The Last Jedi’s Anti-nostalgia and Anti-Salvation

I assume I was the last person to actually see The Last Jedi, or at least the last person who wrote a review of The Force Awakens about the way the franchise is developing and therefore has some sort of intellectual stake in this whole thing to actually see The Last Jedi. As such, I have mainly avoided all of the reviews and discussions of the film. So, if I say anything that’s been said or seem redundant to overall conversation, oh well I guess.

In my review of TFA for Science Fiction Film and Television, I made a case for interpreting Star Wars as a franchise. Plenty of work has been done to understand the nature of the media franchise in terms of world-building, production models, economics, multi-platform distribution, etc. However, less work (basically no work?) has been done to address the difficulty of how to interpret a given franchise, especially given the fact that every major franchise (Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, the MCU, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) is unique unto itself, developing its own internal logics according to manifold pressures both “internal” to it (the foundational narrative, the physics of the story world, etc.) and “external” to it (intellectual property law, the vagaries of corporate ownership, the visions of multiple creators, fan expectations, etc.). Needless to say the distinction between internal and external is blurry at best, and these pressures combine and re-combine in ways that are impossible to fully appreciate. In any case, while we have seen a lot of discussion of what happens in a franchise such as Star Wars as it expands across films, television, video games, novels and short stories, comics, toys, etc., we have not really developed a way to “close read” the resulting narratives in their complex relationship to one another.

In my review essay of The Force Awakens I suggested a focus on worlds in the context of the production history and reception of the Star Wars franchise. (Also, note that Gerry Canavan and I have just completed work on a special double issue of Extrapolation, on the question of “Mere Genre”, which attempts to think about how we, as critics, might deal with massive text sets of varying quality, such as Dragonlance, Star Wars and Star Trek, Blondie (the serial comic), Sweet Valley High, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones.) In my essay, I make a case that TFA had to clear the slate for future Star Wars films–hence its repetition of so many devices and plot lines that Star Wars fans have come to expect from the franchise (another Death Star, another hero’s journey, etc.). Moreover, TFA had to satisfy the contradictory expectations and desires of at least three groups of fans: the “original” fans of episodes IV, V, and VI, who very often hated episodes I, II, and III; the generation of fans who grew up with episodes I, II, and III and who may not have hated them because they were givens of a franchise rather than intrusions into one; and the fans who would first encounter Star Wars through TFA. there are other groups of course, including the hardcore fans of what are now know as Star Wars Legends (the former expanded universe, which has become non-canonical in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of the franchise). Likewise, every generation of fans is internally diverse. Nonetheless, I think that the logic holds: Disney and Abrams had to create a film that could allow the franchise to move forward and maintain/revive older fandoms while creating new ones. Oh yeah, it also had to do all of this with an aging cast from the original trilogy, not all of whom were happy to be a part of the next generation.

It succeeded, in my estimation, by virtue of the fact that it narratively acknowledged the conflict between generations by way of Kylo Ren’s hatred for his father, Han Solo, whom he disparages to Rey as a bad father figure. In a climactic seen he tells Rey that “It’s just us now,” as if to say that the future of the franchise is the next generation and not the past generation. Hence, Starkiller Base kills the character, again Han Solo, that had been the star of the franchise, a type of character largely absent in the prequels and the one who so very often saved the day through acts of daring do (the last second save at the Battle of Yavin) or through dialogue (“I know.”). In his place, TFA gives us multiple characters with relatively complex motivations, actual charisma, and semi-interesting relationships and pasts. By contrast, the Jedi of the prequels look even worse than they did in the prequels: boring, prude, one-dimensional, stupid, and pointless. In TFA, the final battle between Rey and Kylo Ren returns us to a world in which the classic light saber dual involves an emotional resonance and moves beyond CGI-ed kung fu. None of these battles in the prequels mattered in the end. None of them resolved anything. Even the final battle between Obi-wan and Anakin seems to have been more about the acrobatics and technical wizardry than it was about the personal conflict between these two men or its importance to a galactic conflict between good and evil. In short, TFA returns us to a Star Wars we recognize even as it killed off so much of the original franchise, giving Han Solo and the Death Star one last hurrah before allowing the franchise to move on to new things.

Of course, The Last Jedi is not simply one entirely new thing after another, and I do not wish to suggest that there is something (or anything) radical about a massively-budgeted, carefully crafted, more or less politically neutral (in the sense that blockbusters tend towards allegorical stories that can be appropriated by numerous, even contradictory, points of view), altogether safe film. Star Wars will always be, at least in its filmic incarnations, beholden to the pressure of profit, a pressure it helped create in 1977 and one that demands that it alienate the fewest number of people possible. As such, we get more Princess Leia, more Chewbacca, more Millennium Falcon, more Yoda, and (of course) more Luke Skywalker (and more “Death Star tech”). That said, TLJ seeks to dispose of so much of this past and does so visually, thematically, and narratively.

I don’t have a well-organized, complete take on the new film, so what follows is a bit rambling. It won’t really come to a great point. Nonetheless…

The Last Jedi is as anti-nostalgic as we can expect a Star Wars film to be. Whereas TFA acknowledged that the prequels were bad both in dialogue (“This will begin to set things right,” the first line of the film) and by bringing back so much of what fans loved about Star Wars to begin with (Han Solo, and opening crawl that had nothing to do with space taxes), TLJ goes even further. I may be wrong about this, but Luke’s reference to Darth Sidious may be the first time that one of the three new films explicitly mentions some part of the prequels only found in the prequels. If I am wrong, I am not wrong by much. It was a bit jarring to hear him mention “Sidious” and not “the Emperor” in and of itself, but also because it implies Luke’s knowledge beyond what we see him acquire in the films. He had to have learned the Emperor’s Sith name, and hence more about the Sith, through some adventure (or through reading) that happens entirely off screen. This is not something we are used to in Star Wars, where we certainly know things happen offscreen, but only insofar as those things drive the plot forward (“Many Bothans died…”). Rarely do the films acknowledge anything but such plot devices as happening between films.

But beyond that, this moment also serves to further undermine the prequels even as it saves them to a certain extent. Luke’s mention of Sidious comes as he criticizes the Jedi order which, at the height of its power, failed to see the threat Sidious posed and thus allowed the Empire to come into existence. Later, Force-ghost Yoda tells Luke that failure is important, because only through failure do we learn. As such, the prequels are held up to be failures, tout court, but important failures insofar as they perhaps clarified what Star Wars is and should be.

This critique cum salvation dovetails with one of the other major thematic elements of the film, namely the injunction to leave the past behind. This injunction first comes to us from the mouth of Snoke, who makes fun of Kylo Ren for cosplaying Darth Vader and therefore failing to become what he could be, a powerful Force user in his own right, someone evil, sure, but evil in his own way and in command of powers that Vader never possessed. After Ren kills Snoke (in a scene that collapses elements of Return of the Jedi into The Empire Strikes back even as it sets up a development that was refreshingly new to Star Wars; more on this in a moment), he insists that Rey give up on the past, on the Jedi, on the old way the galaxy had been organized. Of course, after this we get a reprise of Hoth (suggesting that the past is never really past) and a revision to Hoth (suggesting that the past is now the means by which the future can be made uncertain, insofar as it allows Star Wars to play upon expectations and defeat them).

In fact, it seems to me that in each and every instance where we get something that appears to be a replay of an older scene from a previous film, we find ourselves defeated by our expectations of what would have happened then by what actually does happen now. For example, when Rey enters the Dark Side sinkhole (the analog to the Dark Side ave on Dagobah), she discovers only herself. Luke found himself, but inside Vader. While this does not perhaps strike us as significant at the time, when we find out that Rey does not have parents of note (they’re junk traders who sold her for drinking money), we see a dismantling of the Skywalker line and the thematics that come with it. The Last Jedi is not about the last Jedi, the last person to use the Force for good. It is about the last person, Luke, to have a certain understanding of the Force, a religious understanding of the Force.

And, aside from few more brief comments below, this brings me to my conclusion. TLJ, even if it “saves” the prequels to some extent, is anti-salvation in the religious sense we have come to expect from Star Wars. If episodes I – VI are about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker (I have my doubts on this, but that’s the story anyway), then episodes VII and VIII are, in light of TLJ, opposed to the idea of good and evil such a fall and redemption involve. (Yes, this metaphysics was always a problem, but superficially the absolute distinction of good and evil and the temptation of evil for one who is good was always there in name and spirit, if not in actual fact). The confrontation between Rey and Snoke seems at first to be the same as that between Luke and the Emperor, even if the tenor is wrong. Snoke is not interested in turning her. He just wants to kill her and eliminate a threat to his power. When Kylo Ren kills Snoke, it seems that Rey was right and that he can be turned back to the light. This was, to me, a disappointing moment given things that Abrams had said about Ren’s absolute fallenness. However, as we know, Ren only kills Snoke to take his power and to overcome the limits the past placed upon him. The lightsaber battle he and Rey engage in against Snoke’s guards then takes on an interesting double resonance. At first, we might be convinced that this is now an allegiance between new found comrades, helping each other survive. We then discover that this comradery was built on a false assumption about the possibility of redemption. When Luke finally confronts Ren near the end, he does not do so to save him. Ren is beyond saving (or perhaps “beyond” is not the right word because salvation was always already impossible). Of course, he does not kill Ren either, and therefore defeats yet another expectation that we may have had. In any case, the lesson Luke learns seems to be a repudiation of his character arc in Return of the Jedi and, likewise, what we know about Jedi more generally. Luke may therefore have been the last “true” Jedi. He believed in redemption, the overcoming of failure, until he is shown the error of that manner of thought. So, when he dies, he takes with him the last vestiges of the religious understanding of the Force, something that Snoke and Ren had already done away with on the other side of the equation.

With regard to Rey, she is never really tempted, further solidifying my claim that this film undoes the religious idea of the Force. At times she seems to have some kind of conflicted attraction to Ren, but only because she falsely believes he can become good. She is never actually in danger of “falling” to the Dark Side. When she reaches for his hand after they defeat Snoke’s guards, I thought perhaps she would turn and episode IX would then be a film about her salvation, but she does no such thing. Of course, this revision to the Force may only further solidify the distinction between absolute good and absolute evil. Usually, that distinction allows for narrative and conflict when it is transgressed. If there can be no transgression, where does that leave us? Perhaps with a more interesting story going forward, but perhaps not. The new is not necessarily the good, but we shall see.

In the end, TLJ is not only anti-nostalgic for the ways in which it is willing to do away with so much of the Star Wars brand (to the extent that it can), but also to the extent that it revises the metaphysics of the storyworld away from one understanding of good, and evil and the all of the narrative constraints that understanding provides, and towards new metaphysics and a set of as yet unknown constraints and possibilities.

A few more random thoughts:

  • So, Star Wars now makes it a thing to offer moments in the trailer that do not appear in the film. This happened a LOT with Rogue One. TLJ was short one line of dialogue from the second trailer when Ren tells Rey that he will be her teacher.
  • Luke’s death is so in keeping with Hamill’s attitude towards the franchise. He came back, did his thing, and can no be at peace. Han’s death was likewise in keeping with Ford’s relation to the franchise. He wanted nothing to do with it, cam back for what I assume was a dumptruck full of money, and died violently and in a way that suggests he can never be at peace.
  • The whole B plot sucked. I get that it was more emotionally resonant to see the Resistance slowly die off and be reduced to like four people in the end (and poor Admiral Ackbar and, I think Nien Nunb!). The drawn out nature of this plot line allowed us to see the consequences of the choices they make and the nature of their struggle. But it still sucked.
  • And, along these lines, I did not need Poe’s character arc here.
  • And how long was Rey with Luke? As with Luke on Dagobah, there seems to be a real disjunction between the timelines of the two major plot lines here.
  • PORGS: THEY’RE WHAT’S FOR DINNER. Man, that was kinda dark and weird.
  • The critique of capitalism? Yay, I guess? Let’s see what happens with that.
  • Finally, I know that people probably get sick of the Force as magic, as a a win button that solves problems that the narrative or themes can’t otherwise deal with. That seems even more the case with the present films than in the past, where new powers come up constantly and always seem more ridiculous than ever. That said, I will make a very brief case for why the Force is suddenly interesting again. Two examples. First, Snoke uses the Force to connect Rey to Ren. We wonder why this is happening, but assume that it will be explained (perhaps by way of the balance each provides to one another; BTW, Rey’s origin story is a sort of reverse supervillain one in which she rises to meet the challenge of her opposite, is called into being by way of another origin story). When it turns out to be Snoke, it seems like a cheat EXCEPT that this cheat sets up the anti-redemption narrative. “Oh, so Ren will be saved by this Force connection?” WRONG. Second example: when Luke is not killed by cannon fire we have to think that he has a new Force power. This also seems like a cheat. Why doesn’t he do that all the time? Why doesn’t he face the First Order with his laser sword? Well, that was not a real power. Instead, we get a different, unexpected and new power: astral projection. Instead of the true final confrontation, in which Ren would be saved or killed (or kill Luke, further sealing his fate, unnecessarily), we get a distraction. “This is not going to go the way you think.” I am not sure that this perfectly justifies the way that the Force is used in TFA or TLJ, or if it justifies magic in general in fantasy or narrative. Some people will never be convinced, and that’s fine. Nonetheless, I do love the fact that the new films not only make use of the Force, but develop it. Moreover, they do so in a way where it does not simply become the “win button” or an excuse for pointless extended Yoda fight scenes. Instead, it becomes a means by which the story can take unexpected turns, turns which often allow for a repudiation of our expectations for the franchise even as they uphold something fundamental about it.



One Response to “The Last Jedi’s Anti-nostalgia and Anti-Salvation”

  1. […] films that inspired The Last Jedi. Behind the scenes. In defense of Canto Blight. Anti-nostalgia and anti-salvation. Star Wars without the Empire. How to Read Star […]

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