The Last Jedi: A Mirror, Slowly Cracking
[Warning: deeper into this review, you will be walking onto the muddy streets of lawless SPOILERTOWN. Ye have been warned.]
This will be less a review of The Last Jedi (Episode VIII) than it will be… my thoughts? An analysis? Me opening my head like a flip-top Pac-Men and seeing what globs of brain-goo I can grab and hastily smack into the screen?
If you want my review, it’s this:
*pant pant pant*
NO WAY DID THEY JUST
OH HOLY SHIT
WAIT BUT THAT MEANS
I fucking loved it.
That’s it. That’s my review. It’s mostly just a series of excitable sounds with the occasional twirling around until I’m dizzy. But I’d rather look past my gibbon-like hoots and my strange, erotic dances and see what lies within. What lurks deeper. What do I see when I enter the DARK SIDE CAVE to have the truth revealed to me?
Your Expectations Will Not Be Met
Fandom is a tricky bear to wrestle. We love a thing so deeply, we entwine ourselves within it. We thread a little bit — sometimes a lot — of our identity into the thing. And we come to believe we own that thing, and further, we join a tribe of fellow owners who all have threaded themselves into it both intellectually and emotionally. We feel excited by what this thing can bring us. We develop pet theories. We craft and conjure the path we would take if we were ever handed the keys to the Thing We Love. We become excited and obsessive, a little bit. Sometimes a lotta bit.
But here’s the thing:
Stories can never be written for the fans.
Fan service isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it is sometimes a fairly lazy thing — it’s a comfortable signal, a soft chair, it’s Norm from Cheers where everybody knows his name. It’s to say, “You’re lost here, but look, here is a familiar friend to help you through. It’s to let you know that despite all the strange flora and the eyes glowing in the dark, you’re still a known quantity in a known land. This is a safe place.” When done overmuch, fan service does more than just introduce a few friendly faces. It burns down the trees. It lights up the dark. It slides a jukebox over and slams the top of it like it’s fucking Fonzie and suddenly, the Greatest Hits begin to play, just as you love them. Maybe in an order you don’t know, but still the songs you know and you adore.
The Last Jedi is not without its fan service moments, but they are few and far-between, and even when they exist, they exist to challenge you more than they do to bring you succor.
The Last Jedi will not meet your expectations.
Oh, it knows them.
It is well-aware of them, in fact, and is well-aware that you have them. And it willfully… I don’t want to say disregards them, precisely, but in a sense, it has weaponized them against you. It knows you’ve seen all the movies. It knows you know the narrative beats, the tropes, the rhyming couplets of George Lucas, and then it gently puts them all in a magician’s hat, and then it reaches into the hat, and instead of pulling them back out, it pulls out a porg.
And then the movie hits you with the porg.
That metaphor may have gotten a little out of hand, but I think you grok me.
The Last Jedi cares very much about your expectations.
It’s just not going to meet them.
You, a fan, have explicit ideas about what a Star Wars movie can and should do, and it’s going to use that against you. And it’s going to play for a larger audience, as it must. It can’t work just for you, dear fan — never mind the fact that fandom is not a singular, globular entity, like a giant amoeba with one set of desires to be met. It has to go bigger. It has to please a wide variety of viewers while trying to make new fans along the way.
This message is clear within the first 20 minutes of the movie.
[Once again, turn back, for HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.]
We expect Luke to take his old lightsaber — really, Anakin’s old lightsaber — and regard it as the way one should regard something that was last seen in your pre-severed hand. I mean, if last time I saw a Hummel figurine was in my hand that got lopped off, and then decades later you traipsed up to me on my creepy hermit island and handed me that very Hummel figurine, I’d look at you like you were Jesus Christ Himself, because, what the fuck. But that’s not what Luke does. He regards the lightsaber and instead, chucks it behind him, where a couple of porgs try to murder each other with it.
We expect Poe’s half-wit fly-boy hero plan to work, because in these movies, the dimwit hero plan always works — Han Solo always gets them out of a scrape by doing something very Han Solo, for instance, and so we trust that Poe is living by his instincts, and those will save the day. Except that’s not what happens. His efforts fuck it all up. Arguably, much of the film is based on his gigantic fuck-up. Lives are lost because of Poe Dameron.
We expect Vice Admiral Holdo doesn’t know what she’s doing, and that the snappy man who demands the plan is in the right. But he’s not. We expect incorrectly. She’s right. He’s wrong. She doesn’t owe him shit. And yet he, the demanding man, is assured that he is right and must be told the plan, and his Sexist Hero Man routine gets people killed.
We expect Rey to turn. Or Kylo to turn. They don’t.
We expect Snoke to be a grand puppetmaster, the Emperor Palpatine of the trilogy, and that he’ll — ooh, oops, he’s now cut in half? Or more than half? Was that a hand still sitting on the arm of his throne room chair? Somebody get some antibacterial ointment in that joint, post-haste.
We expect that our heroes must be chosen ones, that they come from special families, that they have been born of destiny — not that they are the children of drunken junkers, not that they once mopped a star destroyer, not that they are a lone mechanic weeping over the loss of a sister.
Often, our expectations are based on what we know of the former films — we know that the big AT-AT battle means a scrappy band will take some of those AT-ATs down and they’ll escape, but this escape is not so plucky, nor does it begin the film. It ends it. And it nearly ends the resistance. The heroic sacrifice of Finn — an expected moment — is thwarted by Rose, who kisses him. (We expected that to be Rey, didn’t we?)
In the throne room, we expect it will go like it did in Return of the Jedi — and it does, a little. Snoke is ultimately the Emperor, in that he’s a Sinister Puppetmaster with a lot of buildup but not a lot of meat on those bones. (Remember: Palpatine/Sidious only gets those deeper character beats much, much later, long after ROTJ left theaters.) The dark apprentice does turn on his master to save another, but Kylo’s turn is not the sacrifice of Vader but rather, a Sith-like move to eradicate the master and take on a new apprentice: Rey. Kylo does not turn to the light-side. He simply turns against Snoke. He fulfills the Dark Side’s wishes. (And then promptly begs and negs Rey when she won’t take his hand. “You’re nobody,” he tells her. “Please.”) And all of this happens in the second film of the trilogy, not the third — another subversion.
And that’s the word to note.
Ripples from thrown stones.
A Mirror, Slowly Cracking
It goes like this:
The Force Awakens was a little bit comfort food. It needed to be. It needed to play off our nostalgia. It needed to have the cut of A New Hope’s jib. We needed a reminder that we know this thing, that we love this thing.
But to go back to the jukebox metaphor, it didn’t play The Greatest Hits only. Or rather, it played them, but they were played by a new band, or performed live, or remixed, or played in a different key. The Force Awakens was comfort food, but with a few odd ingredients thrown in — “Wait, what the fuck is shiso? Is this bison? Are persimmons a real thing? Is this a persimmon or are those fruits you get in Narnia?”
The Force Awakens birthed mutations into the narrative code of Star Wars. It threw rocks into water. It chipped the mirror into which we were all staring — introducing just a few small cracks in the reflective glass. When Kylo Ren faces down Finn and Rey at the end of that film, he tells them, “It’s just us, now.” He’s telling us that the baton has been passed. “It’s not their story anymore. It’s our story.”
And then, The Last Jedi continues that.
The mutations are passed down, and the monster evolves.
The rocks in water created ripples, and now we’re seeing those ripples move toward the shoreline, some of them becoming waves.
The cracks in the mirror are growing bigger, distorting the image we expect to see reflected back at us, ruining the comfort of a mirrored image and breaking our assumptions into shards and islands of glass.
Every time we, as viewers, reach out to touch the mirror — as Rey does, in the cave — we only make more cracks. We don’t resolve the image. We don’t save the mirror. We further the breaking of the glass through our clumsy, monkey-handed expectations.
The comfort food of the Episode VII has become the molecular gastronomy of Episode VIII — ingredients we thought we knew, resolved into new forms: foams and suspensions, gelees and pancakes and cocktails, a thing we expect to be sweet is suddenly sour and salty, another thing is disassembled and deconstructed, a third thing isn’t supposed to be edible but somehow, it is.
The Last Jedi is not our comfort food.
It is not going to let your nostalgia be enough.
It’s A Fucking Mess, This Movie
The movie’s a mess.
And it needs to be.
I love that it’s a mess.
It’s not a formless mess. It’s not without purpose or shape.
But it’s a mess.
Let’s switch gears for a second.
Go to this link and watch the video — no, it’s not porn, it’s a brief clip from A Chef’s Table, featuring chef Grant Achatz talking about — well, you’ll see.
I, as a writer, take a lot of inspiration from this show, A Chef’s Table, not just because I like to watch pretentious chefs plate pretentious food pretentiously (though my word, I do love it!), but rather because I really appreciate seeing how each chef comes to the kitchen and to the plate and to the very idea of food differently. They are each singularly obsessed with their craft, but each in a wildly different direction — how they do it, why they do it, their ethos behind doing it, how they treat their staff, how they frame a plate, how they invent and reinvent themselves and their work? It fascinates me. And it inspires me.
Achatz in that clip says, to paraphrase, that he doesn’t want to be defined by the traditional margins of… well, preparing and serving food. He takes inspiration from modern art and for a dessert, removes the plate from the equation and lets the tablecloth serve as canvas:
That dish is a mess, in the literal sense of the word.
A wonderful mess. An elegant, articulate mess.
But a mess, just the same.
Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression that The Last Jedi is quite so avant-garde — it’s not a shattering of the mold, it’s not giving us some David Lynchian view of the Star Wars franchise, but it is giving us a Rian Johnson view. And I’d argue, without knowing Rian Johnson’s precious and weird and wonderful heart, that he — like Achatz — did not want to be bound by the rigors of the plate. Because he did not make a film that followed the bouncing ball. It does not follow the classic narrative Hollywood blockbuster beats. (Nor, for the record, does Empire Strikes Back, by the way. I talk about how that film subverts the pattern in my book — plug alert — Damn Fine Story.) Johnson does not make a film pinned to the corkboard by the tropes of the Star Wars universe. It sees them. It uses them. And then it willfully discards them, locking eyes with you so you see that it’s doing it. And it results in a messy, bumpy, strange film.
One that needs to be messy, bumpy, and strange.
Because then, only then, are we truly free from the pattern.
I explained to my wife that The Last Jedi is like The Matrix Reloaded, if The Matrix Reloaded was actually good. That second film of the Matrix trilogy is a fucking mess, and it tries very hard to look into its own heart and challenge the assumptions you have about it — but it was too soon, and it too easily betrayed what the first film was without understanding why it was doing it. And it did it all in a haughty, nose-in-the-air, intellectually-elite way. (As with all things here and everywhere, YMMV.)
This film tries and messily succeeds.
And the resultant mess — the splatters, the ripples, the broken glass, the unfolding mutations — changes our understanding. It frees Episode IX from fitting a known pattern. It frees us from knowing what’s to come — we are gloriously, wonderfully lost. Just as the characters are themselves lost. I pondered that this film could’ve just as easily been called The Lost Jedi, because that’s how it feels. Luke is wayward. Rey is lost to her own powers and place in the world. Kylo is lost in his rage, fallen into the chasm of his heart and spirit. Poe is unmoored from his heroism. Finn is pinballing between his cowardice and his own heroism. Rose is lost without her sister. Leia is lost without Han and the Republic. The Resistance is lost under the might of the First Order. Everyone is lost. Everyone is failing. The entire movie presents us with failure after failure: characters trying to do the right thing and missing a step, every damn time.
But it presents failure in the way that the dessert table of Grant Achatz is a failure: it’s broken, yes, but into new shapes, new tastes. It’s failure in the way a mirror is broken: one image becomes many, distorted and new and beautiful in its way. It’s failure as the butterfly effect. It’s failure as Yoda tells it: the greatest teacher, failure is.
This failure of Luke, of Rey, of the Resistance, of all the characters, leads to a resurrection — the Phoenix Firebird of the Rebellion — rising anew.
This failure of these characters is a success for the film.
It’s a mess in the best way. Because in that mess, the patterns are lost, the expectations are destroyed, the tropes are broken and bent. For the first time in a long time, I had literally no idea what was going to happen, and that felt like madness in the best way.
This is a mythic remix. A resetting of the game board.
In being lost, we have become found.
That Coda, At The Ending
At the end of the film, we see the fathier stable-boy gently summon a broom to his hand and look to the night sky, a Resistance ring on his finger, the music of Luke Skywalker rising. It’s an odd coda in that none of the Star Wars films give us anything like that — but it’s beautiful to me in several ways. It’s beautiful because:
a) It continues the theme of Rey, Finn, Rose, where power and rebellion and heroism needn’t come from special bloodlines — it’s in all of us, all the way down to this one stable-boy.
b) It serves as a refutation, in fact, of the wealth and spectacle of Canto Bight, full of people who think they’re special but who are decidedly not.
c) It continues what for me is one of the chief themes of Star Wars, in that the actions of a small group can change the galaxy — Rose and Finn meet a boy who one day may become the face of the new Resistance; they have inspired him, they were the spark.
d) It makes me think of our own time, and the need for resistance against a rising autocratic regime, and it tells me that there’s a whole other take waiting on The Last Jedi, showing how it (and Episode VII) are telling us a lot more about our current political climate than we’d like. The film flirts for a while with an angle of Whataboutism, with Bothsidesism, where Kylo tells us that he wants to kill the past, where DJ the slicer tells us that all sides are bad, Luke hates the Jedi — but the movie concertedly, decidedly tells us that’s not true by the end. Rey picks her side, as does Kylo. Finn refutes DJ’s assertion. No Grey Jedi exist. Evil is evil, oppression is oppression, and the light will rise to meet it — here, now, with this young boy and his FORCE-BROOM.
e) Because my son loved that part. My son is six years old and responded to that kid by wanting to be that kid. HE HAS THE FORCE, my son said immediately after leaving the theater, DID YOU SEE THE BROOM OMG THE BROOM. This storyworld has long been generational: each generation now getting a trilogy for them, unique to them, and this is that, here. I love that. I love that this trilogy is more for him than it is for me. It doesn’t kill all the old stuff, it doesn’t shutter the past entirely, but it does break it apart, and remake it for kids my son’s age — and kids who aren’t just my son, either, kids who don’t look like him, kids who don’t have to look like Luke Skywalker but can instead look like Rose or Finn or Poe or Rey.
The challenge comes for the viewer is this:
Do you need need your Star Wars to be comfort food? No harm, no foul if you do. Some look to Star Wars and need it to be the perfect mirror it has been — they don’t want that mirror broken so that other stories can be told, so that other people can see themselves in the shared shards. Some want the tropes. They want the familiarity. They need nostalgia.
And this movie burns it all down.
A lightning strike setting fire to a sacred tree.
It’s okay if you didn’t like it.
But it’s worth appreciating what it did, and why, even if you don’t.
Me, I loved it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my wild gesticulations of joy.
See you around, kid.
(A few complaints and concerns about the film will be in the comments.)