My Last Jedi Thoughts Are Substantially More Correct Than Those of Ross Douthat
how much should we value good ideas that a movie just can't quite go through with?
I’m releasing today’s subscriber-only post to everyone to nudge people to subscribe, but I have two subscriber-only essays next week so don’t feel cheated if you’re already a subscriber.
I am working on a piece that touches on the one part of this Ross Douthat Star Wars post that I hate - the claim that Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi have the same story. This type of thinking has become a contagion in online movie talk, the claim that two movies are the same when the effect of watching them (which is what actually matters) is completely different. Drives me crazy and, as you’ll soon read, says a lot about the poverty of the digital culture industry.
But I like most of what Ross says about The Last Jedi, and agree with the basic stance that outside of the culture war that consumed it, the issue with the film is that it advances some radical changes from formula that it then won’t quite follow through with. Luke ridicules the idea of taking on the entire First Order with a laser sword, then does just that. Yoda lets the sacred texts burns and explains why, but Rey sneaks them onto the ship. Kylo Ren wants to let the past die and move on, but he can’t let go of a grandfather he never met and get on in his life. Deejay says that the war has an amoral, both-sides quality, but is revealed to be a villain whose attitude we can safely ignore. Multiple characters suggest that the great battle (Rebel vs Empire, Jedi vs Sith) is cyclical and permanent and thus unwinnable, and yet at the end this essential wisdom is left aside like everything else that made the movie interesting. Of course The Rise of Skywalker, a comprehensive mess of a movie that managed to please no one, walked it all back even further, to the point where no meaningful ideas could really be discerned from the trilogy at all.
And that gets to the point of why people still fight about The Last Jedi four years later: its sequel was so lacking in even the most basic comprehensible themes that people keep looking back to it for some sense of closure or direction. Including me, apparently, despite the fact that I rationally know I should just understand Star Wars as fun and insubstantial entertainment for kids that doesn’t need greater meaning.
A hill that I’m very willing to die on, though, is that The Last Jedi is frequently attacked for the sins of others. I’m a Patreon supporter of Dan Murrell. He’s one of my favorite video essayists on movies and you should check him out, but I have always been frustrated with his takes on TLJ. In particular, he is emblematic of a weird tendency to attack Rian Johnson for shaking up the Star Wars formula too much, without seeming to notice that the previous film had essentially scrapped Return of the Jedi entirely. Murrell has said, caricaturing the pro-Last Jedi position, “Forget everything that came before it, because none of it is consequential anymore!” But how is it that JJ Abrams and The Force Awakens so often avoids that same complaint? TFA erases every victory of the original trilogy! We’re back in a world where the Empire (whatever it’s called) is in a dominant position and the Rebels (whatever they’re called) are the plucky underdogs. The last remaining Jedi is in hiding, again. Han and Leia’s love story? Over. The New Republic? Whoops, they blowed it up! And in time Abrams will show us that the Emperor wasn’t even killed, totally erasing Darth Vader’s sacrifice and essentially mooting the first six movies. Not great if you’re protective of the original trilogy, and yet Johnson is the one who “ruined your childhood” and Abrams skates.
(Note: events in the future cannot influence events in the past, so your childhood cannot be ruined by anything once you’re an adult. Not even lady Ghostbusters.)
Rian Johnson troubled a lot of the franchise’s philosophical foundations, it’s true - for the good, if you ask me, as stagnation and boredom are the mindkiller in the franchise era. But in pure plot terms Abrams was the mad bomb thrower. It just goes to show that framing is everything. The Force Awakens was such a love letter to the original movies that people seemed not to notice that it was even more guilty of what TLJ was being accused of. That the entire struggle of Empire vs. Rebels was rewound back to its original state at the beginning of the original Star Wars doesn’t make people made, but Luke referring to a lightsaber as a laser sword makes people really mad! It’s particularly strange that Luke’s status as an embittered hermit is a flashpoint for Johnson-hate, given that Johnson wasn’t the one who made that narrative choice. Luke was already on the island when Johnson took over! What’s more, it’s since been revealed that the person who thought up this particular plot point was… George Lucas! (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN!) The very guy that half the fandom thought had been betrayed was behind that evolution of Luke’s character all along. But then of course he was; he was following his own script.
So the single most despised development in a uniquely loathed and loved movie was in fact perfectly in keeping with the originals and was scripted by the creator himself.
What makes TLJ such a target, I’m convinced, is that it’s so willfully subversive, so obviously dedicated to troubling franchise conventions, up until it loses the courage of its convictions and pulls back. Characters keep commenting on what’s happening - Luke, Kylo, Yoda, Deejay, even Rose. (You could make the case that Snoke’s fall is presaged by his dogged inability to see how the galaxy is evolving; he speaks in broad generalities about an eternal struggle, unaware that both Rey and Kylo Ren represent the potential break from that struggle, and he pays for it.) Meanwhile The Force Awakens was made to be slavishly dedicated to nostalgia not just as a feeling but as a plot point. (See Rey’s wide-eyed reverence for Han Solo and what came before.) So people were caught up in dedication to feeling to the point that they didn’t notice all of the destruction of sacred moments from the originals. Meanwhile, TLJ never stops telling you what it’s doing. The Force Awakens is a felt movie; The Last Jedi is a thought movie. Which is probably another reason why I like it so much. (My favorite Pixar movie is Ratatouille, which is easily their most cerebral film.)
Of course, all roads led to The Rise of Skywalker, a movie so confused that it is neither felt nor thought but just sort of dances around in your consciousness for awhile as your brain tries to make some sense of it. And nothing makes less sense than the fate of the first family of Star Wars. As I’ve exhaustively laid out in the past, the “Skywalker saga” is truly bizarre in that it subjects the titular family to relentless failure, devastation, and death. The Last Jedi would make a lot more sense in retrospect if Lucasfilm had the courage of its convictions and played out what TLJ was clearly setting up: a romantic redemption arc for Ben Solo, which would have saved the Skywalker family and their story. If you dig around there are many indications that Rey and Kylo were meant to be, if nothing else, twin protagonists; here’s Chris Terrio from a making-of documentary, acknowledging that the seeds of a connection are firmly planted in TFA, and there are other indications from the creators out there. It simply makes too much sense, from 10,000 feet - of course Leia and Han’s son should be redeemed and become a hero, rescuing that family from decades of misery, and in so doing call back to the sacrifice that capped the first six movies. (And which JJ Abrams coldly erased, again to one-tenth the outrage of what Johnson got.) Tying this up with a romantic bow would make tons of sense, marrying the new (Rey) to the old (the Skywalker family) and promising a new generation to train in the ways of the Force. Perhaps even leaving behind the Jedi, a sclerotic religious order whose legacy, as Douthat notes, is objectively one of failure.
But I think Disney got spooked. One thing that we definitely learned from the sequel trilogy is that the biggest entertainment company in the world is far too concerned with the opinions of loud minorities. We saw this with their reaction to two very different motivated niches. The first, generally coded right-wing and from the broad incel community, was the “fandom menace,” the overgrown Star Wars fanboys who raged for months because they hated TLJ and its supposed disrespect to the original films - and, for many of them, the prominent place of actors of color and women, epitomized by the serial harassment of Kelly Marie Tran for portraying Rose. (Here’s where I stress that there are many harsh critics of TLJ who manage to keep their criticisms purely focused on the movie itself.) You can see this in The Rise of Skywalker, which fell all over itself to apologize for many of the elements of the previous film, including not just sidelining Rose but by doing so in the most insulting way possible - she can’t go adventuring because she’s literally studying.
Then, I suspect, Disney bowed to a very different vocal minority, a slice of overbearingly woke fans who rallied on Tumblr against a potential Kylo-Rey pairing by insisting that it was “abusive” or “toxic,” a couple of those vague power words that the social justice set throw around whenever they want something. They argued that Kylo’s mental probing of Rey in The Force Awakens was the same as rape. (Author’s note: it is not the same as rape.) This mean that Kylo was Rey’s abuser, and therefore any plot that brought them together in love would amount to Disney’s approval of abusive relationships and sexual assault. QED. The people who believed this were so insistent that they would famously organize groups on Tumblr to bomb the posts of “Reylo” blogs and leave negative comments in mass, and the battle between those groups has been so virulent that it is known as unusually ugly even by Tumblr’s standards, where internet toxicity is as common as hashtag activism.
The anti-Reylos raised a sufficient fuss that this very selective and ultimately bullshit reading of the movies was taken up in the nerd content world, which is always hungry for red meat, and this eventually led to the actors and filmmakers fielding awkward questions about “toxic relationships.” And I suspect it spooked Disney out of doing the obvious thing that they had set up in the previous two movies and, in classic recent Lucasfilm fashion, they produced an ending that tried to please everyone, resulting in a confused mess that pleased no one. All of this to placate what was probably a truly tiny number of diehards, and despite the fact that the vast majority of people who have seen these movies have probably never even for a second asked whether the interrogation scene mimicked sexual abuse. What it cost all of us is a coherent ending that doesn’t leave the family we’ve been following for nine movies completely destroyed, which is what we get at the end of Rise of Skywalker. “The guy gets the girl” is such a common trope for a reason, and while a small group would have howled about it, they would have bought tickets anyway, and the obvious ending would have made for a far more satisfying and sensible ending to a long film saga.
But I still enjoy watching The Last Jedi on its own terms, even if I end up defending decisions it doesn’t really make and subversions it eventually abandons. As the cover of the novelization nods to, the story is only really interested in Luke, Rey, and Kylo. And within that sub-story, there’s a beautifully realized arc where Rey goes from seeing Kylo as the epitome of cruel evil to seeing something worth saving in him and, I think it’s clear, to feeling romantically and sexually drawn to someone perhaps for the first time in her life. My take on the sequel trilogy in general is that they are some of the most fantastically well-made films I’ve ever seen in any genre, save for the scripts, and their ultimate failure should prove the value of screenwriting to everyone. They look incredible, they sound amazing, and most importantly they’re impeccably cast and wonderfully acted movies. Daisey Ridley and Adam Driver invest what should be paper-thin characters in a childish universe with real pathos and a great sense of yearning, which is especially poignant given that their characters are, at heart, two nervous virgins. That the consummation of their union was denied to us by the megaphone quality of the internet and some deplorable narrative cowardice shouldn’t obscure that accomplishment.
And, you know, they can always fix things by throwing a couple truckloads of money at Ridley and Driver to make Star Wars: The World Between Worlds. Rey could journey to the other side to save Ben so they can live happily ever after. Tumblr rage or no, that movie makes a billion dollars. If you need a screenwriter, Kathleen, I’m available.