On this last May the 4th preceding the final episodic installment of the Skywalker saga, we assess the state of Star Wars…
As a lifelong Star Wars fan, I have been thinking about 2017’s The Last Jedi for well over a year now. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say I’ve been trying in that time to make sense of what I think about The Last Jedi. If you know any Star Wars fanatics yourself then you surely understand that this simply is how it must be. When most people view most films, they watch it, and, especially if they do not much care for it, they move on with their life to something else. But Star Wars fans do not approach the installments of this franchise in way that can be said to approach anything like average moviegoers; in fact, it is possibly beyond comparison even to the devoted patrons of any other franchise property in the History of motion pictures, not least for the extent to which the experience of the Star Wars following is informed as much by loathing as appreciation. (To wit, see: The People vs. George Lucas.)
And now, as its direct follow-up, also the ninth and apparently final installment of the episodic Star Wars saga, looms just about eight months away from this May The 4th, I believe we must in the meantime contend with the possibility that The Last Jedi will serve as a major inflection-point in the already colorful History of this cultural phenomenon. If so, it will be because The Last Jedi turns out to truly be when Star Wars went off the rails. It took some time before this became evident to me, before I could see just how high the stakes were for this December’s upcoming The Rise of Skywalker. In fact, my initial reaction to The Last Jedi was positive. It made choices cinematically I found questionable, to be sure, but more importantly I felt that, in the full context of both the Original and Prequel trilogies (for better or worse), it moved the lore in an interesting way thematically, particularly with regard to the future and the legacy of the Jedi Order. That Luke Skywalker, for instance, after failing to rebuild what the Emperor and Darth Vader all but totally destroyed, and having the time to reflect on the institutional delusions and hypocrisy that set the stage for the Jedi to be toppled in the first place, would conclude it was time for the dead, old order to simply be left in the past is a novel idea that builds upon the implications of the totality of cinematic Star Wars, and pushes in the direction of a novel conclusion that could provide enough narrative pay-off to justify producing this revival trilogy. For that much alone, I originally came away from the film satisfied on the whole with what I saw — sure, killing-off the villainous Supreme Leader Snoke before learning anything about him felt sudden, and the idea that Rey’s parents were insignificant vagrants felt anticlimactic, but at least we were getting a sense that the Star Wars of the Sequels was learning from the Star Wars of the Prequels.
It was not until logging online as I left the theater that I discovered how discordant my first take was with emerging opinion (I am used to being something of a contrarian toward the “new” Star Wars, though; despite it being a competent film without question, I could not help but find The Force Awakens unbearably derivative when I first viewed it, and I enjoyed Rogue One immensely as a love-letter to the original Star Wars and probable final bow by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, whereas most mainstream critics seemed fixated on it as pointless schlock). A strong torrent of negativity was swirling around the flm in the realm of user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic, and it was not long before an infamous onslaught of online abuse was hurled toward director Rian Johnson, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and various cast members — much of which, particularly toward Kennedy and co-star Kelly Marie Tran, has been described in the context of misogyny and racism, with some also being attributed to same army of Russian internet trolls accused of running interference in the 2016 US Presidential election.
That unfortunate, and distinctly twenty-first century aspect of the reaction to The Last Jedi should not, however, be taken to suggest the manifest flaws in the film are not in fact genuine. The sequence set on the planet Canto Bight (or, in layman’s terms, read: “the casino planet”) immediately stood out to me as weak on opening night, and, after my inevitable second, third, and fourth viewings, it became more and more apparent that the discernible significance of this diversion was so small that it could be excised entirely and cause little distress to the viewing experience. To wit, after the unprecedented revelation that the First Order can track starships through hyperspace, it would have hardly made less sense for them to also have taken notice of small transports fleeing from larger Resistance carriers by way of chance or some other contrivance, foil yet another escape, and tee the film up for the same conclusion without the detour to Canto Bight and back. Others have also pointed out more than capably how much of the plot (and the film’s run-time) is strung out by Johnson’s decision to have General (formerly Princess) Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo not share their plans for evading the First Order fleet with Poe Dameron, a charismatic but hot-headed pilot and junior Resistance leader, before he ultimately attempts to stage an (unsuccessful) mutiny — a choice that simply does not pass a reasonable test of logic, and does nothing necessarily to drive the plot.
What exactly does that make The Last Jedi, then? Perhaps, whereas I found The Force Awakens to be a generally-good isolated film, but did not think it was great as an episodic installment, The Last Jedi might be thought of as an interesting episodic installment, even if not a particularly great singular film. Could that be such a horrible thing, something that Star Wars may be unable to recover from? After all, it is nigh impossible to forget the infamy in which the Prequel Trilogy, produced at the very close direction of George Lucas himself, are due to long live. These films were not only deeply flawed, suffering from poor focus and pacing, especially in Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones (need we also mention Jar-Jar Binks?), but also made curious, ill-advised, and even sometimes shoe-horned additions to the larger lore, namely the bizarre connection of one’s Force-sensitivity to their cellular “Midichlorian” count or the woefully-underdeveloped “Chosen One” prophecy, and also to some extent the decidedly unsympathetic portrayal of the Jedi Order and of the Old Republic just before their fall. And clearly Star Wars survived these outings — lest we would not be discussing more recent follow-ups here in this space.
Yet there is something else still about The Last Jedi that does not sit well, that this does not account for. Upon further reflection, one significant distinction between the Prequels and the new Star Wars still remains: their purpose, their focus, the subject of their narrative in relation to what has come before. Whatever their flaws, each of the Prequels nonetheless carried a clear purpose that complimented, even completed, the narrative arc of the Originals. Previously, you could apply the test of asking “who is this story about?” to Star Wars and get a fairly consistent result: first it was about Luke Skywalker, and then it was about Luke and and Anakin, and then it was most primarily about Anakin but still significantly also about Luke. There were changes to the most central focus as the broader narrative cycle evolved, to be sure, but they were not seismic or incomprehensible; not only was it a story of a father and his son, but their connection ran deep. Apply that test to these new films, though, ask that very same question of them, and you get an entirely different answer, one I am not sure what broader point to make of, because so far the new Star Wars does not yet explain whose story exactly this is, or what exactly warrants them continuing Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s saga. In fact, The Last Jedi suggests there may be no real answer to this question, insofar as it postulates through the character of Kylo Ren that our powerful new hero Rey, though deeply powerful with The Force, is “nobody” — he claims, at least, that her parents were junkers by trade, apparent non-entities, who sold her off for drinking money and left her behind on the remote desert planet Jakku.
Beside criticism of Rey being depicted discovering her powers in The Force Awakens with questionably-rapid speed for the convenience of the plot, she is not an uninteresting character in her own right. Rey even has my sympathies; she wants someone to finally explain what her role in the larger lore is (recall this being among the most heavily-used trailer lines for The Last Jedi) just as badly as I do. But despite being “called” to by Anakin’s lightsaber in a way that hinted a much deeper connection than has since been suggested, it seems now that her destiny is intertwined with the Skywalkers on a much more random basis. Hence we arrive at the heart of the problem: these are, after all, still numbered episodic installments in apparently the same narrative of Anakin and Luke Skywalker. And the latter of those two does appear, to be sure, in a significant supporting role, along with the new character of his nephew. But the affect of the scenario we find them in is strange: the old heroes are failed and are dying, their lone offspring is now a villain hell-bent on overruling the preceding generation, and the savior is…”nobody”? This might be interesting, except for the four decades of lore it essentially undermines to the point of tossing down the proverbial garbage chute. Though the Star Wars of the Sequels might seem to be learning lessons from the Star Wars of the Prequels here, it does not outweigh the cost of suggesting that the Star Wars of the Original Trilogy — the Star Wars that made Star Wars — never actually mattered for anything.
In that sense, The Last Jedi presents a sunny version of the populism that has been surging through the western world this past decade; it tells us that the power-elite have failed, even been corrupted, but that all may yet be well, because anyone from anywhere who just believes can turn the tide back again. But it comes at the cost of the postmodern nihilism many have also attributed to our times — it tells us that the forty years of Star Wars we all knew was basically all for nothing. Recall that the essence of these films was once that the Skywalkers possessed a destiny so special that the fate of an entire galaxy turned on it. The family patriarch, Anakin, was spontaneously conceived by The Force, according to his mother, and observed to have a count of those microscopic “midichlorians” in his blood so astronomically high that it far exceeded even the great Master Yoda’s levels. In recognition of this, Anakin is subsequently anointed “The Chosen One,” a powerful figure ancient whom Jedi prophecy foretells will “bring balance to The Force.” After Anakin went to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader, Yoda and Obi-Wan considered it imperative that he not discover the existence of his two newborn children (Luke and Leia), thus putting them into hiding for fear of what foulness might befall the galaxy if they were raised by their father. And when Luke began Jedi training as a young man, Yoda and Obi-Wan opined that these two children were the “last hope,” implying that only through them could Vader and the Emperor he served possibly be vanquished. When Luke does roughly that, converting his father back from the Dark Side and inducing him to destroy the Emperor before dying of wounds endured in the process, it is neatly timed to occur just as the Rebellion wins a critical battle against the Empire, and, given the appearance of Anakin’s redeemed spirit to Luke at a Rebel victory celebration, we are to understand the culmination of the Skywalker family drama has sealed the Empire’s ultimate defeat. With this, the Original Trilogy ends neatly enough.
And whatever the cinematic flaws of the Prequels, their larger narrative thrust aligns cohesively with that of the Originals, maintaining a clear and singular focus across all six films on the decisive role of the Skywalkers at a seismic inflection point in galactic History. The most significant case-in-point of this being so is Anakin’s status as the apparent “Chosen One” who ancient Jedi prophecy foretells will bring balance to The Force. As a narrative device, the “Chosen One” prophecy is flawed in that the notion was never obviously present in the films until Lucas introduced and played it up heavily for the convenience of the plot of The Phantom Menace, and then is touched upon only lightly in the subsequent Prequels; the Jedi are never shown to substantially explore what the prophecy actually means for them, and only briefly question whether it actually refers to Anakin before he eventually betrays them. But if we apply the prophetic framework retroactively, we can at least ascertain that Anakin did ultimately “balance” The Force: as a new age dawns politically for the galaxy following Return of the Jedi, neither Jedi nor practitioners of the dark side dominate affairs. As such, the construct does contribute to a neat unity of narrative across the six films, regardless of whether Anakin’s prophetic mission was haphazardly executed cinematically, or even a necessary addition to the mythology. (After all, Anakin’s rationale both for becoming Vader and for ultimately going back facilitate the “balancing” of The Force coincidentally, at most.)
But the effect of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is curiously to imply that all of this was for nothing. In the former, Rey’s inexplicable connection to Anakin and Luke’s lightsaber suggests a broader connection to the Skywalkers, but if Luke is aware of any such thing he keeps it to himself when they meet in the latter; moreover, she goes on to learn from Kylo Ren that her parents supposedly were insignificant derelicts who remain nameless to us. With that apparent revelation, the notion of the Skywalkers as the crux of galactic History effectively goes out the window. We learn that Luke failed to prevent his nephew from being manipulated by a new, enigmatic practitioner of the Dark Side to plunge the galaxy back into political chaos, and then put himself into self-imposed exile. The implications of Luke’s failure are drastically severe — whereas the Empire twice constructed Death Stars in the Original Trilogy that could obliterate an entire planet with one blast, and meant to maintain them predominantly as deterrent threats toward the end of preserving stability in a unipolar geopolitical situation it dominated, the First Order (a sort-of successor-state to the Empire) innovates a planet-sized update of the superweapon, called Starkiller Base, which they successfully use to destroy multiple words at once as an aggressive maneuver against the struggling New Republic, to the end of breaking the deadlock of a distinctly bipolar political order. This cataclysmic destruction on such a bewildering scale, and the political strife and dislocation attendant with it, is the fruit of the spiritual “balance” purchased by Anakin Skywalker with his redemptive sacrifice. His son Luke, who was meant to serve as torchbearer into the dawn of new era, is so dismayed by his inability to prevent these events from unfolding that he first seeks to disassociate himself from the situation entirely, and then, when bothered about it by Rey, resolves to symbolically burn down the physical relics of the Jedi and let it all die with him.
With that, the courageous optimism established in 1977 with the image of a young Luke Skywalker gazing out longingly at the Twin Suns over a Tatooine evening gave way in 2017 to the frustrated nihilism of Kylo Ren fuming that he wishes his uncle to be vaporized where he stands. To be sure, Luke comes around to martyr himself, at least in his corporeal form, so that Rey and her comrades in the hobbling Resistance against the First Order can escape from Kylo Ren with their lives, and he promises to haunt Ren in his spiritual manifestation, while Rey in the meantime carries away with her the ancient Jedi lore in all its symbolic value. The most likely assumption one can make for The Rise of Skywalker, given the trajectory of episodes VII and VIII, is that Rey will defeat Kylo Ren parallel to the Resistance overcoming the dire situation we last found it in and somehow vanquishing the First Order. Ren will quite possibly be redeemed, but the safest bet is probably that he will die in either event. The film likely will leave an “all is well again” impression at its close, with The Force “balanced” once more and the ground cleared for a second chance at rebuilding the idealized Republic of old, this time with the added bonus of a pleasant “anyone can be the great hero” message delivered through the vehicle of Rey, presuming that her “nobody from nowhere” identity is not supplanted by a game-changing new revelation. But, barring that, such an ending would not be able to escape the scrutiny of context. If we allow that the broad-strokes of what I have outlined above should come to pass, it would be the second time yet in the Star Wars film saga that this cycle (from imperfectly-good liberalism to a malicious autocracy and back again) has gone fully around, assumably with little to guarantee it could not happen all over again come another generation down the line — very possibly even featuring belligerents with no tangible connection to the Skywalkers on either side of the battle lines. This is much like how the process of real History operates, of course, but Star Wars is a fantasy that exists outside History, instead subject to the standards of literature. If the mainline Star Wars saga witters onward into eternity, carrying with it a progressively heavier implication that nothing anyone does is of lasting significance over the ages, then I suppose that is a legitimate thesis, but as an ongoing commercial production one cannot help but wonder how long the return-on-investment would validate continuing to underscore it.
Things are not necessarily yet doomed to turn out this way, though. There is, obviously, one last chance to right the ship, and some reason to hope it will happen. In light of the reaction to The Last Jedi, the decision to remove original director Colin Trevorrow from the helm of The Rise of Skywalker, which is now in the midst of post-production, and replace him with J.J. Abrams inspired an amount of optimism that Abrams was on board to “reboot” the reboot, as it were — that he was being tasked to execute a last-minute course-correction so this trilogy can stick the landing. The release of a teaser trailer at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago last month has certainly nurtured this sense of hope; besides the title’s hint that Rey’s destiny will be more-or-less closely bound-up with the Skywalker lineage after all, the trailer features a voice-over from Luke (directed toward Rey, presumably) assuring us that “we’ll always be with you — no one’s ever really gone,” followed by the distinctive, unsettling laughter of the Emperor, both clear suggestions that the Star Wars of the present will be directly linked in its resolution to the Star Wars of the past. Moreover, a popular theory that has grown up on the internet in the weeks since the trailer appeared posits that the “Skywalker” referenced in the film’s title is not a person, but rather a spiritual successor the old Jedi Order, which Rey is presumably going to let die with Luke Skywalker (the last film’s titular “last Jedi”) and then rebuild from the ground-up on improved principles. The appeal of this possibility is that it allows for a decisive resolution to a singular narrative arc, in which the Skywalker family play an instrumental role steering contingent events of lasting significance over the long-haul of nine episodic installments.
But whether Abrams has actually managed to work it all out remains to be seen. Either way, his conclusion to the story has already been written and filmed; even if we account for whatever alterations might yet be made in the cutting room, the broader narrative direction that Abrams and the Lucasfilm production team are ultimately taking Star Wars in is presumably all but a settled concern. We might engage in idle speculation, which one assumes will be stimulated by further trailers sprinkled throughout the next several months, but all the good it can do at this point is help pass the time while we wait to find out, for once and for all.
In any event, May the 4th be with us all — now as much as ever.
-Mitch Carter is a substitute teacher from the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.