I promised a full analysis of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and why I liked it so much. In order to really get into my thoughts, I’m going to have to delve into the details of the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer:
And here’s a “jump” so that you don’t accidentally see anything:
Are we good? Can I start now? Excellent, let’s proceed.
The Last Jedi is a radical departure from the direction of recent franchise blockbusters. As I said in my previous “spoiler-free” review, it is bleak. Bleak movies aren’t crowd-pleasers, so if you were expecting another nostalgia-filled “reboot” like The Force Awakens (2015), I can understand why you left the theater disappointed. Just like any movie, some things worked and some things didn’t, but to me the former far outnumbered the latter. I mean, c’mon, if you delve deep enough into movies like The Godfather (1972) and Schindler’s List (1992) you’ll find flaws. No work of art is perfect.
The sequel trilogy promised a new coat of paint on the original trilogy in The Force Awakens. To some extent, this was necessary and even justifiable. The franchise had to win back a general public that were jaded by the prequels. However, as time passes I find that I’d rather go back to the original Star Wars (1977) than The Force Awakens. Why watch the update when the original is still available?
The Last Jedi changes that dynamic completely. It does so by going to a darker place.
Part One: Darkest Timeline
Unlike the Expanded Universe, we are now in the darkest Star Wars timeline. The EU had plenty of bleak moments in which two of Han and Leia’s children die (one after turning to the dark side), Chewie dies, Luke turns to the dark side, Luke is exiled, etc. However, at the end of the last novel (roughly set at the same point in time that the two sequels are by the way), Star Wars: The Crucible, the reformed Jedi Order exists, the New Republic exists, and the Empire is reduced to a handful of backwater systems. Han, Luke, and Leia spend the last scene at a bar and decide to retire to a life of leisure. While there will be conflicts and adventures for the remaining characters, it’s effectively the end of Star Wars history.
The end of history is a boring place to set a story. Perhaps that’s why the last two series and three movies of Star Trek have been prequels – the end of Deep Space Nine also serves as a nice “end of history.”
Centuries ago, Aristotle wrote that conflict is the essence of all storytelling. He remains correct. Being in a dark timeline is the only way to push the Star Wars story forward.
For example, look at Luke’s circumstances at the end of Return of the Jedi. Luke is barely trained as a Jedi and has always been touchy, does he really have the ability to form a new Jedi Order from scratch? The EU says yes, he will institute important reforms. Marriage is okay! Children aren’t taken from their homes! Luke becomes a powerful hero, a Superman for his galaxy!
The darkest timeline says no. He will certainly try, and for a time he does succeed. But instead of innovating, he tries to establish the same failed order that existed during the Prequel era. When one apprentice, his nephew no less, turns to the dark side, all that work is for nothing. It was supposed to be the end of history. It isn’t. In reaction, Luke doesn’t gather his strength and fight back. He reverts to the whiny farmboy of yore and bolts.
Did we want to see Luke Skywalker broken? Maybe not, but great art often shows us things we’d rather not deal with. Anyway, to Luke’s credit he doesn’t stay broken long. Kylo isn’t much younger in that flashback scene after all than he is in the movie. In the end, Luke does gather his remaining strength to save his sister and the remaining rebel leaders from certain doom. It’s no small feat to project yourself across the galaxy, and because Luke isn’t actually Superman, this feat serves as his last stand.
The Last Jedi is bleak for other reasons too. Every convoluted plot that the heroes try blows up in their faces. Poe’s attack on the dreadnought ends with his pilots dead and a demotion. Finn and Rose go on a side quest that ends up betraying the Resistance’s escape plan. Rey’s attempt to turn Kylo back to the light only results in Kylo becoming a more committed Sith. We also know that Leia probably won’t survive much longer.
Before I go, a note on that last one. It isn’t shot perfectly, but Leia’s flight through space didn’t bother me at all. After all we’ve seen the Jedi do, and Leia is a powerful Jedi, is it really that far fetched that a Jedi can force pull themselves thirty feet through space? The human body can live 15-30 seconds in the vacuum in the real world, that’s more than enough time.
Besides, the exposure nearly kills her, and might end up resulting in her death in anyway if the writers take the simplest path. I wouldn’t mind if they recast the role with a great actor, but that would be a thankless gig to if there ever was one.
So there we have it. The Empire is ascendant, the Rebels are nearly wiped out, and their greatest hero sacrifices himself to save the last of them. Their leader is probably not long for this world. It’s bleak, but the way it’s bleak is what resonates to me.
By this I mean that there are no supermen. There is no special origin story. The high risk plans fail because they are doomed to begin with. Failed systems like the Old Republic and Jedi Order failed for a reason.
Does all of this failure feel pointless? Wasted time? No payoff? Yes. That’s the point. The heroes don’t win all the time. They aren’t perfect. And, just like the original trilogy, by setting the heroes back this far it will feel all the more earned if they do triumph in Episode 9, which certainly doesn’t feel guaranteed by the way.
With that the Last Jedi did something I didn’t think was possible anymore in this era of endless sequels and cinematic universes. It set up a finale where I honestly don’t know if the good guys will win. Contrast this with other franchise movies, where the question isn’t whether the heroes will win, but how much they’ll win by.
Part Two will come later this week.
(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe