The Last Jedi Challenges the Star Wars Status Quo to Go Beyond Mere Nostalgia (Review)

By striking it down, Rian Johnson helped ensure that Star Wars could become more powerful than we can possibly imagine.

After Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and revealed plans to release a new trilogy of Star Wars movies that weren’t beholden to George Lucas’ original ideas, fans were torn. On the one hand, Lucas had given us the prequel trilogy, which may have been dazzling technical achievements but were sorely lacking in the storytelling department and even ruined some of the magic of the original trilogy. (Midi-chlorians, anyone?) But brand new stories made by a brand new group of people with little to no Lucas influence? That seemed like a step too far, like too much of a risk.

When The Force Awakens was released in 2015, it didn’t break any new ground. But that wasn’t its job. Episode VII was essentially J.J. Abrams telling the Star Wars faithful, who were still (for better or worse) smarting from the disappointment of the prequels, “Don’t worry, we got this. We know what makes Star Wars special because it’s special for us, too. And we’re going to remind you of what it was like to see Star Wars for the first time.”

Which is precisely what happened. Abrams and Co. distilled much of what we loved about the original Star Wars trilogy and made a single film out of it, right down to the climactic trench run. As I wrote in my review, “With The Force Awakens, Abrams et al. needed to prove that they understood Star Wars and how its universe works — that they got it. From that perspective, the callbacks and references make more sense, and by and large, pay off.”

And that brings us to The Last Jedi. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, who made a splash with films like the noir-ish Brick and the hard-boiled time travel story Looper, The Last Jedi builds on The Force Awakens in order to tell Star Wars fans something different: Star Wars has been the world’s greatest pop culture mythology for four decades but unless it discards slavish fixation with the past — unless it’s freed from blind adherence to nostalgia and tradition — we’ll keep seeing the same old stories again and again, and Star Wars will become boring and irrelevant.

Or, if I had to sum up The Last Jedi in a single sentence, it’d go something like this: By striking it down, writer/director Rian Johnson helped ensure that Star Wars could become more powerful than we can possibly imagine.

Note: The following may contain possible spoilers for The Last Jedi.

Note what Johnson is not doing: he’s not saying that the past is bad or that the old stories are suddenly stupid and pointless, we just didn’t know it before. And The Last Jedi isn’t saying that either. Consider the movie’s final scene, in which a group of young children are enthralled by a retelling of Luke Skywalker’s last stand against Kylo Ren and the First Order, in which Luke sacrifices himself to help the last few remnants of the Resistance escape to fight another day. It’s a simple scene that’s pregnant with the power and beauty of mythology; it poignantly shows how myths (true or not) can fire the imagination, give hope to the oppressed, and keep the light flickering in the darkness.

But throughout The Last Jedi, Johnson also reminds us that holding on to the past, and especially a heavily idealized version of the past, is bad. So bad, in fact, that it can even be detrimental to that which you’re trying to preserve. There’s a fine line between faithful reverence and blind, unthinking adherence, as any serious religious devotee will tell you. And this is seen most starkly in The Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker.

You may not know this, but a lot of people are upset by what The Last Jedi did to Star Wars by taking it in directions that often seem like direct repudiations of the original trilogy (especially compared to The Force Awakens’ loving homage). The biggest example of this is when it’s revealed that Skywalker — the galaxy’s greatest hero and the Resistance’s last hope in their struggle against the First Order — has become a bitter, disillusioned old man who has turned his back on the Jedi ideals. Or as Laurel Carney puts it, “The Luke shown in The Last Jedi was broken in a way that felt, to some, like a total character regression, walking back his arc to such an extreme that it felt unrealistic.”

When Rey hands him his lightsaber, Skywalker chucks it over a cliff with nary a thought. When she pleads for his help, he dismisses and belittles her plight. When she seeks after his wisdom and guidance, he rebuffs her and dismantles her idealized vision of him and the Jedi. When she reveals her power, he responds with fear and disgust. Frankly, it’s a little hard to watch, given that the last time we see Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi, he’s redeemed the galaxy’s most fearsome monster and helped defeat the brutal Empire.

But just as Rey’s idealized vision of Luke Skywalker is challenged again and again, so too is an idealized vision of Star Wars challenged by Johnson. Again, Johnson is not questioning the value of myths — be it Skywalker or Star Wars itself. He’s questioning our adherence and devotion to them. The Last Jedi, and the Skywalker scenes in particular, are constantly asking about devotion. Is it being given blindly or critically? Do we want more of the same because it’s become safe and comfortable, or because we actually find value in it? Do we want it simply because of how it entertains and moves us, or because of its own inherent worth?

In one of the movie’s more poignant (and controversial) scenes, Luke is confronted by Yoda’s force ghost, who admonishes “young Skywalker” for still failing to learn the simplest lessons. Among them is that students must outgrow their masters — or, as Yoda puts it, “We are what they grow beyond.” That lesson is one for Star Wars fans, too. Unless Star Wars grows beyond what was originally envisioned and beyond what we expect it to be, it will become boring. It will cease being myth and become mere dogma; it will cease being epic and become boring routine. And nobody should want that in their Star Wars film.

Of course, none of this means that The Last Jedi isn’t without flaws, though I think plenty of those flaws become less pressing after some careful reflection — or simply paying attention to the movie’s clues (e.g., the hullaballoo over the First Order’s hyperspace tracking abilities). Even the Canto Bight subplot becomes less egregious after a second viewing, though it’s still the film’s weakest part. On the other hand, I do wish we’d learned more about Snoke; I’m still not sure how Rey’s origins fit within the larger mythology; Holdo smashing through the First Order fleet was pretty awesome but problematic; and how was Kylo Ren able to pick up those golden dice, anyway?

Still, I ultimately look past those niggling little points because I don’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture. In my Force Awakens review, I concluded that “now the dues have been paid and the boxes have been checked, and the way has been paved for Episode VIII… to take Star Wars in new directions and show us things we’ve never seen before.” Which is precisely what has happened, and now the galaxy seems a whole lot more open, interesting, and filled with possibility than ever before.

As I’ve reflected on The Last Jedi and what its revelations mean for a galaxy far, far away, I’ve also found myself thinking about fandom and the entitlement that seems to go hand-in-hand with it these days, particularly in fandoms of the nerdier varieties.

To clarify, when I say “entitlement,” I’m not talking about simply faulting a story because you didn’t like what happened to your favorite character, you thought the plot should’ve gone a different way, or that a certain element seemed unfaithful to the story’s world. Criticisms like those can be perfectly legitimate. Put another way, you can make those criticisms and still appreciate the story for what it tried to do. You can even appreciate the story simply for eliciting such a strong reaction from you — which is a good sign that it got you thinking and involved instead of just passively accepting it.

No, when I say “entitlement,” I’m referring to the idea that the story’s creators owed you something that you didn’t get (e.g., a certain plotline explored, some bit of character development, a specific romance), and therefore, you were betrayed, your childhood was ruined, and other irrational, hyperbolic sentiments. It happened with the Mass Effect games (at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I realize I was pretty vocal in my dislike of how that series ended), with the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters, and now with The Last Jedi.

It’s easy to look at those making a fuss and just dismiss them as Comic Book Guy-ish neckbeards who are way too obsessed with trivia and fictional minutiae — especially when their sense of entitlement leads them to resort to fraud to trash something they supposedly love. But that sort of assessment makes two mistakes. First, it overlooks the complex relationship between fans and their beloved properties and second, it fails to respect the extent to which those properties resonate strongly with people in the first place.

Shortly after my first viewing of The Last Jedi, I came across this poignant Rob Bricken essay about how The Last Jedi killed his childhood. Even though he enjoyed the film overall, it left him depressed because he realized that the Star Wars of his youth was finished.

I turned 40 this year. I’ve had a mild, rather traditional midlife crisis at the realization that I’m likely at the midway point of my life, but my love of the entertainment of my youth — buoyed both by the immensely popular and profitable nostalgia entertainment industry, as well as the fact that my professional career keeps one foot stuck firmly in my childhood — has kept me at least partially in a state of arrested development as I approached middle age. I recognized this, but I saw no downside to remaining young at heart. I still don’t.

Watching Luke die, not to achieve something as much as to prevent an unfathomable defeat being total, made me ache with sadness. I hated that he died, essentially, a failure. I hate that the movies I lived and breathed as a kid (and for decades after) meant nothing to the Star Wars galaxy. This past weekend I happened to glance at the original trilogy DVD set on my shelf, and had to look away because I didn’t want to think about Luke Skywalker’s fate. The Last Jedi has made me so upset I don’t want to think about Star Wars at all.

Again, it’s tempting to shake your head at Bricken’s words and write them off as an overreaction. But there’s something very real there in the realization that the stories you loved, that shaped your earliest years and informed to some extent how you perceive the world, might have passed you by. It’s the fear that if your heroes have grown old and become irrelevant, then maybe you’re now irrelevant, too.

This all lines up with something that I wrote about in my review of the TV show Spaced, a show about a group of oddballs whose lives are heavily shaped by pop culture:

In its cheeky, goofy, irrepressible way, Spaced affirms again and again that pop culture — the silly sci-fi blockbuster movies we watch, the comic books full of puffed up, spandex-clad heroes, the Saturday morning cartoons and video games that rot our brain — actually means something.

Those things are not disposable trifles or cultural detritus, but rather, in their own way, they actually speak to us and communicate something true and meaningful for and about us. We may demean them and write them off as mere distractions, but they are an intrinsic part of our worldview, and it’s almost impossible — for some of us, at least — to communicate meaningfully without relying on them to some extent.

I have little patience for those who clutch their beloved pop culture artifacts in a death grip, who insist that they’re the only True Believers who know better even than the authors, directors, and artists about what should or shouldn’t be done, what stories should or shouldn’t be told. But sentiments like Bricken’s cut me to the quick (even if I disagree with his conclusions re. Skywalker’s fate) because I’ve felt something similar at times. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. It’s a longing for things that will never come back the way we imagine them even as the longing itself helps us focus on and yearn for the beautiful and true in our lives.

There’s wisdom in Bricken’s essay as he concludes, “The Last Jedi is a good Star Wars movie. It just wasn’t made for me, or the legion of other fans my age. After 40 years of having Star Wars basically tailor-made for us, it was well past time.” However, I think his statement is premature, not to mention a bit too fatalistic.

Obviously, J.J. Abrams — who’s writing and directing Episode IX after replacing Colin Trevorrow — could botch things, given his penchant for recycling and trading in nostalgia. I hope he seriously takes to heart what Johnson’s done as he begins plotting the final episode. But I’d challenge Bricken and others like him to see The Last Jedi as an opportunity to see their beloved heroes and stories from a new perspective.

We don’t have to kill the old stories, as Kylo Ren so passionately and desperately asserts, nor must we fear being “freed” of them, which seems to be Bricken’s concern. But neither do we need to hold on to them so tightly for fear of them losing their significance. Indeed, seeing them through the eyes of new generations and adherents (just to drive home the religious parallels a bit more) may even help us appreciate them anew in bold, previously unimagined ways.

If nothing else, the brouhaha over The Last Jedi is a reminder that if there really is truth and beauty at the heart of the Star Wars mythology, then we needn’t worry quite so much. It will continue to resonate and fire imaginations for years to come, regardless of the external forms it might take.

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