‘The Force Awakens’ Brought ‘Star Wars’ Fans Back Together. ‘The Last Jedi’ Tore Us Apart

(AP Photo/Sadiq Asyraf)

(Note: This post contains spoilers.)

The Last Jedi picks up exactly where The Force Awakens left off, as if it were the next episode of a Netflix series. But those of us in the audience have seen two years pass in between Rey offering Luke his lightsaber and Luke throwing it away — and in that moment, it seems, some fans began to realize that they would not get what they thought they had been promised.

First, a recap. As Brian Hiatt writes for Rolling Stone — and I’d like you to imagine the following in yellow, scrolling towards infinity — “In the months since the franchise stirred back to life in 2015’s The Force Awakens, it has felt rather like some incautious child grabbed civilization itself and threw it across the room — and, midflight, many of us realized we were the evil Empire all along, complete with a new ruler that even latter-day George Lucas at his most CGI-addled would reject as too grotesque and implausible a character.”

When life gives us one unfathomable scenario after another, we turn to stories. I found myself reading books the way I used to do in childhood: constantly, deeply. I felt anxious if I finished a novel and did not have a new one to immediately begin — but I also felt anxious about a lot of things, this year. I needed to immerse myself in other worlds so I could feel other emotions.

Many of us found ourselves eagerly waiting for the newest (and what is likely to be the annual) Star Wars installment, the kind of Christmas present that would both remind us of our youth and validate our adulthood. We would be rewarded, the way fans are, for paying attention to every detail.

And then Luke threw that lightsaber over the cliff.

It doesn’t matter if you saw it coming (as Mark Hamill very clearly gave us Luke’s decision-making process without saying a word). It doesn’t even matter if you know that the Hero’s Journey, the Campbellian monomyth that grounds the entire franchise, must begin with the refusal of the call. Luke tossed his lightsaber and we’ll never know Snoke’s backstory and Rey’s parents were nobodies and the Jedi sacred texts were burned.

Miles Surrey explains the split fan reaction on The Ringer: “Getting answers to The Force Awakens’ biggest questions was perhaps the main point of The Last Jedi for many fans — from that perspective, it’s no wonder the movie seems offensive.” Or, as Rob Bricken writes in an io9 essay titled The Last Jedi Killed My Childhood, and That’s Exactly Why It’s Great:”The Last Jedi is a direct, not-even-slightly subtle message to hardcore, original trilogy-obsessed fans like myself that Star Wars is more than those three movies (or the three prequels that served as one long, terrible prologue to them).”

Let’s address that second point first. The Star Wars franchise has been working very hard to expand its universe, as it were; to prove that its heroes really do have a thousand faces. (To remind you of what those first three movies were really like: Vulture recently cataloged every line spoken by a woman other than Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, and came up with 63 seconds of dialogue.) While Rey’s humble origins might have disappointed the fans who were hoping she was Luke’s daughter, that was the only real path the story could have taken. This space opera isn’t just about the Skywalker dynasty anymore.

Melissa Hillman breaks down all of the ways The Last Jedi shifts towards a more inclusive world in her brilliant essay “This is Not Going to Go the Way You Think”: The Last Jedi Is Subversive AF, and I Am Here for It:”

Privilege is handily dismantled wherever we try to create it. Rose Tico is awed by meeting Finn, now a hero of the Resistance, only to have her hero worship dashed when she realizes Finn is trying to escape. Finn comes from nowhere — one of many nameless troopers stolen as small children. Rose, as well, comes from nowhere — daughter of miners who now works as a tech for the Resistance. Some have criticized the Finn/Rose subplot, but thematically, the meaning is critical — these young Rebels are the new generation who will build the new society on the ashes of the old. They’re played by actors of color.

Yes, The Last Jedi sends Finn and Rose on a fetch quest that is literally futile. But I was much more invested in Finn and Rose — and their choices and conflicts — than I was in Rey’s training montage or her exploration of self. We’ve seen all of that before. We can predict exactly what’s going to happen.

Which brings me back to the main criticism of the film: the fact that The Last Jedi refused to tell us whether some of our predictions were true. Yes, it feels a little silly to complain that a movie didn’t answer the big questions or confirm the big fan theories. But 2017 had been, more than anything else, about uncertainty. We lived through a year of fake news and alternative facts; of travel bans put in and out of place and the repeated possibility that we could lose our health insurance. Hackers have our personal information and tax bills are rewritten at midnight and industries are collapsing and the arctic is melting.

As much as I believe that the best stories invite us to create our own answers — and I do believe that, as you might remember from my post on The Force Awakens — I can understand why so many people came to this movie looking for confirmation. For canon. For anything that could be stated as true.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy The Last Jedi. There were some beautiful moments, and if the characters were more compelling than the plot, that’s the way I’d prefer the balance to tip. There are plenty of people arguing that The Last Jedi is the stronger of the two newest episodes, from Film Crit Hulk — “But then a thing happened that only happens when your brain is caught on fire by a lovely movie… I couldn’t stop talking about it.” — to Brendan Nystedt at Wired: “This isn’t the comfort-food casserole that J.J. Abrams brought to the Star Wars potlatch with The Force Awakens — it’s challenging, flawed filmmaking with big ideas I think the franchise hasn’t had since the prequels.”

But — despite the fact that Rey says the word “hope” at drinking-game levels during the movie — I didn’t leave The Last Jedi feeling hopeful. My emotional response was more like Peter Rubin’s, responding to his Wired colleagues: “I liked The Last Jedi. I liked it a lot, even. But — and I recognize that this casts me as Darth Grumpious — it stirred nothing within me.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the secret reason behind much of this complaining about the movie not answering the questions we hoped it would. What we’re really trying to say is that the movie didn’t give us the emotions we wanted.

We had a very divisive year, after all. And it ended with a divisive movie. On that note, I’d love to hear what you thought about the Porgs.

Stories discussed: