The Last Jedi is a divisive film. It deconstructs Star Wars completely. This is one reason why critics think it is smart and unsual, and love it to bits, and why fans absolutely hate it. The backlash was enormous. I went to see the film twice, and went from hating it to loving it and back again. Though I don’t do a lot of film blogs, I thought it would be nice to synthesize some of the criticism and reflect on this divisive installment a bit. I will unpack some of the main discourses in the film (e.g. portrayals of gender, heroism) and compare these with some of the critiques of the film.
Female leaders, male rookies and villains
The representations of gender were especially difficult, and much talked about in fandom. Blogger Bitter Gertrude explains nicely how the portrayals of female leadership are a key reason that fan boys act out against the film.
Women in the Resistance are constantly fighting against cocky young men chasing glory, constantly trying to save lives that these cocky young men would sacrifice for that glory. This is a film that sees glorious sacrifice as a last resort and escape as a pragmatic and sensible choice. This is a film about discretion being the better part of valor. It doesn’t take much analytical skill to see why some men are so upset by that, and Holdo is one of the characters at the center of that narrative. The other is Leia.
Holdo’s plot is interesting, and stands out to me the most. Her arc is clearly about gender and expectations, but many fans read it as being about miscommunication. In fact, many of my friends argued that this plot was not about sexism and ageism at all. (A young man looking down on an experienced woman, because she is not “what he expected”). They felt that Holdo owed the recently demoted Poe a clear explanation of her strategy.
Miscommunication seems to be theme, for sure, but I wouldn’t say this is the main thing. Don’t forget; Poe was recently demoted and is not on top of the line. She doesn’t owe him many explanations. At the start of the film, we see him get away with a lot with Leia. “Permission to blow things up, ma’am?” and boom, he’s already blowing things up in space. Now Poe has to deal with someone that really has a strategy and a vision, and that only briefs those in the inner circle (as you do, in the real military you would also not brief each and every soldier as an admiral). Anyway, it’s not the best depiction of militarism that we have seen, and they could have taken a page here from BSG and Babylon 5, but I could live with it. Until one of Holdo’s final scenes.
The most diminishing part of the film here, in my opinion, is the part where the women laugh it off. Lei and Holdo tolerate – even appreciate -Poe’s risk-taking. You can just hear them go boys will be boys. ‘That one is a trouble maker,’ Holdo says. ‘I like him.’ (Other female leaders like Laura Roslin would have airlocked the guy after committing mutiny but Star Wars, am I right?)
What are these heroes without the villain? His depiction is a tough one, and also heavily gendered. Snook turns out to be a faux villain, and that gives rise to Kylo Ren. This article in The Mary Sue explains why he is the perfect villain of his times, comparing him to fascists movements and the alt-right. This is a dangerous, young villain who is childish and unpredictable.
‘…the new trilogy never pretends that this childishness makes his rage any less dangerous, or any more forgivable. His furies are petty, but they kill people. Like the alt-righters who marched in Charlottesville wearing those ugly white polos, Kylo is ridiculous – but he is also monstrous. In having him kill Han Solo and out-Snoke Snoke, both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi present Kylo as someone who isn’t seduced by the Dark Side, but actively courting it.’
While Kylo Ren may evoke different responses, in many ways he is a villain of our times, and he does give an interesting dimension to the story. His fixation on Luke (the scene where he blasts him multiple times), his relationship with Rey – I may not like him, but I appreciate his role in the story. While he is childish, he also strikes me as a trickster character at times, especially in the ways he dealt with Rey in this film. This aspect of him, rather the immature and radical bits (the past must die), interest me.
Deconstructing the hero’s myth
It is important to bear in mind that the original Star Wars is a myth that follows the hero’s journey which Lukas explicitly used as inspiration for his films. In this model, the hero, after many quests, prevails, conquers evil but also returns with an inner strength of sorts. He achieves balance between the material and spiritual, is comfortable in the inner and the outer world. In the original trilogy, our heroes prevail. But The Last Jedi doesn’t care about that – it doesn’t follow the old models, but speaks back to them. This tweet by Christian Blauvelt summarizes it well:
Instead of granting fan service and pastiche, The Last Jedi subverts Star Wars tropes. As this reviewer states in Slate, the film is a parody of Star Wars and its tropes: ‘Johnson’s stroke of genius in The Last Jedi is to craft a romantic film from ironic fragments, including spoofs of Star Wars.’
What we get as a result is a rather cynical, postmodern film that does not believe in typical myths. This is why The Last Jedi has a huge backlash and is not for everyone. It completely destroys Star Wars. In LA Review, Dann Hassler-Forest writes:
‘Not only does it question and even challenge its own legacy, but it also accepts responsibility for a cultural phenomenon that is itself part of a frighteningly powerful media empire. This makes The Last Jedi a whole lot more than just another episode in an ongoing series; it is also a film that struggles to distance itself from the most toxic elements of Star Wars in order to chart a more progressive terrain.’
Indeed, the most interesting moment is the end of the film. Here Star Wars spoofs Star Wars overtly. A child is playing with Star Wars toys and longs to be a hero of the resistance himself. The scene is self-referential – a call-out to Star Wars and its franchise. It literally includes the toys with which many of us grew up. This is rife with nostalgia, and is meant to appeal to fan boys and girls. Does it completely work? Meh. “Broom boy” sparked a lot of fan theories the past month though.
Deconstructing the idea of what makes a real hero instead of a magical chosen one takes center stage in the film. The main characters each have to come to terms with what makes or breaks a true hero – Rey and Kylo Ren (and Luke), Poe and Holdo, Finn and Rose. Each have a counterpart that brings them forward. Each of them is defined by their actions in this film. Even something that seems like a casino sidequest can be key to shaping our heroes.
Rey’s plot line, which was much criticized, should also be understood in this light. The message here is: There is no such thing as a chosen one. The hero’s journey is completely out of the picture. This upset many of my friends and colleagues. Indeed, many were rooting that Rey was a chosen one of sorts, a Kenobi, a Skywalker. The fact that Rey was nothing (read an ordinary person like you or me) hurt them deeply, but I found it perfect. The scene where Rey looks at many of her mirror images, and sees them all fall apart, is beautiful and haunting. She realizes that she is not special. Kylo Ren even says – speaking to the history of Star Wars, George Lukas, and its fandom: “You have no place in this story. You come from nothing, you are nothing.”
Obsessed with heroism and taking a stand, Poe’s character was also much discussed by fans. Some critiqued him, some felt that the film didn’t do him justice or emasculated him. His whole arc is about finding true heroism, which is not about risk taking, masculinity or being a chosen one. He has to find out what leadership is, and learns this from women. Holdo’s sole purpose in the film is developing Poe’s character further. After Poe misunderstands her, causes a mutiny and nearly kills her, he eventually learns to respect her. When he understand her strategy, he admires it. When she sacrifices herself, it impresses him. Serene, calm and introvert, she is the perfect antidote to his antics. Her death, sadly, is mostly framed as a learning moment for Poe. As Leia summarizes nicely: ‘She was more interested in protecting the light, than seeming a hero.’ (Looking at you, Poe.)
The true heroes in the film are characters like Holdo and Rose, who are altruistic, operate from intrinsic motivation, and are driven by a higher cause. They readily sacrifice themselves for others. They respect their mentors, are in love, and only take risks when it matters, and without blinking twice. The scene after Rose has saved Finn summarizes this beautifully, when she tells him that they can only win the war by “saving what we love, not fighting what we hate.”
Luke as an old man, villain and mentor
My major critique on the film – and this occupied me for weeks – was the character of Luke Skywalker. In the marketing of the film, Luke was depicted with two faces; he was on the side of both good and evil. I loved this take on the character and it was one of the main reasons why I wanted to see the film.
What I hoped for was a film that subverted the hero’s journey completely, and with much attention to how Luke would switch sides. In my expectation of the film, Luke’s journey would be the complete anti-thesis to Joseph Campbell’s model, which used Star Wars as a main case. By completely deconstructing this, and bringing Luke to the dark side, the film could have been beautiful. Instead, the depiction of Luke is one that is bitter and cynical. He made a mistake in threatening Kylo Ren (and considering to kill him for a brief moment). This affects Ren, and becomes his origin story as a villain.
The depiction of Luke and the jedi culture felt off to me – I wish they would have gone much further in this nihilism and bitterness. I would have been up for a film in which Luke would not have saved the day, but turned out to be more of an antagonist.
Instead of sith/dark!Luke, we got old man Luke, who was almost absurd. Much attention went to a subplot that mocked the jedi religion. I loved that Star Wars gave us a deeply spiritual, magical Force to believe in, but this aspect of its world was ridiculed. If the film had been more postmodern (characters lose faith in a secular, militarist time) I would have been able to cope with it, but the tone seemed wrong to me.
The film mocks important traditions, scriptures, and doesn’t consider the loss of the jedi school twice. Even Yoda deems their scriptures worthless: ‘Page turners they were not.’ Oof.
What we grow beyond
It is perhaps this cynicism that the fans find off-putting.This is not so much a theme or content as it is a tone that runs through the whole movie. The film feels disrespectful at points. We get grim reflections in the film that do not spare the canon, the magic, the religion and the characters. Instead of a literal pastiche (like the first film), The Last Jedi broke new ground. But at times, that felt to us like a major “fuck you”. The mirror scene with Rey is iconic in this sense. There is literally nothing there, and that upsets us. Nihilism is what the film tries to get at, but it can be aggravating. When I took literature courses during my BA, one thing that always fascinated me about quality postmodern writing was that in its nihilism, there was always something new, surreal and beautiful to be found. I don’t think The Last Jedi offered us enough of that.
Also, I believe that one of the reasons why this film feels like such a hot mess, is exactly because it threw the hero’s journey out of the window. This model is still recognizable in many Hollywood films today, and once you break it, you get something quite artsy and indie. Like The Last Jedi. Old things must burn, The Last Jedi’s characters say continuously. For fans, this can be hard to hear and to live with. It is the belief of the villain, Kylo Ren, and he spells it out a lot. But sometimes creating something entirely new is ambitious and weird and uncomfortable. Like The Last Jedi.
But there is hope. In the figure of Yoda and many others, we realize that the past cannot be burned, and that some traditions are preserved. Even when we try to burn them completely, our histories live on inside us, and haunt us (like puppet!Yoda). Perhaps the next film can deal with this aspect more. Can we truly let go of the old? What do the new heroes of the empire and the resistance look like?
When Yoda and Luke have a conversation about their protegees, Yoda remarks: ‘We are what they grow beyond.’ This holds true, also as a self-referential sentence. The Last Jedi is a mature version of Star Wars that tries to go beyond it. It may not always succeed in this ambition, but I admire it.