“And Rian Johnson will throw fans into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- The Journal of the Whills
When last we saw the intrepid heroes of THE FORCE AWAKENS, Rey had discovered the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, and gone off with Chewbacca and R2-D2 to find him. Finn was in a coma after taking a lightsaber to the ass, and the newly-disfigured Kylo Ren was queued to complete his training with Supreme Leader Snoke. The fate of the galaxy was shrouded in doubt, for although the First Order’s Starkiller Base had been destroyed, so too was the New Republic’s capitol on Hosnian Prime.
This last point is what excited me the most about THE LAST JEDI. Prior to December 2015, my hope was that, given the climax of RETURN OF THE JEDI, we’d see an inversion of the Original Trilogy’s status quo in THE FORCE AWAKENS; in other words, this time, the scrappy "Rebellion" would be made up of former Imperials-turned-outlaws, who’d forge alliances with the criminal underworld, and challenge the dominant New Republic. Maybe Leia and friends would have engineered their own planet-killing weapon to prevent the rise of evil dictators, and slowly begin to turn into a corrupt system themselves. Then here comes a militia of former bad guys who act in many of the same ways our heroes did in the Original Trilogy, causing us to take pause and re-evaluate. Suddenly, terrorist attacks on military and civilian bases seem a little less black and white, don't they? Destroying a Death Star takes on some heavy implications.
Basically, I hoped Abrams and his crew would flip things around. While it was touched upon, we never really understood the politics of the galaxy in THE FORCE AWAKENS, or how large the First Order was; and by the midpoint of the film, the New Republic was, for all intents and purposes, obliterated.
And it was in this that THE FORCE AWAKENS did something potentially fantastic in destroying Hosnian Prime — it put everything up in the air. While derivative, Starkiller Base served an important narrative function moving forward. The infrastructure of the governing body was gone. The galaxy was suddenly Westeros: a series of fiefdoms trading hands as the major power players battled for total domination. Perhaps no one would be the dominant power…and that could lead to a compelling middle chapter depending on where Rian Johnson chose to take things. No law, no safe havens, no currency, no trade. Bring STAR WARS back to its roots as an intergalactic Wild West and the possibilities are endless. For those complaining that THE FORCE AWAKENS was more or less just a remix of the Original Trilogy, then the obvious response was to say, yeah, sure, but now that the board has been set, the pieces can begin moving in new and interesting directions.
The film we got was divisive, to put it mildly. Rian Johnson’s LAST JEDI had a mission statement that is hailed by its fans and mocked by its detractors: Subversion of expectations. It’s a great thesis, too; after all, we’ve seen the Hero’s Journey arc as illustrated by Luke Skywalker, so why not go down some alternate story paths? Why not invert the story told in the Original Trilogy and surprise us all with twists that could rival THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK? If THE LAST JEDI is that fabled Dark Middle Chapter, this is certainly the place to do it.
However, those expectations that were supposedly subverted weren’t really subverted at all, not once you broke them down and saw how they all lined up. THE LAST JEDI is the first entirely inconsequential entry in the saga. There are no real character arcs, no real change, and the dynamics simply shift slightly to the left to leave us with the exact same paradigm as what we see in the Original Trilogy: Ragtag Good Guys vs. All-Powerful Bad Guys. Johnson, for all his talk about “killing the past,” simply embraced it in a soft, doughy Manhug, while snarking on Twitter that, seriously guys, he wasn’t.
If there was indeed change, it was outside of the frame. Audience response to THE LAST JEDI was in many ways the perfect summation of Trump’s Nu-America, as it brought out ugly hordes of sexist, racist fanboys who were incensed — incensed! — by Kathleen Kennedy’s decision to include women and people of color in the STAR WARS universe, as well as seemingly progressive ideas about equality and leadership. Meanwhile, little girls loved Rey and Rose, even when the actresses playing them had to jump ship from social media due to the public hate-fucking each was forced to endure. MAKE THE GALAXY GREAT AGAIN!
(Sorry to bring politics into the mix, folks, but this is America, A.D. 2019, and ugly, worthless people now feel empowered to let their voices be heard — voices that were previously kept behind closed doors instead of screamed at Wal Mart, and recorded for posterity on Facebook Live.)
But it wasn’t just about the state of this fucked up country. In discussing the film with any group above and beyond general moviegoers, you weren’t allowed to like or dislike THE LAST JEDI without being a smug douchebag about it. If a person said they loved it, they didn’t “get” STAR WARS; if a person said they hated it, they were either 1) “Fansplaining,” or 2) a far-right Republican. The first warrants elaboration while the second doesn’t, for any multitude of positive or negative reasons.
It seems that among certain fans, there exists this wall of inerrancy that has been built around creators, rendering their decisions final in such a way that exists above criticism. If, for example, one was to write a series of articles explaining why the Prequel Trilogy doesn’t line up with the Original Trilogy on any number of points, and that the only way to make sense of the backstory would have been to do A, B, or C, then the writer would be accused of bringing their Head Canon into things (i.e., their preconceived notion of how the plot needed to unfold, and how said preconceived notion unjustly creates a negative opinion of how George Lucas chose to do it). On the other side, when examining the Sequel Trilogy, and discussing how decisions made by the Lucasfilm brain trust negatively impact the story as set up by THE FORCE AWAKENS, then this is called Fansplaining. Basically, I know better than the people who made this shit, so let me tell you what needed to happen instead. In that respect, we have millions of unemployed producers and screenwriters who are better equipped to carry the STAR WARS saga than the folks paid to do so. As of this writing, THE LAST JEDI is a year and a half old, so the F-word is now currently being used to describe anyone who is baffled by the final seasons of GAME OF THRONES, and how previous storylines suggested a more satisfying conclusion.**
With prequels, we’re talking about a pretty confined box of events. If we know the ending, there’s only so many surprises a storyteller can generate. The chief goal needs to be successfully guiding audiences down a path that enlightens the story they already know, and perhaps even alter perceptions of these events along the way. Sequels are different, though: there aren’t any limits, and the page is as white and pure as Hoth’s landscape. Go there and do things, Movie People, and take us with you, but forgive us for identifying those Story Springboards built into the previous installment; they suggest the trajectory of plot and character, after all.
So yeah, since Head Canon doesn’t really apply here, I guess I’ll do a little Fansplaining, specifically in terms of what THE FORCE AWAKENS seemed to suggest moving forward, and how THE LAST JEDI attempted to “subvert expectations.” I’m not here to groan about the empty middle section of the film; about the fact that Leia really ought to have been the one who died in self-sacrifice, not Vice Admiral Evening Gown; or to make fun of Rose — a thoroughly loathesome, repellant character for reasons that have nothing to do with gender, ethnicity, or body type. Instead, I want to discuss the manner in which Johnson seemed to kick those Story Springboards aside, flip THE FORCE AWAKENS the bird, and then reset the status quo to the Original Trilogy paradigm, all while telling everyone how unexpected and different this film is. Anyone parroting these claims while also wearing a scarf and scraggly Manboy Beard should be considered immediately suspect.
It’s important to ask ourselves a question before we proceed any further: Is it wise to entrust the resurrection of a tainted franchise to (originally) three separate directors without any clear sense of where the story is going? Keeping that in mind, let’s talk about what Rian Johnson chose to do and not do, and what THE FORCE AWAKENS suggested.
LUKE SKYWALKER, FALLEN JEDI KNIGHT. I want to address this controversial topic first and foremost, because I have absolutely no issue with the way this character was handled, and consider it the best aspect of THE LAST JEDI. Not only is this absolutely a case of subverting expectations, it’s also the most logical thing to do with the character given the scenario Abrams and Kasdan presented. If Luke is going to vanish from the galaxy and leave behind a successor to Darth Vader, there has to be a reason why he’d go into permanent seclusion. On the surface, it feels like little more than a mashup of Obi-Wan and Yoda, but the guilt and despair is a new and compelling angle we’ve not seen before. Many complained that Luke’s almost-kinda-sorta attempted murder of his nephew fundamentally betrayed the character at his core; I was one of these voices until I actually re-examined the character presented in the Original Trilogy. More on that below.
I think this RASHOMON-inspired flashback would have worked better had we perhaps been baited with the notion that Luke had a vision of the future — say, Kylo Ren murdering Han. As it stands, the notion of an angry, dispirited Jedi Master in exile gives both Luke and Mark Hamill some genuinely fantastic moment (until he shows up sporting what appears to be the end product of a day at the hairdresser, complete with color and cut). The astral projection thing feels like a surprise for the sake of having a surprise, and really doesn’t make sense when you ask yourself how a protocol droid was able to see what is essentially a long distance mind trick.
If there is one major complaint that I have, it’s the decision to kill Luke right on the heels of Han Solo’s death. It was impactful the first time; the second time loses something. It’s redundant, and shouldn’t be. The death of an iconic character can only carry weight if it’s a rare and unexpected thing, and two in a row undercuts what Johnson was trying to do at the end of LAST JEDI. The fact that Princess Leia now has to die in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER makes these resolutions feel obligatory and less meaningful.
REY & KYLO REN. When THE FORCE AWAKENS premiered, there were a hoards of angry nerds bitching that Rey came into her own far too quickly. The expression “Mary Sue” was thrown around, despite being used incorrectly.*** Complaints included:
1. She can fly a ship!
2. She can use the Force!
3. She beat Kylo Ren with a lightsaber!
4. She chews with her mouth open!
That last point bugs me, too, but I’m fine with the rest. The fact is, we hadn’t learned her backstory. We didn’t know a thing about who she was, where she came from, or anything more than what’s teasingly dangled before us during her “Force-back” sequence. For all we knew, Rey was one of Luke’s students at a young age, rescued from Kylo Ren’s Columbine-style attack on the new Jedi Academy; she certainly sees visions of that fateful night. Or maybe not. The point is, we didn’t know yet. And whatever it was, it was a doozy. This was going to be a BIG REVEAL. It wasn’t just how important the plot point of her lineage was in the surface text, but in seemingly throwaway dialogue (e.g., she refers to herself as a “big secret,” along with other clues about visions and such), as well as in the marketing materials themselves. We were meant to expect something. We were looking at an I am your Father moment sometime in the following Episodes.
And then that’s what we got…sort of. Kylo Ren reveals that Rey is the child of a couple of Sand Hobos in a moment that seems almost intentionally anticlimactic. Subversion of expectations, indeed! The point, we’re told, is that maybe STAR WARS doesn’t have to be about Skywalkers and all the baggage that goes with the name. But does anyone trust Kylo Ren? Should we take him at face value? If audiences in 1980 believed that Darth Vader was lying about his parentage to Luke, only to be surprised to learn that the villain was telling the truth, would it not make sense this time for the villain to actually lie? This is clearly a backdoor built into the narrative, allowing a retcon in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is so desired.
While I can understand the argument that Rey seems to instantaneously gain the strength and attributes Luke Skywalker needed three films to acquire, the fact of the matter is: at the end of STAR WARS, Luke was using the Force to blow up the Death Star in an aerial attack in which most amateur pilots would be killed within ten seconds. This also says nothing of his ability to survive a forward assault. All those veteran pilots who accompanied Luke died except for Wedge Antilles; yet the farm boy with no prior military experience or equipment training saves the day. I never hear anyone complain about that part, or about Luke’s rapid Force-development during the undetermined (yet clearly brief) period he spends on Dagobah.
The answer to one's ability to use Jedi power is succinctly described in STAR WARS. “You mean [the Force] controls my actions?” Luke asks Kenobi. “Partially,” his mentor replies, “but it also obeys your commands.” In short, if you’re attuned to the Force, it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. A Jedi goes with the flow, so the audience really ought to, as well.
Besides: didn’t we already get the "Coming of Age and Becoming a Jedi" arc in the Original Trilogy? Weren’t most FORCE AWAKENS detractors complaining that they felt the movie was a rehash? If that’s the case, why would we want that same story again? By the end of EPISODE VII, Rey was well on her way to becoming a Jedi. Let’s move into new and uncharted territory!
The problem is, now that she was established, she didn’t do anything meaningful. In many ways, Rey has the slightest character arc of anyone in THE LAST JEDI. Luke doesn’t actually teach her anything of value (a third of her lessons are relegated to bonus features on the Blu Ray), and the vision of her lineage is ambiguous to the point of pointlessness. By the end, she’s simply lifting rocks with her mind. Yes, she’s offered the opportunity to co-manage the First Order, and yes, she turns it down, but Rey has never wanted power, so it’s not a temptation of consequence.
That brings us to Kylo Ren, our established villain for the trilogy. In probably the creepiest scene in any STAR WARS movie yet, Ben Solo is shown praying to Anakin Skywalker’s melted helmet, asking for help in rejecting the temptation of Goodness. Not only does this reinforce the notion that Kylo Ren is less traditionally “evil” than emotionally disturbed, it also has a genuinely disturbing, quasi-religious significance. Either Ben truly is being visited by the ghost of Space Hitler, who’s guiding his serial killer activities; or else these are the same delusions experienced by mothers who murder their demon-possessed babies. It sends a cold shiver up the spine whichever way you take it. Or else it’s just Snoke, because whatever.
But the clue here is: Kylo Ren is predisposed to Goodness. Why is this significant? And how does Rey factor in?
Luke Skywalker wasn’t a Jedi of the traditional sort. Whether or not you factor in the Prequels and their depiction of Jedi training, it goes without saying that Luke never received a proper orientation or graduation. He briefly received piecemeal instruction from Kenobi, and from there the Force began guiding his actions when needed. Yoda offered up several days/weeks/months (?) of training, and then specifically told Luke not to confront Vader because Luke wasn’t yet a Jedi; but when Luke returned to complete his training, he was then told that he could only become a Jedi once he confronted Vader (?). There was clearly a lot of self-instruction and following his instincts, because like most religions, the Jedi thing contradicts itself in numerous ways.
It’s key that when we first see Luke in RETURN OF THE JEDI, he’s been beaten, humiliated, and humbled by Darth Vader. In EMPIRE he was cocky, impatient and irritable; it follows that now, six months later, he’s meditated, found his spiritual center, and grown with the Force. Yet from the moment he enters Jabba’s palace, Luke begins acting decidedly un-Jedi-like. He’s dressed in black, for one thing. He Force-chokes a Gamorean guard; he threatens Jabba the Hutt; and when scheduled for execution, Luke grins, shouting over his shoulder: “You should have bargained Jabba! It’s the last mistake you’ll ever make!” These are confrontational, passionate, and emotional uses of his power, and demonstrations of temperament. I don’t think Yoda would approve of a Jedi shouting COME AT ME, BRAH!
The point is, Luke was what I consider a “grey” Jedi. His clothing color matches his internal state, going from innocent white (STAR WARS) to light grey (EMPIRE) to full black (JEDI). Even at the very end of the trilogy, he nearly fails, being so overwhelmed by hate and anger that he beats the living shit out of his father and nearly murders him. Yes, he comes to his senses, but the Luke Skywalker we see at the end of REURN OF THE JEDI is both willing to utilize and reject his emotions as needed, drawing from both the good and the bad. But the point remains that he often flirted with darkness, making his behavior at Ben Solo’s bedside fully keeping in character.
So everyone complained that Rey is “too good” in THE FORCE AWAKENS; and you’ve also got Kylo Ren being “corrupted” by the temptation of the Light. If Luke Skywalker represents the middle ground, emotionally speaking, of a Jedi and a Sith, then my hypothesis was that both Rey and Ren would be pulled center as well. Rey achieved her Power Up at the end of FORCE AWAKENS; Where is there for her to go? everyone asked. The answer, to me, seemed obvious: she’d go Dark. Conversely, Kylo Ren would go Light. Eventually, both would find their place in the middle. THE LAST JEDI toyed with this idea as it brought the characters together via Force Skype, and then discarded the notion during the Third Act. My feeling remains that THE RISE OF SKYWALKER will introduce a new Jedi paradigm, and that Rey and Kylo Ren will literally meet one another in the center to establish this new concept.
I think the most interesting thing this trilogy could have done — especially if my thoughts on Rey leaning “Dark” and Ben Solo leaning “Light” are correct — would have been for the two to fall in love. It’s not a relationship I could see having a happy ending (there’s no way in hell the man who killed Han Solo is getting out of this trilogy alive), but I could see their feelings pulling one another in the opposite direction of their Good/Bad orientation, and for Kylo Ren to be the one who ultimately has to bring Rey back from darkness.
PRINCESS LEIA & THE RESISTANCE. Okay, bear with me, here. Let’s take what we remember from THE FORCE AWAKENS, and then indulge me in a bit of Fansplaining. So: Rey has some dark tendencies, and Kylo Ren is predisposed to not being a shithead. Supreme Leader Snoke wants Rey under his wing. She’s sought training from Luke Skywalker, who tells her to take a hike. So let’s imagine a scenario where Rey and Ben Solo meet again in THE LAST JEDI, and that crazy sexual chemistry overflows, such that we get the ROMEO & JULIET situation Lucas shot for in ATTACK OF THE CLONES but accidentally fired into his foot. Literal star-crossed lovers, each influencing the other, causing them to be pulled into their equal and opposite’s respective position. And what if Snoke sees more promise in Rey than Ren, and Kylo feels betrayed and discarded by his master? This is a guy who throws temper tantrums. He’s a petulant Manchild. He’d do the obvious: he’d run away from home. If he did, where would he go as Rey was now falling into the exact same role Luke was offered in RETURN OF THE JEDI — namely, becoming the overlord’s new apprentice?
Ben Solo would go running back to his Mommy. And she’d welcome him with open arms.
Think of it from a storytelling angle. Ben Solo surrenders to the Resistance and does exactly what Leia asked of Han: her boy is home. He renounces who he was, and seems genuinely repentant for what he did to his own father. Well, maybe not completely; he is, after all, still a conflicted character, and his actions might be more a wounded response to Rey and Snoke than merely altruistic. We can put that in our back pocket and save it for later in the story.
Meanwhile, Leia would be overjoyed. She has her son back. He’s also in possession of all the First Order’s plans, schemes, and intel. And on top of that, he’s also a Jedi of sorts; and wasn’t Leia the one who wanted to find Luke for just that very reason? Ben Solo would be a gift to the Resistance in so many ways, related both to military strategy, as well as the hope that light would always banish darkness. He could be a figure of inspiration.
But how would the rest of the Resistance feel about this? Would they be able to trust a vicious killer who skewered his own Dad on the very planet killer that had wiped out the New Republic? Just as importantly, would they be able to trust Leia’s judgment? She’d certainly have a bias, after all. She’s emotionally compromised by unconditional love for her school-shooter son. The seeds of discord would take root within the band of scrappy freedom fighters, and turn them against one another. Perhaps some of them would remain loyal to Leia; perhaps others would follow a brash hothead who opted to defect. Say…Poe Dameron? A guy who would denounce Leia as a traitor and take off with his fighter pilot buddies in tow, leaving the Resistance with inexperienced leaders, a compromised military, and an unstable Jedi as an old woman’s right hand man?
And all the while the conflict with the First Order continues around them. Rey has taken up the lightsaber for reasons that make us fear for her ultimate outcome, while Kylo Ren now works against her in the name of freedom and hope; and both are filled with doubt in their new roles, all of which comes to a head when they meet again during the climax of the film.
Or you just take the Millennium Falcon chase from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and say, “Instead of fast, they’ll all go slow!”
FINN, THAT UNRELIABLE STORMTROOPER. We met him as a young man indoctrinated into a terrorist organization on a military compound. He was trained to know only loyalty to the First Order. He then defected, and got caught up in a wild adventure in which he put his bravery to the test, and ultimately became a Resistance hero. But what about the aftermath? How does one raised in a cult simply deprogram the demands placed upon them?
In THE FORCE AWAKENS, numerous characters refer to him as a traitor, and this should come to a head in THE LAST JEDI. It was how his former “family” saw him, and years of psychological conditioning would remain. Seeing Rey go over to Snoke, and Kylo Ren welcomed back with open arms by General Organa, Finn ought to have ended up unable to come to terms with what loyalty truly means. Plus, he loves Rey, right? So he would have followed her lead and gone over to The First Order, where, like Kylo Ren's acceptance into the Resistance, Finn would be viewed as valuable in the battle against his enemies. He knows stuff! Locations, names, etc. They’d promote him to officer, where he'd struggle with whether he was doing the right thing, and whether this was truly his destiny.
That also brings us to his chief adversary in THE FORCE AWAKENS. Captain Phasma was forced, at gunpoint, to give the oscillator code that led to the attack and ultimate destruction of Starkiller Base. Then she was dumped in the trash. She ought to have been labeled a traitor by the First Order, and forced to flee with a price on her head; she'd escape, and have only one goal: to murder to Finn. So she hunts him. Perhaps she even aids the Resistance, trading secrets, with her only payment being that she's the one to take down her nemesis and the Star Destroyer he now commands.
Instead, Finn is completely wasted in THE LAST JEDI. His mission is one that has no bearing on the outcome, and his decision to commit self-sacrifice is undercut by 1) the fact that Holdo literally just did the exact same thing; and 2) the interruption of Rose, who won’t let him die for the sake of others because it’s somehow wrong, despite Holdo, again, literally just having done the exact same thing.
Yeah, yeah, I know: Fansplaining. This is me telling you why THE LAST JEDI is wrong, and why I’m right, and how I would have done it better. It’s a decisive film, as stated before. Were my ideas the right ones? Maybe; maybe not. Going into THE LAST JEDI, I felt we had the potential for interesting development of the Force. I felt there was a Wild West scenario in which both the Resistance and First Order were not only at war with one another, but with a galaxy divided into territories controlled by whomever possesses the biggest dick at a given moment. Throw in an expanded role for Poe Dameron, as well as Captain Phasma — who ought to have spent the next two films trying to settle her score with Finn — and this could have been the first trilogy since the original to genuinely surprise us with its storytelling.
Instead, we ended up being told to forget the past, and to let it die, all while digging up the Original Trilogy’s corpse and dressing it in new clothes. Regardless of what you call it, it’s still the same thing, and it stinks.
*Unless you count a few hundred members of a group of freedom fighters, whittled down to a number you can count on three hands, which, in the greater scheme, isn’t really that big a difference. One battle and they’re gone.
**What the hell, I’ll bite. Sansa should have taken the Iron Throne, and Cercei should have been forced to spend the rest of her life being humiliated at King’s Landing by her former victim. The White Walkers should have spread all the way south, forcing the kingdoms to unite in one desperate, final stand, rather than in a skirmish in the North. Bran should have been revealed to be Max Von Sydow’s character, caught in a time loop (since we specifically never seen the elder Three-Eyed Raven standing on his feet except in visions, and because it was firmly established that Bran could effect events in the past). Jon Snow should have killed Daenerys, and then immediately perished, given that the Lord of Light resurrected those with missions still yet unaccomplished, and then discarded them when the task was completed. Should have, should have, should have. I’d say I’ll wait to see how close Martin’s final books line up with the show, but LOL.
**Much like people who use “literally” to mean “figuratively,” or think that “irregardless” is an actual word.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)