Friday 19 January 2018

The Last Jedi is More than a Machine

The final scene of The Last Jedi made me cry a bit. And at first I put this down to attending a midnight showing, immediately after my office Christmas party, and therefore being more susceptible to its manipulations than I otherwise would have been. But then I saw it again a few weeks later, and it happened again, which was a surprise. And it took me a while to work out why.

Every new Star Wars film needs to answer the same question: what makes something Star Wars? Why is this film different from any of the other generic space fantasies that followed in Star Wars' wake?

The Force Awakens tried to reverse-engineer the experience of watching a Star Wars film. It dug up familiar structures, familiar scenes, motifs in architecture, costume and music. It assumed (not necessarily incorrectly) that - as long as you got your maths right - Star Wars was a product, and it could be mass-produced. It worked. It was a fun time.

While The Force Awakens saw Star Wars as a machine for producing emotions, Rogue One pretended that Star Wars was a real place: that its mythic armies of light and darkness were functional organisations, that its planets had geographies, that its thin archetypal characters had histories and roots. It knew that its audience liked its world, and it let them spend time there. It worked. It was a fun time.

The Last Jedi plays a much more interesting, much more complicated game. While The Force Awakens and Rogue One throw all their energy into inhabiting Star Wars, becoming Star Wars, The Last Jedi strains against the formal leash. It's not trying to work out how to mimic the pop cinema of 70s and 80s. It's asking a slightly different set of questions: what are we allowed to do when we rebuild these old films? What does it feel like when we do it? And why are we doing all of this in the first place?

It is not subtle about this. In the world of the film, characters struggle with the weight of the generation before them - should they become one with it? Fight against it? Tear it down and create something new? It's the same question as the one faced by the filmmaker. And it's the same question faced by the audience - or at least the audience with a prior emotional link to these films: how much of the Star Wars' history should we keep?

Two characters embody this tension. Rey doesn't have a history - she comes from "nowhere", she doesn't have the ancestry or roots that Star Wars characters tend to have. But she wants them - she wants to be part of the history of the world she lives in - and therefore the history of the film franchise she appears in. See, for instance, her reverence towards Luke Skywalker. And - more importantly - see the way that she attempts to recreate the plots of previous Star Wars films; like Luke, she hunts down a Jedi teacher on a distant planet; like Luke she goes alone to the enemy stronghold to try to convert a villain to the light. Her desire to be part of the in-universe legacy of Star Wars sees her re-enacting scenes and structures from previous Star Wars films.

And of course, it doesn't work. She fails to convert Kylo Ren, and is instead confronted by her own rootlessness. The Force Awakens showed that merely rewriting and reworking old Star Wars plots simply emphasises the weaknesses of the reconstruction: Rey's narrative in The Last Jedi is a personification of this journey.

Kylo Ren, meanwhile, is on the opposite path. While Rey lacks a history and desperately wants one, Kylo Ren (the son of Han and Leia, and former pupil of Luke) is drenched in history and desperately wants to be rid of it. He is, in many ways, the symbol of a filmmaker straightjacketed by the conventions of making a film like this, pushing against the format imposed upon him by history. And Kylo Ren does break the format: he quite literally kills the main villain too early, Snoke's death coming about a film and a half before tradition demands. Just as Rey tries to re-enact previous films, Kylo Ren pushes against them, his in-universe straining becoming an out-of-universe formal shattering.

And it doesn't work for him, any more than Rey's strategy works for Rey. His plans fail, but more than that, he is cast into an unshakeably familiar role. While for most of the film he has been a confused, complicated, broken man, by the end is nothing more or less than the archetypal Star Wars villain, black-clad with a red lightsaber, an oppressive army at his back, facing down a Jedi Knight. Fighting against the conventions of a Star Wars film have only locked him into them further.

We have, then, a film that seems to be grappling with its own cinematic history and failing to come to any clear decision about what to do with it. Which is where we come to its final scene.

In this scene the slave children of Canto Bight are watching one of their number - a boy who is retelling a story using a small doll of Luke Skywalker. The slavemaster enters, and forces the boy to sweep the yard. We see the boy walk outside, and subtly - almost unconsciously - use the force to pick up a broom. The boy stands against the night sky, his shadow resembling that of a Jedi Knight holding a Lightsaber.

Now, there's been a fair bit of discussion about what this means, and why the film ends here. The previous scene had just shown the Resistance escaping Crait on the Millennium Falcon, and would have been a cleaner narrative jumping-off point. Most of the discussions of the slave scene justify its incusion in terms of its narrative impact: we're seeing the future of the Resistance, or we're seeing the future of the force. Some readings are clunkily literal, assuming for instance that the specific children shown here will be important in a future Star Wars film, as if films never showed you anything that wasn't directly relevant to their plots. But what's actually happening here is much simpler.

In this scene, we are watching as kids play with Star Wars action figures, and pretend to be Jedi.

All that struggle, all that angst, all that weight of expectations collapses into this image. At this final point, The Last Jedi turns arounds and shows us that Star Wars films have always been films for children, powered on childish imagination: these are playful films, and they are films of archetypes at play.

The Force Awakens tried to build a Star Wars machine, and Rogue One tried to live in a Star Wars world, but after all its debate, The Last Jedi finds another route. As Rey lifts the Rocks, as Luke faces down Kylo Ren, as Finn announces that he is "Rebel Scum" and as the Millennium Falcon stands as a symbol of hope, the film slides into myth. Star Wars has been in our culture for more than forty years: you don't have to buy into its methods to see how deeply it has buried itself under the skin. By the time the film finishes, it has dealt with its own anxieties and reanimated its basic, foundational archetypes.

We are realists. We know that Star Wars is a corporate product. We know it is cheap pulp. And The Last Jedi visibly strains to work out if Star Wars can be anything else. At the end, it decides that Just Being Star Wars is enough - because it demonstrates what Star Wars is. Not just a product, not just a series of films, but a joyous cultural well, powered by decades of play, and allowing a space for that play to continue. Star Wars doesn't need to kill its past, nor does it need to re-enact it. It just needs to provide a space where all its old archetypes can fly free.

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