Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Hating What Came Before
I’m not sure I can write a review for The Last Jedi that will amount to any more than a frothing-at-the-mouth, bitter-old-man, all-is-dead, maybe-I-am-AltRight rant. So this ain’t a review, it’s just a rant.
It’s mostly inspired by this commentary at SlashFilm (an argument heard in a lot of corners of the internet), that says guys like me should be punished for what we love.
Allow me to let my inner crazy person out for just a second to respond.
“O LORD, let them be put to shame and dishonor! Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me! Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them on! Let their way be dark and slippery with the angel of the LORD pursuing them! Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see; and make their loins tremble continually. Let them be before the LORD continually; and may his memory be cut off from the earth!” (Psalm 35, 69, 109)
Okay, now we’ll put the crazy man back into the padded room to calm down and get down to some arguments.
I have huge issues with subversion. I’ve touched on this before in discussing deconstruction – I’m really okay with deconstruction when it’s goal is to understand the pieces so as to put it back together, to magnify what makes the original work, to actually build up what it apparently tears down.
When deconstruction doesn’t have this end, but rather seeks to tear down the original as a goal, for either nihilistic aims (saying the meaning of the original is just wrong or inherently has none) or Nietzschean aims (burning it down so as to put some new primordial value in its place), that’s what I call subversion.
The Last Jedi is subversion of the Nietzschean variety, and that’s what has writers like the SlashFilm commentary crowing, being disciples of such subversion themselves. The movie has placed itself right in the middle of the current culture war, perhaps even at the center of it, and declared itself for one side – the side which desires to burn down anything that remains of the old order and put a kind of palatable, ubermensch, “do what thou wilt” way of life in its place.
From turning Luke into a disillusioned old man over a misunderstanding, to removing any sense of purpose or meaning for Rey outside herself, to denigrating the heroic “die for what is good” in favor of some amorphous “save what you love”, to disavowing mentorship roles almost toutcourt, the replacement of transcendent guidance by fidestic self-trust… The list goes on. Over and over, whatever came before is deemed lacking and in need of replacement – not just characters, but themes, values, virtues. The things which made up the beating heart of Star Wars are attacked from almost every angle.
But something is put in its place. Rian Johnson and crew do not want to leave the audience with a sense of hopelessness. They do believe there is meaning. It just doesn’t come from some external source. The Force is just the connection between things, not some super-personal guiding principle (*coughgodcough*). Family isn’t something you need to live up to. There isn’t some great ideal worth dying for.
Instead, meaning is wholly internalized, something you give to the world and your life. Rey and Luke have to learn to not trust the Jedi way, but trust in themselves. You don’t die for something greater than yourself, you protect the things you’ve come to love (maybe die for them, but only if others let you, I guess?).
Star Wars has never been great at fleshing out its world directly (though Expanded Universe nerds, among whom I number myself, have done that successfully in books and other media), but more than any other this movie felt like the world didn’t matter. As though the world was only a blank canvas on which the will of men and women was made manifest. And right now the only one’s doing that are the rich and wicked. The casino scenes are the closest we get to a taste of the Star Wars world beyond the star ships. And those scenes are pretty unconcealed political comments.
I’m a theologian first and foremost. I try to see the world by that lens in all that I do, to see God and meaning and purpose at work in all things. And this movie just seems to try and take an axe to that. “There is no meaning but what you make!” it seems to scream. “Don’t appeal to the Jedi (tradition), or mentors (authority), or heroism (old values), or even redemption (Kylo isn’t to be saved, Luke?). Trust in yourself and what you love.”
No wonder things like character development are lacking in these movies. No person should “become” or “develop” into something – they already are everything they need to be (except for those rowdy boys like Poe – they need to learn to keep that “Fight and die for the Good and True” in check).
Now, some people will cite a number of scenes from The Last Jedi which seemingly bely this, most especially Luke’s final moments of awesome against Kylo Ren and General Holdo’s sacrifice. But look at how those scenes fit into the rest of the movie. Are they organic? Are they earned by the plot? Do they really fit with everything else? The movies few gems are like outliers, pointing to the old Star Wars values (values which have a deep resonance with the human condition). And in a way, the movie can allow them, in so far as they become manifestations of personal will. It is not in the name of the Force that Luke confronts Kylo. It is not in sacrifice for the Good that Holdo gives up her life. At best, it’s just “protect what you love” (that scene with Rose Tico is perhaps my biggest complaint of the film).
This is all encapsulated in the last image of the film. It’s not an image of victory (Episodes I, IV, VI), or somber preparation for a new struggle (II, III, V), or even the tantalizing opening onto mysteries (VII). No, those images require something to stand on – goals to achieve and obstacles in the way of them. Instead, TLJ ends with an image of a (force-sensitive?) child looking up at the sky. It’s a child we know nothing about. To the audience, he is a blank slate, with no tradition or external guide (save oppression to overcome?). We have burnt down the old, and only something new, something untested and untried, something without reference to “false” external guides, is our hope. It is a hope in man alone
To some of you, that may sound great. Sounded good to Eve, too.
A final point: Now, didn’t this all begin with The Force Awakens? I think that’s unfair. I’m a fan of The Force Awakens. I saw the movie five times in theaters and do not regret doing so. Yes, it was a retreading of what came before. It was a remix (and a very simple one) of a A New Hope, in characters and plots. But for all its faults, it loved and embraced what came before to the extent that it’s creators could (which was a lot as far as 21st century secularists go). It’s greatest weakness was in mistreating the original characters for the sake of the new.
TLJ rejects whatever was good in TFA, almost entirely. It relegates it all to pie-in-the-sky nostalgia. Even the mysteries TFA sets up – e.g. Snokes and Rey’s parentage, themselves continuations of the themes which came before – are just blown away like so much chaff.
At every step, at every blasted step, TLJ is trying to tear down what came before to the foundations and construct some idol to man’s will in its place.
You know what? Crazy man, you finish this up.
“Pour out thy anger on the nations that do not know thee, and on the kingdoms that do not call on thy name! For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his habitation…” (Ps. 79:6-7)