Star Wars (Nothing But) Star Wars
Warning: Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoilers below.
There’s a lot wrong with The Last Jedi, but the wacky mix of sci-fi adventure and fantasy mysticism that makes something Star Wars isn’t one of them. While not a card-carrying fan, I’m more than casually familiar with the ins and outs of the Star Wars universe. I’ve read a Timothy Zahn book or two (okay, exactly two). I’m no Prequel Trilogy apologist—those movies sucked, through and through. I grew up playing with Star Wars toys, hanging with Star Wars boys, and watching the films whenever they rotated their way on TV.
As the credits rolled on The Last Jedi, I walked out of the theater wrestling with my feelings on the film—or if I even had any—but left with one clear thought:
That sure was a Star Wars movie.
Yet fans ranged. Rian Johnson’s affront to Force worshipers was unforgivable. Apparently, nearly three hours of blazing lightsabers, blaster fights, otherworldly weirdness, and space wizards rambling about the mysteries of supernatural powers isn’t Star Wars enough for some. Or maybe just not the right kind of Star Wars. Who knows. I mean, Johnson fixed midichlorians. The man stripped out George Lucas’ laughably bad pseudo-scientific reduction and restored a sense of mystery and wonder to the Force. This is something only a fan would do.
Then again, mystery is also what The Last Jedi fumbles most. I could talk at length about all the problems I have with Canto Bight, the pocket adventure Johnson sends Finn and Rose on that largely felt like it was constructed to give the two something to do. On paper it sounds like something I’d like. The main thrust of the sequence is Rose learning there isn't always a clean, clear line between “Good” and “Evil”—that some people will comfortably sell weapons to both sides of a war. Contrasting the dire conditions of the Resistance under the relentless pursuit of the First Order by placing Rose and Finn on a world of decadent indulgence and wealthy detachment is smart. It’s jarring to see these two physically and emotionally worn-down would-be heroes caught in the eddies of an unconcerned society while the fight for the moral soul of the galaxy quietly rages in the far reaches of space.
In execution, however, Canto Bight doesn’t help an already busy film. Beyond feeling somewhat tacked on, though, most of its problems are pretty minor—except for the Convenient Cosmic Coincidence it hinges on that’s harder to swallow than the one that brought Han Solo swaggering back aboard the Millennium Falcon, blaster in hand.
In The Force Awakens, Rey and Finn happen to be on the same planet as the Falcon, which Han happens to be tracking. He also just happens to be—improbably—just the rogue they needed to run across at that exact moment—the one man in all the galaxy with connections to the Resistance, Jedi, and First Order.
In The Last Jedi, a parking violation lands Finn and Rose in the same cell as Benicio del Toro’s DJ, a mumbling thief slicker than engine coolant and, like Old Man Han, a Triple-C in human form. Fortunately, despite not being the master codebreaker Maz Kanata sent the two to find, he is—improbably—just as skilled at systems intrusion and will totally risk boarding a First Order ship for these two fine strangers at the low, low price of one trinket.
(Quick aside: In my mind, Dj was the master codebreaker. Certainly seemed more like the sort of dude Maz would kick it with, as opposed to keeping company with Justin Theroux’s bland mannequin handsomeness. That guy? He’s just some rich fuck who won DJ’s broach from a bad hand in pazaak, and when DJ lost his cool he got locked up. Too bad none of this is supported by the narrative. He’s just a completely random dude.)
Both story beats echo ones from the Original Trilogy, which inevitably draws comparison. Luke and Ben happening upon Han in Mos Eisley works because it’s a reactive moment. Rey and Finn happening upon Han in the middle of space doesn’t because it feels orchestrated and unearned. Lando’s betrayal of Han hurts because he took Leia and the others to Lando. Vouched for him. DJ's betrayal of Rose and Finn doesn’t because there’s no emotional stakes between the three.
What might prove to be the New Trilogy’s most egregious Convenient Cosmic Coincidence, however, is also already its biggest mismanagement of mystery: Supreme Leader Snoke.
In the Original Trilogy, the who, what, and why of Snoke wouldn’t matter. He’s a narrative proxy for Palpatine, and that cackling Old Warlock didn’t need an explanation. He just needed to be the figurehead of an amorphous Evil Empire and the person responsible for corrupting Anakin Skywalker into the Dark Knight. There’s a postmodern argument that, like Palpatine, the details surrounding Snoke are inconsequential. Any decent writer could dream up a backstory that puts everything exactly in place the way it is now. Its absence isn’t oversight—it’s by design.
That doesn’t mean it works, of course, and the end result is a death that loses all emotional punch because Snoke is a joke. But a joke needs a punchline, and a punchline needs a setup. That setup is Snoke’s backstory—the linchpin of the New Trilogy.
The First Order got their fascist hands on all that cool refurbished Empire swag because of Snoke. Ben Solo caught a real bad case of Sith because of Snoke. Luke went into self-imposed exile and fell back on his blue tit liquid addiction because of Snoke. Han Solo forgot where he parked the Millennium Falcon because of Snoke. Everything about the state of the galaxy at the start of The Force Awakens is shaped by the unremarked actions and influence of Snoke. Seducing Ben Solo to the Dark Side is what split apart the Original Trilogy’s heroes. What were they doing while all this went on? Were Leia and Han lounging in the Falcon’s cockpit, sipping stolen Corellian rum while Lil’ Ben was in the back Forcetiming with a Snokehole? Did Master Luke see Young Ben pallin’ around with this Palpatine 2.0-lookin’ motherfucker and think, this is probably just a phase?
Snoke is too crucial to kill off without properly establishing first, and much too crucial to explain away during some fireside chat with Force Ghost Luke. The symbolic gesture of his murder is fantastic and bold—the Old Warlock was never as interesting a villain as the tortured and conflicted Dark Knight, and having agency is infinitely more interesting than being someone’s pawn, but the unanswered questions left by this unceremonious demise are the heart of the New Trilogy’s problems—not women (real or fictional), diversity, or politics.
Trying to pinpoint what went “wrong” with The Last Jedi is largely impossible because the real origin of the New Trilogy’s narrative woes is located sometime before The Force Awakens even begins. Maybe George Lucas is to blame for giving us what proved to be a wholly unwanted Prequel Trilogy instead of a proper continuation. Maybe if we’d gotten a nostalgia-laden sequel trilogy back when fans my age were still teens, the New Trilogy would be free to chase fresher ideas. Instead, Disney needed their revival to be three things at once: A Classic Star Wars trilogy, a Sequel Star Wars trilogy, and a New Star Wars trilogy.
That’s an unwieldy balancing act, to say the least, and to succeed at all three meant that no one would be nearly as strong as it ought to be. So while it’s easy to suggest that the reason this new Star Wars just isn’t working is because of what’s different from the Original Trilogy (more women, more characters of color, the rejection of the monomyth) or even what’s the same (overt homages and replicated story beats), these are misguided and lazy targets. Actually getting to root of why this new Star Wars seems off means addressing the armature of the story—the very framework the whole damn thing is built on.
For the armature of the New Trilogy to work, it should’ve started several years earlier. The reason it seems like Han, Leia, and Luke sat idly by while Snoke undid everything they fought for during the Original Trilogy is because the story Abrams wanted to tell in The Force Awakens needed them to. Had they not, the story would’ve started there.
For good or ill, however, Disney wanted a New Star Wars trilogy that was also a Classic Star Wars trilogy and a Sequel Star Wars trilogy. Starting there would’ve meant no new—no Finn, no Rey. At least, not in roles that were also classic and instantly recognizable. Hurling the story several decades further along to put sufficient distance between one fascist regime and the next would’ve worked for to replicate a Classic Star Wars trilogy and have a new one, but that means having no Han, no, Leia, and at best Mark Hamill as a cool blue dude. Instead, we got all three at once so the New Trilogy be could something for everyone, lay the groundwork for what’s to come while closing the book on what’s come before, and give fans enough syrupy, rich nostalgia to make their teeth hurt. The cost of this trixistence is a story that’s more disjointed and riddled with flaws, but one that’s easily the most interesting Star Wars has ever been as a conversation topic.
Chances are, Force Ghost Luke will gloss over Snoke’s backstory in Episode IX, retroactively improving both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and narrowly side-stepping the dizzying, enormous Convenient Cosmic Coincidence that Snoke would otherwise be if left an unexplained, powerful-as-fuck Sith lord emerging out of nowhere to corrupt another Skywalker. But when those revelations finally come, they’ll be too late to give the moment when Kylo Ren seizes control of the First Order the weight it deserves, and the time between Old and New will always seem like a strange, foggy land that you can never quite see clearly.
Mystery can be a good thing. The unknown origins of the Space Jockey is interesting to debate and discuss, but the reveal of their identity as Engineers in Prometheus is underwhelming and took something magical away from Alien. Movies need more mystery, and much of the dense lore woven throughout Star Wars woud've been better off unexplored—Boba Fett’s identity, the Clone Wars, Anakin’s fall and Vader’s rise, the exact nature of the Force. Supreme Leader Snoke, however, is not.