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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.]
The following is a conversation about The Last Jedi held between two friends: one a spry, 30-year-old Millennial, and the other a wizened but freakishly handsome 38-year-old Gen X kind of a guy. Both men love Star Wars but in different ways. The main difference between their perspectives comes, to some extent, from their age differences, but also what emotional connections and expectations they brought with them to writer/director Rian Johnson’s follow-up to The Force Awakens. There are a lot of spoilers — and some discussion of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, and the prequels — ahead, so readers should only continue the piece after they’ve seen The Last Jedi.
Simon Abrams, native New Yorker: We should probably begin by stressing something that is apparent only to the few people who know us personally: You watched the Star Wars films when they were originally released theatrically, while I watched them first on VHS — the original theatrical versions — and then the “Special Edition” theatrical rereleases. Your trilogy was, realistically, also my trilogy, with some glaring variations, like computer-generated Jabba the Hutt, and Greedo shooting first in A New Hope. But I saw the prequel trilogy at the ideal age for Star Wars: ages 12, 15 and 17. I didn’t hate those films the first time out — I originally liked Episodes I and II — but I think I grew disillusioned with Star Wars after Episode III. You, on the other hand, have seen each new film at least two dozen times and can probably quote The Ewok Adventure like scripture. You’re old, is what I’m saying.
So what’s interesting to me about our respective takes on The Last Jedi is that, based on our brief conversations, it seems like we’ve arrived at similar conclusions without emotionally connecting to the film in exactly the same way. For me, Johnson’s approach is too self-conscious. I don’t theoretically mind the fact that this new trilogy has echoes of Episodes IV–VI, much like how Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy did with his Lord of the Rings films. In fact, I think I enjoyed The Force Awakens a lot more than you (despite having seen it about 17 times less) because I felt like the execution of that specific reactive quality was … well, charming. I liked how the new characters were introduced and were essentially forced into roles fashioned by characters who were either too old or too tired to print the legend anymore.
The Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens leaves off, in that sense, but it’s much more … I want to say “labored” in its (largely satisfying!) emotional beats. A lot of the characters that were first introduced in The Force Awakens are now forced to answer questions like, “Do you really want to be here still knowing that you are being graded on a steep, decades-old curve?” In that sense, The Last Jedi‘s questions about legacy are all about viewers’ expectations. It got a bit exhausting for me to watch not just a series of callbacks to earlier Star Wars films, particularly The Empire Strikes Back, but also stuff from Return of the Jedi, only to have every one of those pre-fab expectations subverted. The high-stakes code-breaker? Red herring. The traitorous Laura Dern angle? Incorrect. Snoke’s importance? Overstated. Parallels between Rey and Kylo’s relationship with Luke and Leia? You took the bait. Dead characters? No, and/or not yet.
Many of these objections are, perhaps, overstating minor nitpicks. But there came a point where they get to the Hoth-like ice planet at film’s end, and I was ready to go home, man. On one hand, it’s nice to see Johnson making a movie where his fingerprints are all over the story, the ideas and the execution. On the other hand, those fingerprints are only identifiable because, after a certain point, I felt like he overthought, or perhaps was trying too hard to deliver a Star Wars for everybody in that it simultaneously addresses and assuages our fears that the film we are watching is not going to be as unbelievably melodramatic, or perhaps just up its own ass as the prequels.
Here’s your cue: Am I wrong about the prequels? I revisited Episode I when it was rereleased in 3D five years ago, and hated it. But after The Last Jedi, I’m curious (especially since I know you kinda like the prequels): Is The Last Jedi going to be the film that gets me to see the prequels in a new light? What do you think?
Ali Arikan, Mystic Man from Afar: First of all, thank you for painting that lovely picture of me, ancient and decrepit, surrounded by Star Wars ephemera, convulsing with pain in a pit of despair and self-abuse like Naomi Watts at the end of Mulholland Drive. I’m not necessarily saying it’s inaccurate, but here we are.
As tone-deaf as certain aspects of the prequels are, it would be unwise to think that they are a monolith. Each film shifts in tone due to the nature of their stories, obviously. But George Lucas also responds to the fan reactions (evidenced mostly in the dwindling screen presence of Jar Jar Binks). Here’s the thing about the prequels, though: They are never what you expect. There is something inherently personal in those films regarding what Lucas found interesting during that period in his life. Of course, he seems more concerned with the grand tapestry of storytelling in general: the creation of a sort of modern monomyth, painted with thick brushstrokes, and aiming to get a rise out of the audience’s more elemental emotions. You have to step back a bit and see the forest for the trees. The painting might be flawed, but at least it’s idiosyncratic.
The sequel trilogy, so far, is the total opposite. Micromanaged and metafictional to a fault, reverse-engineered thrills are anything but thrilling. Or, in fact, moving. I echo the detractors who said The Force Awakens was merely a big-budget fan film. Maybe that is what the franchise needed. But these films are insistent upon going back to a status quo ante, thus negating all that came before in the original trilogy. The Force Awakens totally rewrote the characters of both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, and gave no reason for this 180-degree shift. In Return of the Jedi, Han Solo volunteers to lead the strike team on a suicide mission to disable the Death Star’s shield. Luke embraces the good side by throwing away his weapon, announcing that, like his father, he is a Jedi. The characters reach these moments after three films, which is why each moment is so resonant. The Force Awakens doesn’t even bother offering an explanation except for a vague story about how Snoke tempted Han and Leia’s kid, Ben, who turned into the demonically petulant Kylo Ren. One little hiccup, and our heroes bailed. Great.
Fans of The Force Awakens argued that this sort of thing happens in life. Well, that is a convenient way to excuse bad writing, particularly for two reasons. One, this is a fairy tale, and Snow White doesn’t divorce Prince Charming, and an elderly Goldilocks doesn’t end up being devoured by a ravenous Baby Bear (perhaps a sequel trilogy was a bad idea from the get-go). Two, if we are going to judge certain plot machinations based on real-world possibilities, it is impossible to explain the utterly bizarre galactic triumvirate of the First Order, the Republic and the Resistance. If anything, that sort of development mirrors the pointlessly complicated politics of the second prequel.
Now, having said all that, I have seen The Last Jedi twice already and had a good time in parts. It definitely starts with a bang, and that entire Robinson Skywalker sequence is a lot of fun. The fight with the Praetorian guards in Snoke’s throne room is probably the best lightsaber duel in the saga — not just the fight choreography but also that beautiful crimson backdrop. And of course, once Luke steps onto the salt plains (looking, for some reason, like Hugo Drax), his eventual confrontation with Kylo Ren is particularly powerful.
But these moments of exhilaration, and greatness, and surprise are too often offset by a too-much-of-a-good-thingness (especially due to length), and carbon-copied moments from Empire and Jedi. Word for word, moment for moment, at times. Rian Johnson seems to struggle with portentous dialogue. It’s rather distracting the way he almost lifts entire chunks of dialogue from those previous films.
These films are supposed to wear their hearts on their sleeves. They’re supposed to be sincere. The Last Jedi, on the other hand, is, as you also said, way too self-conscious. It’s almost embarrassed to show emotion. When R2 rolls out Leia’s message to Ben Kenobi from the first film in order to bring a reticent Luke back to the good fight, it’s the film’s most touching moment not just because of the nostalgia factor or Mark Hamill’s wistful eyes, but also because we, as the audience, are fully aware that Carrie Fisher is no more. But then Luke says “that was a cheap shot” to R2, and I wanted to throw a shoe at the screen.
I also found Luke’s death a bit confusing, to be honest. After he does his astral projection business, he collapses on the ground and looks toward the horizon. It looks like he sees something — and there is definitely a dark speck there, especially conspicuous on an IMAX screen. It looked to me like a ship approaching. And then you have that weird cut-away to Rey and Leia (with one of those shots breaking the 180-degree rule) after which Luke disappears, and Mongo was so confused.
I guess the film ends on a note of hope and we are supposed to find that, I don’t know, novel? Hope has been a running theme in most of these movies. The first one was retroactively subtitled A New Hope when rereleased in 1978. Even Empire Strikes Back ends on a note of hope. Last year’s Rogue One had that ridiculous line “rebellions are built on hope.” The list goes on. I personally found that last scene with Toto the Stable Boy looking up at Halley’s Comet super embarrassing, and, in a way, emblematic of the film itself. It preens and postures and strives for effect.
Abrams: Your frustrated emotional connection with the Ben Kenobi hologram is interesting. I’m basically with you on your point, but not that specific example. For me, there were far more emotionally resonant bits throughout the film, like when Princess Leia and Luke both cheat death, or Yoda suggests that we are what future generations move beyond.
But those scenes also frustrate me for reasons that are really close to what you’ve identified as a kind of self-conscious need to pander to viewers’ expectations. They’re all alike in one regard: I felt like Johnson was getting in his own way by trying to reassure me that these characters were never just what they appeared to be at any given moment in time. This is especially true of the scene where Luke brushes his shoulder after he inevitably outlives the AT-AT Walkers’ assault. But I also felt it when Rey asks Kylo Ren if they can postpone their latest psychic tete-a-tete because, well, now’s not a good time. There’s a lot of tension-cutting levity here that isn’t strictly out of character for these films. But the timing of the humor and the winking nature of it are distracting. Like, what did you think about the bit where she asks him to put some clothes on? That ridiculous outfit made me roll my eyes. Let the audience have some guilt-free nerd beefcake, man! If you’re gonna do it, do it without all the throat-clearing, ya know?
This brings me (eventually) to my next leading question: You talk about the way the trilogy’s “sincerity” is such a key part of its appeal. That’s a point that I often take for granted. Prolific, genre-defying author Harlan Ellison was a big detractor of the original Star Wars trilogy for reasons that were tellingly specific to his personality: Je felt they were as derivative and soulless as the original Battlestar Galactica and could not see the appeal because he could not get past the formula. That parsing of Ellison’s feelings about Star Wars and BSG is, admittedly, based on my personal memory of decades-old interviews. So the man may feel differently now (Hi, Mr. Ellison! You once almost flew me out to Los Angeles to testify on your behalf in your In Time lawsuit! You still owe me a book! Call me!). But my point is: At that specific moment in time, Ellison (maybe) wasn’t accounting for how George Lucas and his collaborators synthesized various pulpy space opera tropes in a way that radiated not just sincerity, but conviction in the kind of naive humanism that’s served as the spine for so much good science fiction (or speculative fiction, to borrow Ellison’s preferred turn of phrase).
So, are the makers of The Last Jedi treating modern audiences differently than Lucas did with either the original trilogy or the prequels? Is our inability to see past the trees’ little imperfections a reflection of the fact that Johnson and the gang are selling something for a more jaded audience? In other words: Have we been living with Star Wars for so long that we’re now watching movies that were designed for people with post-prequel fatigue? Or did something change after the prequels? I keep bringing them up because I think they cast such a long shadow over the Star Wars universe, for better and worse. They are, in a weird way, as responsible for this new trilogy’s style and approach to fan service as the Joel Schumacher Batman films are for Christopher Nolan and David Goyer’s Batman trilogy: the creative stewards of the Batman films ran so hard in the opposite direction of their perceived failures that they punched through the barriers of superior taste.
What do you think, World’s No. 1 Watto fan?
Arikan: Well, I think that belabored sojourn to Canto Bight would definitely have been improved by a cameo from the galaxy’s greatest gambler, that’s for sure. Come to think of it, seeing as these films have no qualms about bringing our most beloved original trllogy characters back to square one, I wish that the master hacker were Lando Calrissian instead of Justin “Tripod” Theroux.
But to go back to your question: Yes, these films feel like a rebuke of the prequels on a conceptual level. It feels like the filmmakers (or perhaps Disney) were too concerned that the post-Jedi galaxy — with a Republic and an insurrectionist Empire Remnant along with a nascent new Jedi Order — might look too similar to the prequels. So instead they practically erase the Rebellion’s victory, which means these films now look exactly like the original trilogy. I have yet to be convinced that the people who aren’t over-the-moon about The Last Jedi found it too original. I can only speak for myself: If anything, I found it way too derivative. Visually stunning, sure, but on the whole, it’s old wine in new bottles.
That’s from a conceptual point of view. From a more practical one, these films’ obsession with getting rid of the bad taste of the prequels eventually ends up having the opposite effect. The Jedi were criticized for being “too powerful” in the prequel trilogy. In The Last Jedi, we see that powerful Force users can be present — physically present — thousands of light years away. Not only do their astral projections have an immediate effect on their environment, but also the other way round. I don’t just mean Luke and his fight with Kylo Ren on Crait. One of Kylo and Rey’s intergalactic Skype sessions ends with droplets from Ach-To on Kylo’s hands. This immense power remains after they die — only now they can command the bloody elements, as evidenced by the lightning Yoda calls to burn down the Jedi tree.
And don’t get me started on Yoda, who, in the afterlife, looks like he had some Botox injections around his eyes and a few implants in his cheeks. Yoda’s funny routine in Empire is purely to drive an oblivious Luke into frustration. The rest of the time he is a somber, broken dude — which really is the way he also acts in the prequels. But no, not here. He’s back to being kooky Mister Miyagi here.
As you mentioned, there’s a lot of humor in this film — including the “put some clothes on, luv” bit with Kylo and Rey. In fact, the film kicks off with sitcom banter as Poe Dameron teases Colonel Hux while trying to buy some time to approach his ship. It’s funny, I guess, but it doesn’t quite feel like Star Wars, if you know what I mean. The prequels were thought of as humorless, and I guess that’s true. But the humor in this one feels like a Funny or Die sketch. I think the funniest moment in the film is a visual gag as an iron is lowered on top of a uniform (it’s also probably a throwback to Hardware Wars).
Another major criticism of the prequels was their seeming over-reliance on CGI. But Lucas was doing there what he had always wanted: creating otherworldly, fantastical, awe-inspiring locales. The Force Awakens almost tries to look boring. Another desert planet (and shot in the Abu Dhabi flats, it manages to look even duller than the Tunisian dunes), another ice planet and a green planet that looks like England’s lake district, because, well, it was shot in England’s lake district. Very pleasant for a weekend getaway, but not really my idea of a sci-fi locale. The Last Jedi introduces a great new locale in Crait, with the red dust trailing the ski speeders, but before that, we have to spend 20 minutes on Canto Bight, which looks like the Old Town of any European city.
As I’ve said before, I think the film begins so well, and that earlier bomber raid is just amazing. And later, the obliteration of Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy, and the rest of the First Order fleet, all silent as the Mon Calamari cruiser rams into them in lightspeed, is the most splendid moment in the whole saga. But between those two terrific scenes, the space stuff is such a slog. I didn’t quite get why the First Order can’t catch up with the Resistance ships. That chase is supposed to introduce a ticking clock into the proceedings, but Johnson never manages to convey the urgency. Instead, it feels like an intergalactic version of the O.J. Bronco chase. Plod, plod, plod.
Where do you think they can go from here? What’s next for these characters?
Abrams: Before I try to answer your questions, I just want to respond to some of your criticisms of The Last Jedi‘s failure to either be internally consistent or just consistent with the films that preceded it. The film is, after a point, about the restricting nature of legacy and nostalgia. I think fans are ultimately responding to the film on that level (I know I certainly did). Still, what frustrates me isn’t just the quality or the context of the film, where the jokes you pointed out, especially the Spaceballs-style ironing gag, and the “Can you hear me now, Hux?” routine. What bothers me about those routines is that they make me long for sincere melodrama. Johnson spends so much time trying to reassure me that his film is different that I wound up feeling crazy for ever having dismissed the prequels, a trilogy of films that are, despite the many problems I still have with them, at least achingly sincere. I’m not saying I love the prequels now out of sheer spite, but I am starting to get the appeal, if only in the abstract. And it’s all Rian Johnson’s fault!
OK, that last bit was a joke, please don’t call Film Crit Hulk on me.
A fairly good litmus test for your enjoyment of The Last Jedi is, I feel, Luke’s first scene. He takes his lightsaber, holds it in his hand and then tosses it over his shoulder. That got a big laugh from the crowd at Monday’s Lincoln Square advanced screening. But it was the first moment where I felt alienated simply for not loving the film as much as others did. It’s like that great Pee-wee Herman line: I like The Last Jedi — like! But this scene feels like a routine where the punchline is also the setup. And that bugs me. There’s a lot of talented artists and ideas working very hard to show their work and care and love in The Last Jedi. And in that sense, I think it can even be read as a reaction/response to fans’ criticism of The Force Awakens, a movie that I don’t get hating for its callbacks. Still, while I thought J.J. Abrams did a great job of relegating the original trilogy’s surviving castmembers to foil-like roles, I think Johnson gets caught up in questions of inheritance, authenticity and legacy. Like, I really didn’t need to see Captain Phasma (who??), and Play-doh Yoda voice in the same film. Some toys can be left in their box, man!
Now, to your questions: No clue where this trilogy goes from here. Presumably, Kylo Ren will have to make a decision, one I predict will require him to go back to the Vader-like mold that he resisted throughout The Last Jedi. But, more generally speaking: It’s going to be interesting to see what Abrams (no relation) comes up with next since so much of Johnson’s film is about wiping the slate clean and paving the way for a renewed focus on characters like Finn, Rey and Poe. I’m more excited about Johnson’s follow-up trilogy. The man is talented, but, as I wrote in a separate piece, he deserves a new set of toys.
Where do you think this crazy, mixed-up Star Wars trilogy goes next? Also, I hope you enjoyed all the winking jokes I’ve peppered throughout this last salvo of mine (see how annoying it is when you keep getting in your own way? That’s what I’ve been doing, Ali! It’s clever and annoying!).
Arikan: So far, this new trilogy has taken place over the span of, what, a week? So I hope there is a fairly sizable time-jump as the next one begins. It would be nice to have it take place, like, 10 years in the future. Because so far, it feels super small. People used to complain about how everyone seems to be connected in the Star Wars movies. Now the characters are strangers but the events are restricted and small. It really has an adverse effect on the Resistance’s supposed desperation: They keep losing ships but, come on — within a day, they have destroyed the Starkiller base, a dreadnaught and the entire expeditionary fleet. They’re not doing too badly.
I’m surprised to see so many people patting themselves on the back for liking The Last Jedi. The overwhelming pro-argument seems to be that the fans are refusing the film for being too original. There are two major problems with that argument: 1) The film’s made a ton of money this weekend; and 2) has an “A” CinemaScore. So the masses are happy and seem to be following the general critical consensus.
The second problem is the claim that longtime fans who are finding the film lacking do so because it is way too different. In my humble opinion, this claim is drivel. Once again, I can only talk about myself, but I think The Last Jedi is anything but original. You mention that the film is about the restricting nature of legacy and nostalgia and that we should let go of things. That’s all well and good as a theme, but the film does not support that even though it underlines that theme constantly. Structurally it is very similar to The Empire Strikes Back. Lines and lines of dialogue are lifted from the original trilogy — sometimes entire scenes. The unexpected stuff (like Snoke’s death) comes as a reaction to scenes and moments from the classic films — that’s not originality. The Last Jedi is beholden to what came before.
And now that I’ve mentioned Snoke, the fact that Rian Johnson kills him off so unceremoniously — by not offering a hint as to why this dude was so much more powerful than Palpatine or why he hated Luke so much — completely robs the ending of Return of the Jedi of its power.
When these films were announced, I wanted completely original stories, and so far, we got two joylessly mediocre fan films. The Last Jedi is visually the most arresting in the saga, but its plot doesn’t amount to much. It’s so concerned with being cerebral and overriding expectations that it lacks a heart. This is a fairly big reservation.
But when all is said and done, I am certain that I could have lived with all my reservations had the films done right by our favorite characters. The fact that these films have treated Leia, Luke,and Han so savagely makes them unforgivable in my eyes.
Simon Abrams is a freelance film writer and Heat Vision contributor. Ali Arikan is an Istanbul-based film writer.
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