The last few days have seemed like Official Argue About Star Wars Days, and with a stuffed-to-bursting two and a half hour movie, there’s lots to argue about. My dominant impression of The Last Jedi is as a course correction, and one the series sorely needed.
While I found Rogue One disappointing, I understand why people liked it. In a word, texture. Ben Mendolsohn’s Gore-Tex cape whipping in the wind as he walked through the morning mist on the black sand beach planet was a particular highlight, but the whole thing was suffused those kinds of tactile contrasts — supple leather gloves, the orange canvassy vests of the rebels, the stormtroopers who seemed to be made of iPod cases (fascism is smooth and sleek like an Apple product, while the Rebellion tends toward boxy and grey and Soviet-ish). Being able to sense that through the screen seems superficial but it’s not. It’s the difference between being transported to a world and feeling like you’re looking at costumes. The prequels never managed that, and almost everything felt like a pixel-deep facsimile, from the CGI to the dialogue.
As much as Rogue One was a triumph of production design, narratively it was a disappointment, and not just because the entire story lives in a kind of pointless middle chapter. It also established glorious suicide as part of the Star Wars canon and seemed to confirm that being a major character in this story was basically a hereditary title. (Darth is Luke’s Father! Han is Kylo’s father! Rey’s parents are almost certainly important!) At the time, I pointed out that so many characters muttering before committing suicide reminded me a little of an ISIS video. Another writer called this take “vile,” and on some level, I get it. I compared your favorite childhood thing to ISIS. But hey, that was the imagery. I promise I don’t go into a Star Wars movie hoping to be reminded of ISIS.
Moreover, I understand being accused of a “vile take,” because to me, The Glorious Suicide is a vile trope. It’s meant to make a grand statement about the mission being more important than the man, the collective being more important than the individual, to highlight one character’s ultimate unselfishness, and fine, it does accomplish that. But the more you see it, and the more lazily it’s used (like when Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera offed himself five minutes after we’d met him to keep from having to walk too fast, say), the more you start to sense its corollary. That corollary being, the inability to respect another living creature’s right to live, irrespective of what they can do for you. It’s impossible to say “the mission is more important than the man” over and over without it degrading your respect for individual lives. Thus it’s hard for me to see the rise of the Glorious Suicide trope without connecting it in some way to the public decline in empathy. A screenwriter saying “eh, f*ck this character, they aren’t important,” ignores that character’s humanity in some way. The same way we all ignore each other’s humanity when we do all manner of terrible things to each other. Which, yes, seems like it’s gotten worse in the era of constant online draggings — if not on a colonial atrocity level, then at least on a personal, day-to-day meanness level.
I’ve become so inured to it that when a Last Jedi character fired up the Randy Quaid mobile to drive it straight into that gun barrel/alien gun/portal and incinerate himself to save the galaxy/rebellion/rec center (I’m keeping this vague to avoid the no spoiler Gestapo), I’d already prepared myself to accept this bit of momentarily lazy plotting. Like giant portals or the expanded universe, I thought suicidal characters were just something I would have to learn to accept in order to enjoy a blockbuster in 2017. But this time, just when the would-be Quaid mobile was about to save Earth (so to speak), another character swooped in and stopped Quaid, nearly suiciding to prevent a suicide. We could argue about hypocritical tactics, but Rian Johnson gave the Quaid stopper the perfect line, about how The Resistance is “about saving what we love, not destroying what we hate.”
I always found Star Wars‘ simplistic moral universe — the dark side vs. the light — to be vague and not particularly useful and even a little Calvinist. But in this one moment, it felt like Rian Johnson had breathed new life into Star Wars‘ musty philosophy. It still had the melodrama and moral simplicity of the space opera the story is supposed to be, but it suddenly felt current, applicable to the moment and not just an outdated parable. It did what a good blockbuster is supposed to do, appeal to your squishy center just enough to keep you from rolling your eyes.
In an even more refreshing update to the universe, Johnson upended the value of heredity. When we found out Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father in Empire Strikes Back, it felt like a fun twist. “Daddy Issues” is an age-old plot device, and useful enough that it still defines every Aaron Sorkin script. But seven movies or so later, it seemed like we’d gone from one character having a surprise father to every major character being related. As if the “light side vs the dark side” wasn’t hokey enough, we were being asked to care about it not just as a matter of philosophy, but as a dynastic struggle. It wasn’t just old fashioned, it was practically medieval, and you nearly had to approach it like reading medieval history. We were nearly at the point where you’d have to look at a family tree before the movie in order to understand it, like the Skywalkers and Solos were the Lancastrians and the Yorks.
Disney has a bit of an atrocious track record when it comes to using royal birth to validate its protagonists’ specialness, so I had no reason to believe the Star Wars universe would improve since it was absorbed by the Disney Death Star. To their credit, Rian Johnson and/or Disney took The Last Jedi as an opportunity to firmly repudiate the value of noble blood (or in this case, magic blood) in the canon. Which is… nice. Our institutions are already so lousy with the failsons of industrial royalty that the last thing we need in our fantasy is more paeans to inherited power. I know, I know, Star Wars shouldn’t be political, but that’s exactly why it was important for The Last Jedi to firmly disavow inherited power — so I can watch the laser fights and laugh at the dog-man and space penguins without having to think about our born rich fish stick-eating president and his brood of chinless latter-day Hapsburgs he keeps trying to gift chunks of the empire.
The Last Jedi is still overstuffed, slightly too long, reliant on some vaguely-defined powers, and mostly consists of an endless chase towards a shifting MacGuffin. But it’s always been that. Now at least it’s not that plus being philosophically bankrupt and vaguely ideologically distasteful. Star Wars isn’t intellectual or morally complex, and we don’t really want it to be. All we want from it, aside from being cool to look at, is for it to be simplistic for the right reasons. And now it feels like it is.