Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Last Jedi Is The Anti Empire Strikes Back

With The Force Awakens, probably the main talking point, was that the movie was a "rehashing" of A New Hope. This has been stated both as a positive and as a criticism. It seemed that a lot of people, upon watching it in the theater for the first time, felt that the movie "brought back Star Wars" after the deviation they felt from the prequels. Criticisms, however, were that Force Awakens was merely a clone of A New Hope, with no original story. Either way, it seems that the goal of Force Awakens, was to "reawaken" Star Wars, by giving the audience something familiar, which may or may not have been over-done.

With The Last Jedi, on the other hand, the main talking point is, "did it feel like Star Wars?" In fact, discussions of this movie seem to present a duality between "was it a good movie" vs. "was it a good Star Wars movie". This would not be a question if there were not some element that felt different from one's expectations of what a Star Wars movie feels like, which provoked fans to ponder and decide whether these deviations were reconcilable to their experience of the movie. However, similarly to The Force Awakens, there is also the criticism that it "rehashes" The Empire Strikes Back. The movie seems to be simultaneously criticized as "too different" from Star Wars, yet, "too similar" to Empire Strikes Back.

I see The Last Jedi as essentially a "rejection", so to speak, of The Empire Strikes Back. When it comes down to it, it seems that the goal of The Last Jedi is the opposite of The Force Awakens. Where The Force Awakens intended to draw us back into the Star Wars universe by invoking familiar "Star Warsey" feelings, The Last Jedi set the stage to expand the Star Wars universe beyond the familiar. (It's a big galaxy, after all.) It did this by essentially "rejecting" The Empire Strikes Back.

In the beginning of the movie, we have the template set up for The Empire Strikes Back to happen all over again. We have the new Empire and the new rebellion, the new Emperor and the new Darth Vader, the new Luke heading off to train with the new Yoda, the new betrayal of the rebels, and the new battle of Hoth. Only, in each of these instances, the movie takes an unexpected deviation, swerving the series away from the direction of the original trilogy.

Right off the bat, this premise is exemplified when Luke rejects the light saber, symbolically rejecting the role of "Yoda 2". Of course, Yoda had apprehensions toward training Luke in the beginning, but not with such a symbolic gesture of rejection towards everything he once was. Next, we have Snoke criticizing Kylo Ren's mask, which seems to be garbling his voice exaggeratedly from the first movie. This is followed by Kylo destroying the mask in a fit of rage, symbolically rejecting his likeness to Darth Vader.

With Leia in a coma, General Holdo takes command of the rebellion. General Holdo essentially seems to betray the rebels, whether through corruption or ineptitude, much as Lando betrayed the rebels in Empire. It's now up to Poe and his cronies to fight back. We believe that they are standing up against the betrayer, up until the scene where awakened Leia enters the room in which Poe has barricaded himself. We are expecting Leia to congratulate Poe, and join him, after all, why would the movie take us through this if we were not watching the good guys standing up to the bad guys? Poe seems to expect this as well, right up until Leia shoots him. We then find out that Holdo was not in fact the betrayer of the rebels, and Poe was not the good guy struggling with the bad guy. The rebels proceed as Holdo had planned, with Poe's mutiny acting as a mere hiccup.

Luke states the idea that, rather than reinstating the Jedi, it's time to move on and let the Jedi die. This sets the story up for a change of mind, but still sets a tone of "moving on". Later, Yoda burns down the tree. Even though we find out that the texts had been saved, this symbolizes a moving on from the old ways. (The texts move from the old temple into the possession of the new force user.)

Rey and Kylo reject the adversarial "Luke and Darth Vader, dynamic", as they form a bond, and eventually team up against Snoke. Then, finally, Kylo kills Snoke, and assumes control of the First Order, smashing to pieces the "Emperor/ Vader dynamic" which defined the original series. The Emperor runs things and Darth Vader is subservient. By killing Snoke, Kylo eradicates both the Emperor and Darth Vader, and becomes something entirely new. He even suggests to Rey that they team up to create something different, that is neither the Empire nor the Republic.

Rey and Kylo themselves are shown to be something new that has never been seen before. In the previous movie, Rey demonstrates an uncanny adeptness with the force, surpassing even Anakin. Yet, as Kylo reveals in Last Jedi, she is not linked to any of these institutions which precede her. She is something new which has appeared. Similarly, in the previous movie, Snoke refers to Kylo as representing a new power which embodies both the dark and the light. In Last Jedi, Luke states that he feels the same energy from Rey as he did from Kylo. It is unfamiliar, and it scares him to the point that he considered killing Kylo. The two of them team up and essentially end up smashing the premise of the original series.

Then, we have the final battle. To me, this battle seems to symbolically sum up the movie's rejection of the Empire Strikes Back template. Arguably the most iconic scene in Empire, is the battle of Hoth. The Empire Strikes Back begins with the battle of Hoth, and The Last Jedi ends with the battle of Hoth. In both battles, the rebels have been cornered within a facility on an ice planet, by the Empire, and must face down Imperial Walkers. Only, it is revealed that in The Last Jedi, it is not actually an ice planet. It is merely a thin dusting of salt covering a red mineral surface. The movie takes care to point this out to us, even though it doesn't play a part in the plot. Since it is not a direct part of the plot, yet is deliberately pointed out in the narrative, it is likely symbolic, showing that this is only superficially a rehashing of Hoth. Under the surface, there is something else to be revealed. By the end of the battle, most of the salt covering has been blown away, revealing just the red planetary surface, as if Hoth itself had been blown away, and replaced with something new.

In the end, Luke, the protagonist of the original series, fades away, taking the old series with him.

It seems to me that the ambiguity as to whether The Last Jedi "feels like Star Wars" was a deliberate mechanism to move us beyond the confines of the original series. Whereas The Force Awakens was all about reentering the Star Wars universe by re-purposing the original template, The Last Jedi was all about moving beyond the familiar, into yet unknown areas of the universe, by rehashing the familiar template, and deliberately veering in a different direction.