Image Credit to The Verge
The following contains spoilers for the newest Star Wars film.
Little is out there like Disney’s Star Wars right now. This franchise has an intimate vision. These films focus not only on the fate of a world, a galaxy, or a universe, but also on the fates of many individuals. Some have extraordinary powers, while others have only a well-honed survival instinct, but all dream to find a purpose. Along with this vision, Star Wars exhibits reliable execution. The stories are well-paced, the characters and their conflicts clearly defined, the themes coherent and digestible, and the finales of each intricate and dazzling.
So what’s missing? Because after watching The Last Jedi, I find it undeniable that something is lacking. George Lucas’ saga shaped my childhood and I recognize the craft of these recent works. However, outside of Rogue One’s final hour, I find them disappointing. Never more so than with The Last Jedi, which, despite being well-made, felt hollow, leaving me with the sense that I had seen a slick well-oiled machine rather than experienced a work of art.
What’s striking is how The Last Jedi suppresses any trace of the personal. That isn’t to say that the film lacks personality; no, in fact, it probably has an excess of personality. At the very least, the movie tries too hard to be cool. That is evident in its comedy, which adheres to the modern convention of following up any sentimental moment with a self-deprecating joke pointing out the moment’s cheesiness. Some object to this comedy because it clashes with the style of the original films. I object because I find these jokes dishonest and insincere. They reveal how the filmmakers willingly undermine what they and their characters find serious not because those serious matters are legitimately funny to them, but to reinforce the audience’s comfort.
A good example of this comedy’s maddening eagerness to please would be Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) existence. When Rey (Daisy Ridley) asks Luke to join The Resistance, he refuses. As Rey begs him to change his mind, Luke discloses how his failure to train Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) convinced him that he is useless and should just die. Despite Luke’s cynicism, however, a few things keep him tethered to the physical world. These things often take the shape of symbols from Luke’s past, reminders of his duty to protect the galaxy. For example, Luke safeguards sacred Jedi texts and can respond with emotion when he comes face-to-face with signifiers of his involvement in bringing down the Empire, such as when R2D2 plays him the famous hologram from A New Hope in which Leia (Carrie Fisher) asks for help. However, The Last Jedi prevents its audience from treating both symbols with the seriousness that Luke does. The film sacrifices their weight for laughs (it turns out Luke never read the Jedi texts and that he finds R2’s stunt “cheap”). The movie allows viewers to feel entertained at the expense of Luke’s passion instead of forcing them to feel with him.
That affliction to sacrifice what’s personal for what’s entertaining is not restricted to The Last Jedi’s comedy. Everything is calibrated to assuage the audience, to get viewers to clap and cheer, to convince them they’re seeing a good show. In doing so, the film leaves little room for any emotion that doesn’t feel warm, celebratory or triumphant. All ambiguity, all messiness, all darkness, feelings front-and-center for at least portions of the original saga, are forced towards the margins.
The sterilizing effect of this approach can be seen with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). A new addition, she teams up with Finn (John Boyega) to find a code-breaker who can stop the First Order from tracking Resistance ships. As the two travel to Canto Bight, a planet decorated with casinos, lavish hotels, luxury boats, and rich ore miners, Rose reveals to Finn how the planet’s wealth was built by exploiting the lower class’ labor, which included the work of her family. Yet, as haunting as Rose’s backstory is, The Last Jedi does not stay with that emotion. Rather, it uses this past to stage a chase, one in which Rose gets back at her abusers by freeing the planet’s overworked animals and riding one to safety from the authorities. In other words, the film trades the horror of Rose’s history for the feeling of joyful victory.
As mishandled as Rose’s character is, the ultimate example of The Last Jedi’s harmful prioritizing of gratification over all else is the relationship between Kylo and Rey. As the film progresses, the two telepathically communicate from across the galaxy, and realize that they are more alike than either thought, that both are capable of good and evil. What follows, then, is an intellectual and emotional dance in which Rey and Kylo try to lead each other to switch allegiances. As such, it involves lightsaber combat, appeals to join the force’s light or dark side, and double crosses.
What’s fascinating is how Kylo and Rey’s conflict is smoothly constructed, yet feels mechanical. Their relationship’s ebbs and flows are soundly plotted, shifts in loyalty are conveyed through subtle visual language instead of clumsy dialogue, and when an unexpected decision is reached or a reversal happens, viewers cheer and clap. However, the storyline leaves no emotional impression. This is mainly because its twists and turns hinge on hidden or ambiguous emotions. The conflicted feelings at the heart of Kylo and Rey’s lives, the mess inside, is what’s supposed to make them susceptible to evil and capable of good. Sadly, because this Star Wars film runs away from pain and loss, brutality and sadness, it can’t convey the emotions of these characters, just represent them. Their feelings are reduced to puzzle pieces, signals to show what choice they are leaning towards making. The Last Jedi, then, turns Rey and Kylo’s broken inner lives into fodder for analysis, something viewers can cheer or boo depending on what path the character takes, rather than using these internal conflicts to evoke dark and disturbing feelings in the audience.
Kylo and Rey’s relationship, then, reinforces The Last Jedi’s main strategy: to privilege what is entertaining and amusing to what is serious, weighty, messy, ambiguous, and personal. In doing so, the film eliminates the sense that a person or group of people is behind it, that the work is a product of an individual or team with conflicted feelings and doubts about themselves and the world. The result, then, is an efficient yet graceless film, one which has safeguarded against any risk or worry of embarrassment by forcing individuality to bow down to a mandate to satisfy. So what’s missing from Star Wars? The sense that it belongs to anybody now, whether it be one creative individual, a group of passionate artists, or the fans.
Star Wars, originally created by George Lucas, is the property of the Walt Disney Company.