[Yes, here be spoilers… but honestly, grow up and get over it.]
Like everyone else worth knowing, I saw The Last Jedi opening night. My friends and I had great seats (you’re welcome, friends) and for two and a half hours I sat there in Hazlet, New Jersey, shocked by what I was watching. Sometimes it was a good shock, sometimes it was a bad shock. Now that it’s out on digital (yes, I preordered), I’m even more convinced of what I felt while watching that opening night: The Last Jedi is the best “movie” in the entire Star Wars franchise… and it’s too good for Star Wars fans.*
Now, before you start furiously jerking your nerdrage, allow me to explain…
Star Wars is not a brilliant movie franchise.
Let’s start with the heresy. Star Wars movies are wonderful popular entertainment. Star Wars movies are not art installations. Star Wars is not subtle or sophisticated, it is not mature or complex, it is a fairy tale in space. Even The Empire Strikes Back, universally agreed to be the best of the franchise, is a genre-defining movie, but it’s not some experimental arthouse cult film. It’s the darkest chapter of Star Wars, but it still works within the rules of the established “fairy tale in space” universe. Academic folklorists have been extolling the cultural power of fairy tales for centuries, so I say that not as a slight but as a descriptor of the storytelling genre. Star Wars exists on easily identifiable and relatable archetypes; it has peasants and princesses and rogues and emperors and knights. Moreover, Star Wars is a franchise for children. That isn’t a secret, it’s clearly written that way. That has created a level of expectations from the fanbase — they want to be told children’s stories. And that’s fine. In fact, one of the biggest critiques of the prequels is that Lucas built the whole story around boring political jargon like Senatorial procedure and trade negotiations. Star Wars fans want lightsabers and X-Wings and cool characters having fun adventures.
The Last Jedi is smarter than other Star Wars movies.
The Last Jedi is smarter than that. Don’t get me wrong: The Last Jedi isn’t some Inception-level headgame. It’s just smarter than a normal Star Wars movie. Whereas the original trilogy were written for teenagers, and the prequels for little kids, the new trilogy has attempted to reach a more universal audience. In that vein, Rian Johnson crafted a movie with plenty of action and adventure, lots of fun moments and new creatures, but did it with a story couched in larger thematic questions meant to stimulate the adults paying to see the movie at midnight.
In addition to the on-screen story, The Last Jedi tells a meta-narrative about Star Wars itself: Kylo Ren is a Vader cosplayer who grew up playing with dark side toys. Snoke is an internet troll whining that Kylo Ren got beat by a girl. Rey believes in The Legend and wants nothing more than for Luke to come to the galaxy’s rescue with a laser sword. Poe doesn’t care about the human element, as long as the explosions look cool. And Finn is a naive rube, new to the universe and bumbling his way through the adventure knowing that the rules of storytelling mean it’ll magically work out in the end. Every one of us went into The Last Jedi as one of those five: Kylo the entitled cosplayer, Snoke the myopic troll, Rey the true believer, Poe the adrenaline junkie, or Finn the blind simpleton. And what happened? All of these characters’ assumptions, beliefs, and assurances blew up in their faces. The fans spent two years between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi coming up with theories and speculation and expectations for what they would see. And what happened? All of the fans’ assumptions, beliefs, and assurances blew up in their faces.
That’s a heckuva lot deeper than “farmboy rescues princess and fights the evil empire.”
Most criticism of The Last Jedi confused themes and symbolism for mistakes.
The movie isn’t hiding these themes, either. Luke literally tells Rey he won’t be coming to the rescue with a laser sword and warns her that this isn’t going to go the way she thinks. Poe gets demoted for sacrificing too many lives. Finn’s plan to get a codebreaker from Canto Bight backfires because it was a bad plan to begin with. Unlike typical Hollywood fairy tale storytelling, their on-screen actions have on-screen consequences. Their failures lead to new circumstances requiring these characters to grow up, to evolve, to learn from their mistakes. We never saw Luke learn from his mistakes or bad ideas in the original trilogy. We never saw Anakin learn from his mistakes or bad ideas in the prequels. In The Last Jedi, the story does not cut any corners and takes the audience on the full journey. In order for the lessons and heroic moments to be earned, the audience needs to see the failures that led to them. We need to see every single plan fail so that by the end the story, we can come full circle with the narrative and get the resolution we have earned, not the one to which we feel entitled.
It’s not a mistake that the film doesn’t start off with “the Luke we knew” — it’s the whole point of the story. Luke is not the Luke we knew. He’s changed, he’s lived thirty years of life off-screen, including watching his protege nephew become the new Vader and oh yeah, momentarily succumbing to the dark side when he thought about killing him. Of all the things people missed, this one is the most frustrating because it’s literally addressed on-screen by Luke himself. He’s broken. He’s cut himself off from the Force. He’s wallowing in his own failures. He rejects Rey because he doesn’t believe in either The Legendary Luke Skywalker or in himself. He’s clinging to obscurity, hiding in the past but refusing to learn from it or move past it. That’s why Yoda blows up the tree: as a catalyst to get Luke off his ass. Stop living in the past. Stop clinging on to old religions. Break the cycle and join the present. Always in motion, the future is. [Get it, yet, Star Wars fans? Spoiler: You’re Luke and Rian Johnson is Yoda. That’s called a metaphor.]
At the start of the movie, Luke dubs himself the last Jedi as a pessimistic moniker with which he uses to remind himself of his failures. The movie ends with the promise that we’ve learned from the past, that we’ve broken free from the formula and a new future is possible. [Get it, yet, Star Wars fans? Metaphor.]
The irony of The Force Awakens.
The ultimate irony of course is that The Force Awakens is exactly what the fans wanted. As far as “Star Wars movies” go, TFA is a damn-near perfect movie. It has the right balance of humor and drama. It introduces some great new characters. It’s a far-flung adventure spanning a bunch of cool worlds and cool new tech. And, of course, lots of Han Solo. From a Star Wars perspective, The Force Awakens is the best movie they could have made, and it’s easily near the top of the list of best movies in the franchise.
I don’t know when everyone decided they didn’t like TFA, but they need to get their heads out of their asses. You’re not clever for recognizing TFA is a formulaic Star Wars movie and you’re not insightful for noticing the protagonist of the first movie of a trilogy is a Mary Sue. Welcome to Star Wars. The whole point of the larger narrative is that good vs. evil is cyclical and new generations are being born into the struggle all the time. There are complaints that the movie is structured like A New Hope. Well, yeah, so are like 75% of all fantasy movies. Welcome to “The Hero’s Journey,” you might have heard of it. Rey is too powerful, they claim, as they dream of Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star without his targeting computer.
This all goes back to my original point: Star Wars is not a brilliant story. If you’re one of the people who believes it is, or wants it to be, stop. You’re only hurting yourself and setting yourself up for disappointment. Star Wars was never ground-breaking storytelling. Star Wars was certainly ground-breaking on a technical level — Lucas invented ILM for the originals and pioneered digital filmmaking for the prequels. But the story is not anything deep or sophisticated. If you think that the Darth Vader turn was some brilliant Shyamalan twist… you… should read more Shakespeare. The guy’s name is literally “Dark Father.”
But that’s not a problem with the movie, it’s a problem with the fans; they’re not meant to be complex stories, they’re meant to be simple stories told through cool characters and with cool special effects and to that end, The Force Awakens was everything it needed it be. The vocal turn against it has been mind-boggling to watch, primarily because it makes no sense.
You have to imagine that someone in LucasFilm has watched the fan reaction turn and said something akin to: Ok, fine, you don’t like how safe and formulaic The Force Awakens turned out to be… how about we give you a more sophisticated and metaphor-driven story that flips expectations on its head?
Which brings me to my next point…
“Star Wars Fans” are conditioned to be dumb consumers.
The brilliance of Star Wars has nothing to do with its movies, it’s entirely in the commercialization of the franchise. Kenner infamously sold thousands of empty boxes in 1977 and Star Wars fans haven’t gotten any smarter since then. And that’s fine. Really. The world doesn’t need every fan community to be living on the edge of avant-garde cinephilia. As Lucas has pointed out in every interview he’s ever done, it’s a franchise for children. And to that end, the franchise has intentionally infantilized its fans. That is, Star Wars needs its fans to remain in a childish mindset, so it manufactures that mindset for them. And as testament to the franchise’s popularity, that has been a remarkably successful dynamic. The criticism of stereotypical nerd fanboys surrounded by their toys isn’t wrong — I’m currently staring at a Darth Vader christmas ornament next to my keyboard.
The Star Wars fan community is largely defined by its immaturity and childish nature. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s fun to play with toys and get dressed up as your favorite characters and make pew pew sounds. But this is also key to understanding the backlash to The Last Jedi. The movie’s fundamental sin is that it’s a movie, not just a toy commercial. Rian Johnson created a fascinating meta-narrative that relied on the audience to successfully interpret (fairly obvious) symbolism and metaphors. Johnson assumed he would be speaking to an audience who had taken high school literature. Unfortunately for him, Star Wars fandom is stuck in preschool.
Part of the problem is the current state of movie commentary.
The current state of movie-review culture doesn’t help. Facilitated by YouTube and various fan-centric sites, the culture around movies has become a toxic wasteland of reaction videos and trailer breakdowns. As all art is subjective, by definition, everyone is going to like and dislike different things. Everyone will interpret images differently. Everyone’s backgrounds will give them insights into certain aspects and compound blind-spots elsewhere. But in this hyper-paced #HotTake culture, the loudest and most controversial voices win. Lest we forget: it’s easy to critique — the joke has always been that the critic matters not — but when the critiques begin to metastasize and take on a life of their own, outweighing the art itself, it speaks to a cultural problem. Maybe everyone doesn’t need to have a trailer reaction. Maybe you’re wholly unqualified to speak about how a movie should be made or written or directed. Maybe?
Star Wars gets it the worst, I think. Because of its universal popularity, it’s easy for nobodies to make money off of its scraps. Entire shows and websites exist to speculate and theorize based on nothing but rumors. It’s a fun exercise, and I do it, too. But when reality intervenes, maybe accept that your Snoke theory sucked and what we got from professional storytellers was way better. Just because you wanted something and you thought it made sense in your head, doesn’t mean it had to happen. It means maybe you should try writing your own story and creating your own art. Maybe one of the most successful film producers in the history of history shouldn’t be arbitrarily replaced because you didn’t like one-fifth of a film you paid to see multiple times.
The Last Jedi is far from perfect, and I have my own issues with the movie as I’ve clearly documented. But in its wake, “Star Wars fans” have fully realized exactly what they’ve been trained to be: a gaggle of screaming infants, throwing their toys against the wall and pressing replay on the Battle of Scarif. It’s the over-arching irony of this whole situation: they’re choosing to live in the past, hiding from the realities of the present. Instead of facing the demands of a changing future, they’re slamming their door behind them and sitting in familiar darkness. It’s a failure of the nostalgia-based media environment and the fan communities that have been spawned. If fans cannot grow beyond their infantile desires, they’re doomed to repeat the same stories over and over again, perched atop an empty throne-room where fear and hubris have overwhelmed hope and wisdom.
The greatest teacher, failure is. We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters. Until they recognize this and understand the lesson taught, Star Wars fans don’t deserve The Last Jedi.
Oh, hey, a new Lego set!
*Note: Obviously #NotAllStarWarsFans. But in the digital fandom era there has emerged a nebulous hivemind that drives “the narrative.” Whether one guy was responsible for The Last Jedi’s bad RT score became irrelevant when the story took on a life of its own and spun into the popular consciousness. The fact remains: there is a lot of negative criticism of The Last Jedi in the toxic movie criticism culture as it exists on YouTube and various fan sites. And it is that toxicity that has not only missed the point of the movie, but is actively hurting the fan community dynamic.