Composite image for the film Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Image courtesy Lucasfilm. Click on images to enlarge.
“It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.” – DJ.
My pedigree with Star Wars reaches across four decades to the first showing of the film at Kaydonna Drive-In cinema in eastern Trinidad. It would be accurate to say that I saw Star Wars, the film now known as A New Hope in the modern canon, before I heard the film.
Of the two cars that set out to the drive-in only one made it into the gates after a long wait in the line of vehicles outside the tall concrete walls of the outdoor cinema. So a decision was made to send the children in with the car that made it in, and my friend Ian and I sat outside the western wall of the cinema on a side street that offered a view of the screen.
For those of you too young to have ever visited a drive-in, the sound for the film was piped in through a wired metal speaker box that you perched on the window of the car. Without it, the show was utterly silent.
I pondered that history after leaving The Last Jedi (TLJ), the third film in the franchise created since Lucasfilm was bought by Disney.
Of the three, this is the only one that I’d really consider to be a film with the authorial stamp of a perspective that’s different from the one that creator George Lucas imbued the six films and ancillary television series that emerged from LucasFilm under his eagle-eyed watch.
Rogue One (2016) dared to consider the consequence of the reality of war on a galactic scale with bloody intimacy, but had the insulation of dealing with characters that had remained firmly off screen since 1977.
It was Star Wars in a bottle, an isolated story that only glancingly intersected with the series that has fired the imagination of fans for decades.
Writer-director Rian Johnson has done something completely unnerving with his take on the characters and storyline of the series; he has acknowledged that the narrative of 1977 needed to be taken to another level to escape both the dogged subservience to the history of the series and the temptation to revisit familiar old themes that haunted 2015’s The Force Awakens (TFA).
It’s right there in the film’s first few minutes, a faithful reconstruction of the swelling moment of reveal at the end of TFA, Rey’s trembling hands offering up the lightsabre to the grizzled, en-Kenobi’d figure of Luke Skywalker.
The TLJ moment is rather less worshipful. Skywalker takes the lightsabre and tosses it over his shoulder, walking brusquely away, denying a hopeful millions of the iconography of Hamill’s face lit by the light of the weapon.
JJ Abrams’ unnervingly faithful retread of A New Hope made lots of money but advanced the central ideas of what we understand to be Star Wars not one bit.
Viewed as a springboard for a new direction, Abrams’ film may well find a different footing in the Disney driven future of the franchise, but what is certain is that it offered up a cast of characters that Johnson has pushed in surprising directions.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) interact in ways that blur the idea of good and evil in that universe quite definitively; Supreme Leader Snoke, setup as the deus ex machina of evil in Force is brushed aside with brutal abruptness and is it just me, or does Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker spend much of the movie on the verge of weeping, his eyes welling up with tears with disturbing frequency?
Rian Johnson demands more from his actors than any director has since Irvin Kershner delivered the bummer of 1980, The Empire Strikes Back, a film so brilliantly depressing that it has been deservedly recognised as the jewel of the series.
So he does the only sensible thing that a creator with an eye on a successful future does, engineering a reboot while appearing to move the franchise forward by one more trilogy step. But it’s a bit of a step sideways as well as forward, a feint that’s thrown the fans of the franchise for a loop.
Disney isn’t going to stop making Star Wars films after the end of the final trilogy envisioned by George Lucas.
They are going to mine this property for decades, if their track record with The Mouse is any indication, and the only way to do that properly is to assess the value of what’s there and create a strategy to sustainably draw value out of Lucas’ insanely busy universe.
This doesn’t stop the writer-director from pressing a few familiar buttons, striking up the steelpan again in a much more upscale version of the original cantina sequence, a military showdown on an ice planet and sending the apparently indestructible Millenium Falcon down narrow passages with Tie fighters hot on its afterburners.
“The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi…let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” Ren tells Rey, with words that seem to come directly from the director and perhaps Kathleen Kennedy herself.
“That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”
By then, Johnson has done something quite remarkable and clearly telegraphed, with his insistence on a new vision, a new perspective and a willingness to boldly have his characters tell the audience to their face that it’s time to let go of the past and to embrace new possibilities.
In one apparently aimless digression, he sends Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) off to a planet that services the whimsies of the wealthy of the galaxies, war profiteers all.
There he makes a point of planting a seed of rebellion among a new group of children, ending the sequence with a rather ham-handed image of a slave child, apparently force adept, holding a broom like a lightsabre and staring off into the endless dark of the stars above his planet.
Disney has an interesting challenge in continuing the Star Wars saga. The old villains are dead.
The heroes are ageing and largely only of (admittedly considerable) sentimental value and today’s audiences, even the children, are being raised on complex dystopian fare like The Hunger Games and Red Rising.
The Last Jedi is less about dystopia than it is about the exploration of the metanarrative in Star Wars. The metanarrative, the story as character as well as backbone, has been with us for some time now in science fiction, most popularly deployed in Watchmen, the 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons which used storytelling as a villain’s weapon.
Since then, comics author Grant Morrison has dedicated pretty much his entire career in comics to picking away at the story of storytelling in his comics work like a rat on PCP, beginning with his eminently confusing run on Animal Man. This knowing acceptance of plot as player is now so firmly entrenched as a part of fantastic fiction that it was cheerfully lampooned in Deadpool (2016).
Modern fans will demand more emotional and political complexity from their entertainments than an older generation raised on heroes who bravely faced down situations that were clearly evil in the service of good.
It’s been rumoured that the third film in the third trilogy was supposed to be the shining moment for Carrie Fisher, who waited three decades only to be dreadfully underutilised in the last two films.
There’s a moment in TLJ when General Leia realises that the surge of rebellious assistance she has been depending on isn’t going to materialise.
It underlines the dramatically diminishing fortunes of the group as they battle The First Order, losing steadily as they go and it offered a possibility for where the final film in this trilogy might have taken its story with the General. That probably won’t happen now, and in a way, it’s also liberating. All that’s left available for the next instalment from the groundbreaking 1977 film are C3PO, R2D2 and Chewbacca.
All the humans you remember are gone.
You won’t leave The Last Jedi having seen a film. It’s clearly an event of a different kind entirely, the explosion of the tropes of a franchise the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the opening fifteen minutes of Casino Royale, the film that did the same thing for the James Bond franchise.
Rian Johnson didn’t continue a trilogy, he reset the franchise with confident sleight-of-hand, the clear endorsement of Disney and a ruthlessly clear idea of what the films should mean to modern audiences.
This is not the Star Wars you remember, this is not the film you expected, *waggles fingers,* move along now.