Well ahead of the release of The Last Jedi, I’d made a private resolution to stop being so goddamn grumpy about Star Wars and superheroes moving forward. That’s not to suggest, mind you, I rescind my cultural criticisms of them, merely an acknowledgment that I’d said my piece, have nothing more to offer on the matter, and have no wish to spend 2018 mired in negativity. There’s enough of that going around these days.
And yet here I find myself, first post of the New Year, compelled by fate—just like Obi-Wan, I suppose, and, more recently, Luke Skywalker himself—to crawl out of hiding. Here’s what happened:
The week Last Jedi hit theaters, I was preoccupied with last-minute errands and arrangements for my trip home for the holidays, and Star Wars, frankly, was the last thing on my mind. I was peripherally aware the movie was “in the air”—reviews were near-universally hailing it as “groundbreaking,” the best of the series since Empire—but altogether oblivious that it had already opened.
Until Saturday, December 16. That’s when unsolicited text messages start pinging in rapid succession from friends and colleagues, decrying it as “the worst Star Wars ever,” “a betrayal,” “the death of the franchise,” etc. (One old friend even suggested I stay away from the movie at all costs if I wanted to preserve any fondness I had left for Star Wars.) I couldn’t quite reconcile any of that with the glowing critical notices, so I went to Rotten Tomatoes, and, sure enough, an overwhelming plurality of the audience was hating this movie. Not strongly disliking it, mind you—despising it. Some excerpts:
“I will pass on IX and it won’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things, but there is nowhere the plot can go in the final movie that I particularly would care for. I have no investment in the characters, plot or universe anymore.”
“Steaming pile of bantha poodoo.”
“Easily the worst in the Saga. Lifelong Star Wars fan. It’s now all over.”
“Worst movie EVER. I can’t begin to find the words that express how bad this was. Guess it’s hard to say much without spoilers. Just be warned it’s not the star wars you know.”
“You won’t fool me, nor my money, ever again.”
And then there was this succinct four-word review:
“Fuck you rian Johnson”
How to explain such opprobrium? (Note: There are those that suggest a vocal minority of haters has merely created the misleading illusion of substantial backlash—possibly that’s true—but the sampling of direct responses I’ve fielded for the most part range from faint praise at best to seething vitriol.) I mean, these were the movies that were supposed to “redeem” Star Wars after creator George Lucas’ best malignant efforts to ruin all our childhoods with the prequels, right?
So, what’s gone wrong? I wondered. Were fans simply being oversensitive? Or did filmmaker Rian Johnson, making his Star Wars debut, indeed deliver a credibly bad movie—a “franchise killer”? How exactly did things reach such an extreme, fevered pitch a mere two years after Disney’s much-anticipated brand-relaunch of Star Wars?
It’s a complicated answer with more than one determinant, but I can get to the heart of the problem for you.
Hold that thought, though. We’ll get back to Star Wars shortly.
NEVER SAY DIE
Working screenwriters find themselves committed to what’s known in the industry as “general meetings.” These are sit-downs with development executives, sometimes ironically called creative execs, who’ve read your latest spec script and want to “get you in a room”—that is, glean a better sense of your personality and sensibilities. They want to know if you’re someone they can work with, and these agent-arranged meet-and-greets offer screenwriters an opportunity to cultivate relationships, learn what kind of material prodcos are looking to develop, and see if you can’t maybe find a project to work on together.
Back when I was taking a ton of these meetings, there was a refrain I heard over and over again: “The project I really want to find is the next Goonies. Got anything along those lines?”
The Goonies, if you’re unfamiliar, is a children’s adventure from 1985, conceived by Steven Spielberg, scripted by Chris Columbus (Gremlins), and directed by Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie), about a group of plucky preteens, facing eviction from their coastal Oregon homes by a country-club developer, who discover a treasure map hidden in the attic and embark on an adventure to find the fortune that will save the neighborhood. It’s Stand by Me meets Indiana Jones.
Amazingly, the movie, a commercial success, never spawned a franchise, but it is no less beloved by Gen Xers than Back to the Future, or classic-era Star Wars, or Ghostbusters. Maybe more so, even, because it’s standalone status imbues it with a kind of cultural purity: There aren’t interpretations and iterations of The Goonies—ones we like and ones we don’t; there’s just The Goonies, exactly as it is and has always been. And finding a new version of, a contemporary take on, The Goonies has been the personal dream and professional mission of many of the development execs that came of age with it, a sort of Hollywood Holy Grail.
And I know more than my share of colleagues who undertook that crusade—not me, for the record—devising pitches and even full-length scripts in the Goonies mode: A group of inner-city kids whose tenement is about to be torn down find an archaeologist’s journal with clues to the lost city of Atlantis—underneath the island of Manhattan! A lot of that sort of thing got pitched and written a few years back.
And yet none of it—zero, mind you—got sold, let alone produced. All of those pitches and scripts were met with a tepid meh.
Why? This is what Hollywood wanted—right? If you took a general meeting anytime between, say, 2010 and 2014, you were going to encounter at least a few ambitious execs with an eye out for the next Goonies. So how did a town full of zealous screenwriters fail to come up with a single spin on it that captured the interest of a prospective (and ostensibly receptive) buyer?
That is a question my writers group debated long and hard. And here’s the conclusion we finally drew: None of those execs actually wanted the next Goonies. Seriously. They said they wanted it, but they didn’t. So, were they just fucking with us, then?
No. What they in fact wanted, though they couldn’t have articulated this, was a script that made them feel the way they felt when they first saw The Goonies at nine years old. They wanted to recapture the immaculate sense of innocence they once had, that guileless belief in magic, and no screenplay in the world, no matter how brilliantly executed, could hope to deliver on that; at best, all it could be is a conceptual/structural recapitulation—a mechanical exercise, not the erstwhile emotional experience they so yearned for.
Last month, novelist Jennifer Finney Boylan published an essay about the power of classic Christmas movies to quicken that special sense of security we know only in our youth:
“Basked in the blue glow of television light, I am a child again, safe in my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, all the trauma of our lives off in the distant future. How sweet it is, to be restored, fleetingly, to that world, and how bitter to be reminded of how long it has been gone” (Jennifer Finney Boylan, “My Favorite Holiday Movie Involves a Giant Rabbit,” New York Times, December 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/opinion/christmas-holidays-movies.html).
Indeed. Which brings us back to a galaxy from a long time ago—one far, far away… and receding further still with each passing year.
It was only yesterday I was standing outside the theater in 1983, gazing at the one-sheet for Return of the Jedi—a pair of hands hoisting a blue-bladed lightsaber aloft—as we waited to be admitted to the movie. I recall precisely the unique sense of wonder that inspired, the boundless power of imagination it imparted on my receptive young mind. Make no mistake: My life’s work was forged in the crucible of eighties fantasy cinema. Accordingly, I know that when a forty-year-old goes to see a new Star Wars movie, he wants it to make him feel as he did the first time he saw the old ones; he longs to taste from that wellspring of wonder and innocence again, and he wants—needs—Star Wars to be the fount to quench that thirst.
But it can’t. To quote another cherished sci-fi film from the same era, those moments are lost in time, like tears in rain. And when we try to get them back, by commissioning an ersatz Goonies or buying a ticket to the new Star Wars, we find only disappointment at best, and, at worst, disillusionment—the bitter reminder, as Boylan observes, of just how long it’s been since our naïveté succumbed to irreversible depletion.
Inevitably, we accuse The Last Jedi of “ruining” our childhood, whereas what we mean to condemn it for is not restoring it, or the special sensation of it, anyway. We have certain expectations when we see a new Star Wars, but none so preponderant as that—and that’s the one fairytale wish no Star Wars movie, even if it’s inclined to do so, can ever hope to fulfill.
“THIS IS NOT GOING TO GO THE WAY YOU THINK”
(Mild spoilers ahead.)
Now, to be perfectly fair, Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson didn’t go out of his way to reward or even indulge first-generation Star Wars fans. He seemed driven by—and, by some estimations, even delighted in—the impulse to upend all the cherished tropes and conventions of a Star Wars movie. There are those that suggest such subversion was the very point of The Last Jedi, and in time—when cooler heads prevail—Episode VIII will be as highly regarded as the once-controversial Empire Strikes Back.
I’m betting not, however. As a Star Wars apostate, I went into The Last Jedi completely sober and dispassionate: I was willing to be entertained without any premeditated agenda—per my vow to chill the fuck out about this stuff—but I wasn’t going to be disappointed if the movie sucked, either, ‘cause I simply don’t care enough about any of this anymore to be let down by it. And what I saw was—its disregard for the series’ aesthetic and tonal orthodoxy notwithstanding—a demonstrably unfocused and misguided piece of screenwriting.
The Empire Strikes Back is driven by a central dramatic question—Will Darth Vader tempt Luke to the dark side?—and all the movie’s turns of plot are a direct consequence of that, until the matter is definitively resolved at the climax (the repercussions of which, in turn, open the door to the next installment, Return of the Jedi). The Last Jedi, in stark contrast, is an assemblage of flabby scenes, full of inessential details and tangents, with no discernible narrative spine to give them meaning or causality.
Certainly part of the reason for that is the movie has no idea who its main character is, a recurring problem that has bedeviled this franchise since The Phantom Menace. You watch the original trilogy, and you can easily identify its protagonist: Luke Skywalker. Han and Leia and Obi-Wan and the droids, integrated and indispensable though all of them are (with their own transformational arcs, to boot), are narratively subordinate to Luke. The classic trilogy follows a very clear hero’s journey story arc as Luke goes from idealistic nobody (A New Hope) to headstrong pupil (The Empire Strikes Back) to disciplined luminary (Return of the Jedi).
And then things—while still on Lucas’ watch, mind you—got messy. Qui-Gon drives all the action of The Phantom Menace, but dies at the end. Anakin seems to be promoted to hero position in the next movie, but because he’s an unwitting tool of the antagonist, the virtuous Obi-Wan is made to supply a lot of the story’s dramatic purpose… though he isn’t himself the main character.
Jumping forward now to The Force Awakens, Rey is ostensibly given the Luke Skywalker arc—to learn who she is—but J. J. Abrams, with his preference for ambiguity over lucidity, didn’t set her up properly for that particular type of emotional journey, saddling her with a psychic wound—a seemingly futile longing for the return of her unidentified parents—that Rian Johnson then summarily dismissed in The Last Jedi. Consequently, Rey stands by the sidelines throughout most of Episode VIII (poor Daisy Ridley was made to act her heart out to compensate for the lack of clear characterization on the page), while copious screen time is devoted to Luke Skywalker traipsing not-very-heroically from one end of that island to the other, barking at Rey to bugger off.
So, the Joseph Campbell elegance of the original trilogy got abandoned along the way, rendering Star Wars—like, alas, Luke Skywalker himself—an in-name-only changeling. And audiences sense that, even if they can’t put their finger on it, and they certainly feel emotionally disoriented in the later movies—both the prequels and the Disney entries—because so much mental energy is expended trying to puzzle out: Whose story is this?
The Last Jedi, then, is a perfect storm of fan discontent: a wantonly subversive Star Wars movie—and that’s tricky territory under the most favorable of conditions, Rian—that isn’t even a very efficient or satisfying piece of storytelling. And here we are, with—no joke—fans now petitioning to have Episode VIII stricken from canon.
That’s ridiculous, of course—for many reasons, but this one foremost: Disney doesn’t decide which Star Wars stories are canonical and which ones aren’t. There’s only one person on this planet who determines canonicity, and it isn’t Bob Iger. Or Kathleen Kennedy. Or J. J. Abrams.
Overreacting with formal petitions just adds fuel to the argument that The Last Jedi is a great film, made greater still by its refusal to cater to veteran fans through “audacious choices” with an eye toward keeping the franchise adaptable to changing mores in changing times. But just because a film is ambitious—and I say this as someone who has repeatedly censured Star Wars for its increased cultural presence and diminished cultural relevance—doesn’t by definition make it creatively successful. The Last Jedi might even be best described with the same damning two-word appraisal of the fictitious Spinal Tap concept album The Sun Never Sweats: “ambitiously flawed.” And as much as I ferociously support the John Carpenter ethos of creativity—“it may not be what you like and what you want, but fuck you”—when you’re playing in a public sandbox, is it wise to exercise that degree of artistic latitude? Do you really want to say “fuck you” to fans who, quite rightfully, feel as proprietary about this stuff as you do?
Still, regardless of whether or not you cared for—or took offense at—Johnson’s unconventional approach to the material, there are legitimate narrative shortcomings in this new cycle of Star Wars movies that audiences have every right to take issue with. Case in point: For all the insistence that J. J. Abrams’ reverent-to-a-fault offering, The Force Awakens, is a beat-for-beat rehash of A New Hope, there’s an overlooked structural issue with it that betrays its inferiority.
Unlike the inchoate Last Jedi, The Force Awakens is actually driven by a central dramatic question: Where is Luke Skywalker? Everyone wants the map that will lead them to Luke, the way everyone wanted the plans to the Death Star in A New Hope. Fair enough, right?
The problem, however, is that the entire third act of the movie—the very point at which all the plot threads should be coming together—is essentially a narrative digression, catalyzed by an out-of-nowhere revelation: There’s yet another iteration of the Death Star, and we need to destroy it!
Huh? What does that have to do with the search for Luke? Absolutely nothing. (That quest only resumes in earnest after Starkiller Base is wiped out, when Artoo conveniently decides to “wake up.”) Abrams needed a thrilling climactic set piece, so he contrived one out of thin air, versus devising one germane to the story’s nuclear dramatic engine, like Lucas did in A New Hope.
Viewers are entitled to take umbrage with such carelessness, to say nothing of the equally casual way these new movies have been developed from the outset: Unlike George Lucas’ two trilogies, there was manifestly no grand design or unifying vision to this relay-race experiment in mythopoeic filmmaking. On the contrary, Disney hired two directors who plainly weren’t on the same page creatively—one nostalgic, the other iconoclastic—and then expected those approaches to complement one another to produce a cohesive overarching narrative with meaning?
For better and arguably for worse, Lucas envisioned a broad-strokes three-act story arc for his trilogies and plotted them accordingly; his fingerprints are all over those six films. The Disney installments, by comparison, are a crazy-quilt patchwork of competing visions, conflicting agendas, abandoned storylines, and aesthetic inconsistencies. Unlike The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a bridge, merely a detour.
“IT’S TIME TO LET OLD THINGS DIE”
My point is, I could teach a class on the storytelling transgressions in these movies, so it’s important to recognize—and this is quite a concession in light of how relentlessly reproachful I’ve been of Gen X’s crippling nostalgia addiction—that not every criticism of Star Wars is strictly a veiled lament for the passing of our analog-era childhood.
But—and I warned you this was complicated—the very fact that we even see the very real faults in these movies should tell us something about ourselves. Because no current twelve-year-olds I’ve consulted take notice of, much less take issue with, any of the screenwriting flaws I’ve illuminated above, or the multitude of grievances expressed on Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere.
Over Christmas, my eleven-year-old nephew declared The Last Jedi “the best movie ever.” Whether he’ll still feel that way in twenty years is immaterial; his moment of wide-eyed wonder is, at present, still in progress—and, let’s face it, not for much longer. One day, The Last Jedi may very well come to symbolize the period in his youth he still believed in pure magic, the way The Empire Strikes Back and The Goonies emblemize mine. And it kills me to think he’ll someday find himself watching Star Wars: Episode XII in the vain hope of recapturing it. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone for good. Tears in rain.
That’s a drum I’ve admittedly been beating for a while now, which is why I’d quietly sworn off further dissertation on the subject. And then The Last Jedi happened. And, to my profound surprise, many of the friends who texted me on December 16, trying to come to terms with the bitter aftertaste left by the movie, independently uttered things like “Maybe I’ve gotten too old for Star Wars,” and “This series just isn’t for me anymore.” And my sense is they actually mean it. They’re over it; they’ve moved on. The Last Jedi, true to its subtitle, may very well end up being the last Star Wars movie for a generation of fans whose formative years were enriched by the saga.
But not, let’s be clear, defined by it. Star Wars, culturally important as it’s been—perhaps too important, but I won’t be the one to write that essay—could no more make one’s childhood than it can spoil it post factum. No movie, for Christ’s sake, should be granted that degree of authority over our lives. If it was in fact Rian Johnson’s intention to immolate Star Wars as we’ve known it and replace it with an unfamiliar mutation—and I don’t pretend to know what his agenda was, though I doubt it was any more malignant than Lucas’ when he made the prequels—he has, I think we can all agree regardless of whether we approve, succeeded.
And to those feeling the sting of crushing disappointment from that (admittedly not everyone is), look on the bright side: You’ve been liberated from Star Wars. Further installments no longer need be a promise broken, a new hope dashed. It was never going to give you what you really wanted from it, anyway, and now it’s indubitably apparent it never will.
Doesn’t it feel good to come to terms with that? It’s finally time for something else.