When Nostalgia Isn’t Enough—How The Last Jedi Substitutes Subversion for Shock
—by Nathan on December 17, 2017—
Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog detailing my deep appreciation for Rogue One, the Star Wars anthology film that told the story of how a group of rebels stole the plans for the new Death Star base. Slotted between prequel film Revenge of the Sith and the original trilogy’s A New Hope, it enabled storytellers to craft a tale in part separated from much of the lore, characters, and concepts of the Jedi stories found in the old, original, and new trilogies. Not a clean break, certainly, but it was original in the sense it gave us something new and refreshing. For me, it worked well, for that reason and a variety of others detailed in that blog.
2015’s The Force Awakens did not work on that level for me. Sure, it was a brand new story, but it relied far too heavily on the old mythos to pave the way. Even if you stripped away some of the more ludicrous story elements (such as Poe Dameron surviving a crash by ejecting from his ship earlier, a scene we’re not given and only told when he shows up alive after you’re fairly certain he’s dead) or obvious marketing tactics (like the “Traitor!” Stormtrooper with the electric cattle prod fans quickly assumed was made only to sell toys), The Force Awakens still tried to shove as much of the old in as it could, basically to remind fans, “See? It’s a Star Wars movie!”
The Starkiller base was pretty much a “it’s bigger, it’s better, it’s badder” version of the Death Star—a massive laser canon utilized to wipe out entire planets. Kylo Ren was a masked dark lord with a red lightsaber and family issues. The “father/son” plot twist was used between Han Solo and Kylo Ren, mimicking the much better Vader/Luke reveal from The Empire Strikes Back years before. And the whole “orphan with unknown parents growing up on a desert planet flies away from said planet on the Millennium Falcon, joining up with a rebellion to fight the villains and destroy the massive weapon” plot was heavily lifted from A New Hope. The Force Awakens is not a perfect replica, of course, and there are various new elements and new characters, but it felt like the filmmakers decided to suck in audiences based on their love of the original trilogy instead of offering something bolder. Nostalgia instead of invention; rehashing instead of reinventing.
2016’s Rogue One did not suffer from that problem, and this year’s The Last Jedi does not either. In my second viewing of The Last Jedi, I was able to peer more deeply into the film and see how it manages to really invert the tried and true (and sometimes tiring) tropes that we have seen scattered across the previous entries in the Star Wars saga. Yes, if you compare it to Empire as the second entry in a Star Wars trilogy, you will find some similarities, particularly in the plot: as the resistance forces flee their base after being attacked by the enemy army following a heated but failed battle, a young Jedi apprentice is mentored under the tutelage of an old Jedi Master on a distant planet and finally discovers the answer to their parentage. My blunt summary of the films aside, there are similar themes bandied about: good vs. evil, parental conflict, masters and apprentices, failure and success…but considering how universal these themes are in any story, they don’t detract.
But The Last Jedi does what The Force Awakens failed to do, as the stories and characters point to, as I said before, a shift in storytelling. Tonally, it’s far different from The Force Awakens. Story wise, it’s far different than any other Star Wars trilogy story. Let’s explore some of those ways, shall we?
As always, SPOILERS ahead.
THE LAST JEDI'S GREATEST MIND TRICK
Star Wars has some of the most iconic characters ever put to screen. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C3-PO, R2D2, Darth Vader…the list goes on. The Force Awakens attempted to capitalize on those characters, by giving Han, Chewie, and Leia good doses of screen time, bringing in the droids, referencing Vader numerous times, and saving Luke to the very end. Han was still smuggler Han, Leia was still rebel leader Leia, and C3-PO was still there to annoy everyone to death with his statistics. Even the specter of Darth Vader was ever present as a guiding force to Kylo Ren, Luke and Leia’s son.
To its credit, The Last Jedi dials this back. By this time, Han is dead, and his Wookie buddy appears in a few scenes, sometimes as an ace pilot and sometimes for comic relief. The same is true of 3PO and R2, both used sparingly and for either comedic moments or some quick reminders of the previous trilogy. R2 and Luke’s reunion is a great little scene, but it’s short. It’s a brief moment for the fans before the film moves on. 3PO rattling off stats of the resistance’s odds of survival is amusing, because it’s so him, but it’s compounded by Poe Dameron interrupting him and telling him to shut up (and Leia’s earlier line about 3PO “wiping that nervous look off your face” is hilarious). Leia spends most of the film in a coma following an attack by the First Order in which she saves herself via the Force, a first for her on-screen. Vader’s presence is kept to a minimum, as Kylo Ren bends under the pressure of Supreme Leader Snoke to disregard that legacy and takes major steps to becoming his own villain. In doing so, Kylo escapes the shadow of being too much like Vader, a criticism of the first film.
Perhaps best of all is the character of Luke. When we first see him, he takes his lightsaber from Rey and holds it a moment. You think he’s back, the hero has returned! But then, hilariously, he tosses the saber over his shoulder and walks away. Later on, he scoffs at the Jedi’s hubris and his own. “Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, a legend,” he spits. He resents the deification, he feels guilt towards Kylo’s fall to the Dark Side, and he at first refuses to help Rey. He’s cut off from the Force, he’s a hermit. It’s such a different character than what we were given at the end of Return of the Jedi, and it’s fantastic. It makes perfect sense that, as he got older, the hero worship stuff would slide off him, especially after the incident with Kylo. He’s a broken man who Rey helps heal. Plus, his showdown with Kylo is great, but more on that later.
Speaking of Kylo Ren, one may have expected him to go the way of Darth Vader, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t remain a pawn of Snoke’s, as we will see. He discards the mask early on and, like Luke, loses the hero worship. This, of course, brings us to the plot. There are a lot of great moments and scenes in the film and some of them fit well with previous Stars Wars entries before. We’ve got space battles, ground battles, evil base intrusions, chases, revelations. But, with some specific scenes, new details are added to the old story.
Back to Kylo Ren. Near the end of the movie, he looks all ready to kill Rey, who he’s brought before his master Snoke. And then, in a rather dramatic twist, he kills Snoke, cuts him in two, and assumes the title of Supreme Leader of the First Order. It’s pretty great, for three reasons: one, as I said, he chooses not to follow the path Vader took and remain a pawn. He kills his master and becomes a new, ruthless leader. Two, his reasoning is the opposite of Vader’s. Vader killing the Emperor was a final act of love, a sacrifice to save his son. He didn’t do it because he wanted to wrestle control from his master; he did it to rescue Luke. Kylo’s reasoning is completely selfish, destroying Snoke being his first step in tearing down the old order. Third, it means Rey’s judgment about Kylo is wrong. In the original trilogy, Luke believed he could save his father, that some good lingered in Darth Vader. He’s right, his assumption proven correct when Vader kills the Emperor. In The Last Jedi, Rey has a similar assumption about Kylo, driven by her knowledge of what Luke did for Vader, believing that Kylo can be “turned,” as she calls it, back to good. In one sense, she’s vindicated, in that she’s correct that he will leave Snoke’s side. But on the other hand, she completely misjudges him and his intentions. Kylo doesn’t kill Snoke to “turn” to the light; he kills Snoke and “turns” even deeper into darkness. Thus, Kylo usurps Snoke in a way Vader never did with the Emperor.
This same scene has another interesting revelation, specifically, that of Rey’s parents. Two large questions had been studied by fans since The Force Awakens’ release: who is Snoke? And who are Rey’s parents? The Last Jedi answers both. Well, it technically answers the first by giving us no answer. That Snoke guy? That dude with the giant holograms, who is guarded by armored soldiers, tosses General Hux around, and toys with Rey’s mind? He’s nobody. The audience gets no answers, no origins, no info. He talks a good game, but then he’s ended by his own apprentice. It’s a great idea. At first, I was a little miffed, but once I attached this subversive quality to the movie, I realized how The Last Jedi was toying with its audience by never offering answers. It’s the same with Rey’s parents. Like Snoke, they were nobodies. As Kylo asserts, they just dumped Rey in the sand and walked off. So all these theories about Obi wan Kenobi or Palpatine being Rey’s grandfather, or Luke being her dad…for the moment, all worthless. Remember that grand reveal where Vader tells Luke he’s Luke’s dad? Were you expecting something like that here? Well, too bad, because The Last Jedi just took your expectations, wadded them up into a paper ball, and chucked them out the window. You wanted cool revelations? You got ‘em. The cool revelation is that there are no cool revelations.
Other scenes play with the same ideas in smaller ways.
• Those ancient Jedi texts? Pft, not important, let ‘em burn…or do they? But though the texts are saved from incineration, Force ghost Yoda passes on the idea that this old knowledge in no longer important, moving away from the film series’ reliance on rules, texts, and symbolic meaning for the Jedi.
• The Force is no longer comprised of midichlorians only found in certain people; the Force is, truly, a force that can be wielded. Luke disdains the idea that only Jedi can use this power.
• Elsewhere, a no-good rotten scoundrel named DJ turns out to be…a no-good rotten scoundrel. No redeemable scruffy nerf herder here, a la Han Solo.
• The resistance faces a nice depth of internal struggle here in the guise of a mutiny led by Poe Dameron, far beyond the roundtable disagreements between leaders in previous films.
• The only major weapon the First Order has is a Dreadnought that fires a couple rounds before being taken down.
• A potentially epic showdown between Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker gets turned on its head when Luke reveals he’s not really there, a cool twist in itself.
• And to top it all off, Luke fades away to become one with the Force. Whereas Obi Wan Kenobi fell to Vader, Qui Gon Jin fell to Darth Maul, Yoda offered some last bits of wisdom before passing, or several Jedi got blasted in Revenge of the Sith, Luke’s passing is kept simple. Sure, he just awesomely tricked Kylo Ren, but then he vanishes. It’s not some hyped moment, it’s not lingered on, it’s not dealt with as a huge deal. His time comes, and he passes on.
The Last Jedi even redeems some weaker parts of The Force Awakens’ plot. The seemingly lame Captain Phasma gets a fitting end at the hands of Finn, wielding one of those ridiculous shock trooper batons as he takes her down. Hotshot Poe Dameron’s actions in this film more than make up for his sudden survival when his ship crashes into Jakku. Rey, who seems highly Force sensitive to the point she uses a Jedi mind trick in The Force Awakens with barely any practice, actually learns from Luke to hone her abilities.
Oh, and no planet killing laser weapons here. Sorry. Fresh out.
This isn’t to say The Last Jedi’s merits are based solely on how it twists previously constructed concepts. It introduces several great ideas of its own. Andy Serkis makes for a truly sinister Snoke, and though some fans feel like the character’s death was premature, I found Serkis’ performance unsettling (in a good way) for the brief amount of screen time he’s given. The opening battle sequence with the bombers set the stage for a truly epic action movie, and the entire plot of the resistance being stranded in space while they’re bombarded by the First Order adds in good tension. Rose saving Finn from driving himself into the battering ram cannon isn’t supposed to be funny, but I thought it was great that, just as the music swells and Finn comes to terms with this great sacrifice and the audience starts to wonder (or, at least, I start to wonder) “Are they actually gonna kill this guy, this new character?” in comes Rose at the last second to save him. General Holdo’s sacrifice is probably the best scene in the whole film; though I didn’t really connect to her as a character, her decision to use the last of her fuel to pilot her ship through Snoke’s via hyperspeed is very clever (as it offers an alternative use of hyperspeed that the First Order would’ve tracked anyway if she’d run away) and the shots of the First Order ships being decimated in streaks of white light is beautifully rendered.
The Last Jedi is not a perfect movie, however. There are some annoying factors. For example, the lingering question of how Luke’s blue lightsaber was discovered is never answered. Finn and Rose’s trip to the casino world seems out of place, merely slotted in as (a. a subplot so we could follow Finn, (b. a new planet for the filmmakers to explore, (c. an attempt to bring in some sort of moral lesson that sounds good for five minutes but never goes anywhere, and (d. an excuse to have a chase scene that feels a little weird to me. And, during the battle on Crait, General Hux orders all their fighters to go after the Millennium Falcon. Granted, Kylo said he wanted that “piece of junk” blasted out of the sky, and Finn comments on how “they hate that ship!” but all your fighters? Especially when your enemies are trying to destroy your large battering ram cannon? It seems silly and led me to wonder if Hux made such a foolish order on purpose, like a subtle way to hurt Kylo, cause it seems like Hux resents Kylo. Who knows? Regardless, these qualms are minor and do little to hurt the overall film.
The Last Jedi might be the best Star Wars trilogy movie since Return of the Jedi. But it’s no wonder why it’s so divisive: this isn’t your typical Star Wars movie. It takes different twists, it travels a different path. As a fan of certain franchises that tend to unfortunately change when I don’t want them to (like Marvel movies), I understand the frustration. But as someone who wants to become a deeper fan of the Star Wars mythos, I also appreciate the ingenuity of The Last Jedi. It has tethers to the previous installments, but the nostalgia isn’t overwhelming here. Like Rogue One, it tries something new: subversion. It doesn’t decry the old material or harm the old stories; The Last Jedi just knows where the imperfections lay with the old tales and attempts to provide something more fluid, well-written, and solid. By time the credits roll around, I think it does that.