Subverting Star Wars: Deconstructing The Last Jedi
As the latest Star Wars movie makes its way to home media, Bruce McAdam deconstructs the film and analyses the controversy surrounding it.
*I have a bad feeling about this… SPOILERS ahead!*
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi released in theatres on 14th December to tremendous hype. Two years had passed since the release of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens and over time, the initially overwhelmingly positive reception to the first Star Wars movie in a decade seemed to have soured somewhat.
The trend had become to lambast Abrams’ film for a lack of originality and to point out – as though it weren’t blatantly obvious – that TFA retrod much of the same ground as the original 1977 Star Wars, despite the fact that doing so was clearly a calculated decision on the part of the film maker and his overlords at Lucas Film and Disney.
Leaving aside the somewhat derivative nature of TFA, the movie had set up plenty of tantalising plot threads; Who was Supreme Leader Snoke? What was the backstory of the villainous Kylo Ren and his seeming allies, the Knights of Ren, glimpsed only momentarily in flashback? And perhaps most hotly debated of all was the question of heroine Rey‘s parentage.
Fan theories abounded on the internet and expectations as to the epic nature of inevitable future revelations drove anticipation for the next mainline entry in the series to fever pitch. And so the hopes and dreams and expectations of one of pop culture’s most rabid fanbases were pinned upon writer-director Rian Johnson, who it transpires was giving almost entire creative freedom over the course that the The Last Jedi would take.
That was a bold move by Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm. We live in a world where franchises (particularly those owned by the House of Mouse) are planned out years in advance, with multiple disparate movies all woven together into a single cinematic tapestry. To hand over the reigns of arguably the biggest intellectual property in existence to a man with just three full-length movies to his name was as daring as any Death Star trench run.
But initial critical reaction to Johnson‘s opus, the longest Star Wars movie ever made, was overwhelmingly positive. Currently sitting at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, it scored numerous five star reviews and was heralded as the best Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, the gold standard to which all Star Wars movies aspire. It seemed that the Force was strong with this one.
Yet as the movie released for consumption by the general public, it became obvious that the movie was going to be heavily polarising, particularly amongst the hardcore fanbase. Most of the backlash revolved around the decisions made regarding the two key plot threads left dangling by The Force Awakens: Snoke is unceremoniously murdered by Kylo Ren before we learn any of the character’s background and Rey‘s parents, according to Kylo Ren, were nobodies – junkers who abandoned her for the right price.
Additionally, a vocal contingent of fans have also taken issue with certain other aspects of the movie. A subplot involving Finn (John Boyega), Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), DJ (Benicio del Toro) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) has been labelled superfluous. Laura Dern‘s Admiral Holdo has come under fire for her unnecessary secretiveness regarding a plan which sets Poe against her. Luke Skywalker (the inimitable Mark Hamill) has no interest in training Rey and is, in fact, set upon seeing the Jedi Order die out entirely.
Oh, and at no point does one lightsaber strike against another.
All of this might sound unbelievable in a Star Wars movie and to a large extent, this is exactly the point. Anybody familiar with Johnson‘s previous work should have seen this kind of movie coming a mile away. Johnson is a subversive filmmaker who is interested in manipulating the tropes of genre whilst still remaining faithful to the core of what makes those genres work.
His feature-length debut, Brick, is a neo-noir set within the realm of high school cliques. Genre-defining tropes are obeyed. Everybody talks a little too fast and the dialogue is a little too smart and poetic. The cinematography is bleak. There is a sense of foreboding and dread that permeates every shot. And yet there is a sense that these are just dumb high-school kids playing dress-up.
Similarly, the remarkable Looper is a brutally violent movie about the futility and cyclic nature of violence. It is a time travel movie which is clearly aware that time travel as a concept is fundamentally flawed and advises you not to worry too much about the how of it. “This time travel crap, just fries your brain like an egg,” Jeff Daniels tells the protagonist.
All of this leads us to the Star Wars that we have been given by Rian Johnson. It is a Star Wars movie in which we are told to question everything we know about Star Wars. In a scene which artfully ties the modern movies to George Lucas‘ much-reviled prequels, Luke berates the Jedi – the previously unquestionable heroes of the series – for the hubris which allowed the rise of the Emperor. It is a scene which is emblematic of everything that Johnson is trying to do with The Last Jedi.
Johnson wants us to question our ideas of heroism, particularly within the Star Wars universe. Where so often in the past it has been the daring, gung-ho approach that saves the day, here it is reversed. The most explicit example of this is when the swashbuckling Poe Dameron is reprimanded for his recklessness. Yes, his plan results in the destruction of a First Order dreadnought, but also sees the Resistance’s entire bomber fleet annihilated in the process. For the first time in a mainline Star Wars movie, we are asked to reflect on the human cost of war.
Following the attack on the dreadnought, it is on Poe‘s say-so that Finn and Rose head to Canto Bight in a subplot which has been one of the most criticised elements of the film, mainly for its apparent superfluousness to the movie’s central narrative.
The world of Canto Bight is beautiful and thriving, but Rose claims that it is a “terrible place filled with the worst people in the galaxy”. The evil there is an insidious one; the citizens are arms dealers who make their money supplying both the Resistance and the First Order and it is the first time that Star Wars has really concerned itself with moral shades of grey.
Here they are to find a codebreaker who will get them aboard the First Order flagship and help them carry out a scheme which will allow the Resistance to escape the First Order’s clutches. It is the most Star Wars plan of all time. But the fact that in the end it is a failure and they are captured is exactly the point that Johnson is making. Poe eventually realises that his plan has failed and in the end it is Holdo, who has been patient and clever in her approach, that eventually saves the fleet.
It is perhaps not entirely logical that Holdo would have withheld this information from Poe for so long, but it is effective storytelling and character development. The way events unfold challenges Poe‘s perceptions of what it is to be a hero. It is because of this that the Canto Bight subplot, rather than being entirely unnecessary, actually serves as the coda necessary for unlocking the rest of the movie.
Similarly subversive is the murder of Supreme Leader Snoke by Kylo Ren.
Snoke had been billed as the next big-bad who would take on the role of the Emperor in this new trilogy. However, with Snoke‘s death, we are spared the re-hashing of the evil wizard archetype and Kylo Ren (played by the sensational Adam Driver) is able to step into the role of the series’ number one villain.
Darth Vader is one of cinema’s greatest villains. He was a frightening presence whenever he appeared on screen and served as the perfect foil for Luke Skywalker, presenting not just a physical threat, but a spiritual one too. He represented everything that Luke could become, should he allow himself to.
Despite this, the Darth Vader of the original trilogy is not a great character. The distinction between a great character and a great villain is a crucial one. From the original movies alone, we learn little of Vader‘s personality or the deeper motivations and struggles that drive him and this is exactly how he was designed to be in order to successfully serve the function that Lucas required of him.
Ren though, is far more nuanced. We understand his motivations and Driver brings a level of sadness and impotent rage to the character that humanises him in a way that Darth Vader could not afford to be humanised if he was to effectively fulfil his role within the original trilogy.
In bringing Ren to the forefront, Star Wars now has a much more dynamic and textured villain to pit against its heroes, which is in keeping with Johnson‘s much more ambiguous stance on good and evil within the movie. To say that killing Snoke and promoting Ren is un-Star Wars also feels doubly disingenuous, as Kylo Ren feels like the successful realisation of everything that George Lucas failed to achieve with Anakin Skywalker in his prequel trilogy.
Finally, we come to the reveal of Rey‘s parentage.
Even now, the internet debate rages as to whether Ren‘s revelation that she is a nobody is true or not. It is entirely possible that Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams may well ret-con this in Episode IX by revealing Ren to have lied and as with the death of Snoke, fan frustration is understandable.
After two years of intense speculation, for the twist to be that her parentage isn’t even important is certainly a hard sell. But within the context of the movie it makes perfect sense.
Ren wants to burn down the Resistance and the Republic, the Jedi and the Sith. He becomes a proponent of the idea that the past is unimportant and that it is the future that matters. That where Rey came from is irrelevant ties in perfectly to this and is the gambit that Ren uses to attempt to bring her to his side. Ultimately Rey rejects him and embraces the idea of the Jedi of old, without being tied into their tired dogma.
In the meta context, this is largely a statement from Johnson about Star Wars and perfectly represents the fundamental principles underpinning The Last Jedi. It is fine to honour what has gone before and Johnson definitely does that. Clearly there is affection for the Star Wars of old, with its numerous visual references and loving homage to returning characters, but ultimately Johnson is looking to do something quite unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before now.
It is easy to see why some fans have been outraged with The Last Jedi and should serve as a warning against the kind of internet theory culture that surrounds popular franchises. It confounds audience expectation and twists and eschews a number of the more traditional themes and beats of Star Wars, because this is not traditional Star Wars.
This is a modern and humanistic Stars Wars for the 21st century. It wants to examine the nature of heroism, challenge preconceived notions of good and evil and build genuine characters with the audience to engage with. It is a Star Wars that is relevant for the times that we live in, where the insidious villainy of silence, complicity, disenfranchisement and blind zeal is just as menacing as the more traditional wickedness embodied by Snoke.
Johnson has been given free reign to craft an entirely new trilogy of movies within the universe and so clearly the film that The Last Jedi shaped into is a vision that is wholeheartedly shared by Lucasfilm.
Johnson‘s movie is not intended to deliberately subvert, or to troll the Star Wars fanbase, but it is intended to do daring new things with a cinematic universe rapidly approaching forty years of age. It is a vision of a bold, creative future, encapsulated perfectly by The Last Jedi’s the closing scene; a seemingly unimportant slave child – seen earlier in the movie – walks through the stables where he works, absent-mindedly using the Force to retrieve his broom. He looks up into the starry night sky, stretching out into a universe of infinite possibilities. Anything could happen out there.
In this new age of Star Wars that is no longer afraid to let the past die, killing it if it must, that’s very exciting indeed.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is out now on DVD and Blu Ray.