“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.”
In the opening scene to the critical & commercial bomb Waterworld, we’re introduced to Kevin Costner’s dystopia-navigating action hero by learning two unique facts about him: 1) he has gills that allow him to breathe underwater and 2) he drinks his own piss. This is such an off-putting introduction to someone who’s supposed to be coded as a heroic badass that the audience has very little wiggle room to ever get entirely past it; critic Nathan Rabin even refers to Costner’s protagonist as a “pee-drinking man-fish” for the entirety of his My Year of Flops review of the film. Rian Johnson’s entry into the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi, is even more grotesque in the way it tears down Luke Skywalker in his own introduction, despite him being the de facto hero of the series going as far back as A New Hope four decades ago. An aged, surly Luke Skywalker drinks something much, much worse than his own piss in one of his earliest moments onscreen in The Last Jedi. When offered the lightsaber Rey extends to him in the final aerial shot of the film’s predecessor, The Force Awakens, Luke casually tosses the sacred thing over his shoulder and over the side of a cliff, flippantly disregarding the emotional payoff of the lore J.J. Abrams built up for Johnson to deliver on. The rest of the canon goes over the cliff with it, with pre-established dichotomies of Good & Evil, boundaries on the limits of the space-magic practice of The Force, and even basic questions of tone & intent being burnt to the ground so that new seeds can sprout from the ashes. Luke’s disgusting beverage of choice and general apathy for the history & lore of the Jedi is emblematic of The Last Jedi’s willingness to let traditional Star Wars themes & narrative threads die so the series can begin anew. It’s an often awkward, even outright goofy kind of blasphemy, but it’s a necessary evil for moving the franchise forward instead of merely echoing the past.
Ill-conceived holiday specials. made-for-TV Ewok movies, and near-universally loathed prequels aside, The Last Jedi is the first proper Star Wars film that’s not about stopping the construction or deployment of the planet-destroying spaceship The Death Star. You’d think that the same fans who blasted Abrams’s The Force Awakens for supposedly copycatting (or, in my opinion, improving through revision) the first film in the series, A New Hope, would appreciate that Rian Johnson has steered Star Wars away from telling that same tired story yet again. That has not been the case. There has been a wide gulf between critic & audience scores on aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic in how The Last Jedi is being received. Many disgruntled superfans of the series are stressing out over the way Johnson has jumbled & set aflame their *shudder* fan theories, which extend from speculation on everything from what the film’s title might mean to who Rey, the new hero of the franchise, might be sired by to what purpose Porgs, adorable toy-selling space-chickens, might serve in the larger scope of Star Wars lore. Johnson is not only dismissive of these extratextual extrapolations on where the series is going; he also completely dismisses the many far, faraway places the series has already been. It’s difficult to tell that from the film’s basic plot, though, even if it is Death Star-free. The Last Jedi is a fairly by-the-books Star Wars story bifurcated between Rey & Luke debating whether the practice of Jedi space-magic is worth reviving (much to Kylo Ren’s watching-from-afar chagrin) and The Resistance’s numbers dwindling in the meantime as they flee from the crushing space-Nazi fascism of the First Order (despite the efforts of familiar faces like Poe, Finn, Leia, BB-8, Laura Dern, etc.). I don’t believe most of The Last Jedi’s divisiveness is a response to the film’s narrative choices (though I wouldn’t put it past the series’ die-hard fans to complain about anything), but rather a question of tone & respect for series-spanning lore.
Star Wars has always had a jokey flippancy built into its DNA (just look to fan-favorite Han Solo for examples); its humor is a defense mechanism meant to forgive or ease its more off-putting sci-fi nerdery. The Last Jedi is an outlier in that dynamic only in the way it alters the series’ sense of humor for modern sensibilities. The jokes in George Lucas’s original trilogy were geared for the Baby Boomer generation, the same kids who would have grown up on the space opera radio serials (and subsequent televisions shows) Star Wars regenerated nostalgia for. It’s a comedy style that’s only grown corny with time, drifting further away from modern sensibilities with each new trilogy cycle. The Last Jedi ditches the Baby Boomer humor to appeal to Millennials who have grown up on Simpsons snark & Adult Swim anti-humor. The film opens with a prank call. Luke Skywalker dismissively refers to lightsabers as “laser swords.” The toy-selling cuteness of the space-chicken Porgs is a constant visual gag, with even a few of the critters being prepared as meals and generally treated as unwanted pests. The open secret, though, is that Star Wars has always been awkwardly goofy, full of absurdist creatures worthy of derisive laughter, and loose with consistent logic in its space-wizardry. It’s only become normalized over time through decades-long cultural exposure. As gross as Luke Skywalker’s beverage of choice is in this film, it’s no goofier or out of step with the series at large than a Frank Oz-voiced Yoda puppet or a space-tavern full of bipedal sea creatures playing jizz music. Rian Johnson’s film is being torn apart by life-long fans of Star Wars for making a series they’ve grown up mythologizing feel nerdily weird & awkward again: something it’s always been, but they were once too young to see. Old-timers are likely feeling alienated by the modern humor that shapes its tone, but I’m totally okay with abandoning past devotees of the franchise to make the environment more hospitable for new ones.
Brushing aside the more hateful, inflammatory complaints about women & PoC being afforded the blockbuster spotlight for once, most negative reactions to The Last Jedi are totally understandable. It’s not difficult to see how a film about literally burning sacred texts & starting from scratch could alienate some old-timers. Honestly, I’m not even sure the film’s absurdist Millennial humor & blasphemous revision of the Jedi as a religious practice/force for Good are 100% successful myself. I was much more emotionally moved by the sincere mythmaking & familiar, but consistent craft of The Force Awakens than I was impressed with the flippant absurdity of The Last Jedi. The Last Jedi may have been eccentric enough to alienate lore-serious Star Wars nerds, but it still doesn’t quite reach the over-the-top lunacy of something like Okja or Fury Road. There are moments when I could swear Brigsby Bear’s Kyle Mooney secretly directed the picture under a pseudonym, even though the evidence is stacked against me, but it’s ultimately too long & too well-behaved to satisfy as an absurdist masterpiece. Instead, the absurdism comes in flashes, just flavoring the original space opera recipe enough to establish a freshly goofy tone as a replacement for the staler goofy one it started with. Indignation over blasphemy to the lore of the Jedi and The Force is slightly more justified than resisting the film’s updated sense of humor, but when the now-established rules of space-wizardry were first introduced in the original franchise they likely seem just as absurd & arbitrary. In a way, dedicated fans deserve to be trolled for thinking that they’ve firmly grasped the rules & trajectory of the franchise enough that they can map out the exact stories of future installments based only on titles, advertisements, and interview clips.
Rian Johnson disrespectfully throws all fan theories in the trash, along with the consistency in lore that made them possible in the first place. It may sting the ego to discover you can no longer “figure out” the future of a franchise you’ve spent your whole life obsessively studying as if it were a riddle with a concrete answer, not a fluid work of art. However, by shaking up the rules & tones of what’s come before, Johnson has created so much more space for possibility in the future, for new & exciting things to take us by surprise instead of following the trajectory of set-in-stone texts. He’s made Star Wars freshly funny, unpredictable, and awkwardly nerdy again, when it was in clear danger of becoming repetitive, by-the-books blockbuster filmmaking routine instead. It’s an admirable feat, even if not an entirely successful one, and yes, even if it forced me to equate Luke Skywalker to a pee-drinking man-fish.