Thursday, December 21, 2017

Smashing The Mirror – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Mark Hamill in Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi.

Note: This review contains major spoilers for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

I’ve shed a tear or two in a movie theatre in my time. A lump in the throat, a welling in the eyes. It’s been known to happen. But until now, I had never fully cried in a theatre. I’d never been in a situation where a film cracked open the floodgates and allowed undignified public weeping to overtake me. I’ve learned that it’s not sad stories that trigger this for me, but rather stories of hope and love, stories of support and cooperation. I didn’t cry at the sad endings of Logan or Blade Runner this year, but you put on The Return of the King? It’s A Wonderful Life? I’m a guaranteed mess. I honestly was not prepared for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi to cut me so deeply, and it has as much to do with the way the film challenges the legacy of Star Wars and my connection to it as it does with the film’s own smart, subversive, deeply emotional storytelling.

The film has been warmly received by most people I’ve spoken to, Star Wars devotees and otherwise, with only a few salty outliers whose negative reaction I’m still trying to parse. It might be the stylistic difference between Johnson’s preference for emotional, character-based storytelling over the snazzy plot-driven flair of J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens, but I suspect it goes deeper than that. It makes sense to me that many filmgoers would have been comforted by the slavish fanboy devotion with which Abrams treated the Star Wars canon, and thus upset when Johnson rejected that devotion outright in the text of this new film. J.J. mirrored our own reverence for the brand back at us, and Johnson followed by smashing the mirror to pieces. The Last Jedi is a renunciation of legacy, of sacred bloodlines, of the idea of a “special” connection to the Force – and by proxy, a rejection of fan culture, theory-mongering, and thoughtless nostalgia. It comes as little surprise that this is rubbing some people the wrong way.

To be clear, I love The Force Awakens for its energy, its excitement, and its phenomenal casting, but most of all for the way it acts as a perfect bridge between old and new. The thematic and structural threads that weave back into A New Hope, combined with a stellar new cast of characters, functioned as a brilliant passing of the torch. Crucially, though, the next film needed to distance itself from the original trilogy if this new set of films had any intention of establishing a real sense of identity. Johnson not only realized this, but took it to its emotional extreme, making The Last Jedi a master class in deconstruction by not just dissociating himself from the original trilogy, but utterly tearing it down, exposing the cultural edifices we worship as fraudulent and empty . . . all in the guise of yet another installment in the same blockbuster series, which will continue to earn hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. Kylo Ren tells Rey to let the past die, to kill it if she has to, and that’s just what Johnson does with the property that Disney and Kathleen Kennedy handed him. Now, they’re thanking him for it – even offering him the keys to the proverbial kingdom. It’s difficult not to see this as a miraculous feat.

I believe their trust in him is based largely on the fact that while it’s just as marketable as any other, The Last Jedi is easily the smartest Star Wars movie. Its clever subversions of traditional adventure-story tropes – Poe’s misguided mutiny, Finn and Rose’s doomed away mission, Luke’s failure as a Jedi master, and Rey’s purposefully anticlimactic parental reveal – are strong, convincing arguments against the Star Wars status quo (not to mention cutting commentaries on current Western sociopolitical structure, too). You thought your fan theory about Rey’s parents might be right? You guessed wrong; they’re nobody. You thought you’d seen this story before? Mr. “Mystery Box” Abrams showed us Snoke, a villain who was mysterious purely for the sake of mystery, and Johnson murders him the first chance he gets. You thought the heroes would save the day, and face no repercussions or consequences? Poe gets people killed, gets demoted, and almost becomes responsible for the end of the Resistance. Perhaps that’s why some people are mad: we all thought this would go differently. (Luke warned us in the trailer, but we didn’t listen.) We, like Luke, grew up believing the Jedi were the good guys, that they were infallible, that light would always win out against darkness – but he was wrong, and so were we. The Skywalker line, strong in the Force though it was, was not divinely appointed, and, as in our own real world, genetic privilege is not the only path to power. It takes not just the weakness of young Ben Solo, but the strength of Rey – a nobody, from nowhere – to prove this to him. Yoda, returning in joyfully puppeted form, hammers the point home when he burns the sacred remnants of the Jedi to ash. The soul of the Jedi is contained not in dusty old tomes, but in the heart of the girl from Jakku – and the soul of Star Wars lives not in our attachment to the familiar, but our willingness to seek out the unknown. Rey’s failure, when she attempts to save the unsaveable in Kylo Ren, is the character becoming aware of her own self-delusion – Johnson offering a metaphorical warning against putting stock in expectations – and this allows her to transcend her desire for “a place in all this.” With this moment, Johnson gives Rey a heartbreaking and perfect arc, and also gives permission to dorks everywhere to choose a path away from toxic fan culture, which fetishizes the familiar, recoils from the bold, and seeks to rank and categorize art into oblivion. 

The Last Jedi is bleak, but as in its middle-chapter mirror The Empire Strikes Back, hope does shine through the blackness: a hive of scum and villainy can be trampled to the ground so its kinder life forms can be free. A rebellion can be reborn amidst tragedy and defeat. A sacrifice can be made that’s not in vain. A shattered soul can finally find peace. And, most importantly, the Force can be democratized, busted out of the chains of stodgy tradition, expanding the storytelling possibility of the brand to absolutely anyone out there in the firmament. I’ve spoken before about the “cantina effect,” the way Star Wars is alluring more for its untold stories than the ones we see, and I think Johnson understands this better than George Lucas ever did. If true jazz is in the notes you don’t play, then Rian Johnson is the Miles Davis of Star Wars.

Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi.

Though their superficial thrills are all subverted by the time you reach The Last Jedi’s credits, the adventures that happen along the way are still deeply compelling cinema, stuffed with dramatic tension and electric chemistry among the cast members. The film is rich with indelible imagery and unforgettable setpieces: the opening bombing run (and the captivating scene with Rose’s sister), Rey mirrored into infinity, Finn and Rose riding in the moonlight on Canto Bight, a pair of hands reaching out through the Force to touch one another, Admiral Holdo’s shocking lightspeed gambit, the death of Snoke and the throneroom showdown, Leia’s desperate Force-flight, Luke coming face to face with his former student . . . there are simply too many to name. The Last Jedi’s dual storylines – the plight of the Resistance balanced against the turmoil of the Force – feel like two fully-fledged movies in their own right, which extends the run time beyond what most audiences would probably prefer, but they contain such beautifully executed set-ups and pay-offs, and maintain their focus so strongly on character, that I was fully immersed throughout. What some have identified as forced or cheap comedy (whether it’s the adorable merchandising assets called porgs, Finn’s macho bumbling, or any other levity during the film’s length) read more to me like gallows humour; these are the jokes we tell ourselves when we’re terrified, and while they may soothe our fear in the moment, the relief they offer is only temporary. This is Johnson’s way of keeping us on an even emotional keel while the stormy conflict of the film threatens to topple us into the abyss, and that’s exactly how the characters use it, too. They all must find ways to keep themselves afloat in the sea of uncertainty that Johnson tosses them into.

And what keep us afloat as an audience, of course, are these characters, and the astonishing cast that embodies them. Daisy Ridley, radiant and magnetic once again, deftly navigates Rey through the trauma that forces her to grow from the starry-eyed scavenger we met in The Force Awakens into the living future of an ancient tradition (and the living future of this franchise, too). Oscar Isaac and John Boyega embody the indignant masculine bluster of Poe and Finn, when the events of the film prove to them that they’re not necessarily the heroes they thought they were – or even the ones that are needed in this conflict. In her final film appearance before her untimely death, Carrie Fisher brings new depth, new power, and new humility to General Leia, broadening the scope of the character we’ve loved for forty years and crushing our hearts with the knowledge that she won’t be back. Adam Driver invites us closer to Ben Solo’s pain and confusion, and reasserts the smoldering, dangerous allure that Kylo represents for Rey. Newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, as Resistance mechanic Rose, effortlessly manifests the passion and enthusiasm that lives in the heart of every Star Wars fan, making perhaps the film’s most instinctively natural hero out of the unlikeliest character. But above them all, towering over the film with a performance that feels like a physical extension of Johnson’s bleak and hopeful vision, is Mark Hamill. He reduces Luke to a haunted, spiteful shell of the plucky Tatooine farmboy we once cheered for, and then lifts him up to a redemption that is as much a rebirth as a passing away. He adds subtle nods to Luke’s youthful, rebellious nature (as when he sneers at Rey while she watches him drink udder-fresh alien milk), and, when faced once again with his perplexing old teacher, becomes the same whining boy we saw in Empire. It’s the best performance the series has seen, and it’s a wondrous thing even if you don’t share the affection most of us have nurtured for the character over the past four decades.

We were all unprepared, as filmgoers and fans, for The Last Jedi to shout in our faces that our heroes are flawed and human, that they will let us down, that we will fail, and that disappointment will follow us everywhere. We weren’t ready for our fun space-opera series to suggest that our broken systems need to be torn down, that innocent people will be hurt along the way, and that sometimes life is just cruel and capricious and we won’t be given an explanation why. But then the film extends its hand, brings you into a tight embrace, and whispers that despite all that, you will learn, you will heal, you will grow, and above all, that you matter. Regardless of where you came from, you matter, and you have a place in this story.

I wept when brother and sister were reunited, when Finn’s sacrifice resulted in a lesson about what rebellion truly is, and when a Jedi’s life ended as it began, staring at the binary horizon. But it was the final scene – the sweet, quiet coda about a different boy staring at different stars – that really twisted the knife Johnson had already slipped into my heart. People who are mad about goofy porgs, or casino antics, or the outwardly campy image of Leia floating through space, are allowing superficial elements to distract them from the wealth of character, theme, and emotion that burns at the core of The Last Jedi. I’m not saying that disliking those things is invalid – I’m just saying, we already got a trilogy of Star Wars films that were outwardly “perfect,” all flash and no substance, and they were awful. I can hardly even perceive these tiny things in the wake of the gift that Rian Johnson gave us with The Last Jedi: a story which, at its heart, reasserts what makes Star Wars so special to begin with. The Force is not the plaything of a chosen few warriors, and its legacy is not the sole purview of a gatekeeper geek elite.

It is with all of us, always.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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