Sunday, April 14, 2024

A Fanboy comes to terms with The Last Jedi

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So I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (TLJ) has been a slightly divisive movie. Critics and fans are divided, fans and other fans are divided, and even social media seems to be divided with Twitter/Tumblr and Reddit serving as trenches for the newly formed hate and love factions of the Star Wars fandom (a First Order and a Resistance, if you will).

Visual representation of what I wanted my relationship with TLJ to look like

I’ve seen the film three times since its release and have straddled both sides of the divide. Immediately after the midnight screening I was elated, but that feeling gave way to questions about plot and characterization when I woke the next day. I loved things about this movie (Poe/Holdo, Rey/Kylo dynamics, everything Leia) but I couldn’t shake the bad feeling. A second viewing only intensified the conflict within me, especially concerning the characterization of Luke. I was questioning whether TLJ was a worthy addition to the canon.

Then came a third viewing. After reading an excellent piece from this site about TLJ being the A Feast for Crows of Star Wars, realising the themes, the character work, and feeling the warmth of a new dawn for Star Wars finally won me over. This post is about one fanboy’s internal journey toward embracing TLJ and new Star Wars in general.

The Weight of Expectations

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in expecting big things from this film. After all, every Star Wars outing carries the crushing weight of fandom expectations upon its shoulders. I’m not someone who was overly thrilled with The Force Awakens (TFA), so specifically I hoped that TLJ would remedy the problems I saw in that movie, the same way that some of the EU novels began to do.

What happened to you and why aren’t you in charge of the First Order?

Specifically, I really wanted some exposition about how the First Order came to power in the Galaxy and I needed more information about why the Republic didn’t seem to care that they had. I was also very curious to know why Snoke was in charge of the First Order, especially considering the Aftermath trilogy of novels by Chuck Wendig implied that it was founded by Grand Admiral Rae Sloane (pictured right).

Desperately, I wanted to see the compassionate Jedi Master Luke Skywalker forging a new path for the Jedi Order. I was excited for the Luke Skywalker filled with wide-eyed wonder at the world around him that we saw in the Legends of Luke Skywalker novel by Ken Liu. In an old face I wanted glimpses of the farm boy who, in the Original Trilogy (OT), would do anything to help his friends and his family.

More than anything else I wanted Rian Johnson to give me something that was fresh, new, and not a rehash of what had come before. TFA had too much nostalgia for my liking and I was terrified that TLJ would simply play it safe and give us another Empire Strikes Back (ESB).

Saying that my expectations were unreasonable was not an unreasonable assessment.

What We Got

You all know the plot of TLJ if you’re reading this piece. It’s a story where the bad guys have the good guys on the ropes and the good guys are trying to get out of trouble. That does sound a lot like ESB, but there really is a lot more to it than that.

It’s a story where a powerful young woman tries to convince a grizzled, old male mentor to re-join the fight. There’s another thread where the same powerful young woman tries and fails to bring a fallen foe back to the light.

A mechanic overcomes her grief and fights for love instead of hate. A former child soldier realizes that why he fights is as important as winning the battle it. A warrior is shown by two women that sometimes winning isn’t worth the lives it costs and taught that sometimes surviving the battle is the victory.

An old man confronts his past and his failures. Two women fight against impossible odds to keep everything they’ve ever worked for alive, in even the smallest of ways. Mentors end and their replacements rise to take their place. Ultimately, TLJ tells us about hope persevering thanks to the efforts of a determined few, despite increasingly frantic attempts to stamp it out.

There is an absolute shit-ton going on in this movie and how many different stories it tells totally justified its two-and-a-half hour runtime. Now it’s time to move on to how all of this made this particular fanboy feel.

Initial Reactions

I mentioned earlier that when I left the cinema initially (at two thirty in the morning after a double screening of TFA and TLJ back to back), I was buzzing pretty hard with excitement. The drive home and the time it took my girlfriend and I to brush our teeth was filled me gushing, “Did you SEE that cruiser rip that star destroyer in half?! How was that shot?! And the no sound during it?!?!” or, “I fucking love grumpy old salty Luke Skywalker, he’s my favourite kind of Luke,” and so on and so forth. I’m pretty certain she was glad the drive home was only two minutes so I’d shut up and she could sleep as quickly as possible.

Anyway, the next morning I woke up and I started to view the movie in a far more critical way (usual habit—I tend to be a little distracted by key jingling initially). Plot holes and the questions I wanted answered that went unacknowledged gnawed at me, popping up in my head as I tried to smack them down, fruitlessly.

Artist’s impression of me nitpicking my brain into oblivion

Just for starters, how did the First Order acquire a planet-sized, star-system destroying super weapon AND a fleet capable of acquiring military control over the galaxy without the Republic knowing? Was the entire Republic fleet at that one planet in TFA? If not, where are the other ships? Why were the Resistance so on the back foot after such a massive victory? Why couldn’t the First Order fleet just light speed in front of the Resistance ships instead of slowly chasing them? What on earth even was Snoke and why was he in charge?

Why did Phasma exist and why the fuck did she get an entire novel written about her? You get the picture.

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of these things are pretty damn trivial. No one liked the boring political shit from the Prequel Trilogy (PT) so it gets avoided like the plague here. I can recognize logic and I can’t say I blame them too much for being a bit dodgy on the galaxy building in the Sequel Trilogy (ST). That being said however, we do have three new EU novels that show us the formation of the New Republic (that’d be the aforementioned Aftermath novels). We also have a novel set five years before TFA showing us the political situation in the Galaxy at that point (Bloodline, Claudia Gray). It was a bit of a shame that all this got tossed in the garbage by TFA and not even referenced in TLJ at all.

This book was fine, but like, why does it exist?

One of the things Disney trumpeted after the purchase of Lucasfilm and the transformation of the old EU into Legends content was that Star Wars, as an entity across film, comics, TV and novels would be far more cohesive than it ever was under the old system of canon. It has definitely succeeded in being more cohesive than the old EU (to be fair, a 3am Trump tweet has more consistency than the Star Wars Legends EU), but the cohesion really only seems to flow one way. The books, comics and TV series consistently reference the films but not vice versa.

For example, Phasma is a character with less than five minutes total screen time in the films but has her own comic series and a book where she is the title protagonist. It brings to mind how Agents of SHIELD is constantly name-dropping the MCU characters and referencing film events but the events of that TV series would never, ever be referenced in an actual MCU film. You’d think so much investment in a character in EU material would merit at least some payoff in the film, but such was not to be.

So the fanboy in me was angry, basically. Rian Johnson has seemingly ignored the EU that was specifically created to gel with the movies better, but okay, I felt like I could probably get over that. Then I started to think about Luke and his characterization. I probably would never have even entered this thought pattern if I hadn’t read Gretchen’s stupidly excellent piece about Luke Skywalker being so anti-toxically masculine in his heroism because it stuck in my stupid head. The voice in my head told me that Rian Johnson has fucked up Luke Skywalker’s characterization. The most hopeful and compassionate character in the Star Wars universe had been turned into a sulky old man who had vaguely homicidal tendencies toward his nephew.

It was this that led me to my first re-watch and hopefully a re-evaluation of what Johnson did with Luke’s character.

The Second Viewing

The second viewing is during the daytime, I was alone and in a much nicer cinema than the crappy, eight bucks a ticket, two-and-a-half functioning speakers cinema in my rural Australian hometown. It was a good experience; I enjoyed it and texted my girlfriend right after to tell her how good the cruiser looked ripping that star destroyer apart on a bigger screen (she politely replied “that’s nice”). I got myself a coffee and thought some more about Luke.

Luke Skywalker, as pointed out in previous pieces, is something of an anomaly in modern cinema. He’s a relatively sensitive guy, defined by his kindness and his compassion. He draws his strength from his love for his friends and he ultimately wins his final battle in Return of The Jedi through his determination to save Anakin, rather than kill Palpatine. Male heroes who aren’t damaged in some way to make them more edgy or morally grey are pretty freaking rare in 2018. Put simply, we get a lot more Hans than we do Lukes, in modern film.

I really wanted to see this guy.

Furthermore, in The Legends of Luke Skywalker, we got a picture of Luke believing wholly in freedom for the entire Galaxy and the people who live in it. A man who is kind to his enemies, who reveres knowledge, new experience and being taught. Someone who is filled with utter wonder when he encounters a new environment. I mean, what more would you expect from a kid who grew up on Tatooine?

“Look, can you leave me alone I got green milk to drink.” I got this guy instead.

Contrast this with the Luke we get in TLJ. Here’s a Luke who couldn’t be bothered reading ancient Jedi texts even though he was spending his days meandering aimlessly around Ahch-To. A guy who couldn’t be bothered to rouse himself to try and help the fight against the First Order. Most crucial of all, here’s a man who decided, even if it was just for a moment, that his teenage nephew needed to die pre-emptively and ignited his lightsaber to make it happen. Is this even the same person who walked boldly into Imperial captivity and told his father how he could feel his conflict?

The second viewing hardened my perspective and at this point I was pretty much ready to wish this movie wasn’t canon, despite so much in the film I loved (RIP Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo).

The Third Viewing

Third time around was my first day off in 2018 and it was really fucking hot. This time I’m in a moderately good cinema and with my mum. Deeper understanding or analysis was not my goal; at that point I just needed to kill some time and not melt in the midday sun. I read the TLJ is A Feast For Crows piece a couple of days earlier, so I decided to keep an eye out for what was going on in the movie thematically, but I really didn’t feel too dedicated.

It’s funny that sometimes when you stop looking for something you tend to find it almost immediately. That time it was almost as if Luke was speaking to me himself, and what Rian Johnson had accomplished slowly began to dawn on me. The light shone, revealing not only his achievements but also my own errors going in.

I went in burdened with the weight of my own expectations and expected this movie to clear a bar that it never could have. When it didn’t meet my expectations I was angry and disappointed. Lesson number one, like Luke says himself to Rey:

“It does not belong to you.”

Just like the Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi, these films really don’t belong to me, or any of the other fans. Expecting the creators to fulfill my hopes and expectations was beyond conceited.

In a world filled with grimdark media, here was a story where two of the main characters (a black man and an East Asian woman no less!) learn that fighting for love gets you further than fighting for hate.

This, sadly, is rare but all the more precious for being so.

I was told a story about two women (who, blessedly, were allowed to exist as friends with each other for the entire film) in positions of power and authority. The film then subverted the traditional trope of “maverick male middle rank military guy shows the top brass how to save the day with a risky plan that ultimately pays off” by having the maverick fuck up unbelievably. The two female authority figures then saved the day and the maverick, a fan favourite no less, got a lesson in leadership from these two women. In any other movie, Holdo and Leia would have been the equivalent of Judi Dench in James Bond, telling him to do things by the book but then congratulating him when being a trigger-happy cowboy ultimately saves the day.

I got a story where Luke Skywalker sacrificed himself to keep his sister, the Resistance and whatever hope there is left the Galaxy still alive. He does this by facing his nephew in a duel that both simultaneously confirmed his fallibility as a human being and his status as a mythic legend.

Rian Johnson gave us all of these things and they add up to what is a truly moving story about how hope can be keep alive like a small fire in a raging storm by the efforts of just a few dedicated, brave people. And I was complaining about where the Republic Fleet was and the shiny stormtrooper’s lost character potential. Priorities, right?

Journey’s End

I said it at the beginning that I knew this was a divisive film. Many people super attached to the fandom have (for the larger part) tended to dislike it for reasons that centre on it throwing out established canon or characterization, while many others have defended it as a necessary step to make Star Wars more accessible to everyone. Shit, as I was writing this piece some idiot with too much time on his hands even made a 45 minute cut that apparently edits out all the women except Leia. That alone should tell you how strongly some people are leaning into this divide (definitely waaaay too strongly in that case). I wrote this piece hoping it’d make both sides a little clearer and hoping that some people in the hate trench might be able to examine the movie again, through a lens unburdened by their own expectations.

My profound realization face is actually the same as Rey’s

In summation, this fanboy turned the corner. This film is amazing and a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. Is there stuff I wish it did and that I wish it covered? Yes, oh god, yes. Do I still have lingering doubts about whether Luke would, even for a second, think about murdering his sleeping nephew? Fucking oath I do. Am I, on the whole, really happy with what this movie has done with the Star Wars saga? I couldn’t be more stoked. I just hope JJ Abrams is up to the task for Episode IX.

Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm

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