Beneath the shiny surface of an almost-universal stamp of approval among movie critics, Rian Johnson’s new chapter in the Star Wars saga, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, has polarized the fandom like nothing has since the introduction of Jar Jar Binks.
It’s difficult to talk about what has so many True Believers all riled up without entering spoiler territory. If you want a detailed, well-written lowdown on the ruckus, check out Todd VanDerWerff’s article in Vox: http://bit.ly/2BHEibP. In brief, there are several camps of outraged fans, among them a contingent that spews acronyms like “PC” [Politically Correct] and “SJW” [Social Justice Warrior]” anytime a beloved pop-culture franchise begins to broaden its cast to include more women and people of color. That lot is particularly irate over the fact that in The Last Jedi, there are several instances where impulsive men – usually hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – make hasty and bad decisions that require correction by women who either know more about the plan than they do or otherwise have their priorities in better order. One of those female characters, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), is an especially delightful fresh face joining the Resistance, even if much of her screentime is devoted to accompanying Finn (John Boyega) on a wild goose chase to a sort of alien Las Vegas in search of a codebreaker.
Never mind that there are narrative reasons driving this diversification of the power dynamic in the Galaxy Far Far Away; the naysayers don’t seem to like the way the narrative is going, period. For one thing, it deviates from what is regarded as “canon” among those who are emotionally invested in the novelizations and other “expanded universe” Star Wars material. (Some might question whether “canon” should even be an issue in a franchise where the original screen versions predated any description on the printed page; it’s not as if some classic work of literature is being truncated here.) Things happen that didn’t happen quite that way in the spinoffs. The changes may ruffle some feathers, but they actually nudge the story a few notches out of its rut of space opera and a little closer to genuine science fiction.
Remember midichlorians? You can be forgiven if you don’t; a lot of viewers have tried very hard to forget the prequel trilogy altogether. Midichlorians are microscopic beasties that live in your bloodstream, and people who are particularly sensitive to the Force have way more of them than other people, according to The Phantom Menace (1999). If that explanation strikes you as weighing a bit too heavily on the nature side versus nurture, for a series whose iconography clearly and repeatedly references Nazism in its depiction of the bad guys…well, apparently you’re not alone. Director Johnson, along with J. J. Abrams in the previous installment. The Force Awakens (2015), seems to have tossed midichlorians out the window.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the Star Wars franchise has lately made a decisive turn away from the concept that being an adept in the use of the Force is a hereditary thing. Maybe casting Adam Driver, who looks nothing at all like either Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford, as Han and Leia’s son Ben a/k/a Kylo Ren was meant to tip us off that genetics don’t matter nearly as much as überfans are used to thinking. Or maybe Abrams simply wanted someone who visually evokes Severus Snape, the morally ambiguous, inscrutable antihero of the Potterverse, to portray a character whose entire arc seems to be about feeling torn between the Dark Side and the Light Side. In any case, many fans failed to take the hint; while Last Jedi was in development, the Internet raged with theories about who the parents of new Force-sensitive heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) must have been. The probable backstory of big baddie Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) was argued with similar passion.
Fans who obsessed over such questions are now feeling cheated, because The Last Jedi makes it known in no uncertain terms that they don’t really matter. The Force is being democratized outside the usual bloodlines. Better yet, the characters in the story are no longer divided quite so rigidly between one-dimensional good guys and bad guys. As in real life, people change as they age, have second thoughts, move beyond rigid convictions. Beloved heroes have feet of clay. Even outside the most rabid segment of the fandom, some viewers can be heard protesting, “Luke Skywalker would never do that!” But he would, and he did (or almost did); that’s canon now, so deal with it. It actually makes him much more interesting as a character, and Mark Hamill – never the best actor in the series, by a long shot – has upped his thespian game to help us digest Luke’s bumpier hero’s journey.
If you’re the kind of viewer who can get past a sense of shock that “sacred” aspects of Star Wars lore are undergoing some tinkering here, you’ll find a lot to like in The Last Jedi besides character development. There are some new cute alien critters – notably the porgs, who were introduced simply because there were too many resident puffins on the Irish island of Skellig Michael to CGI out. So the film’s technical wizards gave them new faces instead. The site, which served as the main set for Luke’s self-imposed retirement hideaway, is visually stunning and likely to end up on many a viewer’s dream vacation list.
There’s a knockout scene in a space battle that is all the more powerful for being rendered in a few seconds of utter silence. And of course, there is Carrie Fisher’s final screen performance, delivered with gritty gusto. Gone are any last vestiges of Leia’s youthful princesshood; what remains is a battle-hardened general with the guttural voice of a chain-smoker and the raw heart of a mother whose only son has gone to the bad. The film is fittingly dedicated to her memory. But the franchise moves onward; the only question remaining is whether its “true fans” can move along with it.