The Last Jedi Forces Us To Feel Like The Characters, and It’s Unsettling
The following reflection on The Last Jedi includes major spoilers. Only proceed if you've seen the movie.
If The Force Awakens (episode 7) is a warm comforting blanket, The Last Jedi (episode 8) is an important bucket of cold water. But it wasn't until my second viewing, that I was able to fully appreciate this chilling water as a good thing.
By the end of this post, my aim is to help us become more teachable and deliberate with how we evaluate things we love while also learning to more effectively engage with each other (even when we vehemently disagree).
So, let me take a step back and share my first conflicting experience watching The Last Jedi before I share my deeper understanding of the movie, the challenge of embracing something different, the poor memory and zealous nature of fans, and the future of Star Wars as we know it.
The Last Jedi, Take One
“This is not going to go the way you think.” – Luke Skywalker
The emotional hype leading up to the film and me getting jarred by the opening comedy sequence made it hard to engage in the story, at first. About a third of the way into the movie, the gears finally clicked and I was pulled in. And by the conclusion of the movie, there was one thing I knew. The movie made me feel like the characters.
Like the shifting Kylo Ren, I too was conflicted about what I saw. While I leaned towards liking it, and loving how it concluded, I was unsure about much of what I had just witnessed. The movie was chaotic, choppy, and messy and losing my bearing I began to feel a bit lost in viewing it, like many of the characters within the film. Without a solid footing, I felt like Rey without a home, family or community. Rey wanted Luke to guide her, spend time with her and it was cut shorter than we both wanted.
It was in this unknown future of where the resistance (and movie) was going, I could relate and connect with Poe. Well into the first act, I began wondering where the director (Rian Johnson) was taking us. I began questioning the decision for him to take control of the franchise. Is this going to to go the way we want?
Finn seems to regress in his mission to run away again but ends up working with Rose to find a way to stop the First Order, only to fail and distract the main mission of the resistance. And Yoda shows up to talk about failure and destroys the tree and books of the Jedi order. Wait! What?
From here, I was acting like Snoke, describing what's happening and should unfold next only to realize Rian Johnson was slowly turning the light-saber to change what I knew and wanted from Star Wars. Snoke was intimidating and threatening, but Kylo was not at the same level. With this new vacuum, would he or someone else fill the super villain void?
Like Admiral Holdo sacrificing herself for the resistance to have a chance, the story began to make sense. Rian Johnson has done something powerful with his strong point of view. He's given Star Wars a foundation and future to move from, and it'd be one that was divisive for me and for fans across the spectrum, like the Raddus ship slicing through the Supremacy.
And like Rose losing her sister, I felt the loss, letting go of the past Star Wars I had known and entering into something new. A moment of emotion, I felt when the Skywalkers meet again for the final time before the final showdown with Ren. In those final moments on the Falcon, we see those books we thought were gone (Thanks to my wife for pointing that one out). Oh Yoda, you knew all along Rey took them.
And, inspired by the legacy of Luke Skywalker, I felt like the force sensitive boy at the end. There was a new and interesting path ahead filled with the wonder of the unknown, and the exciting possibilities.
So while I loved where the journey took me, and the stage setup going forward, I wasn't sure how I felt about the path we took there.
After three watches, I’m confident to say I really enjoyed this nuanced film, but it required multiple experiences for me to understand and appreciate the strength in this fairly self-contained organic and surprising movie.
Appreciation & Understanding After Reflecting On & Re-Watching The Movie
Image courtesy of Mentorless (ironic website name because of the themes in The Last Jedi)
Years ago, I went to Chick-Fil-A and ordered a Coke from the drive-thru window. As I was driving off, I took a sip of my drink and was disgusted to learn it was not Coke. What is this? And then, I realized it was Sweet Tea. I enjoy drinking sweet tea, but because I was expecting a Coke and I received something different, it was offensive to me.
In the same way, this is how my experience with The Last Jedi was. I was expecting and hoping for a Coca-Cola only to get a Sweet Tea. It was unsettling. But, upon subsequent viewings, I was able to let this expectation go, and enjoy the story for what it was.
"The Last Jedi is a movie about disappointment. Perhaps that’s why The Last Jedi is such a jarring experience, one that feels specifically built to make audiences work through their feelings about this universe. Rian Johnson is unabashedly political and unafraid to slaughter the sacred cows. It wants to challenge you and make you question what Star Wars is and what it can be."- Jacob Hall, ‘The Last Jedi’ Doesn’t Care What You Think About ‘Star Wars’ – And That’s Why It’s Great"
So while my initial response to this movie was complex, containing a mix of elements I loved and parts I questioned, I came to realize Rian Johnson didn’t deliver on the desires I brought to my first watch. In some cases, he did the opposite. But, I didn’t want to dislike the movie simply because it was different than what I expected and wanted, so I spent time sorting it out. And while it was a tough pill to swallow, it’s one that when I did, led to a deeper Star Wars story and brighter future for the franchise. It's a foundation that leads to a new and creative evolution of the Star Wars saga.
Like Rey, we fans want something to hold onto, something we know and are comfortable with. Ironically, the Last Jedi has a way of creating an appreciation for the Star Wars movies that proceeded it because of how it shakes us fans to the core. This appreciation includes the prequels, the originals, and the Force Awakens. Each set of films had their own strengths and weaknesses and watching the Last Jedi for the first time let me see them more clearly.
For example, I appreciate the respect and attention given to the lore in the prequel movies. It had an interesting world-building structure. With the original movies, I appreciated them and the characters for what they were, flaws and all because they are the standard in my mind of what is Star Wars. Return Of The Jedi was the film I attached to and the final confrontation between Luke and Vader were monumental to me growing up.
Both of these points of appreciation were shaken in The Last Jedi as this was an organic story (like the original movies), not a world-building focused movie. It also pushed the concept of the Force beyond my comfort zone. It took the characters and moments we loved from the originals and built on them instead of simply replicating them. But my uneasiness with it at first was not unlike my experience with episode seven.
When I first saw The Force Awakens, I had issues and concerns with the movie. I thought the film went to fast, didn't care for the rathtars sequence, and was disappointed with Luke's physical entrance, to name three. After watching The Force Awakens several more times, many of the issues I had initially, faded away upon additional viewings. With each subsequent watch, I came to enjoy it more for what it was. And this was true with my second and third viewing of The Last Jedi. While I was highly critical of the movie in my first viewing, the second and third watches allowed me to move beyond that preference criticism and my expectations so I could evaluate the movie on its own merits.
“There are so many little details, the first time you watch the movie, it’s a little bit overwhelming. But the second time you’re more relaxed, and you can start picking up so many details Rian planted throughout.” Ram Bergman, Last Jedi Producer
This was spot on with my experience watching this richly layered story of failure and pride. As Rian Johnson stated, these movies are engineered to be watched over and over again (an important factor of my favorite films). Now seeing the film three times, the depth and nuance have continued to surface. Each time I watch it, I receive another layer of understanding and appreciation, and qualms I have, disappear.
For example, during my first viewing, I was bothered by Yoda burning down the tree and original Jedi texts. While the scene was powerful, I thought it went too far, like Kylo Ren, with its message. Thankfully, my wife pointed out the books in the Falcon I missed in my first viewing and when I knew this, it completely changed the dynamic of the Yoda sequence into one I loved. It ended up as a rich dual-layered scene that addressed both Luke and Rey in their respective journies.
Another example for me was the seemingly distracting side story of Finn and Rose seeking the hacker at Canto Bight. Here's this sequence that seems to distract from and delay the main storyline of the movie, and after my first viewing, I wasn't appreciating why it was there. After subsequent watches, I realized more prominently the themes of pride and how this leads to failure for not just our main characters, but also all those caught in-between. Not only is this scene necessary to feel the failure, there are also numerous nuggets of nuance to grey the waters, add perspective, and set a new foundation for the future.
We were given a movie about what we care about and are familiar with, but it wasn't in the way we expected. To use a basketball reference, our legs were broken by Rian Johnson's Crossover move. (Rian, if you're looking for a screenwriting apprentice...)
And speaking of pride, people don't like falling on their faces and some fans have taken this fall personally. They may simply dislike the movie out of principle because they were wrong, or they didn't get what they wanted. Which is very much something I could have chosen to do after my first watch, but instead I decided to work through my emotions and end up with an intelligent response, even if it resulted in me disliking the movie.
"Time will prove this to have been a really important movie, which isn’t something you can usually say about the 8th entry in a franchise. Johnson came in with a red pen and a unique vision, ultimately doing to Star Wars what Skyfall attempted to do to 007, except on a deeper and more permanent level. Instead of asking who Bond is without his gadgets, he’s asking what a far away galaxy is without its Skywalkers. We’re moving from myth to allegory, from stories bathed in abstract ideas to stories designed to mirror life as we actually experience it. Have heroes ever failed so many times in a single movie? I liked it." - Jeremy Arnold
How did your expectations going into Star Wars: The Last Jedi affect your actual experience of it?
What is Star Wars?
Regardless of whether you take the time to reflect on the movie, this discussion of the Last Jedi leads to a deeper level conversation. While the Force Awakens set up numerous mysteries for fans to speculate about the future of for years, The Last Jedi brought us a film that we'll be discussing instead. And the followup discussion that unfolds from this, which I find much more important than the identity of Snoke or who Rey comes from, is the definition of Star Wars.
What makes a movie a Star Wars story? Is it the characters? The force? The Jedi? Lightsabers? Space battles?
Something deeper? Growing up? Love? Betrayal?
The Last Jedi pushes us just far enough to discomfort, that we're forced to ask that question. To some, they've cut off the force like Luke and chosen to only accept the original three films as canon in their mind. Others selectively accept the movies they want into their fantasy bubble excluding the films that disrupt it. However you choose to reconcile it, it's something we'll all wrestle with for some time.
The goal is never to divide or make people upset, but I do think the conversations that are happening were going to have to happen at some point if sw is going to grow, move forward and stay vital.
But, why is Star Wars so important and why is it so hard to accept something different, even if it's good?
The Challenge Of Embracing Something Different Than We Expect
I'm reading The Power Of Habit (affiliate link), which dives into why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg. In chapter seven, the author explores strategies used to help people accept and embrace songs that are different, as well as illuminating how much we humans resist different and unfamiliar.
"People listen to the top 40 because they want to hear their favorite song or songs that sound just like their favorite songs. When something different comes on, they're offended. They don't want anything unfamiliar." - John Garabedian, The Power Of Habit.
People have a hard time accepting things when they are way different then what they expect. I suspect this resistance also increases with age. Much like my story above when I drank the sweet tea and was offended because I was expecting a Coke, people have a hard time knowing what to do with things that don't already contain a box for them to put what they've experienced into.
The chapter goes on to explain how the song "Hey Ya!" by Outkast was created to become a hit but was failing to go viral and become that hit song. It was too different so they had to change their promotional strategy to help people experience it enough for it to become familiar and it judge it from this familiarity.
"DJs started making sure whenever "Hey Ya!" was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular. "It's textbook playlist theory now," said Tom Webster, a radio consultant. "Play a new song between two consensus popular hits."
What's super interesting to me is how the Star Wars films are a perfect case study for this insight. We've got three sets of trilogy movies which as a collective, create a sandwich within each set and as a total collection.
Let's start with the original series. With A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, we have these two movies that are similar in tone and story, but between them, you have a movie (The Empire Strikes Back) different than the other two in the story, character development and even the style of the production. And now it starts to make sense how this film, when it came out was controversial with fans unsure about it, is now highly regarded. While the film is recognized as the best Star Wars film ever, I can't help but think that the film's sandwich helped elevated it to that status.
With this understanding top of mind, it makes complete sense how much backlash the prequels received. Lucas went and created something so different and unfamiliar, even if those movie's story, characters, and acting were perfect, there would have been push-back. Since they had their own set of issues, they become a punching bag for fans growing up with the originals.
But for kids who grew up with the prequels, they actually prefer them to the original movies. I suspect the reception of the prequels was more positive with this generation because these films began establishing a new set of familiarity. But, it also seems like a missed opportunity with the second film, Attack Of The Clones, because Lucas didn't leverage this sandwich insight to do something drastically different like Empire Strikes Back or The Last Jedi.
And speaking of the new trilogy, the positive reception of the Force Awakens and it's strategic genius comes to the surface with this insight. How do you get fans to stick around long enough to become familiar? According to Charles Duhigg in The Power Of Habit, "By dressing something new in old clothes, and making the unfamiliar seem familiar."
This is exactly what The Force Awakens did. And while many criticized it, it really was a brilliant marketing move and one I suspect was more driven by intuition than the research behind the book. From the notes I read about Lucas' original intent with episodes seven through nine, the story began somewhere in the middle of The Last Jedi. If we started this new trilogy with The Last Jedi instead of the Force Awakens, I suspect it would have received a stronger backlash, even more then it's received so far. It would have gone too far, too fast.
And that's a point worth sitting on. Like I've said before, people need to be brought along, and baby steps are the best way to do it, especially with large groups of people with strong opinions. Whether it was instinct or knowledge, both J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson understood this and they moved the story forward in a way that also kept it familiar enough for fans to stick around. Rian had an opportunity to take it further, and he brilliantly embraced it (If you're a storyteller, take a lesson from this shrewd move).
Like The Last Jedi made the Force Awakens a stronger film, so will episode nine for the Last Jedi and this new trilogy as a whole. In fact, because the new trilogy is familiar with what we got with the original, it's actually created an interesting sandwich with all nine films.
I suspect the conclusion of episode nine will elevate the prequel's movies in people's minds. Chronologically (release order) the prequels are the middle of the Power Of Habit sandwich and since The Force Awakens was released, I've noticed a trend of articles and essays about them in a positive light. In fact, some of the powerful moments in the Last Jedi are directly a result of what happened in those movies. And these moments in the Last Jedi that benefit from the prequels also make an important note about how we look back without an accurate picture of history.
When I saw the prequel movies in high school, I enjoyed them but after watching the Red Letter Media prequel critique videos, I came to realize how bad they really were. That is until I watched them again. While they made a lot of good points (in a funny way), and not to discount these movie's flaws, I think they swayed me towards hating them more than the actual movies deserved. In fact, I find the prequels much more enjoyable and charming to watch than Rogue One (which probably sits at the bottom of my Star Wars film ranking list. Sorry Gareth!). But what my shifting conclusion of the prequels and how swayed I was by someone with strong and passionate opinions tells me is, people remember and judge poorly. And much of that can be swayed by what others tell us.
We think we're right in our own eyes. How willing are you to embrace the possibility you're wrong? How open are you to listen and think about things differently than how you see them? How will you engage with those who disagree with you?
We Don't Remember Well, and We Criticize Way Too Easily
Collectively, we humans romanticize the things we like and demonize what we don’t. Unfortunately, neither tend to be grounded on the actual thing and instead are shells of the source material because, like the video above indicates, we forget and others change out how we remember things. Like many Star Wars fans, I've read takes on all the films both positive and negative, including many conversations with friends and families about the movies. What I've realized is that there is a tendency to overlook the flaws of the original movies and to focus on these issues with the prequels when talking with people who grew up with the original movies.
Many of the critiques of the prequels and the glorification of the originals is based on a caricature of the movie, not the actual film. When someone is criticizing the Phantom Menace and only saw it once when it came out, they’re criticizing the cultural caricature and memes, not the actual movie. And, in the same vein, many critiques of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have left me wondering if the criticiser even watched the movie (or paid attention) and also when they last saw the original films.
The original Star Wars trilogy was filled with flawed plot points, wasn't a perfectly engineered story (Luke and Leia make out a lot ...), and had bad acting and annoying characters too. It's funny to see similar reasons used to prove the new ones are bad movies.
Andres makes a terrific point. As people evaluate the original Star Wars movies, they are evaluating an emotional halo of the movie, not the film itself. Case in point, let me pull out a big plot issue (see image below) from the "Best" star wars movie ever made, the Empire Strikes Back. When you logically think about, the movie has a major timeline issue.
There is an abundance of issues to pick out on any of the Star Wars films, so if you're going to do it, at least be consistent!
"The truth is, fans often conflate what something means to us with the thing in and of itself — if I had a dime for every time two equally passionate people (myself included) held comically incompatible beliefs about whether or not something was “true to Star Wars,” I could buy the rights myself and commission season after season of Kyle Katarn prestige TV." Laurel Carney, Failure, Peace and Purpose in The Last Jedi
There are some people who don't like change and there is no new Star Wars movie that will make them happy (except maybe Rogue One, ;-) ). There will always be something that keeps them from liking it and they'll always find something wrong with it no matter how well it's done. And, they're usually not willing to spend the time to explore the possibilities of a deeper appreciation of the movie.
Mark Hamill is a good example of someone who went through the process I'm advocating for. Like many of these fans who disliked or despised the movie, he disagreed with Rian's take on the character on every level. But, as he worked through it, it made sense to him and he embraced the new direction. It was the best way forward. On the surface, the movie was offensive and I could see why Mark Hamill felt this way. But, once he (and hopefully us fans) pushed through to the deeper layers, there was something so much more beautiful underneath. Some fans will follow his lead while others will resist.
A few months back, I read a quote from Mark Hamill about how he's just figuring out how he feels about the Empire Strikes Back. While I suspect this line was given in jest, many fans could learn from this wisdom of not jumping to conclusions and riding the waves of emotion.
What's neat about the Star Wars franchise is we have a large collection of movies where different stories are created by different people to appeal to different groups. And those of us who've not made Star Wars a religion can simply appreciate this wonderful series of stories that have fueled our own journey and launched numerous real-life stories of our own. And like Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, and the boy at the end of The Last Jedi, we can for a moment connect and be inspired by the possibilities ahead.
What are things you are far removed from but easily and quickly criticize?
What’s Ahead For Star Wars? The End Of A Journey And The Beginning Of Something New
The goal of The Force Awakens was to remind us why we loved Star Wars to begin with. The goal of The Last Jedi was to show us why we should be excited about Star Wars moving forward. Both movies did their job, and then some.
We Star Wars fans have had a wild ride since this all began in 1977 (seven years before I was born). There's been ups and downs, camp-outs, re-issues, prequels, side stories filled with excitement and disappointment. And here we are, eight movies into a nine-film saga coming to a close.
Ending something well means pulling in the pieces that came before it, remixing those pieces into a focused point while also providing a satisfying conclusion of the promise that came in the beginning. Done well, a powerful ending leaves an iconic mark on those who experienced it. This is both a wonderful and terrifying challenge for JJ Abrams and his team to finish this trilogy in a sequence of three trilogies.
“[Episode IX] is also the film which unites all three trilogies and brings everything together.” - Inverse
This movie is important to the future of Star Wars fans, but it's only one piece of a larger puzzle. While the Force Awakens was important to start our new journey in a way that was familiar and comfortable, The Last Jedi is about respecting what came before, but not the point of idolizing it above what’s ahead. The next chapter will be important because it’s the movie that closes out and connects the entire Saga. The final film should be a satisfying conclusion to a historical iconic & epic story,
Both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson had the opportunity to create the Star Wars movie they wanted and to influence the direction of the future in significant ways. Now that JJ lived out the novelty of making a Star Wars movie, he has the opportunity tie up loose ends while also opening up the floodgates for a new Star Wars future, and one Rian Johnson (an explicit-type storyteller) will surely run with, in his new trilogy of stories. Abrams gets to learn and master the art of finishing well. How does he progress past the mystery box approach and unveil what’s inside to provide a compelling conclusion?
Tying Up Loose Ends To Pave The Way For New & Better Leadership
Star Wars is about growing up and the transition from childhood to adulthood (According to Rian Johnson). Let's enjoy it for what it is and let go of our obsession for the future and having our way. Let's let go, and have fun discussing, debating and speculating about Star Wars without elevating it to an actual divisive religion. Let's be intelligent, deliberate and remember it's about people and each other, not about division or fighting.
"We need to fight to save what we love, not destroy what we hate." - Rose
As fans, we have the opportunity to enjoy this journey, and then once it's complete take the time to appreciate it and the movies that have come along the way.
What did we love?
How did it affect us?
And how did it draw us together?
My initial emotional response was like Kylo Ren's response. Conflicted. And The Last Jedi did its job making me feel like the characters. After my first watch, I spent a good amount of time with a friend who despised the film to better understand his perspective. From there I digested multiple takes from different parts of the spectrum. And while my first viewing was unsettling, a few more watches after shedding my expectations, emotional rawness, and digging into the story, I came to value the details of the movie. In fact, there are parts I love that were initially problematic for me.
Through these experiences, I wondered and processed the question about, what is Star Wars, and what does it mean for me? What is about my answers to these questions that created a resistance to the Last Jedi? Could I let some of those things go and learn to appreciate and enjoy both? And even the prequels (Did he just say that!)? Like me, others also were emotional in their response to these Star Wars saga films. In some cases, we elevated them higher and above based on emotional attachments, not the movies themselves. In other cases, we haste-fully criticized without much thought or discussion. This exercise got me ready to embrace the future of Star Wars, shed some of these bad habits and change the conversation to a new and better one.
Before you speak, listen. Before you write, think. Before you spend, earn. Before you judge, wait. Before you quit, try. #pursueexcellence
Maybe, just maybe something as frivolous as a series of movies in space could be an opportunity for us fans to grow as humans and leaders. If the series is about our journey from childhood to adulthood, maybe it's time we mature. While several of the plot beats in The Last Jedi felt meaningless, the truth is those experiences led to character development. And with something more important (the future of our kids, families, communities, countries, and our world) at stake in the real world, maybe that's why Star Wars is so important. It's a vehicle to help us develop our character in ways we wouldn't on our own.
What's one thing you can change in your life to be a better listener, thinker, and critic? What about to become a better leader?
Explore The Last Jedi Through Additional Interesting Links
If you love Star Wars and reflecting on the debate surrounding The Last Jedi, you'll appreciate the links I've aggregated scattered in the content above, and others listed below as part of my journey to hear all perspectives and critiques of the film. The following links are ones that stood out for me, but I wasn't able to effectively sneak them into the content above.
"And in this movie, I felt so much of the rigorous work. It’s all set-ups and pay-offs. The opening bomber sequence is stacked with clarity, geography, and pure function. Same go for the army of slowly creeping dread sequences that follow. All of which are built on direct storytelling function." - Continue reading "The Force Belongs To Us: The Last Jedi's Beautiful Refocusing Of Star Wars" by the Hulk
"Like Kylo Ren, I find myself conflicted on The Last Jedi. There are things I absolutely love about it, then there are beats that don't sit right with me yet. If you're expecting a film that unlocks the mysteries of the Force or delivers shocking revelations, you may find yourself underwhelmed. Continue Reading "The Last Jedi is not a film that provides answers, but possibilities." by Adam Frazier
"It is not a movie about big fights and fan service, it is about the characters: their struggles, their hopes, their fears, their weaknesses, their strengths, their growth and lessons learned. It's a complex film because of what they all go through. And it's a different film because it's not trying to satisfy the desires of rabid fans, but rather gives us something new and forces us to challenge our own ideas of heroes/villains." - Continue Reading '"The Last Jedi' Takes 'Star Wars' in a Refreshing New Direction"by Alex Billington
"Because it has more time to do so, The Last Jedi actually digs into the underpinnings of this ongoing good vs. evil battle for the first time in the franchise’s long history, defining the heroes aligned with the Light Side by more than just their righteousness." Continue reading "The Last Jedi's Biggest Storytelling Innovation"by David Sims
"Jedi Master Yoda, who tells Luke that he is giving into his fatal flaw of only looking at the future and not dealing with the present by failing to confront Kylo Ren or train Rey. Yoda reminds Luke that failure itself is a teacher and not something to run away from. This last bit of advice allows Luke to overcome his fatal flaw and complete his third character arc." Continue Reading "Did The Last Jedi spoil Luke Skywalker?" by David Mullich