Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What They Grow Beyond: An Appreciation of The Last Jedi and Consideration of "A New Purpose" for the Star Wars series

I had too many thoughts swirling through  my head after watching The Last Jedi in theaters last weekend. I found out the same was true for Jesse Shepherd-Bates (JSB Productions/Handgrenades). 

Below is a verbatim conversation we had, and it's filled with SPOILERS. It actually might not spoil too much, but it is intended for readers who have already seen the film. 

We explore some interesting topics, such as Star Wars in the Internet age, how we each relate to this pop culture odyssey, and the compelling narrative shifts in this latest installment and what it implies not just for the next film, but its reformation of how we regard the previous seven films. 

I think we need to talk about what is most compelling about The Last Jedi. Namely, how it depicts the certain growing pains of generational change. And how this Star Wars installment can be a, for the first time in  my viewing memory, a substantive meditation on what a "hero" or a "legend" is....? And to find out that they are fallible? That's compelling. 

But truly, I don't know where to start! I suppose the best place to start is Luke. And to consider what it's like being in his shoes. (Or in his Jedi Robes). And not to imagine ourselves, as some sort of hero-worship, being Luke while he's a heroic Jedi Knight taking down two Death Stars, but rather, when he is older, encountering doubt, encountering a nuanced kind of fear in the face of an evidently very troubled/dark pupil. What did the "Jedi" ever mean to young Luke anyway?? Poor guy never knew who he was, when you think about it. The second he found his footing, Darth Vader up and tells him HE'S his father. Mind f*ck.


I think it's crucial that Luke reveals to Rey that it was his discovery of Ben Solo's force prowess that first led to him consider starting the Jedi training temple, and not the other way around. There are shades of Obi Wan taking Anakin on there.

So Luke and the Rebellion defeat the Empire (sort of?), at the end of ROTJ. Then what?? What's his calling, then? He's already the Last Jedi at that ending moment of the original trilogy, with nothing but ghosts to train him.

Luke talks a lot about his hubris and lack of judgement in training Ben Solo, as well as his shame in nearly killing Ben in his sleep upon the realization that the dark side had taken hold of him. So, following that, Luke runs off to Ach-To out of a fear that he will do more harm than good in the fights to come.

And another thing I found compelling was this consideration that the Force could or should be something elemental that anyone can potentially access, (like transcendental meditation?). That Rey represents a shift in perceptions regarding The Force, that it can be something benevolent, rather than it being privatised in a way as an exclusive resource by two Sides that are constantly manipulating it to serve their agendas. (Jedi/Sith). Maybe there's disturbances in the force BECAUSE of the Jedi?
Maybe the "balance" means getting beyond Jedi and Sith

That sort of leads me to something pretty awesome about The Last Jedi, that Rey is NOT Star Wars royalty, or part of a lineage. She's not a Skywalker or Kenobi, or Palpatine or Windu. She's a nobody. That's awesome. And, honestly, it makes a lot more sense than the universe revolving around the Skywalker bloodline.

There's been this focus on the Force being somewhat hereditary, (Anakin/Luke/Leia/Ben Solo), but that's pretty strange considering the traditional Jedi policy is no procreation.

Exactly. But let's not get into midichlorians!


Chirrut, from Roge One, introduced the idea of The Force being more inclusive or accessible. 

"I am one with the Force..." Right. I think there is such a thing as being "Force sensitive." I feel like that's the "awakening" that Snoke spoke of in Episode VII.

So Luke is in tune with the Force, and recognizes it belongs to everyone, but yet, he has closed himself off from it. A great scene - when he begins to let the Force back in, he and Leia immediately re-establish their connection.
And speaking of Leia...

She connects to Kylo from the bridge

Yes, and I think the "Leia In Space" scene implies that she has been honing her own Force abilities, maybe undercover, the previous 40 years.

Agreed. But maybe only, or more so, for knowledge, or something even  more soulful. Not for attack or exploitation. She's been charging her batteries.

Yeah. And she doesn't dedicate her life to the Jedia "way." But you see that she senses Han dying in Episode VII, and yes connects to Kylo, and later connects with Luke and senses him dying.

The Jedi Way! I found it interesting that Luke, when you step back and consider it all, is this orphan of the Jedi Order. And if he's forced to be honest, it likely means nothing to him. Or could never mean as much to him as it would Obi-Wan. He's lying to himself if he thought otherwise.

I realized, soon after Force Awakens, how consequential the 8th installment would be. I intuited even then that this would  be a chapter that would finally see the components of the Skywalker-era Saga step off the stage!  And I knew there would be NO way to do that, in the dramatic narrative, that WOULND'T wind up being provocative or shocking or upsetting. I'm sorry we all just can't get in a boat with Gandalf and sail off into the sunset of the Undying Lands. (yawn!) I'm sorry this isn't a Marvel movie where no main character gets hurt or dies in their big fights. But I don't want to get off on that tangent, yet....

I feel refreshed, as though I've had a surgical excision from my tendons to the past trilogy. I was simultaneously able to access my inner child for this film, and then say goodbye to its zealous hangups.

I think it's important to remember, as reactions from our contemporaries pour in, that you and I were encountering those first three films when we were "old enough" to watch them... in 1988, 89, 90.... Which was very much after the fact. Very much to the point where our parents or our older siblings would sit us down before sliding in the VHS tape and ostensibly TELL US that we were about to watch something that was immeasurably important to cinematic culture, something fun, something cerebral, something spectacular... And that goes for many of our contemporaries, who came to IV, V, VI with this preface of expecting greatness. 

And so, cut to later, our first "theater going" experience is, much to our misfortune... Phantom Menace? And by the time the credits rolled on the atrocious Attack of the Clones, I think so many of us were disenchanted, cynical. (Even Revenge of the Sith still has a lot of problems and clunkiness, despite its almost-makes-up-for-it-awesome-lightsaber-fight).

And so I think, in a way, many of us were already at, or dangerously close to being just where Luke was, mentality-wise, in Last Jedi. The Jedi did feel dead to us. Star Wars seemed like something we could walk away from, and we'd closed ourselves off from feeling that magic and whimsy we once felt (ie, the Force).

The Force Awakens, if anyone wants to be as stern with it as they're being with Last Jedi, is a bald-faced reactivation of A New Hope's arc (and literally recreates not just a Death Star, but a an X-wing trench run,  an Obi-Wan stand-in elder guide figure, and more).  The Prequels and the Force Awakens didn't offer anything that challenged the Star Wars status quo! That the Last Jedi can activate so much contemplation in you and I is only one aspect of its qualities.

Next, I wanna get deeper into the implications of disseminating the Force. And especially how telling it is that Yoda is at a place where he's telling Luke: Yeah, burn this mother down.
Also to be addressed. Ben Solo.

I want to, first, respond with something YOUR response triggered, before jumping back into the story... When we reflect on who we were when we saw IV-VI, I-III, and Now VII and beyond.
Whether folks first saw the original trilogy when they first came out, or when we did, on VHS most likely, we were children then. And on top of that - pre-internet children!! So we are living in the ultimate Meta age. It's almost impossible for any series with any semblance of mystery - Lost, Game of Thrones, Westworld, Star Wars - to escape the clutches of spoilers and theorizers...
So when you see a film, or a new episode of a popular TV show, you come in with all this baggage. When we were kids, Star Wars basically tapped into our deepest imagination

it was the ultimate, in that regard

The fact that the prequels were just fleshing out a story we already knew limited the excitement we could have

Right. It was just sleepwalking through a 6 hour movie.
It was "how" rather than "what"  "will happen?"

But now we're grown up, with hundreds of (redacted) Star Wars stories in book, comic, and videogame form that have expanded the universe in our imaginations
So we have the expectations of the child within, with the perceptions of hardened adults...when it comes to viewing a Star Wars movies.

A quote I found from Rian Johnson: "every fan has a list of stuff they want a Star Wars movie to be and they don’t want a Star Wars movie to be." And to go back to what you said... I worry that the internet kills inner children...that's one of the things its good at...

Yes, it absolutely does. The Force Awakens' biggest strength was appealing to the familiar, and stoking our childhood memories, while SETTING THE STAGE for a new story

Truly. JJ Abrams opened doors, rather than shining a light down any hallway. So The Last Jedi was inevitably going to be new terrain. To expect that it wasn't is shortsighted

Correct. And if you want to just see a rehashed, souped up original trilogy, Lucas made plenty of special editions!
Also - quick Snoke point, out of left field: did we have any idea who the fuck the Emperor was before the prequels came out? Did it matter?

We had no idea. He appears in Empire. Not even mentioned in New Hope.

In a New Hope we saw Vader as the baddest motherfucker in the galaxy. What made The Emperor so scary was that Vader kneeled to him. But it didn't matter who he was

And he doesn't even get exposition in Jedi. He's just presented as superior. Like, go with it!

Exactly. So Snoke is a dark side wielding Supreme Leader that has not only orchestrated the return of the Empire, or something like the Empire, and snuffed out the New Republic that has barely begun, but also fucked Luke up by stealing his apprentice! Do we need every detail of how that happened spelled out? Do we need that with EVERY character?

We're going to get a young Han Solo - do we need that?
Do we need a Baby Yoda movie?
Should the first third of Episode 9 be flashbacks to General Hux's first communion?

Anyway - the dark side is taking hold of me. Back to appreciating the movie!

Fair points. I think you're right: I think folks forget how much from the original trilogy wasn't explained or spelled out. Lando's just this guy Han used to know. Go with it!  There was lots of "just go with it" moments in that trilogy. We gained exposition later from books or toys. But we can't let ourselves do that, to suspend that over-analytical side, when we watch films anymore, I supose
Back to Yoda and Luke...

Luke seems to be dealing with this guilt over failing, not just Ben, but failing "as a master"

Unlearn what you have learned! 
I think the Yoda and Luke scene is the the key to the whole movie. Maybe the whole trilogy - time will tell.

Right! And I think Yoda has some insight as to what makes a master, or whether or not this cosmic power needs authoritative masters

Tarkin tells Vader that "you my friend are all that's left of that left of their religion..."
At that point in the timeline, Yoda is hermitting away on dagobah and probably doing some massive soul-searching meditation and coming to the conclusion that the Jedi's downfall was that it tried to dogmatize the force

And that scene you're refrencing in Last Jedi, Yoda comes in to calm Luke... Because despite his gray hair, Luke is still young in this sense that he might not know exactly what the future of the Jedi should be.... That's a ton of fucking pressure to hold, for him, post-ROTJ.

Side note: another reason this is one of the series' most superior film IS BECAUSE it has stirred so much debate! You walked out of Force Awakens saying: "Wow. Whee. That was fun. That was cool. JJ didn't screw it up. Kylo's kinda emo. Sad Han died..."...... that's. it. !

Yes. But here's a question about Yoda: Did he know Rey took the Jedi books? Did he blow up the tree knowing the effect it would have on Luke, while still assured in knowing the traditions of the Jedi were safe with the heir apparent? I love Yoda's line about failure being the greatest teacher. Talk about being meta (cough, prequels, cough)!

That's a great question. We have to presume he "knows" because he has such a powerful intuition and sense. But then again, it's more compelling if Yoda lit it up with intentions for a true purge.

I loved some of the middle section, too, by the way. With Finn and Rose. Because it opened up our gaze to the ways in which the greater galaxy might view this "war" with apathy.... encountering these rich, apathetic financiers who are selling to the highest bidder without any morality or stake in "causes."

And then, for me, another welcomed twist... In any other Star Wars movie, Benicio Del Toro's character would have been maybe a Lando type figure who is shifty at first, but joins the cause and comes out to help them with a big assist...

But anyway….
I think we should move toward a conclusion and especially move away from concerning ourselves with whether anyone else is as tapped into this as we are, or why anyone else has qualms about it.
 I think we can say that much of the reason one half of fans will love it and the others will not is BECAUSE it comes so late in the evolution of Star Wars' pop culture dominance. As media (Internet, primarily) spread, so did this visibility of fan conventions. I was a card-carrying member, in 1994, of the Star Wars Insider fan club! But the geeks have inherited the earth, in a way, because Comic Con is no longer a punchline (as it might have been in the late 80's), and now you see iconography that was originally perceived as specifically reserved for kids and teens (comic book characters, Jedi,) dominating, and I mean dominating, the pop culture conversations -as well as the box office returns! 

So, as Johnson said, Star Wars MEANS SO MUCH or means very specific things to each individual. Forty years. Eight films, not counting this one. Countless comic books, cartoon-spinoffs, expanded universe novels, toys.... TOYS!!!! This film was surfing at the crest of a freaking tidal wave. And on the shore, sits 1 billion judges who want to see if it sticks the landing, based on their specific criteria.
So that leads to the concluding question of, do you need to enter this film with your own criteria? Should you enter any film with criteria?

This film defies the formula of ending Star Wars movies with a big, fast, loud space battle. The Crait battle has such desperation, melancholy, and panic to it... It is definitely not valiant. And it is just a stalling towards an escape. It also puts its extended lightsaber fight at just past the halfway point of the film. And so you are left with this comparatively quieter and admittedly gloomy wind-down toward your/our hero, Luke Skywalker, facing his destiny. With a sense for good over evil, but with an elder wisdom of his own faults, with a guilt of failing this ravenous young man lost to the dark side, and with a heartbreaking wistfulness (also combined with guilt) over returning to his sister and combining an apology with a goodbye, but also with an assurance. I may be gone, but the spark spreads.

We are what they grow beyond... as Yoda says. Should an advancing generation stay tied to the past, or should it work its own plan, its own ideals, with, albeit, reverence and discretion, toward a progressive peace (in a galaxy, a world, a community, what have you). Rey observes Luke's passing as something not in sadness or pain.... but with peace and purpose. So just as Episode IV was called A New Hope. Perhaps the sentiment for Episode IX is just that: A New Purpose.....! 

I think overall, The Last Jedi does more for the Star Wars series than any 8th installment could hope for.  It didn't just upend our expectations for the sake of doing so: it expanded what the Force is (i.e., accessible to everyone), it demonstrated what can be done with the Force (as with the connection between Rey and Kylo that exists even after Snoke dies), and then knocked down the monarchy of the series. As much as Luke Skywalker is the hero of the original trilogy, heroes grow old. The movie also balanced the fun of a space opera made for kids both young and old, with some really heavy issues that ring true with the 2017 we've all been subjected to.

Until I can see it again, we'll leave it at that...
May the Force Be With You, Jesse 

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