Amid backlash and controversy Heather weighs in on Star Wars The Last Jedi
By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor
There are SPOILERS in this review…You’ve been warned
Wow it has been a while since I reviewed a film, not that I haven’t been seeing films (though I totally missed the American Ghost in the Shell). There’s been a lot of things in my personal life and it hasn’t left much time to write so apologies, I’ll try to do more in this year.
The reaction to this film was certainly unexpected. After reading a handful of articles and fan reactions I wanted to take a moment to try and make sense of why this latest installment in the Star Wars franchise has brought such fan dissonance. Without further ado I’m going to dive right in. Given the nature of the backlash there will be spoilers abound so if you want to see it, do so and read this later.
I must start off by saying Critical Dissonance is nothing new to fandom in general (looking at you Game of Thrones) and certainly not new the Star Wars franchise. The direct prequel, The Force Awakens, has generally positive reviews from both critics and fans. But if you went to a convention and asked people in the fandom how they felt you may find as many people who enjoy it as there are who thought it was terrible.
Because there was such a huge gap in time between the conception of The Force Awakens and Return of the Jedi, many fan works had been created and many in the fandom consider them to be canon and were left feeling disappointed when Disney announced that all of those spinoffs would be discounted which rendered them into essentially published fanfiction. Obviously this has set off a chain reaction in terms of expectation versus what is actually canon which is something I’ll delve more into a little later on.
The best example of dissonance comes from the now infamous prequel trilogy, it’s important to point out was produced before Disney gained the rights, which was always rated higher by film critics then by the general fanbase. My personal take: producing them was always going to be a challenge because you only have so much film to show how things got to their inevitable end point. From Episode 1 to 3 there is a gradual improvement. Really. Watch them in order and you see they learn but the unfortunate part is that by the time that they did they had more than a dozen plot threads that needed to be wrapped up in about a two hour time frame…
However there is one thing the prequels executed well and kept consistent which was how the Jedi’s belief in a prophecy became their undoing. Well okay that’s putting it a bit too simply; it’s really how the Jedi misinterpreted a prophecy which led to their undoing. I could write an entire article on this but I’ll give you the nutshell so we can get to The Last Jedi and why this is relevant. The Jedi believed there would be a person born who would bring balance to the force.
Well, here’s the thing, all the Jedi trained to that point were essentially on the Light Side with only a small handful of Sith’s representing the Dark Side so really to bring balance, an actual balance to all this Light Side, essentially meant the birth of Darth Vader. The Jedi really didn’t read the fine print on that one.
Okay so now we have Last Jedi and instead of an Aesop revolving around prophecies and the consequences therefore within this film takes an approach to Iconoclasm and oh boy is this going to be a fun to break down because it functions both within the film and it’s targeted at the audience. So let’s start within the film when we last left our heroine Rey she found the legendary Luke Skywalker who has become a hermit in the middle of the galaxy waiting for death.
Again, LEGENDARY HERO, Luke Skywalker, is a grumpy old man who is living in isolation and is drinking nasty ass blue milk and has given up on teaching the ways of the Jedi. I can’t remember the exact quote but at some point Luke asks Rey if she expected him to just run up to the Republic waving a giant light sword and that would bring peace to the galaxy. Hey fandom, you know why you’re so pissed off? It’s because the film is calling you out for your belief in Luke Skywalker being put up on a pedestal.
Yes, that scenario sounds cool but while no one likes a Mary Sue fic, essentially this is what Skywalker has come to represent in the extended universe and for him to essentially become the exact opposite in a way is like going up to Adam West at a convention center and extending your hand because you’ve been in awe of him since you were a child, only for him to turn you away and look past you as if you’re not even there… that wasn’t awfully specific now was it?
Oh but wait there’s more. People were put off by the humor in the film. Really? People are getting sliced in half with light swords and the Resistance has been mowed down to only a handful of people, not to mention our beloved General has died in real life- I’m sorry but I welcome these light hearted parts because when you go from laughing to the silence there was when Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo’s kamikaze of an imperial starship, it creates a wallop of an impact.
While we’re here let’s talk a bit more about the female representation in the film because it seems that this is one of the other divisive aspects of the film. The women are as diverse in this film as they are fierce. On the side of the Resistance we have General Leia, Admiral Holdo, Rey, Rose and to a small extent Maz. On the opposite side we have Captain Phasma. All are strong and capable in their own ways bringing their own set of skills to the fray. In a time where all female reboots of popular films are being produced as quickly as hotcakes, some accuse the film of pandering to the millennial generation.
I’m not sure what exactly it is that makes this eligible for “pandering,” but I do know that pretty much any and all characters received some sort of fan backlash. Rey received backlash for being “too perfect of a character,” by virtue of she is a strong force wielder that came out of nowhere. Isn’t this true of most of the Jedi? And it’s not like she’s some magical prodigy or she would have wasted Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. I’ll say she’s not entirely developed yet and leave it at that.
Another point of contention revolves around Admiral Holdo. Many on the forums say and I quote, “she’s just a complete bitch.” Okay so she’s an authoritative female leader in a military organization, got it. Many arguing she should have just told Poe what the master plan was, okay now despite how ragtag the resistance is- they’re still a military organization and Holdo is Poe’s superior officer and thus doesn’t owe him any explanation. As for the other issues of her seemingly coming out of nowhere this actually ties into the next outcry in regards to a very different female leader.
There’s no better way of saying Phasma has gotten the short end of the stick in both of these films. After appearing so menacing in the trailer it took audiences aback in both this and the previous film that she was defeated so abruptly reducing her appearance to essentially a cameo. I did some digging- in both the cases of Holdo and Phasma they are much bigger figures in the novelization and graphic novels that accompany the films. The film makers said in interviews that Phasma’s development while crucial was just too complex and rich of a character that would be worthy of her own film series entirely. And so they’ve actually created a graphic novel to enrich the backstory of Phasma and it sounds like something I’ll want to check out in the near future.
Fans also had many issues with the Finn and Rose storyline. Complaints including their love story felt forced, that one of them should have died and that their whole storyline was for nothing- except that was the entire point and many people seem to have missed it. The love story I personally could take it or leave it, but think about this, emotions are running high and everyone thinks they’re gonna die so it makes some sense.
As for offing a major character- we’ve already lost thousands in the resistance and Luke Skywalker, let the two kids live (for now). A common trope in the fantasy genre (which Star Wars totally is) is the heroes will have to go through a series of tasks that seem impossible to acquire the Macguffin that is the key that will assure their victory. Except this movie pushed the bleakness up to eleven by denying them a victory and in fact leaving them worse off than when they started. It’s completely defied the expected tropes and brought the story to a very dark place. This film isn’t pandering to anyone and its left us on a cliffhanger at the bleakest moment.
So we don’t have a story that is pandering by creating diversity, we have two opposing factions; we have a group led by women, prominently featuring a Latino man, an Asian woman and a black man against an evil organization led by two white men. This of course is over simplifying it but to simply call it a millennial thing is missing the point entirely. (Also see Rogue One, this is not the first time a diverse cast has been used in the Star Wars Universe.)
Two throw away lines in the film actually explain why the stage has been set this way and do so beautifully. The first is when Luke says, “This is not going to end the way you think.” The other is after Kylo Ren has slain Snoke and wants Rey to join him, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” This ties into a previous point of contention, remember when I mentioned expectation versus what is actually canon? Here we go…
Immediately following the release of The Force Awakens, internet message boards were absolutely flooded by fan theories, among them, where did Snoke come from and who are Rey’s parents? (My money was on Palpatine). The film answers this, by not answering either, which even I’ll admit I feel cheated in some ways but it’s understandable given the theme of the film again tying back into Iconoclasm.
Star Wars is such an important fandom to so many people and the film essentially has just said, “we don’t care about your theories or nostalgia- we’re here to tell you a story.” This is not the same as saying “we don’t care about the fandom,” but unfortunately a large portion of the fandom seems to be taking it this way. The Force Awakens was often called out for relying too much on nostalgia and meeting fan expectation by essentially rehashing the plot of A New Hope, the original film.
This film takes characters on an unexpected journey and I too am feeling the divide, in fact I only give the film a 3/5 because to me it doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it’s part of a bigger picture. I’ve already touched on expectation versus reality but the one point I didn’t really delve too far into was the hacker character. He points out in a scene that the people who are getting rich sell weapons to both sides of the conflict and at the end of the day they both profit.
Well obviously you can make the argument about gun manufacturers but what if we applied that to Disney. It funds good movies, it funds bad movies- at the end of the day they’re making money regardless, except by that logic The Last Jedi is the film equivalent of giving the fanbase the finger because they know they’ll make money regardless… well we won’t know until episode IX…
The biggest thing to take away is that visually the film is stunning, the effects and animation departments have outdone themselves. The score is moving, invoking the classic themes and providing a great accompaniment to the film on the whole. The plot only takes place of the course of a few days and in that time we really delve more into the characters, learning more about their motivations and raising the stakes in who is or isn’t going to make it out.
It’s also a giant social commentary. I sincerely hope the makers of the film aren’t making it simply to milk a cash cow and that by going against the grain they are really trying to forge a new story, a new legacy for the film saga that is 40 years in the making. Maybe at the end of the day Rey’s parents really don’t matter because the film makers don’t want us to root for her based on where she came from, but rather who she is.
A quote from the first Pokemon movie might best encompass this, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.” Rey is her own character and the hero of the story and honestly I am still excited to see where episode IX is going to take her. In life you don’t have to come from a great family in order to do great things. Think of it from the perspective of someone whose family name has been tainted by shame and disappointment. Recently I read an article written by someone who was raised within the Kl Klux Klan and for a while they too were an active member until one day they realized the people you come from do not define you, that only you can define you.