With ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi,’ Rian Johnson has created a canonical hell of his own making.
This article contains spoilers for ‘The Last Jedi.’
This is my Star Wars: The Last Jedi think-piece. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
I won’t beat around the bush: I didn’t like Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this. Despite the fact that I grew up as a Star Wars fanboy who could quote obscure canon from the Extended Universe, no part of me enjoys my dislike of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, especially when so many writers are offering passionate and thoughtful takes in support of the film. It’s never fun to feel like you’ve ‘missed’ on a movie, but that feeling is ten times worse when it’s a film you desperately wanted to love. Not to mention the fact that The Last Jedi‘s opponents seem to be doing their best to further sully the concept of fandom by burning shirts and starting government petitions to have Lucasfilm… I don’t know, undo the entire film, I guess? There has to be a healthier conversation worth having, my dudes.
Still. I own my bias. No critic can approach a film with complete impartiality; add the baggage of a being a (stereotypical) lifelong Star Wars fan to the equation and the best you can hope to do is be honest with yourself as you’re going through the process. Therefore, writing about a movie like The Last Jedi becomes an exercise in ‘bucketing’ your grievances appropriately. It is totally fair to criticize Johnson’s film for under-baked or poorly conceived story elements, but to criticize the movie because I disagree with its choices? That’s crossing the line. Evaluating any movie as a fan becomes a tricky equation because you’re constantly trying to balance multiple perspectives while watching the damn thing. Do I have a problem with this particular sequence because it’s not very well written? Or do I dislike it because it’s Not My Canon™?
And all of this would be difficult enough if The Last Jedi were, as many people have suggested, charting a course outside the original trilogy, but Lucasfilm has now made two films that simultaneously ignore and indulge the very concept of Star Wars canon. Many of the same complaints about The Force Awakens are present here. Individual story elements – training montages, planetary assaults, roguish double-crosses – are lifted wholesale from The Empire Strikes Back, as Johnson and company simply hit shuffle on several of the character archetypes and let the new cast shake out as they may. Those who feel no strong personal connection to The Empire Strikes Back would likely overlook this repetition entirely, meaning that repetition as a criticism should be placed in the ‘fandom’ bucket. Whether this comes across as homage or composting may depend entirely on who is watching.
Ah, but. For many of the biggest plot elements of The Last Jedi to work, the film presupposes an intimate knowledge of Star Wars canon. Critics have pointed to major moments such as Kylo Ren’s betrayal of Supreme Leader Snoke or the reveal regarding Rey’s parents as clever inversions of the Star Wars limitations; the fact that these characters are not results of the grander Star Wars lore is itself an act of subversion, but one whose impact can only be felt in connection to the original trilogy. Furthermore, some of the biggest moments in The Last Jedi are constructed solely as payoffs to these intertextual moments. /Film’s Jacob Hall has written persuasively about the importance of Poe Dameron’s comeuppance as an inversion of the Han Solo, but that comeuppance is only made necessary by a convoluted series of mutinous actions; ask my wife her feelings on The Last Jedi and she will, without hesitation, tick off the multiple reasons why Dameron should have been shot for treason at the end of the film. Too many times in The Last Jedi do the ends justify the means, and the means are often not that engaging to begin with.
I’ll take this whole thing a step farther: by both mindlessly imitating and thoughtfully subverting the very idea of Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi has created a franchise film unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It is the Andy Kaufman of Star Wars movies, a movie so simultaneously ambitious and stupid that the only reasonable thing to do is throw your hands up in the air and declare it someone else’s problem to puzzle out. And that might be my biggest problem with The Last Jedi: it is a film that tries to have it both ways. It demands praise for upending Star Wars canon – and, at times, deserves it – while also clinging to the very elements it wants to outgrow. There are moments of grandeur where The Last Jedi promises to transcend the boundaries of the Star Wars universe, but too often these moments are anchored by rehashed story elements and winking inversions of Star Wars tropes. And for the life of me, I cannot decide which side is winning.
Declaring The Last Jedi as some travesty of film that needs to be retconned from existence is foolish, and those waging a public war against Johnson and company for their creative choices need to be dismissed as the sentient subreddits that they are. But my own viewing of The Last Jedi only confirmed the fact that this will be a polarizing movie for years to come. I didn’t like it as a Star Wars fan; I’m pretty sure I didn’t like it as a film critic. But I do know that enough of the pieces are there for the franchise to do something truly special if it can figure out its unhealthy symbiotic relationship with the old films. And who knows? Maybe, with enough distance and persuasive pieces of film criticism, myself and others like me may decide that The Last Jedi is more brilliance than buffoonery. If I changed my mind about Prometheus, I figure no science-fiction film is out of bounds.