Film

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love ‘The Last Jedi’

Don't let the hate flow through you.

Look, I felt it too. I was so excited before going into The Last Jedi that I literally couldn’t sleep; I’d been waiting years for this. After the sugar rush of The Force Awakens wore off and the realisation set in that JJ Abrams had learned from his time at the helm of the Star Trek franchise how to boldly take Star Wars to all the same places it had been before.

The Last Jedi was meant to be different. It was meant to be fresh and new. Then I saw it. It was fresh and new. And I didn’t like it.

I wanted Luke to arrive at the very last, lightsaber blazing, and take some names. I wanted
my heart to soar like the Millenium Falcon. I wanted a few more old friends to show up (seriously, where the hell is Lando?). And I wasn’t alone.

Despite a US$220million debut in the US – the second highest of all time, behind
The Force Awakens, of course – and a 93 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, people are genuinely upset about The Last Jedi. Almost 50,000 people have signed a petition on change.org demanding Disney strike it from canon and make a new Episode VIII, which is going to have about as much effect as a lightsaber when it first encounters cortosis.

The audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is just 54 percent, although it increasingly looks like that score is being artificially manipulated.

I came, I saw, and I cursed, but something funny happened afterwards. I couldn’t stop thinking about The Last Jedi; not in a teenaged holy-shit-that-was-awesome way, or a nostalgic recollection for the snap-hiss of an igniting lightsaber, or the thrill of discovering the Machete Method.

I hadn’t seen the Star Wars film I thought I wanted, but I’d seen something else. Something that wouldn’t let go, something that made me a little uneasy, even if I wasn’t quite sure why. And so I went and saw it again, and this time I tried to experience The Last Jedi for what it was instead of what it wasn’t, and I learned something.

I was wrong.

A Disturbance In The Force

Quite apart from the regression of the infinite possibilities rattling around our heads into the narrative contained in one film, it was always going to be a tall order for The Last Jedi to please everyone.

In attempting to explain the ties between the Star Wars films that made the universe so much smaller, George Lucas famously said “they rhyme”. Writer/director Rian Johnson’s approach, on the other hand, is gently discordant, an inversion of our expectations that’s often genuinely unsettling.

First off, after two years and thousands of theories, pretty much all of the questions
remaining in JJ Abrams’ bloody mystery box were summarily dispensed with. Rey’s parents, in a brilliantly populist move, aren’t related to anyone we know in the series – making her some much-needed new blood in a universe dominated by the Skywalker clan for much too long.

Snoke wasn’t Darth Plagueis, or a resurrected Palpatine, or even a Sith at all. Luke’s lightsaber, treated like a holy relic in The Force Awakens, gets tossed around and then broken right in half.

Even better, for the first time in just about all 11 movies, the plot isn’t about rushing off to save people against impossible odds. In fact, Poe, Finn and Rose’s determination to do just that gets so very many people killed, and it’s almost as painful watching how few transports are left to get to Crait as it is knowing that our heroes are wholly responsible for this.

Tied up in this is the great reveal that Benicio del Toro’s codebreaker does not have a heart of gold, just a lust for it, a far cry from the rogues such as Han and Lando who discover their consciences were inside them all along.

Wars Not Make One Great

Best of all is the way Poe is treated. He’s a hero in the sense we’ve come to expect from these movies, a bro who follows his instincts and always knows best, and he spends much of the movie getting affectionately and then not-so-affectionately put in his place by women who are much, much smarter than him — women who have an actual plan instead of something created off the cuff. No wonder a certain subset of the audience finds that hard to watch.

And Luke? We meet him again as a character whose life is suffused with failure and loss. There’s still an evil regime in the galaxy, no matter how many Death Stars he took out. He couldn’t rebuild the Jedi, he couldn’t redeem Ben Solo, he couldn’t face his sister.

No less than Mark Hamill himself disagreed with this approach, but it makes Luke’s final decision that much more meaningful, after the realisation that he had followed a mistake with a mistake. He’s grizzled and broken, but not so much that he can’t learn from his failure, or teach it to Rey – sure enough, he comes out of exile, but in a way that gently mocks the Luke of his youth, and shows he finally understood some of what Yoda was trying to beat into his skull with a gimer stick.

Still, there is method to Johnson’s misdirection, perhaps best summed up in this quote from an excellent interview with The Daily Beast: “… it’s mostly Kylo and, ironically, Luke’s
perspective for much of [the film] that the way to move forward is to toss out the old, and I don’t think that’s ultimately where the movie’s heart ends up landing.”

He’s right, and that’s not what he’s doing in The Last Jedi. It’s not about killing the past; that’s Kylo Ren’s creed, the tremulous rant of someone who didn’t get his way and now would very much like everyone to forget the horrific crimes he’s committed. It’s about acknowledging what has come before, good or bad, and building from it at the same time you learn from it – but never being so beholden to the past that tradition becomes a means of repression or an excuse not to try something new.

Anger Leads To Hate …

Let’s be honest: Star Wars, while meaning a great deal to a great deal of people, is comfort food. We watch it so we can be transported to a galaxy far, far away from our troubles, to see bravery and romance and last-minute saves courtesy of the Force. So it’s easy to understand the backlash – The Last Jedi is anything but comforting.

Look at how the film ends. The Resistance is weaker than ever, weaker than the Rebellion ever was. There are barely enough freedom fighters left to fill the Millennium Falcon. There are no ships, with the exception of the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.

Luke Skywalker is dead. (Carrie Fisher is, too, and that knowledge seeps into every frame she so wonderfully brings to life.) It’s a bleak film, and it would be bleaker except for that magnificent coda, a young boy with a fire in his heart and a broomstick in his hand.

But that queasy, uneasy feeling you’re left with? That’s absolutely intentional. Star Wars has always been insistent about ignoring the odds, about one person wandering into a heavily guarded palace to free their friends, or one well-aimed strike from photon torpedoes taking out an entire battle station.

The implicit message has always been that one (massively powerful) person can make all the difference, even when they go against all the well-intentioned advice and wisdom that has been sent their way.

The Last Jedi treats all that with the same respect that Luke has for his old lightsaber. It wants us to know that our teachers will let us down, that our students will leave us behind, that stubborn attempts at heroism can harm the collective.

On top of that, it tells us that there’s no fatal flaw to act as a reset button, to wipe the slate clean. Destroying the Death Star isn’t going to end fascist regimes, in the same way that punching a Nazi or even impeaching Trump isn’t going to magically fix our world. There’s every chance that the struggle we’re in will continue long past us, to be borne by our children and our children’s children, a lineage of toil and effort stretching off well past the horizon.

“Destroying the Death Star isn’t going to end fascist regimes, in the same way that punching a Nazi or even impeaching Trump isn’t going to magically fix our world.”

And if you think that’s depressing or unrealistic, consider that that’s exactly the challenge facing environmentalism – it’s hard to get people to care about what will happen to the planet a decade from now, never mind the murky threats of a future that will arrive long after we’re
dust.

But that, more than anything else, is what The Last Jedi is about – not fighting against what you hate, but fighting for what you love, even if the only victory to be had is keeping the fire burning just a little bit longer. It’s that spark that gleams brightest in the wonderful koan of a line that Holdo and Poe attribute to Leia, a line that Carrie Fisher surely helped write: “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.”

Those might not be the exact words, but bask in the beauty of that expression for a second. It’s not demanding that we hope, because that can be all too difficult. It’s asking us to have faith in the arbitrary, intrinsically foolish concept itself, something we can never see but we can feel, something that links us all together when it feels like all warmth and light are spent. Something like the Force, really.

Hari Raj has worked as a journalist and editor in Malaysia, China, and Australia. He tweets about pop-culture ephemera at @jarirah.

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