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Let The Past Die



Essays, Not Rants! 300: Let The Past Die


Part of why I like The Force Awakens is that its characters are, in many ways, Star Wars fans themselves. Rey and Kylo Ren both grew up on stories about the Rebellion and the Empire (though with different takeaways) and so want to live out their version of the stories. Kylo fashions himself into an ersatz Darth Vader, Rey sees the chance to join up with the legendary Han Solo and maybe become a Jedi like Luke Skywalker.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, deconstructs those dreams (and those of the audience too). And since I'm gonna be talking about The Last Jedi, this is where I let you know that here there be spoilers. About character arcs and stuff, which as we all know is what really matters.


So anyway. Spoilers. And deconstruction.


Kylo Ren is called out by Snoke for being nothing except a shadow of Vader. Killing Han’s not good enough; Kylo’s just a fanboy. It becomes clear that Kylo will never come into his own so long as all he wants to do is imitate his grandfather. And so the character of Kylo Ren, as we knew it in Awakens, is dressed down and forced to forge a new identity.


Meanwhile, on Ach-To, Rey can only watch as Luke Skywalker casually tosses the revered lightsaber over his shoulder. Turns out Rey’s idea of Luke is terribly misinformed. Even her understanding of The Force (controlling people and lifting rocks) is wrong. Rey’s expectations are dashed and eventually she has to, in the words of another Jedi, unlearn what she's already learned, and try and start afresh.


The Last Jedi sets fire to a lot of what we hold dear about Star Wars. Sometimes this is done through character (Poe is chastised for his propensity for reckless and costly space battles where they somehow overcome the odds) and other times it's through the story itself.


Look at the Jedi.


They're cool, right? With their dope lightsabers and all the heroing we see them do in the movies. Luke outright calls them fools, a prideful group whose hubris allowed the Empire to rise. He goes so far as to desecrate one of the finer points of the Star Wars mythos, derisively calling the Jedi’s weapon a laser sword. And Luke has a point. Maybe the Jedi weren't all they cracked up to be (and, as we see in the prequels, they really weren't the brightest of the bunch). The movie takes apart a chunk of Star Wars, and puts its pieces on display. The Jedi are flawed, overblown legends, maybe it's time for them to end.


The response to this deconstructed Star Wars is embodied by the movie's hero and villain. Rey and Kylo have both seen their goals tossed aside, goals that were, in essence, to emulate the Original Trilogy. They each respond differently: Kylo sees this as an opportunity to burn it all down and let the past die so he can remake the world as he sees fit; Rey, however, wants to rebuild from the ashes, learning from the mistakes of what’s come before. The epic battle between the light side and the dark side continues, though this time it's one that these two have defined for themselves.


And that's this movie’s relation with The Force Awakens. The prior one re-established Star Wars as we remember it, replete with high-flying romantic adventure. The Last Jedi takes apart those tropes, breaking down the notions of chosen ones, daring plans, and wise masters. But writer/director Rian Johnson loves Star Wars and so, now that he's taken them apart, he can develop them deeper than before. Luke is bitter and stubborn, a far cry from an idealistic farmboy or a sage like Yoda. But he still has much to learn, especially from his shortcomings. The idea of a wise master who knows everything doesn't stand up, but when we take that away we're given a Jedi Master who is still learning. Which is a more interesting, deeper interpretation.


Rey is a nobody, but she's still strong with the Force - all that talk about chosen ones and being descended from a great Jedi (like Kylo) is bunk, but, but but but, now anyone can be a Jedi. Luke Skywalker doesn't swoop in to defeat the First Order, because that hero could be anyone, that hope is bigger than he is.


What Rian Johnson does seems almost anathema, counter to the distilling of Star Wars that is The Force Awakens. But Johnson gives these stories new room to grow, and so he forces Rey and Kylo (and fans like me!) to reexamine the older Star Wars movies and figure out a new what's next. Kylo Ren isn't gonna be Darth Vader, and Rey isn't about to be Luke Skywalker.


And we're better off for that.

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And we're better off for that.

Agree to disagree. The film felt like Rian Johnson looked at the toys JJ left him, set them on fire, mashed them back together with his own old toys, set them on fire again, and said "it's deconstructed and it needed to happen". It feels tonally and thematically and even story-wise like a sequal to an entirely different movie than TFA, which is a shame. I want to see what happened to the characters from TFA and the OT- they weren't in this movie at all. Just shallow shadow constucts.

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I'll agree that tonally it felt crazy different from TFA – which caught me off guard. I really wanted another TFA (because I love that movie so), but after the movie settled, I do like where it went. I'm sure you've heard the comparisons to contemporary ESB opinions,  but I do keep thinking about this one's relationship to TFA with ESB to the original. Maybe we're so super used to ESB that we don't see the way it plays with ANH. I dunno. Maybe Rey spent too long on an off-foot we didn't get to see her as she was in TFA (but then, couldn't you say the same about Luke for most of ESB?).


In any case, I do like TLJ for what it does (and the setting stuff on fire, as you say). I think it works for the movie, and makes it a little more interesting.

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But ESB doesn't take place literally the day after ANH. TLJ takes place in what seems to be hours to maybe a day after TFA. It makes the weirdness of the characterization and the "lol, you saw this movie because you cared about the setup of the last one, sucks to be you" aspect of it less tolerable. There are years that take place between ANH and ESB, and that at least leaves some room for things to have settled and changed and moved.


I feel like the entire movie was one director who decided he wanted a film of nothing but double-fake-outs and his discussions about "needing to move the franchise FORWARD" (like TFA didn't make more money or garner more positive praise than almost any other movie in the history of movies) feels trite and pretentious. There were so many beats that didn't make any sense, especially towards the end. Unearned romance, emotional deaths that exist for no narrative purpose but to get a specific visual into the movie. I didn't hate it like I did Rogue One, but I didn't like it. On top of that, whatever JJ does for 9 is going to feel less connected to the other two parts of the trilogy and I hate that. 7 and 8 take place so close together and it feels like Rian wanted to make 8 AND 9 in one film, it feels like JJ will have to time jump which will make 9 feel more disconnected from the others. It is a weird thing to say, but it really felt like it needed MORE studio oversight. I still can't believe they didn't pre-plan the major plotpoints of this trilogy out before, but at the same time, it really shows.

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I'll agree the lack of a time skip hurt it, but I also feel like how do you follow up to the way TFA ended? That's the most cliffhangeriest ending Star Wars has had. 


And I think this is where we'll have to disagree, in no small part because the movie worked for me in so many ways. Sure, there are things I'd have done differently (both big and small), but overall I really liked it and what it did. And I like that it did a lot of narrative things that I didn't want it to do.


But then, I liked Rogue One too, so, y'know.


In all honesty, though, I do really want to see how 9 lands. Maybe it'll pull it off, maybe it won't. Maybe TLJ has screwed it over. Hopefully not.

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:kaukau: With regards to what The Last Jedi actually tangibly changed in order to let go of the past, I'm going to give my thoughts on the individual examples that you brought up, since I actually don't think that the movie does that much too change the status quo of STAR WARS:


Ben Solo being a Vader wannabe: I think fans were already calling him this, and is is good to see them going in a new direction.  Darth Maul was completely unique from Vader.  Count Dooku was completely unique from Vader.  Chancellor Palpatine was completely unique from Vader.  The franchise clearly has a history of cool Dark Side villains who are awesome for different from Vader, so Ben should continue that trend.  What I actually find really interesting, if I understandthe director's intentions correctly, is that it seems that Rian Johnson had a low opinion of Snoke and considered him, in essence, just as much of a fanboy as Ben, only in his case for Sidious.


Luke tossing the lightsaber: I kind of saw this coming, since Han Solo basically described why Luke disappeared in the last film, and furthermore, a little irreverent Jedi Masters tend to be.  That having been said, Rey's expectations were certainly thrown.


Poe's reckless behavior: At this point, it's an established STAR WARS tradition that the middle installments have  characters do something recklessly heroic that ultimately does more harm than good.  Anakin and Luke both got their hands cut off by being reckless in their middle films.  Anakin's recklessness also ended up getting all of his other limbs cut off because he didn't realize how well Obi-Wan was using the defense to his advantage.  With the exception of A New HopeSTAR WARS has always labeled recklessness as a path to the Dark Side and suffering.


Jedi being fools: I feel like Episodes I-III firmly established this, so I wasn't surprised when Luke brought it up.  It's honoring pre-existing mythos, and the only reason that it surprised me is that I was sort of expecting Disney to only acknowledge mythology from IV-VI.  But yeah, ever since Lucas completed his saga, I was always of the opinion that the Jedi were fools and hypocrites, and it's good to see another director acknowledge this theme, so that the series has a sense of thematic continuity when you watch it back-to-back on a marathon viewing.  I see that you acknowledge this, which is cool; basically, this probably shows that STAR WARS was in the business of letting go of the past ever since Episode V (or perhaps better stated, building upon the past with new depths of narrative to change your understanding of established story).


Laser swords: They were called this once before in-universe, by a young Anakin Skywalker in Episode I.  I'm not sure why people hated George Lucas for calling them laser swords.


Rey: This one actually does bother me, for several reasons.  Lucas and Kennedy have both said that STAR WARS is the story of the Skywalkers, and I personally want a saga that's narratively coherent when watched straight through.  Asides from the setting (a galaxy with Hyperspace, a mystic Force, and lightsabers), the only other thing to really tie the saga together is its main "character," a special family with a lot of drama.  It's been said that the difference between a STAR WARS episode and a spinoff is that the main episodes are  part of the Skywalker story.  To me, merely having Ben in the background as the main villain isn't enough, because his development is secondary to Rey's, and it really should be a Skywalker who engages with the main themes of the saga as they develop.  Additionally, ever since the idea of a Chosen One was established, I do think that the saga needs to follow up on it.  I think that every bit of mythology established in STAR WARS needs to be completely owned up to.  The prophecy of the Chosen One doesn't seem to have been fulfilled yet, and I do seriously think that something needs to be done with Anakin's bloodline to balance the Force.  And furthermore, in addition to a narrative problem, there's a serious logical problem if Rey isn't part of the chosen bloodline.  Anakin was so powerful that the Jedi understood him to be literally conceived of the Force.  He was off the charts...and it still took him years of apprenticeship to really get anywhere.  Even with a decade of training, he lost his first duel to Count Dooku.  His son, Luke, took time to figure out how to simply lift a lightsaber.  And now you have Rey, who is demonstrably more powerful than both Luke and Ben, who can do all of these things with no practice.  I find this highly unsatisfying, and the best way to make logical sense out of this, while working within the framework of what's already established, is to simply say that she's Luke's daughter.  I think that this is more important now than ever, now that Carrie Fisher has passed away and you can't conclude the saga with a story about Leia and Ben's conflicts.  Every single STAR WARS film has had at least two Skywalkers in it to create some family drama, and I do insist that this is the one through-line that makes STAR WARS the story that it is.


Anyone can be a Jedi:  I should note that there's a need for some Ratatouille semantics here.  Anyone does not mean everyone.  Indeed, anyone can be a Jedi.  After all, the Jedi came from all over the universe.  However, I find it weird when people say that this movie established that any person who reaches out to use the Force will be able to use it, that it's universal and nobody has to be born with it.  They say this because Rey's parents are allegedly nobody, and there's a kid who uses the Force...but that's doesn't exactly disprove much.  I don't necessarily think that you need Force-sensitive parents in order to be sensitive in the Force, but you do still basically need to be born with it.  Even Episode VII established this, saying that Rey is strong with the Force, implying that others are not.  Rey can use the Force, but Finn can't.  Han can't.  Episode VIII talks about the "mighty Skywalker blood."  Rogue One additionally shows a man who is a strong believer in the Force, but clearly can't actually utilize it himself no matter how much he believes it.  I do believe that the Force can be with someone without them having a special gift for using it, and would like to see STAR WARS explore that more.  Anyway, Episode VIII does not establish that everyone can be a Jedi, but people keep on listing that as something that Rian Johnson changed about the mythology, and for the life of me I can't really understand that.  By that same logic, you could say that Episode II does the same thing, since you see all of those children training with Yoda, and it's established that Jedi can't marry or have attachments.



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