So here we are, more than six months after the release of STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI, and I’m only just now working out how I feel about it. I suppose this is is how it’s going to be with me and Star Wars as it moves forward in its post-Lucasian era. I expect that I will feel a bit conflicted about every successive movie that comes out. My feelings on THE FORCE AWAKENS took a long time to crystalize, until I generally settled on the view that it is two-thirds of a great movie followed by one-third of a terrible one. ROGUE ONE I liked considerably more, especially on the rewatch when its fine qualities stood out even more and its minor flaws receded somewhat (still, my only real objection that that film lies in its final two minutes).
Leading up to TLJ, I was in a strange place. I was looking forward to the film because I liked the new characters established in TFA, even if I didn’t care for a lot of the writing behind them thus far. I knew that we’d finally get to see Luke Skywalker again, and I expected some very emotional stuff involving Princess and General Leia Organa, made doubly poignant by the awful fact of Carrie Fisher’s passing after she completed filming. Other than that I genuinely had no expectations regarding the movie. As the TLJ release neared, a week or two out I suddenly realized that I knew less about this movie than I had about any Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. I went into TLJ knowing almost nothing about the story, which was a really interesting sensation. All I knew, literally all I knew, was what I saw in the teasers and trailers.
TLJ makes a lot of interesting choices. Some of its developments are clearly telegraphed, but in such a way as to conceal the telegraphing. Other times, Rian Johnson–our writer and director–seems to be telegraphing things, only to have them never come. Surely I can’t be the only one who, catching that throwaway glimpse of Luke’s X-wing submerged in the Ahch-To sea, expected a scene later when he would Force-raise it from the water, easily and effortlessly, just as Yoda once did for an unbelieving younger Luke. That didn’t happen. The film does contain call-backs to The Empire Strikes Back, but not that one. (In fact, TLJ calls back to nearly every episode thus far.)
For the first time we have a Star Wars film that literally picks up where the last one left off, an interesting nod to one of George Lucas’s most famous influences, the movie serials of his youth. We have a Star Wars film that points out gray areas in the established moral fabric of the Star Wars universe, and we have one of the most narrowly-focused Star Wars films yet. For a film with such an initially epic feel, what results is the most intimate Star Wars film ever made.
TLJ also takes what is perhaps the most elegiac tone yet in a Star Wars film. Revenge of the Sith was pure dark tragedy, and there was quite a bit of darkness in The Empire Strikes Back, but with TLJ we get our truest farewell to the Star Wars of old. We’ve already bid farewell to Han Solo, and now it is time to do the same for Luke Skywalker (at least in the physical sense). All that remains at film’s end of the Star Wars of old (aside from C-3PO and R2-D2) is Leia Organa, and given what’s gone before in this trilogy already it’s hard to imagine that Episode IX would not have depicted her death as well had Carrie Fisher not awfully and finally settled that issue by dying in real life. I imagine Episode IX may well open with Leia’s funeral. The feeling is of a conclusive passing-of-the-torch, an ending to the story that George Lucas began. Whatever stories come now are totally new and of a piece with Star Wars but not a part of it. In some ways I left the theater after TLJ with the same feeling that I left Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country way back in 1991, after seeing those actors’ signatures animated on the screen.
Back in the early 1970s, George Lucas appended a subtitle to one of the early drafts of a script he was working on for “a little science fiction project”: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. But those adventures are now ended, and this final trilogy in the Skywalker family saga feels perfunctory in many ways. Kylo Ren, Ben Solo, is now the only remaining Skywalker blood relative (barring some sort of JJ Abrams bombshell that keeps the Skywalkers going, and honestly, we can’t really rule that possibility out, now can we?).
If George Lucas’s original concept was an epic space opera combined with a closely-focused family saga, then this trilogy, despite being cast as Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of that story, feel less like that tale than an appended three-film epilogue designed more to set the stage for other stories than to the completion of this one. I suspect this is borne of a desire to have it both ways: to please the existing fans, but also to start moving Star Wars into the post-Lucas and post-Skywalker era. This approach is not always successful and may explain a lot of what I see as the questionable creative choices of these films. The best of these post-Lucas films thus far, for me, has been Rogue One, but even that film was severely hampered by a closing two minutes of awful fan service after two hours of very compelling storytelling in which the word “Skywalker” was never uttered.
TLJ ultimately suffers from the issues that afflicted TFA, chief among them the saddening notion that after all the crap that our heroes endured over the course of the Original Trilogy–what Yoda once called “all for which they have fought and suffered”–their hard-earned victory amounts to nothing. Their lives basically go to shit anyway: the Republic never takes hold, a new Empire stirs, Han and Leia have a kid who turns to the Dark Side, Han gives up on everything and goes off to being a space loser, Luke gives up on everything and goes to hide on some planet with some really pretty islands, Leia finds herself right back leading a war effort.
Better, perhaps, if this story had been set not thirty years later but a hundred years later, when Luke, Han, and Leia are but beloved memories instead of the weary, haunted star warriors for whom we are less rooting in their elder adventures than to whom we are saying our slow farewells.
I’ve seen a bit of criticism of Star Wars in general (the films thus far, at any rate) for being too Skywalker-centric. People would speculate on Rey’s parentage, wondering if she was a “lost Skywalker,” and the retorts would come: “Why does EVERYBODY have to be related in Star Wars!!!” Well, everybody isn’t related, but more to the point, George Lucas’s saga was always a family saga. It was one piece of galactic history, told through the lens of a couple generations of this one family. This is nothing new. Dallas wasn’t about the city of Dallas; it was about the Ewing family. Dynasty was about the Carringtons, not Denver. Bonanza was about the Cartwrights, not the entire West.
TLJ is, for all intents and purposes, the real farewell to the Skywalker family saga. Luke and Han are gone, Leia must be, and it seems beyond the realm of possibility for Kylo Ren to carry on the line. Whatever comes of Star Wars now, it will almost certainly not be the story of the Skywalkers. Maybe you think that’s good, maybe not. I’m of mixed mind. I don’t mind the Skywalker story ending…but really, they do seem to have all gone out with more whimper than bang. The Skywalker saga is petering out. It’s a little as if the last season of Dallas follows the last Ewing, a guy named Pete whose last name isn’t even Ewing because of marriages, who has left the oil business, works in a call center in Fresno, and is also an asshole.
I am not saying that Star Wars absolutely has to be about Skywalkers forevermore, until the end of time. One of my favorite Star Wars stories ever is Claudia Gray’s amazing novel Lost Stars which follows two young people into adulthood as their lives carry them through the events of the Star Wars saga, with only a few tangential encounters with anything named Skywalker. I am not opposed to opening the Star Wars universe to new possibilities, new stories…but this approach, right now, does feel like a simultaneous offering to fans and a reboot, not unlike the also-Abrams Star Trek reboot of 2009. He couldn’t just start over from scratch with the characters and say “We’re starting over.” He had to make connections to the “real” Trek to keep the fans happy (jury’s out as to whether it worked), and now we have some of the same thing going on.
None of that is TLJ‘s fault, though–this movie had to start with the ending point left for it by its maddening predecessor. So, how did I really feel about TLJ? Indeed, it’s complicated. I don’t like where the film had to start, and I don’t like the baggage it was forced by the previous film to carry…but given those constraints, I actually did like the film a great deal. I may have even loved it, as unenthusiastic as I am about the general direction Star Wars seems to be taking right now.
(BTW, one reason this review was so long in coming is that I wrote it out longhand first…and I kept writing…and writing…and writing. Seriously, look at this!
That’s just about the entire review, which I’m now posting here in installments. Yikes indeed!)