The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

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The following are a few brief thoughts on The Last Jedi rather than a proper review. I try to keep it vague or completely unmentioned for fear of spoiling. Depending on how sensitive you are to such things, you probably shouldn’t be reading any reviews at all. Maybe I’ll come back to it in a few weeks, after I’ve had a chance to more fully absorb it and to see it again.

The Last Jedi is the Star Wars movie we’ve been waiting for, the culmination of years of ancillary products building on and expanding the mythos developed over the first trilogy and inverted in the second. Like The Force Awakens, its structure is explicitly modeled on a film from the first trilogy, in this case, The Empire Strikes Back. Despite our heroes’ triumph in the last film, a rag-tag band of freedom fighters find themselves under assault by the fascistic enemy. They escape, but the principal good guys are separated and their storylines play out individually, one set on the run in space, while another tries to get advice from a reclusive Jedi master. All threads come together in an ending more bittersweet than triumphant, setting the stage for a final showdown in part three of the story. But this, aside from a handful of gags both visual and verbal here or there, is where the similarities end. In fact, The Last Jedi deftly subverts the expectation of repetition, resolving some conflicts while deepening others, breaking out of the series’ ringlike story and calling for a radical break with the past. To put it into the terms of our contemporary politics: if the original trilogy is about the triumph of neo-liberalism, and the prequel trilogy about the corruption of that ideology by the forces of fascism, then The Last Jedi is where the trilogy truly embraces revolution.

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This sentiment has been building through the recent Star Wars products. The Clone Wars TV series made explicit much of the garbled subtext of the prequel trilogy: that it was the contradictions inherit in the Republic and the Jedi that not only enabled but made inevitable the descent into war and Empire, their self-righteous arrogance blinding them until things were too late. This was followed by the distinctly proletarian focus of the Star Wars Rebels series, about a low-level band of freedom fighters joining together to take on the Empireand Rogue One, a darker look at a similar rebel cell. The Force Awakens hinted at this, with the hero Rey’s lowly origins scavenging junk on a planet in the middle of nowhere and ex-stormtrooper Finn’s desperation and horror at the violence he sees around him. The Last Jedi adds a bona fide worker to the mix, a mechanic played by Kelly Marie Tran who joins with Finn on a crazy mission which takes them to a planet devoted to the pleasures of the rich, an elite grown wealthy by exploiting both sides of the never-ending military conflict. Tran is the soul of the film because alone among the Resistance, alone among pretty much anyone in the entire series, she has an ideology that extends beyond power or personal freedom.

It’s that belief that has been so missing from first the Rebellion and now the Resistance. The original Rebellion was a desire to recreate the Republic, to restore to power the elites who had been usurped by the Emperor, under the auspices of “restoring freedom to the galaxy”. But it didn’t work: even with the Emperor gone, the rot in the system still remained and gave birth to the First Order. And the Resistance doesn’t prove to have been any better at fighting it than our own #Resistance has been at confronting the corruption in our systems of power. This view is articulated most clearly by Saw Guerrera, the lunatic Bolshevik of the Rebellion played by Forest Whitaker in both Rogue One and Star Wars Rebels. Tran’s maintenance tech Rose Tico isn’t a mad terrorist, she’s a regular person who believes in trying to making the world a better place. On the pleasure world, where Finn sees all the fabulousness of wealth and leisure, Rose sees only the slaves working to enable that luxury. Her act of liberation sets forth a stampede of destruction that’s as joyous as anything ever seen in the Star Wars universe. Her ultimate statement of the film’s theme, that we must fight for the things we love, not merely against the things we hate, would be pointless sloganeering without that moment of real revolutionary freedom.

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Balanced against this is the Rey-Luke plotline, in which our new hero tries to convince our old hero to rejoin the fight. Luke has become embittered, consumed with guilt and self-loathing. He longs to destroy the last remnants of Jedi mythology but can’t bring himself to do it. There’s dangerous spoiler ground here, so I won’t go into it, but suffice it to say that (one of) his major hangups is the difference between being a legend, a symbol for people to rally around, to believe in, and living with the personal pain and loss that comes with fighting a war. Johnson’s solution to this conflict is both elegant and deeply moving.

In fact, Rian Johnson’s work here as both writer and director of a major Disney franchise product is nothing short of remarkable. Not only is The Last Jedi very funny, in the lopsided manner of Johnson’s previous work (there are more double takes in this movie than in all the previous ones in the series put together, and every one of them is earned), but the movie is far weirder than anything the corporation has yet produced. Not the market-tested weirdness of the Marvel movies that gets branded so by the company’s PR department, but truly strange: from the Seijun Suzuki design of Snoke’s throne room* to Lupita Nyong’o’s all-too-brief appearance to the sheer lunacy of Poe and Finn’s scheming* to anything involving a Porg. Where Rogue One was stripped down to almost pure plot, The Last Jedi ambles along, discovering new oddities around every corner. Far from being constricted by the rehashing structure of The Force AwakensThe Last Jedi finds spaces in the margins of the story to build a coherent world, and in so doing allows that world to be transformed with a genuine vision of revolutionary change. I have no idea what’s going to happen next.

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*The blinding red walls are something else, as is the conception of the final salt planet, white crystals covering blood-red rock. There’s an overhead shot during the final battle that might have been modeled on the finale of Chang Cheh’s The Heroic Ones. Arresting images abound in the film, with Carrie Fisher and Laura Dern, Mark Hamill and Daisy Ridley, more unique and beautiful than in any Star Wars since Revenge of the Sith. The editing is solid, better on the jokes than the action scenes, but still the lightsaber duels are pretty good by Hollywood standards.

*The Resistance’s obsession with crazy capers reminded me of no less than the technocrats who gave us the Affordable Care Act: an incredibly complex plan to address a simple problem that ultimately won’t work that we’ve all deemed acceptable because we’ve lost sight of, or can’t even imagine anymore, what our actual goal was.

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