When I was a child, I would often stay up late at night and place A New Hope’s musical record on my father's player. I remember listening with awe as the Imperial theme resounded in the house. The instant Darth Vader stepped onboard Leah’s vessel with his harsh, black figure set against the white backdrop I felt at my young age the threat of evil. It was both intimidating and terrifying to behold. Amidst the fight for galactic peace, there I was no more than ten years old learning about sacrifice, good versus evil, the importance of friendship and family, and supernatural power.
Today it's not enough to describe yourself as a Star Wars fan. The statement begs the question: what kind of fan are you? Do you like Revenge of the Sith, or any of the prequel trilogy for that matter? Did Han shoot first? What version of George Lucas's edits is the best? How about Lego Star Wars? The animated Clone Wars series? The books? So much of Star Wars has been expanded, rewritten, erased, and parodied. Just recently, I talked with a child who considers himself a die-hard Star Wars fan, although never having seen the original trilogy.
To clarify, I am a fan of the Force and all of its potential, namely, its potential to encourage characters to ask the bigger questions that should be more common today. Is there more to life than what we see or measure? Darth Vader’s chilling response of the Death Star’s insignificance next to the power of the Force begs the debate of faith and science’s love-hate relationship. And before I as a viewer can begin to answer these questions, Star Wars complicates events perfectly by revealing Darth Vader to be Luke’s father. Now the fate of the galaxy takes a back seat to fresh questions. Is there a balance to life? How do love, fear, and anger lead to a path of good or evil? Can our hero become a villain, and can someone who is evil be saved? Despite whatever flaws from which Star Wars suffers, its strengths lay in these questions.
Now with the viewing of The Last Jedi, my discontent with the direction of Star Wars has reached its peak. It had been building ever since The Phantom Menace, but I held out hope that The Force Awakens would take us on a new journey, honor it's past, and bring new questions for our time. Perhaps J.J. Abrams felt that rather than charting new courses he should first re-establish the series with a politically correct New Hope, adding stronger themes of b0th feminism and cultural diversity and breaking our idealistic belief that the conflicted individual always at least wishes to do good in the end. Again, despite its flaws I believed this new Star Wars trilogy had a story to tell, and that even the new twists on the Force would be revealed.
I could almost audibly hear my heart sink in the first five minutes of The Last Jedi. When Po flies a lone fighter to pull an elementary prank on the highest ranking commander of the First Order, my fears that carried from the first film came to fruition. In an instant I saw that all of the tangent, childish elements of Star Wars merchandising, LEGOS, animated series, and knock-off fan-fiction had successfully invaded the live-action films. The internet has already been overflowing with reviews of the film's plot holes, and I will not be discussing them here. That is only the beginning. I left the theater realizing that Rian Johnson had successfully dismantled any hope to connect the trilogy to any semblance of meaning beyond itself. It is not enough that the galaxy is reliving the same plot of an empire versus a rebellion. Now the first film's newest and most crucial storyline threads are simply red herrings. The identities of our feminine hero and disfigured villain mean nothing. The potential for a rebellious son to confront the love of his mother never occurs. Perhaps worst of all, the Force still remains a simple tool of a galactic power struggle when the film held so much potential to unleash new revelations.
While The Last Jedi divorces itself from all connections, it is so ironic that the film's counterpart, The Empire Strikes Back, introduces so many of them. As Luke learns that the Force is intimately connected to, “the rock, the tree, everywhere,” Han and Leah are falling in love, Lando and Han reunite, Luke gives up training to save his friends, and Darth Vader reveals himself as Luke's father. Much of the reason it is the strongest film of the series is due to its ability to reach beyond sci-fi gimmicks while at the same time raising the stakes. Now that our original heroes have moved on, I as a viewer am left with what I only expect Johnson wanted to be a more diverse cast of heroes, a blank slate, and the disappointing result that the film refuses to say much about anything.
Not to say that a postmodern film must be inferior. The original Star Wars itself is in many ways a postmodern masterpiece. A strong embodiment of Joseph Campbell's A Hero with a Thousand Faces, the trilogy reshaped the film industry with its ability to incorporate the genres of science fiction, fantasy, western, and samurai into a balanced blend of narrative and spectacle. So strong is the trilogy that it has served as the foundation for nearly every Star Wars narrative afterwards. Finally, at the moment where we may see Star Wars break new ground and expand it's foundation, The Last Jedi affirms that the original foundation has crumbled for good with no new revelations about the Force that drives the series. Han has failed to redeem his son. Luke has failed the Jedi order, and Leah has failed to live up to her strong character. But more importantly, the Force has been narratively squandered.
Consider for a moment the film Man of Steel. After its debut, numerous reviews criticized it for Superman’s blatant neglect for human life during his fight with the villain Zod. Knowing the film's narrative could handle that criticism, Zack Snyder placed these reviewers outcries in the mouth of Bruce Wayne, setting up the fight in Batman vs Superman. What might have been a weakness in plot became a plot in itself, adding maturity and depth to our most common heroes.
A similar move could have been made in The Last Jedi in re-imagining the phrase “balance to the Force." What is that balance exactly? In Return of the Jedi we are told that Luke will become a Jedi after defeating Vader. In the moment of confrontation, the full power of Luke's anger has been unleashed at the thought of losing Leah to the dark side, and he is now in prime position to replace his father at Palpatine’s side. And yet, Luke does what Anakin and the other Jedi could not: he embraces his emotions, his fear, anger, and love while at the same time rejecting the dark side. Not at all becoming of a Jedi, this very scene fell short of Luke rising to any Jedi status as the likes of Kenobi or Yoda. If anything, his victory came from rejecting much of their advice in the first place. This criticism of Return of the Jedi could have been placed in the mouth of Luke during The Last Jedi as he scrutinizes the philosophy of the Jedi order with severe doubt.
Towards the end of the film, the motto of the Resistance -- “we are the spark that will light the fire that will burn the First Order down” -- sounds haunting given the events that have taken place. Po’s rash mutiny, Rey’s temptation, and the fact that the Resistance purchase their weapons from the same buyer as the First Order begs the question, “What’s the difference between sides here?” Just when we think that the Force, interpreted by a new order born from the ashes of the Jedi, might shed light on these questions, the film diverges. The Force is used as a prank pulled on the villain, and the plot has so divorced itself from any opportunities offered by the original material that it no longer feels like Star Wars anymore. Should the third film pursue Rose’s line to Finn, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love,” the expectation remains: to discover where the Force fits in with all that is happening.
Given the amount of potential lost in The Last Jedi, I find it difficult to hope.