Saturday 30 December 2017

The Anti-Star Wars of The Last Jedi

Posted by Andy Zachariason

SPOILERS AHEAD! Early on in Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we finally meet the reclusive and legendary, Luke Skywalker. Rey hands him his lightsaber and Johnson holds for a moment as we lean in to see how our hero will react. Luke comically tosses the lightsaber over his head down a cliff, and walks away. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is deconstructionist Star Wars; a film that rejects its past and the very idea of being a Star Wars film until it can find its way through the wreckage and forge a new future. The Force Awakens was an album of greatest hits that was about stumbling into the footprints of myth and then turning around only to realize you've become that exact myth. Johnson's The Last Jedi follows this thread of myths and legends in thematically exciting manner that breaks down the structures of Star Wars (the Jedi, the Sith, the Resistance, the First Order) and playfully subverts the moments and iconographies that make up this saga.

Shortly following the intro of Luke, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver cements himself here as the best actor under 35) is chastised by his master, Supreme Leader Snoke, for hiding behind a mask. Kylo smashes his helmet and Johnson pushes the camera in on the broken mask, a symbol of the facade of this iconic world breaking. In a third plot thread, Poe Dameron leads a Resistance fleet that takes down a First Order ship, but when he returns to base he's not received as hero; he's demoted for disobeying General Leia. As Finn awakens from his coma he learns of Rey's whereabouts and immediately tries to abandon ship. The heroism that traditionally defines this saga is upended in narratively and structurally clever ways throughout The Last Jedi. Johnson's film is about heroism in that it questions how it's perceived, and the idea of who gets to be the hero.

The Last Jedi's central ideas emerge in the links between Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker. Johnson has merged the Force into a mystical meld of science (prequels) and magic (A New Hope) through cinematic techniques that are exciting and fresh to this saga. The Force here is presented as a metaphysical entity seen through nature and a pantheistic consciousness. Like Kurosawa's films, Johnson's environments are coated in fog, rain, windswept grass, and sand. Water literally becomes an element manipulated through Rey and Kylo's Force connection. The adversaries are called to each other through the Force's universal realm, and Johnson visualizes this through simple cuts between them talking to each other, despite being light-years away. It's a reminder that sometimes simplicity is the best answer to displaying complex ideas. Similarly, the link between Luke and Kylo is presented as a Rashomon-ish flashback (I wish this had been pushed even further) that blurs the line between good and evil, subjectivity and objectivity. By presenting their points of view of a past event, Rey's internal struggle becomes more complex as we learn the truths of Luke and Kylo's subjective memories, and what their motivations are. In the film's most visually inspired moment, Rey descends into a pool and arrives in a Citizen Kane-esque hall of mirrors that visualize how the past echoes into the present and future. Denial and acceptance of the past is what comes to define not just these three characters, but also the film itself.

The very idea of Star Wars has become an almost amoeba-like term that means different things to different people. The Last Jedi is aware of "fan theories" and plays with that overly entitled crowd's expectations and their sense of ownership over these characters and this world. Johnson is highly, and rightfully, uninterested in catering to such fan-service. The film's most shocking moment, and one of the saga's best, is Kylo's betrayal of Snoke. It's the most explicit destruction of this saga's rules and sends the characters into uncharted territory that's immediately tapped into by quietly subverting the biggest question surrounding this film.

Who Rey's parents are, is answered in a way that both subverts The Empire Strikes Back's familial reveal, while simultaneously giving it the same type of pathos, but instead of being Shakespearean it feels closer to Chekhovian bleakness. Rey having no connection to the past of this franchise, and simply being a "nobody," destroys the "chosen one" trope, and also frees Rey to find an identity not connected to her past. This moment of disappointment is where the film's idea of hope is born, and mirrored in Finn and Rose's Canto Bight mission in which they inspire a group of kids. The force and these mythic structures do not belong to chosen ones, but rather, the common man. Luke's sacrifice at the end visually displays the film's artificiality of myth, while also showing how moving on from the past and holding oneself accountable is the only way to transcend myth and journey deeper inwards.

The Last Jedi's subversions lead it to feeling jarring in contrast with the The Force Awakens, a film that earnestly asked questions that this film gleefully flips on their head. This organic, reactionary storytelling feels like an upending of the Marvel, connected universe model of easter eggs and cookie cutter sequel-plotting. While imperfectly executed, Johnson prioritizes image, character, and theme over traditional plot mechanics. The script has derivative and familiar plot hiccups, but it's remarkably tight and complex in its thematic exploration. Finn and Rose's adventure has little relevance to plot (it's also definitely too long and not exciting enough), but it connects, and builds upon, Kylo, Rey, and Luke's blurring of good and evil. The eternal battle between the Jedi and Sith — reflected in the stalemate between the First Order and the Resistance in the film's opening — is explored on Canto Bight through a thematic investigation into war profiteering and the "machine" that continues this conflict. Canto Bight is an inverted Cantina where the rich are the epicenter of the universe, turning the gears of war, and propelling these myths of good and evil. Finn and Rose's appearance in the stables -- proof that they're not just action figures -- inspires a new generation that helps them to destroy the gears that turn the conflicts that have made up this saga.

Where The Last Jedi stumbles is in how its subversions cause a lack of narrative cohesion, and in the wobbly pacing of the multiple plot threads, which never quite gain momentum until the third act. Large parts of the film are devoid of the romantic earnestness and monomythic storytelling that Lucas originally made these films with. It's too self-conscious to let the audience get swept up in the adventures it presents. You're forced not to watch The Last Jedi as a Star Wars film, but an anti-Star Wars film that's in conflict with itself. There's a palpable refusal to conform to the past, despite being forced to at points. The inability of this film to commit to its thesis of destroying myth is its biggest flaw, but therein lays the intrigue of this film. The internal creative battle is interesting because the conflicts in the story, however muddled they can be, are what fuel it.

Despite the storytelling flaws, the elongated subplots, subversions and pacing feel like they have an end point. The story structure seems to be an attempt at subverting the type of storytelling, and rhythms, we've grown accustomed to. Tonally this film could be described as messy, but its slippery, almost experimental tonal shifts have an intentional feel to them, as if its mixing and matching moments from previous films (ex. how the hero and villain communicate or Jedi training) and taking them into a new direction — showing us them in a different light. It's a risky style that leaves some moments feeling silly or cold, and others fresh, exciting, and towards the end, downright epic. This approach to storytelling and tone lacks the momentous energy and clearness of previous Star Wars films, and without a tight narrative backbone occasionally becomes boring, but step back and the approach excitingly skews more into arthouse cinema than modern franchise filmmaking. In that way, it feels in the spirit of what George Lucas envisioned with these films.

While watching this film, I couldn't help but prefer Abrams' romanticism and swashbuckling adventure — but after sitting with it there's a boldness here that is more stirring, more challenging, and I suspect it will eventually make this be seen as one of Star Wars' very best. This is surprisingly a film that only comes into focus until after you've seen it; after you can untie the knots and maze-like turns that we've gotten lost in. It's a film that doesn't use a conveyor belt of plot and tropes to express what it's about. You’re forced to reckon with its ideas through expectation, images, perception, and tone.

Johnson is fascinated by breaking down the structures of Star Wars, in both form and content, to try to get to the heart of what Star Wars even means. A scene mid-film sees Luke and Yoda burn down a Jedi temple and the historical books explaining the constructs and lessons of the Jedi religion. As a purely aesthetic moment it has a sense of poetry, but it's also the perfect image to exemplify The Last Jedi's deconstructionism. There is beauty in ripping apart the old and rebuilding it with a new sense of hope. It's a film dedicated to breaking down Star Wars' mythology and its modes of filmmaking, to the point that it burns itself in the process, only to then rise up again and continue to slash away at expectation. It's not an obvious connection, but The Last Jedi has a similar internally antagonistic quality to that other mythic pop culture event from earlier this year: Twin Peaks: The Return. Both are harsh reconciliations with the fact that no matter what you do, you can't go back to the past. The title of Episode VIII, narratively speaking, has a clear purpose at the end of the story, but after this film it seems we've seen our collective conception of heroes, villains, myths, and legends in this world, for the last time.

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