Let’s talk about the latest Star Wars film, “The Last Jedi,” which Mrs. MAJ and I saw on Saturday and thoroughly enjoyed. THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS COLUMN. DO NOT KEEP READING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT.
Look, there are spoilers! I’m not kidding! Stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled! No joke! In fact I will say something quick before we go on to ensure you don’t catch a spoiler if you haven’t seen it.
In reading people discuss this film, they naturally talk about the previous films in the series, and many refer to the very first film as “A New Hope.” Allow me to point something out; it’s not called that, for Christ’s sake, and you’re a doof if you call it that. The movie released in 1977 about plucky space rebels blowing up a Death Star, which won seven Oscars, was called “Star Wars.” Nothing else. It was not called “A New Hope.” It was not called “Epsiode IV: A New Hope.” It was called “Star Wars.” Look it up if you don’t believe me.
“Neeeeaahhhh, but the opening crawl said A New Hope…” I can hear many of you saying. No, it did not; it said “Star Wars” and nothing else. The “Epsiode IV: A New Hope” thing was added to re-releases. Here’s the original:
“A New Hope” is the name of the 1997 CGI-screwed-up re-re-release and if you call it that you think Han didn’t shoot first and you’re not a real Star Wars fan.
Rant over. Spoilers follow.
“The Last Jedi” was a delightful, fun, wonderfully made movie and if you don’t think so there is no joy in your heart. And yet it seems a shocking number of so called Star Wars fans don’t like it. “Why The Last Jedi Sucks” is a remarkably common thing to find on the net, though not one person I’ve read yet really presents a reason why it allegedly sucks. Well, that’s not true; the reasons are presented, but none really make any sense because they’re all variations of the same theme; “This isn’t what I EXPECTED!”
“I didn’t want Luke to throw his lightsaber away in disgust! That was Anakin’s lightsaber!”
“I didn’t want Snoke to get killed! I wanted more backstory!”
“I wanted more backstory about Phasma!”
I’m not going to sit here and tell you the movie was perfect. It IS ten minutes too long; the side quest with Finn and Rose is a red herring (though I’m not sure it was meant to be) and it’s not super clear how Rey got back onto the Millennium Falcon, but none of the movies have been perfect. “Star Wars” itself has a few weird logical flaws (if Princess Leia is sure the Empire is tracking the Falcon, explain to me why she then allows the Falcon to be flown right back to the Rebel base?) but the movie is still supremely awesome.
We have perhaps reached a point where the number of people who simply will not accept anything Star Wars that they did not personally write themselves is invariably in the millions.
I am going to say something that may seem shocking to some readers but which I think is really obviously true; “Star Wars” is the most important movie ever made. It is absolutely the central landmark movie in the history of cinema. It is easily, far and away, the most important movie of all time.
In cultural terms, do me a favour; walk up to anyone and ask them about Star Wars. Ask them about Yoda, or about the scene where Luke finds out about his father. Ask about Darth Vader. They will know what you’re talking about, and will probably have strong opinions on the matter. EVERYONE knows who Darth Vader is. In Canada, in England, in Germany, in Japan, in Italy, in South Africa, in Uruguay, in Hong Kong, they know. If you travel to the deepest inlands of New Guinea, where a thousand tribes speak a thousand languages and many people don’t have electricity and were not contacted by the outside world until years after the Second World War, and ask them who Luke’s father is, they will say “Darth Vader” without a moment’s hesitation. Star Wars is easily the most commonly understood cultural touchstone created since the Quran. No other movie compares. Not the Wizard of Oz, not Casablanca.
Prior to Star Wars there were very few movies like this, and basically no science fiction movies. Not that there weren’t popular science fiction movies, like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but they were not one tenth as famous or universal in appeal. Some people loved 2001 but a lot of people did not, or didn’t see it at all, and you have to admit the movie is a hell of a technical marvel but also something of an acquired taste. EVERYONE liked Star Wars. I was brought to see it when I was 6, by my parents, and they were as hungry to see it as I was. Everyone instantly was on the Star Wars train. I had exactly one person I know, a relative, who did not like Star Wars, and everyone laughed at him. And even then while he might not have LIKED it, he knew it.
Years also Mrs. MAJ and I, when we’d been dating four months or so, showed “The Empire Strikes Back” to our kids and, being young and distractable, they didn’t like it. T. told Mrs. MAJ she doubted her explanation of how important the movie was, and as they left my condo and hopped in the elevator Mrs. MAJ said “watch this” and asked a lady of about 60 in the elevator what she thought of The Empire Strikes Back, and of course the lady enthusiastically began to explain how awesome Yoda was and light sabers and Luke and Darth Vader and Lando Calrissian and on and on, and she quoted the movie, and she and Mrs. MAJ were instantly best friends. What other movie can so reliably do that? Game of Thrones, the Blue Jays, and the Beatles are all very popular but you cannot safely assume any one person will know who Tyrion Lannister or Josh Donaldson are, or would know who did “A Day in the Life.” I bet if I randomly asked 100 people who Darth Vader was, every one of them would know.
In terms of cinema, obviously Star Wars (and one must include The Empire Strikes Back, really) changed our relationship with movies. Star Wars become more than a movie. It is an industry, a cross-media brand, a concept. Star Wars is movies but it is also toys and TV shows and video games and music and books and more toys and theme park rides. It is a universe unto itself. The Wikipedia entry for Luke Skywalker, an imaginary person, is more detailed than that of people who’ve been heads of state. The concept of a fictional “universe” as a multi-media concept, which has given us Harry Potter and Star Trek and Marvel, was not invented by Star Wars, but turned from a side concept into a fundamental driving force of culture by Star Trek. This stuff existed beforehand, especially for Star Trek, which by 1977 already had a very devoted fan base an the beginnings of an “expanded universe,” but it was a cult following. Star Wars was universal. To this day when English-speaking countries hold a census, hundreds of thousands of people put their religion down as “Jedi.”
It kind of goes without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, that Star Wars dramatically changed the movie industry. Aside from the fact the movie saved 20th Century Fox, turning it from a dying company into a juggernaut, it altered the way Hollywood does business. Constant sequels, vast merchandising tie-ins and the rise of high concept FX-laden blockbusters are all directly attributable to Star Wars. Star Wars pushed the boundaries of visual and sound effects in film, which up to that point weren’t generally a thing anyone cared about, and just the work done on it and “Empire” pushed things forward more than all the other movies produced between 1970 and 1980, and to be honest, there wasn’t that much more progress until the rise of CGI.
Star Wars has now become a fundamental touchstone of human culture. It is a common understanding among essentially all people, like Shakespeare (who people quote even if they don’t know it) or the Bible.
So I wonder, honestly, if some people’s appreciation of films hasn’t been turned a bit upside down by this. When they started the current Star Wars trilogy a lot of fans were angry it would not follow the long, detailed, and generally uncinematic “canon” of the Star Wars novels, and apparently people are ferociously angry that the films have taken a few turns they didn’t expect, such as Rey apparently not being born of interesting parents, or Snoke being murdered by Kylo Ren, or Ren’s character arc being more complex than expected. There is nothing wrong with any of these developments in terms of cinema; it’s just that people didn’t expect them, so they dislike it. In fact, I found one review, an actual review from a professional film critic, that asserted “The Last Jedi” was worse than “The Phantom Menace,” which is simply in defiance of any legitimate examination of the art of cinema; it is as factually wrong as saying four is a larger number than twenty-seven.
People have invested a great deal into Star Wars, myself included; I have watched the movies and played the video games and all that. The problem with investment in a fictional world, though, is that some people seem to labor under the misapprehension that their investment means they’re owed something, that they should have some kind of veto power over how Star Wars should go; what, they’re going to tell a story that isn’t the one I would tell? Scandalous!
In less than an hour’s worth of searching I have found people complain that, for instance, it was wrong to kill Snoke because we have not been shown a detailed explanation of who he was, how he rose to power, how he seduced Ben Solo to the dark side and how he learned to use the Force. (Note that we were never told any of these things about the Emperor, the analogous character, in the original films.)
And if you think about it, that’s ridiculous. If you want art made a certain way, it’s on you to go to make it, not to insist someone else make it, and if your preconceptions prevent you from liking the movie, the problem is yours, not the artist’s. In terms of the quality of a movie, not learning about Snoke is not a sensible criticism. NO movie gives you a detailed backstory on every character. No movie is long enough to do that, and Snoke isn’t the eighth most important character in the film. No previous Star Wars film has done that; we were not provided detailed backstory on Han Solo, the Emperor, Chewbacca, Yoda (until the prequels) Tarkin, or any number of characters. That’s not something movies do. That’s something you get from the “extended universe” of games, books, comics and TV shows.
I am not suggesting you need to like all things Star Wars. “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” were objectively terrible movies, but that’s because they were terrible movies. “Revenge of the Sith” was not quite terrible, but it was bad. They had terrible acting, awful stories, boring and inconsistent characters, and poor visuals and directing. That they were not what I expected is beside the point; if you changed the character names and branding so it was some other fictional universe they’d be just as lousy, and in fact would have been box office bombs.
So was this movie good? Of course it was, and you’re in some weird fanboy idiot fantasy land if you don’t think so.
The story is clear, has a beginning, middle and end, and is essentially logical, aside from a few quibbles. The story has compelling characters, and the primary characters have detailed, logical character arcs. The characters are extraordinarily well played – this movie is easily the best-ACTED Star Wars movie ever made. The movie is visually stunning. The stakes are real and tension is well built, thematically consistent, and ties in well with the movie’s theme of the cost of sacrifice and loss.
If you can’t enjoy a movie like that, honestly, there’s something wrong with you.