Major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi to follow. If you have not seen it yet, I would advise against reading on. Thanks!
I don’t usually write about movies without theoligizing them in some way. But reading the exit surveys and instant reviews for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi sparked enough contemptible polarization, even among those I’m close to, that I felt compelled to speak into the middle of it all. My goal is not to convince you to like this latest addition to the Star Wars saga. I would say that wasn’t even Johnson’s point. He doesn’t want you to recline in your seat and comfortably watch a Star Wars movie that feels fresh despite being familiar — which is largely what J.J. Abrams accomplished with the “endlessly entertaining” Star Wars: The Force Awakens — rather, his goal seems to be to challenge and disrupt all the conventional wisdom about what a Star Wars movie should be by constantly forcing you to the edge of your seat. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Normally when I get into my car and push the starter button, my phone automatically connects and begins to play whatever audio was on previously, whether that be a song or a podcast or what have you. This time it randomly shuffled to a track by worship leader Matt Redman. I got about 10 seconds into it and then hit pause. You know, ordinarily, I’d belt out the lyrics right along with the song, to the top of my lungs. But this time I needed the silence. I needed my thoughts. I drove the rest of the way home in the quiet. No sound but the constant of hum of rotating tires on the pavement. Just me and my thoughts. At first it was weird, but by the end of my commute, it was exactly what I needed.
Our society hates silence nowadays. We actually go out of our way to avoid it at all costs. It was interesting, then, when Jared Wilson and Christian George recently recorded a podcast together and intentionally left 20 seconds of silence. Dead air for 20 seconds. That doesn’t seem like much but it’s enough to make you feel a little awkward — you’re listening to a podcast, after all. Nevertheless, Dr. George said something on this show that struck me. He said something to effect that knowledge is most keenly found in the silence. It’s in the dead air that God speaks to us most clearly, most loudly. It’s only in the silence that we truly learn to speak. And though I don’t mean to Jesus juke this commentary, I found this to be very true this evening.
As we were walking out of the theater, the snap judgments came fast and furious. There was no time for silence or stillness. Only analysis and criticism. I do believe that this attitude of having to come to an instant verdict on what you just saw or experienced is the spawn of social media. The news cycle today isn’t always driven by “what’s true” as opposed to “who’s first.” This has, likewise, seeped into our own social cognizance and driven us to see something and instantly make an analysis of said thing. We don’t have much time for chewing on things, letting things sit and marinate, before coming to a final conclusion. We’d rather be the first. But, I’d ask, in what race are you the winner? And what do you win by doing so?
As those I ventured to the theater with were all expressing their swift disappointment in the film they just saw, I stood in silence. John Williams’ iconic fanfare had barely begun to play over the familiar blue credits and already there were those around me picking the movie apart. The movie was too long. Too convoluted. Too messy. Too nonsensical. Too political. Too many agendas. Too many plot holes. Not enough plot. Too different than the originals. Too similar to the originals. Etc. Etc. One of my friends even stated that his fandom of Star Wars stopped that night with Episode VIII. To me, these sentiments are not only sad but are also what Johnson himself hopes to squash with his film, by both simultaneously stimulating them and not caring about them. He wants you to have a gut reaction to his project. But he also doesn’t care what that is. What you thought mattered doesn’t. And if you’re still holding on to the old ways of viewing a Star Wars film, you’ll be left in the lonely wake of Johnson’s jumping the franchise into hyperspace. Or, more appropriately, you’ll be left to sit in the ashes of a burnt up Jedi tree. A place you thought was sacred but now find out that it’s just a place.
This movie is shocking in all the right ways, disrupting everything you thought you knew a Star Wars movie could be. The Last Jedi feels exactly like the Stars Wars movie we need right now, precisely because shirks off all the conventional notions of what we’ve become used to finding in a Star Wars film. And this, I believe, is what makes it brilliant. Oh, you thought the aged hero would take his fabled weapon and embrace his long-lost, long-hidden offspring? Wrong. He’s just going toss that sword over his shoulder like a piece of scrap metal and not say a word. Oh, you thought the overbearing evil lord villain would pull the strings on the plot for the entire series? Wrong. I’m gonna kill him in the most unexpected way imaginable half-way through the second film. Oh, you thought that whole thing about the hero’s parents was connected to someone you already know? Wrong. They were just broke nobodies who couldn’t parent anymore. Oh, you thought the bipolar bad guy was just going to be bad the whole time? Wrong. I’m going to make you question everything you thought you knew about what makes a villain truly villainous. In fact, I’d say that’s Johnson’s mantra throughout the entire 152-minute runtime. The past isn’t what you think it was and the future’s going to be different than you expect. Kylo Ren even candidly states:
“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”
Ren might’ve been speaking to Rey in that moment, but he was merely the channel through which Johnson was speaking to you, the audience. Almost like a coded fourth-wall break that’s not really there, only it is. Everything you thought a Star Wars movie could be or should be is turned on its head in The Last Jedi. That’s what makes it such a superb entry in a franchise that’s already over 40 years old, and feels older than that. “This is not going to go the way you think,” a grizzled and grieved Luke Skywalker spouts at a spunky Rey. For Rey, that turned out true. And I think those words turned out prophetic for moviegoers, too.
The fact that Johnson doesn’t care about your theories or preconceived notions of storytelling is nowhere more clearly seen than in the character of Luke Skywalker. He is, perhaps, the most famous character in a franchise that’s filled with legendary ones. But he’s never been better than here. Mark Hamill delivers an enthralling performance as the aged, exasperated, defeated Master Luke. Gone is the boyish charm and naïve heroism of the Luke from the original trilogy. This Luke is old, pained, grieved, and cynical. That which turned him into an icon seems to have all but faded away. His legendary persona has surpassed him and now all he wants to do is die peacefully, die alone.
Yet, in my favorite scene of the entire film, the apparition of Master Yoda visits Luke in his solitude. Our familiar hero opines his failures as a Jedi, citing the ways he failed his family, his nephew, and, even, the galaxy as a whole. But the ever-wise Yoda speaks so graciously into this moment. “The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda states. You see, Luke’s failure isn’t that Kylo betrayed the ways of the Jedi by succumbing to the dark side’s allure. Luke’s failure was trying to turn Kylo into a “little Luke.” “We are what they move beyond,” Yoda continues. “That is the challenge of every master.” The burden of every master, teacher, parent, or authority figure isn’t to reproduce little versions of themselves. That’s not the mandate. The mandate is to ensure they’re versed enough in what you know for them to set their own lives in motion. The truth is both for Luke and us. Just as Luke’s goal of training “another Luke” was flawed from the outset, so, too, is the idea of creating a new Star Wars film that’s “another Empire” a failure before one frame of film is captured. It’s not about replicating something revered. It’s about remixing and relaunching, and finding something new.
In my opinion, we’ve over-romanticized the original trilogy of Star Wars films. Episodes IV, V, and VI are upheld as something akin to the holy grails of cinema, as if they had no flaws in them. They, too, have seen their legacies live on far beyond anything originally intended or expected by anyone, let alone George Lucas himself. These daring space operas have become cultural icons, influencing society and history in ways that are probably not even measurable. The original trilogy is a paragon of cinema, much in the same way that Luke has become almost the very embodiment of the “Jedi way.” Johnson’s endgame is to upset the notion that these holy grails are untouchable. That our heroes don’t bleed. They’re legends, sure. But flawed ones. Human ones.
And that is, perhaps, Johnson’s greatest achievement with The Last Jedi. From the get-go, his endeavor to shake things up is evident. By shirking the idea that our hero’s parents are special, he’s proving the fact that heroes can come from anywhere. You don’t have to be great to make an impact. You don’t have to be a legend to leave a legacy. You don’t have to be a Skywalker to do something significant. Indeed, valor comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and doses. The prerequisite for herosim isn’t being destiny or prophecy, it’s doing the right thing. And perhaps that’s what has frustrated many in the fandom.
We’ve grown accustomed to storytelling, especially in the lore of Star Wars, to follow a certain pattern. Johnson’s mission appears to be proving to you that that storytelling scheme is tired and old. His goal isn’t to setup new plot lines and new people to fill a new trilogy of films full of special people. He’s uncovering the true vastness of the universe of Star Wars and reminding us that there are infinite stories to tell. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of tales to be told in this dimension. For those looking for nostalgia, this will feel like stepping out onto a rickety wooden bridge. But aggrandizing where we’ve been is no way to get where we’re going. It provides no hope for progress or moving forward. Like the characters in The Last Jedi, we may have to kill the nostalgia and risk the unsafeness in order to move on.
I’m not trying to make the case that this film is flawless. By no means. This is certainly the most polarizing film of the entire saga. Though I’ve craved a longer Star Wars film in years past, The Last Jedi’s run time is its biggest detriment. There’s a lot of story-fat that could’ve (and should’ve) been trimmed. There’s an extended sequence that feels like something out of a video game or animated cartoon rather than a feature film. Furthermore, there’s a character that’s not truly utilized or developed in any real or satisfying way. But perhaps this was merely his introduction into the timeline.
What I am trying to say is this: If you didn’t like The Last Jedi, I would contend that you’re either over-romanticizing the originals or you’re entering the theater with far too many expectations for what the story will be or should be. Or you’re doing both. My plea is for those who haven’t seen it yet, but are planning to, to step into the screening room with as little speculation as to how you want this film to go as possible. Don’t go into it with your preconceived notions as to how you think this movie will play out. If you do that, you’re likely to be upset. And you definitely won’t see the storytelling-haymaker coming your way. Rather, in the timeless words of The Beatles, “Let it be.” Let this movie be what it is: an original, surprising, satisfying film in a saga that’s spanned two generations of fans and critics. When the credits begin to roll, let this movie be. Let it sit. Let it process. Let the silence tell you what it is. And even if you come to the same conclusion as my friends, one that dislikes this film, at least you won’t have made a snap judgment on something you just saw. And maybe, just maybe, when someone asks you, “How was Episode VIII? What did you think? What did you see?” you can reply, “Something so much bigger than I first thought.”
Luke: “What do you see?”
Rey: “Light. Darkness. A balance.”
Luke: “It’s so much bigger.”
Photo via Wired