The Last Jedi: Themes Critique

***Yar! Here Be Spoilers!***

 

 

It’s too bad that JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson got into an argument about what Star Wars is about, because it makes for a somewhat jarring viewing experience. At least, it did for me, and I get the impression it did for a significant number of other fans as well. JJ did his stupid “mystery box” thing, and then Rian Johnson came and said “Fuck you and your mystery boxes,” basically. There are at least a half dozen huge questions that The Force Awakens asks, some explicitly but all quite clearly, which Rian Johnson just has no interest in answering. He had another agenda entirely, which was fine, but I wish they had worked more closely with one another.

The Last Jedi was in many ways a repudiation of what came before it: Episode 8 versus Episodes 1-7. It is an iconoclastic film in the Star Wars legendarium, and it only had two and a half hours during which to smash expectations and tropes. As a result, I think there were a number of themes touched upon that I would have liked to have seen explored more fully.

Unmasking

Early in the film, we have Kylo smashing his faux-Vader mask in another fit of rage. We get to see a bit of Gwendolyn Christie’s blue eye through the smashed chrome helmet at the end of her fight with Fin. We have a bit of unmasking on Casino Planet (Canto Bight), when Fin realizes the ugly nature of the beautiful place he sees. Supreme Leader Snoke himself could have been unmasked. This theme of unmasking could have been explored more deeply, and could have provided a bit of connective thread in a movie that was very busy severing connective threads with not only The Force Awakens but also every previous Star Wars film. If someone sets out to tell a story that defies strongly-established tropes, one also needs to offer something in place of those tropes, like a strong, consistent theme explored from multiple angles.

Hidden Origins

The Force Awakens asked a lot of pretty explicit questions: who were Rey’s parents? What happened between Luke and Ben Solo? Where did those other students of Luke’s go? How did Ben Solo become Kylo Ren? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? How is the First Order related to the Empire? How is the Resistance related to the Rebellion? Why did Luke go into hiding?

The Last Jedi clearly did not care about most of these questions. Of course, a few answers are offered. Luke had a moment when he thought he might murder Ben Solo and put an end to the growing influence of darkness in him (which just made no sense, I’m sorry), and subsequently returned to the birthplace of the Jedi to die of old age. Rey’s parents are (allegedly) nobodies who died in a pauper’s grave on Jakku. Those are unsatisfying answers, though at least the answer about Rey’s parentage ties directly into one of the core themes of the film, which we’ll talk about below.

I think this lack of thematic development around hidden origins would have been less of a problem if the directors had worked together more closely, or at least had not been at cross purposes. Those are a lot of huge questions, and only the question of Rey’s parentage is answered in a way that makes sense. Otherwise, there is just a cosmic shrug. Who cares who Snoke was, he’s dead. Who cares where the First Order came from, they’re here and inexplicably threatening, despite being led by a man who throws tantrums and an incompetent Hux. The Resistance is just the Rebellion with a new name for no good reason. Who cares where Luke’s other students are, they’ll show up in a video game or something.

Light and Dark End to become Balance

My impression of the progress of the story isn’t so much that Light and Dark must end, but rather light and dark changing shape somewhat but moving ahead, still in direct opposition. Kylo Ren might want to end the Sith, but he did the archetypal Sith thing, which is to betray and kill his master. He’s Sith through and through, whatever he might say. And Rey similarly does the archetypal Light-side thing, as we’ve seen with Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke, in that she ignores the instruction of her master and goes off half-cocked to save the world.

I was honestly expecting more nuance between Kylo and Rey. I expected Kylo to reveal more layers, and I expected Rey to be more tempted by what she was presented with. I could see Rey, disillusioned entirely by Luke, being more willing to hear a more-reasonable Snoke out. Maybe more actively consider joining Kylo to kill Snoke.

Luke and Rey said a lot of eloquent things about balance, but Kylo and Rey basically lived out the old pattern – a little Return of the Jedi and then a little Empire Strikes Back. But the whole second half of the film would have been even more interesting if Kylo and Rey had been a bit more grey.

Skywalkers with Power become Tyrants

Luke almost deciding to murder the only child of his sister and best friend just makes no damn sense. I’m sorry. No work was put in to explain why that would suddenly be in his character. It was there for the shock, and the iconoclasm, and to add some “See, Kylo has a point” to the story. But the filmmakers didn’t do the work to earn that moment.

They could have, though. What do we know of the Skywalkers? Anakin became the most famous villain in the galaxy. Leia actually seems to remain herself through her story, and would perhaps be the exception that proves the rule. Kylo is a mini-Vader, prone to ultraviolance and temper-tantrums. So what if we presented the theme that, actually, when Skywalkers get power, especially power through the Force, they become tyrants? What if we saw Luke, well-intentioned but without guidance from any other Jedi, slowly become more harsh and unyielding and doctrinaire? What if we saw Kylo eclipse him, winning the students over because he gives into his darker urges more readily than Luke, and this gives him greater power?

Any of these options could have been handled with a five-minute montage, at most. Probably one much shorter. And then when Luke and Kylo come to blows, Kylo wins, thinks he has killed Luke, burns his temple to the ground. Luke, maybe in voiceover, realizes that there is something corrupt about the Skywalker line and its relationship to the Force, and so that’s why he goes into hiding – to quarantine himself. He thinks he might even corrupt Leia, which is why he just ghosts her for years.

That would have been an amazing revelation to put on screen. Yes, this is the story of the Skywalker dynasty, but it is the story of the galaxy defeating the Skywalker dynasty, because they are inclined to become tyrants when they develop Force powers. So now we have the nobodies rising up, with their own power and their own agenda, to bring down the First Order and the Jedi – the last legacy of the Skywalkers themselves.

See? That’s how you earn that moment of shock and revelation.

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