There has been plenty of bogus nitpicking about The Last Jedi—that it’s too similar to The Empire Strikes Back, that it’s too different, that it fails to develop the usual dynastic arcs—and one substantive concern: that it feels, somehow, small. In a harsh assessment for the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg noted how the universe of Star Wars had “arrived feeling fully realized and capable of unfolding in near-infinite directions,” of evolving beyond its “core dynamics.” The Last Jedi, in its “need to gesture back to the original trilogy,” was “conservative” by comparison.
But The Last Jedi doesn’t “need” to gesture back. It chooses to, with a mix of skepticism and admiration. And though it may not have new Skywalkers or space taxes, it does introduce a whole new layer of experience—culture. The galaxy possesses a myth, one that has taken on a life of its own, independent of its creators. The myth is the story of Star Wars. On the literal level of narrative, it tells the characters what they can and can’t and should and shouldn’t be. But it also functions as commentary on George Lucas and the culture he helped create. The Last Jedi is powerful as mass-market art because of how it reckons, thematically and aesthetically, with schlock.
In The Force Awakens, we learn that Rey grew up in a junkyard of Star Wars garbage: a busted AT-AT, the decrepit Millennium Falcon. (It’s basically the Kahn basement before my mom culled the Legos.) The legend lurks in the background of The Force Awakens, where it weighs most heavily on Kylo Ren. Critics and audiences recognized that he, at least, was struggling with history—“I will finish what you started,” he says to Darth Vader’s destroyed mask—but they generally understood the film as a nostalgia trip. As I wrote at the time, this wasn’t quite right. The musical score was full of ambivalence, slipping almost too easily between the new menacing themes and the old comforting ones. And besides, what version of the legend had Kylo Ren inherited if he worshipped Vader as the pinnacle of darkness? Was he conscious of Vader’s final turn to the light?
In The Force Awakens, it was easy to dismiss the ambiguities about the myth—what Rey and Kylo Ren really knew—as plot devices, and the analogies to the original trilogy could be written off as fan service devoid of narrative meaning. From that perspective, The Last Jedi is a pandering “movie for the fans” full of “plot contrivances” and “disgracefully bad storytelling.” Time quickly proved that the “movie for the fans” was nothing of the sort, but the criticism that it’s a jury-rigged throwback machine still needs to be addressed.
Complaints about The Last Jedi’s storytelling have focused on Finn and Rose’s Poe-directed excursion to the casino city of Canto Bight, deeming it “pointless” because, as Rosenberg puts it, it has “no impact on the plot at all.” The sequence actually has a very specific impact, if not in conventional epic terms. The Last Jedi intertwines three stories about hubris—specifically the kind of hubris that stems from emulating myth. Two of these stories, Kylo Ren’s and Rey’s, are about people for whom the distance to myth is oppressively small and oppressively vast, respectively. The third story, about Finn, Rose, and Poe, concerns people who can more freely choose their distance. It takes the form of a mock-epic and, like many of those, has comic and tragic dimensions. The epic being mocked is Star Wars.
It’s worth examining the Poe–Finn–Rose plot closely, since it isolates myth from any mystical considerations. The motivations of the characters are complex but clear. Poe has just been demoted and is stinging, like Achilles, from Leia’s reprimand: The attack he organized had “heroes but no leaders.” The film telegraphs that this attack is an ironic imitation of previous Star Wars material. When Leia advises Poe not to proceed, he flips up his earpiece in defiance—an echo of Luke’s assault on the Death Star in A New Hope. As Poe’s fleet achieves a pyrrhic victory, the resulting explosion is obscured by its own reflection on the window of his ship. He watches it like a movie, dumbfounded. Poe is a Star Wars character patterning himself after other Star Wars characters.
So it is with Rose. We learn that she is the sister of the bomber pilot who died heroically in Poe’s attack and that she is fiercely loyal to the Resistance. The political significance of her sister’s death seems to provide little consolation. Despite the justice of the cause, no matter how many would-be deserters she zaps, Rose weeps. It takes a myth to distract her. “You’re Finn,” she marvels when they first meet. “The Finn.” Then she turns into a babbling fan. The Babbling Fan—a mythic archetype, for our culture, of a consumer of myth.
Finn, who is jumping ship, falls short of Rose’s expectations. He is embarrassed, and she disillusioned. The scheme they hatch soothes Poe’s rage, Finn’s shame, and Rose’s grief—by casting them all in Canto Bight: A Star Wars Story. The three heroes consult Maz Kanata in her capacity as lorekeeper, and she sends them off to find “the Master Codebreaker,” a title so self-evidently parodic that it had already been used as a joke on Adult Swim’s Decker.
Finn and Rose fly off to Canto Bight, a mashup of the Mos Eisley Cantina and the blue-haired techno-decadence of the Hunger Games and Bladerunner movies. Rosenberg is disgusted by what happens next:
Finn and Rose spot the [Master Codebreaker] for approximately five seconds, then after they are locked up for—I truly wish I was making this up—a parking violation, they don’t bother to find him again and accept an offer of services from a completely random person with whom they have been imprisoned (Benicio Del Toro) because he says he can do it.
(This response is a rare window into how some people must have reacted to Don Quixote in 1605. The Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance sojourns at a castle, and then a man claiming to be the castle’s “innkeeper”—I truly wish I was making this up—demands payment from him.) It’s not really that hard to understand why Finn and Rose would accept help from the “random person,” DJ: He reminds them of Han Solo, of whom he is a parody, and the suave Master Codebreaker doesn’t.
The “pointless” misadventure has a definitive effect on the “real” plot, the struggle between the Resistance and the First Order. When Poe learns that the fleet is retreating, he fears that his scheme will become irrelevant. He mutinies, delaying the retreat. Once Poe has been subdued and the retreat stealthily resumed, DJ—brought aboard the First Order’s flagship by Finn and Rose—blows the Resistance’s cover. Here is the narrative “point”: The retreat has been delayed thanks to Poe and discovered thanks to Finn and Rose. Vice Admiral Holdo, Poe’s rival, chooses to salvage it by plowing into the First Order’s flagship, immolating herself.
Holdo’s self-sacrifice, a counterpoint to Poe’s arrogance, is itself digested into myth in the film’s last act. Finn, still insecure, apparently takes it as inspiration for a truly pointless suicide mission into the mouth of a First Order cannon. (Like Poe, he flips up his earpiece when told to back down.) Rose takes a better lesson from Holdo, plowing not into the enemy but into Finn to save him. When Luke strides out to confront Kylo Ren, Poe stops Finn from intervening. Having witnessed Holdo’s self-sacrifice, Finn’s misapplication of self-sacrifice, and Rose’s counterintuitive application of self-sacrifice, Poe has developed a healthy skepticism of myth. He can see that Luke is turning a myth—the myth of Luke—against its consumer, Kylo Ren.
As Finn and Rose depart Canto Bight, Poe phones in to ask if they’ve found “the Master Codebreaker.” Finn replies that they’ve found “a master codebreaker.” It’s low-key a punchline. Snoke has told Kylo Ren that he’ll never amount to “a new Vader”; Luke has told Rey that the galaxy doesn’t need “a Luke Skywalker”; Rose has recognized Finn, formerly FN-2187, as “the Finn.” When Finn says “a master codebreaker,” we know that Canto Bight: A Star Wars Story is not going to end well. We may also glimpse the bigger problem: What happens when you want something so badly that you accept—or create—a shoddy stand-in for it?
“Kylo Ren’s ‘Let the past die; kill it, if you have to’ line has become shorthand for The Last Jedi’s mission statement,” writes Danny Heifetz in a thoughtful piece for the Ringer, before offering an alternate interpretation: “The Last Jedi isn’t about killing the past—it’s about saving parts of it.” I think Dan Hassler-Forest is nearer the mark when, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, he invokes the anxiety of influence to describe the situation of Rey and Kylo Ren and of the film’s director, Rian Johnson.
The anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom defined it, stems from a dilemma. The dilemma is Oedipal: How do you separate yourself from your precursors without defining yourself as or against them? Johnson described the second of those options in an interview with Slashfilm: “If you think you’re leaving the past behind or cutting it off, you’re fooling yourself.” That is essentially Bloom’s rebuttal, in The Anxiety of Influence, to this thought from Antonin Artaud, which may sound familiar: “Let the dead poets make way for others. Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created … that petrifies us …”
According to Johnson, “the real way to move forward” is “by realizing what you take and what you leave from the past, not holding onto it too closely.” That is a deft evasion of the question. In writing and directing The Last Jedi, Johnson was dealing with a story not only influenced by Lucas but legislated by him. Johnson couldn’t negate the established facts of Star Wars or use only the ones he liked. He had to create new ones.
This Oedipal struggle between directors has a special meaning in Star Wars, a saga obsessed with Oedipal struggles. Luke faces the same dilemma with respect to Anakin Skywalker, actually, that Rian Johnson faces with respect to George Lucas creatively. This would not matter if the audience for the film did not identify so strongly with George Lucas. But because it does, the wrestling match between Johnson and Lucas plays out between Johnson and the audience. He outsmarts us. To watch the movie is to feel as though you are being surpassed by your own precocious child.
The best of Johnson’s provocations, the disclosure that Rey’s parents were “junk traders,” is equal parts pleasing and offensive. The spirit of the Lucas law (“Star Wars is about unexpected origins”) is fulfilled, while the letter of it (“Star Wars is a pedantic genealogical epic”) is broken. Rey’s greatest fear isn’t that her origin is evil, but that it is not the one George Lucas would have authored. The father lies gasping without his mask, redeemed and dying.
Another, goofier Lucas law: The line “I have a bad feeling about this” is spoken in every installment of Star Wars. It appears to be missing from The Last Jedi. The comedian Connor Ratliff, who performs regularly as a world-weary “Fake George Lucas,” was asked by the Village Voice about this omission, and his in-character answer might as well stand in for Real George’s:
There were so many things characters could have had a bad feeling about over the course of this movie. I saw at least twenty times you could have used that joke. And obviously you don’t want to use it all twenty, but I think you could have used it ten or eleven times.
Indeed you could have. The central theme of the film is its characters’ failure to have bad feelings about things. To say so, though, would call too much attention to the hubris. But Johnson squeaks by on a technicality: The line is spoken, right at the top of the movie, by BB-8 in unintelligible chirps. (Poe responds like a Hollywood producer vetting a dour script: “Happy beeps, buddy! Happy beeps!”)
This is a comic subversion. So is BB-8’s rescue of Finn and Rose. The droid’s appearance aboard an AT-ST calls to mind the most infamously far-fetched denouement in Star Wars and is followed by a prominent shot of Finn and Rose looking at each other skeptically, like bewildered fans. Other subversions are tonally murkier. When Finn strikes down Phasma (and the audience cheers), her punctured helmet looks a lot like something else—Luke’s nightmare vision, in the cave on Dagobah, of his own face peeking out of Vader’s exploded mask.
Rey is hoping for such a vision when she enters the cave in The Last Jedi.
Whereas Luke entered his cave reluctantly, at Yoda’s urging, Rey rushes into hers despite Luke’s opposition. When she begs the cave for a vision of her parents, it instead presents her own image in infinite regress. In one sense, the cave is showing Rey her personal Vader: her rootlessness. In another sense, it is showing Rey her roots. She owes her existence to the eternal recurrence of a franchise.
According to Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, he chose to make “fairy tales” because he “wanted to return to more traditional values that held a special appeal for our rootless society.” Fairy tales belong to the realm of narrative that the critic Northrop Frye called “romance,” the presentation of an “idealized world” where “heroes are brave, heroines beautiful, villains villainous, and the frustrations, ambiguities, and embarrassments of life are made little of.” The counterthrust to romance is “irony,” exemplified by Don Quixote. Large swaths of our pop culture belong here, particularly stories about people with a “romanticized” idea of the world or of themselves. In a spoof like Spaceballs, the romantic fool is the implied author, the guy who thought he could forge a fairy tale for our rootless society. The winking irony of many Marvel movies does not qualify, as it functions not to undermine the romance but to make it more palatable.
Johnson’s stroke of genius in The Last Jedi is to craft a romantic film from ironic fragments, including spoofs of Star Wars. As Frye points out, irony and romance are structurally analogous in the way that comedy and tragedy are. This is the principle on which you can write a tragicomedy or, let’s say, an “iromance.” The Last Jedi is not the first iromance: There are plenty of narratives—like Madame Bovary or any drama about an “anti-hero”—in which the protagonist occupies an ambiguous position between heroism and delusion. (Johnson may be best known for his contributions to one of these, Breaking Bad.) But The Last Jedi is the first mass-market iromance in which the author occupies that ambiguous position, the zone between Star Wars and Spaceballs, Real George Lucas and Fake George Lucas.
Consider Johnson’s treasury of allusions, cataloged here by Slate, leaving aside spoofs and Casablanca. Rashomon ends happily enough, but almost everything else could be safely classified as ironic. Ran, Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear in which all hope of human security is stripped away, is no Hidden Fortress. Kagemusha, translating to “shadow warrior,” is about a thief hired to impersonate a samurai and the calamity that results from his unmasking. The Wild Bunch is a Western about the romanticization of Westerns. (The critic David Weddle has written that the heroism of Pike Bishop, whom Poe paraphrases, “is propelled by overwhelming guilt and a despairing death wish.”) Brazil is about a man in a futuristic dystopia who subsists on his aesthetically elaborate dream visions. The Long Goodbye is a noir about the romanticization of noirs. (Pauline Kael described its protagonist, Philip Marlowe, as “a wryly forlorn knight, just slogging along; still driving a 1948 Lincoln Continental and trying to behave like Bogart.”) Citizen Kane is about a person whose desperate search for the security denied him by his parents turns him into a sociopath. Vertigo asks the question: What happens when you want something so badly that you accept—or create—a shoddy stand-in for it?
When we graft the meaning of the many cinematic fragments Lucas used onto the scenes in which he used them, the text and subtext line up: Han Solo is a gunslinger, as he appears to be, with the usual attributes of that archetype. But the opposite happens when we match Johnson’s allusions to his source material. The one true romance in Slate’s catalog, Wings, is suddenly set on Canto Bight, the planet Rose says is inhabited by “the worst people in the galaxy.” The climactic battle scene (Ran) is not a struggle between good and evil but an amoral bloodbath. Luke’s force projection (“shadow warrior”) is not an angelic messenger but an impostor whose unmasking will doom the Resistance. Poe (The Wild Bunch) is a criminal living in the past. Finn and Rose (Brazil) will end up blissfully chained to delusion. Rey (Citizen Kane) is a person whose desperate search for the security denied her by her parents will turn her into a sociopath.
And then consider the spoofs. Kylo Ren’s helmet shenanigans recall Spaceballs, and the descending clothes iron quotes Hardware Wars, an early Star Wars parody. Del Toro’s DJ is a carbon-copy of Fred Fenster, his character in The Usual Suspects, who is, if not a parody of Han Solo, at least a parody of the archetype. And then there is Yoda—the hilariously crap Yoda, a real puppet manned by the real Frank Oz, shown off proudly like a camel toe. This isn’t a quotation of a parody, but blatant self-parody. Note that the romantics (Rey, Finn–Rose, Poe, end-of-the-movie Luke, the Resistance) are linked to lavish delusion, and the nihilists (Kylo Ren, Yoda, DJ) to knowing ugliness.
There are two viable readings of these data. The first says: Wherever there is beauty, there is folly. Wherever there is ugliness, there is wisdom. The images in myths are phantoms. Do not heed their siren song!
The second reading points out that the first is deduced from a treasury of ironic myths—and the images in myths are phantoms. Why should we believe that Don Quixote is a knight, just because he dresses up like one? Why should we believe that Rey will turn out like Charles Foster Kane, just because she looks like him in one scene? Why should we doubt the justice of the Resistance’s cause, just because they remind us of Ran? Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe these images are just images, beautiful and mute.
And what, then, of The Last Jedi’s last scene? Is Johnson telling us that the boy with the broom is—like the audience, like the children in the audience, like ourselves when we were children—empowered by the story of Star Wars? Or is it a cruel joke? “By far the most thrilling scene, the one that really spoke to me, was the final one,” says Fake George Lucas—
which is essentially a re-creation of any of the Kenner toy commercials for the Star Wars action figures. I teared up. The hope for the Resistance is in the specific kind of ancillary marketing and profit stream that built the Lucasfilm empire. I thought it was brilliant of Rian Johnson to fold into the world of Star Wars itself the power of merchandising, the power of licensing, the power of branding.
Is Rian Johnson a sappy romantic or a brutal ironist?
*Correction, Jan. 3, 2018: This article originally referred to the character Holdo as a general. She’s a vice admiral.