There’s a long-running parallel that suggests that the perennial questions of family legacy and destiny which populate the Star Wars films also animate the attitudes the various Star Wars filmmakers have toward their own fandom, not to mention their corporate masters, their own franchise-family legacy. On one hand, the films themselves rely on decrees about fulfilling parental lineage and, alternately, self-sovereignty, the possibility of personal choice, each film balanced precipitously in between a morality of fulfilling known destiny and the personal free-will necessary for agency. They suggest both a galaxy of possibility and free movement and a limited channel of feasible options that perennially return to light sabers, space battles, and children granted binary oppositions between becoming and not becoming their parents, as though no other options actually existed for them.
Similarly, Star Wars filmmakers themselves have to play this game and manage competing strains of both acceptance – to a legacy, a corporation, an expectation – and differentiation. These filmmakers often find themselves strangled with a force-chokehold of sorts, provided that the force in this case is the implacable weight of fan expectation and corporate similitude, of script check-ups and leering overseers from Disney demanding that personal vision be tempered with and contained by franchise necessity and series homogeneity. Each of these films deals in their own way with how Luke, Leia, Anakin, Rey, Finn, and whoever else cope with the positions foisted upon them, how they navigate the sins of the past to pave the way for a better future. But the most important question is, has always been, and remains: how does a Star Wars filmmaker negotiate their own familiar brand, and what room, if any, exists for a rogue insurgent in a cinematic universe that promises endless opportunity and yet so often tramples alternatives into oblivion.
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi also bears an added weight, another potential noose around its neck. Not the expectation of Star Wars but of Johnson, obviously the most personalized filmmaker ever to helm a picture in this series. His previous three features, although not all of them good, are lithe, cunning creations that wear the weight of their inspirations – various film noirs and mystery fictions in all three cases – as accentuation and articulation rather than encumbrance. It was with a heavy heart, then, that I approached The Last Jedi, a film that was by all accounts not sleek and smart but pressured, burdened with the heaviness of its franchise and unsure how to carve out its own identity. Misshapen, I was told, The Last Jedi was. And now I have it seen it with my own eyes. I most certainly agree with this diagnosis. However, I most certainly do not concur with the prognosis.
The Last Jedi takes the 2 hour and 30 minute de rigueur norm of nearly all blockbuster tentpoles and shoves it down the blockbuster’s very throat, almost willfully flaunting its disarticulation of normative script-writing conventions. Almost tipping its hat to the bloated, irregular rhythms of George Lucas’ prequels, The Last Jedi heedlessly indulges its crooked fancy with sideways cuts, slantwise perspectives, and flashbacks all circling centrifugally around a central narrative, the “plot” of which is gloriously unable to explain the film’s intentions or suggest its deliciously mangled majesty. Sure, one could reduce the structure of The Last Jedi to “the rebel fleet is stranded in space searching for an escape path, all while barely out of reach of the larger ships of the Imperial First Order hot on their tails”. But via this oddly Star Trek-ian submarine warfare plot, The Last Jedi imbibes in and disfigures almost every convention in the Star Wars fanbook, including the presumed simplicity of this story.
While this description recalls Star Trek’s Cold War-era submarine physics, Star Wars’ usual cinematic-vehicular-allusion of choice is well-known to be WWII combat-picture biplanes. The latter is one of Lucas’ many classical pulp cinema fetishes, the amalgamation of these pulp interests essentially forming the crux of the series on which so many Shakespearean and mythological fascinations have since been hung. But, if the Star Wars franchise is usually dedicated to reconciling B-cinema and mythopoetic, pre-cinematic storytelling forms, drawing out grand implications in tight, trim stories, Last Jedi is gloriously over-sized and herky-jerky. It rattles around in various directions, wonderfully disinclined to reconcile any of its various beings, tones, and rhythms.
Where does The Last Jedi lie then? It has the thematic grandeur of self-important A-cinema, but it is both loaded with signifiers of and deeply aware of its roots in pulpy B pictures. It’s also deceptively structured so as to appear structureless. Or perhaps it’s just structureless. Depending on your auterism, it’s either a spirited form of intentionally mercurial instability or a haphazard, conceited misfire. I’m not actually sure where I stand yet, but that confusion is itself testament to a more interesting Star Wars film that I expected, a tempest of contorted emotions that exhibits both a tamed, curated reverence for its franchise and a flagrant disregard for it. The film can sometimes overbearingly seem like a series of too-cunning, look-left-and-turn-right incidents for Johnson to prove his uniqueness by flaunting his disregard for expectation. To walk away from his corporate forebears unscathed and salvage his soul by messing with the Star Wars template, getting his hands dirty and rearranging the parts in inspiring or inspiringly non-functional ways. Either way, The Last Jedi refuses to connect the circuit along a path of least-resistance or through the straightest line. It’s easier to claim what the film is not – the spirited but straightforward, acquiescent, A New Hope-makeover that was The Force Awakens – than what it actually is.
Why is this? Sometimes, The Last Jedi’s pathway to philosophical credulity is playing a game of catch-up to the famously dour Empire Strikes Back, revisiting known quantities rather than exploring its own galaxy far, far away from the series’ conventions of parental lineage and self-fulfilling destiny. But, at other times, it takes a totally, excitingly roundabout pathway. If Empire’s plot and story ended with a fell blow of baleful beauty and remarkably unexpected depression, The Last Jedi one-ups it by totally separating plot from story. The “narrative” goes almost nowhere while the themes advance markedly in a series of blazing, introspectively meditative stanzas of emotion, sound, fury, and thought. In other words, it returns the wooliness to Star Wars after the simple, clean, straightforward beauty of The Force Awakens. Instead, The Last Jedi is a beguiling, bedeviling creature cobbled together Frankenstein-like from dozens of disparate parts. And I don’t just mean the plot, which is itself, improbably uncertain, with a slurry of characters thrown into a mix of a story that, for the first time, at least attempts to rebel against the Manichean Order – good and bad moralities, essentially fixed in orientation – that has thus far defined the series. Which is to say: while the series has thus far fetishized the tension between fulfilling destiny and free-will, between dark and light, this is the first film in the series to self-complicate those binaries and change the terms of the debate. The Last Jedi still doesn’t know how to reconcile the latent individualism of the series – heroic moments, faux-aristocratic lineages rooted in chosen individuals – with its increasingly communalistic, faux-leftist vibes of working class community standing up against a Nazi-like totalitarian Order. But that has always been an immanent contradiction in the series, and The Last Jedi at least trudges uncertainly into these tensions rather than sanding them over.
Fittingly for a New Age series birthed out of transcendental meditation and rooted in a mystical quasi-religion, this is the first Star Wars film imbued with the inquisitive, self-questioning spirit of trying to figure out what the hell it all means. Disrobing itself of Lucas’ silly rationalization of the Force in the prequels, The Last Jedi defiantly returns to the series’ roots while gamely expanding their role in the series: medieval religion, fairy tales, mysticism. The most introspective Star Wars film, it also reinstates the search-for-self once latent in the series, emphasizing not only external action but questions of the mind, with young Rey (Daisy Ridley) training with the fabled, now tragic hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a far-flung island, both figures reverberating against one another in search of an identity. Coming down on the side of personal choice, the film finally casts off the Skywalker lineage in Luke’s bold claim that not only will he not be the last Jedi, but that his young padawan has no nominally-meaningful lineage whatsoever.
More importantly, for Skywalker, The Last Jedi is about questioning roots, the fallibility of heroes, the arbitrary nature of icons, and an embrace of failure. It’s about foiled, failed calculations, incomplete adventures, and asymmetrical expectations, about the narrow corridors of success that destiny charts for us and which people then work to upend while still fulfilling, even against their will. It’s also a film that embraces its own asymmetry, questioning whether the Jedi lineage is essentially populist or aristocratic, whether rebellion is the work of order or chaos, and whether the galaxy can be saved without yet another goddamn plan that involves a boatload of fate and more than a touch of individual heroism. Of course, the film nearly tears itself apart with these contemplations, trying to hold fast to the past – there will still be prophecies, still be lightsabers, still be children perpetually in search of mentors and mentors perpetually prone to failing their students – while unmooring itself from the stability of charting a safe, franchise-sanctioned course of action. The result is a film wonderfully at odds with itself, actively working out its relationship to Star Wars in the moment, ruminating on the relationship of the young to the old. It’s as if the film is self-reflexively analyzing the frustrated accord between fans of the franchise, the new blood, and the old stalwarts. Or, rather, between figures like Skywalker-seeking protagonist Rey and Darth Vader sycophant Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the idols they worship.
It is nearly impossible to truly map the famed Hero’s Quest onto this particular story. In lieu of an elegantly classical story structure, The Last Jedi offers collision, divergence, and forestalled momentum, a ramshackle collage of characters who come in two breeds. Those wracked with indecision (Luke, Rey, Kylo). And those who rush heedlessly into a brand of masculine, head-strong, individualistic heroism (ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and rebel hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)), a heroism that only sabotages them as they falter time and time again. Rather than self-fulfillment of a predestined arc, The Last Jedi identifies the value of reorganization of the self, not of following what you always knew to be true – turning every moment into a self-song, a conceited image of personal heroism and determination – but of rethinking and remapping the heavens themselves through horizons not out in distant space but the horizons of mental consciousness locked deep within the interior realm.
That’s the sort of electrical current that is so exciting it boldly short circuits the pathways of the series, forcing a reconsideration of principles. If The Last Jedi is only inconstantly able to reach the pinnacles of realization, that is also because it dissipates the assumption that realization is clear, easy, or pre-assumed. It also refracts itself across many locations, perspectives, and characters, some of them unduly sidelined in favor of others. (As a rule, The Last Jedi is only its best self when it is focused on Rey). Still, when the film is “on”, it is phenomenal, be it a Lynchian Red Room shuffle that’s more samurai showdown than these films have ever been. Or a Ran-influenced, crimson-dyed final battle where a fog of manifested, corporeal uncertainty skirts through endless dunes of sand. Or a gilded casino that expands the series’ WWII-cinema references to include the seedy underbelly of arms-smugglers and thieves playing all sides for a profit.
And who knows where allegiances lie? In that last casino bit, Benicio Del Toro shows up looking like Rick Blaine but talking like Peter Lorre, all while injecting little slivers of further doubt in not only his morality but the moral spectrum of this universe, as when he implicates the military industrial complex in core conflict and posits that all this light and dark happenstance really just exists to be coopted by arms-dealers. But the film saves the best for … well, in the middle, actually. The film’s potentially destructive self-interrogation culminates with Rey entering a cave, a physical underworld that refracts subcutaneous mental realms, giving us hundreds of images of Rey moving in unison in a line of sorts. But Johnson cleverly reverses the agency thrust of blockbuster cinema by marking Rey as a reactive character through clever reverse framing where the copies of Rey behind her act first, transforming her finger-snaps and hand motions, and vicariously the entire narrative structure of Star Wars, into an essentially circular, endlessly repetitive coalition of selves doomed to replay the past and adhere to seemingly unknowable rules governing them beyond their control. That image suggests the supreme clarity of confusion, and the film spends the rest of its long runtime coming to terms with it. It grapples with the past and forces an uneasy truce between adherence and differentiation, a truce it asks us to interrogate, disagree with, and problematize.
The original Star Wars was famously predicated on (or inspired by) Japanese cinema, with numerous visual quotes and narrative strategies cobbled together from jidaigeki films, while C3PO and R2D2 became Lucas’ own version of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. With The Last Jedi, Star Wars has finally achieved its (necessarily limited, franchise-contingent, merely-good-not-great) Rashomon: an iridescent, multi-headed dance not only of color and sound but mystique, of new sensation rather than merely redolent spectacle. This franchise’s most famous image of two sons, also the name of its most famous tune, once freighted a binary sunset with the thematic weight of two paths, a binary choice for the future on the horizon. If so, The Last Jedi is a non-binary sunset, a refraction of many prismatic possibilities, a moratorium on the possibility of moral binaries.