Scalding Hot Takes #4 The Last Jedi
When that iconic scroll began at the beginning of a Star Wars: The Last Jedi Friday 10:30 A.M 3-D De Kalb Mall screening I attended, a woman in the front row began clapping, first enthusiastically and then a little tentatively once she realized that that she was the only one person in the theater doing so.
Her mixed, self-conscious fangirl enthusiasm reflected the curious, uncertain place a new Star Wars movie occupies in our culture today. A new Star Wars movie is still a big, big deal, as a glance at social media will instantly and dramatically reveal. On my timeline, I’d say about forty percent of the posts seem to be about The Last Jedi and the response is violently divided, to put it mildly.
Most of the posts about The Last Jedi on my Facebook are of the gushing and hyperbolic variety. They express sentiments along the likes of “Rian Johnson has single-handedly elevated the art of cinema with his peerless new masterpiece of a film. I bow before his greatness and thank him for the gift he has bestowed upon humanity. Verily, it is appropriate that The Last Jedi arrives at Christmastime, because I have just witnessed the birth of a cinematic Messiah and his name is Rian Johnson. Verily, I will travel to his home with two fellow die-hards, Fanboys-style, and give him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” or “I loved Star Wars: The Last Jedi so much that after seeing it I divorced my wife and attempted to marry the film. Apparently you can’t do that. Disney seems very adamant on that point. I’m hoping they’ll yield at some point but it does not look good.”
But there’s also a very vocal, very loud minority of posts on my Facebook wall expressing not just disappointment but anger and rage over the movie. These tend to read, “I cannot believe that anyone is able to watch that unwatchable pile of shit known as The Last Jedi for more than a few minutes. It is not only the worst Star Wars movie but the worst movie of the year and the only reason anyone would feel otherwise is because they’re brainwashed by Big Brother, AKA Disney/Marvel/Fox/Trump/Satan. #Berniewouldhavewon.”
Then you’ve got the comic book nerds. They’re all, “Use the force, Luke! Defeat Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel!” and the Men’s Rights Activists, who are soiling themselves in their man-sized diapers and whining, “No fair! No fair! Why must Negroes and vagina-havers intrude upon our wonderful space wonderland?!? Boycott Star Wars!” Then you’ve got the ladies, like my wife, who are all, “I don’t know about this Star Wars mess. Seems like a lot of foolishness!”
Sorry. I’m planning to get into stand-up in the new year, so I’ll be workshopping some stuff here. This guy knows that what I’m talking about! That reader definitely knows what I’m talking about!
So a new Star Wars movie is a big deal but it’s not as big a deal as it once was. It’s not, for example, as big a deal as the release of 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace. That wasn’t just a movie. It was a huge cultural event. It transcended pop culture. It was as if all of American society took a break so that they could watch the first new Star Wars movie in sixteen years, since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
I remember where I was when I saw The Phantom Menace—the Orpheum Theater in Madison, Wisconsin—and who I saw it with with, the same way I remember where I was when the Challenger exploded (the Orpheum Theater in Madison, Wisconsin), JFK was assassinated (the Orpheum Theater in Madison, Wisconsin) and Donald Trump was elected President (the Orpheum Theater in Madison, Wisconsin). In a possibly related note, I’ve smoked a lot of marijuana through the years and it may be affecting my memory.
My precise response to The Phantom Menace is a little fuzzier. My vague recollection was that I kind of shrugged it off and thought, “That kind of sucked but whatevs, and what’s up with that Jar Jar Binks? That shit’s kinda racist.” But I’ve never been a huge Star Wars guy so I didn’t feel the same intense feelings of disappointment and disillusionment a lot of die-hards felt when George Lucas resurrected his beloved, iconic space opera for the purpose of bringing back comedy minstrelsy in the form of an outer space frog Stepin Fetchit. Kids loved Jar Jar, reportedly, but adults found him disturbing on an almost biological level.
Attack of the Clones, with Hayden Christensen and his shitty rat tail and shitty acting was even worse, but I thought the franchise rebounded nicely with Revenge of the Sith, which I genuinely liked. I similarly dug The Force Awakens, although I covered that for Lukewarm Takes here well over a year after it came out, after the buzz had died down.
The Last Jedi is similarly not as big a deal as The Force Awakens, the first George Lucas-free Star Wars movie ever, the first Star Wars movie since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and the first Star Wars sequel in twenty-two years, since Return of the Jedi.
Given the intense and contradictory emotions The Last Jedi has been engendering (Rage! Joy! Happiness! Despair! Confusion! Sleepiness! An odd tingling in the lower extremities!) it seems borderline heretical, not to mention anti-climactic, to write that I thought The Last Jedi was a good movie that I enjoyed but that I was not blown away by. Much of my relative disappointment can be attributed to the sky-high expectations engendered both by early reviews (it currently has a 94 rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is more or less universal acclaim) and my love for the films of Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper writer-director Rian Johnson.
Picking up where The Force Awakens left off, The Last Jedi finds Rey (Daisy Ridley) traveling to a beautiful and remote planet to find and study with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill from Brigsby Bear and Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa), a cantankerous old hermit and recluse who just wants to be left alone after a series of unfortunate events have left him a man without a nation, a warrior without a cause. A far cry from the fresh-faced farm boy of the 1977 original, a spectral cloud of failure and sadness follows Luke. He is exhausted from a never-ending struggle and looking for a nice place to cozy up and die before Rey interrupts his retirement.
Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Han Solo and Leia Organa’s son and the pouty really bad boy of the villainous First Order struggles with contradictory impulses towards good and evil, the Dark Side and the Force. Rey thinks Kylo can be turned. She is idealistic enough to imagine that there is still good inside him. Kylo and Rey develop a strange sort of quasi-friendship through the Force but the Dark Side has a powerful pull on this tortured young man.
Meanwhile, dashing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) bumps heads with headstrong General Organa (Carrie Fisher) and a new military leader played by a purple-haired Laura Dern and former stormtrooper turned good guy Finn (John Boyega) joins forces with plucky Resistance spark plug Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) as an underdog band of rebels and outlaws tries to takes on a great evil.
The Last Jedi feels more clued into the free-floating anxiety and despair of the current socio-political climate than The Force Awakens. Since that film’s release, Carrie Fisher has died and Donald Trump was elected President. The Last Jedi is a darker, more personal and challenging film for a darker, more despairing time. A time that not so coincidentally also cries out desperately for hope.
When The Force Awakens was released during Christmastime two years ago evil threatened in the candidacy of Donald Trump. But the threat was abstract and hard to take seriously. He was a clown, after all, and who would make a clown the most powerful man in the world?
It turns out the American people would, and did. Trump’s ascendancy lends a new power and resonance to The Last Jedi. It turns out the “Evil Empire” wasn’t a bunch of drunk, depressed Soviets running out the clock on a failing system but rather our own President and his evil minions. We must confront evil in our time. We must resist and part of The Last Jedi’s emotional power comes from way it captures that sense that the bad guys are winning, that figures of infinite darkness are trying to wipe out a noble, scruffy, underdog resistance. I appreciated the film’s political and metaphorical connotations but it did seem a little heavy-handed to have Princess Leia wear a pantsuit the whole time.
It made sense that Harrison Ford would be the big returning star in The Force Awakens. After all, he’s been one of our biggest movie stars pretty much since Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark elevated him to superstardom.
Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher followed very different paths. They have worn their scars, physical and psychological, proudly. Whereas Ford rocketed quickly to superstardom post-Star Wars, they both had to recreate and reinvent themselves in the endless shadow of their early fame and Star Wars’ ubiquity. Fisher cast off the strange shackles of being a reluctant sex symbol and emerged as one of the preeminent wits of our age. Fisher wrote books and screenplays and famously polished other people’s screenplays but her true art form was being Carrie Fisher. General Leia Organa is pretty fucking badass, but she’s got nothing on the woman who played her. Christ how it hurts to write about Fisher in the past tense.
I interviewed Mark Hamill just after Disney purchased Star Wars for billions from George Lucas. I of course had to ask him how he felt about the sale. He said he had no idea how to feel about it because he had no idea where he fit in the new Star Wars machinery. It made sense that he’d be a little weary.
He seems like a lovely human being, so I am pleased to report that Hamill has aged beautifully into the role of Luke Skywalker. Time has lent the onetime male starlet an unmistakable gravity, a sadness, a sense of world-weariness that perfectly suits a man who has seen too much.
Here’s the thing: my opinion about Star Wars: The Last Jedi does not matter in the grand scheme of things. It does not matter to me, and it’s my stupid opinion. What matters is your own relationship with Star Wars. I know how intense and important that bond can be. I’m a Juggalo, so I know as well as anybody how unbelievably important silly pop culture can be.
If you loved The Last Jedi, that is wonderful. There’s a lot of stuff in it to love. And if you felt let down by The Last Jedi or actively hated it, I understand that as well. It can be tough when you build something up in your mind an then it disappoints, particularly if you love the world that created it.
I liked The Last Jedi but walking out I had a weirdly bifurcated, contradictory response. I thought that while I enjoyed the film on the whole and thought some of it was quite powerful, I could not see myself watching it again, particularly with that running time. As a dad and freelancer and website (I’m not a website man, I’m a website, man!), time is of the essence. I saw Pottersville the day before I saw The Last Jedi, and while it is an abomination in every conceivable way I very much appreciated that they wrapped things up in 80 minutes because they know so of us have lives, or, alternately, “Weird Al” Yankovic songs to write about in unhealthy detail.
My other primary first impression was that I suspected the movie would age in an interesting way in my mind, that moments from it, particularly Luke Skywalker’s sad rumination about the necessity and secret glory of failure, would stick with me even if the desire to boot up The Last Jedi for two hours and thirty three more minutes of this big, sad, sometimes groaning world probably wouldn’t strike too often, if at all in the future.
The Last Jedi is a big, ambitious, audacious space epic that justifies its length. But it also feels its length, which, to paraphrase the old Simpsons line, are not the tightest two hours and thirty three minutes in the business.
Honestly, the part of Star Wars lore that I relate to the most on an emotional and nostalgia level is the Star Wars Holiday Special. I would never in a million years make any claims for it as a work of art but the sweaty, desperate, coke-fueled 1970s variety comedy world it came out of fascinates me in a way that whatever the fuck is going on with Captain Phasma here does not. Now if there was a Captain Faygo, that’d be a different story. To paraphrase some beloved Star Wars catchphrases: "Make it so, Worf! Live long and prosper! Snoochie Boochies! Exclesior”
My Yoda is Itchy, Chewbacca’s horny warrior father. My Princess Leia is both the older, wiser, tougher bastion of wisdom and experience found in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi but also the young, careless Carrie Fisher stoned out of her gourd singing in the Holiday Special.
I know I’m not alone in feeling such a powerful wave of nostalgia that I’m moved to re-watch The Holiday Special this very instant, but then the Special does have a place of distinction among us War-mongers, as us Star Wars super-fans are popularly known.
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