Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Last Jedi, Fantasy, and the Art of Defying Expectations

Emerging from a movie theatre on that Saturday in December 2017, I didn’t know what to think. The latest offering in the nine-part Star Wars saga – Chapter VIII: The Last Jedi (TLJ) - had been so different from what I’d expected that I was reluctant to form an opinion about the film. Instead, I sputtered to friends and family about how "I needed to see it again” or that full appreciation would take “a couple times through, to get the whole thing”.

Truth is, I didn’t really know if I liked the movie or not, but as an ardent Star Wars fan, I was compelled to examine my apprehension more closely. After all, I’m invested in the franchise, like millions of other people around the world; not with money, per se, but with devotion to this particular space fantasy.

I explored this devotion at length in a 2016 essay I wrote about The Force Awakens (TFA). In it, I looked back on my personal interest in a process called worldbuilding, an interest inspired in my youth by both George Lucas - the creator of Star Wars – and J.R.R. Tolkien, academic and author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as by role-playing games and comic books.

Worldbuilding is premised on the idea that an imagined story and setting might be so complete, it could be said to have a reality of its own. Though worldbuilding can be thought of as metaphor and/or allegory for our shared human experience on Earth, the imagined setting actually comprises a separate place, containing qualities of internal logic and consistency that encompasses and expands our everyday milieu.

"Enchantment" was the word that Tolkien used to describe the transcendent effect of fantasy that results from effective worldbuilding. I used criteria outlined in Tolkien's treatise, On Fairy Stories, to frame part of the argument in my piece on TFA; essentially, that the enchantment of the Original Trilogy (OT) was also present in the first film of the new Sequel Trilogy (ST).  

It’s worth revisiting Tolkien with regards to TLJ, as well, since he made a demarcation between  a fantasy of enchantment, and fantasy where a person might, for a short time, suspend disbelief.

Tolkien wrote, “Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside,” while suspended disbelief was a substitute for “the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that for us has failed.

Reflecting on TLJ with Tolkien’s conceits in mind, I was struck suddenly by what I think was the essence of my initial objection to the new film: that I was – upon first viewing - taken out of the fantasy too often; compelled to suspend disbelief - and so had become aware of that disbelief. And while this state of mind had immediate consequences for what I'd just seen in TLJ, I was also reminded of my fraught opinion on the Prequel Trilogy (PT).

I’ll explain what I mean by that statement, but there’s certainly no need to revisit all the difficult aspects of the PT. Most longtime fans have one or two moments (at least) in Chapters I-III that they feel are cringe-worthy, and I’m no different.

In some cases I’m willing to accept the shortcomings were, at least, partially the result of seeing the movies through an adult’s eyes, rather than a child’s. But that's not the whole picture. In my estimation, it wasn’t until after the first act of Revenge of the Sith (RotS) that viewers experience the sustained enchantment of the Secondary World described by Tolkien; to that point, and in the prior two PT films - The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones - moments of this sort were fleeting.

Almost certainly, the lore surrounding the origin of Darth Vader – which had been percolating in popular culture for decades – engaged the imagination of both 'designer and spectator' (to use another Tolkien-ism). From the moment that Palpatine reveals he is a Sith lord to Anakin, RotS takes on a mythic, nearly spiritual, dimension. 

Overall criticism notwithstanding, when it came to the PT, it wasn’t difficult for me to envision a galaxy in which the Jedi Order were the feared and respected "guardians of peace and justice" Obi-wan Kenobi described in A New Hope (ANH), the original Star Wars film. 

The notion, too, that there would be a science to explain the biological antecedent of the Force – midi-chlorians – seemed reasonable in the PT setting, so the introduction of these microscopic beings  deepened the fantasy for me.

Some viewers did not feel the same way, however; and in their opinion, the ineffable qualities of the Force were debased by such an explanation. For them, the materialist description of this “mystical energy field” was enough to take them out of the fantasy.

This phenomenon repeated itself again and again with the PT, whether as a consequence of iffy writing, poor chemistry between performers, Jar Jar Binks, etc., and those of us who had been fans since the OT were particularly vulnerable to having expectations dashed by the second trio of Star Wars films.

We should have known, though, that there was no going back home after George Lucas released the updated versions of the OT in the 1990s. His tinkering with the Cantina scene – the infamous Greedo-shoots-first debacle – became the ultimate symbol of being taken out of the fantasy that is Star Wars.

Part of the appeal of Han Solo’s character in the original theatre edit was that he is an amoral opportunist until Luke and Leia give him a cause in which to believe. He begins a scoundrel, yet he gains honor and a heart of gold, a metaphor that’s made explicit by the medal ceremony at the end of ANH.

That character arc doesn’t exist in Lucas’ revised version of ANH. Instead of gunning down Greedo in cold blood, we are shown that Han reacted defensively after the bounty hunter shoots first. Yet somehow, by portraying Han as reactionary, this one change redefines who he is, giving him a morality that the original character initially lacks, then gains, in the course of the film.

Deprived of this arc, Lucas’ revised Han is a tepid antihero, and less dangerous than the original theatre edit would have had us believe.

TLJ presented some viewers, myself among them, with a similar dilemma; in that we are to accept that the same Luke Skywalker who resists killing his father and succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force in the OT, is the same Luke Skywalker who’s willing to murder his nephew (Ben Solo, or if you like, Kylo Ren) while the boy sleeps (albeit in a moment of weakness, and for a seemingly good reason).

The threat that Ben represents is, by no means, on the same scale as Vader, who kills a group of children in his first murderous act as a Sith lord. Ben, at the point when Luke considers ending him, has done nothing but be implicated in Supreme Leader Snoke’s machinations; as Vader, Anakin Skywalker presided over genocidal acts on a planetary scale.

The gulf between the two is wide, and if Luke was willing to show compassion to his father – who did so many awful things – he would be even more likely to show it in the case of his nephew, who wasn’t yet complicit in any crimes, right? Not so, it would seem!

While Luke’s characterization in this way was jarring enough, it was something else to see Leia Organa flying through the vacuum of space, unaided by anything but the Force.

For me, as a viewer, this moment demanded the greatest amount of suspended disbelief; not because I thought Leia incapable of such an act, but because I wasn’t shown that she had received any sort of Jedi training. Consequently, in my assessment, this entire sequence of events lacked the internal consistency required for effective worldbuilding. Again, I was taken out of the fantasy.

I don’t doubt that the extended universe of the Star Wars franchise – which I define as both Legends and Canon content streams, or the accumulated texts, games and television that supplement the Skywalker movies – has a lot to say about Leia’s education in the ways of the Force.

But as a self-proclaimed fundamentalist when it comes to Star Wars (see my essay on TFA), I believe the narrative must be comprehendible using only the contents of the nine-part saga exclusively. Leia’s sudden Force mastery challenges this conviction, since the only power she’s demonstrated to this point in the Star Wars films is a profound intuitive connection with the people she loves.

It is, perhaps, this moment – Leia’s use of the Force – that persuaded me to resist the urge to judge TLJ too quickly. When I watched the film again, it became clear to me that director Rian Johnson had intended to defy expectations with TLJ. There are, at least, two important reasons to take such an approach.

The first has been a subject of discussion for some time already; basically that TLJ brings the Star Wars franchise forward, making it fresh for a new generation of fans. Defying expectations, in this case, is a calculated business risk aimed at ensuring the Star Wars franchise’s profitability (and ubiquity) for the next 10-20 years. 

(For some viewers in the 40+ age range who were fans of the OT, Rogue One (R1) has become the standard for a modern Star Wars film. In fact, a case can be made that TLJ suffered some ill will from segments of the fan community because it wasn’t like R1, which was based in the familiar setting of the OT. In short, R1 met the expectations certain fans had for a Star Wars film by adhering to the established internal consistency of OT worldbuilding.)     

The other, less obvious reason to defy expectations at this point in the nine-part saga is to put audiences off certain pre-conceived notions about the final film. The untimely death of Snoke is a good example of one such notion, in that many viewers saw him as a Palpatine-type antagonist whose backstory would be instrumental to the ST’s ultimate resolution.

Now that Snoke is gone, and Kylo Ren has taken on the mantle of supreme leader, the direction of the ninth film is less certain.

A similar effect is achieved by Kylo ‘revealing’ Rey’s true parentage, that the girl was born to junk traders and sold into slavery for drinking money. This is intended to put to rest speculation about her genealogy, which has been a central mystery of the ST. Here, defying expectations feeds into Rey’s fears about herself, and puts the audience off the possibility that she is familially related to the saga’s central characters.

While this ‘revelation’ is very likely to prove a deception, Kylo clarifies and obscures Rey’s identity at the same time by telling her a believable story about her origins, which sets the stage for a final reckoning between the two characters in the saga’s last chapter.

And just what will be the nature of this final reckoning?

The fact that Leia still lives suggest she has a part yet to play in the drama, an outcome foreshadowed by Kylo’s decision not to kill her in TLJ. Some meaningful exchange between mother and son seems fated for the last film, as does validation of Rey’s parentage by an authority other than Kylo. Will these situations be connected?

Quite possibly, but as conjectures they must remain the subject of speculation. At least for now…

(Carrie Fisher’s deceased status is not a deterrent to her appearance in the saga’s final film, as R1 demonstrated. Audiences might find out about Leia’s demise in the opening crawl of Chapter IX, but it’s also possible that a combination of archival footage and CGI will be used to recreate her likeness, despite claims that have been made to the contrary.)   

TLJ may not be my favorite chapter of the Star Wars saga, but I remain enchanted by these films still; or at least willing to suspend disbelief long enough to see them through to completion.

If the franchise gets away from me after that, I don’t mind. Old testaments are invariably followed by new ones; titans are supplanted by gods; cable replaces dial-up – change is the way of things, and it is the way of the Force.

Like Yoda tells Luke as they watch the Jedi Temple burn in TLJ, “We are what they grow beyond”. That’s good advice, no matter what galaxy you’re from.