“We are what they grow beyond.”
“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”
– Kylo Ren
The third installment of the third Star Wars trilogy, as yet unnamed but numbered 9, may yet follow the advice of the quotes above. But the second installment, The Last Jedi, has just about as much trouble letting the past die and growing beyond things as its brilliant co-protagonist, the last of the Skywalkers, consistently does, despite what he tells himself and others.
The second time I watched the film, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think it is partly excellent, mostly good, for what it is: a Star Wars film really very much in line with what has come before. The same story, done again, and done well. But done again, nonetheless.
I don’t think that it is quite as risk-taking or different from what has come before as a lot of the praise would have it, and the second part of this piece goes into that. The first details the problem that made my first viewing merely enjoyment, without the “thoroughly” before it. And at the end, I mention a few more things of interest, at least to me, and of criticism, and of praise.
Not only does this essay come with the The Empire Strikes Back comparisons that were settled impatiently atop the starting blocks long before even the film’s first trailer, it also comes with…
The Comedy of Errors
“I felt I needed humour in the picture. And yet, I couldn’t have gags.”
– Irvin Kershner
This is something I heard the director of The Empire Strikes Back say in a short clip that I stumbled upon on YouTube, from a longer interview and documentary discussing the making of the 1980 film, and it really resonated as an articulation of the reason I reacted apprehensively to maybe half, perhaps more, of the humour in The Last Jedi. It is not a word I would likely have pinned down myself for this section of the essay had he not voiced it on the far side of my screen, as it is not a word really in my lexicon – though, of course, I do know it. But that contrast laid so perfectly, simply out in that quote is the key to most of my apprehension with the film.
Because so many of the lines and moments in The Last Jedi were gags.
It was there from the very start, but it is a moment toward the very end that encapsulated and exemplified it, and filled my attempts to voice the problem I had after seeing the film, both first and second time.
When Luke, from afar, walks out to confront Supreme Leader Ren, he is subjected to a barrage of fire from every available weapon. To the astonishment of all, Luke Skywalker walks up out of the crater formed about him in the salt-topped dirt, and then, as he stands unharmed before the First Order, Mark Hamill does a brushing off motion on the cape across his shoulder.
The moment that happened, on-screen, to me, was not a character but an actor. This is such an absolutely serious moment for uncle and nephew, for Resistance and First Order, for the story, and for us. Cheapened – only momentarily, and not at all destroyed, but cheapened nonetheless – for absolutely no reason. The plan is to rile up Ren into making poor decisions, giving everyone in the caves the time they need to escape. But, given the barrage, that is quite clearly already achieved without the strange, awkward, smug, out of character, baiting. All that we know of the back-story between these characters, all that we know of the feelings in Luke over Ben Solo, what happened, and what is happening now, all that has been built by nearly two full films, expository dialogue, and converging, subjective flashback – all of this does not produce a Luke that would act that way in that situation. But it is something Mark Hamill would do. For Luke to step out of the crater, to stand there defiantly, sad, and to ignite the projection of the saber would no doubt have had the effect that the character desired and brought Ren down from his ship, and it would have been what the character would have done up there on-screen, if the drive of this film were story-telling and not performance.
There are other moments that stand out:
The Phone-call Sketch – Setting the tone as early as it could, short of writing puns into the opening crawl, the interaction between General Hux and Poe in his X-Wing is so odd. I think every single scene that Hux is in in this film involves at least one joke – that is, gag. The threat that the First Order is supposed to be posing until the moment Rey finally gets around to lifting rocks is undermined for absolutely no reason besides making out-of-story onlookers laugh.
The Comedic Toss – When Luke Skywalker is handed his father’s lightsaber for a second time, the sand is now an ocean and the wide-eyes are looking back, while the heavy heart does not pass on the relic with an aching soul, but stands to receive it so. After a moment and an age, the last of the Jedi tosses the weapon over his shoulder, and walks away. I fully get and appreciate the point of it, that Rey and we put intense meaning into that object, that it holds so much value, and we have waited two years to see the saber pass that short distance to make contact with those hands – yet, to him, it is only negative or nothing, and he will not be swayed from that by the music of the binary sunset. Yet, if Luke had simply let his arms and hands fall to his sides, and let the saber fall from hand to ground, the same humour would be there in a much more sober form, and the message of the moment still perfectly intact, and, in my estimation, harder-hitting.
The Double Act – Rey takes Luke too literally, and, when instructed to reach out to feel for the force, she lifts her arm and extends out her hand. In exaggerated exasperation, Luke uses some stick to tickle her hand and sarcastically talk of the sensation, as she equally overplays her conviction. It feels like a blooper, an on-set bit of fun perpetrated by two actors during filming, that got left in the actual film. A humorous moment along these lines could have worked, something more downplayed to show his reaction to her literally reaching out. But, as happens regularly throughout the film, subtlety in comedy has not been the choice made, and a gag instead made the final draft. It could have been Morecambe and Wise or The Two Ronnies in costume parodying the training sequences in Empire.
The Sitcom Moment – A character enters a room, beginning to talk to another character before they see them, only to be forced to a halt halfway through their sentence upon turning around or looking up and discovering the other in a bath-towel or their underwear. Yet it is not Monica walking into the apartment, but Rey entering a force-vision-communication to find Kylo Ren shirtless. There is nothing wrong with a character being shirtless in their private room, it certainly makes absolute sense that he might be, but instead of it being something for some audience members to be distracted by if they must, it is drawn to the full attention of everyone when Rey acts a little awkward and asks if he doesn’t have a shirt at hand. Canned laughter.
There are moments of a similar humour in The Force Awakens: the one coming quickest to mind being Han’s line to Finn, at the latter’s attempts to plan their mission at Starkiller Base: “That’s not how the force works!”. Yet even this felt far more natural, it worked in a way that all I have mentioned from Episode 8 did not, and it felt very close in nature to Han’s many, many funny lines in Empire. That is, it felt in character, and with a feeling of this being something that would be said by and between these characters without any stage or any audience.
The comedy moments I mentioned and more from Episode 8: they aren’t organic interaction between two characters in the course of a story that produce humour, the way Irvin Kershner sought for his film. They are more akin to a knowing performance, not anywhere near as far as pantomime, but that is the word coming to my head, and perhaps what one might call it were one to make the most cynical appraisal and go a little overboard in criticism.
The Last Jedi seemed to have this inability to let scenes be entirely serious, be purely drama – leaving the film with very few that are. There is a lot of humour in Empire, but there is, accompanying that, a plethora of dramatic scenes and moments in which there is none. And when there is a mix of seriousness and humour, it is in that sober form that I brought up when discussing an alternative to Luke tossing the lightsaber after being finally handed it. When the Millennium Falcon makes, at last, a jump to light-speed as Vader watches from the window of a Destroyer, he looks half-away, then looks back out, having been previously assured of the hyperdrive deactivation that would guarantee Luke’s capture, after Skywalker’s disappointing and unexpected decision-making previous. Then, as we see the officers and admirals sharing the bridge begin silently to inwardly gulp and panic, he walks purposefully away and out. There is a nervous, anticipatory humour generated in us in this scene because of two things. One, because we have seen how swiftly dispatched people have been in the wake of failure throughout the film, and now we see some good close-ups of faces that know it even better than we do. And two, because the serious tone of the film and its characters has never wavered. We take these people and the events they endure and bring about seriously – even when we’re laughing. This scene is not a gag, and even as we may smile we feel the threat unbroken. If it were a scene in the most recent addition to the saga, an officer from elsewhere on board might have wandered in at the height of this masterfully crafted tension, looking cheerful, then notice the room, and say “Geez, who died?”.
Overall, The Last Jedi failed where Empire excelled – in the natural infusion of humour produced by organic character interaction within a dark story. They felt they needed humour in this picture. And thus, for the most part, they did it with gags.
This is Not Going to Go the Way You Think
A large part of the praise that I’ve come across for this film is to do with it being different, taking risks, taking Star Wars in new directions and to new places. But it doesn’t really flip many expectations, and the risks aren’t deep. Moreover, what expectations are flipped and what risks are taken are generally overturned and nullified by the end of the film, if not before.
For example, this idea that characters failing left, right, and centre is somehow new is nonsense. Everybody but Boba Fett fails in The Empire Strikes Back.
The Rebels fail to keep their base hidden, and the Empire fails to destroy the Rebellion when it finds it, with Vader failing to catch those he was after. The Empire then fails to catch the Falcon, and the Falcon fails to reach safety un-followed, with a lot of individual failure by Imperials in the process. Luke fails, over and over again, to learn from Yoda, Yoda fails to get through to him, and our newest hope fails his teachers, new and old, when he refuses to stay – eventually failing to help his friends, the reason why he left. Lando fails to get the bargain he intended, fails to protect his citizens, and fails, with the others, to rescue Han when it might not quite be too late. Luke fails to do anything to Vader but blow some carbon steam in his face and slash his shoulder-pad, and Vader fails to convince his son (spoilers) to join him. The Falcon fails at light-speed, and when it ultimately succeeds, Vader fails once again to capture those that he is after. And, just as with the ending of The Last Jedi, despite all the myriad failings, the bad guys have done significant damage while falling short of what they wanted, while the good guys are left (almost) all together and hopeful despite it all.
The prequels, too, are no strangers to the theme of failure (and I’m only talking within-story, here). The theme of flawed and remorseful teachers is even present from the first third of the original film, as Kenobi tells of how the galaxy got to where it then was. Talk of the narrow, dogmatic views of the Jedi might be new to Rey, but not to us. We’ve seen Kenobi and Yoda go from believers in the cause to self-banished remorseful Masters, and so to see Luke this way is quite natural.
Now take an example of risk and bold, new direction: “It’s time for the Jedi to end.” A huge part of this film’s mission was ostensibly to challenge the duality of light and dark, to bring an end to the dogma of Jedi vs Sith, to really shake things up. It was the moment chosen for impact at the end of the very first trailer, and for almost the whole film Luke convincingly sticks to it, venturing out to give some lessons to Rey and have his fears confirmed. A new direction for Star Wars.
By the end of the film, Luke is proclaiming that he will not be the last Jedi, Rey and Ren have taken their place as hero and villain, and the Jedi books that we thought had been burned have actually been saved by Rey, as we see when Finn opens and closes a drawer upon the Falcon. None of what preceded the final scenes of the film – not the rhetoric of Luke throughout or Yoda in his cameo, nor the actions taken by Luke of refusing Rey and warning her, or Yoda’s setting fire to the sacred tree that should have had the Jedi texts inside – is sustained. It closes out the film that made a big deal out of being different with Jedi vs Sith, and Rebels vs Empire.
This challenging of a dogmatic Jedi Order is something the original three films have already done anyway, particularly when combined with the story of the prequels. We see the consequences, even without watching Episode 1 to 3, of the past of the Jedi, and the distinction between good and bad breaking apart in Anakin/Vader. Luke struggles so much more convincingly with darkness than Rey does, and it lasts right up until the trilogy’s end.
“I am your father” becomes “Your parents were nobodies”, and is followed by a “Join me” moment. Snow becomes salt, and the walker attack finds itself at the end of the story rather than the start, yet the Battle of Hoth – the evacuation under fire, the protection of the transports by disabling destroyers, the fight on and above the white ground – is re-ordered and stretched across the film’s running time. The reluctant teacher is reluctant for far longer, and tries to convince the pupil to leave rather than convince them that they shouldn’t.
Yes, it is flipping expectations in some way, but fundamentally not. Yes, it is a very creative way to re-hash, but it is still the same. The idea that The Last Jedi is making us question what Star Wars is, presenting us with something unfamiliar, simply isn’t true. The story, quite naturally, is fundamentally the very same.
This is all essentially criticism of the praise awarded the film, rather than of the film itself. Perhaps (sincerely, perhaps) I am missing something, and need to look closer. But it appears to me that The Last Jedi is only different from what has come before it to a shallow degree, merely re-organising what is already there, and flirting briefly with some other themes. It is the very same story, shaken up and shifted around. And that might be enough. It is Star Wars, after all.
There is plenty more I could say, but instead of developing any more ideas further, I wanted to just list a few that keep recurring to me, and to conclude afterward.
- For all the theme and discussion of balance within the story and amongst the characters, I think balance is another area where Empire excelled and The Last Jedi stumbled. Transitions between multiple story strands didn’t feel as seamless or well-timed and executed as they could have been.
- I don’t think the way Snoke talks about Darth Vader really makes sense. I don’t know why he admires him so, given his own tremendous power, and surely his knowledge of what happened. Vader failed, he was weakened by light and love. Palpatine would be a better candidate for Snoke’s admiration, and even then it is someone seemingly less powerful, and who also failed. So when he talks to Ren about the boy having the bloodline he has, and the potential to be a new Vader, it just felt off, with the soon to be ex-Supreme Leader treating Vader with more awe and respect than perhaps he ought to be.
- However, Snoke was absolutely brilliant. I don’t care who he is or who he was or where he came from: intriguing in the previous saga film, I loved him in this, and, of all the predictions for what might happen in this film, of all the predictions of where the story may go, I did not for a second think he would be killed. Leave the mystery un-unraveled. Snoke was here, he was great, and now he’s gone.
- In a few moments during his brief time on screen, Yoda was being the weird, funny Yoda that we see at his first appearance, but this behaviour was only part of a test of Luke’s patience, it never seemed to be actually within his true character. So it didn’t really make sense to me that he would have the moments of mischievousness and laughter that he does in the new film. The puppet didn’t quite look right, either. I mean, why not just make the puppet look exactly as it did in Return of the Jedi, instead of just close enough? But overall, he had good lines, and the scenes with him and Luke together felt actually like a natural part of the story, like it fit, and not something shoe-horned in for nostalgia.
- If you need Leia in a coma for a large chunk of the film, just have her very narrowly avoid being sucked out into space, but still suffering from coming so close. I feel that the reason they had this Mary Poppins thing was to show that Luke had been teaching her too over the decades, setting up her teaching or assisting Rey in the next film, which she very sadly will not be in, no longer taking the central role that was hers, just as with Ford and Hamill in 2015 and 2017. That scene, where Ren does not shoot, yet the fighters behind him swoop in and blast away, was fantastic. And when they showed her in space amongst the debris, playing her music, my favourite theme, it was so damn impactful. She was never supposed to have died in that moment, but I thought that she had, and that it could hardly have been done better than that. And then, of course, the scene continued…
- I fear that the emotional impact of the sound of mechanically-assisted breath, and of the strings that conjure the twin setting suns, is waning, and is set to diminish much more, all from over use, so regular now do they announce themselves. This is a problem of Star Wars in general at the moment, and not primarily The Last Jedi. Regular mentions of Vader, regular use of that foundational theme: grow beyond.
- I don’t quite know why, but I absolutely loved hearing Luke Skywalker say the words “Darth Sidious”.
- The way the film wrapped up felt strangely to me as if it were the end of the trilogy. Like the lives of the characters would continue, but here is where the story ends. I’m not sure why it felt like that to me, but I left the cinema, both times, as if leaving a concluding installment.
When it is great, it is fantastic, but it is not great particularly often. When it is bad, it is perfectly get-over-able, and it is not bad that often. What remains is not as strong as The Force Awakens, but that is at least partially because it seeks, in some semi-surface ways, to be different, to risk, and it plays with structure and themes, and so at times it may be said that Episode 8 stands taller then its predecessor even while faltering.
As I said in the opening of this piece: I enjoyed The Last Jedi much more the second time around, even with the same criticisms largely intact, yet kind of switched off. But something’s missing.
The Force Awakens carried me from the moment the cinema room fell dark and silent, and didn’t put me down for a second until the lights were back up. I think the atmosphere surrounding that film was tailored to producing that experience, so it isn’t a fair comparison, but still that is the difference. I think with my in-desire to re-watch Rogue One, with my satisfication with having seen Episode 8 two times without the urgent drive, particularly, for more, and my quite close to zero interest in the upcoming Han Solo movie, I think the case of The Force Awakens was not a repeatable one. They have to move on from the saga story, from the nostalgia. The saturation point, for me, seems to have come, and they are only three films in. That can be reversed, based on future direction and decision, but I yearn now not for more, but for my three original films, my still-loved moments from the prequels, and the wealth of stories found, in the 90s and the earlier 2000s, within the games, and books, and comics of the Expanded Universe.
There’s the rub: expanded.
However, I don’t like this current zeitgeist surrounding film viewing, even when I can’t seem to help but partake. I’m not a fucking art critic, I’m going to the cinema to have fun for two hours. When, not if, I do watch The Last Jedi again, I will not be an examiner, nor a cynic yearning for creative control. I will surrender, and feel just as I felt when seeing it the second time:
The story is written, it is mine only to sit before and to be told.
Now, tell it to me again…