering of Luke, let alone the ultimate fate handed down to Leia due to Carrie Fisher’s death. This is not how I would have wanted these two to end their journey. I suppose given that the prequels were a 3-part tragedy that there’s, pound for pound, more tragedy than triumph in the Star Wars saga. The same, I suppose, was true of Lord of the Rings, the way Frodo returned to the Shire suffering from his form of ring-PTSD.
At the same time, at the risk of repeating myself, I feel an equal amount of dysphoria in the future of the world vs. how I once imagined it would be. We should have Moonbase Alpha, a space-station that rotates for artificial gravity, and flying cars by now. I’m not sure Star Wars was ever supposed to parallel our world but maybe that’s not a bad thing after all. We do know in the end of the third film in this series they will have to tack on a happy ending anyway, but like all middle films in trilogies, it’s gonna need to be dark.
But I just know, as I said in an earlier post, I have grown weary of the franchise, especially considering Disney’s desire to pump these things out like sausages. If they’re gonna do that, they have to find a way to connect with who I am today as a jaded middle-ager. They have to say something that matters, to offer truly memorable moments of inspiration. Moments like this.
The Last Jedi may be the last time I extend such hope.