Okay. I wasn’t going to write anything for one simple reason: I know way too many of the Johnson clan at this point for this to be anything but biased blatherings. So there it is. I have no idea what to do with this hope-diamond-sized-grain of salt. Feel free to literally disagree with all I say and proclaim my bias for all to see. It’s deserving. All I can say is I knew literally nothing about THE LAST JEDI going in. And if I didn’t like it, I probably would have been very quiet about it. But then a thing happened that only happens when your brain is caught on fire by a lovely movie… I couldn’t stop talking about it. And suddenly I was talking with people who had some different reactions, but also complex ones. And in those discussions I found that there was nothing less at stake then the entire meaning of STAR WARS all together… So let’s get spoilery and into this shit, shall we?
I’ve made my feelings about The Force Awakens quite clear before. To sum them up, I think J.J. has always been a talented filmmaker with an incredible casting eye, quite adept at imbuing a given moment with energy and emotion, but it’s always just that: a moment. There’s never a larger context. Carol Markus will scream as her father dies then the entire movie will go on as if it never happened. It’s all bits of affectation that excite and delight, and as far as meaning goes, it’s all promise and deep questions and lingering intrigue that pull you in deep, deep, deep… but, you know, never amount to anything. And it’s not that the “answers” are bad, it’s just that they were never set up to be meaningfully answered in the first place. That’s the mystery box. That’s literally the design. He doesn’t think it matters what’s inside as long as he makes you think it’s important. He’s literally said this. And that’s what it’s always been. It’s a grift. A con. A charming way of storytelling that whispers sweet nothings in your ear and is out the window before you wake up. And in making a Episode 7, I was hoping he’d cast it aside, and in some ways he did, and in some ways doubled down on some of his worst story habits of “momentary effect” over building to a coherent point. And the lack of that point is all symbolized in that final moment, Rey standing there to hand a lightsaber to Luke. It’s not a story beat. It’s not really anything. Just someone waiting to hand a baton to someone who can figure out a way to have any of this make a lick of sense.
There’s a reason this movie begins with Luke throwing it off a cliff.
In fact there’s a number of moments in the film that seem like direct refutations to the mystery box questions that were vaguely teased as maybe kinda sorta being deeply important. Why did we think they were? Because destiny! Because Skywalkers! Because Luke I am your father! Because mysteries and answers! And so for two years the internet does what they always do with J.J. and trying to solve the unsolvable questions that were never meant to be answered in the first place. So for two years they’ve been speculating about Rey’s parentage, or Snoke’s origins, or the Knights of Ren, etc. And what does the film do in response? It definitively takes those mystery box questions and throws them off the literal and proverbial cliff. Sometimes it’s done in a funny way, sometimes in an incredulous way, but it’s always in purposeful way. Because in the end, The Last Jedi is actually about something really, really important.
And it’s going to lay the groundwork to get us there…
I was having a conversation after the film and it was largely about the methodology of filmmaking. One person was talking about how they don’t like seeing the strings or feeling the manipulation of a film, which I get, and it’s often a popular criticism of filmmakers like Spielberg. But to me, andI probably expressed this a little too flippantly, I said “But that’s filmmaking.”
Filmmaking is always a construction. And what we feel or don’t feel in terms of that construction is purely the virtue of what we can actually sense as an individual. So for something to be “invisible” and for you to be “in it” is not necessarily a virtue of any filmmakers ability or the lack, but largely what we bring in our own way of seeing. In fact, it gets at the Catch 22 of movie-watching the more you can see of the construction, the less you can feel. Unless, you just learn to be cool with idea and get a sense of fluency. To that, when I say “the best cuts are invisible” I’m not arguing that I don’t actually see them and that that’s the only way I can experience the purity of movie watching (although sometimes it is). But that’s because my own vacant lack of awareness is not my end goal. I’m saying that it will largely be “invisible” for a popular audience (as are most filmmaking techniques), which is the very reason I tend to celebrate traditional functionalists because they’re the best at tapping into what a general audience brings to a movie. After all, there’s a reason Spielberg is also considered the best american filmmaker: he’s great at making you feel the thing he wants you to feel. Which is why a lot of young movie goers go through a phase of disliking him. They don’t want to be manipulated… but that’s what filmmaking always is… so you can see the complexity of all this, no?
Anyway, the point is actually that beyond the artifice, it is actually the pure story level that makes things meaningful and last. For all his kinetic stylization, I still think Johnson’s just a traditional formalist under all of it (I wrote extensively about his work years and years ago and it’s mostly in there). And in this movie I felt so much of the rigorous work. It’s all set-ups and pay-offs. The opening bomber sequence is stacked with clarity, geography, and pure function. Same go for the army of slowly creeping dread sequences that follow. All of which are build on direct storytelling function. Poe’s arc vs. Laura Dern’s characterization is a prime example. The way the film plays with audience expectations with her is never a “ta-da! surprised you, didn’t I!?” It’s what most good turns do in that they make you slap your forehead and go “of course!” Poe’s mutiny was always misguided, him repeating the mistakes of the past. And so the narrative turn played right into his arc beautifully. And holy hell, does she get a triumphant moment as a result… the silent cut.
But perhaps there is no functional moment quite like the ending show-stopper with Luke. And as a quick aside, we finally got the Mark Hamill performance that HE always deserved to get to show US. I have no eloquent words for it. His version of Luke in this film is just incredible. A culmination of humor and love and friendship and so much more that went beyond the pale of mere posturing. But it’s all built off grounded story function. Because it has to earn so much of the real biggest mystery presented in the last film and that’s WHY, why would Luke ever do this and run away? The answer, and then the films answer to that answer, is one of the most brilliant last lessons that the Star Wars universe has yet to give: and that is the acceptance of / and learning from failure. And it’s all built up into a crystalline moment of teaching both from an old friend in Yoda, and then what he has to give forward. My audience was practically hovering three feet above their chairs for “see around kid.” But at the core of Luke’s arc, at the core of everything in this movie, is the most important message of all…
My friend said this in a conversation a long time ago. And he didn’t mean it about the characters themselves, nor what they meant to him. He meant it in the sense of the Star Wars series’ focus on lineage and the way some all powerful family who are the most powerful force users who basically controlled the fate of galaxy was… super gross. And he’s right, quite frankly. Because it’s everything I hate about the notion of ‘destiny” and “why I’m destined to be a hero!” bullshit. That psychology only leads you to the kind of place where you are the asshole kid screaming DO YOU KNOW WHO MY FATHER IS!?!?! at night clubs. And as this series has gone on and on, it has fed more and more into that thinking. So it would always this deep fear in me that in the return to the galaxy far far away, the new trilogy would get sucked back into that thematic toxicity.
But in TFA, we actually got a nice self-aware version of that with Kylo where it saw the juvenile villainy in such bloodline thinking (he is absolutely my favorite part of that film, btw). But I still always dreaded it with Rey parentage angle and fan theorying, etc: “Is she secretly Luke’s kid, etc!?!?” Is this just going to be more stories about Skywalkers and the children of all-powerful Jedi and Sith and how they’re the only ones that matter? And so in the moments of The Last Jedi that led up to the confrontation with Snoke, I’ll admit it… I fell for the feint. I thought there was going to be Lord Snoke “I am your father” moment. Why? Well, because that’s the what gets nicely set up in the scene before with Kylo’s feint of “I know who you parents are”… but nope, the lightsaber literally goes sideways and it’s another “OF COURSE!!!” reaction that rings out in my brain, because it all says it so clearly. Especially in their scene after: Kylo just wants to burn it all down with him atop the totem pole. And Rey, she’s just a kid whose parents sold her away for nothing… a meaningless child who therefore needs to share her place among those destined to be great, in order to be great… That kinda gross regal thinking sound familiar?
But Rey won’t do it. She would never. I actually ended up arguing with some folks about the “disappointing” nature of this reveal, but to me it was the only reveal that could actually mean anything in this story. Because she’s not “just” anything. Which is actually everything. For she and Rose and so many others are everything important about this movie. They are people who aren’t the sons of daughters of legends. People who have their own lives and wants, but they are people who have been discarded and stepped on and put under a system of unbearable weight. But from those leanings, there’s nothing that makes them any less capable of the force, any less a jedi, any less powerful…
And anything less than a Skywalker.
You can argue the one “dalliance” of the film is the action on what I’ll be too lazy to google and just call “Monte Carlo planet.” But it’s also the most thematically important because it’s where the entire Skywalker point made above comes into focus. No, not just in the clear criticism of high society and war profiteering, but deeper within the sights of nameless young children who are put under the thumb of the world. And who, within them so innately carry the understanding of the horrors of that world, and thus so tangibly know the simple, inescapable ways for it to be better. And so, within that simple, final speech about what really matters in this big old universe that we share, it’s not about Skywalkers or whose bloodline is most powerful or whose dad can beat up your dad… it’s about that equally simple, final image.
A young child cleaning a stable.
Who dreams of being more.
The force belongs to them, too.
And so it belongs to us.