Rian Johnson: Last Jedi “Meta-Grinch” or Christmas Rebel Hero?
Addressing Some of the Criticisms of Star Wars: The Last Jedi
It is not entirely surprising that so many fans were upset by “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” since Writer and director Rian Johnson directly and openly challenged several sacred cows in the Star Wars universe.
So, why did Mr. Johnson decide to go “meta” on Star Wars?
There are spoilers below, beware. [Spoiler Alert]
Challenging the Jedi Order
After decades of waiting to see Luke Skywalker’s return to movie screens fans were treated to a fairly shocking reintroduction:
Rey, who sacrificed and struggled mightily to find him, reverently hands over to Luke his long-lost lightsaber.
Luke takes the saber, holds it in his hand for a few seconds, and then, almost immediately, throws it over his shoulder.
Luke seems to be saying to Rey, with that one simple gesture:
“FU and the rebellion you rode in on”
“F the Jedi”
It was a shocking, funny, and unexpected moment (and probably deeply disturbing to many Jedi traditionalists).
I certainly never guessed that Luke would have spent all of the time since Ben Solo turned contemplating his complicity in the deaths of his “New Generation of Jedi,” his loss of Ben Solo, and the failure of the Jedi Order itself.
Lacking answers to some pretty significant questions Luke apparently first sought out the original Jedi texts and after finding no answers in their pages lost faith and shut himself off from The Force.
Even after Luke agrees to train Rey, he tells her he is training her to reveal the folly of the Jedi Order as much as he is training her help her become a Jedi herself.
And let’s face it, if we are honest with ourselves, Luke’s criticism wasn’t entirely crazy.
He seemed authentically at a loss to explain how with all of his training from Ben and Yoda he could not stop Ben Solo from becoming Kylo Ren (He has not been able to find an answer to that question in his heart, in his training, or in the Jedi sacred texts which he went to find at the Jedi Temple).
And Luke’s struggle to answer this question is but a microcosm of the larger question.
Why didn’t the Jedi stop the rise of the Empire? How could Palpatine have created the Empire right under the Jedi’s noses (and often with their active assistance)?
I totally get why this version of Luke would be deeply upsetting to the folks who are invested in the Jedi Order (or to those who were hoping for a series of Rocky-style Training Montages between a very powerful Luke and a very talented Rey).
Luke is, however, asking existential questions about the Jedi and I suspect that they can’t be answered easily.
As much as it might seem like Luke has been wasting his time wallowing in self-pity he also does seem to have been spending time doing some really deep thinking about the nature of The Force too.
The way he initially described the Force to Rey (both that dark and light is always present and that the force is always present in all things dark and light) and the lessons that Rey seemed to take from her encounters with Luke suggests that they were both engaged in a much more nuanced exploration of The Force than we have experienced to date.
Why was this a bad thing again?
The Deconstruction of the Flyboy
Poe Dameron starts off his Last Jedi experience by ignoring direct orders from his mentor and carrying out an attack that ended up costing the rebellion a large number of fighters and their entire bombing fleet.
He spends most of the rest of the movie trying to make things happen by any means necessary always assuming that his “fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants” solutions will be inherently superior to the solutions offered by anyone superior to him in his own chain of command (it would be easy to assume there was a gender problem here too except that he clearly sees Leia as a mentor and respects and even reveres several other women in the cast).
In the end, as Poe uncovers more information, it turns out that his assumptions were all wrong and that Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo not only had a plan but a good plan.
In fact, if Poe had not sent Finn and Rose on their away mission, DJ could not have found out about Holdo’s plan and sold the information to the First Order (this almost results in the total obliteration of that plan and of the remainder of the rebel alliance).
I think what has people upset about Poe’s long-learning curve is that it seems to speak directly to the freewheeling styles of both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker who started their own journey’s as two flyboys who did everything in the moment and flying by the seat of their pants.
George Lucas explicitly built the Star Wars universe to include the flyboy (it is probably not an accident that one of the street racers in his movie American Graffiti also played Han Solo). I can understand why long-time and committed fans of Star Wars are nonplussed with Johnson’s criticism here.
I will make one argument in favor of Poe’s approach: But for Poe’s attack on the First Order Dreadnought, the Rebellion would likely have been destroyed well in advance of reaching Crait.
When Leia demoted Poe for carrying out the attack on the Dreadnought counter to her orders she did not know that the First Order had figured out how to track them through hyperspace (the only reason Leia felt they could abort the attack in the first place was that the fleet had escaped the rebel base they were ready to make the jump to light speed).
I suspect that if the Dreadnought had made the jump with the rebel fleet, it probably would have put a quick end to the remaining Rebel fleet.
I don’t really understand the speed and fuel ratios that were being discussed but my gut feeling is that the Dreadnought had much more powerful and longer range guns.
At the same time, it probably was wise to teach Poe some lessons about more thoughtful generalship (it would not surprise me if he becomes over-cautious in IX and has to be encouraged to find his inner-flyboy again).
The Deconstruction of War
Another new character asking some serious questions about the long-held tenets of the Star Wars universe was Benicio Del Toro’s “amoral” rogue DJ.
After DJ, Finn, and Rose make their escape from Canto Bight, DJ offers to school Finn and shows him evidence that the arms dealers sell to both the First Order and the Rebellion explaining that Canto Bight, the Rebellion, and the First Order are all part of a War System and that the whole thing is part of an “infernal machine” that defies the logic of choosing sides.
Support the rebels or support the First Order, in the end, the money always wins.
DJ appears to me the Star Wars version of a grey hat hacker who has learned (probably the hard way) that the only way to win a rigged game is to play it only for himself (he could also be seen as a version of a Han Solo who didn’t return and save Luke from the Tie Fighters in A New Hope).
We have seen decades of Star Wars. We have seen a Democracy fall, an Empire rise and fall, and a second Democracy fall prey to fascism.
In other words, was DJ wrong to suggest that maybe it hasn’t mattered that much to most of the people living in the actual Star Wars universe who wins the battle for Crait or the battle for Hoth?
Personally, I find this open questioning an interesting counterpoint to the celebrations at the end of a New Hope and Jedi, what does it mean for the rebellion to win? What does it mean to be protected by a flawed Jedi Order? How do you ensure revolutions aren’t coopted?
At the same time, I can certainly understand why people appreciate the moral certainty that comes with knowing exactly who and what good and evil represent but holding on to this rigid version of the Star Wars universe would force us to ignore massive cognitive dissonance:
- The Jedi Order (at its most powerful) failed to predict or stop the rise of the Empire.
- The Rebel Alliance didn’t create an enduring alternative to the Empire.
- Despite being a Master trained by Kenobi and Yoda, Luke couldn’t prevent Ben Solo from turning or prevent Snoke and the First Order from rising to take control of the universe again.
- After failing to prevent Ben Solo’s turn to the Dark Side Luke read the sacred texts and still found no answer to his existential questions.
These are existential problems that have never really been addressed, until now.
As Yoda explained, during his discussion with Luke on Ahch-To, we have as much to learn from failure and mistakes as we do from success (maybe it was “…learn more from mistakes and failure do we”?).
To ignore the failures and mistakes of the Rebels and Jedi over the past 40 years would not have made them go away and to paper them over wouldn’t make for a very satisfying conclusion.
I don’t think Mr. Johnson was trying to play Grinch as much as he felt that it had been left to him to finally address the lightsabers in the room.
Happy Holidays to everyone (and, of course, “May the Force Be With You!”
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