Rian Johnson Murders the Prequels – A Spoiler Soaked Review of the Last Jedi

So, so many spoilers but they are all after the fold. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film because it really focuses on the bits that will spoil. Also, this is longggg.

I straight-forwardly enjoyed The Last Jedi: it was fun sci-fi action with good acting, good effects and interesting characters. It isn’t a flawless film but if you after flawless films then why are you watching episode 8 of a serial space-opera?

So what is the hate about? In case you were not aware there has been some vehement dislike of The Last Jedi – more than people expected. A fan backlash or a Sad Puppy like hate campaign?

For reasons I’d struggle to explain I went and read a chunk of bad viewer reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. There is no foolproof way of separating out the genuine reviews from the ideologically motivated but it is possible to infer that multiple motives inspire dislike of a film because they can be observed in other films and other parts of fandom.

Here’s my list:

  • The film just doesn’t work for some people. We know that is the case because not every film is going to work for everybody.
  • People’s natural varying tolerance for the genuine flaws in the film (which I’ll get to).
  • The inevitable dislike within a fandom of the new thing – there is a perpetual tension among fans between wanting new content and the intrusion of new content into a fandom. New content results in a loss of control within a fandom from fans to the owners of the IP.
  • Related to that last point – something I’m going to call ‘Prequelism’. I’ll explain this below.

Those three points are the non-partisan objections I noted (not an exhaustive list). The partisan ones follow below.

  • A visceral dislike of some of the more left-leaning themes in the film from people on the right. The right has always been happy to cast themselves as ‘rebels’, using American Revolution and Confederate history to appropriate rebellion against tyranny as somehow being a rightwing virtue. The Last Jedi is not some leftwing polemic but it is just a bit more overtly left than the previous films. That extra left-nudge and the current political environment makes the mapping of Empire->Right, Resistance->Left just that bit stronger as a reading.
  • Misogyny. Four important women characters (five if you count Phasma) getting shit done. Lots of nasty stuff being thrown at Rose by the nazi-trolls – which means marginally less whining about Rey. Of course Rose isn’t in anyway Mary Sue-ish (she has no powers and her strength is her personal integrity) so they still whine about her anyway, which sums up how shallow the Rey complaints were.
  • A targetted hate campaign. I don’t want to exaggerate this beyond what can be observed but we know that Vox Day at least already was attacking the film, Disney and Star Wars in general before anybody had seen it. The party line among the alt-right currently is to hate Star Wars. If that means making exact opposite complaints about The Last Jedi to the ones they made about The Force Awakens then that’s what they’ll do. There is essentially no semantic content in that style of the complaint, only in the act of complaining.

I won’t waste more time on the partisan complaints – I’ve looked at how the alt-right functions enough times now that the playbook is obvious.

Returning to the first three styles of the complaint, I’d like to focus on what I’m calling Prequelism. The Star Wars prequels (episodes 1 to 3, spanning the start of this century) are largely regarded as inferior. Even so, they are Star Wars and they were widely watched and I know I’m not the only person to have re-watched them several times. Regardless of their flaws, they have shaped people’s expectations of how a Star Wars film should be.

The Last Jedi has been accused of throwing away the past but it is worth asking: which past?

Take one surprising moment.

Kylo Ren has captured Rey after Rey intentionally seeks him out in the hope of turning him from the dark side of the force. Ren takes Rey to Supreme Commander Snoke – who uses his dark side powers against Rey.

Note that The Last Jedi is quite overtly referencing The Return of the Jedi. Johnson is being quite conventional here, in much the same way that J.J.Abrams took elements of the original trilogy and gave them a new spin in The Force Awakens. I’ve read at least one positive review that says that The Last Jedi *avoids* doing this kind of referencing but this simply isn’t true. Instead, Johnson makes intentional use of our expectations to create surprises. What happens next?

Snoke has Rey trapped in the grip of his force powers. He demands that Kylo Ren strikes her down. Ren hesitates but Snoke describes step by step what he should do. WOOSH! From a distance Kylo Ren activates Rey’s lightsabre which was sitting next to Snoke, cutting Snoke in two.

Again note that is what the audience should EXPECT to happen based on what we know happens in the analogue scene in The Return of the Jedi. The twist is that Kylo Ren does not then turn into a good guy but (once the guards are dispatched) attempts to convince Rey to rule with him – an echo of The Empire Strikes Back.

Why is this scene in particular discombobulating?

  • Johnson cleverly uses The Return of the Jedi elements at a position that unbalances the audience. It is unbalancing because of the familiarity which points to the climax of a final film not a mid-point plot twist of a middle film.
  • The call back to the original scene implies that Snoke will die (because the Emperor dies) but the situation of the scene in the plot implies that Snoke *won’t* die (because the audience would expect him to die in the next film).
  • Specifically, within the film, Snoke has been repeatedly blamed for Kylo Ren’s evil nature. Killing Snoke should somehow release Ren. It doesn’t because Ren is capable of being evil all by himself. It is a very odd way of giving a character agency but that’s what it does. Ren gets to be free…to be evil.

The Prequelism is an additional aspect of this scene. The complaint is this. Snoke has been set up as the big bad but we know nothing about him and now he is dead! This is true but think about the original trilogy. Here is what we knew about the Emperor by the time he died:

  • He is Darth Vader’s Master.
  • He is more powerful than his apprentice.
  • He is the leader of the bad guys aka The Empire.

Here is what we know about Snoke:

  • He is Kylo Ren’s Master.
  • He is more powerful than his apprentice.
  • He is the leader of the bad guys aka The First Order.

This expectation that more detailed backstories and explanations will be given in the movies (as opposed to tie-in novels etc) was shaped by the PREQUELS. Why would we expect any more detail about Snoke than we had about the Emperor? More importantly, given how the prequels worked out, why would we want the MOVIES to get bogged down in that?

I could raise a similar response to complaints I’m seeing about how the force is described in the film. Yes, it is vague, mystical and short on detail – just like it was in the original movies. In which films was it described more mechanistically? Oh yeah – the PREQUELS.

I don’t hate the prequels but a new Star Wars film that frees itself from their influence is a good thing. The prequels were constrained by inevitability. There were shocking elements but all of them were around Anakin doing something terrible (killing sand people, killing Count Dooku, killing the ‘younglings’) and each of these was heavily underlined events pointing to the inevitable outcome that Anakin becomes Darth Vader. The prequels could show novelty but they were rarely surprising.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, was full of surprises and I think that unsettled people. I really felt that combined effect of the multiple ways Johnson had made effective use of the grammar of Star Wars to say something weird or unexpected when it came to the speeder battle on the planet whose name I’ve forgotten – the salty one with the white and red surface.

The giant battering-ram canon has begun firing at the rebel stronghold and Finn pilots his speeder towards the canon in a last-ditch suicide attack. Put that same scene in a different Star Wars film (um not Rogue One though) then I’d know Finn wasn’t going to die and probably somehow the canon would be stopped and…Finn didn’t die but I really, really wasn’t sure he’d survive. Johnson’s zigs in place of zags give the film the thing the prequels lacked: surprise.

The broadest subverting of expectations is Poe’s plot. While Finn and Rose have their own story within this, it is Poe who coordinates the plan to disable the tracker on the First Order flagship and also attempts to wrest control of the Resistance ship from Vice Admiral Holdo. Poe’s spirited, maverick, tough attitude is a litany of errors. However, our expectation that he’ll be proved right only partly comes from past Star Wars. A chunk of that expectation is from the broader cliche of the maverick who (somehow) is more insightful than his superior officer. The Star Wars element comes more from the specifics of the plan: sneak on board the enemy ship/base and turn off/on the maguffin switch. We expect that to work because:

  • Obi-Wan manages to do that in Episode IV
  • Anakin accidentally does it in Episode I
  • Han does it in Episode VI (shuts down the force field from the moon)
  • Rey et al do it with the Star Killer base in Episode VII
  • Jyn Erso does it in Rogue One

…but in each case it is meant to be risky and difficult and fraught with danger. You can’t have that plan always work without undermining it. By setting up the repeated plot device and having it not work provides that additional magical element of surprise by exploiting familiarity.

The other hefty bit of Prequelism is around Rey & Luke and here the film once again gives itself the freedom to head where ever it likes AND also makes anti-destiny a theme of the film.

Luke does not bring balance to the force (yet). By implication Anakin did not bring balance to the force. Kylo Ren can barely bring balance to his emotional state for hour-long stretches. Maybe Rey will but who knows? Putting the prequels and the original trilogy together, it was always unclear how Anakin, even by killing the Emperor, brings balance to the force. If he did somehow do it, it clearly wasn’t worth the price of firstly a galactic war and then a galactic Empire.

Well, it was always a dodgy prophecy and if Anakin failed to live up to it, the story still makes sense as a tragedy – which it is anyway. There’s a kind of weird notion that somehow Anakin/Darth Vader’s life becomes non-tragic if his death or killing the Emperor brought balance to the force. Which is a shitty swap – if I was a galactic citizen I’d be happier with an unbalanced force and no Clone War, Empire, Death Stars or evil Darths wandering about.

The outcome of bringing balance to the force could be taken to be Luke’s task to accomplish but this makes no sense either. By the end of the first trilogy, Luke has gained no new approach to the force that Obi-Wan or Yoda didn’t have. Now in The Last Jedi but already implied in The Force Awakens, we know Luke failed. There is a new Darth Vader like force user (Kylo Ren) and a new Emperor wannabe (Snoke). Things are just as bad in terms of an unbalanced force as they always were.

I’ve seen comments that the treatment of Luke in the film and of the Force is some kind of abandonment or repudiation of the previous films but no, it really isn’t. If you take the plot seriously and you are unwilling to have it handwaved away, Luke’s predicament fits neatly with the plot dead-end that the prequel’s created. The set up demands that ‘balance to the force’ be delivered but provides no way of doing so or even giving that some meaningful sense.

Worse – the very existence of new sequels makes the happy-ever-after implication of ‘balance to the force’ close to impossible. The only route would be to have a Star Wars film in which the antagonists were NOT embroiled with the Dark Side. Sure, I’d watch Jedi versus Daleks but I doubt anybody else would find that very Star Wars-like.

The only narrative route out of the demands of the prequels and balance of the force is a rejection of this as Luke’s destiny. Luke destroyed the Empire. He kept the Jedi alive as a thing and handed on the torch to Rey. Job done. Definitely, a hero, just not an even more spiritually messianic figure. Also, that is such a good fight scene.

Rey gets a clean slate. Indeed, she goes from somebody who we know little about to somebody about which there is little to know. In the previous film and much of this one she could not work out who she is, and Kylo Ren eventually provides the answer. She is a nobody. No family, no inheritance, no destiny. You know who that’s almost like? Anakin Skywalker. The difference is a lack of destiny. Rey’s status as a nobody who is powerful in the force is not new to Star Wars, it parallels Anakin but without the burden of a destiny. She gets the freedom to act, rather like Johnson’s plotting gives him the freedom to act.

I do hope that Rey-is-a-nobody sticks.

Flaws?

Oh lots! I don’t think many of them matter but there is no shortage. It is a long film and not all of it works.

  • It could do with being shorter and tighter.
  • The twist that Poe is wrong and Holdo is right was twisty but I think I’d have prefered a more human drama which was less twisty and left me more conflicted as to who was right. Holdo gets vindicated but it still means she is sort of portrayed as being muddle headed for much of the film unfairly. Rogue One handled internal conflict within the Rebellion better (but still sided with ‘maverick’ actions, which it was nice that this film didn’t)
  • Rose and Finn’s side quest to the casino world was interesting but it didn’t fit smoothly with the rest of the film.
  • Captain Phasma still hasn’t had much of a character. Hopefully she isn’t dead.
  • Domnhall Gleason is a fine actor but Hux is whiny and cartoonish.
  • Not enough R2.
  • I assume the scene where Leia almost dies but doesn’t was a key part of the script but it felt in bad taste to me. Faking us into thinking a beloved character is killed and then revealing that they are alive is OK but when we know that the actor has died and that at some point the character will have to die, it feels more manipulative than normal as a plot device. Nice though that Leia gets to use the force for once.

Porgs? Porgs are great. After many years of experimentation, at last the Star Wars franchise has cracked the cute-comedy-relief characters. The Falcon infested with Porgs is the Enterprise infested with tribbles for a new generation.

This is enough words. I liked the film 🙂

Advertisements

18 comments

  1. greghullender

    As far as “bringing balance to the force,” I think that really meant that Anakin reduced the Jedi to just two:Obi-Wan and Luke. That balanced with the Emperor and Darth Vader on the Dark Side. When Luke attempted to rebuild the Jedi, he unbalanced things again, and the Dark Side popped up like the bubble under the linoleum, not just in Ben Solo but also in Luke himself. Since his vision of the future was all Light, he swore off the force entirely once he realized this inevitably created Darkness. Even Snoke observed that Kylo Ren’s rising power must be mirrored somewhere by a champion of Light.

    Perhaps the secret is to find a way to train force sensitives to make use of both aspects equally, and Kylo Ren is actually onto something. Or perhaps it’s to train light/dark partners who are continually in each others’ faces, and Ren/Rey are the prototype. Hopefully that’ll include some way to minimize the negative effects of the Dark Side. (And maybe to recognize that the Light Side has its downsides too.)

    “Light is the left hand of Darkness, and Darkness the right hand of light.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. louyuhasz

    The Canto Bight scenes felt very prequel to me: from humans in outlandish costumes to cartoonish aliens to the on-the-nose political metaphors. And you know what? I actually liked that Johnson was able to pull in prequel themes and deconstruct them in context to the OT in a way that hasn’t been done before.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 12/18/17 Good King Pixel Scroll Looked Out On The Feast of File | File 770
  4. Paul King

    I don’t think it is entirely fair to call Leia’s near-death manipulative. I don’t see any intent to play on Carrie Fisher’s death. It was clearly part of the film before then and I don’t see how it could be removed – or changed to actual death – without hurting her part in the film. I think the director took the right decision to leave things as they were, as the least-bad option.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. David Brain

    It has been noted that the Finn/Rose plot is integral to what is, perhaps, the underlying theme of the film – and, indeed, to the whole concept of the “Balance of the Force”. It’s all about a world in which the eternal battle doesn’t matter; the unaffiliated win either way. DJ was a wonderful addition to the roster, taking the Han Solo role and then playing it completely straight, rather than mythically (what was the quote? “They blow you up today, you’ll blow them up tomorrow. It’s just business.”) If the Light and the Dark must co-exist (as Snoke had realised, but had – admittedly for story reasons – failed to solve), the only winners are the ones who choose not to play. Or, worse, choose to watch and profit from the collapse. Sure, the political allegory was a bit on-the-nose, but it doesn’t pull punches in implying that we’re all (right and left alike) being played for suckers.

    Apart from that, I think that last scene is one of the single most Star Wars-y scenes of any Star Wars movie. Even George Lucas would have been hard pressed to find something so perfect.

    Like

      • David Brain

        On the other hand, I also read a comment that pointed out that large parts of The Last Jedi are about a terrorist group committing several acts of suicide bombing and thus that last scene is about radicalising children… 🙂

        But yeah, the paradox is glorious. It’s the moment when the film says “… and this is you.” And after a movie that was all about upending expectations and subverting tropes, it was great that the film didn’t end with that shot of the rebellion in the Falcon (as Empire did) but with A New Hope… (sorry.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jenora Feuer

        As I said to my friends after the movie ended: “It’s a story about the power of stories.” The theme of most of the movie was about keeping hope alive when things seem darkest; that last scene just cemented it.

        Like

  6. Kendall

    “Specifically, within the film, Snoke has been repeatedly blamed for Kylo Ren’s evil nature. Killing Snoke should somehow release Ren. It doesn’t because Ren is capable of being evil all by himself. It is a very odd way of giving a character agency but that’s what it does. Ren gets to be free…to be evil.”

    I somewhat disagree here. It’s not like Snoke was mind-controlling him. Remove the influence that turned you to evil and you don’t magically become not evil – but not necessarily because he is just evil. I see it as, Snoke seduced him to the Dark Side, etc., and . . . so he is evil and doesn’t magically change without Snoke – but not due to some kind of intrinsic evil. I sort of see it as the opposite of agency; being able to overcome Snoke’s influence and his own failings would’ve been more agency, to me. I’m not sure I’m explaining this well/making any sense.

    Excellent point about the Vagueness of Snoke’s background being totally in line with the original trilogy. No one comes out of nowhere, but I suppose we are kind of starting in the middle of things, like the original trilogy, so there’s nothing unusual about Snoke being a mystery. That bugged me before, but now that you pointed this out – not so much. 🙂

    “Nice though that Leia gets to use the force for once.”

    OMG YES! 😀 Though she seemed pretty well-versed in it for someone we’ve never use the Force (except a bit of empathy/telepathy with Luke). But that was one of those “YES COOL WOO-HOO!” moments for me.

    Anyway, overall I liked the movie a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. supplanter

    I really like this review. As I said on FB – and maybe on Twitter – I like the movie so much I wish they wouldn’t even make an Episode 9; just make prequels and side quests every year or two to keep the money rolling in. My own sense of the movie is it says a real rebellion has to be a revolution, and a revolutionary movement needs to be embedded in institutions, and the nature of those institutions has to matter, and I feel like a Star Wars story can end in that realization, but I don’t know how it can start from that realization and still be a Star Wars story. In particular, and be a Star Wars story written/directed by JJ Abrams. For that reason, I’d as soon they check out now. Also for that reason, this is the first Star Wars movie I really, truly loved.

    Like

  8. IanP

    Went to see it yesterday and really enjoyed it as a spectacle. There were a few things that bugged me though.

    Firstly, and I realise expecting realistic space physics in Star Wars is futile, the bombing run on the dreadnought really took me over my suspension of disbelief threshold. Aspects of the stern chase kinda bugged me too. Like why couldn’t a couple of Star Destroyers hyperjump out in front of the resistance fleet.

    The Poe/Holdo conflict also bugged me. While Holdo was following Leia’s plan, and maybe had reasons for keeping it quiet, be it spies or whatever, she provided no real leadership or hope to the crew in a highly stressful situation. In Poe’s place I’d be looking for a way to save everyone myself too. Nor am I surprised that Finn was not the only one to try to take an escape pod.

    While Poe’s pressing the attack on the dreadnought cost lives, from a tactical perspective it made sense. Depriving the First Order of a major asset. The Alliance/Resistance have always been fairly lax on discipline anyway. Taking a longer term strategic view is part of his growth.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: 2017 Retrospective | Camestros Felapton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s