Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.
If someone asked you, ‘what is Star Wars?’, think about how you might answer that question. Many would say it’s a science-fiction movie, given it takes place in outer space in a distant galaxy, involves a world of strange alien creatures, sentient androids and spaceships firing laser weapons at each other. Some, perhaps with a deeper level of knowledge about George Lucas’ initial creation of the saga, may venture its a ‘space fantasy’; the Princess (Leia), locked in the tower (Death Star), by the evil King (Vader), only to be rescued by the dashing heroes (Luke & Han) with the help of a wise old man (Obi-Wan).
A New Hope‘s original story was born out of Joseph Campbell, of mythical archetypal narrative ‘synthesising all religions’ as Lucas put it at the time. A heroic fantasy with elements of science-fiction, shot through with the adventure stylistics of the 1930’s & 1940’s that Lucas and cinematic contemporaries like Steven Spielberg grew up watching, adventures which massively influenced their work.
Cineasts who pick even deeper at Star Wars uncover levels of allegory behind the archetypes, of Lucas making a direct anti-war, anti-Vietnam picture where the heroes righteously win the day. Star Wars, alongside pictures such as Jaws and later Raiders of the Lost Ark, served as a response to a bleak 1970’s for American society, reflected in the paranoid, stripped back, hard cinema the country gave us through filmmakers such as Coppola, De Palma, Lumet, Pakula & Scorsese. Men like Lucas and Spielberg built 1980’s cinematic pop culture with their bare hands with Luke, Leia, Vader and Indiana Jones.
They tore cinema away from the post-Nixon, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam cynicism and gave it back to audiences who wanted to escape, who wanted to be pulled into a world where they could imagine the good guys defeating the black & white bad guys. They wanted to be Luke, standing on the Tatooine dunes looking out hopefully at the sunset, dreaming of being a heroic Jedi Knight and bringing freedom to the galaxy. They wanted to be Indy, dashing archaeologist, whip smart as he charmed beautiful women and punched Nazis (an American James Bond in some respects). Star Wars gave young boys new, modern day, archetypal heroes to venerate.
One of these boys was J.J. Abrams. Another was Rian Johnson. Abrams was born in 1966 (though you wouldn’t think it), meaning he was eleven years old when A New Hope hit cinemas, old enough to watch it in the theatre. Johnson was born in 1973, and almost certainly discovered the saga and the original movie on home video in the mid-1980’s. You can class both men, essentially, as part of the same generation; they grew up, if at different ages, in the 80’s when Star Wars and the escapist cinema it helped emerge were legion; Back to the Future, The Goonies, Gremlins, you name it. They would have been the young boys dressing up as Luke Skywalker, pretending to do battle with their lightsaber against the forces of evil.
They would have been among the legion of twenty or thirtysomething men who in 1999 salivated at the prospect of The Phantom Menace and the prequel trilogy, fans who had been there since the beginning, excited beyond words to see the fantasy continue by showing the fall of Anakin Skywalker. Many of those fans were crushed by the anaemic, poorly written overload of Lucas’ three prequel pictures, loaded with CGI, riven with technical detail about the Jedi, Sith and many of the characters from the original trilogy, but utterly lacking in the kind of wit, soul or grace the original 1970’s-1980’s trilogy contained.
It’s important, therefore, to consider the cultural effect on young people Star Wars has to understand the direction it is now going in. Why didn’t young boys of the early-mid 2000’s connect with the prequel trilogy in the same way as the original? How many kids did you see dressing up as Qui-Gon Jinn or quoting lines by General Grievous? Children are crucial to Star Wars given its long-form success is precisely because this franchise appealed to the youthful desire for fantasy, to youth who were looking for cinematic storytelling which, in the 1970’s, was rooted largely in the adult.
Star Wars was for them. It sparked their imagination because it wasn’t loaded with detail or explanation or stodgy dialogue about trade disputes and Senatorial meetings. It was the Campbellian heroes journey as space opera and it could be understood and appreciated by all ages. Kids watching The Phantom Menace would only likely have sat up with interest at the pod race or the three-way lightsaber duel, while fans of the original trilogy wanted to throw their Bantha fodder at the screen when Qui-Gon started to explain the ‘midichlorians’ behind the Force. Lucas had powerfully misinterpreted the key to his own franchise’s success, believing what fans and children wanted was shiny, new CGI on the screen to bring everything he imagined to life. They didn’t. What they wanted was to be spirited away but come the age of the prequels, the effect had lessened.
These children hadn’t grown up in the wake of counterculture revolution giving way to cynical malaise, they grew up in a cinematic landscape filled with movies trying, essentially, to be Star Wars, or utilising the kind of technological advancements Lucas would employ in The Phantom Menace and beyond. He famously stated it was after seeing ILM and work they did on pictures such as Spielberg’s Jurassic Park he knew the time had come to make the prequels, which depending on who you believe in LucasFilm lore he had always planned on doing. Even in the wake of Return of the Jedi, Lucas seemed to think effects and visual world building were what made Star Wars. Just look at how in the late 1990’s, just before the prequels came into being, he tinkered with the original trilogy and re-released them with added CGI scenes of a walking Jabba the Hutt or glorious, expanded Bespin landscapes etc…
Many took against Lucas for tweaking with what they consider a great piece of cinema, A New Hope in particular. Visually, Lucas never seemed happy and it was the visual side, the presentation, he had become obsessed with by the prequels. Hence why they play more like a Star Wars technical manual – the details are right, but boy it’s a slog getting to the end of it. There wasn’t a whole new generation of children being inspired by the prequels. They were off watching The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean, all of them movies which aspire to the kind of archetypal and mythological storytelling, in vibrantly different ways, that the original Star Wars trilogy provided. Even many of the young boys from 1977 who were now fathers left disappointed.
So when the new Star Wars lease of life was announced after Disney bought the franchise in 2012, a new hope appeared. Could the smell of the prequels, which many considered to be Star Wars’ disappointing epitaph, be gotten rid of? Disney and producer Kathleen Kennedy were clear from the beginning – they wanted to go back to the start, inspire the young children to believe in Star Wars again, to dream and live the fantasy of being a Jedi Knight. Hiring Abrams, one of the original inspired younglings, was enormously apt; though he built his career as Spielberg’s escapist heir apparent, partly off the revival of Star Wars‘ only major space-based rival, it was what Lucas created that made Abrams want to be a filmmaker.
Creating a new trilogy to follow on from Return of the Jedi was like Pinocchio in his toyshop for Abrams, and what he gave us in The Force Awakens was essentially the space fantasy of A New Hope reborn; a similar, if not directly repetitive storyline of a dark villain (Kylo) in his tower looking to destroy the peasantry. It was filled with homage, both from a storytelling and design perspective, yet rooted in modern allegorical aesthetics. Our hero was now a heroine, the enigmatic castaway Rey. She lived in destroyed fragments of the tyrannical Empire the heroes we followed previously brought down, a tyranny rising now under a new name and face. She is thrust onto the heroes journey with not only a man of conscience who had turned away from indoctrinated brutality (Finn), but a black man to boot. A black man only given identity by the traditional, virile, male hero (Poe), who for much of the film is presumed dead.
When you look at The Force Awakens in this context, you can see the direction Star Wars was heading in before The Last Jedi caused such a furore. Rey as a heroine has the kind of agency Leia could only dream of – she was always in need of rescue from the white male heroes in the original trilogy; when written by a woman in The Empire Strikes Back she is much more sparky of tongue and capable of spirit. Once Lucas is back penning her, she’s in a skimpy bikini as Jabba’s pet in Return of the Jedi. Rey immediately proves herself a hero for both boys and girls. Notice I haven’t mentioned girls in this context before, as Star Wars historically was the preserve of a male heroic fantasy. Rey and Finn are the spark of inclusivity Johnson follows through on in the sequel – Star Wars is now for girls, and black boys, and black boys and girls. Gender and indeed racial lines are no longer drawn in the same way.
Admittedly, Star Wars—like Star Trek—has always been a geeky preserve amongst teenagers, and there would absolutely have been girls and children of colour pretending to indulge these fantasies forty years ago (to suggest otherwise would be to give in to stereotype) but they would have been the exception, not the rule. Now the rule has been broken. Bear in mind, Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan make their villain an angry, young, white man who has turned to fascist supremacy in order to find his place in the world, and deal with his inner rage. Johnson takes this one step further in drawing the parallels to the growing rise of angry young men leaning to far-right politics in America and has Kylo Ren remove his mask. He exposes him and doesn’t have him hide behind armour. The Last Jedi pitches the heroes fantasy as an equality struggle against angry, white, supremacist youth.
The Last Jedi begins to abandon the traditional space fantasy as it introduces ideas which speak to an intensely socialist, if not overtly political, viewpoint. By giving the Force as a concept back to the people and not just for the gentry, and by Rey not being born of import or destiny, Johnson turns the Star Wars universe away from Campbellian myth into a true struggle against inequality and tyranny of fascist ideology. This has always been there inside Star Wars, but Lucas was always more interested in the religious and spiritual iconography of the heroes journey than focusing on the Nazi undertones of the Empire. People have suggested the socialist idea of anyone being a hero was already presented in the prequels through Anakin Skywalker, who came from poverty, but he was a Christ child; born of a woman with a simple, farming life with no father, just the seed of prophecy. Lucas fused these Judeo-Christian myths with New Age spiritualism and made Anakin into someone very special indeed. No one in The Last Jedi is special. Not Rey. Not Finn. Not even Luke.
What Johnson does with Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is what truly seals the evolution of Star Wars away from male, heroic wish fulfilment fantasy. Every young boy who watched the original trilogy believed Luke would forever be enshrined as a hero. The Jedi Knight who saved the galaxy from evil and rescued the Princess from the tower. While Abrams grew up and mythologised these heroes, turned them into symbols of a different age, Johnson clearly grew up interested in bringing reality to their fantasy. Luke has grown up much like many of the boys who first watched Star Wars in 1977 – disillusioned, listless, uncertain everything he hoped for and dreamed of wasn’t a waste of time. This has been the bitterest pill to swallow for so many fans who are now as middle-aged as Luke. They didn’t want to see their boyhood hero having lost faith in the Jedi, in the Force, in his place in the universe. Yet by doing so, Luke becomes one of us. He’s no longer the distant, galactic hero. He’s human. He’s real.
Star Wars, to The Last Jedi naysayers, has never been about allegory in the way, for instance, Star Trek has always tried to reflect the real world in its future history. It’s supposed to be escapist fantasy. It’s supposed to give us hope and let us believe in heroes. What some are missing, is that The Last Jedi does. These heroes may not be rescuing the maiden in the tower, or killing the black-clad bad guy with a laser sword before sailing off into the sunset with medals, but that doesn’t make them any less heroic. Their mythic journey has changed. Our world has become a darker, less certain, more opaque battle against tyrannical thinking, and Rian Johnson’s liberal world-view—Abrams too—has made Star Wars into an inclusive, diverse universe where our heroes don’t have to be just white, or mythologised, or simplistic.
They can be real. They can be complicated. And they can be anyone.