The Past Must Die

The Last Jedi is a fascinating film.

It is definitely one of the most artful blockbusters I have ever seen, with some truly astounding visuals. I mean, there’s this:

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And this:

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And this:

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It’s clear Rian Johnson took his time to not only revisit the rules set up by George Lucas all those years ago, but to dig deep into its many sources to create a film that understands the genre pastiche and political allegory that made the first two films in the franchise so potent. He returns to the WWII dogfights, the samurai swordplay, and the Hollywood romanticism that formed the DNA of the original trilogy, and yet blends all of those elements into something both familiar and new. In his own words:

“Twelve O’Clock High was a big touchstone, for the feel and look of the aerial combat as well as the dynamic between the pilots. Three Outlaw Samurai for the feel of the sword-fighting, and the general sense of pulpy fun. And To Catch A Thief was a great film to rewatch, for the romantic scale and grandeur.”

It’s no surprise George Lucas actually enjoyed this chapter.

The Star Wars franchise has evolved into such a cultural monolith in forty years that it has easily overshadowed its own progenitors, and also become a bit of a closed loop in the process. We now know what a Star Wars story is supposed to look like, with certain heroes and villains and twists. There’s a template in place, and a very vocal fanbase (and large media-consuming conglomerate) invested in maintaining a status quo. If anything, the series has become its own echo chamber, mired in nostalgia and forced to remix its own greatest hits again and again. It was a criticism directed at both The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

(And this makes business sense. An obsession with nostalgia is a key defining characteristic of the Millennial generation, with so much of what we consume reverse-engineered to remind us of our lo-fi childhoods. Stranger Things, anyone?)

So I’m not surprised that some folks are unhappy with a number of creative choices made in this particular chapter. Whereas J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was a comforting nostalgia trip designed to remind you of that original template, Johnson’s The Last Jedi is a film that is very much about dismantling nostalgia. It’s about the failure of our heroes and the flaws of our legends. It takes many of the central mysteries of The Force Awakens and reveals them to be red herrings. It also makes us understand the motivations of the central franchise villain by suggesting that, well, maybe he’s right. Maybe we do need to burn it all down and start again.

It’s also arguably the most political Star Wars film to come out since the original, and full of all sorts of incendiary ideas that should irritate an administration currently obsessed with returning to a non-existent past if they were capable of looking past the adorable beeping garbage cans and kissing siblings. It puts women and people of colour in the lead. It suggestions that even the unwashed masses can harness great power. I’d go so far as to suggest that this is a film about the Baby Boomer generation questioning their own self-mythologizing, accepting their failures, and recognizing that it’s time to pass the mantle to the next generation.

I mean, it can happen in fiction, you guys. Maybe in real life? Huh?

To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised Disney actually let any of this fly. Without getting into spoilers, the film tweaks franchise legend enough to create a limitless story engine for them, but does so at the cost of some very sacred cows. It sets an unknown course for the series that gives Disney lots of new areas to explore, but does so by redefining key characters and losing many of the bells and whistles that have been so central to the mythos and geek culture of the last few decades. Even without the real-life passing of Carrie Fisher, this is a film that is very focused on death and legacy. It leaves our heroes and the Star Wars universe in an unknown place, which is exciting and terrifying and practically a franchise first since the original trilogy ended thirty-five years ago. It makes me – someone who has never particularly cared for the franchise – invested in its future.

It also means that the final chapter of the trilogy could force Abrams to move out of his comfort zone. Can he deliver on all of Johnson’s promise and actually create a final chapter that goes in a completely new direction? Or will he miss the point, revert to his nostalgic tendencies, and possibly cut the future of the franchise off at its knees? It would be hard to go back at this point, but it’s not like Abrams hasn’t done it before.

Whatever happens with the final chapter of this particular trilogy, we can at least know that Johnson’s take on Star Wars isn’t done. And if The Last Jedi is any indication of his potential as a storyteller in this universe, we have a number of dynamic tales to look forward to in the coming years.

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