In the Star Wars universe, those who do not remember history are doomed to sequel it; those who do, apparently, make prequels.
There's something more dangerous in the Star Wars universe than the Death Star. More corruptive than the Dark Side. More scruffy than nerf-herders. More obtuse and self-destructive and potentially offensive than Jar Jar Binks...
In the Star Wars universe, memory takes on uniquely peculiar properties. At one moment it's flexible to the point of complete unreliability; at others, it's so precise that those reminiscing defend their version of events with a kind of ferocious, near religious fervour. For both the characters in the fiction, and the fans that hold the series dear, memory is shown to make people simultaneously flippant and fanatical, with seemingly little to differentiate what is held sacrosanct, and what can be ignored. And curiously, it;s this contradiction that has made the two most recent releases in the Star Wars franchise such polarising viewing experiences. For Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), it has risked turning an origin story into merely a checklist of allusions and call-backs (or more accurately call-forwards), and it has rendered Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) both the most polarising and prescient instalment of all. WARNING: Spoilers for The Last Jedi and Rogue One, and minor plot details about Solo.
The Force Awakens
'You probably don't recognize me because of the red arm.'
Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015) (IMDB)
When Star Wars returned to the big screen in 2015 with Episode VII - The Force Awakens, its central theme was the power of memory. The series itself was returning from hiatus, and new creative director J.J. Abrams and his collaborators were eager to capitalise upon the nostalgia of their audience, evoking those feelings of familiarity and good will that would endear audiences to their reintroduction of the series.
In the years since its release, it has become fashionable to retroactively sneer at the way in which The Force Awakens so overtly repurposes the narrative beats of its precursors. It's undeniable that the film nakedly lifts the plot from Allison Pregler's 2012 Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope: a youth from a backwater desert planet who dreams of adventure undertakes a journey to deliver a droid carrying a secret message, stops off at a weirdo alien dive bar, eventually joins a rag-tag team of resistance fighters, discovers that they are part of a mystical power known as the force, watches their new mentor figure die at the hands of a villainous figure in black, and helps destroy a planet-sized super weapon that has been built by an evil galactic Empire. There are even nods to Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) (a father and son have an emotional exchange on a very anti-health-and-safety platform structure) and Richard Marquand's 1983 Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (the Millennium Falcon threads its way through the cluttered bowels of a space ship, pursued by enemy fighters). Viewed cynically, this kind of reappropriation reads as a complete dearth of creative ambition, as if all the film has to offer is a cover-band restaging of the original product.Viewed more charitably though, this was a successful fulfilment of the film's mission statement.
After the (... let's go with mixed) reception of audiences to Lucas' prequel trilogy – films that, alongside being tonally awkward and riddled with ham-fisted dialogue, are meandering (Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, George Lucas, 1999), creepy (Star Wars: Episode II - The Attack of the Clones, Lucas, 2002), and garbled (Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, Lucas, 2005) – The Force Awakens was tasked with allaying the fears of its audience. Designing the narrative to actively remind audiences of the elements they loved once before was therefore not an act of misdirection, it was a promise. The film sought to show, through on-the-nose 'homage', that the series still cherished, and was still capable of producing, the romantic space-fantasy experience that had once been so beloved by generations of viewers. It was a messaging that even echoed in the title: The Force Awakens, because for the past few years that spirit of Star Wars seemed to have been catatonic.
It was ironic, then, that for a film actively seeking to enflame the recollections of its audience, the memories of the characters within the narrative are surprisingly spotty. Because somehow, despite it being only 30 years since the galaxy-spanning Empire – the oppressive police state that controlled every aspect of society – was unceremoniously blown up by a rebellion of unified races and a cadre of feral Care Bears, it's made clear that the actions of Rebels like Luke, Leia, and Han have already faded into the vagary of myth. Han must insist to Rey and Finn that Luke and the Jedi were real, and an aggressive resurgence of the Empire itself, in the form of The New Order, has somehow so successfully flown under the galaxy's collective radar that they were able to amass an incomprehensibly vast army and battle armada all before anyone bothered to ask where they think they're pointing that planet-sized galactic super-weapon (an object that also, somehow, went unnoticed).
But this kind of selective memory was by no means something new to the Star Wars series. The prequels in particular created numerous logistical problems that can only be explained through galaxy-spanning bouts of mass amnesia. There are the individual oddities of Darth Vader seemingly forgetting that he built C3PO; R2D2 staying suspiciously quiet when Luke is blathering on about not knowing who his father is; Leia having memories of her 'sad' mother, despite the entirety of their time together being the 30 seconds they spent in a delivery room before her mother died of Lazy Scriptwriting Syndrome; not to mention pretty much every sentence out of Obi Wan's mouth in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (Lucas, 1977).
Then there are the larger contradictions, such as the galaxy forgetting that the Jedi existed.Han Solo dismisses them as 'hokey' urban legends in A New Hope, despite their having been a complex organisation of intergalactic peacekeepers that patrolled the entirety of the known universe, entrenched in every aspect of religion, politics, and military operations only two decades previous. (Speaking of which: Chewie, Han's co-pilot, personally knew Master Yoda! How did that never come up across the holo-chess table?!) There's the convenience of everyone forgetting that midichlorians are a thing (a thing that can be objectively measured by science, apparently.) And everybody in the universe seems to have forgotten that Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker – including Vader himself – because when they put Luke into hiding they just dump him back with Anakin's closest living relatives, even letting him keep using the 'Skywalker' name to put on his T-16 Skyhopper license.
When considered logically, these inconsistencies of memory make no sense, but rather than dwell upon such incongruity, fans so inclined have made a cottage industry of explaining them away, sometimes gesturing to the catch-all magical properties of the Force, other times spinning Obi Wan's excuse for lying to Luke about his father, arguing that everything can be true, 'from a certain point of view.' There's probably a theory floating out there somewhere that Wookie dandruff works like space Rohypnol.
Indeed, even the saga's creator, George Lucas, has not been above appealing to the conveniently slippery nature of memory when reflecting about the over-arching 'plans' for his films. Over the years he has sometimes claimed to have had the whole story written out from the beginning, at other times admitting he made the whole thing up as he went along. Sometimes there were 12 episodes, all already conceived; at other times the numbering thing was just a nod to old cinema serialisation, with no real intent to fill in the gaps. According to him, Greedo always shot first.Returning to The Force Awakens, however, this duality of viewer nostalgia and character forgetfulness allows devoted fans, blessed with their meta-knowledge of the series, to nod along appreciatively at the references they glean – often long before the characters in the fiction itself.
When a withered old villain appears in hologram to leer over the film's signature villain, it triggers memories of the first time that the Emperor appeared in Empire Strikes Back, ominous and aged, promising a similar duplicitous 'twist' back-story of scheming and betrayal that would not be revealed until later films. When Rey watches from afar as Han Solo confronts Kylo Ren, neatly paralleling a similar scene in the first film of Luke doing the same with Obi Wan, the ensuing death of a mentor figure echoes across the series, colouring the Star Wars (via Joseph Campbell) hero's journey that then promises to play out over the promised next two instalments of the trilogy.
But the limitation of such self-reflective narrative design is that it risks making the audience's experience little more than indulgence. The plot and the character interactions spring not from surprise, but from simple recognition, with the viewer being flattered into thinking that they had privileged information, but not compelled to examine what the meaning of that recycled narrative actually is. There's little shock to be found in discovering that Rey is a Force user, since she has already been so heavily coded with the beats of the established Star Wars protagonist arc. There's less of a cathartic eruption when the evil super-weapon explodes because we've already seen that triumph play out twice before.
And so, with its capacity to surprise dulled by the requirements of appealing to nostalgia, The Force Awakens instead leans into setting up mysteries (or since this is a J.J. Abrams project: 'Mystery Boxes' ...urgh) that will presumably be answered later. Plot points, like the reason for Luke's peculiar exile; the question of who and what Snoke is; who Rey's parents were (in yet another overt nod to Luke Skywalker's surprise lineage); even simple details like how Maz Kanata could possibly have Luke's lost lightsaber, all were hand-waved away as stories 'for another time', laying the groundwork for the next film in the sequence to continue forwarding this flattery of the audience's memory and expectation...
The Last Jedi
'Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.'
When The Last Jedi begins, picking up from the exact moment that The Force Awakens concludes, Rey, having tracked Luke across the galaxy, holds his lightsaber out to him, beckoning him to rejoin the fight, to reclaim his rightful place at the heart of the rebellion and become a guide for the new generation of force users. In response, Luke reaches out and takes hold of his precious blade, the weapon that had once belonged to his father, that he himself had lost decades before in a moment of crisis in his journey toward being a Jedi. He looks at it and then tosses it over his shoulder.
It was a sharp, powerful enactment of the theme of the film that was to follow. The Last Jedi, that moment said, is not designed to merely indulge its audience's expectations. Rather, the film would be concerned with offering viewers the opportunity to re-examine that which they hold dear, to enrich their understanding of it by digging beneath it superficial veneer.
The Last Jedi arrived in cinemas in a year that was toxic for civil discourse. In 2017 partisan politics, trigger warnings, and accusations of fake news seemed to have seeped into every facet of human experience; with the US President, himself under criminal investigation, calling anyone who questioned his actions treasonous and crying about how mean the media was to him, the entirety of the year seemed to lurch from one irresolvable hot-button issue to another, dividing people into intractable factions. So it seems fitting that The Last Jedi instantaneously split the series' audience into two highly vocal groups: those who loved its new direction, and those who felt betrayed.
There appears to be two schools of thought amongst those who actively hate the film. The first, inarguably loudest (and most worthy of being ignored) are the hyperventilating gamergate/alt-right trolls who make it their mission to try to destroy the film because they think it's Social Justice Warrior propaganda. If you strip away the pearl-clutching whining of these groups, with their weird little paranoias about 'progressive agendas' and 'liberal brain-washing' of mass media, their central complaint boils down to: 'Ewwww... there are girls germs on my Jedi!' and 'Why do I have to acknowledge that anyone except white males exist in fiction?!' (They were also hilariously afraid of Laura Dern's purple hair for some reason.)
The second group of detractors (still loud but far less inane) complain that the film is a failure because it offers unsatisfactory answers to the mysteries set up in The Force Awakens, and mistreats its legacy characters, specifically the returning Luke Skywalker. (Many also hate the porgs. Even though ewoks were a thing. But whatever.) It's the complaints of this second group that I want to explore further, because that sense of betrayal that they speak about, of having their nostalgic attachments challenged, is The Last Jedi's central theme.
As Luke's initial rejection of his lightsaber indicates, The Last Jedi is not afraid to buck expectation, and as its narrative unfolds many of the elements that audiences are coded to anticipate after decades of interacting with the Star Wars saga are repeatedly subverted.
In the previous film, Snoke was a blatant Emperor cipher. An elderly, withered, mysterious figure of unfathomable evil, appearing for the first time as a hologram spoken to with deference by the principle villain of the film, he was designed to clearly evoke the memory of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader's master, who had appeared in precisely the same way for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back). Consequentially, a portion of the fan base, enflamed by their memories of the original trilogy, spent the interim between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi pondering the back story of the evil Supreme Leader Snoke, trying to infer the epic role that he would no doubt play in the temptation of Rey to the dark side... It's a surprise, then, for them to watch, only half way through the new film, as he is unceremoniously dispatched in an unforseen defection by his apprentice. No monologuing personal history; no grand duel; just dead, with an apprentice whose intentions had been misinterpreted, eager to take his place.
Similarly, Rey's parentage, which tantalises the audience's curiosity, seemingly setting up a surprise reveal reminiscent of Luke's horror that Vader is his father, is revealed to be a non-issue. She's not the illegitimate daughter of Luke Skywalker; not some secret Skywalker sibling spirited away for safekeeping; she's just a nobody from nowhere, seemingly born at the whim of the Force. Again, for some fans this is infuriating as it, too, seems to denigrate their hopes for some densely interconnected lineage – despite it being the literally the same origin as Anakin Skywalker, a revelation with which they take no issue.
But perhaps the most outrage is reserved for the way in which Luke Skywalker is presented in the film. Much has been made of Mark Hammil's admission, in pre-release interviews, that he was initially uncomfortable with the treatment of his character upon reading the script. To his mind, Luke was an eternal optimist and would not have secluded himself away from his responsibilities for so long. Hammil explained that he soon embraced this development of his character, but many 'fans' did not share his perspective and went on to declare the depiction of Luke a betrayal of who he had once been.
In their minds Luke is the great hero of the first trilogy, the dreamy farm boy who grew into a grand mystical warrior, who overthrew the Empire and brought the Jedi back from extinction. Like Rey in The Force Awakens they convinced themselves that Luke would again be the saviour of the new narrative, that he would stride into battle, reunify the rebellion, train up a new batch of Jedi, and win the war. But as Luke chides Rey when she demands as much from him: 'This is not going to go the way you think.'
Because that was never who Luke Skywalker actually was, nor what his role in the saga had ever been.
Curiously, what many of these fans appear to be reacting to is the failure of Luke's characterisation to confirm their projected memories of the original films, rather than their actual content. After all, Luke was never the most powerful Jedi who ever lived – he was just the last one left. He never completed his training, because he was too hot-headed to wait when he was told to; he lost a hand because he entered a fight ill-prepared; he made up a nonsensical plan to free Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt seemingly on the fly; and even in his confrontation with the Emperor, he's not a badass swordsman or a master strategist: his success comes from failure. When he confronts the Emperor he is overpowered, and finds himself incapable of striking the final blow lest he give into darkness. His plan therefore becomes effectively sacrificing himself, hoping that the goodness he can feel in his father will be enough to bring him back to the light. Luckily his father does indeed respond to his son's pain and kills his master, reclaiming his place as a Jedi knight, but it's worth remembering: he wins by losing.
It's this theme of learning from failure that is the real message that The Last Jedi wants to explore, and the one that Luke's journey, and the audience's expectations about what that journey should entail, perfectly enacts.
When Rey discovers Luke has spent several years in seclusion, disenchanted by the weight of his guilt and his disgust at the hubris of the entire Jedi order. The Jedi, he believes, had let their arrogance blind them to the danger of Anakin Skywalker, a sin he blames himself for repeating in his loss of Ben Solo to the dark side. But as the film goes on to show, Luke's self-imposed exile, cut off from the force, is merely a detour on the path to his ultimate realisation: that one should not be constrained by the past, but rather learn from it and evolve onward to newer, greater things. It's revealed that despite his protests Luke has not actually abandoned hope – he still watches over the ancient Jedi texts, and cannot bring himself to burn down the ancient tree – he's just haunted by the mistakes of the past, worried that he's bound to play them out all over again. His journey, then, is to remember that failure does not mean defeat; that it's a transformative opportunity for self realisation and growth.
Adam Driver in Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017) (IMDB)
Meanwhile, an unwavering obsession with the past and inability to learn from one's mistakes is shown to be the abiding philosophy of the First Order. The First Order is essentially the alt-right of the Empire, a neo-Nazi wet dream of narcissistic bullies like Snoke and sad young men like Hux playacting fascistic power-fantasies of galactic domination, trying to reclaim a glorified, 'pure' past that never was. One of the few figures that's not simply a brainwashed grunt is Kylo Ren, a boy trapped in the shadows of his personal history, desperate to live up to an unreal image of his grandfather, Vader, and deluded by the alluring fiction sold to him by Snoke. The First Order plays out in grand metaphor how dangerous tribalism and tyranny can be, how often it's tied to romanticised visions of a past that never was, and that strangles all hope of growth and change. It was similarly prophesies that destroyed the Jedi order from within: the Jedi council of the prequel trilogy, so hubristically distracted by a prediction that their chosen one would bring balance to the force, allowed Anakin Skywalker to slip (rather comically fast) from a whiny, overconfident emo into a mass-murdering sociopath.
Perhaps that's what has outraged 'fans' so much: the film's willingness to challenge preconceptions; it's demand that the characters within it, and the audience watching, shed their presumptions about what the narrative going forward 'should' or 'must' be. The Last Jedi strips away the meaningless trappings of fandom. It places in context the glut of over-revered trivia, the obsession with minutia and predictions and prophesies that has risked obscuring the welcoming wonder that has always been at the heart of the Star Wars story – that has allowed it to grow alongside each new generation of audience. It's a film that compels its characters and viewers to re-evaluate the dangers of expectation, and the self-imposed constraint of demanding to have one's own head-canon satisfied.
The Last Jedi is a film fundamentally concerned with the upending of presuppositions, about the dangers of slavishly abiding by dogma, or being so blinded by expectation that one gives over to confirmation bias. Necessarily then, the film – from its title down through to its emboldening final shot – is about stripping down our adherence to the past and our demands for the future, to instead embrace the possibilities of the present. The fans angered by the revelations and twists of The Last Jedi take these surprises as personal affronts, as though they are designed to mock them for being alert to the conventions of the series. But the film is not mocking its audience, instead it's inviting them to let go, as Yoda (who turns up as in The Last Jedi in his ghost puppet form – yay!) implores Luke: 'Time for you to look past a pile of old books.'
Like Rey, who has to shed her fantasies of finding meaning in her parentage or her instructors; like Po, who spends the film playing out the conventions of the maverick pilot bucking authority; like Finn, who trieS unsuccessfully to destroy the First Order's tracker, but instead gains a wider perspective on the universe and his place within it; and like Luke, who has to embrace failure as not an end but an opportunity for a new beginning; the audience is invited to let go of the prophesies and mythologies and narrative constraints that restrict growth, and instead to embrace again the opportunity to be surprised.
Rogue One and Solo
'Everything you've heard about me is true.'
While the mainline trilogy of the Star Wars films are now interested in shaking up their audience's expectations, opening up opportunities for the future, the interstitial chapters like Rouge One and Solo are curiously devoted to indulging the past. Both films are prequels, with each narrative placed in the immediate lead up to A New Hope, and both are designed around depicting events already implied in the original trilogy. In this sense they serve as perfect fodder for nostalgic viewers, but in doing so they limit their scope and risk eroding the sense of scope and wonder that defines the original texts from which they are cribbing.
Rogue One, an immediate prequel to the very first Star Wars movie, shows the suicidal mission to steal the Death Star plans. The film plays out like spectacularly well made fan-fiction, needlessly justifying plot holes from the original films (like why the Death Star has a self-destruct button built into its design), and padded out with distracting references and cameos. Obviously there are major characters like Grand Moff Tarkin, who still wonderfully chews the scenery even in CGI recreation, and Darth Vader who slashes through everything else with a lightsaber in the film's climax, but then there are the fan-service additions who barely justify their appearance, like Ponda Baba and Evazan, the two angry drunk guys that Luke will later encounter in the Mos Eisley cantina on a different planet, or C3PO and R2D2, who seem to appear just to keep up their tradition of appearing in every Star Wars film like robotic Stan Lees, or Leia's father, Bail Organa, Mon Mothma, and original Red and Gold squadron pilots (with actual footage and sound taken from outtakes of A New Hope). There's blue milk and 'I have a bad feeling about this...' and even nods to the Rebels television cartoon.
At least Rogue One distinguishes itself by cultivating an uncharacteristically dark tone for the Star Wars saga, telling a story of guerrilla warfare and moral compromise that ended with merciless deaths that (even though predictable to anyone even vaguely familiar with the plot) still make for a bold finalé. But it's hard to feel that it's an essential addition to the franchise, and given that the entirety of its plot can be (and until now always has been) satisfactorily summarised by the three paragraph opening crawl of A New Hope, it risks feeling almost redundant, merely confirming what was already understood.
Similarly, Solo, despite being a solid, playful film, has little reason to exist. It's a briskly paced romp through the seedy underbelly of the universe, filled with gifted actors giving fun performances, with a couple of snappy action scenes, but it suffers from attempting to cram the majority of Han's back-story, as implied by the four films he already appeared in, into one tidy cinematic arc. Bogged down by lore and exposition, it feels more like a conglomeration of fan wiki entries than an adventure, wasting time answering questions that no one is asking, like, Why is Han's last name Solo? Why does the Millennium Falcon's computer have a weird dialect? Where did Han get his blaster? Isn't a parsec a measure of distance? How long has he had those lucky dice? How did Chewbacca learn to play Holochess? Whatever happened to [prequel character who appears in a surprise cameo]? ...Isn't he supposed to be dead? Why does Han call Chewbacca 'Chewie'? How long has Lando owned that cape he wears in The Empire Strikes Back? Also: Who gives a crap?
Most frustratingly, it potentially ruins the mystique of the titular character. By cramming most of the known points of Han's history into the span of a couple of weeks – how he met Lando and Chewie; became a smuggler; won the Millennium Falcon; did the Kessel Run; served in the Imperial army; became a pilot; started working for Jabba the Hutt – when he talks about himself in the original films he seems less like a rogue with a million stories to tell and more like a middle-aged jock still hung up on that one game-winning play he made in high-school. Instead of expanding Han's character out in new ways, this prequel makes him seem smaller, less surprising.
Solo shows that slavish devotion to the past can be constricting, an act of indulgent regression that turns nostalgia into creative stagnation. If the box office of this most recent release is any indication, even those fans who claim to despise the risks taken by The Last Jedi were not enticed by a return to the overly familiar.
The Last Jedi caused outrage in a vocal portion of its fan base by refusing to mechanically satisfy their predictions. It used the memories of its audience to subvert the limitations of convention, but it's not about rejecting the past, rather about being more nuanced in our relationship with it. It asks its audience to take inspiration from the best of it, but not be obliged to bind ourselves to its patterns.
Ironically, it's the same elasticity of belief that has always been exercised by Star Wars fans when it comes to memory, but this time it's working on the level of theme rather than mere plot detail. Here it asks its audience not just to excuse Obi Wan for failing to recognise the two droids he has spent years working alongside, but to embrace the idea that traditions can be challenged, that revolutions can occur.
While Solo risks pandering to the trappings of fandom, The Last Jedi strips them away, challenging the glut of over-revered trivia, the obsession with minutia, the predictions and prophesy that have, over multiple generations, obscured the welcoming wonder that has always been at the heart of the Star Wars story. The Last Jedi is a film that compels its characters and its audience to re-evaluate the dangers of expectation and the self-imposed constraint of demanding to have one's own head-canon satisfied. In taking this risk, it has opened up new possibility; to paraphrase its sentiment, it has rekindled the spark that will light the fire that will show the way forward to new, unpredictable adventures that will keep the spirit of the Star Wars saga alive.