"The Last Jedi" Twists Taught Fans Hard Lessons About Branding, Mythology and Art

The difference between The Last Jedi's 93 percent critic's rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its 56 percent user rating is telling — the same unconventional narrative choices made by Johnson as auteur both wowed critics and made those who grew up with Star Wars incredibly uncomfortable.

The Last Jedi finally arrived in theaters Friday following a wait of only two years that nonetheless seemed interminable. Equally without end was a steady deluge of theories by fans who, left with a post-Disney canon that utterly decimated the boundless Expanded Universe, could now only piece together extraneous lore from the prior films, information from The Clone Wars television cartoon and other Star Wars media released following Disney's acquisition of LucasFilm.

We had some theories, too, cobbling together arcane framing devices for the original trilogy that George Lucas never used and references from Lucas stories past that made it into Disney's canon. Alas, while were happily wrong about some specifics, much of what we suggested might still prove true by the new trilogy's end. 

EVERYTHING AFTER THIS POINT IS A HUGE SPOILER, AND THE LAST JEDI IS A HELL OF A LOT MORE FUN IF YOU GO IN WITH NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT. TURN AWAY NOW IF YOU HAVEN't SEEN IT YET.

Were those ancient Jedi texts the Journal of the Whills? Maybe — we don't know yet, but Rey definitely salvaged them from Ahch-To, as visible onscreen for a split second during the final Millenium Falcon getaway. Was Luke a Grey Jedi? We may never know, but his opinion of what the Jedi became certainly suggests he had a more nuanced understanding of what it means to find balance in The Force, and Rey will, too. 

Some have pointed out that many of the same fans who were mad at The Force Awakens for mimicking the arc of A New Hope are now in aghast over director Rian Johnson's numerous, unrepentant upending of narrative expectations in The Last Jedi, which often escalates to near-trolling levels of seeming blasphemy. 

Johnson seemed to be intentionally messing with those of us who looked to the past for theories on how The Last Jedi would unfold. Consider  the force-sensitive tree at the heart of the Jedi Temple on Courescant in The Clone Wars  — when Darth Sidious ransacked the temple in that series, the Empire stole the tree. Luke himself broke off two branches upon its rescue, keeping one and giving the other to the eventual mother of Poe Dameron. Yet The Last Jedi's force tree is different, a hallowed-out library that holds the ancient Jedi scriptures . When Yoda summons force lighting, a traditional characteristic of the Dark Side, to set that tree on fire, he laughs playfully, blissfully even. 

The master acts a fool in order to challenge that very hallowed image of what the Jedi, and The Force, represent. But was he really laughing at your childhood?

Either way, the difference between The Last Jedi's 93 percent critic's rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its 56 percent user rating is telling — the same unconventional narrative choices made by Johnson as auteur both wowed critics and made those who grew up on Star Wars incredibly uncomfortable.

Admiral_Ackbar_RH.pngAdmrial Ackbar, we hardly knew ye. (Courtesy of Wookiepedia)

Perhaps more offensive than Admiral Ackbar dying off-screen, more offensive than Luke and Leia's demonstration of new force powers seemingly inconsistent with the fictional universe, more offensive than the unceremonious killing of Snoke after teasing his ancient significance in the new direction of the franchise for two years, The Last Jedi reminds fans that Star Wars doesn't belong to you. It doesn't even belong to everyone — it belongs to Disney.

In the next two years, the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge lands will open at Disney Parks on both coasts, its market bazaars likely stocked with stuffed versions of flavored, colored milk and all five species of wildlife introduced in The Last Jedi.  Then JJ Abrams will release his final installment of the new trilogy, tasked with salvaging Johnson's bold choices and giving fans something that will satisfy them while keeping the franchise zipping through hyperspace.

Fans of the original trilogy and diehards can maintain a level of self-preservation, a  punk purity and sense of value, from rejecting change at the hands of the mouse house oligopoly. But to criticize the new trilogy without taking the director's intentions into account is, in The Last Jedi's case, to deny yourself the rarest of cinematic experiences — complete empathy with the pain and loss experienced by the characters onscreen.

The comfort and convenience of a tight, third-act narrative has been denied, and the franchise had conditioned us to expect generational familial connections for so long that the revelation was crushing.

In the moment when Rey must confess she knows her parents were nobodies, our hopes of grandeur are dashed with hers. The comfort and convenience of a tight, third-act narrative has been denied, and the franchise had conditioned us to expect generational familial connections for so long that the revelation was crushing. In the moment, we felt what Rey felt, unable to trust our own wisdom and the truth in what we thought we knew.

“I was thinking, what’s the most powerful answer to that question? Powerful meaning: what’s the hardest thing that Rey could hear? That’s what you’re after with challenging your characters,” Johnson told EW.

“The easiest thing for Rey and the audience to hear is, Oh yeah, you’re so-and-so’s daughter. That would be wish fulfillment and instantly hand her a place in this story on a silver platter…The hardest thing for her is to hear she’s not going to get that easy answer. Not only that, but Kylo is going to use the fact that you don’t get that answer to try and weaken you so you have to lean on him.”

Mythologies are often  built on moments of legend that follow a jarring, chaotic or Nihlistic Turn, Then deal with its immediate aftermath. 

When Kylo Ren spares Leia's command center only to see it blown up by his troops, we feel his conflict and the disconnect between the fascistic, anonymous power of The First Order and General Leia's focused, force-sensitive legacy. The surreal, poetic quality of her near-death scene that follows would have been out of place or tacky had it happened to any other character, but so strong is our connection to both General Leia and the late Carrie Fisher that we wholly submit to being emotionally manipulated, cheering when her fingers finally move again in the cold void of space.

Mythologies are often  built on moments of legend that follow a jarring, chaotic or nihlistic turn, then deal with its immediate aftermath. There's a poetry of singularity at work in a scene like Luke's tricking Kylo Ren with his force projection — a pariah outsmarting his foe, not unlike Theseus snaking golden thread through a labyrinth for a way out after killing the minotaur, or Perseus using a mirror to hunt and kill Medusa.

Star Wars storytellers will need to continue to rewrite and subvert these expectations if the new entries in the franchise are ever going to stand up as icons of their own.

Soon after leaving The Last Jedi, it dawned on me that I'd seen Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk on the same screen last summer. Dunkirk was critically revered but largely reviled by those used to the standard tropes of cinematography and storytelling in war films — clearly defined enemies, maybe a title card or two explaining the context of the battle. Nolan's intentions were in the interest of creating something truly experiential, something that you had no choice but to be present with. To that end, Johnson's intentions with The Last Jedi  seem similar. 

Ultimately,  the same O.G. fans who feel betrayed and disrespected by Johnson's bold choices in The Last Jedi might one day realize that the hopeless, disconnected sense of nihlism they felt while watching it  is exactly what the characters onscreen were feeling, too. It's precisely the sort of thing that makes art last.

Justin Joffe
Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe is an award-winning arts and culture journalist whose work has appeared in several outlets including Vulture, The Observer, Noisey, Spin, Flaunt and the print quarterly journal of American Roots music, No Depression. He has recently written the liner notes for the recording of a Leonard Cohen tribute show, out now on the Royal Potato Family label.

SHIFTed Blog

Timely musings on vintage watches, men's fashion, cocktails, cigars, travel, cars, racing and more . . .

Recent Posts

Subscribe to Email Updates