Monday, March 12, 2018

The Last Jedi: Quinary Thoughts

Ever try. Ever fail. No matter. Try again. Fail better.

Samuel Becket



This was not the essay I wanted to write.

I wanted to write about Poe Dameron taking on the First Order dreadnought in a single X-Wing; and Kylo Ren cutting the Supreme Leader in two; and Yoda popping up right when you didn't expect him to and most of the battle in the ice (even though it went on forever) and Luke tapping the dust off his coat after the First Order have thrown everything they have at him; and how Dameron really does jump into an X-Wing and blow things up after he has been told not to and Luke really does take on the whole First Order with a laser sword after he has said he won't. 

So many moments. 

One can sit in front of Star Wars Rebels and enjoy the Death Star shaped corridors and the proper shiny Stormtroopers and Tom Baker being a tree without over-worrying about what effect all this will have on The Saga. Because although Rebels is, to the extent that we care, Canon, it is pretty clear that big developments in The Saga aren't going to happen in 15 minute cartoon episodes.

But Last Jedi is not just a film. Last Jedi is the next chapter of the Star Wars saga. Last Jedi affects every future Star Wars movie, every comic book, every novel, every role-playing game and (in fact) every story that is going to be played out in the head of every child with an action figure or a set of Star Wars Lego for all time. Star Wars Episode VIII has a significance which issue #18 of the official Poe Dameron spin-off comic can’t ever have. Fun though issue #18 of the official Poe Dameron spin-off comic may in fact have been.

If Frank Miller or someone really wants to tell a story in which Batman sexually molests Robin (and I assume that someone has at some time told such a story) then he does very little harm, because at the end of the day it is just one more weird take on Batman among a million other weird takes on Batman. Paedo-Batman can be put in the box alongside Camp Batman and Lego Batman and Had Tea and Bat Cookies With Scooby Doo Batman and never thought about again. It isn't enough for a Batman story to be canon. Every Batman story is canon until it isn't. It has to be a good story as well; good enough to become part of the consensus Batman which all subsequent writers will take for granted. I am a sufficiently old-school Marvel Purist that I still believe that the real Bucky died in a plane crash and the real Captain America agonizes about him for at least three pages every month. But I know perfectly well that the version in which Bucky survived the war and became the Winter Soldier has overwritten Avengers #4 because it's better. More interesting. More believable. More suggestive of new stories. If the Winter Soldier story hadn't really worked, it would have turned out to be a dream or an imaginary tale or a clone or an android messing with Cap's head.

Granted, dozens of novels and hundreds of comics were relegated to "legends" as soon as the words "The Force Awakens" crawled across the screen. But the main Star Wars movies can't endlessly reboot themselves. The Last Jedi says what the Last Jedi says and there is no doing anything about it.

*

"Try not" said Yoda to Luke in 1980. "Do. Or do not. There is no try." 

I am largely on Ezra Bridger's side: what does this even mean? How can you possibly do a new thing unless you try to do it? Granted, when Luke said "I'll give it a try" he was preemptively excusing his failure, and there is nothing wrong with a master encouraging a student to be self-confident. Possibly, Yoda is appealing to the old Hollywood cliche that even an elephant can fly if he believes in himself sufficiently. Perhaps he is even being a little Christ-like and enjoining Luke to have the faith that can remove and sink the mountain to a plain. But I am afraid it has always made Yoda seem altogether too much like one of those PE teachers who would punish you for not being able to catch a cricket ball because the only reason you failed to catch the cricket ball was because you didn't want to catch the cricket ball. (Luke hits Rey while he is training her. Not hard or abusively, but enough that she says 'ouch'. Ben, come to think of it, sets up the floaty thing to zap Luke's legs during lightsaber practice, enough that it hurts him. And the Younglings are very young indeed. At twelve, Anakin is already too old to start the training. Was there an undercurrent of abuse at the old Jedi temple?)

In 2017, Yoda's ghost offered Luke some new advice:

“Heeded my words not, did you? 'Pass on what you have learned.' Strength, mastery, .. but weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”

If this is what passes for Jedi Wisdom, then perhaps Luke should have held on to the ancient books. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. Learn from your mistakes. It's fairly good common sense advice, of course. And it's almost the exact opposite of what Yoda told Luke on Dagobah thirty years ago. I suppose being dead has given him a new perspective. 

What is it that Luke is to pass on to Rey? That however badly things turn out, she is on no account to cut herself off from the Force and spend Episodes X and XI moping on an island? That she definitely isn't allowed to elect Kylo Ren as president of the Third Republic? That even if the Boy With the Broom turns evil, it probably isn't a great idea to pull a lightsaber on him?

"Yes: failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is." 

What does that even mean?

*

You might have expected that after the defeat of the Dark Side at the end of Return of the Jedi, the Light Side would have been in the ascendant for many years. But Luke doesn't say this. Instead he says that after the fall of the Sith, there was a period of balance. 

Many of us hoped that these sequels would discard or ignore the Prequel Trilogy and we would never have to look at a Gungan or a Midichlorian again. But the Original Trilogy was about a Manichean struggle between Light and Darkness, which ended with the rout of the Dark. The idea that Anakin's role was to bring balance to the Force comes entirely from the prequels. It is taken absolutely for granted in the Force Awakens and the Last Jedi. When Rey reaches out to the Force, she feels "life, death; warmth, cold; peace, violence. And between it all. Balance and energy…the Force.” Han Solo now defines the Force, not as a hocus-pocus religion or a fancy word for "luck" but as "A magical power holding good and evil in balance." 

And Snoke sums the idea up very dramatically: 

“Darkness rises. And the light rises to meet it. I warned my apprentice that as he grew stronger, his equal in the light would rise.”

What does any of this even mean?

We all agreed a long time ago that Star Wars made much more sense if we assumed that every time anyone mentions The Force they are really talking about The Plot. Ben tells Luke that "The Plot is what gives a Jedi his power"; Luke has to learn about the Plot before he agrees to travel with Obi-Wan. When Alderaan is destroyed, Ben feels a great disturbance in the Plot. Vader realizes that the Plot is strong in Luke, and Luke only saves the universe when he lets go of his conscious self and trusts the Plot. 

Which is as much as to say: the Jedi are the Author's representatives in the Story. They have got some knowledge and understanding of where the Saga is going, and they get to manipulate and exploit fate and coincidence to keep the story on track.

Anyone who has ever run a role-playing game knows that certain characters have "plot immunity". However badly they screw up, they will always be found at the bottom of a pile of dead bodies with one hit point left. Even if their spaceship blows up they will be found floating in the vacuum and be hauled back on board an allies' ship, unconscious but alive. Because if they die the scenario stops working, and the game comes to an end. It is hardly surprising that before going into a dangerous situation Star Wars characters say "I hope that you turn out to be one of the characters that the story teller can't afford to kill off because you have something important to do in the next movie but one".

Which is to say: "May the Plot be with you." 

We all know, from the moment he first steps on stage, that Luke will fire the shot that destroys the Death Star. That's what happens in this kind of movie: the hero saves the day. The hero could, in fact, hit his target blindfold and with one hand tied behind his back, because the Plot demands it. That is what Luke Skywalker more or less does. He switches off his targeting computer and trusts to the Plot.   

This is why Rey turns out not to have a backstory: she doesn't need one. From the moment she steps on stage it is clear that the Plot is flowing through her. A whole series of wild coincidences -- Beebee, Finn, the Millennium Falcon, Han – conspire to put her at the center of the action. It really misses the point to say that she is a Mary Sue. Star Wars heroes and heroines are all Mary Sues. The Plot is with them.

If Star Wars were a single movie, or even a single trilogy, then we could afford to conceptualize it as the battle between Light and Dark. When the Dark is defeated, the story comes to an end. But if Star Wars is a saga, then the one thing we know for sure is that the Light can never, ever completely win.

For over a thousand generations, all of the Plot devices were being used by the goodies. However bad things looked, a Plot device would always come along and ensure that the goodies came out on top. Which meant, of course, that there couldn't really be any stories. 

The first of the prequels is called Episode I. The words "every saga has a beginning" were emblazoned across the posters. There are events in the Star Wars universe before Qui-Gon and Anakin become involved in that petty trade dispute; of course there are. But there are no previous stories. How could there be? The stories only start once there is a villain powerful enough to challenge the goodies. This is why Anakin is introduced as the one who will bring Balance. He has no human father. He is quite literally conceived by the Plot.

When the goodies were in control of the universe, the Plot begat Darth Vader. When Darth Vader won, the Plot begat Luke Skywalker. When Luke Skywalker brought the story to a complete and satisfying conclusion, the plot created Kylo Renn. Because Kylo Renn was too powerful, the Plot created Rey. We expected Rey to emerge from the threads of the Plot which have been built up over twenty hours of cinema and thirty years of history. But she is actually a pure Plot device. There is a girl who can use the Force on Jakku because there needs to be a girl who can use the Force on Jakku. The Plot has arbitrarily placed her there because that is where she needs to be.

It will be remembered that Alan Dean Foster (nodding at Frank Herbert, I am sure) inserts a little quote from Princess Leia into his Star Wars novelization right after he introduces us to the Journal of the Whills. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes." Foster is obliquely acknowledging how heavily the Star Wars saga relies on coincidence. But everything Leia says is completely wrong. Luke and Han and the Droids were marked out as heroes from the very beginning. That is why the Plot made very sure that they were always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. 

Yoda tells Luke that the Dark Side of the Plot is quicker, easier and more seductive than the Light: but not, in the end, more powerful. It is more fun to be the villain. You'll be strangling generals and blowing up planets while the hero is still being grounded by his uncle for not doing his chores. It is harder and often less fun to stick to the script and be the good guy. But the Light Side of the Plot is more powerful. Goodies always win.


Darth Vader is not born a baddie; and we are not told that he is predestined to turn into a baddie. We see a series of more or less comprehensible steps turn him from the relatively angelic Tatooine pod-car ace to the nightmarish figure who haunts Luke on Cloud City. Similarly, there is nothing inevitable about Ben Solo's transition into Kylo Renn. His fall is the result of his own choices -- and of some very bad decisions made by Luke Skywalker. 

This repulsed me on a first viewing of the movie, as, indeed, it repulses Rey: it seemed less to be an act of deconstruction; more of willful desecration.

“Hey, saddo fans: you know that guy who has been your hero since you were eight -- well, this is what he is really like. Panicking and pulling a sword on a teenager and creating a new Darth Vader.”

I think we would have tolerated it more if (as someone must have considered) Luke Skywalker himself had turned to the Dark Side: if there had been a big Cloud City Moment in which Kylo took off his mask and revealed the face, not of Adam Driver but of Mark Hamill. Luke as the new Vader would have felt like an epic failure with an epic grandeur behind it. And Leia or Han or Rey or indeed Kylo could have dragged him back to the Light in the final reel. But this felt petty. Sordid, almost.

Completely wrong about this now think I that I was. 

On a second and third viewing, I am much more excited by the structural cleverness of the reveal than I am annoyed by the diminution of Luke Skywalker. Star Wars started out as a sort of riff on Hidden Fortress, so why shouldn't the pivotal moment of the third trilogy nod its head towards Rashamon? We see Ben Solo's fall from three points of view: the dishonest version that Luke initially gives to Rey; the misleading version that Kylo tells her; and the more truthful version that Rey eventually forces Luke to give her. (Is this final version the unvarnished truth or does it still depend greatly on our point of view?)

The account, like all accounts of the origin of evil, doesn’t quite work. Did Luke threaten Ben Solo because Ben had turned to the Dark Side, or did Ben turn to the Dark Side because Luke Skywalker threatened him? But on reflection, it’s a perfect fit to the Star Wars saga. It is shocking that Luke Skywalker creates Kylo Ren: but we have long accepted that Ben Kenobi created Darth Vader. 

We got three versions of that story, too. In Obi-Wan’s first account, Vader is simply an apprentice who turned to evil. In his second account, he presumptuously took Yoda’s place as a teacher; and some defect of training sent the apprentice bad. “My pride has had terrible consequences for the galaxy.” In the prequels, Obi-Wan goes against Yoda’s will and trains him to fulfill an oath to his own master, Qui-Gon, and Palpatine traps him in a complex web of lies. But in each version, Darth Vader, the prototypical evil Jedi is produced by Ben Kenobi, the prototypical good one.

The end point of Luke Skywalker’s story is the creation of Kylo Ren: the failure of the Light produces the new Darkness. And then along comes Rey, nobody from nowhere. The Plot produces her at the moment she is needed. To restore balance. To make sure the Saga carries on.

Rey thinks that the Plot is a source of powers and plot devices; but Luke tells her that is really a matter of understanding how everything fits together. Perhaps this is why the Last Jedi sometimes feels as if it doesn't quite fit into the Saga. Luke has closed himself off to the Plot. If the Plot is no longer with us, then perhaps things don't all fit together in a satisfactory pattern. We are no longer in a world where the goodies always win; where the cavalry always come over the hill, shouting Yee Har! and knocking Darth Vader off your tail. We are now in a world where people who volunteer for suicide missions really do end up committing suicide. The Jedi are passing away, and everyone is going to have to learn to cope in a Universe where no-one has privileged knowledge of the Plot. 


There is a piece of satire circulating on Twitter in which a True Star Wars Fan reacts to the Empire Strikes back in the same shrill tone that some True Star Wars Fans have reacted to the Last Jedi. “What is this movie? It invents Force Powers which there were no sign of in Star Wars. It turns Ben Kenobi into a great big liar. It introduces a fucking Muppet. And what’s all this Episode V nonsense? You've ruined my childhood."

This would be quite funny were it not for the fact that it is precisely how a lot of Star Wars fans did react to the Empire Strikes Back. And they weren't completely wrong. The Empire Strikes Back did turn the Force from a mysterious ancient power to an endless source of get-out-of-jail-free cards. It did turn Obi-Wan from a voice that Luke thinks he may have heard into an actual ghost. It did turn the lightsaber from an archaic ceremonial weapon to a Swiss army knife. It did reduce Han Solo from a dangerous rogue to a sardonic good guy. It did turn Star Wars from a happy upbeat salute to the good old days into a rather sordid tale where your idols lie to you and everyone betrays everyone else. And it doesn’t have an ending. Or a beginning. It’s entirely made up of middle.

And despite all that it really is the film which created the Star Wars saga as we know it. And from any reasonably objective point of view, it’s the best movie in the series.

The Last Jedi is a great movie. It tries to offer the arias and soliloquies of epic drama while still retaining the simple blacks and whites of a cartoon strip. It tries to give us the thrills and machismo of a war comic while still depicting the desperate heroism of an actual war.

This is, of course, impossible.

The Empire Strikes Back represented a tear in the fabric of the Star Wars tapestry. It took a hammer and smashed my pulp movie serial into a thousand pieces. Out of those pieces we built the Saga. And now, the Last Jedi has taken a hammer to that saga. What we are going to build from the fragments we don't yet know.

Luke Skywalker closed himself off to the Force. I sometimes fear that Walt Disney may have lost the plot.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have you read the recent Star Wars and Darth Vader comics?

Set between ANH and Empire, and name to add many interesting things without contradicting the movies.

Pete Ashton said...

I enjoyed this tremendously. Lovely to see your thought processes evolving and shifting through the text. THIS is why I do the Patreon thing. Keep it up!

Warren JB said...

It's not having pivotal plot elements fall in her favour that makes Rey a Mary Sue; it's having every element fall in her favour. Have her struggle to learn a force trick, or lose a lightsabre battle, or get strung up by a wampa, or have someone dislike her, at least for a few seconds.

Scurra said...

I have to confess that I will be modestly surprised if "Episode IX" has any sort of real ending; nobody really ever said that this was a trilogy, it was just assumed by default. Both VII and VIII seem to be about redefining the ongoing episodic nature of the universe rather than telling the discrete story that Lucas' Star Wars was about.

Anyway, thank you for these excellent deconstructions. One comment:

"But the Original Trilogy was about a Manichean struggle between Light and Darkness, which ended with the rout of the Dark. "
I may disagree with your implied conclusion(?) here - the Original Trilogy clearly ended with both sides essentially being routed; it's just that the Light had already been routed, and I would argue that a part of the story was basically the Dark figuring out that winning was meaningless if you didn't have an enemy to fight, so it effectively throws in the towel. (That's one reason why I like the Casino sequence in The Last Jedi; it's not done especially well but it's the first time the notion that everyone has been 'played' is really foregrounded in a series like this. Unfortunately, Force Awakens had re-established the Light and Dark motif again, so TLJ could only be so subversive.)

bbqplatypus318 said...

I think it's pretty clear that the failure Yoda refers to is the attempt to recreate the Jedi as they were in the first place. To say nothing of the numerous moral failings we see from them in the prequels (e.g. Qui Gonn's indifference to slavery), they are also inexorably part of the pattern of What Star Wars Has Been About for the Last 30 Years or So. In the films themselves and numerous times in the now-legendary Expanded Universe, the Jedi again and again can't seem to stop that One Student Who Goes Bad from forming the Sith and bringing war and terror to the galaxy.

This became especially true in the post-Zahn era of the Expanded Universe, when movies were no longer being made. At this point Star Wars abandoned even the pretense of being a series of films that told stories and became exclusively a marketing vehicle and (perhaps to an even greater extent) campaign setting for that one tabletop RPG that told us the secret meaning of Han Solo's pants. An RPG is freeform, but it needs a structure. There are rules you cannot break - and one of these rules is that Star Wars is about One Student Who Goes Bad and throws the galaxy into a spiral of evil, and that this is part of an endless, fated cycle of the Force and the balance within it. The notion that Darth Vader was a one-off went out the window the moment those Knights of the Old Republic comics came out. (Star Wars is about other things, too - family and stuff - but that's one of the big ones).

The error in returning to this, apart from the in-story fact that Luke done screwed up and thrown the galaxy into chaos again, is that it is all so terribly repetitive and Manichean. It seems to suggest that there's ultimately nothing you can do to fight evil. Rian Johnson clearly thinks it is bad for this to be What Star Wars Is About. After seeing The Last Jedi, I rather agree.

(The second Knights of the Old Republic video game, which essentially featured Darth Nietzsche as its main mentor/antivillain character, tried to make a similar point, but did so less effectively because the developers weren't permitted to actually finish it before it was released).

But they will, presumably, still continue to make Star Wars things after Episode IX, and Disney will want Star Wars to continue to be what it has been About for them for the past few years - making lots of money. JJ Abrams, meanwhile, is for all his workmanlike craftsmanship, a filmmaker who is lost without a preexisting template to follow. As fascinating as this new upended version of Star Wars is, it's also hard to imagine anyone else involved continuing in this direction.

I suspect after seeing the thesis advanced by The Force Awakens meet its antithesis in The Last Jedi, Episode IX will represent a kind of synthesis. Kylo Ren's story will come to an end that falls closer to the bitter end of bittersweetness and Rey will NOT reform the Jedi Order as we know it, but the First Order will suffer a defeat and it will end with the darkness routed as well.

I don't disagree with this decision, either.

(Having looked this over, I think I have basically just summarized what you've already said).

Mike Taylor said...

It will be remembered that Alan Dean Foster (nodding at Frank Herbert, I am sure) inserts a little quote from Princess Leia into his Star Wars novelization right after he introduces us to the Journal of the Whills. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes." Foster is obliquely acknowledging how heavily the Star Wars saga relies on coincidence. But everything Leia says is completely wrong. Luke and Han and the Droids were marked out as heroes from the very beginning. That is why the Plot made very sure that they were always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

I think this is a rare case where you are exactly wrong. Subsequent episodes have overwritten our perception of the original film, but looking at that film as a film -- a single, self-contained drama -- Leia's/Foster's analysis is not only spot on, it also precisely captures what's so magical about that film. There is nothing about Luke, Han, Chewie, R2D2 or C3PO that marks them out as suitable for a grand adventure. The only characters on our side with any kind of power are Ben and Leia; but he is decades past his prime, and she spends most of the film in captivity.

They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes.