WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!
Watching Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi this afternoon for the second time I got to that moment near the mid-point turn when the movie finally showed its hand. Up until that point we thought we were watching a Star Wars film that was going to answer a bunch of our questions left dangling by J.J. Abrams The Force Awakens and resolve the multiple plot lines in ways that seemed easy to predict.
This line of dialogue, spoken by both the most unlikely and most appropriate character, was meant to reassure the person it is said to. But, it was also a warning to us that things were not, in Luke Skywalker’s words to Rey earlier in the film, “going to go like you think they will.”
In that one moment, Rian Johnson’s screenplay tipped its hand. And it’s the line of dialogue that tells you this movie is the spiritual cousin of The Empire Strikes Back.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that I missed its importance the first time through. I spent the first viewing obsessed with structure and wondering where the movie was going next. I didn’t give myself the chance to simply absorb what I was watching.
The Fandom Mirror
And with films like this, where I have a huge investment, I know not to trust my first reaction.
I find myself watching myself watching the movie instead of simply watching the freaking movie. I did this with The Force Awakens and left the theatre happy but unsettled. It wasn’t until the second viewing that I fell in love with it, flaws and all.
So, when I watched The Last Jedi the first time there was an emotional detachment that refused to go away. And I found myself wondering why I wasn’t moved by it. I liked it but I wasn’t moved by it.
Not so the second time. This time I found myself freed from trepidation and anticipation and simply watched a story I already knew unfold and that story was freaking fantastic. Rich, layered and, yes, moving.
And so much of the criticism I’ve seen leveled at The Last Jedi falls into the category of caring about things that aren’t germane to what makes Star Wars Star Wars.
It’s silly (Porgs), unbelievable (Leia’s Flight), riddled with plot issues (bombers of questionable tactical value) but also charming (Finn), intense (Kylo Ren), mythic (Luke) and heroic (Rey).
If it gets the big things right and entertains along the way, then I consider that a successful Star Wars film. I’ve rarely not been entertained by one, at least once, even Attack of the Clones. I like some (much) better than others.
But there comes a point where, as an adult, you remember to step back and watch the movie on its terms, not yours. And if you can’t do that, well, nothing the filmmakers do will make you happy.
Star Wars films are no longer just films, they are part of a modern mythology which many of us use as a substitute for lost spirituality and shared history. It is heroic film-making of a particular type and that type can’t be screwed with.
The Second Act Always Sucks
But, The Last Jedi is the second act of the three-act story. It’s the one where the heroes fail. And in this film everything they do fails. Everyone fails at their appointed task. Such is the way of second acts.
And that is incredibly frustrating to watch. The Force Awakens gave us new characters to believe in, to care and cheer for. And The Last Jedi takes them down a peg, or in Poe Dameron’s case, two.
But, all of them are better for it in the end. Everyone grows up a lot in this movie. While at the same time it puts a period on much of the series’ past. And I’m glad for that. These new heroes can’t stand on their own if they are always looking to their legends to help them.
And that’s the essence of all of the story arcs in The Last Jedi. Poe loses Leia’s guidance early and is cast aside by Vice Admiral Holdo. He tries to go red-blooded American Action Movie Hero and is slapped down for it.
Finn is confronted with his legend and his cowardice and has both of them challenged by Rose Tico. They ultimately fail and not only do they fail but that failure kills hundreds of people.
Rey wants Luke Skywalker to show her her “place in all of this.” And he can’t because he doesn’t know any more than she does.
Kylo Ren succeeds at one major task, but fails at everything else. And it will be his downfall.
Ren and Rey are convinced the other will turn, but both of them fail.
The Last Jedi is ultimately about what we do when confronted with abject failure. Heroes find a way. Even if that way is simply surviving to fight another day.
Villains are left with nothing except the ghosts of the people they’ve killed.
Let the Past Die
Technically the movie is a marvel. The pace, editing, music, shot selection are all superb. Rian Johnson’s script is tight and far more intricate (and consistent) than it looks on first viewing.
To those quibbling over plot holes or points you don’t like. I have two words for you. Space Slug.
Then I have a few more. Empire makes zero sense if the Falcon isn’t equipped with a backup hyperdrive that allows them to traverse space between Hoth, Anoat and Bespin in something other than three lifetimes, assuming they are all next-door, galaxy-wise that is.
The major plot point of arguably the best Star Wars film of all time is undercut by Lawrence Kasdan’s lack of understanding how big space really is. It bothered me as an 11-year old. I still love Empire.
Star Wars isn’t about those little (or even big) things you didn’t like. It’s about the big things you do. And if you let those things ruin a story that is supposed to work as equal parts myth and fairy tale, then Rian Johnson’s script is wagging its finger at you.
And rightly so.
I have a friend whose dad, Sam, spent most of his adult life trying to recreate his father’s pie crust. It was a lifelong obsession. And every time Sam made one, no matter how good it was it couldn’t compare to his dad’s pie crust.
But, it wasn’t the pie crust that was perfect. It was the memory of that pie crust that is perfect. That pie crust is legend and the story of it, for us and Sam’s family, is now also legend.
Star Wars exists, for many of us, as legend. As kids we overlooked the mistakes and limitations of the original films. They shaped who we were and who we are. They taught us things that mattered.
The Last Jedi, like Empire, teaches us things that matter; that trust and loyalty are more important than being right. And that failure is something we all have to learn from, not let it define us.
Especially our legends.