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Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Review and Thoughts Pt 1/2 (w/ Spoilers)

star wars movie posterThe following is my review, or perhaps should I say commentary, on the latest Star Wars installment: The Last Jedi, episode VIII of the SW saga.

** I’ll need to go over plot points and details, therefore this text will contain spoilers – not just about this installment but also others, as well as the saga as a whole. You’ve been warned. **

While I definitely enjoy sci fi, I’m not much of a Star Wars fan – at least not to the level of dedicated fandom certain movies develop. In fact, if I am to be perfectly honest, the truth is that I could’ve easily gone without seeing the movie. However me and Teresa were hoping to spend some quality time at the cinema around the Christmas time, and the movie was, obviously, the most noteworthy title.

Having said that, let me also be clear: Star Wars in my opinion really goes beyond just a movie, or a series of movies. It’s really a deeply and widely impactful cultural phenomenon of our society, one that spans multiple generations. It’s part of the zeitgeist. So as much as I’m commenting I could easily not go see it, I’m not exactly indifferent to it either. I would have to watch it anyway, eventually, if nothing else to stay up to date with what’s going on.

But perhaps because I wasn’t especially “emotionally invested” in the movie, if you will – in other words I hadn’t participated in any kind of theorizing regarding how plot points were headed, how they were going to be solved, or what would happen to characters – I hadn’t harbored any expectations about what would happen in it. I went to see the movie in a relatively neutral state of expectation.

The movie contains a considerable number of changes and subversions of its own ways. Meaning, at various points it changes the way it does things, compared to how previous Star Wars movie would “traditionally” work. Some fans who went to see the movie reacted to such changes positively; others not so much. These are actually the chances I wanted to discuss about in this commentary. Because when I was watching the movie in the theater (therefore prior to becoming acquainted with how the world is receiving the film), I found myself detecting such changes, gradually, one by one, as the movie went on. And I found myself reacting to them, on my own. And, for the most part (although not always), my reaction was somewhere along the lines of: “ah… I see what you’re doing. And I think I like it”.

My opinion of the movie wasn’t “wow, this the greatest movie of all time!”. It has plenty of flaws and contrivances. But, I ended up actually liking it, at least as a whole.

In order to explain myself better, please allow me a moment to backtrack a little… and by a little I mean a lot.

The Very Beginning

When the very first Star Wars movie, Star Wars Episode IV — A New Hope (1977), was being made and released, I believe those involved in its creation had little idea if how successful the movie was going to be, or if at all. I mean I suppose you always hope for success when you’re going something like this; nevertheless those participating in the movie were surely taken by surprise by the level of success it achieved.

Star Wars came about from the creative mind of a sole person, George Lucas, who was personally driven to pitch, write, and film his strange and innovative creation for the world to see. Production and filming of the movie were relatively “experimental”, maybe indie-like, in the sense that, in a way, no one really sensed its potential other than Lucas. The studio that financed the film, Fox, had agreed to forfeit merchandising rights to Lucas, initially not seeing the movie as particularly worthy of turning meaningful profit. Most of the actors weren’t quite sure how seriously they were meant to take the gig, famously only acting more uptight and professional on set whenever respected veteran actor Sir Alec Guinness (Hobi-Wan Kenobi) was around. It would be considered relatively unlikely that a goofy sci-fi film would have any significant projection. Later, however, it would become clear as water that the world was more than ready to welcome Star Wars.

George Lucas, creator of Star Wars

The tone of the finished movie had some elements of drama, weight. It’s the story of an adopted kid with a seemingly unknown and unimportant background, who is suddenly called into an exciting and dangerous world to help a good-natured Rebellion fight an evil Galactic empire, with repercussions across the whole Galaxy. The kid loses its adoptive parents to the relentless Empire; its mentor is slain by the menacing big bad. The movie swiftly transmits the evil side as actually evil, ruthless, not to be trifled with, dead serious in fighting its enemies and, in order to achieve its ends, not minding the means one bit.

But the movie had quite a lot of fun, adventure, and a childish lightness to it as well. Many of the movie’s aliens and creatures were created using practical effects, and often puppets. This would a trend used by other movies at the time, mostly child-minded or fantasy ones, under the spiritual influence and/or direct participation of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, such as the The Dark Crystal (1982), Neverending Story (1984), Labyrinth (86), and the more dark comedy-oriented Gremlins (1984), for example. The second and third movie in the trilogy went so far as to introduce a core character to the story, Master Yoda, to mentor the main character of the story. Yoda was a character with sage-like attributes who served in the plot as a memory from the past and a beacon of wisdom and knowledge, not only to the main character but in many ways to the audience as well — and he was a puppet.

George Lucas, Frank Oz with Yoda

The bulk of the evil troops’s faces  —  as well as the actual big bad  —  were completely hidden under standardized and stylized masks and armor, which not only made them easy for the audience to identify, but also helped convey them as anonymously and mindlessly evil, thus making it less morally divisive for the audience to see them being shot down and taken out by the good side. Throughout the course of the original trilogy (and, quite notoriously) the bad guy troops were extremely poor shots, being able to spray quite a lot of laser fire with their rifles but almost inevitably missing the main characters completely, even when they weren’t particularly careful or were standing wide in the open. One of the reasons for this was to confer lightness to the action: many shots being fired would create some tension and danger for the heroes, but not necessarily preventing them from going about performing their dastardly, heroic deeds.

The first three movies would continue to alternate between the two aforementioned tones. In Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983), a significant portion of the film and its action is spent in the moon of Endor, involving small, primitive, kid-like furry creatures resembling teddy bears, called Ewoks. The movie includes a David vs Goliath battle between Ewoks using sticks and stones, and a full compliment of armored, laser-armed Empire troopers, with the backup of giant bipedal metal machines with cannons — and the Ewoks win. At one point an Ewok is seen throwing a stone at a soldier’s helmet, and the throw comes across as tame and ineffectual. Yet despite this, the soldier proceeds to drop to the ground as if gravely wounded.

A number of spin-off movies and TV productions were made in involving the Star Wars universe, many pressing further on the child-like tone. This was notable with Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984) and Ewoks, the Battle for Endor (1985), both arguably targeting a younger audience. Then there’s also the less known yet quite infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), a musical TV adaptation featuring a number of elements wildly dissonant with the well known ethos of the saga – such as having the original actors singing, or Wookies speaking in English, for example.

Star Wars Holiday Special

Star Wars Holiday Special Poster

During this period, through these various experiments and spin-offs, it was almost as as if the saga itself was exploring, trying to decide, just how seriously it wanted to take itself, and be taken by others. And what tone was most correct for it – and which ones weren’t. Nevertheless, the main three movies of the original trilogy did manage to effectively combine these two tones – the more dramatic and serious with the more lighthearted and whimsical – to create clean characters with clear roles and identities, living in a Universe that felt real, used, and worn, thrown into a story where the stakes where high and peril was real, but also with moments of innocence, levity, and endearing hope.

Evolution?

In the late 90s and early 2000s, George Lucas, would proceed to film further three installments in the saga, this time three movies that would serve as prequels to the original trilogy, going over the story of how the original big bads (Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine) and their Evil Empire came to be. Given the technological advancements in filming since the original films were made, especially in the area of special effects, the idea was to use the more advanced technology to tell new Star Wars stories, in ways that would have been difficult back in the early days of the saga. However, despite making use of the new technology, the films were received with mixed, if not poor, if not terrible reviews — even if by all accounts they were still largely financially successful, as they drew large audiences to see them.

A large portion of the new movie’s settings, vehicles, characters, and imagery in general were computer-generated, leading to the films losing much of the grounding factor lent by the practical effects of the original films. This, together with inconsistent writing and questionable choices in general, created movies that were perhaps visually entertaining and alluring, yet arguably holding less care for internal consistency, and for balancing real with imaginary, describing a fictional world that felt fantastical but not realistic, as opposed to the lived-in, rugged-and-worn feel the original movies managed to convey.

Battle of Coruscant, Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Many of the spaceships, robots, and technology in the new movies come across as elaborate, sleek and clean-looking, in many ways more “modern” than those featured in the initial films, despite those taking place after. The portrayal of the central love story between Anakin and Padmé comes short of building sufficient chemistry between the two to support their relationship. The original trilogy refers to Darth Vader as a once powerful and promising Jedi corrupted by the dark side, yet the character of Anakin for the most part comes across as trivial, bland, spoiled and childish. Story arcs and action scenes carry relatively little weight, with unclear and obtuse justifications given to conflicts, disputes, and events. The one villain with a reasonable and interesting combination of mystery, poise and skill, befitting such a role in the plot, is killed in an almost-but-not-quite-memorable action scene, with no one left to properly take his place. Across the three movies there’s a general impression that it ‘doesn’t really matter what happens’, no matter how big or important the situation is. The audience is to draw excitement from the action and visuals alone, for their own sake.

There was an attempt to create another quirky alien character to remain close to the main characters — the now infamous Jar-Jar Binks. This character was entirely computer-generated, and as such would probably already feel artificial placed alongside live actors. But perhaps the most important aspect to it, was that the character was written mostly as a goofy, clumsy, simple-minded sidekick, constantly involved in physical-style comedy situations throughout the movie. Jar-Jar was meant almost solely as a comic relief, but holding virtually no redeeming qualities of any kind, and having no particularly relevant reason to continue involved in the story as it progressed. Yet he would somehow find himself not only involved but having significant influence in core plot points, such as taking part in a large battle in the first film; or playing a crucial role in the senatorial events (!) that placed evil Palpatine in charge in the third one. Jar-Jar read mostly as a literal cartoon that had been inserted into a live action movie, further contributing to, and perhaps being in itself a representation of, the throwing off balance of the movie’s tone, as well as diluting the perception of the stakes and meaning of the story.

The infamous Jar-Jar Binks

It’s fair to state the expectations for the prequels were astonishingly high, leading to the viewer be more easily be disappointed by them. But it’s also fair to say it was in good portion thanks to those same expectations, and loyalty to the franchise, that audiences kept coming to the theater, and kept the saga going. As such I feel no particular necessity to relax my assessment of the prequels. As a moviegoer exposed to an experience, I only need to assess how I feel about it. A movie must care for its own quality, but it must also factor the way it’s going to be received by the audience. And this includes factors such as the social and cultural moment in time – social standards and awareness, relevant social issues and themes, etc – as well as precious movies in the same saga, and similar ones, that preceded it. If you’re going to create (or criticize) a movie in a saga, these elements must be factored in. They are an inexorable part of the audience’s experience.

The fine balancing act between real and imaginary, and heavy and light, that had helped create the ‘magical’ effect in the original trilogy, was lost. Rather than a fresh updated take on the Star Wars saga, the three prequels came across as an exaggerated and visually saturated extravaganza, where it was more important to put up a spectacle rather than having things make sense. It was as if working around the restraints back in the 70s and 80s did better for the movies and their balance, than what the creators could do with the more modern technology at their disposal. In fact, what most comes across in the three prequels is that there wasn’t proper observation for restraint when making them. Technology might have evolved, but there wasn’t much growth.

A New Hope

It’s difficult to say for certain how much of a concerted effort there is by the owners and creators of the new trilogy to plan among themselves how the new movies are meant to turn out, and where the saga as a whole is headed. What’s mostly clear is that the new movies — and I’d perhaps also include here the standalone Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) – feel like they’re being written and directed by individuals who seem to be genuine Star Wars fans, i.e. who get the gist what made the original movies great and magical. And who seem to be intended on restoring some of the lost respect and magic of the old movies — an effort that would have been, inevitably, influenced and motivated by how the modern prequels were made.

Battle at Takodana, Star Wars the Force Awakens, episode 8

X-Wing fights Tie-Fighters at Takodana, Star Wars Episode 8: The Force Awakens (2015)

The first movie of the new trilogy, Star Wars Episode VII — The Force Awakens (2016) was plot-wise clearly reminiscent, at some points almost a repetition, of the plots of the original trilogy, perhaps especially of the first episode. So let’s see: members of the Rebel Alliance with vital information are under attack by the Empire; the information is at the last minute placed into a droid sent to escape the attack; the help of a seemingly average and unsuspecting young adult, but soon-to-be-revealed Force-wielder, is enlisted; a daring escape from the planet is made aboard the Millenium Falcon, complete with a sequence battling TIE-Fighters; a meeting takes place in an exotic/underground bar; the Empire has a base/planet capable of destroying other planets, which it does; the Rebel Alliance needs to attack this base/planet, first infiltrating it with some of the main characters, then by attacking it directly with a starfighter assault; main characters have a lightsaber duel on the base/planet as it crumbles away, before escaping.

Although such plot repetition was noted and sometimes critiqued in reviews, what I believe is that it clearly transmits how the movies were being taken back to their roots by those making them. There was an attempt to re-establish a foundation, a solid footing, upon which further movies could carry from, not just story-wise but in terms of tone and balance as well. And this included an aspect of recovery, of getting back to elements of the original trilogy – even if it did reinstate many of the original basic plot premises, and thus incur in the risk of delving too much into the realm of repetition. But in retrospect, I think it was an appropriate and clever move, and, in a way, also a safe one. The prequels had already taken too many liberties, done too much to wander away from the saga’s original magic… and created by none other than the saga’s original author himself, making it it all the more severe. Tackling this scenario was truly the most important challenge for this one movie. This was its heritage, its greatest burden to bear and overcome.

The movie had plenty of computer-generated special effects, but these were more judiciously used, without saturated tones and blending better with the environment. Balancing them out by was a healthy dose of practical effects, creatures, robots, props, and so on. The movie did take its risks to include new ideas or twists, such as Kylo’s guarded lightsaber, the main antagonist’s conflicted and complex attitude, new Force abilities like holding blaster shots mid-air, or the death of Han Solo. It also included minor nods to the original movies and more melodic subtleties, such as for example the tones in the sky during the meeting of Kylo and Han reflecting the inner emotional state of the former. But I feel such variations weren’t thrown into the mix with a heavy hand; rather they were used with guarded (and sufficient in my mind) restraint, so as not to detract from the overall tone and balance of the movie, and especially its major, primary guideline: to be true to the feeling of the original movies.

Daisy Ridley (Rey) behind the scenes at Star Wars: The Force Awakens set

Daisy Ridley (Rey) behind the scenes at Star Wars: The Force Awakens set

This was a big deal. While I don’t think the movie was beyond flaw or fault by any means, I do see it as being largely successful at getting back to tone of the original trilogy, to a sufficient degree at least. In the scope described by the trajectory of the saga, this was in my view its major, and most vital, accomplishment.

The Actual Review

Now for The Last Jedi.

If the primary intention of the first sequel was to get back to the mojo of the original movies, the primary intention for this next one was, perhaps, to carry on with the process of maturation, growth, and updating of itself. To come from the relative success of “getting back on track” of the first movie, and start bringing ideas and the Universe itself up to speed, relative to how a modern-day audience would perceive such a sci-fi Universe.

Why “growth”? Simply because the passage of time demands it. Because otherwise you’d be just making the same movie over and over again. To make sure that the saga and its ideas remain relevant, poignant, fresh. And to ensure the legacy of Star Wars is respected and honored, not just regarding the movies of the past but hopefully those to come. Now, to try to update the Star Wars Universe, while keeping its balanced tone, and appealing to millions of witty and demanding fans, in the modern-day world, is nothing short of a massive undertaking. And this movie would have quite a lot of work left to do, as the prequels were completely clueless in that regard.

In my mind, the subversions throughout the movie were meant to address this. So without further ado, let’s get right on with them.

Subversion #1 — Cynical, Self-Analytical Jedi

The very first thing Luke Skywalker does as he’s handed his old lightsaber, in contrast with Rey’s emotional and reverent gesture as she hands it over, is to casually and nonchalantly thrown it over his shoulder as if rubbish. Designed to be a bit of a shock and surprise, some thought of this scene as too casual, cheesy, and maybe disrespectful. But symbolically, that was the point. It announced a bit of a change in perspective: openly rejecting, losing respect for, what was previously revered and important, placed beyond question.

The older Luke Skywalker is disillusioned with the whole idea of Force, the fight between good vs evil, and the Jedi’s themselves. While inexorably an integral part of it, he’s now highly skeptic and cynical about it as a whole. The Jedi, he says, are nothing but a fraud. They were supposed to be the most powerful group in the Universe, yet at the height of their power they allowed a corrupt individual to take away their Republic under their very noses. They prevented nothing of what they were meant to achieve, and now they are all but gone.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) hands Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) his old lightsaber in Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi (2017)

Rey (Daisy Ridley) hands Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) his lightsaber in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Through Luke’s perspective we have a subversion of the whole image of the Jedi as a great big thing. It’s a shift from the more innocent and simplistic perspective that the good guys are always there to save the day at the end. What happened, and what the characters lived through in the past, matters to what they’re thinking today. There is character evolution, one that does make sense. There is logic to what Luke feels, and why. Finally someone in this story is actually exhibiting critical thinking, I thought. Quite the breath of fresh air.

This new perspective reflects a process of inner analysis and self-awareness of Luke’s character — but perhaps more importantly, also of the movies themselves.

Luke is voicing something I myself had thought, and had seen no one in the movies never openly speak about: that the Jedi, as a group, and in terms of “raw results” if you will, were not that great and left a lot to be desired — which to a great degree related a lot to the events described in the prequels. Here, it is of note that despite the poor writing and quality of the prequels, even if these were well written and had better quality, the core story would not be that much different: the Jedi were part of a Republic that eventually is corrupted by an evil character into becoming an Empire, largely eliminating them in the process. So even if the prequels didn’t didn’t do a great job putting out the story, that doesn’t detract from the (fictional, lore and plot-wise) fact that the Jedi allowed dark energy so close to them plotting against them for so long and undetected. Or, for example, how they clearly perceived Anakin to be highly unstable and dangerous, yet still allowed him to be trained.

Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In a way, Luke’s critical thinking is also meant to reflect the audience’s own critical thinking, and the more astute and self-aware observations of the modern-day fan.

You tend to receive the most criticism, the most flak, when you’re not acknowledging a mistake, i.e. as long as you’re not learning from past mishaps and poor choices. But the moment you acknowledge that mistake or choice you made, out of your own process of reflection and on your own volition, and then you admit it openly and clearly to others — I made this and I regret it —  you do tend to dissipate, disarm, diffuse, most of the charge of the criticism. Because, deep down, that’s what the process of learning in life is about. It’s often not so much about the mistakes themselves, but the ability to learn from them. This is what Luke is doing here. He’s not just admitting problems of the Jedi in a process of self-reflection: he’s also indirectly showing the audience that the movies themselves, and to an extent those at the helm, are self-aware of the past mishaps in the franchise, this mostly referring to how the prequels were handled in general, but here, more specifically, the manner how it was portrayed the Jedi being overcome by their enemy.

Mistakes were made. This is what Luke is, angrily, saying to the audience.

Some Criticism:

I’m unsure of just how much sense it makes for Jedi who fail at their missions to seclude themselves in remote planets and do nothing forever after, at least as an unspoken rule (Yoda had done it also).

It does make sense, and is consistent with the story, that Jedi (plural), honorable and with a deep connection to the unseen energy binding all of the Universe, would deeply feel and be impacted by their own lapses in judgement, by the crumbling of their order, and by personal choices that led to great negative consequence. In such circumstances it would be understandable for them to want to withdraw, remove themselves from the game, so as to ponder and reflect about what happened, what they did and why, and where they failed. Or, if nothing else, to save face, to try to protect what image of integrity they have left, and show how deeply they acknowledge their shortcomings – since honor and integrity, given the sharp light/dark thematic in this Universe, as well as their role as symbols for the Rebel Alliance, are so fundamental to them and to the story.

However, I do not feel the movie provides solid enough justification to support Luke’s choice (and even Yoda’s for that matter) of retreating to a remote location indefinitely, and make so difficult for anyone (good or bad) to find him. Wouldn’t it make more sense that, after a time in seclusion, a Jedi would want to lead, influence, or at least serve to the best of his capacity, the resistance against the Empire? Wouldn’t it be more honorable to risk their lives serving the positive-oriented Rebel Alliance, as opposed to remove themselves out of the picture entirely? It could be argued Luke was waiting for a sign to move forth when the time was right. But he definitely didn’t act like that. He’s surprised the Rebels sent a young unknown to meet him, but he’s also very much regretful and cynical about the situation as a whole, and outright refuses to come out of seclusion — and never does so, at least physically. (Here is perhaps another subversion, because you’d expect, in a typical plot, the outcast hero to be sooner of later convinced or coerced by others to come out of hiding to help, thus having an opportunity at redemption. Here Luke changes his mind only in the very last part of the movie, where he projects an image of himself across the Universe using the Force).

Mark Hamill spoke about this when he said on a personal note he didn’t agree with the course they went with his character: my Luke Skywalker would never have given up. This is because that’s the impression that comes across. In other words, Luke’s choice (and possibly of any other Jedi if in that specific situation) to seclude himself, while understandable given his story with Kylo Ren, nonetheless comes across as being too harsh, too extreme.

However, the major issue with doing anything differently with this, was the precedent established by previous movies.

Yoda had made the same choice — live as a hermit in a secluded planet — given the events he participated in, showcased in the prequels. That choice was the reference Luke had from his own Master, and as such, it is consistent – even if precarious — for Luke to do the same thing. So it was a difficult but perhaps necessary choice for the screenwriters to put Luke in this position. Had they chose to do anything differently, I think they would risk a little bit too much going straight against the ethos/canon of the Star Wars saga itself, which could hypothetically have even more serious consequences.

Subversion #2 — Reckless Behavior and Implausible Risk-Taking

The Precedents:

Perhaps being notorious the most in the original three episodes, the middling serious/light tone of the saga would often dictate that in order for an hopelessly outnumbered and desperate Rebel Alliance have any chance of beating back the mighty Empire, some sort of heroic, against-all-odds, David against Goliath daredevil strategy would have to be employed… and that strategy would usually work, in some way.

In A New Hope, as the heroes are brought into the Death Star they manage to evade the ship’s entire contingent of troops by disguising themselves as enemy troopers, rescue Leia, and eventually escape (albeit with the loss of Obi-Wan at the hands of Vader). Later the Rebels would manage to destroy the Death Star itself by launching a daring fighter attack against the entire defenses of the moon-sized base, and they succeed in destroying it as Luke shoots an exhaust port, even if taking heavy losses.

In Empire Strikes Back, a small group of lighter craft manage to fight off the Empire’s heavy walker vehicles and assault troops, giving most of the Rebels time to escape their base. In The Return of the Jedi, Jabba the Hut’s lair is infiltrated by the protagonists to rescue Han, and although said infiltration doesn’t succeed at first, at the last possible minute R2D2 throws Luke his lightsaber, enabling them to fight and escape. Later in the Rebels would launch another daring attack on the new Death Star — coupled with a ground assault in a planet involving the aforementioned battle with the support of Ewoks — upon which they execute a daring starship raid through the base’s innards, destroying it by shooting at its core.

Attack on the core of the second Death Star, Return of the Jedi (1983)

In Episode VII — The Force Awakens (2015), as stated some of these elements repeat. For instance, Finn, Han and Chewbacca, using the Millennium Falcon, sneak into Starkiller Base (a.k.a. Death Star #3) to rescue Rey and disable the shield protecting the planet/base, so the Rebels can attack it. Despite this plan not quite working at first (when the shield is initially disabled the ensuing Rebel attack is thwarted) eventually the heroes manage to plant explosives that destroy the shield generator, allowing the Rebels to then execute a decisive, daring starship raid at the base’s innards, destroying it by shooting at its core.

Also, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — which, while not part of any trilogy, works essentially as a standalone, modern-day Star Wars movie that arguably stays more or less true to the vibe of the saga — closer to the end of the film the protagonist leads a small squad in a rogue mission, against the direct orders of her superiors, to retrieve the Death Star’s plans from an Imperial base on a planet. Upon arrival at said base aboard a stolen Imperial ship, and using a diversionary attack intended as distraction, the main characters proceed to disguise themselves as enemy soldiers and venture within the base, to where the information is kept. Despite eventually being discovered and surrounded, and with the loss of the droid K-2SO (and ultimately, spoilers, of everyone), they do succeed at their objective.

Rebels disguised as Imperials, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rebels disguised as Imperials, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Star Wars always remained more or less true the ethos of a Rebel(lious) Alliance. The heroes would usually be awarded for a maverick attitude and for engaging in daredevil tactics that, while risk-laden and often implausible and unlikely to succeed on paper, would nevertheless always work out – or at least pay off – in the end, with casualties and losses being more or less overlooked for the sake of the greatest good.

Case #1: Last-Ditch Attack on the Empire… Because?

So now we get to The Last Jedi. The movie practically begins with a sequence where a lone Rebel X-Wing, piloted by Poe — who in the sequels arguably personifies the most the stereotype of the good-natured maverick — faces off against an entire Imperial fleet, essentially taunting their commander through the intercom, all in order to buy time for the rebels to hastily evacuate their base on a planet. The rebels do complete the evacuation, however Poe at this point wants to take advantage of the unique opportunity to destroy one of the larger enemy capitals ships, quite the juicy prize, and decides, on the fly and on his own, to push forward with his X-Wing to take out the anti-fighter laser defenses of the enemy capital ship. His idea is that the Rebel bombers are then afforded the opportunity to approach the ship and take it out. He hastily communicates the idea to Leia, who’s commanding the Rebel force aboard their flagship. Leia’s hand is more or less forced here. In order to not let her best/star pilot risk his life for nothing, and also agreeing with him, she concedes. She holds the escape for a moment, and orders the bomber wing, along with fighters, to launch an impromptu attack.

The movie then presents us with a sequence worthy of the exciting space fights the saga presented in the past. In the most daredevil manner possible, Poe swings and swerves his X-Wing through a wail of flak and a host of enemy ships, managing to hit and destroy the point defense cannons of the enemy capital ship, all on his own. He’s hit once by an enemy laser with disables his firing mechanisms temporarily; but, reminiscent of what R2 did aboard Luke’s X-Wing, Poe’s droid, BB-8, resolves the situation in the last moment by plugging the gaps in a circuitry board, with its own head. Apart from losses, the action is quick-paced and lighthearted.

BB-8 the droid aboard Poe's X-Wing fighter

BB-8 the droid aboard Poe’s X-Wing fighter, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Then, a group of bulky and slowly-moving Rebel bombers approach the enemy ship. There’s a moment of uncertainty, where bombers and fighters on the Rebel side are outnumbered and being taken out, getting dangerously close to not being able to fulfill their mission, until only one last bomber remains, who now has the onus of delivering its payload to destroy the ship. There’s even some attention given to drama and confusion aboard the bomber, but one of its crew members manages at the last second to press the trigger and drop the bombs. The detonation blast takes out the bomber itself along with its heroic crew member; but the ship is finally taken out. The remaining Rebel ships return victoriously to their fleet to escape.

Up to this point, all of this remains fairly true to the general theme and tone of the Star Wars movies. The Rebels put a valiant effort, and despite losses and drawbacks, they heroically beat the odds. The subversion happens the moment when, in the middle of the congratulatory period as the fighters return and the Rebels celebrate, Leia looks at a monitor, showing that most of Rebel fighters, including all of the bombers and their crew, had been lost. Her expression is a mix of relief and celebration, pervaded by sorrow and loss, heavy, insolvable, unavoidable. Without saying a word, through acting alone, she ponders and asks if it was really worthy; what was the cost to pay? And so the audience is invited to deliberate on it as well.

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in The Last Jedi

This exact moment is the very first instance in a Star Wars film (that I am aware of) where it’s suggested that the daredevil, maverick, spontaneous move may not have been the right one. It was at best a “Pyrrhic” victory, that is to say, many lives were lost to eliminate one enemy ship, and all because of the impulsive and unrestrained decision of someone not in command, arguably putting his own ideas and priorities above the value of the lives of his own colleagues and friends. On top of that, this convoy of ships and crew leaving this planet are all the Rebels have. They are down to the very last ships and personnel. They’re on their last feet. All the while the Empire controls the majority of the Galaxy, likely having endless resources, ships and crew at their disposal. So by all accounts the opportunity to take out a capital ships wasn’t that significant to begin with, especially at the cost of most of their last remaining assets.

And just to strike this one home, another Imperial capital ship, exactly alike to the one who had just been destroyed, suddenly jumps out of hyperspace onto the exact same space where the other one stood. Ouch (this was no other than the big bad’s main capital ship).

I’m not advocating for subservience and mindless obedience to tyrannical authority – nor do I want to discourage thinking outside the box. The subversion here is not so much about the spectrum of rebelliousness vs obedience, rather it’s about a shift in tone of the story: going from a goofy, lighthearted and less “serious” one, to one where stakes matter and choices have consequences. It’s a more serious tone, closer to a real-life perspective (even though it’s science fiction), in contrast with the idea of the good guys always saving the day and going home to celebrate, implausible plans always working out no matter the odds, and life-threatening risks being more or less treated lightly. Leia began referring to this by saying that to deal with problems Poe would just prefer hopping into his X-Wing and “blow stuff up”.

Continues in part 2, to be published.

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