Star Wars: The Last Jedi – SPOILERS
The latest episode of Star Wars is going to be more polarizing than the often-maligned prequels. It’s my theory that the key source tension between fans and haters has to do with a few key ways people view the movie. In particular, the original series and prequels were all built on a sense of history and shared narrative whereas The Last Jedi is consciously moving away from that narrative and in particular, the Skywalker story.
Lore: From the moment A New Hope began in media res, as “Episode IV”, the story felt like it was built upon formidable pillars of past events. Fans endlessly speculated about the Clone Wars, Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship and eventually, those stories made their way to the screen as a payoff, even if fans did not love them. The obsession over the lore created an empire of novelizations, spin-offs, comics, and video games. The Force Awakens was practically an homage to A New Hope and introduced a whole host of new questions with Rey’s parentage, Kylo Ren’s fall and his Knights of Ren, and Supreme Leader Snoke. The Last Jedi took all of those questions, all those new linkages, and discarded them. It felt like Star Wars, but there was no effort to build upon the pillars of the past – which was a key conceit of the series up until now. In the prior films, stormtroopers marched through the galaxy they controlled. You could see the oppression. In these movies, its extremely unclear how or why the First Order crushed the Republic in the course of weeks(?) after a superweapon shot. After training its fans to love the sinews of the Star Wars universe, The Last Jedi really ignored those same linkages.
Destiny: Part of the success of Star Wars was the blending of genres with primal storytelling tropes. Luke Skywalker was a figure of destiny. We watched him fulfill it and then we were subjected to a prequel detailing his fallen father, who also was the subject to prophecy. This movie hammers home that this next chapter is about “nobodies.” Ben Solo, born of privilege with unfathomable power, is petulant, childish, and immoral. He’s important and he knows it. Rey is born of nothing from irrelevant parents and teaming up with regular folks fighting for something different. The movie ends with a young boy casually using the Force clutching Rose’s Resistance ring. Destiny ran its course and brought everything back to where it started. Now, its time for something else.
Generational Storytelling: If you have ever played a long term role-playing game, you’ve encountered the generational problem. A story becomes popular based on the plucky protagonists stopping the world from ending. However, the popularity of the story is such a new generation of heroes arise for a new threat, but how can you threaten them without undermining all that the original beloved characters achieved? It’s something I’ve worked with running campaigns, but The Last Jedi’s filmmakers did not prioritize. The Empire is gone in name, but the First Order is such a such a retread it’s clear that victory was fleeting. Han died, having reverted back to being a two-bit smuggler. Luke did not succeed in passing on his knowledge or strength to anyone worthy of the Jedi legacy until he was almost dead. Leia is back where she started: leading a ragged rebellion against insurmountable odds. This begs the question: what was it all for? What did those characters accomplish? Dwelling on those questions, and feeling cheated out of the happy ending that sat with people for decades, rankles some.
Subverting tropes about destiny and happy endings can make for a great story. The primary tension with these choices is that for some, they feel like it invalidates what they loved previously. Luke Skywalker failing to live up to his legend, the Rebellion falling short, Ben Solo – the only 3rd generation Skywalker – sinking deeper into being a petulant dictatorial man-baby, instinctively upsets longtime fans. On the other hand, its setting up a clean sweep for the Star Wars universe. The 9th movie is almost a clean slate. In some ways, this feels like a concerted effort to tie Star Wars to reality, but fans don’t want reality. They want to believe a boy with laser sword can stop empires – even if we’ve all learned that’s the most unrealistic part of the entire Star Wars story.