All films in the ongoing Star Wars saga begin with the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”, followed by a triangular block of prefatory text that slowly drifts away from the viewer’s gaze, as though the story itself, even as we struggle to keep up with it, is disappearing into the distance before our very eyes. This is the archaeological essence of a franchise that is always looking back to a past that is ever present – and ever receding. By the time what was originally called Star Wars (1977) had become known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (accounts differ as to when precisely this happened), it was already being suggested that the first film’s optimistic themes (of good triumphing over evil) were part of a cycle, with young Luke Skywalker just the latest in a long line of new hopes that had emerged through time, even as he yearned to live up to the reported heroics of his long-lost father Anakin, whose values and allegiances were to prove rather more slippery than his legendary reputation would suggest. Luke’s conflicts, both external and internal, were also eternal, playing out not just over the course of the first trilogy, but finding their echoing dark reverse in the prequel trilogy (with its focus on Anakin’s own coming of age), and now taking on their latest incarnation in this newest trilogy.
Where Lucas’ first films looked back to the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress from 1958, or of Flash Gordons’ serial adventures in the 1930s, or of even more ancient mythic archetypes, this newer trilogy need merely look back to the first one, excavating all its old tropes for our new millennium. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) was a next-generation sequel, but also barely disguised its parallel status as a reimagining of the 1977 film, revisiting all the original’s key sequences while fleshing them out with all the new hope of a fresh young cast with altered genders and ethnicities – a changing of the guard for changing times. The Last Jedi plays a similar game, renewing many sequences from the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). If Rey (Daisy Ridley) is the new Luke, now she has the much older Luke (Mark Hamill) as trainer and mentor to direct her efforts, much as Luke himself previously (and still) had Yoda as his guru. If the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is essentially the Emperor, and his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a new Darth Vader in the making, then Vader is expressly cited as Ren’s model, and also related to him by blood (as Ren’s maternal grandfather). There are, in The Last Jedi, versions of Hoth, Dagobah and Cloud City by other names – as well as much Destroyer on Resistance (= the new Rebel Alliance) action. The personnel and planetary terrains may have changed along with some of the tech, but we are nonetheless on familiar ground here, well charted by the markers of legacy.
Yet there is a striving in The Last Jedi for a different dynamic, a new direction – and it is led by the recalcitrant, tantrum-prone Ren. “Let the past go,” he tells Rey. “Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.” After all, Ren’s patricidal actions in The Force Awakens had already established him as an iconoclastic destroyer of his own history – or perhaps as just another rebellious kid caught in a recurrent Oedipal cycle (remember that Vader had also killed his surrogate father Kenobi near the end of Star Wars). With his words to Rey, Ren is describing a tendency in this film. For while the Force, as described by Luke to Rey, involves a balancing of Darkness and Light, The Last Jedi is equally concerned with the strange, self-correcting symmetry between old and new. Ren seeks to escape his roots (his mother, his father, his old mentor Luke, even Snoke) no less keenly than the Resistance seeks to escape the relentless pursuit of the First Order – yet, as always in this saga, “It’s a trap”, and a momentary escape is all part of the inexorable pull of time’s tractor beam, back into the future. General Leia (Carrie Fisher) may be older now, and may be the ranking general of the last Resistance fighters left, but she is essentially fighting the same battles against the same impossible odds that she was already waging when we first met her 40 years earlier. Conversely, the vision that Ren has for a glorious new future sounds uncannily like a repetition of the status quo – or just another episode in a continuing saga. Luke imagines, hopes even, that he will be the last Jedi, but it hardly takes his Force powers of cosmic intuition and holistic humbug to know there will always be another Jedi to follow. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Even cinema requires a mix of darkness and light.
While Ren is busy taking a light sabre to his very own foundations, there is a lot of talk among the Resistance not just of surviving to be the spark that lights hope’s beacon across the universe, but also of going home – that most nostalgic of urges. Nostalgia has always been precisely what this franchise offers to viewers – and so, while writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) may strain to deviate from the received Star Wars formula, he always circles back to it – so that we can all be transported home to our own receding childhoods. No matter how many exotic creatures and internecine struggles, no matter how many tortuous twists, eleventh-hour interventions and magical miracles, that galaxy far, far away may accommodate, it is a remarkably closed system, reechoing the same themes across the ages, and preferring regression and eternal return to anything like progress. In a sense, Ren’s (and Luke’s) burn-it-all-down spirit of reformism does leave the next sequel wide open (it is hard to see how it can be a return of the Return of the Jedi‘s plotting). It also leaves things exactly where all the Star Wars films (apart from the more future-oriented prequels) leave things: with ragtag rebels on the run from oppressive patriarchal powers (of bankers, gangsters, superrich élites, imperialist fascists, or daddy). It is a fugitive position to which practically all young – or young-at-heart – viewers can relate, watching on-screen avatars seeking to carve out individual identity within the limits of their inheritance, and struggling to shake off the masks that conceal their differences of race and gender.
Johnson is a tremendous director, keeping what is essentially an extended chase movie barrelling along for its epic duration. In finding ways to bridge the spaces between his different characters – from Poe (Oscar Isaac) radioing General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) as though from a call centre, to Ren and Rey conversing, even making physical contact, across the galaxy through the powers of the Force – Johnson suggests the way that these events, unfolding so long ago and so very far away, might still reach out to us and our own not entirely dissimilar daily conflicts. It is hard to say whether this latest Star Wars film is also the best, so dependent is it on the weight of all that has preceded, and of a future that already feels programmed and prescribed by the Disney Empire – but it is certainly not, despite its title, the Last (any more than Snoke’s totalitarian Order is the First). For its ongoing narrative leads eventually all the way back (and forward) to our own place and time, touching on who we are, if through a dark, distorted mirror. And if in Johnson’s hands this saga is now self-aware enough to know its own mythic status – where figures not only like the older Luke and Leia, but also the much younger Rey and Finn (John Boyega), are already the stuff of galactic story – these characters (re)discover that in order to spread new hope, you may as well keep printing the old legend.
© Anton Bitel