ranking star wars

Since my first viewing of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I have been Searching My Feelings to determine my definitive stance on the film, but like Kylo Ren, I’m still impossibly conflicted. I gasped during some scenes. I laughed during many scenes. I furrowed my brow during most scenes, including the scenes mentioned above. And throughout the entire movie I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. It didn’t, and after a draining two hours and 33 minutes, John Williams’s triumphant, end credits fanfare lit up the screen. My primary thought walking out of the Star Wars movie I have been aching for incessantly for two whole years was: What just happened?

By contrast, my immediate reaction to Star Wars: The Force Awakens was unbridled joy and inexpressible love and an unquenchable desire to head back to the theater as soon as possible, as often as possible, to watch the movie again.

Why? It’s possible that it all comes down to that fickle friend “expectation.” As Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly’s resident Star Wars guru (who has undoubtedly been dealing with hordes of, erm, disappointed fans eager to direct their wrath) pointed out on Twitter:

Breznican makes a good point, but the fact of the matter is, a great movie should be able to stand alone and surpass mere “expectation.” This idea bothers me because it seems to indicate that diehard Star Wars fans – the ones who reveled in the mysteries of The Force Awakens and dove into discussions online, the ones who scoured the Star Wars comic books for overarching themes, the ones who wrote speculative fanfic, the ones who avoided every interview, article, and promotional material for The Last Jedi so as to maximize their experience when the curtain finally rose on the new film – are doomed to be disappointed. That the excitement and anticipation for the next Star Wars installment ultimately detracts from rather than intensifies the eventual experience. And that if you care about something so much, you’re caring about it too much.

There’s a fine line between self-aware comedy and satire, and The Last Jedi dips precariously towards the latter. The movie tears fans’ hopes and expectations to shreds – and it does so gleefully. My problem with The Last Jedi is not that it subverts the status quo by challenging traditional Star Wars narratives, but that it does this in a way that feels like it’s sneering at anyone who actually enjoyed any elements of past movies, including its own predecessor, The Force Awakens. And that’s what really grinds my gears. Regardless of who her parents were, Rey is important – to me, to little girls, to female Star Wars fans everywhere – but through misguided humor, cheap dialogue, and a narrative structure that prioritizes certain Skywalkers, The Last Jedi unforgivably downplays her significance, and downplays everything I’ve come to cherish about J.J. Abrams’ addition to the Star Wars canon.

(Full disclosure: From following his interviews and his presence online, I believe that Rian Johnson is a kind and humble human being as well as a passionate and insightful filmmaker. My reaction to The Last Jedi in no way detracts from my respect for him and from what he feels he accomplished. In this situation, I’m attempting to separate the art from the artist.)


Why does everyone want to go back to Jakku?!

As reactions to The Last Jedi filtered in, it became clear that the film was flipping a narrative off-screen as well as on-screen: usually, highly anticipated blockbusters receive a snooty thumbs down from critics and an enthusiastic thumbs up from audiences (see: Batman v. Superman). But The Last Jedi has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and surprisingly negative responses from audiences. There is, obviously, a false dichotomy in play, since many film critics are also enormous Star Wars fans – myself included. But my own personal reaction to The Last Jedi has sent me spiralling towards an existential crisis: intellectually, I appreciate the artistry, the audacity, and the narrative ingenuity of Rian Johnson’s film. But emotionally, I was left feeling cold; I liked it, I just didn’t love it.

The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is my happy place. I rarely re-watch movies – there are too many out there I haven’t already seen – but I gravitate towards The Force Awakens whenever I need a Star Wars-related pick-me-up, and it brings me joy every time. I’m a millennial Star Wars fan, and as such, I grew up on the prequels, not the original trilogy. I was instilled with a healthy amount of respect and even an inherited love for the original films, especially A New Hope, but I was always a prequels girl through and through. Until it became not only trendy to hate the prequels with vicious intensity, but expected. Feeling alienated, I drifted away from the fandom for a while – but then the sequel trilogy was announced, and it was revealed that the newest saga film would be directed and co-written by none other than J.J. Abrams, a filmmaker whose approach to storytelling and commitment to empowered female characters I fervently admire. It was The Force Awakens that got me back into Star Wars, that made me feel like I could claim my place in the fandom. And it was Rey, the first big-screen female Jedi, who took my hand and led me there.

The fact that The Force Awakens is an unabashed remake of A New Hope is actually why I’m so enamored with it. Here, finally, was an “original trilogy” Star Wars movie for my generation, with updated special effects and a glorious display of feminism! I didn’t have to embellish adoration for something that was created before my time; I could now appreciate the themes and wonders of that story through a more progressive and more culturally mature lens. After that, it was a quick jump into the world of The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels, and the various books and comics released after The Force Awakens.

Then The Last Jedi showed up, jumped into an X-Wing, and blew everything up, impressively managing to piss off fans who deify the original trilogy, fans (like me) who have started to do the same with The Force Awakens, and probably also fans of the prequel trilogy, who just constantly have to deal with shit from everyone.

“We love you!” said fans walking into their opening night showings of The Last Jedi. “I know,” The Last Jedi sniggered in response. “And I don’t care.”

star wars: the force awakens adam driver as kylo ren

I have a bad feeling about this

After an initial viewing, I expressed the opinion that The Last Jedi simply didn’t feel like a Star Wars saga movie. Keyword “feel”; this film is one that prioritizes the head over the heart. It’s a message-driven movie rather than a character-driven one, preaching to us through frankly obtuse dialogue about heroism and sacrifice and moral ambiguity. (We get it, you’re The Spark™.) But Star Wars is about the people who make up the galaxy far, far away. For example, aside from Rogue One, I don’t believe that Star Wars is truly about war – at least, it’s not about the precise machinations of battle strategies and the bitter realities of colonialism. It’s about good, evil, and whatever’s in between. So when Benicio Del Toro’s character, DJ, points out to Finn that the elite vacationers at Canto Bight are war profiteers that sell to both sides of the conflict, it feels like a forced Real Life Moral Lesson, not least because it goes in one ear and out the other, and Finn doesn’t appear to be remotely conflicted by this information at any point thereafter. If it doesn’t affect the character, what’s the narrative point?

Abrams is famous for his “Mystery Box” narratives, which keep audiences engaged in the plot but also always, always, reflect back on the characters. Because ultimately, as Abrams has said, “the mystery box is all of us.” (Abrams actually uses A New Hope as a prime example in his TED Talk on the subject.)

The Last Jedi, however, contains very few mystery boxes. Instead, it sneers at the puny ideations of our imaginations and smashes Abrams’ mystery boxes concept like, well, Kylo Ren’s helmet. I happen to appreciate the reveal of Rey’s parentage because it does feel true to the character, but every other scintillating question mark from The Force Awakens is callously dismissed. Who were the Knights of Ren? Got any information whatsoever on Supreme Leader Snoke? How about Captain Phasma? What’s the story behind how Maz Kanata came to possess Luke’s lightsaber? Did Rian Johnson even see The Force Awakens?

For fans who have spent even a spare minute of their lives over the past two years pondering these mysteries – and relishing the delight of the mystery boxes – their treatment at the hands of Johnson feels like a Ben Solo-level betrayal. Certainly, on a personal note, I can’t help but feel that I’m being mocked for caring about the answers to these questions – for caring about what came before The Last Jedi in the Star Wars universe at all.

It gets even more difficult to parse the relationship of The Last Jedi to the rest of the franchise when there are AVClub headlines like, “The Last Jedi‘s best moment is a “fuck you” to George Lucas and J.J. Abrams.” Um, what? Why would you ever want to throw a “fuck you” at George Lucas,  the genius creator of this whole gonzo enterprise, or at J.J. Abrams, who is, frankly, utterly beyond reproach in all areas of life, except for that Alice Eve incident from Star Trek Into Darkness? Is this really the meta narrative we want to stoke – that each subsequent Star Wars director gets to forge his own way while blithely burning the path behind him?

Since Abrams is credited as an executive producer on The Last Jedi, it’s safe to assume that he did have some measure of creative say in the film, though to hear Rian Johnson tell it, Johnson was given free reign by Lucasfilm to do what he liked. Still, the bitterness is tough to swallow. Because it’s not just about the fan theories. It’s about the cavalier dismissal of any sort of allegiance to The Force Awakens, and the rejection of fan service, which I believe is an integral part of any Star Wars experience.

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