While the latest installment in the Star Wars saga has been very favorably received by critics, the reception by long-time fans has been somewhat mixed on what is now essentially another one of Disney’s take on a beloved classic. I had not planned on seeing The Last Jedi, as I had already grown weary of the franchise after having sat through the byzantine plot machinations, bad dialogue, and midi-chlorian nonsense of the prequels. Moreover, when Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, and pegged J.J. Abrams to direct the first in a trilogy of sequels, beginning in 2015 with The Force Awakens, Abrams was quite frank about his desire to relaunch the series through a P.C.-tined lens. Well, that was enough for me, and so I contented myself with enjoying the original trilogy, while knowing that its backstory had been sufficiently, albeit wearily, filled in.
Nevertheless, I have teenage sons who wanted to see it and they even offered to “take me” along with them. So after sitting through 162 minutes of relatively action-packed entertainment, I can safely say that I didn’t much care for it. It was certainly exciting to watch, but aside from the numerous problems pointed out by the Wookieepedia crowd (“Wait, so now you can use the Force to survive unprotected in space?”), as well as the CinemaSins-type critics (“How do you drop bombs in space?”), my real distaste for the movie has more to do with the same reasons why so much of what Hollywood puts out these days is so insipid: an utter lack of compelling storytelling.
A Story That’s Reused, Reduced, and Recycled
The first thing that struck me quite early on in the film, was how so many of the events that took place were just rehashed scenes and situations from the other Star Wars movies. Was it General Hux or Admiral Needa that was being choked with the dark side of the Force because he let the good guys get away? The rebels have to sneak aboard the enemy ship and deactivate the Tractor beam or wait was it a tracking device? Was the final battle against the First Order on a frozen planet or a salty desert? It was hard to tell since they were both white, the rebels were defending a Yavin-like stronghold in similar trenches, and AT-AT walkers were used to attack in both places. And finally, as the movie ends, we see a young slave boy who is fascinated with Jedis and has an unexplained affinity with the Force. Call it a hunch, but I’m guessing we’ll see that kid again, since I know I already have.
Throw in an over-reliance on tried and true sci-fi movie tropes (which to be fair, if the formula works then go with it) that have been tweaked for a more progressively presumptive audience, to carry an already weak narrative, and it is not hard to see why The Last Jedi is emblematic of how, in my opinion, the whole series has been reduced to a caricatured victim of its own success.
In 1978 George Lucas commissioned science fiction author Alan Dean Foster to ghostwrite a sequel to the novelization of his Star Wars script, Splinter in the Mind’s Eye. His only request was that Foster would situate the story in simple settings so that he could make a low-budget sequel to Star Wars in the event that it didn’t do well at the box office. Of course, that’s not what happened and 40 years later his fans still can’t get enough.
However, as great a storyteller as Lucas was, neither he nor the numerous authors he commissioned to write all the books and comics to fill out the Star Wars universe, were literary world builders on the level as Tolkien or Frank Herbert (author of the Dune series). Thus it was inevitable that in crafting the fine details of Lucas’s universe, they would model much of it on our own world and its history. Once that happened, it was only a matter of time before the Saga’s story arcs drifted further and further away from the epic setting of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, and closer and closer to transparent allegories of the contemporary cultural and political muddles of the world we try to escape by going to the movies in the first place.
The Leveling of a Saga
And thus herein lies what is at the heart of why The Last Jedi, just doesn’t deliver. As radio host Don Johnson (who is himself a film maker) recently commented on why so many movies made these days are so boring, “it’s because the writers grew up only watching movies or watching television”, as opposed to reading. People who don’t spend much time reading, will never be able to compete with the imaginations and thoughtfulness of those who have taken the time to actively engage and wrestle with the themes found in great works of literature. Themes that are universal to the human condition, as opposed to being culturally and historically bound.
In fact it was because of a book read by George Lucas, that I would wager why the original trilogy still has such a strong draw among fans, that the prequels and sequels do not. In 1975 Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and incorporated Campbell’s monomyth of the “Hero’s Journey” into his making of the original Star Wars movie. While from a Christian point of view, the Monomyth theory has its limitations, its main contribution to the original trilogy was how it elevated the characters and their conflicts into the realm of the universal struggle of good versus evil, which any culture, in any time could comprehend.
However, what we get in The Last Jedi (and The Force Awakens and Rogue One for that matter) is a repudiation of the necessity of that unseen world into which the hero must enter and content with, in order to be transformed. In its stead we are presented with a self-affirming and self-centered ethos which allow the characters to stay just as they are, but which leaves them too mired in their petty squabbles and personal failings to effectively deal with the larger struggles in the story. This notion was best exemplified in The Last Jedi by the character of Rose. After she and Finn escape from the jail on Canto Bight and watched their only way back to their friends destroyed by the local police, the best she can come up with is that despite failing in their stated goal for coming to planet, it was still “worth it” because they managed to free some creatures used for a sport she didn’t like. So in the end, it is not doing good that matters but feeling good, which is essentially, in the common parlance of our day, virtue signaling.
Goodbye to All That…
I think the dissolving of Luke into the Force at the end of the movie is a fitting summation of how I felt about The Last Jedi in two ways. In one respect, it is a perfect image of the passing of the franchise’s torch from the Boomer generation (Lucas), to Gen-Xers (the ones who it was originally made for), to Millennials (the prequel’s audience and the actors in the current films), and finally the iGens who are the ones the new sequels were aimed at. In that light, I understand that me feeling like Garth Algar at a Kenny G concert as I sat through The Last Jedi, can simply be chalked up to the fact that the movie wasn’t made for me. On the other hand though, the passing of Luke is symbolic of the drift away from Lucas’s original heroic vision for the films and towards a more formulaic model of movie making which is now the norm, and is (let’s be honest) geared towards selling tickets and whole lot of merchandise.
With that in mind, the iGens can have the Saga, and hopefully at some point in the future they too will make a reboot that will be far more richer than what they are getting now. As for me and my house (my sons only half-heartedly liked it), I have reached the limits of my nostalgia. I can relinquish any emotional attachment to the franchise, and not feel that I am missing out on anything in any future films. I will busy reading.