Last Jedi Phasma

Laugh it up, fuzzball

Like any storied franchise, Star Wars is steeped in both canonical lore and fan tradition. With references to the ethos of the Jedi Order, the rise of Darth Sidious, and even possible allusions to the Old Republic, The Last Jedi has the former in spades. The latter necessitates certain inclusions in the film that don’t necessarily relate to any important element of the narrative, but reflect, meta-narratively speaking, the film’s relationship to the franchise and to the fans. For example: every Star Wars movie (assuming the appropriate era) must include R2-D2 and C-3PO, must have someone reference the Millennium Falcon as a piece of junk or garbage, must include a menagerie of aliens in a cantina-like establishment, must have a character utter the line “I have a bad feeling about this,” etc. The Last Jedi, to its credit, does include these details (even “I have a bad feeling about this,” which you may have missed because it wasn’t said in English). So, yes, The Last Jedi checks off a bunch of boxes. But it’s still missing the reverence that suffuses nearly every scene in The Force Awakens.

Think: Han Solo saying, “Chewie, we’re home,” when he steps aboard the Millennium Falcon, and Rey’s face when Han mentions Luke Skywalker, whom she thought was “just a myth.” Think: Rey summoning and igniting Luke’s lightsaber before her fight with Kylo Ren, as the mournful yet hopeful “Burning Farmstead” theme swells in the background. Obviously, The Last Jedi is a very different movie; The Force Awakens was in some sense about building up the mythology of heroes, while The Last Jedi is all about tearing it down. However, because The Last Jedi espouses such a dark theme at its core, the jokes that occur throughout the film come across as darker, too, losing this sense of reverence and veering towards ridicule. BB-8’s spunk in The Force Awakens was endearing, but his bizarre ability to ex machina his human friends out of any situation rivals even R2-D2’s actions in either of the first two trilogies. And as funny as Luke’s “get off my lawn” attitude was, the movie instead should have been focusing more emotional power on the character’s guilt and angst.

I’m concerned that Star Wars is heading into Marvel territory, sacrificing emotional resonance and meaningful relationships between characters by peppering its films with barrages of jokes. I enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok immensely, but I felt a prickle of unease when I heard Kathleen Kennedy declare that she’d love to enlist director Taika Waititi for a Star Wars film. Watching Ragnarok, I didn’t care that character motivations were hazy and that there was no real narrative tension or danger, because the movie was so damn hilarious. I was content go along with Waititi’s irreverent subversion of the superheroes in the film and of the genre itself, because my own identity is not so tightly tied to the Marvel franchise. With Star Wars, though…

The Force Awakens succeeds where The Last Jedi does not, because the humor in TFA is infused with warmth, not scorn. We are invited to laugh with the characters, not at them. Think: every interaction between Han and Finn (“That’s not how the Force works!” and “Listen, Big Deal…”), C-3PO being a doofus (“You may not recognize me with my red arm”) and a succinct but keen analysis of the reputation of everyone’s favorite scruffy-looking nerfherder: “You’re Han Solo!” “The Rebellion general?” “No, the smuggler!” Most of the humor works to give us a sense of who these characters are and what they want (or think they want). In short, it feels genuine and true to the narrative.

the force awakens commentary

This isn’t your story

The Last Jedi is deservedly garnering praise for its gorgeous visual tapestries, but The Force Awakens contains some breathtaking – and deeply symbolic – shots as well, even if they are a bit more understated. (The Last Jedi pretty much shoves our faces in the red-themed imagery; every time someone deliberately scuffed their foot on the surface of Crait, I wanted to shout, “We get it! It’s red, like blood!”) In TFA, there’s the AT-AT half-buried in the sands of Jakku that served as Rey’s home, or the Apocalypse Now homage with TIE fighters foregrounding the orange light of an enormous sun. There’s the tragic tableaux of two lone figures outlined against the yawning chasm of blackness as Han confronts his son, Ben. And there’s Rey’s pivotal moment during her fight with Kylo Ren, when she reaches out to the Force and receives some measure of serenity, which is evidenced by the blue shine of her lightsaber replacing Kylo’s red. (Thanks for that gem, Ava DuVernay!) And in terms of pure storytelling brilliance, the film’s nearly wordless, four-minute sequence introducing us to Rey’s character is a work of art all on its own.

These scenes present visual masterpieces that reflect back on the internal journeys of the characters themselves. The Last Jedi is often too concerned with the (literal and figurative) Big Picture to lower itself to the level of the deeply human characters we’ve come to know and love. With the exception of Kylo Ren, The Last Jedi truly fails its main characters.

Let’s start with the person who is supposed to the protagonist of the entire trilogy: Rey. In The Last Jedi, Rey is essentially reduced to a secondary character. I fistpumped my way through the entire lightsaber battle scene in Snoke’s throne room, and that should have been the climax of the movie – not Luke’s showdown with the First Order. You want to “let the past die”? Don’t make Luke Skywalker the titular protagonist of Rey’s story! Even though The Force Awakens fixated on the original trilogy character of Han, Han’s arc was still only incidental to Rey’s. Meanwhile, The Last Jedi is mostly concerned with Luke Skywalker, and Rey’s arc is… confusing, to say the least. Why does she suddenly care so much about the Resistance? Why does she suddenly care so much about Kylo?

It’s the latter relationship that concerns me – in fact, I was so worried that Rey would be sidelined by a romance plot that I wrote a whole piece about it before the film came out, and it looks like my fears were not unwarranted. In The Last Jedi, Rey and Kylo’s interactions are fueled mostly by a contrast of ideals, so I sincerely hope the sexual tension is held in check. And it’s great that Kylo is being targeted for the redemption arc treatment, but again, this saga is supposed to center around Rey. I’m thrilled that The Last Jedi turned Kylo into an intriguing villain, but I’m less than happy that it seems to have cost Rey her spotlight.

The humor in the film also undermines Rey’s importance. When Rey tries to summon Luke’s lightsaber in Snoke’s throne room and it whacks her in the side of the head, it’s a thoughtless gag that earns a quick laugh at her expense, and at the expense of that immensely powerful lightsaber-summoning moment from The Force Awakens. Even Luke’s (admittedly funny) prank on Rey, when he waves some grass at her hand and she assumes she’s feeling the Force, had me cringing a bit because of how much it makes her look like a fool. Also, I get that Rey was hit with some pretty intense exposition at various points throughout the film, but did she really need to cry in every other scene? Gone was Rey’s prickly “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” from The Force Awakens – in The Last Jedi, we have Rey going on about how she and Kylo “touched hands.”

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