Ok. Last lesson. You ready?
Lesson 3: you can’t make something impossible
Like I’ve already said: I’m not really a Star Wars fanboy and so I don’t have a stake in this but I think I do get why it pissed off a certain people of a certain mindset.
Because in a sense a new Star Wars film is a film at war with itself. In fact yeah – mixed messages doesn’t even begin to cover it:
For example… Finn tries to sacrifice himself for the greater good which is bad (because something something love something). But Admiral Holdo sacrifices herself (in full disclosure: the coolest way I think I’ve ever seen ever) which is…. good? Poe doesn’t listen to his superiors and just does what he wants to which is bad. But Rose disobeys the orders to retreat and saves Finn which is… good? (But the toppings contain potassium benzoate etc).
(And gosh – I mean: don’t even get me started on how weird Poe’s little arc is. I mean: yeah good lesson to teach and all. I’m just not sure that a Star Wars film is the best place to do it? Like: isn’t the whole point of being a hero all wrapped up and around the idea of not listening to what authority says and going off and doing the that thing that turns out to be exactly right? Like – that’s the whole fantasy right there. I mean: yes I get that it’s interesting and yes I get that it’s a corrective to toxic masculinity etc But it’s like watching a Die Hard movie and it turns out that John McClane should have listened to the FBI and ended up getting all of the hostages killed, or the lesson that the characters in The Fast and the Furious needed to learn is that they need to drive safely and below the speed limit. I can almost hear Zizek whispering in my ear in his husky Slovenic brogue about how “Today’s hedonism combines pleasure with constraint” and “chocolate laxatives” etc)
But the biggest conflict seems to be between the past and the future / the old and the young. Because obviously it wants to give you the same thing you’ve had before at the same time it gives you something new. And it’s weird because it’s full of subtext becoming text becoming subtext again: fighting amongst itself.
Kylo Ren wants to burn the past down which makes him bad. But Yoda actually does burn shit down which is… good? And also the opposite: in that the First Order are the biggest Evil Empire fanboys you could ever hope to meet (they even dress as Stormtroopers for goodness sake) but the very last image of the film is… oh my god – seriously?… the symbol of the Rebellion.
(Well… at least it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be).
Yes ok I’m open to the idea that Rian Johnson is maybe making the same kinda point that I’m trying to make here – that binaries aren’t really that helpful and maybe we should be reaching outside our preconceived notions of Good and Bad but watching the film, it doesn’t feel like it. It just feels… confused.
(Related: If the point of the Original Trilogy was all about redemption (“There is still good in him”) what does it mean that Luke says and thinks that Kylo Ren can’t be saved and (OMG) his own mum accepts this. This is one thing while watching it that I thought was pretty fucked up: it’s slightly cynical / dark / chilling for the kids space movie to be like “Hey kids! Sometimes you just gotta kill your kid.'”)
(Unrelated: what the hell was the infinite line of multiple Reys supposed to mean? My only best guess is that in Episode 9 they’re going to up-end the twist in Last Jedi and reveal that actually she’s a clone because otherwise it feels like a pretty visual touch and not much else… Although having watched The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi the idea that there’s some sort of long term plan in play seems a little… far-fetched).
To steal a phrase – like The Dark Knight Rises (and seemingly every other big budget mainstream film of the past decade or so): it’s a potpourri of politics to see who might like which smell. Individual scenes and moments might make you go yay. You can look at the Vice Admiral Holdo stuff and say something like: it’s about the Condemnation of Mansplaining or Benicio Del “Fffffff” Toro’s 2 minutes is about How Selling Weapons is Bad or how thanks to some kid using the force on a broom it’s a film for all of us: but overall the film doesn’t add up to anything. There’s no overall message or point it really manages to make… Or to put it another way – If you stick a bunch of tweets together: that doesn’t really make a coherent essay.
Because at the end of the day – The Last Jedi doesn’t really have that much to offer apart from a basic ‘psyk!!!!’ subversion. If the Empire Strikes Back is about a reveal of parentage, from ordinary farm-boy origins to the special most important family in the universe then The Last Jedi must do opposite! Original Trilogy is about Redeeming Space Hitler. So New Trilogy will…. do the opposite! Filmmaking as Opposite Day.
But then – that’s the nature of the whole project right? Every option is… well. You either make a film that’s too enthralled to the old trilogy and is nothing more than an empty rehash or you try and do something new that thinks outside the box and go past the breaking point and the box gets broken.
Because here’s the thing with the original trilogy (that I think actually makes it pretty rare amongst big budget movies) the 4, 5 and 6 designations are a distraction. Because New Hope, Empire and Jedi are really One, Two and Three. They’re the beginning of a story, the middle of a story and the end of it. In fact you couldn’t ask for a better example of how to tell a complete story across three movies: and not only does it feel like the definitive way to tell that exact kind of story because of the whole Joseph Campbell Hero of a Thousand Faces stuff – but also because (no shit) Star Wars was the foundational text for every generation since it was first released…. So (of course) its influence goes way way deep – not only into pop culture but into all of our heads.
As has already been remarked upon a thousand times: one of the beautiful tricks that George Lucas pulled off in the original trilogy is constructing a universe that feels deep and wide and expansive enough for a thousand other stories. And hey lucky Disney and lucky us right? A new Star Wars film every year until we die! Hooray!
But what if the best Star Wars story you can tell has already been told? Because well – that’s what the universe was designed for. As a beautiful backdrop to the adventures of Han, Luke and Leia. And once you get to the point of happily ever after – then that’s it? It’s like the Fast and the Furious where you can just drive more cars – or a Marvel superhero thing where you can just give them something else to punch. What if the space in the Star Wars universe is finite?
An example: everyone remembers that amazing iconic shot at the start of A New Hope right? Tiny spaceship followed by the seemingly never-ending Star Destroyer? Which not only looks totally cool (“That thing’s massive!”) but also tells you everything you need to know about the relationship between the two sides: the plucky tiny Rebels versus the might and size and over-whelming destructive power of the ginormous Empire.
(LOL at the fact that both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have to work so hard to kill off all the
Rebellion Resistance to get them to the point where the entirety of their forces can fit inside the Millennium Falcon because – and here’s a life lesson for you – everyone always needs to think of themselves as the underdog and that’s the dynamic of Star Wars – even tho: well shit – wouldn’t it be interesting to try things the other way round for once? With the Good Guys having the tactical superiority and the Evil Empire fighting as the insurgents? Or that simply be too much to deal with? I dunno).
And here’s the thing: that’s probably the best possible opening shot you can have for the start of a fantasy sci-fi space movie. Because there’s only so many ways to do cool things. And after all the best ideas have been taken: really – there’s not that much left. Does anyone even remember the first shot of The Force Awakens? Hell: does anyone even remember how the The Last Jedi opens? (Something to do with zooming in to something? I dunno – it’s been a few days since I’ve seen it and the whole thing is starting to evaporate from my mind like a fog…).
So: what if there’s just not that much room to play around with before you get to the point that things start to break?
I mean – there’s a option to go further and find strange new worlds and new dynamics that we haven’t seen before – but you know: this is why I’m not a fan of giant evil conglomerates being in charge of what films get made because often what would be creatively good isn’t what makes the best business sense. I mean: shoot, if I was given the chance to make Star Wars Episode 7, 8 and 9 – I would try my best to set it as far away from the original trilogy as possible (maybe a 1000 years after or something?) but no – it makes more economic sense to bring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher back for one last spin of the wheel – expect (whoops) did no one maybe consider that actually – it’s a little bit depressing to be reminded of the rigours of age in what’s supposed to be light and fluffy entertainment? Especially when you go even further and snatch away their Return of the Jedi happy ending and start killing them off one by one?
Here’s your burger, chips and milkshake and oh yeah – we’re serving it in a skull because memento mori etc.
But ah – if you set in somewhere too far away and without enough of the old elements and icons that people love and that read as “Star Wars” then – it’s not really Star Wars anymore is it? Like: if you’re starting again and setting everything in a brand new universe 1000 years removed from everything – then the connection is lost. Where’s the AT&ATs at? Where’s the Stormtroopers? Where’s my Star Destroyers?
So you get caught in this paradoxical loop: if you try to make it too much like Star Wars – people don’t like it and if you don’t make it enough like Star Wars then well – people don’t like it.
Which is my best guess as to why The Last Jedi is pissing off so many of the True Fans™. They’re craving something that they’ll never be able to taste. Hungry for a meal that can’t be made.
It’s not just that they’re trying to recapture their childhoods and no Star Wars film will ever be as good as when you’re 8 years old. It’s that the best Star Wars films have already been made. The best possible combination has already been perfected. And it doesn’t matter if you decide to add something new or try to take some of the old bits away or just do the opposite of everything that’s been done before – every way leads to a brick wall. And sure – for people who aren’t so invested you can make a film that does pretty much everything that a film is supposed to do (and for all the scorn I’ve poured upon The Last Jedi: I’ll admit – as a film: it’s kinda alright I guess?): but for those True Fans™ searching for a hit to satisfy that craving they’ve had all their lives – it’s not going to scratch that itch. They want that blue milk sucked directly from the teat but instead all they’re really getting is: Pepsi Blue.
Which isn’t the same.
And lol – oops – it’s actually worse then that: because not only is it not the flavour you wanted: but it’s also washing away the thing you loved before (the thing you still want). That happy ending at the end of Return of the Jedi? That’s all gone now. Han is dead. Luke is dead. Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia – all dead. Because Disney wants new films. Because there’s so so so much money to made ($650 Million Worldwide and growing).
And so yeah: like I said all the way back at the start of this – the way that The Discourse is being framed is that this is all just nerds getting mad online – when they should be just shutting up and enjoying the show. But what I’m hoping to show with this is that there’s something a lot deeper going on than just people who should just know their place and not bother the talent.
At the risk of sounding like Neil Frigging Gaiman: people need stories. And Star Wars (wow) is more than just a story – it’s a frigging myth because well – that’s how George Lucas designed it and built it. And if you imbibe that stuff when you’re young – then shit: it’s pretty much got you forever. And of all the modern myths out there: I think it’s probably fair to say that with the Original Trilogy Star Wars has the strongest and most potent version around – small wonder then that it’s often been referred to as “The American Myth.”
And of course: what could be more American than taking your myth and despoiling the whole thing and selling it off for parts in the hope of making even more $$$?
Your job of course is to stand in line and buy a ticket and hope that it’ll give you what you want – but it’s not going to.
Because it can’t.
And in my own personal subjective opinion – dismissing the people who get upset by their ersatz Star Wars movie just seems kinda short-sighted… Trying to understand why so many people have been left feeling so upset or cheated or whatever you want to call it sounds much more fruitful and much more enlightening.
“It’s just a movie” is a phrase that gets repeated a lot. But maybe we should ask why for so many people we have movies that aren’t just movies – but represent a whole lot more. Star Wars isn’t just a bunch of films. For a lot of people – it’s encompasses so much more than that. It’s a secret language. It’s a philosophy. A religion. A way of life.
And yeah – a part of that is because of the skills of the original film-makers and actors and well George Lucas himself who came up with the whole thing a long time ago. But: Star Wars is also something that has been sold. It’s not just the films – it’s also – all the toys and all the comics and all the tie-novels and all the cartoons and etc. Almost from its inception – it’s been relentlessly sold to children. Rooted itself deep into their imaginations. (Who was it that said “”Give me a child when he’s 7 and he’s mine forever”?).
People elsewhere on the internet have already argued at length against the petty entitlement of people crying about how this film or whatever has “ruined their childhoods” but for me the much scarier and disturbing aspect is the common-sense widespread idea that people’s childhoods can be so defined in that way. That your childhood is there to be sold to. And then once you’re an adult – to be sold to again. And again. And again.
(Which is why I guess I didn’t see Broom Kid at the end of the film as something beautiful and hopeful like everyone else seemed to: instead it seemed more like a threat. ALL YOUR KIDS ARE BELONG TO STAR WARS. (And but also: wouldn’t it have been way cooler and more thematically on point if he’d done this? But hell – maybe that’s just me?)).
My secret hope is that maybe (just maybe) with The Last Jedi we’re starting to see the end of this. Maybe there’s only so far you can push this stuff before it becomes played out and untenable and people just get sick of it. That maybe a Star Wars film ever year until the day you die isn’t something to feel your heart with hope… but something more like fear. And maybe they just can’t keep making bigger and better Death Stars.
There’s that famous Jack Kirby story of him being told by an artist working on one of his old creations that the artist was determined to do the comic in “the Jack Kirby style“ and Kirby said something like: the real Jack Kirby style is to create something new.
I mean – shoot – maybe the new new trilogy now being promised by Rian Johnson can overcome a lot of the issues I’ve mentioned. Maybe it can be a whole new tasty meal that will satisfy the legions of True Fans™ and finally scratch that itch they’ve been carrying around instead.
Or you know – maybe instead of letting the Star Wars universe define our limits – maybe we should search further and beyond…
Or failing all that – we could just simply go: outside.