Wednesday, December 20, 2017

THE LAST JEDI: A Story of Starting Over

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi. Turn back now if you haven't seen it yet and don't want it spoiled. Like seriously, I don't want to see your ass on Facebook crying about how you can't escape spoilers because I'm putting a GREAT BIG WARNING right here at the front, so if you read on and get spoiled that's on you. Not me. Got it? Okay.

I've just come back from seeing The Last Jedi with Rob, my Kalibourne co-creator and the biggest Star Wars fan I know who hasn't actually worked in the franchise in some capacity. He wanted a second viewing to clear up some feelings on it, and apparently I was the person to come with for that. I am a fan, although my horse in the race is not nearly as big as others'; I enjoy it for pew pew and for fantasy/fairy tale elements, and I come into it with the full knowledge that strong, beautifully-penned scripts aren't necessarily a part of the franchise's tradition. They don't have to be. It's a space fiary tale. It's fine.

So anyway, before I go on, I'll say this much: I enjoyed The Last Jedi, while marking a few writing choices (and making guesses as to why they were made) that could have potentially been handled a little more solidly. I received and liked its message, while being aware of why others -- hardcore fans or not -- would not.

From a purely objective filmmaking standpoint, it was as stable and put together as the better few Star Wars movies. From a story standpoint, its spearhead message is a biggie, both for life in general and as a meta-comment on the franchise itself. And it's not particularly an easy pill to swallow.

The Matter of Religion

Star Wars has never made any secret of how inspired it is by the concept of religion and faith, with a specific leaning toward Abrahamic religions. It was driven home in the prequels with the "immaculate conception" of Anakin Skywalker, and in case you missed it, Luke's treatment of the "Jedi religion" in The Last Jedi is a good reminder.

Anything that continues in the long term needs a regular system of reevaluation and refreshment: remembering and maintaining what is at the core of it, and assessing what might need to change as time goes on. Without that careful combination of preserving the core and allowing the outer elements to shift and bend, things become useless.

Luke's assessment that the Jedi cannot continue as they are isn't wrong -- it's true of anything, especially a self-proclaimed religion. But his belief that the Jedi should die with him is as useless as simply continuing the Order with no change and allowing it to produce the likes of Anakin and Kylo Ren.

Stagnating is bad. Progress, while maintaining what makes the movement important, is survival. For the Jedi... and for Star Wars as a franchise.

Heroes and Masters

Several people have pointed out that the overarching feel of The Last Jedi is somewhat nihilistic, and they aren't necessarily wrong. There is one action carried out by multiple characters over and over throughout the runtime of the film that adds to this tone, but at the same time it feels very deliberate.

Time and time again, we watch as students outlive their masters.

For some, it's deliberate. Kylo Ren bisects Snoke. (That was pretty cool.) Finn defeats Phasma. (Slightly less cool.) Similarly, Rey begins to demonstrate the true extent of her Jedi powers as Luke is on the outs, and Poe (in an odd bait and switch that I may have to talk about in a different entry) leads his own mini-mission under the nose of Vice Admiral Holdo before watching her go down with the ship.

With Sith and Jedi masters and padawans all throughout the series, it's nothing new for masters to die or depart. But this movie had case after case after case of the new generation outdoing or undoing their predecessors.

From a filming standpoint, it's understandable -- we need to move into the New Group of People and make them as central as possible, but we had to have the original team in as much as possible to anchor the new movies to the original trilogy. But beyond that, it's all a part of a hero's journey: while their mentor lives, they cannot become a hero.

Journeying Forward

Don't get me wrong -- in the real world, we are absolutely able to move forward in life without killing our teachers or parents. And that's a good thing. Please don't do that. That's not all right.

However, the "death" carries a metaphorical weight. We spend much of our youth (and, sadly, much of our adulthood) looking up to and comparing ourselves to the ones who came before. The stories of students mourning the deaths of their mentors, or sons killing their fathers, speaks instead to our need to "kill" that sense of unequal footing, and allow ourselves to see ourselves as their equals.

With this movie, we see each of our sequel trilogy protagonists taking the spotlight.

Kylo Ren destroys Snoke, whose favor he always sought, and now stands as Supreme Leader.

Finn destroys Captain Phasma, laying to rest his association with the Storm Troopers.

Poe takes the reins, for better or for worse, behind Holdo's back and survives her to aid the Rebels.

And Rey becomes the Last Jedi -- or perhaps a new First Jedi -- as Luke Skywalker fades into the sunset.

Each of them has had their "coming of age" moment. And by doing so, the New Guard and their new way of doing things -- rebellious Storm Troopers and junk rat Jedi -- have given the franchise a scrub-down and primed it for survival.

Like the Jedi Order, Star Wars must adapt while retaining its heart if it hopes to survive. Whether it has done so is up to each fan individually... but even in the midst of watching the Jedi be reborn out of the fire that "destroys" it, there's still an underpinning of hope.


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