It was a luxury to have ever believed in heightening the contradictions. For some fraction of the population, which skews neither evil nor good, but is large enough to punch above its weight, the unconscious objective of life is to wash its hands of any guilt or responsibility, whether they are soiled or not. This strikes me as a weakness, even if it bolsters their strength.
There’s a special place in hell for those on one end of this spectrum: the Wayne LaPierres who whip up resentment to burnish the sales of guns or the Dinesh D’Souzas and Alex Joneses who blind themselves to the actual, provable, visceral suffering of others, like the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, who have been heroically vocal about their losses and their proximate cause: guns. And then there’s the other end of the spectrum, an emergency-responder acquaintance of mine who resides in the rural South, and believes the line that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a firearm brandished by himself. I trust his good intentions, and so does he, and my point isn’t that we’re allergic to reasoning. But a million invidious arguments will land on him before I’m allowed a word in edgewise. You can chose your culture, but not pick your society.
It would be missing the point of Star Wars: The Last Jedi to preface a review with hopelessness. If anything, it proves the same point the Parkland, Fla., students do: that the kids are all right. And yet it seemed significant, in a way that was difficult to articulate then, that its long-awaited prequel, The Force Awakens, had arrived at the ramp-up to the 2016 election.
Outside of disco fever, there was probably no greater pop-culture bridge between the introspective 1970s and in-denial 1980s than George Lucas’s Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). The security-blanket ’50s were as gone as the revolutionary ’60s; what was left was malaise. Some of the finest movies, television, and music of that period—which included some of the finest movies, television, and music of all time—confronted audiences with the reality of life at a crossroads. And audiences paid to experience it. Lucas, whose first sleeper hit, American Graffiti (1973), inspired a yearning for the old security blanket, stitched a new one with A New Hope. He built a fully realized world to escape to in the cosmos, a refuge from moral realities that welcomed children and adults. Courtesy of toys, books, video games, et al, you could tune in over and over—and ultimately drop out.
If I’m sticking to the negatives here, it’s not to say that the positives aren’t abundant, if widely discussed. I loved Star Wars, Jar Jar-haters be damned. But Lucas provided an opening for a culture seeking any excuse to regress. Ronald Reagan was elected president the year The Empire Strikes Back was released, and Americans spirited away to fantasyland while their civic life was torn to shreds. Only the ugliest manifestation of that logic could break its own chains—or so Lenin’s theory of contradiction went. Donald Trump was elected president the year after J. J. Abrams merchandised to a new generation and Disney signaled its intent to do so every year thence.
Lucas contains multitudes. The 73-year-old, at the nightfall of his career, strikes me as a combination of Santa Claus and King Lear. His trajectory is that of an artist who expected to be Van Gogh but ended up Walt Disney. Now that he sees his legacy in the hands of the latter, he wants to return to being the former. In Richard Brody’s view, the avant-gardist in Lucas is at war with the storyteller, the role for which Lucas is widely celebrated but which Brody thinks of as “a mark of his will to power.” I don’t entirely agree. If Lucas has a will to power, it’s bound up in social responsibility; the self-described “Zen Methodist” who’s using his remarkable fortune to build low-income housing in Marin County, told Charlie Rose in 2015: “If you’re making a work of art, a film, and nobody sees it, I don’t see where it does anybody any good.” In other words, Lucas’s inner conflict is between artistic inclinations and pragmatic civil duty. In fact, it’s possible that his avant-gardism is less a matter of taste, and more of process.
I think this tension is at the core of the prequels, and why they’re derided by almost everyone except high-brow contrarians like Brody. The impulse to transform the mythology into something more like Greek tragedy shows both an awareness of the original trilogy’s limitations and a willingness to risk ambition, to inject the films with more depth. But the injection didn’t take. Burdened by the weight of real-world complexity—subplots hinging on bureaucratic machinations and tongue-dropping scientism—the moral simplicity of the universe collapsed, and so did much of its appeal.
Abrams replicated that simplicity by cloning A New Hope. To my surprise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—which plugged a hole between the prequels and the originals—deepened the old mythology by introducing characters who, unlike Luke, Leia, and Han, were disposable. They died for the cause and raised its stakes. But even if these Rebel temps weren’t all compelling, they were individuals; it was a marked step up from Abrams’s plot device: getting rid of the whole Republic by way of his Death Star retread. Like the alternate-timeline loophole in his Star Trek, this extinction was an excuse to disrespect the material in order to keep its revenue stream flowing. Star Wars was no longer Lucas’s myth about defeating evil; it became a cycle of endless warfare. Commercial realism without the nuances of reality.
These complexities would be a Sarlacc pit for most filmmakers, especially the indie-startup types who get robbed from the cradle and indentured to blockbusters. Rian Johnson is no nerf-herder. And it helps that, on top of the ironies and conflicting priorities that keep the lights on at Lucasfilm, not to mention the expectations of countless fans and comment boards, Johnson has also inherited all of the next-generation characters.
The padwans were absolutely the triumph of The Force Awakens. There’s Finn (John Boyega), an Imperial defector and more empathetic Cowardly Lion than C-3PO; Poe (Oscar Isaac), a dashing flying ace who’s like Han Solo without the grunge; Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Force-intuitive from a planetary backwater, in search of her own backstory; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), an insecure goth kid posing as a genocidal warlord—not to mention Han and Leia’s estranged son. The last two are particularly explosive together. She’s from the wrong side of the tracks, he’s on the wrong side of the Force. He’s got the Skywalker pedigree, and the training, and the right connections, but this rube—a lady Jedi!—can match his sorcery spell for spell.
Diving right in, Johnson opens on Poe’s speck of a starfighter confronting the mighty star destroyer commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). It’s a teasing reversal of these actors’ power dynamic in Ex Machina: Isaac, committing to the role with kitschy abandon, prank-calls the Empire. One may reject to this style of humor creeping into a franchise not well-known for its repartee, but it’s a delicious way for Johnson to assert his tone.
Johnson is the right filmmaker to tackle Star Wars at this moment. It is as if he was linked through the Force with Denis Villeneuve, director of Blade Runner 2049, like Rey and Kylo Ren link in The Last Jedi—they unwittingly flicker into each other’s consciousness from light-years away, a supernally triggered “Hey u up?” In a sequence that recalls the climax of The Lady from Shanghai, played out in a crystal vase, Rey learns something that—well, if you don’t want Jedi or 2049 spoiled, don’t read on. Essentially, Rey’s twist is like K’s in Blade Runner: her parents were nobodies. The Skywalker dynasty not withstanding, courage is not always borne in the blood.
Poe is perhaps the role closest to a Johnson type; in outline, he resembles Mark Ruffalo in The Brothers Bloom. There’s even a complex system for the daredevil to buck, one that confirms that Leia (Carrie Fisher) really was the bureaucrat Han used to snark her for being. (Fisher’s loss casts its shadow. She matured into her role as much as Mark Hamill has his; Leia’s a fighter who’s been kicked down her entire adult life and is accustomed to picking herself up. One can see how, even without the stress of raising a genocidal teen, this workaholic’s affair with Han was probably doomed from the get go. In one moving vignette, that’s unblemished by explanation, Leia glides to safety after being blasted into space, like La Befana riding in on the gulf stream.) Poe’s real foil, however, is another #nastywoman: a vice admiral played, shockingly and effectively against type, by Laura Dern. To borrow from Star Trek II, she and Leia are both used to “no-win scenarios.”
Johnson is the right man, right now, because he’s a romantic whose talent for visual storytelling, and embrace of nuance, gives him the authority to demonstrate that heroes can exist—and are also flawed. Like the Clinton campaign, The Force Awakens was frozen in neoliberal carbonite. Abrams may admire the concept of heroism, but his salient conviction is nostalgia. If one has complacently bought into a technocractic mindset that obviates individualism and human behavior, nostalgia is all that matters.
With Fisher and Dern, Johnson redeems Hillary Clinton: their technocratic masks purposefully obscure wisdom and humanity. During the climactic battle, on a white-salt planet that, when its surface is riven, scatters like blood-stained snow, Poe saves Finn from a kamikaze run, which is to say he saves Finn from the type of hotshot maneuver he himself would have been prone to do—until he was tempered by his female superiors.
The 2016 election was a reminder that evil empires are not an idle fantasy, and that their loyal subjects, even if they’re numb to contradictions, aren’t all evil incarnate. Sometimes it boils down to “length of coin,” as adduced by Benicio Del Toro, who plays his ambiguous safe-cracker like a stuttering maquisard. On the other hand, it is during troubled times that heroes are minted: whether they are fighter pilots for the Resistance or activists from Stoneman Douglas High School. After seeing Jedi, I joked that its moral was that evil will invariably be toppled by demographic inevitability. The movie ends on the Monégasque casino planet we’d left much earlier, specifically its enslaved Force-sensitive kids who, like children weaned on Lucas’s mythos, were imprinted by the good deeds of visiting Rebels.
Johnson is appending something to the lucrative time loop Disney and Abrams locked Star Wars into: every generation produces villains, but so too will it produce heroes. Is this restoring balance to the Force? Kylo Ren wants to burn everything to the ground and start afresh; Yoda (Frank Oz), likewise, releases an embittered Luke Skywalker (Hamill, the baby face is now gray in the beard) from Jedi catechisms. It would seem Johnson is in sympathy with the little green alien’s ideals. Enormously more harrowing than The Empire Strikes Back, the dark jewel of the original trilogy, The Last Jedi dispatches Resistance fighters person by person, ship by ship. Alone in his little world, Luke ponders how his failures as a man weigh against the inspirational force of his white-washed legend. His story will survive him, which is consolation for the decimated Resistance, and for his godhead Lucas—and for Luke’s current intellectual-property holders as well.