Luke Warm: "The Last Jedi"
Prefacing quickly, I have nothing but spoilers below. Deal with it.
Keeping pace with the goings-on of Star Wars (and assuming readers know the lingo), 2015’s The Force Awakens ended with Starkiller Base, a fusion of a natural planet with the imperial First Order’s destructive technological capabilities, being destroyed by the Republic’s defenders, led by maverick pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the helpful infrastructure knowledge of turncoat stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). Finn is left comatose after an encounter with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Sith-like apprentice of the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who conquers his sentiments by slaying his father Han Solo (Harrison Ford), but is overcome in the snowy wilderness by a mysterious junk trader, Rey (Daisy Ridley), herself an affront to the natural determinism of mitichloric accountancy with her mercurial Force capabilities. The victorious Republic, led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), has accessed a map leading to the long-lost last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), in isolation ever since his student Kylo (formerly Ben Solo) was overcome by the Dark Side. Rey embraces her destiny, and with looming fuzzball Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) co-piloting the Millennial Falcon with her, she goes to meet Skywalker, offering him his old lightsaber on first sight. Rey’s gesture completes director J.J. Abrams’ aspiration for his film to get back "that old Star Wars feeling," after the saga’s legacy was besmirched by creator George Lucas’ fin de siècle prequels. In general, fans—and critics—agreed. The Force Awakens made over $1 billion and Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm forged the way for a new empire.
Playing as a simulation of 1977’s original (subsequently subtitled A New Hope) by going back to the old stories (check out this excellent accountancy and assessment of callbacks) in addition to earthier, analogue special effects, Disney and Abrams played it safe, getting on base instead of swinging for fences with a satisfying adventure story starring a more inclusive and diverse cast, and spunkier banter suited to the hyper-self consciousness of contemporary social media (“Whedonisms” one might call them, in reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and Avengers director Joss Whedon). Abrams, a gifted director but more a prodigious television showrunner, used his Mystery Box method to further interest, leaving breadcrumbs of unanswered questions (Rey’s lineage; Snoke’s motives; how Poe survived a destructive crash landing; just what the hell Luke Skywalker has been up to) for future installments to draw out the narrative, giving The Force Awakens the sense of being the most expensive (and successful) television pilot of all time. I'm skeptical Abrams knew any of the answers (unlike George Lucas’ original 1977-1983 trilogy where Luke’s filial relationship to Darth Vader is implicit in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s final, knowing glance to his apprentice and rival Vader), undermining this new story with Disneyfied cynicism reflected in the arbitrariness of Rey’s gifts, Finn’s anomalous conscientiousness, and Kylo’s Vader-emulating mask. The Force Awakens seemed to be writing itself as it went along, just as Poe “names” Finn during their escape: the respective namesakes of a great American author and literary character working together to jumpstart Star Wars once again.
Now we have Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, where Abrams has given the privilege of answering sundry questions to a new writer and director, Rian Johnson, who takes the series as Luke Skywalker takes his old lightsaber from Rey: basically tossing the egregious Mystery Box bullshit away and throwing a wrench into the developing mythos. Johnson uses 150 minutes to stuff in everything he can from the old Star Wars formulas, borrowing scenes from all three original films to refashion, and then to transgress. The Last Jedi is unwieldy and choking on its abundant material, affronting the cynical product Abrams made and fans embraced. Whereas The Force Awakens played things too safe, The Last Jedi is narratively audacious, slipping into a familiar Lucasfilm mask while turning other things on their head, the canon ostensibly going up in flames. The First Order reigns and the Resistance is still feebly hanging together by a thread. From that tired launchpad, Johnson casts a scrim over the archetypal journey and tilts away from Northrop Frye and towards Jacques Derrida and deconstructive methods much more in vogue since Star Wars became a phenomenon.
The Great Narratives are, like the Resistance, exposed and undermined: Kylo is told by Snoke to “take that ridiculous mask off”; the long-awaited, much-theorized payoff of Rey’s parentage is meaningless (The Empire Strikes Back’s “I am your father” revelation of Darth Vader to Luke basically becomes “Your dad was Bill the junk trader”); and Snoke himself, while his scarred face and androgynously glam rock mien indicate a compelling backstory, becomes a dead-end in the plot, cleverly murdered in his red-soaked Kagemusha throne room by Kylo Ren, a "shadow warrior." The dichotomy between Good and Evil is blurred, as during Luke’s tutelage, Rey bends toward the Dark Side at its first approach; Kylo still has good in him, however dramatically irredeemable his patricide is; then there’s the Rashomon ambiguity behind Kylo’s dark turn, as viewers are given two separate dramatic representations of a bedside confrontation with Luke (disturbingly seeping with vibes of rape: a teacher penetrating his student's mind without consent), a he-said/he-said testimony questioning motives and perspectives upsetting the beloved Truth of Canons. We just can’t know anything for sure, even if it’s staged and projected in front of us.
Johnson, whose breakout independent film Brick (2005) was a paean to gumshoe film noirs, skews closer to the mid-20th century uncertainties and anxieties of Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Nicholas Ray than space opera, the central image of The Last Jedi, where Rey has descended into the perilous Hellmouth of nature (mythologically commensurate with the leviathan/sea monster we see encircling Luke’s island), doesn’t result in a Jungian Shadow Confrontation, like Luke’s in The Empire Strikes Back's Dagobah System, but a bewildering hall of mirrors where the Hero's exposed as a series of infinitely receding facsimiles (for a moment, I thought this was whoopee!!! confirmation of my own suspicion that Rey was a clone). The sequence immediately recalls Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, where the pith of a man proves unknowable, his essence the stuff of myriad first-hand anecdotes and documentation replete with contradictions, in addition to later Wellesian imagery and themes in The Lady from Shanghai, The Trial, and F for Fake (not to mention a remarkable heath sequence—not in Welles’ own adaptation, however much he inspired it—in Roman Polanski’s harrowing Macbeth). In this problematic section of The Last Jedi, Rey communicates with her adversary Kylo as if they were in the same room, spaces disintegrating much like their respective identities—and the hallowed archetypes in their DNA. As in Cold War spy dramas, Good and Evil become indistinguishable, reinforced elsewhere as Finn and Rose Trico (Kelly Marie Tran) seek the help of an amoral code breaker, DJ (scene stealing Benicio Del Toro), who shows these idealistic Resistance fighters how corrupt slave states are selling arms to their righteous cause in addition to the First Order: “Good guys, bad guys: it’s all the Machine.” The Jedi canon, a set of books guarded by Luke, are ideological vestiges that have lost their authority throughout an apocalyptic desengaño, and it is this unmasking through which Johnson struggles to initiate Star Wars fans.
Consequently, while such maneuvers earn the goodwill of critics, the Faithful are perturbed, indicated by a disparity of the reviews and fans, who take issue with narrative decisions that pay little heed to post-Force Awakens theories and the Star Wars canon itself, the original messianic hero Luke Skywalker still whining, short-sighted, and callow as he was on Tatooine, reticent to take the mantle of the groomed archetypes of Wise Old Man (Obi Wan) or helpful Golux (the “green man” Yoda) and hemming and hawing much like Rey stridently did in The Force Awakens, functionally castrated like another archetype, the fisher king (we see he’s a fisherman, an infantilization stressed as he squeezes milk from a maternal sea monster's teets). And even as he, prodded in the right direction with an unexpected appearance of his own Golux, Yoda (voiced once more by Frank Oz), makes his heralded reappearance at the climactic moment to save the Resistance, his death isn’t by the sword but by what is basically a massive coronary (hot take: Luke is a milk-guzzling fisherman, and his demise is Johnson’s capstone in a film with an animal rights, pro-vegan message; but I digress). Johnson answers deconstruction with the Mythic Image's resurrection, the symbol's preternatural power taking precedence over the thing-in-itself as it’s Luke’s meditated projection, like what an audience witnesses in the cinema, that prevails over Kylo Ren and saves the world. Still, few things rile up the faithful more than being told their concretized gods are metaphors. Rey “feeling” the Force as a stick with which Luke tickles her, points to our own dead-end concretization of metaphor, enslaved to discursive reasoning which the metaphor is there to suspend. Snoke's lifeless tub of guts on the floor has a grotesque materiality evocative of the demise of Revenge of the Sith's Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a tragic MacGuffin who put his faith in the promised rewards of treacherous Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Is our faith in Disney's "answers" to Snoke (or Rey, or Finn etc), similarly shattered in an instant, proportionate to Dooku's folly?
Luke says, “it’s time for the Jedi to end,” and Johnson flips off The Force Awakens’ hero worship by pointing out how flagrant projections of the past, as R2-D2 does with Leia’s 1977 plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi, are cheap moves. Members of the Resistance aren’t rebels but, as embodied by Rose Tico and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, one of the best actors alive wasted here in a thankless role beneath her talents), rulebook space cadets, not so differentiated from their First Order counterparts, stiffly gripped by protocol that Johnson displays with Gilliamesque acuity that could have been drawn from the bureaucratic nightmares of Brazil or 12 Monkeys. The potency of the symbols has calcified, and the downturn in The Last Jedi is not a Wagnerian Twilight of the Gods but Nietzschean Twilight of the Idols, a Götzen(Poe)Dämeron (heh. I'm so clever. Whatever. Okay, I suck. Shut up). The Resistance Leadership (including Admiral Akbar) is killed in one explosion, followed by Leia, floating in space, freezing into what feels like a goddess statue.
The twilight desengaño mustn’t end in crumbling despair, but an animism flowing beyond the representation, visualized by Johnson with the Force taking hold of the “statue/idol” and breathing fresh life into Leia until the It once again becomes a Thou, precipitating a transformation of the Force moving from “chosen ones” to something more universal, like the orphan child of junk traders, or a Dickensian youth on Canto Bight whose idle play with Luke Skywalker toys is an incipient guide for a colossal transformation akin to literary critic Erich Auerbach’s idea of Christianity having changed the world of literary representation: "[The] birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life, which thus assumes an importance it could never have assumed in antique literature," what he addresses as the awakening of "a new heart and a new spirit," stirring the whole world. When we thought the Jedi Canon was incinerated, it's the new generation's adrift avatar who, we discover, has preserved it.
But how successful is Johnson in capturing the impact of this spiritual agon, disillusionment, and affirmation? He certainly gets it intellectually and intertextually. Crucially, the disorientation of Rey’s psychic interplay with the “monstrous snake” Kylo effectively sweeps the viewer into both characters’ existential maelstrom. Like the Resistance running out of fuel, the symbols are running out of spiritus, and Johnson reaches far to reclaim the myths. Luke’s death by intense concentration plays as an allusion to Paul Schrader’s “harmony of pen and sword,” representation and life, Mishima (1985), which concludes with author Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide after his failed attempt to overthrow the government, followed by an image from Mishima’s novel Runaway Horses, where the hero similarly commits seppuku while the sun blazes before him, a transcendence in death where the stillness of art and words explodes with ferocious real world significance. Luke may not have been there, on the salt planet Ahch-To to protect the Resistance and confront Kylo Ren, and yet whatever happened was transcendent enough to physically transfer the Millennium Falcon’s “dangling-dice” memento from his hands to Leia’s. Even after our texts have been deconstructed, the mythic forms can still move mountains, as Rey uses the Force to move stones and create an escape for her comrades. There are no impediments between liminal spaces, between the Light and the Dark, the living and the dead. The way out is the embrace of a contradiction: part of the mythic affirmation is their negation, the Tillichian God Beyond God, or Force Beyond the Force. As with Snoke's red room, the landscape of Ahch-To, where speeders act as ink stylos in the maelstrom of violent action by creating red lines over white salt, expresses an aesthetic flourish hoisting the film above franchise anonymity, a major point in a story of appropriating and re-authoring old texts, demonstrating this vital "pen and sword" harmony, a "fictional" projection (Luke) acting as the landscape's "redeemer," you could say.
Even so, The Last Jedi is strapped within the palpable grip of its own Mickey Mouse chrome dome, a politic and demure conscientiousness in step with a Discourse that's interrogated the reactionary sins of the saga’s antecedents which were born of the idiosyncratic and Romantic imagination of one storyteller (governing things even when it was in the hands of other directors and writers). The progressive steps in casting and representation in the Disneyfied Star Wars should be lauded, but all of these characters are representations of our best selves, even the tempted Rey and enraged Kylo estranged from mysterious daemonic energy, with all its epiphanic grandeur and wayward hazards, flowing from a storyteller’s natural imagination. Finn and Rose's wild-bantha chase to find DJ is a huge plot thread that leads nowhere, deliberately calibrated to feed a theme of futility (I don’t think, as some fans have criticized, that it’s a meaningless misstep), but exhibiting Deconstruction's post-Freud bloodlessness, bereft of the rawness that the despair this disillusionment demands. Doubt seeps into the new enterprise. Revisiting Han, Luke, and Leia decades after their creator concluded his original trilogy, things can't help but feel (and appropriate in Johnson's vision)...non-canonical? We want to believe, if anything floating with Yoda's wisdom that "we are what we grow beyond," but there's the nagging sensation that this is all counterfeit, the "Avellaneda Star Wars."
While George Lucas’ study of mythology guided him through all six of his films, a wild and mysterious Freudian energy of unrestrained release (in which he perhaps exposed himself too nakedly for our comfort in the prequels) courses through his films’ veins, be it in the taunting mischief of Han Solo, the salaciousness of Jabba the Hut, the haughtiness of Watto, or the enveloping Oedipal anxieties of Anakin Skywalker, elevating the emotional stakes of the stories. Revenge of the Sith, through Palpatine, already proposed how the Sith and the Jedi "are the same in every way," the suggestion an acknowledgement of the Dark Side itching beneath Lucas' influencing texts of Joseph Campbell and C.G. Jung and their uncomfortable affinities to 20th century fascism. The derided prequels tumbled towards an uncomely perversity that is rare in studio blockbusters (short of something like Death Becomes Her). Anakin Skywalker's entropy from Art's Beautiful Boy to a castrated technological cyborg is poetically consonant with Lucas' digital palette, his story tracing how Anakin's shadows precipitate his tragedy: the flesh-and-blood stuntman (Darth Maul), the computer augmented octogenarian (Count Dooku), and finally the complete cyborg with his spare fleshly vestiges (General Grievous). The sweet kitsch of "Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo" crosses with the withering fiend enclosed in his black robotic sarcophagus, exhibiting an unmitigated frenzied imagination of a visionary surrendering to what's coming forth from within. There's a danger in letting go, but that's what makes Lucas' films so primally transfixing, exhilarating--and discomforting.
The new films are—perhaps necessarily by virtue of current dictums—sexless, neutered, like Darth Vader himself, over-determined and studied, more machine than human, the cute Porgs nesting on the battleship but still surrendering to the machine; the galaxy far, far away is unfailingly polite (so polite, in fact, that Abrams and Johnson have almost entirely done away with the essential comic buffoon or clown archetype--C-3PO and R2-D2 being sidelined, no Watto, Jar-Jar, etc. No, cutesy BB-8 doesn't count). John Williams' score, this time more than ever, is exhausted and extraneous, blaring on auto-pilot. The Mishima callback of Luke’s death is held at length from the power and longing inherent in Schrader’s film (itself, like Mishima, quite dangerous), instead comfortably held as a reverent callback to Luke’s twin suns on the horizon. However much Johnson, to his credit, fiddles and blasphemes the gospels handed to him by Disney, the transparency of a corporate mission statement arches over his theme (conversely, I’d argue the unfairly maligned “failures” of other franchise resurrections like The Godfather Part III, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, and, ahem, Revenge of the Sith, embrace an absorbing discord of historicism in both form and content that make them all comparably superior; I’m pretty alone on this, but whatever). The earnestness of its characters, meanwhile, doesn't make less ecstatic vehicles for life energies than for didactic Life Lessons fitting an after school special, or paternalistic HOW WE SHOULD LIVE NOW think pieces in Vulture, Salon, or Slate. Nevertheless, contra Abrams, it's hard not to admire the startling self-sufficiency of Johnson's film (a film when compared to Abrams' pilot), its open threads leading to Episode IX being almost inconsequential in its 150-minute integritas portrait. But can an anarchy of imagination, a rebellion to imperial structures and mandates, take hold in this franchise, the auspices of which are as resolutely uncompromising as the uncannily disturbing CGI Peter Cushing of Rogue One, and more than that, in harmony with viewers glad to see the creator dispatched and rejected, the fulfillment of a new monoculture where, portended by General Grievous, cybernetics have colonized earthly terrain?
The status of Star Wars finds Disney putting more faith in Johnson so that he can run wild with his own trilogy (assuming audience scores don't derail box office numbers), perhaps following his star gazing stable boy. After Colin Trevorrow was laid off from writing and directing Episode IX, J.J. Abrams is again taking the reigns, which is somewhat disheartening (I'm one of about four or five people who doesn't think Trevorrow is all that bad, but as indicated by his Jurassic World, he would probably be working in a similarly deconstructionist vibe in tune with Johnson). While preserved in The Last Jedi, the archetypes are hanging confusedly in the balance, rudderless. In my dreamworld (which, admittedly, is not a perfect world), I wonder how welcome it would be to once more hear the whisper of the man from Skywalker Ranch. Oh George, if only you would hold me again like you did by the lake on Naboo!