The Last Jedi opens tonight to very respectable reviews. We should, of course, be suspicious of this; Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones opened to respectable enough reviews, and are now appropriately reviled. Revenge of the Sith was probably a touch underrated at the time, although I appreciate that this is a controversial appraisal. Rogue One is no worse than the third best Star Wars film, largely deserving of the praise it received. But the most relevant film for thinking about Last Jedi is obviously Force Awakens, which was surely overrated when released.
Force Awakens Revisited
Force Awakens is… not good in many ways. The plot is nonsensical, with a tired macguffin that cannot bear the weight of the film. This is actually kind of unusual for a Star Wars film, most of which (even the bad ones) have relatively coherent internal plot logics. Moreover, JJ Abrams is not well-suited to directing space opera, in large part because he cannot abide space and time. The original Star Wars trilogy was space opera in a (mostly) pure sense, derived in significant part from horse operas (as well as from pirate flicks) which encompassed the vast desolation of the West (or the sea), and which spent a great deal of time in getting the characters from one place to another. Space opera needs space and time, and Abrams is not good at offering either. This isn’t just a Star Wars thing; Star Trek: Into Darkness is an extremely bad movie not simply because of Benedict Cumberpatch, but also because Abrams compresses time and space such that Earth and Kronos are no more than a hop, skip, and a jump from one another, which effectively renders the entire point of Star Trek irrelevant.
With these problems, Force Awakens depends on the strength of its characterizations, and on this point it shines. Finn and Poe Dameron are capable drawn, distinguishable hero figures, while Rey fits well into the Jedi mythos. The arcs of all of the older characters make intuitive sense; all of them are, in some sense, the Ethan Edwards who cannot re-enter the farmhouse at the end of the Searchers. That Leia finds herself in the leadership of the Resistance rather than a cog in the more formal Republic can hardly be surprising. No one could expect Han Solo to fit into respectable society, although to my mind Ford played him a bit more scruffy than was strictly necessary (Deckard is the only one of Ford’s late-career character renewals that I thought was particularly well-drawn). And Luke as an angry hermit is simply perfect.
But Kylo Ren is what makes The Force Awakens a watchable film. It’s surely fair to observe that calling Kylo Ren the most complex villain in Star Wars is to damn with faint praise, but his relevance as a character extends well beyond the boundaries of that universe. Ben Solo is the son of Leia and Han, but god child of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, and every ISIS fanboy who went to Syria seeking glory in the decapitation of the infidel. He is pathetic, but no less formidable or terrifying because of that. He is drawn to his grandfather’s icy, fascistic cool in a way that is utterly believable, and even compelling; at the same time, he is besotted with his own internal conflict. Ren is more interesting than Palpatine, who is a standard, if well drawn, mastermind villain; his arc is far more nuanced and complex than that of Anakin Skywalker, who in the end was a terribly powerful but not terribly bright pawn of more important figures. It doesn’t hurt that Adam Driver is a much, much better actor than Hayden Christensen or anyone in the original trilogy.
And so there is some promise here. Bad plot mechanics can be more readily fixed than leaden characterizations, and Rian Johnson has a lot of compelling material to work with. The strength of the film will depend, I expect, on how well he manages to capture the promise inherent in the Star Wars universe, without being dragged down by it.
The New Expanded Universe
I was never widely read in the old Expanded Universe, and so did not mourn its passing. I am reasonably well acquainted with many parts of the new Expanded Universe (Rebels and Clone Wars; some of the comic books; one or two of the novels), and I think that Star Wars is (perhaps accidentally) almost uniquely well-suited to derive strength from its own mythos. Star Wars is a combination of science fiction and fantasy (there are those who will fight to the death for one or the other of these) and this combination helps it elide many of the problems that normally turn up in cinematic universes.
The Force, such that it is, has a sense of rhythm and a sense of the dramatic. The rhythm plays out in the repetition of themes across different artifacts within the Expanded Universe; widely divergent characters face similar problems, and often voice nearly the same lines, but it makes sense within the broad frame of recurrent conflict between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. Whereas repetition in the Star Trek universe (yet another species that can’t communicate, yet another earth-type planet) has no logic beyond the need for producers of each show to come up with enough plots to fill a season), in Star Wars the repetition can be framed within the logic of the Force, which none of the characters fully understand, or can fully control. The dramatic plays out in the recurrent, high stakes clashes between characters. In some sense, the Force seems to like the idea of powerful Sith and Jedi coming into conflict with one another, and works to recreate those conditions over time.
At the same time, the science fiction setting offers the nearly infinite set of worlds for contestation between light and dark, and it offers a logic for how the nature of the conflict changes over time. It places stark, material limits on the impact of the mystical, limits that the characters themselves seem to understand. Palpatine’s entire political project can be read, in some ways, as an attempt to write the Force out of the Star Wars universe; eliminate the Jedi, erase all memory of them, and recreate the power of the Force through technological means (a project which brings him into conflict with Vader, who is a true believer). I think that both of these have to be appreciated in order to have some sense of the narrative promise of the Star Wars universe.
When competently executed, an expanded universe can improve existing works. Return of the Jedi is a better film if you have a sense of the history that Vader and Palpatine have with one another, of the views that they share and the points on which they differ. Understanding Palpatine’s rise lend gravity to his fall, and a sense of meaning to his pursuit of Luke. A deeper appreciation of Vader’s perspective helps make questions like “Was Vader’s offer to Luke at the end of Empire genuine? Did he really seek to overthrow the Emperor?” productive and interesting. The construction of the first Death Star is particularly well-developed; it echoes across many different properties, with an engineer needed here, a grain shipment there, none of which are understood by the players involved but all of which the reader can understand. But of course it can be done badly, like Starkiller Base, which is just stupid.
Let me reiterate this point: Starkiller Base is just stupid.
The expanded universe offers a lot of value on its own terms. Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of the most deeply cataloged characters in the history of video entertainment. Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s apprentice, is the most well-drawn female character in the entire Star Wars universe. At their best, both Clone Wars and Rebels offered indelible moments and fascinating characterizations. I don’t particularly love Rebels, but it has given us the Last Testament of Darth Maul; an appreciation that the Sith “Rule of Two” is more of a guideline than a rule; Grand Admiral Thrawn; and last but not least, Darth Vader standing atop his Advanced Tie Fighter. The other properties offer similarly indelible moments.
The management of the Star Wars universe has approached the release of the Last Jedi with considerable care. I was firmly of the view that Supreme Leader Snoke was the final incarnation of Darth Maul, until (spoiler alert!) Ben Kenobi did something to Darth Maul that made this impossible. Rebels and other properties have managed the mythos with a great deal of care, releasing enough information to offer relevant clues without making obvious what will be happening next. And there’s also some promise that the basic framework that has held the Star Wars universe together- the conflict between the Sith and the Jedi- has broken down in consequential ways, and that the terms of conflict will be different in the future than they have been in the past. That is useful in terms of offering a way of thinking about why the nine film cycle offers a particularly important picture of the conflict between the Light and the Dark sides of the Force.
And so hey, I’m optimistic. Given that this is going to be a very heavily discussed film, I’m posting two separate discussion threads tomorrow at noon; one for folks who absolutely hate Star Wars and everything about it, and one for folks who have seen the movie and want to talk about it. This thread, hopefully, shall serve as a non-spoilery discussion of general Star Wars themes. Please be careful about the spoilers, because some folks care a great deal about them.