The Last Jedi – Subverting Expectation

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SPOILERS

“This is not going to go the way you think.” I remember disliking this line from Luke in the theatrical trailer for The Last Jedi. Now that I’ve seen the film, I understand why director Rian Johnson wanted it in the trailer. If this film has any singular purpose, it is subverting expectation. Nearly every element of the movie, from individual scenes to overarching plotlines, features some sort of twist. Oddly enough, like the balance between the Light and Dark side that features so prominently in the story, this tendency is both the best and worst thing about the movie. The film is deliciously unpredictable and consistently surprising, but also structurally unsound and periodically unfulfilling. It overextends itself in pursuit of doing service to all its characters and ideas, but manages to do it without ever becoming boring. On the micro level, almost every individual scene works visually and emotionally, and that is this film’s saving grace. The parts that work achieve such heights that they overshadow the issues with the trajectory of the plot.

Most notably, the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren is fantastic and the best part of the film. Daisy Ridley and especially Adam Driver steal the show in every scene they’re in. Though their relationship is antagonistic, both characters are united in their desire to sway their opponent to their own worldview, whether that means corruption or redemption. The tension surrounding these two is intensified by the somewhat ambiguous way the film portrays their devotion to their respective sides of The Force.

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Kylo Ren’s inner conflict and inability to don the mantle of Vader continues to manifest itself. Murdering his father has shaken him to his core, so much so that he is unable to kill his mother when he has the opportunity. A nugget of humanity still exists within Kylo Ren. Conversely, Rey has begun to show aptitude for the Dark Side. She seems inextricably drawn to the catacombs of the island, a place strong with the Dark Side of the Force, and she fights with the anger of a Sith. Considering that Star Wars has long embraced moral binaries, thrusting both of its leads into a slight grey area is a tantalizing shift. It keeps us guessing about our lead characters arcs in a way that we never have in previous Star Wars films.

The problem is that this guesswork doesn’t lead anywhere. There’s a lot of buildup for one of them potentially turning to the other side of the Force, but neither one actually does. Instead, their on-screen meeting is used to facilitate the surprise murder of Supreme Leader Snoke, a plot twist I don’t think anyone saw coming. Here, we have an example of subverting expectation while being simultaneously unfulfilling. The Force Awakens left us wondering about this character, a new major antagonistic force in the series, but he ends up being dispatched in the second act in service of a surprise moment (of which the film has many). What follows is the best action sequence in the film with some of the greatest stunt choreography we’ve seen in the series. Ren and Rey teaming up to fight the Praetorian Guard is undeniably cool, but it does nothing for their characters. As soon as the sequence ends, they go right back to being enemies having accomplished nothing with their respective arcs, despite all the foreshadowing.

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Similarly noteworthy is Mark Hamill’s return to the role of Luke Skywalker. He imbues Luke with unexpected, cynical, world-weary nihilism, putting a fresh spin on the archetypal sage character. He is no Old Ben Kenobi keen to pass down your father’s lightsaber. Old Luke tosses that lightsaber off a cliff. What I find most interesting about Hamill’s performance is that he disagreed with Rian Johnson about nearly every element of Luke’s character arc in this film, yet none of that comes through in the performance. This vision of Luke is fully realized and believable, even if Hamill didn’t believe in it himself.

What doesn’t work quite so well is his overall character arc. As the sage, the middle chapter in the trilogy basically demands his death, yet again we have some subversion of tropes. One he chooses to leave his self imposed isolation, he confronts the First Order with a vision of himself projected through the Force. Presumably, he did this so he could stand against an entire military assault force alone and survive unharmed – and he does, thus subverting the trope of him being tragically killed. However, the enormous strain of this undertaking apparently exhausts all his energy and causes him to die anyway? At the conclusion of the scene he simply vanishes, transformed into the Force as Yoda did before him. The whole scene is highly ambiguous and leaves us wondering what the point of it all was.

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The larger issue at hand here is that you can only subvert expectation so much before you unsettle your audience. If the rules are constantly being broken, nobody knows what is possible or important anymore. A central question at the end of The Force Awakens was, “who are Rey’s parents?” This film seems largely uninterested in that question and only provides obfuscated teases and unsatisfactory answers from unreliable information sources. Rey asks the Force who they are and sees only a vision of herself (fan theories will no doubt emerge anew) and Kylo Ren spitefully tells her they were neglectful nobodies. Whether this question has actually been answered is left ambiguous, and that’s rather unsatisfying after two years of speculation.

Too much subversion of expectation is similarly what makes the entire part of the movie about Finn, Poe, and newcomer Rose unsatisfying. None of their narrative threads impact the plot in a significant fashion or even come to fruition.

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Poe, driven by distrust of the Resistance’s surrogate commander who comes to power after Leia’s incapacitation, hatches a convoluted scheme with Finn and Rose to disable the First Order’s tracking systems so they can all escape, a task which requires Finn and Rose to journey to another planet in search of a code breaker’s help. During their absence, Poe goes so far as to commit mutiny and seize control of the Resistance ship, an action which we, the audience support since our sympathies are aligned with our lead character and not the shady bureaucrat who is in power. However, our expectation is, again, subverted. Poe is wrong. The new commander had a plan all along and Poe’s scheme (which fails anyway) actually inhibits the success of the commander’s original plan, which would have gone off without a hitch had Poe simply done nothing.

On top of the fact that this plan fails, rendering this entire subplot devoid of payoff, Finn and Rose spend almost all of their screentime on this mission being pulled along by chance and dumb luck. Though they find moments to expound on their respective backstories and get a budding romance going, the actual plot isn’t advanced by their actions or choices. They become passive protagonists with events happening to them rather than being caused by them.

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They arrive at the casino planet and start looking for a code breaker, but get captured and thrown in jail. Here, they happen to meet a different code breaker who happens to agree to help them and also just happens to have a device he can use to break them out of jail (begging the question why he hadn’t broken out of jail with said device before their arrival, but I digress). Afterwards they happen across some mistreated alien racing horses and decide to ride them to freedom. They’re chased from the city and are on the verge of capture, but happen to be saved at the last minute by the codebreaker, who shows up in a ship he stole off camera, giving us a deus ex machina on top of it all. Later they arrive at the enemy ship and try to execute their plan, but are captured by chance again and ultimately betrayed by the codebreaker, rendering their entire mission a complete failure.

The only thing that comes of this entire subplot is Finn’s confrontation with Captain Phasma. Finn’s fight against her and her subsequent defeat is the only good narrative beat for his character. By destroying Phasma, his former commanding officer, he is symbolically severing the last tie he had to the First Order. Rather than running away like he did in the first film, he instead confronts his past and casts it down, ready to move forward with his life. It is a fantastic moment and I’m utterly bamboozled that his entire sub plot didn’t build up to it.

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In fact, at this point it is difficult to say what the entire trilogy is building up to, if anything. This film stole a lot of narrative beats that are usually reserved for third installments. Supreme Leader Snoke is dead. Captain Phasma is dead. Luke is ascended. Beyond an inevitable final confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren, I have no idea what Episode IX will be about. Rather than expounding on the questions left behind by its predecessor or presenting new questions to be answered by its successor, The Last Jedi seems primarily concerned with keeping us guessing for two and a half hours. Half of its story is tight, focused, and fantastic. The other half is underwritten and pointless. Sustained by mystery and levity, The Last Jedi carries us from one twist to the next, keeping us on the edge of our seats all the way, but when it’s supply of surprises are finally exhausted it leaves us without a clear vision of the future.

I went into this film fearing that it would be a blatant retread of Empire. In this regard, I am happy to have my expectation subverted. The Last Jedi is very much its own film, with its own agenda, its own moments, and its own problems. I am happy that Disney had the guts to take chances on a director with a clear, distinct vision for Star Wars. While it isn’t above reproach, it is fresh and, most importantly, new. To break free of nostalgia and embrace the new is what this franchise needs to do, and with The Last Jedi it has taken its first steps in that direction. “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to,” says Kylo Ren. I couldn’t agree more.

Oh, and I liked the Porgs.

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