You guys. I love The Last Jedi so, so much. It's one of my favorite Star Wars films, right alongside the original trilogy. It's a deeply spiritual film, a nuanced and challenging piece of work that's equal parts shocking, exciting, heartbreaking, inspiring, and beautiful. [Fair warning: there are major spoilers ahead, both in my own comments and in my links to other folks' work.]
I. Some context.
I'm not alone in my adoration for this film, but despite its nearly universal acclaim from critics, The Last Jedi has received backlash from some fans. The division between those who love it and those who don't is incredibly interesting. It's one of those movies that seems to have gotten folks talking, disagreeing, and analyzing. Here's a bit of a brief recap of several of the responses I've seen:
On the positive end of the spectrum, Dave Schilling lauds it as "big [and] bold", Peter Travers describes the film as "a volcano of creative ideas in full eruption," Laurel Carney explores some of the tough questions The Last Jedi forces us to ask (including "when a hero does the wrong thing, what do they do next?"), and Matthew Gault writes about some of the ways in which this film redeems and even elevates the prequels. And from a less narrative, more cultural/political perspective, Jacob Knight writes about The Last Jedi's role as a protest film in a long line of Star Wars films as angry, subversive anti-war statements; furthermore, various articles and Twitter threads from folks like Branwen Zakariasen (performer), Kelsea Stahler (writer), and Jenny Yang (comedian) describe and explain the importance of casting so many women as powerful, competent characters in The Last Jedi, including women of color like Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran. There's also the purely aesthetic angle: in a great Twitter thread from Christian Blauvelt, The Last Jedi's visual dynamism is described as "incredible" and "worthy of [Akira] Kurosawa, [Jacques] Tati, [and Otto] Preminger," or in other words, Johnson is among the "masters of widescreen aesthetics." Perhaps even more significant, for me at least, are the ways in which people are talking about the iconoclasm and spiritual democratization of The Last Jedi. I recommend two particularly notable articles: one by Jacob Hall ("'The Last Jedi' Doesn't Care What You Think About 'Star Wars' - And That's Why It's Great"), and one by my favorite critic, Film Crit Hulk ("The Force Belongs To Us: THE LAST JEDI's Beautiful Refocusing of Star Wars"). I'm going to dig a bit more into this notion of iconoclasm and democratization in a moment, but those pieces are worth checking out to contextualize this sort of conversation.
And yet, on the more negative side of things, Alyssa Rosenberg says The Last Jedi relies on "plot contrivances" that are "pointless" and "disgracefully bad," and David Ehrlich calls it "nervy" and "borderline hostile." Richard Brody dismisses the film as "terrifyingly calculated," "flattened down," and "artificial." And some of my friends, all of whom really wanted to enjoy the film, have taken to social media to call it an experience of "exasperation" and disappointment that they "don't care to ever [re]watch," a "fragmented" story dripping with "weird, saccharine sincerity." I've been getting text messages from a few friends dying to discuss their disappointed feelings; they tell me some of the scenes are "goofy as hell" and some of the jokes are "very basic and not developed" (that last point I actually agree with; I'll get to the film's humor in a moment).
And of course, some of the negative criticism has been quite asinine. An "alt-right" anti-Disney group has recently taken credit for launching an attack on The Last Jedi's Rotten Tomatoes user score (which is oddly much lower than the critic score). What are the alt-right group's main grievances? First: too many strong female characters ("there was a time [men] ruled society and I want to see that again," says the moderator of the group). And second: not enough explicit heteronormativity (in a pretty literal display of homophobia, the group expresses fear and anxiety about whether Poe and Luke will be "turn[ed] gay").
To sum up: whether you're into it or not, the eighth episode of Star Wars undoubtedly seems to be a subversive, divisive film. But, okay, that's enough of a lit review. Let's dig into some of the things The Last Jedi is doing, and why I think they're so provocative.
II. Porgs and the ecosystems of Star Wars.
I didn't mention above that one of the points of contention surrounding this film has been porgs, and whether or not they're delightfully irresistible or distractingly irrelevant. Porgs are, basically, tiny puffin-hamster things which inhabit the planet Ahch-To, on which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has exiled himself (side note: they exist because Skellig Michael, the real-life location for Ahch-To, is a wildlife preserve covered in puffins--and it was easier to give the lil' guys some digital costumes than to shoo hundreds of birds away during filming). The general arguments for and against porgs seem to be "they're cute and fun and I want one" versus "they're cute but they only exist to sell children's toys and thus they represent the ways in which Star Wars is infected by blatant, cynical consumerism."
Now, of course, seeing little critters like porgs (or The Last Jedi's other newcomers, like the intuitive, crystalline vulptices, the mistreated fathiers, and the bizarre thala-sirens) shouldn't be particularly shocking in a Star Wars film. Throughout the original trilogy, strange animals show up all the time: Star Wars has herbivorous banthas, rugged dewbacks, wild womp rats ("not much bigger than two meters"), and scavenging Jawas (which are sentient, though C-3PO dismisses them as "disgusting creatures"); The Empire Strikes Back then introduces us to domesticated tauntauns (Han "thought they smelled bad on the outside"), the carnivorous wampa, and an asteroid-dwelling exogorth ("this is no cave!") with a belly full of mynocks; to cap it off, Return of the Jedi threw in a tribe of adorable, resourceful, and spiritual ewoks ("short help is better than no help at all," says Han), along with more monstrous additions like the dangerous Sarlacc ("a new definition of pain and suffering") and the fearsome Rancor (which is described by its creator, Phil Tippett, as "a cross between a bear and a potato"). The Star Wars franchise is full of diverse animal life, both sentient and non-sentient, both friendly and ferocious. Sometimes these animals are largely independent from the saga's larger narrative, e.g. the bogwings and other swamp creatures of Dagobah; and sometimes they are deeply, personally involved, e.g. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), our favorite Wookiee from Kashyyyk.
I'd argue that there is more thematic weight to the biodiversity of the Star Wars films than meets the eye. In other words, I don't think it's really just about merchandising. Star Wars, at its core, is about the violence of imperialism, the dangers of complacency, and the importance of hope. (That last bit might sound trite--"the importance of hope"--but Star Wars really digs into the details: it isn't just a surface-level sermon on why hope is essential; it's a nuanced exploration of the audacity, the beautiful absurdity, and the blood-sweat-and-tears effort that goes into kindling and rekindling that hope, time after time, mission after mission, and generation after generation. More on that later.)
And one of the most powerful ways in which Star Wars condemns the violence of imperialism, exposes the dangers of complacency, and explores the importance of hope is through its remarkable biodiversity. Even cute and cuddly teddy bears like the ewoks, fearing for their lives while their town is overrun by giant metal murder machines (or cute and wide-eyed bird-puppies like the porgs, fearing for their lives while they try to take up shelter in the Millennium Falcon as it careens through Crait's byzantine salt tunnels) illustrate the larger point, which is that we are all connected and we are all responsible. This means that the fight against evil fascists will necessarily affect everyone and everything. Or, put another way: the galaxy is not just a setting; it is an ecosystem.
This gets into the spiritual message of Star Wars: that, as Yoda (Frank Oz) says, there is a Force that flows "between you, me, the tree[s], the rock[s]." It is "everywhere," and "its energy surrounds us and binds us." Or, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) observes during her eventual training with Luke, this "balance and energy" seems to connect "life... death and decay (that feeds new life)... warmth... cold... peace... violence." And yes, the Force can be found even within all of us: "inside me, that same Force," she discovers.
This deep truth and connectedness, this life-force of the Universe, belongs to everyone. It's in the ewoks. It's in the porgs. It's even in the Sarlacc. It can be found pulsing through every ecosystem, which is to say, everything is really one ecosystem. This means that the Force is bigger than sentience or non-sentience. It's bigger than empires or rebellions. It's bigger than Jedi or Sith (to say otherwise, argues Luke, "is vanity"). It's even bigger than the iconic, seemingly inherent constructs of "good" or "evil." Which brings us to our next point...
III. Iconoclasm and iconography.
What does it mean to say that The Last Jedi is iconoclastic? In some of the reviews I referenced above, the film has been described as "nervy," "hostile," and "bold." It's controversial and it's breaking the rules. In the words of Allyson Gronowitz (responding to William Hughes' shockingly vulgar interpretation) it's as if Star Wars fans shouted an anticipatory "we love you!" and Rian Johnson sniggered in response: "I know, [and] I don't care." But is that really what's going on here? Is The Last Jedi a radically revisionist, blatantly irreverent critique of the rest of the franchise?
Well, yes and no.
The Last Jedi is a work of radical iconoclasm, to be sure. It wants to reject certain archetypes, dogmas, legends, and assumptions. It doesn't want to buy into the Jedi/Sith binary, which tends to deify one while demonizing the other. Instead it wants to embrace nuance; it argues that even the Jedi--who have long been iconic of the "light"--are problematic, and indeed that they have throughout history proven to be apocalyptically incompetent and willfully hypocritical.
And The Last Jedi doesn't want to buy into the nepotistic worship of legendary bloodlines (like Skywalkers or Solos), either. Instead it wants to embrace anonymity. The film rejoices in the fact that even if Rey comes from "nobody," even if her parents were "filthy junk traders" who sold her to Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg) on Jakku for drinking money, she can still be heroic, powerful, and inspiring. This is despite attempts by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to use that same anonymity to entice Rey to join his side, implying that only through joining him and his New Order could a "nobody" like her ever be understood, needed, and relevant.
Furthermore the film rejoices in the (re-)redemption of Finn (John Boyega), whose instinct to flee is tempered by another apparent "nobody"--Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky mechanic with faith in the future of the galaxy and commitment to the power of persistent, positive, humanistic resistance ("that's how we're gonna win," she tells Finn: "not fighting what we hate, [but] saving what we love"). Rose's relationship with Finn begins as angry disillusionment--as she realizes he's running away, betraying her long-held image of his heroic stature--but the dynamic between them quickly morphs into an opportunity for the both of them to take risks and prove themselves.
A quick note: this side-plot has gotten some pushback from fans, who feel it's distracting and irrelevant. To put it bluntly, they're dead wrong. Nothing is more important to a Star Wars movie than discovering the need to believe in resistance despite setbacks and failures. Look at DJ (Benicio Del Toro)'s revelation that the "good guys" and "bad guys" are both propped up by the same ugly machine, i.e. the heartless economics of perpetual warfare; DJ's "it's just business" style of complicity looks at Finn's bold, moralistic hope in the eye and says with a gruff shrug, "maybe." And as horrifying and devastating as that moment is, it's not the end. Finn and Rose continue to fight. They continue to hope. And through their example, a new generation of children are able to believe in the rebellion; they've seen it first-hand and they're not going to let that memory go to waste. The film's final image--of the force-sensitive child-slave Temiri Blagg (Temirlan Blaev) holding a broom and looking into the night sky--underlines just how vital the Finn/Rose side-plot really was. It doesn't matter that they failed. It doesn't matter that the rest of the plot largely marched forward oblivious to their misadventures; what matters is that they learned something, that a new generation of future freedom fighters learned something, and that we learned something.
Anyway. Despite all the subversion of expectations--despite all the ways in which The Last Jedi tosses religious dogma, pedestalized heroes, and expectations of "destiny" aside, much like Luke flippantly throwing his lightsaber over his shoulder--this is still a film deeply interested in icons, rituals, tokens, and beliefs. I'm thinking of the way it uses Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)'s "you're my only hope" transmission, or Han Solo (Harrison Ford)'s golden dice, or the ring with an inscribed insignia of the rebellion. I'm recalling the sigh of relief that flows through the audience when the Millennium Falcon finally shows up on Crait. And there's the hushed reverence we feel as Luke comforts Leia about her husband and about her son, assuring her that "no one's ever really gone" (a powerful line that at once reminds us both of Han's fictional death that we saw in 2015 and of Fisher's real-life death that we mourned in 2016). I'm also thinking, of course, of the pure joy that rushes through my bones as I see Yoda again, and as his playfully sagacious voice calmly tells us that things will be all right, that Rey will "grow beyond" the mistakes of the masters that came before her, and that peace and balance are ultimately possible--even if the process of forging and defending them feels brutally taxing, cyclical, and even futile.
These are iconic moments: they invoke symbolic images and sounds that we and the characters have attached to certain meanings. They connect us firmly to the spiritual roots of Star Wars, even while other aspects of the film seem to be violently ripping out branches. And by so doing they make us whole, they keep us grounded, and they give us hope.
IV. "You'll never make it through the night."
What is hope, in the Star Wars universe? Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) quotes Leia as having said that "hope is like the sun: if you only believe it when you see it, you'll never make it through the night." This is wisdom. Hope cannot be effective or salvific unless it is active and persistent. It can do no good as an abstract concept. It can do no good unless it survives moments of apparent doom. The Last Jedi is not just about tearing down our statues and raising a middle finger to lazy, privileged, complicit hero-worship (though it is that); it's also about the activity and persistence of hope. This activity and persistence is in the big moments and arcs, like Holdo's hyperspace sacrifice, like Luke's life-draining illusion, and like Finn and Rey's faithful failure; but it's also in the smaller moments and arcs, like Holdo and Leia's warm-hearted discussion about the "troublemaker" Poe (Oscar Isaac), who has transitioned from reckless showboater to more humble team-player, and like the subtle obedience of Blagg's broom as he summons it into his grasp.
I think this, above all, is what makes The Last Jedi so beautiful. It's deeply interested in the same spiritual themes--love, faith, and hope--that the franchise has always embraced. And it's able to explore those themes not despite its controversially radical iconoclasm but because of it. The Last Jedi has heart because it's willing to confront the problems in Star Wars' mythology, as painful as such a confrontation may be. It's willing to dissect the dangers of dogma and show us the results of that dissection. And, most importantly, after this confrontation/dissection, it's willing to lean in and say "okay--the system is flawed. So what do we do next? How can we move forward?" instead of throwing up its hands and really, really burning everything to the ground (as Kylo, or to some extent Luke, might want to). In that way, The Last Jedi, with its audacity and hope, is a statement of faithful, constructive apostasy. As somewhat of an apostate myself (one who strives to hold on to a faithful, constructive approach), I can relate to where this film's heart is at. And I truly believe that without films like this one, we may never make it through the night.
V. A footnote on humor and the buffoonery of evil.
Okay, that last sentence is basically the spiritual end of this review. I've gotten to the core of what I've got to say, the main ideas behind my love for this film. So you can stop reading now if you want! But if you're thinking "wait a minute, WHY DIDN'T YOU ADDRESS THIS FILM'S CRAZY-WEIRD SENSE OF HUMOR," I'm still here! Let's talk about it.
The Last Jedi has a bunch of jokes that feel "off" to me. That is, they feel a bit anachronistic. The original trilogy seemed to use humor to explore character dynamics. Han is cocky; Lando (Billy Dee Williams) is smarmy; Leia is snarky; Luke is whiny; Obi-Wan (Sir Alec Guinness) is subtly sarcastic but wise; C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is flustered and anxious; R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is belligerent. And the way in which these characters all bounce off of each other works really well. The prequels pushed the franchise's sense of humor in some new directions, usually not with great results--I'm thinking of the scatological humor specifically, which usually followed Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) but which rarely brought anything interesting to the table regarding Jar Jar's characterization or regarding the relationship between the Naboo and the Gungans. This new batch of films, starting with 2015's The Force Awakens, seems at times to throw jokes into the mix just for the sake of having jokes. These jokes don't feel like they're really about the interaction between personality types anymore. Though, when they are, they land: this is why the "you talk first? I talk first?" bit with Poe and Kylo Ren is great, and it's why K-2SO (Alan Tudyk)'s lines in Rogue One (which I loved) are so perfect. But with those two exceptions, the newer films' quips, banter, and moments of physical comedy often feel like they exist because a writer thought, "hey we should add a joke here."
This is especially true of The Last Jedi. I sort of hate a handful of its jokes--not all, but quite a few. In particular, I hate the jokes that play with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). I don't enjoy the Hux/Kylo power dynamic as much as I did the interplay between Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) in the original films. And it's hard to pin down exactly why.
The Tarkin/Vader dynamic was that of obvious contrasts: Tarkin was controlled while Vader was impulsive; Tarkin was condescending and slimy while Vader was a violent showoff; in other words, while they were both sinister and controlling, they had distinct personalities that provided for an interesting clash.
The Hux/Kylo dynamic, on the other hand, is less pronounced. They don't compliment each other as well because they're so similar: they're both angry, insecure, self-serious, fumbling children. They're menacing and they cause a lot of real harm, but at the same time they're comically immature. This is really interesting in Kylo--probably because we spend so much time with him and Adam Driver works wonders with the character--but I don't find it as compelling with Hux, for some reason. And I certainly don't find it works as a source of comedy, as they glare at each other and repeat each other's orders--or as Hux sputters incompetently while being "prank called" by Poe in the opening scene.
Of course, this double-dose of imperial incompetency, which is made all the more stark by the sudden demise of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), is absolutely intentional. In fact, you could argue that characterizing Hux as a "rabid cur" (as Snoke calls him) is a commentary on the ways in which real-life leaders are often buffoons, and they might even use comedy as a diversion to mask the unflinchingly dangerous consequences of their evil actions. In that way, an ever-fumbling, ever-bumbling general (like Hux) is perhaps more dangerous than a cool and collected one.
All of this is to say that while the humor didn't quite work for me, I can understand where the writers are coming from, and I can appreciate what The Last Jedi is doing. It's a smart film. To engage dismissively or casually with a work like this would be a mistake. Because every performance, every line of dialogue, every frame, and every beat is packed with purpose and meaning. To unpack all of that purpose and meaning may require some emotional labor on our part. But that labor is worthwhile, I think. 2017 is almost over, and we've got some huge messes to reckon with; films are one tool that can help us do that. May the Force be with us.