Paradise Lost, Regained
By Eric Hynes
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Dir. Rian Johnson, U.S., Walt Disney Studios
“It’s time to let old things die.”
Yes it is, I thought.
Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren says this to Daisy Ridley’s Rey at the turning point of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, in an attempt to coax her away from saving her friends and the rebellion—“Kill it, if you have to”—and toward starting over, with him.
Please, yes. Let it all die. Let the black-haired, pouty, linebacker-breasted fallen angel join hands with Jedi Sporty Spice and start a new world. Let them veer into some weird and gloriously unpopular galactic side road. Let Princess Leia go, before we have to watch another ghastly ghoulish CGI exhumation. Let Luke Skywalker go back to yellow-haired representations on moth-eaten Sears twin-sized sheets. Let Chewbacca go back to his family and Art Carney. Let no more billion-dollar trilogies of nostalgia choke out another generation’s attempts at new culture. Let the rebellion go, let the Empire—or the First Order, or whatever—go, let the Force and the Hero’s Journey and the old world and the old religion and the old serials and the whole gangrenous Hollywood system go, and just let these two fine young humans—or aliens, or whatever—make sweet love upon the firmament and give birth to new stars on the face of the deep. Yes, yes, yes, ’tistime.
Rey declines, and the moment passes. The most compelling sequence of the film follows, set on the salt-covered planet of Crait, with three story threads coming together and culminating in a bracing riposte to Kylo’s entreaty. “See you around, kid,” old-thing Luke says to him, triumphantly channeling Humphrey Bogart via Ren’s vanquished father, Han Solo, quickly confirming that old things don’t ever really die, they hang around as memory and sentimentality, invocation and documentation, bad smells and madeleines, haunting our dreams, stabbing at your conscience, and forging afterlives among, between, and despite intellectual properties. Yet Ren’s proposal still hangs in the air as the defining moment of the film, and of this third Star Wars trilogy to date. Having these young protagonists enact ambivalence about their inheritance rhymes with a filmmaking enterprise wrestling with the same.
It’s ironic, and yet predictable, that this self-interrogation—the most compelling development within the franchise since the bad guy said he was the good guy’s father 37 long years ago—has helped trigger a backlash against the film and its writer-director, Rian Johnson. Fans don’t want development or change, they want fidelity. Fans want a fix. Whatever made them high in the first place is what they want more of, again, longer and harder, forever. Abrams did what he needed to do with the first film in the series, The Force Awakens, appeasing the fans who wanted to see their beloved series honored and perpetuated, rebooted with all the same ingredients and with just enough updates and intrigue to keep things moving ahead. What Johnson dares to do with The Last Jedi—and I use the word dare liberally, knowing how impossible it would have been to truly subvert an enterprise this expensive—is to put the navigation of these desires and demands into the text itself. Yes, there’s an emotional, character-generated logic to what Kylo proposes to Rey, but the distance between these sentiments and the sentiments we carry into a film franchise begun during the Carter administration, with once-young actors playing old sages, is nonexistent. Are we allholding on too tightly to old things? Is any of this even ours? And do we even need it anymore?
During those brief moments of Driver and Ridley moodily contemplating dyadic bliss and reboot-by-booty-call—their first reunion since they clashed sabers and felled trees with ravenous abandon at the end of The Force Awakens—I found myself, a Star Wars fanatic since the age of three, owner of every Kenner figure manufactured for the first three films and annual watcher of all 120 minutes of the Holiday Special, asking what more I needed from any of this. I had long stopped wishing to see Mark Hamill play Skywalker again, or Fisher reprise a role she’d outgrown wellbefore Return of the Jedi, let alone in the ensuing decades of book and playwriting and script doctoring and adult character acting. They’d grown up, I’d grown up and on—it’s okay, it happens all the time. It’s obvious from his half-hearted performance in the previous film that Harrison Ford never got over the ridiculousness of the whole thing, never got past the notion that this was just about the perpetuation of the property, that it was, at best, a chance to feel the crushing mockery of passing time while putting on a young man’s silly costume for the payday of it. And that notion maintains its force over the continuing enterprise. The only way to determine if there’s something more to be wrought from this old saga is to first reckon with the possibility that there isn’t. Are we telling stories or honoring a ritual? Are we discovering characters or propping up mummies? People will show up either way—it’s either this or Jumanji for chrissakes—but let’s first be honest about what we’re watching, and why.
Of course The Last Jedi is both new and old, creative and calculated. That’s how this business works—and honestly only if we’re lucky. There’s an opening scroll, then a tilt down to a colossal ship eclipsing the frame, an opening battle involving a dastardly English-accented villain (Domhnall Gleeson) and a brazen fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac) assisted by a cutesy droid. There’s an A story (Rey and Luke) and a B story (Leia and Isaac’s Poe Dameron battling back the First Order’s space-bound pursuit), and then a flimsy C story inside of the B story (John Boyega’s Finn and newcomer Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose splitting off to find a code breaker for a cockamamie mission); there’s hyperspace and blasters and X Wing Fighters and Admiral Ackbar; there are glimpses of new wonderments both inventive (scraping the salt surface on Crait produces Clyfford Still-worthy blood red streaks) and calculated (those big-eyed, Christmas wishlist-ready Porgs). What’s different is effectively the same. Meanwhile what’s the same is also different. Last glimpsed only at the very end of The Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker returns as a bitter recluse, using the force to spear giant rubbery fish and milk the ripe udders of corpulent Seussian sea lions. The remoteness of his island enclave and his reluctance to train the visiting apprentice, Rey, mirrors his own tango with the begrudging Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, the most beloved film in the franchise and an obvious touchstone for Johnson’s.
Hamill owns his accumulated years whilst channeling his bratty younger self, the All-American boy from Cali that made him both effectively and annoyingly cast in the original trilogy. The idea that Luke is some sacred figure, some hallowed warrior king, has everything to do with fan worship and nothing to do with his actual character arc. He was a petulant orphan plucked into service, apprenticed into representing a bygone religion, then hellbent on confronting, vanquishing, and redeeming his estranged father. Did you really expect his existence in the ensuing years to be free of heartbreak and ambivalence over the value of life itself? Johnson gives Luke his moments, especially in a final fiery confrontation with Kylo, but otherwise he shows him as a shadow of his former self, rather mortified by the whole deal. What more can we ask of a character built to overachieve, than to be struggling with that legacy three decades hence? Luke wants to be left alone. Luke is rebuking you and me for expecting more story out of him. This seems not only fair, but right. Let the fanboys still jazzed about his all-black threads in 1983 fight for Luke’s coolness—truth is he’s a nerd and always was, with both character and actor self-consciously playing a role not chosen but assigned, over- and undercooking almost every line. Hamill isn’t just reprising Luke, he’s revisiting the actor who played Luke. It’s an awkward performance, sincerely so, which means it’s perfect.
Luke is meant to recede next to Rey, another orphan plucked from sand-locked obscurity, another walking cliché of young adult vim and verve, with another voice that you’d like to turn down just a notch if you may. I’m not sure Ridley is going to disprove the naysayers and skeptics with her performance in The Last Jedi, much as Hamill didn’t during his second go-around in Empire. Whether or not Rey or her embodiment ever merits being a trilogy’s primary focus, Johnson makes the right call to rack focus to her, and away from both Luke and the two new do-gooders, Finn and Poe. (Though this might have been done without sparing those two characters any discernible development: they’re no more defined at the end of part 2 than they were at the end of part 1—they’re just behaving according to Abrams’s initial sketches—and, by rarely being in the same place at the same time, there’s little chance for their homoerotic charge to catch on.) The spiritual aspects of the franchise have never been its strongest, but there’s no denying their centrality to the whole enterprise, nor denying that Rey is the current carrier of the Jedi/Force/midi-chlorians gene. Yet it’s not just Luke that Rey has to outshine, it’s also Kylo, her fellow conflicted Jedi, and that proves to be a far taller order. The lost, conflicted, ill-behaved, angry young man tends to win our attention, if not always the day. Same as it ever was.
* * *
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.
Paradise Lost, John Milton
Kylo Ren is just the latest in a long line of sympathetic villains that stretches back to the earliest recorded tales. But the miserable, suffering, infinitely despairing Kylo is especially, perhaps deliberately redolent of Milton’s Lucifer. His emotions and motivations are both human and inscrutable, selfish and self-destructive. Driver plays him as a tantrum-throwing overgrown child, yet also as a savvy logician, out to both prove and liberate himself, descend into the void and remake it in his own wounded image. Much as George Lucas cast the unproven Hamill to face off against a cool black mask voiced by the legendarily piped James Earl Jones, Abrams cast the unproven Ridley to dance with rocketing A-lister Driver, who’s maxing out the boom mics, blowtorching the scenery, and stealing every second he’s onscreen. We know we should strive to be the hero, but we can’t help but feel for the devil. And to respect his logic. “Let the past die,” he tells Rey. “That's the only way to become what you are meant to be.” Who among us from broken homes, or even a period during which we experienced conflict with or rupture from our families, hasn’t felt this and madecrucial decisions and realizations according to such logic? There may be a greater and healthier right, but Kylo isn’t entirely wrong, and not just about the hoary Star Wars franchise.
Kylo is both Lucifer and Adam, father of a potential new world reaching out to his chosen Eve. Where Eve is the temptress in Milton, and of course in Genesis, here she’s the one to reject temptation, with Rey denying Kylo’s hand and their fruit—a contested lightsaber, sword of knowledge—broken in half. She’s rejecting his companionship, his sexual advances (if I may be permitted to claim, despite how repressively chaste these films have become), but seemingly only because they’re on his nihilistic/romantic terms. Her response isn’t to scoff but to spiritedly appeal to his conflicted conscience, which he’d just revealed in a preceding moment by violently saving, rather than taking, Rey’s life. Since he made the first move, maybe he’d be willing to go all the way…
Not only does this sequence expose, as previously suggested, the “do we stay or do we go” ambivalence of this moviemaking enterprise, its literary and theological underpinnings convey a deeper and more meaningful ambivalence, one that in turn potentially justifies the effort. We don’t actually need another Star Wars, and we certainly don’t need another Star Wars that treats its own third-hand mythology as sacred text. But we’ll always need to try to make sense of our conflicted selves, as Milton did, as Goethe did, as Freud did, as Dostoyevsky did, as Shepard did, as Didion does, as Scorsese does. We’re caught between how we’re made and who we might become, what is right versus what feels right, the past and the future, restraint and release. For as long as these characters and this ongoing saga provide an adequate arena for wrestling with this struggle, there will be value in it. Tasked with the pivot film in a trilogy, Johnson chose the right time to reinvigorate the narrative with irreconcilable forces, doubts, and conflicts. Suspension is a middle chapter’s best asset. And best in that it’s truest.
It’s only when Kylo tempts us with letting old things die that we’re prepared to mourn for when they actually do, in the form of Luke joining his mentors in the radioactive afterglow. Resenting and growing weary of that and those we’ve inherited doesn’t make us monsters, nor does putting real emotion onto that which has been engineered and mass produced make us fools—it makes us human. It also doesn’t mean that we’re required to take it all seriously, and Johnson’s visual gaggery and at times jarring situational humor suggests he doesn’t either. Nor does it mean I am required to stop fantasizing about what that other story would have entailed, the one in which Rey lets it all burn and the two Jedis skulk out into the galaxy raising hell and crossing sabers. Nor does it mean I wasn’t moved by the sight of old-thing Luke looking one last time at the horizon, wishing on two suns like the desert surf boy he was when we first found him, still somehow dreaming of a far, far away. In fact these fantasies are all the same. And that can be either restorative and perpetuating or pointless and deadening. So long as it involves a searching, there will be something to it.