Sunday, 10 June 2018

Why I hate Star Wars the Last Jedi


The reason I hate the Last Jedi is because it is a direct attack on the monomyth that inspired Star Wars. There may be a selection of fans who dislike the Last Jedi for other reasons, some perhaps for sinister reasons. For fans like myself however, fans who adored The Force Awakens and Rogue One, the problem with the Last Jedi is the story. Superficial thinking, for example about diversity in Star Wars, ignores this fact. It therefore fails to address the fundamental issue that I believe most of the Last Jedi’s detractors have with it. If the entire cast of the Last Jedi were white men fans would still hate it for its treatment of the Star Wars monomyth. Disney Lucasfilm must appreciate this to avoid reaching for the wrong answers to explain the division among its fans.

The Last Jedi is a direct challenge to the archetypal idea of heroism that George Lucas built Star Wars upon, which he partly drew from The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The foundations Lucas created for Star Wars follow the classical heroes journey. His protagonists start off as novices, encounter challenges and must overcome these in some way that prompts growth and usually involves loss.

In the Last Jedi Rian Johnson tries to undercut the classical concept of heroism to make his interpretation of the story work. Johnson wants the viewer to accept that the way we understand Star Wars and its mythos is mistaken: The Force, The Jedi. It’s all wrong. Through the characters in the Last Jedi Johnson tells us balance in the Force effectively lies in nobody using it. Hence his depiction of Luke Skywalker as having turned his back on the Force. Through Skywalker Johnson tells the audience that great light creates great darkness and vice versa. He also tries to convince the audience that the Jedi are blind to this because their vanity binds them to the hero narrative.

Johnson must do this because the hero narrative informed the thinking of George Lucas, and if you interpret Star Wars through that paradigm Johnson’s story does not fit the Star Wars universe. In the pre-Rian Johnson account of the Star Wars mythos balance is found in the triumph of good over evil, as you’d expect from a tale so influenced by The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It is not vanity that causes us, be it the audience or the Jedi, to believe in the heroic struggle of good against evil: the light side against the dark side. It is something archetypal that appeals to human beings on an instinctive level. We want good to overcome evil. We do want the Force to belong to the Jedi. We do not believe that evil is a response to good, just the absence of it.

Johnson’s subversion of the classic Star Wars monomyth creates several concrete problems in terms of characterisation and narrative in the Last Jedi. Johnson appears to understand that if he cannot convince the audience that heroism is a flawed concept we will reject his story. So as well as having Luke Skywalker act as his voice he also tries to cast heroism as dangerous, selfish and pig headed. Poe Dameron’s character suffers because of this particularly. Poe is seen as taking a series of insubordinate decisions that transform him from the likeable maverick of the Force Awakens into an unlikeable imbecile.

Even within the context of his own story Johnson’s attack on heroism leads him having to try and explain away certain acts or ignore them completely. For example, Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice to save the resistance is described as not being heroic. Ostensibly because it is done to give the resistance a chance to survive not for glory. When Finn attempts to make the same sacrifice however, by giving up his own life to destroy the First Order’s canon before it can wipe out the resistance, he is stopped by Rose Tico. Her explanation for doing this sits uneasily against the explanation Leia gave a few frames earlier for Holdo’s sacrifice, particularly as at that point within the narrative it seems like the last hope for the resistance. By arguing against heroism so forcefully Johnson is unable to lean on the simplest motive for the characters actions. This makes it difficult to draw a logical line as to why some heroism, like Holdo’s, is good and other heroism, like Finn’s attempt, is bad. This is brought into focus by the Last Jedi’s climax in which Luke Skywalker, who Johnson used to talk down the Jedi ‘legend’ in the first two acts, creates a new legend to spark the fire of a new rebellion with his last stand. Are heroes good or bad? Are legends worth putting our faith in or not? Ultimately Johnson’s Last Jedi does not provide the audience with satisfying answers to these questions. It cannot because the internal logic of Star Wars would back heroism but this would destroy Johnson’s take on the story.

Rey’s character suffers more than any other because of Johnson’s attempt to deconstruct the Star Wars monomyth. If Johnson is able to convince the audience that belief in heroes is a form of vanity, a form of vanity that blinds us to the fact true balance is the co-existence of light and the dark, the treatment of Rey’s character is palatable: Rey does not need to go through the traditional heroes journey of the kind Joseph Campbell and George Lucas advocate, she is the balance of Kylo Ren and his power is naturally balanced by hers: ‘Darkness rises and light rises to meet it’ to quote Snoke. Accept Johnson’s premise and Rey is not a so-called Mary Sue. She is a literal force of nature arising naturally by the will of the Force. However, if you reject Johnson’s deconstruction of the Star Wars monomyth and interpret episode VIII against what we learn in episodes I-VII, her character arc is unsatisfying.

Unlike other Jedi before her in canon Rey’s abilities seem to come from nowhere. That is why Johnson so readily hammers home the message to the audience that they must ‘let the past die. Kill it if you have to.’ When considering the heroes journeys of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker or anyone else in canon Rey’s abilities make no sense. All Jedi, regardless of how naturally gifted, have been depicted as needing to train to hone their abilities. Despite being a virgin birth and being stupendously force intuitive Anakin still needed to become a Padawan, still lost to Count Dooku and to Obi-Wan. The idea of darkness rising and light rising to meet it is totally alien to the Star Wars canon predating Rian Johnson. For example, the Sith mostly destroyed themselves hence Darth Bane instituting the rule of two. Since Lucas created Star Wars the traditional stages of the heroes journey have governed its internal logic and the Last Jedi crashes painfully against that. For long time fans of Star Wars broom kid’s abilities seem bizarre when we recall Luke Skywalker’s struggles in the Wampa Cave.

The need to throw out the past to make the logic of his story stand is why Rian Johnson’s interpretation of Star Wars is so hated by so many. Over and over long-time franchise fans are confronted with a message that implies that Lucasfilm doesn’t care about its legacy. From the way Johnson reshoots Rey handing Anakin’s lightsaber to Luke so he can toss it, the film repeatedly and wilfully seems to ignore what came before it. Luke left a map to where he was, which is ignored. Yoda uses force lightning, a Sith power, yet he has been depicted as the paramount Jedi. Rey gets a power up to balance out Kylo’s abilities yet neither Luke or Yoda got similar boosts to fight Palpatine in episodes III and VI. Holdo’s plan hinges on escape pods but the Empire tracks escape pods, which happens in A New Hope and the Force Awakens. The Last Jedi feels like a slap in the face to Star Wars continuity. Johnson seems to forget that the reason people bought into Star Wars in the first place is the history he needs us to throw out to buy his story’s premises. Given this choice between the classic Star Wars monomyth and Johnson’s tale there was only ever going to be one winner. I will take the Hero with a Thousand Faces over a film that cannot even give me a clear answer on heroism any day.