NOTE: It’s been less than a week since The Last Jedi came out, so, in the interest of fairness, there will be NO SPOILERS for it in this article.
From the time I was a little girl, ever since I can remember, I’ve always liked things people would consider nerdy, including Dungeons and Dragons, many, many other tabletop RPGs, Star Trek, Firefly, superheroes (both DC and Marvel, I’m not picky), any fantasy book I could get my hands on as a kid including Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, Stephen King anything, The Sword of Truth series (that was later), the Dune books, and many more, The Princess Bride, Labyrinth, Willow and at least a dozen other movies, all kinds of video games, popular and obscure . . .
Nerd cred suitably established, I hope? Many of these things have drifted into the mainstream by now, but when I was a kid, a lot of this stuff . . . well, I certainly didn’t notice the popular kids devouring The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy during recess or excitedly attempting to convince their lunch mates that there must be a way to resurrect Aeris in Final Fantasy 7, or there was intended to be, because (insert one of a million theories here).
I liked the not-popular stuff. Not because it wasn’t popular . . . after all, now most of it is! I loved it because it spoke to the deepest part of my imagination, and all the noblest virtues I was learning to nurture, trying to get them to take root in my heart amidst all the chaos of growing up in a turbulent world.
Justice. Honesty. Tolerance. Compassion. Perseverance. Wisdom. The pursuit of these ideals ties us together, to each other as human beings and to the rest of the universe. I couldn’t get enough of these stories that inspired me to try and be a better person. They spoke to the goodness and the temptation present in every heart and every worthwhile, meaningful story. Triumph over adversity. Light overcoming darkness. What it meant, and what it cost, to be a hero.
Therefore, there was no story I loved better, that meant more to me, than Star Wars.
I have logged a lot of hours of brain time in this fictional universe, in one way or another. I read the Rogue Squadron books, the Wraith Squadron books, and the Thrawn Trilogy, as well as a few other books and comics in the expanded universe. I played the tabletop role-playing game, starting back in the d6 days. And many hours have gone into that. If you play tabletop, you always have a few characters that stick with you, stories that never die in your memory.
The first character I made in that system, a Jedi, is one of those for me. Her story is long and filled with adventure, romance, triumph, and tragedy. She has a large family, some that go on her adventures eventually with her, some that are killed by the Empire. She has a brother that falls to the Dark Side that she must struggle to either redeem or relinquish. She falls in love with an Imperial spy that ends up defecting to join the Rebellion and be by her side, and their journeys take them across a vast galaxy, sometimes to planets established by the movies and the EU, sometimes to ones we made up ourselves. I invented a planet in the Outer Rim her people were from, a culture, the rules of a language along with some specific words and phrases . . .
You get the point. For most things I liked, I would say I was an enthusiast. An admirer. But Star Wars . . . it trickled into my identity, helped shape it. Someone once asked me that if I could live in any reality, be anybody, who would I be? And, to my great surprise at the rapidity of the reply, I instantly responded, “A Jedi.” That’s how much Star Wars means to me.
I read an article about The Force Awakens that called it J.J. Abrams’ “love letter to Star Wars fans.” Personally, I don’t find a letter that tells me stuff I’ve heard before all that heart-melting, but I understand the intention. Many fans of the original trilogy hated the prequels. The new movies were going back to basics, for us, the fans, because Abrams agreed that the prequels just didn’t feel like Star Wars.
I hear that. I didn’t like the prequels either. I hated the forced, awkward romance between Anakin and Padme. I hated that stupid podracing subplot that seemed to be there specifically to sell toys and video games. I loathed midi-chlorians. I hated Jar Jar. I hated trade disputes and taxation squabbles. I hated the flat, uninteresting dialogue and the (often) badly acted and downright unlikeable characters . . .
Look, there are people way more talented at it than I am who have ripped the prequels to shreds, look them up. Episodes 1-3 aren’t great, and even worse, in the eyes of the devoted fans, they took away from better movies. But after seeing The Last Jedi, I have learned something about the prequels.
They’re still pretty bad. In my opinion. But the thing Episodes 1-6 have in common is that it still feels like the primary goal of each movie is to tell a story. Now, I didn’t like the story they were trying to tell in the prequels. I don’t like it any better now that I have had this realization. But the new movies . . . well, they’re like Skynet. They’ve become self aware. If the Force is with us, it shouldn’t lead to a Terminator-style future apocalypse, but . . .
It does change everything. The Force Awakens, to try to get Star Wars fans interested again after the prequels, was a movie that recycled a heck of a lot from A New Hope, from the beginning where after a massacre, the lone survivor is captured, but manages to send a droid off to a desert planet carrying sensitive intel that both parties want, all the way to the end, where the Rebels, who had recently just met in a lush green location to figure out how to destroy a terrible planet/star killing weapon, help our heroes save the galaxy from the weapon– while Leia stays in the base that will be blown up if they fail– while the villain narrowly escapes the destruction of the weapon alive. If that doesn’t sound like a transcript of A New Hope to you . . . well, that’s not breaking news.
That’s not something the prior movies felt they needed to do, is it? No, they just unapologetically trundled on, telling the story they saw fit. To mixed results, as we saw with the prequels, granted.
However, if the prequels parsed, at least to me, as disappointment, the new movies are moving into betrayal. The word makes me want to instantly recoil and struggle for well-adjustedness. It’s just a movie, right? Calm down. You’re not entitled to anything, you’re just a fan. You’re overreacting, this isn’t yours, you didn’t make it . . .
But didn’t I? Didn’t all of us, we who love Star Wars and have for years, decades, a lifetime for some? I’m not trying to be a whiny, entitled fan who throws a tantrum because “it’s not what I wanted.” Not at all. I wanted to love this! I wanted back into a universe I adored to hear stories about characters, both ones I’d loved before and ones I was going to love, as they had new adventures in a galaxy that was moving toward establishing peace, order, and freedom after a costly victory over a tyrannical Empire.
Instead, we got a reboot of A New Hope to assure us, no, it’s still Star Wars, but in doing so effectively cut off any character growth the old characters may have had in two or three decades and anything of the galaxy that might have been after Palpatine’s defeat. Instead of moving on, we got the Empire and the Rebellion again, right back to square one, except the Empire is called the First Order this time and it’s arguably more hardcore? And then, in The Last Jedi . . .
I’m not going to tell you. I am going to tell you something you may already know about Mark Hamill’s feelings on it. In a Vanity Fair article you’ve probably read, he is quoted to have said after reading the Rian Johnson’s script, “I at one point had to say to Rian, ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you’ve created and do my best to realize your vision.’”
Mark Hamill, you are a class act. I so admire your professionalism. Bravo, sir.
Because I don’t want to mislead my readers, in a subsequent interview, Hamill clarified: “I was quoted as saying to Rian that I fundamentally disagree with everything you decided about Luke, and it was inartfully phrased. What I was, was surprised at how he saw Luke. And it took me a while to get around to his way of thinking, but once I was there it was a thrilling experience. I hope it will be for the audience too.”
“A thrilling experience” . . . is that a polite lie, like when you say your grandmother’s garish hat is “interesting”? Was he genuinely excited? We can’t know, of course.
What I do know is that Luke Skywalker is probably my favorite hero of all time. A young man, a child of destiny, thrown by tragedy into an epic struggle where he must learn not only how to come to grips with the man he has to be for his friends, for his family, and for his galaxy, but how to master a mysterious and wondrous power that can do anything if one’s heart and intentions are pure. Luke Skywalker is a man that embodies hope, a man that desperately wants to do good, a man who believes that anyone can be saved and is willing to give his own life to protect even what he hopes is still there, the light buried deep under countless atrocities in the soul of his father. With the Force– and the help of magnificent music from John Williams– our hearts soar as Luke Skywalker accomplishes literal miracles in the name of love and good.
The Last Jedi does a lot of things well. It is gorgeous to watch. The set, props, costumes– every single person responsible for making Star Wars look like it should absolutely nails it. Mark Hamill delivers one of the best performances of his life, in my opinion, including his incredible, iconic career of voice work, but the acting brilliance is by no means limited to him. The music, of course, is exquisite. It looks like Star Wars. It feels like Star Wars.
But when I left the theater, the more I thought about the story, the less effective the veneer was at saving it. When I think about the original trilogy, I keep finding new things to delight me. Ideas and visuals and characters that inspire me to think outside the box, so many of them that the few flaws are easily forgivable. The story is paramount, almost a living thing in itself.
But now the story knows it has people to please. Goals to accomplish. There’s a checklist and a formula . . . and in a very strange bout of fictional whiplash you may have heard about, this movie often goes out of its way to defy what you’d expect. If The Force Awakens was a love letter to the fans with promises they knew by heart already, The Last Jedi was full of dark regret for the rote words that came before, regret and confusion and not a single clear ray of hope.
Perhaps intentional? The Empire Strikes Back, the second movie of the original trilogy, didn’t exactly have an uplifting ending either. But after Empire, I was excited. I was entranced by the characters and their plights. I couldn’t wait to see what came next. Now?
Now I’m wondering . . . maybe Star Wars just isn’t for me anymore. Maybe I’m not who they’re aiming to please. And the thought makes me sadder than I thought possible. To use another dramatic word, after the betrayal . . . I feel like I’m mourning. How can Star Wars possibly not be for me anymore? How can Luke Skywalker not fill me with hope and remind me of all the things worth fighting for?
“There is no death, there is the Force”, says the last line of the Jedi Code. I’ll hang on, Star Wars. You can’t die. May the Force be with us.
The Force Awakens: J. J. Abrams’s Love Letter to Star Wars Fans, https://collingarbarino.com/2015/12/21/the-force-awakens-j-j-abramss-love-letter-to-star-wars-fans/
Mark Hamill Fundamentally Disagreed With Rian Johnson’s Vision For Luke Skywalker, http://www.slashfilm.com/mark-hamill-rian-johnson-disagreement/
What Mark Hamill Really Meant When He Criticized Luke Skywalker’s Direction, https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1671010/what-mark-hamill-really-meant-when-he-criticized-luke-skywalkers-direction
“Mark Hamill Hurts”, https://i.ytimg.com/vi/Mdm8rpv045U/maxresdefault.jpg