I agree that the Canto Bight sequence is the worst thread of the film; not only does the side-plot lead to nothing in narrative terms, the fact that Johnson chose to have Finn and Rose jolly off to ride sparkly space horses (which, as you rightly said, smacks of the prequel trilogy, despite Disney working hard to ignore or even disavow wholesale with their various promotional videos centred on ‘real effects' and paratextual connections with the Original Trilogy) is quite an ideologically problematic notion -- removing the characters from the film would not change an iota of story content and in ‘the diversity age’ that surely rankles. In Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest’s Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (2016), Megean De Bruin-Molé states: “Star Wars offers a strong example of why increased visibility and accessibility in film do not, by themselves, translate to political change.” I agree that it’s important to fully examine the way in which representation operates beyond inclusion and ‘box ticking.’
I have seen a few news features and fan-blogs waxing egalitarian about TLJ, usually couched in claims about the film being “the most triumphantly feminist Star Wars yet.” Firstly, I don’t believe that feminism is something that can be read off of the ‘text,’ and certainly not by box-checking whether a female character speaks to another woman about something other than a man -- Fifty Shades of Gray passes the ‘test,’ as does the 1970s porn classic, Debbie Does Dallas; whereas a film such as Gravity does not, for instance (Sandra Bullock spends the majority of the film alone in space). So, applying the blunt instrument of the Bechdel Test tells us nothing about the way in which diversity and gender are actually represented. It’s a great conversation starter, to be sure, especially when used in teaching, but shouldn’t be used so liberally -- and reductively – by scholars so as to ‘test’ if popular culture artefacts fulfil arbitrary criterion. Moreover, the racial politics of TLJ have almost gone unremarked upon, except one article on Hypable titled: “How The Last Jedi Failed its Characters of Colour.” Although Warner applies her concept of ‘plastic representation’ to The Force Awakens, I think the same could apply to TLJ (perhaps even more so):
“[a]fter the release and inevitable success of Disney and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), viral Internet memes attributed a lion’s share of the film’s popularity to the fact that a black man and a white woman were cast as leads. While technically true, the claim obscures the larger fact that the actual star of this film—and a significant reason why the producers did not have to pay these largely “unknown” stars significant salaries—was Star Wars itself, and its status as Disney’s intellectual property. An expectation of massive return on investment, given the profitable track record of the Star Wars brand, is presumably the reason Disney bought it from George Lucas in the first place. Perhaps it is precisely because the risks were mitigated to such a manageable level that the producers could imagine diverse leads.”
Furthermore, I also think we need to keep in mind that equality and diversity in a representational sense has become an economic strategy, which Warner also points toward; that is, if diverse representation was not a commercially viable option, then we’d be right back in white-heterosexual-male waters. For example, when the Creative Artists Agency (CCA) conducted research into matters of representation and learned that “films with more diverse casts outperformed others at the box office,” then we certainly need to be vigilant and wary about broader claims regarding socio-cultural progress without addressing economic factors. In other words, if box-ticking race and gender equates to box-office receipts, then that is only the beginning of a more complicated and complex dialectic between commerce and consumption. On the other hand, if Disney continues releasing new Star Wars films on an annual basis, perhaps it would be best if the galaxy was not teeming with white men at the expense of diverse racial and gender representation. It’s a tricky balance to maintain and one that we shouldn’t embrace unquestionably. As Warner says,
“Plastic representation operates as a system that reifies blackness into an empirical system of “box checking.” It is a mode of representation that offers the feel of progress but that actually cedes more ground than it gains for audiences of color.”
Shamelessly translating an old Spanish saying, it looks like Will didn’t leave any puppet with its head intact! That is, you touched upon all the problematic aspects of The Last Jedi. I have to agree with the points aptly raised by both Suzanne, Billy and Will, especially on those dealing with representation and an overall sense of subversion interruptus, of yes but not really, that is plastered all over the film in spite of exaggerated claims by some media outlets of it being the ultimate post-modern tale for so-called millennials. The Last Jedi attempts to make the Star Wars universe turn on its head but things truly don’t pay off cinematically or they don’t reach the same level of the precedent they are trying to surpass. This particular past is 40-years old heavy so to candidly be making textual and paratextual claims that you are going to burn down the house seems odd. Amusingly, this reminds me of that time when you are in the early stages of your PhD and gloat about working on a new concept just to find out that there are already a gazillion works dealing with the same topic, and so you are forced to cool down your academic bravado and keep looking. Unfortunately, it looks like media industries do not follow the same predicament, therefore audiences get all hyped up about newness and edginess when, in reality, it is the same ol’, good ol’ once you scratch the surface a little bit. Marketing logic applied to storytelling if you ask me, nothing that a nice algorithm can’t manage.
So, the first thing that came to my mind while reflecting on Warner’s concept of plastic representation is a similar idea of ‘revamped tokenism.’ In an era when discourses of representation are becoming part of the debate, and the entertainment media climate is increasingly supportive of inclusive narratives and characters, representation should go beyond exhibitions of tokenism such as the Canto Bight sequence. Regarding this one, I share Billy’s impression of cutting that part off and the film remaining just the same, which is precisely how tokenism work. And yet, the token is celebrated as something revolutionary when it isn’t really. Of course, having non-white characters like Finn and Rose playing a somewhat relevant part in a film franchise like Star Wars is a reason to celebrate but, at the same time, this is not an excuse for conformism as we are not living in the 1980 or 1990s when infamous ‘very special episodes’ used to be one of the very few windows to diversity. The representation of diversity has to be compelling in order to make a cultural impact in the targeted audience besides the mere fact that they are present in the media text. Perhaps, considering this astonishing celebration of tokenism, rather than the media, it would be interesting to ask the represented audience about their perceptions on how they are represented, how they envision those characters, or how aware they are about the issues surrounding the fictional treatment of their race, gender, sexual orientation and last but not least social class. Age demographics, I believe, might be determinant here as well as the specifics of the topic of discussion. Just throwing some thoughts out there.
MEGEN DE BRUIN-MOLÈ
So I'm a '90s kid: I only came across Star Wars the second time around, during the Special Edition re-releases in 1997.
I’m going to dive right in and admit that I loved The Last Jedi. Don’t get me wrong, it had issues. But it spoke to me on many, many levels. It made me remember why I love Star Wars—a love the EU fostered, the prequels turned me off to, and TFA only tentatively rekindled my hope for (as Mar suggests, for me TFA felt like an update of the original trilogy, but one that was committed to some problematic, ‘familiar tropes and motives’ at its core).
I’ve really been struggling to verbalise what I liked so much about TLJ, despite my reservations, so I’m very grateful to (and a mite jealous of) the four of you for so succinctly describing your own disappointments. My experience of the acting, characterisation, and character agency was quite dramatically different, but instead of focusing on each of these individual points, which I don’t feel we need to agree on anyway, I wanted to touch on one key disagreement I had with your readings that might be useful in our discussion of the fan generational gap, the political potential of the franchise, and the inherent paradox in many of Star Wars’ central messages.
I agree wholeheartedly that gender and racial diversity are often still used superficially in the Star Wars franchise, as marketing tools or add-ons to a fundamentally white, Anglo-American narrative. I was not particularly impressed by TLJ’s display of on-screen diversity, though after TFW and Rogue One I didn’t have too many expectations to dash on that front (but damn did it make me happy to see Leia finally use the Force). It’s all a bit too little, too late for me—if any blockbuster could really shake the system, surely it’s Star Wars? The franchise has such a strong viewer base that they could basically have gotten away with anything, including (gasp) unreservedly progressive politics. Which I guess ironically proves the point Star Wars films are repeatedly trying to make: that power corrupts.
Here’s the bit where I get lost:
“The point of The Last Jedi is meant, if we read the defences for it, to be about throwing away our expectations and letting go of what we thought we knew.”
I’ve found it very puzzling that so many commentators (pro-TLJ and anti-TLJ) have taken the position, as Will describes, that The Last Jedi was meant to be about letting the past go (“kill it if you have to”), and throwing away our expectations. That’s not how I read it at all! After all, Luke and Kylo are clearly in the wrong here. Their rejection of the past is framed as selfish and destructive. Kylo wants to kill the past so that he can mould the future in his image. And Luke wants to let the past (and the Jedi) die so he doesn’t have to face up to the mistakes he made.
People who advocate forgetting the past are not generally the ones with a history of oppression. And TLJ seems to be resolutely against that message. If anything, we’re meant to side with Rose on this one: don’t kill what you hate, save what you love.
When Rey has her vision in the Force cave, she asks to see her parents, but the glass shows her own face instead. This could be a metaphor for how she’s on her own in all this, but from another perspective, it’s actually just giving her what she asked for. She is the product of her parents, and the actions of her forebears. Notably, every time Kylo or Luke suggests she forget the past, Rey (our protagonist and our emotional barometer through the film) chooses the other path. At the same time, the film doesn’t seem to advocate blind nostalgia. Rey’s past defines her, but does not immobilise her. Her unrealistic hope that her family will come back for her is ultimately the same hope that turns her into a hero of the Resistance, against all better judgement.
And despite throwing it away at the beginning of the film (cited by multiple critics as a sign of the film’s departure from tradition), Luke takes up Anakin’s lightsaber in TLJ’s epic showdown. This same lightsaber is broken when Rey and Kylo part ways, but Rey keeps the broken pieces, which become a symbol for the broken pieces of the Resistance that will rise again. I could give a hundred more examples of this message at work. This movie is ALL about the past: the value of its words, failures, symbols, and material traces in building something new.
I guess the real question is, is Star Wars even salvageable in the grand scheme of diverse and revolutionary storytelling, or are the things I love about the franchise—its global impact, its sense of “bold, maverick individualism against ridiculous odds”, and the way it inspires me to imagine other, better futures—the very things that are holding it back? I don’t really have an answer for this question, but TLJ actually renewed my interest in finding one.
I think Suzanne is absolutely right that TLJ essentially “zombifies” the Star Wars franchise. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. We can’t realistically destroy the past, whether that’s our own past or that of the Star Wars universe. We also can’t accept it without reservation. The zombie is a particularly effective metaphor in this kind of situation, which is perhaps why it’s evoked so often to talk about the global capitalism we can neither destroy nor escape (again, a topic very relevant to the Star Wars franchise). We have to live with the ruins of the past, and work through them, in order to build something new.
I don’t see the film as deconstructing Star Wars tropes at all: instead it builds on top of them, adding interpretive possibilities while also acknowledging (and adjusting) existing beliefs. For all the film could have done, I think this is a more subversive approach than we might give it credit for, especially if the Star Wars ‘canon’ is going to continue into another five (or ten or twenty…) films. It’s also a tactic I’m more commonly used to seeing in biblical commentary, historical fiction, or other genres (fan fiction?) that work with ‘sacred’ texts and devout audiences.
Rather than tearing Star Wars down, TLJ layers on new interpretive possibilities that compete with our previously certain readings. Is Luke a legend, or isn’t he? Can anyone access the Force, or does power belong to the elite? Is Star Wars an evil money-making empire, or does it have the power to change the world for the better? Yes and yes.
Owing to enthusiasm, writing articles, and Star Wars cinema-going traditions, I saw the film three times in the first ten days of its release. I consistently enjoyed certain aesthetics and narratives, such as the Elite Praetorian Guard sequence and Rey’s story, which was far more engaging than in The Force Awakens, and yet found others dull and unsatisfying.
What struck me early on was how the film played to a particular kind of fandom. There were so many in-jokes and meta-commentaries that it felt like watching series three of the BBC show Sherlock, which explicitly referenced fan theories and online interactions with the texts. For example, in The Last Jedi, we first see Finn as he emerges from a bacta tank, dazed, half-asleep and half-naked, spurting liquid all over Poe. While the film shut down any suggestion of a relationship between the pair, this felt like a teasing, vaguely homoerotic wink to fans that ship the couple. And then, moments later, Finn interrupts Poe to ask the whereabouts of his friend: Where’s Rey? A millennial in our own galaxy might have hashtagged the phrase, which, as Suzanne has written about elsewhere (http://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/doi/full/10.1080/15295036.2017.1286023), was used as part of a Twitter campaign in 2015 to get Disney to produce Rey merchandise when the character was left out of toy sets and clothing lines.
Similarly, plots involving Luke and galactic arms dealers also felt like self-reflexive commentaries on the Star Wars franchise. Luke, for instance, insists that people invested too much hope in him and the Jedi to save and preserve the galaxy, and, in his speech, we can almost hear Rian Johnson reminding fans that leaders cannot please everyone all the time. More pointedly, the shadowy presence of arms dealers that fund both sides of the ongoing conflict seems to refer to the corporate entity that owns and monetises Star Wars… As a broader social commentary, and indeed within the film’s own narrative, having arms dealers supply both the First Order and Resistance doesn’t make much sense. Rose alludes to the First Order’s power when she reveals that the organisation has invaded her planet, enslaved its inhabitants, and extracted its raw materials. The Resistance, meanwhile, has only a handful of ships, no permanent base and little support. If we are to take the First Order seriously and recognise them as a real threat to the galaxy, are we really supposed to accept that it would allow arms manufacturers to sell to their enemies? I appreciate that Kylo and Hux are hardly the sharpest tools in the war room, but surely even they would realise they have the upper hand and use their vast armoury to enforce a monopoly over the production of weaponry. So, instead, I think we can read the arms dealers as analogous to Lucasfilm and Disney: organisations that fund both sides of the fight and rely on the perpetuation of the conflict for their own economic gain. Of course, Star Wars has always been self-aware, as evidenced through the callbacks and intertextual references that pervade the previous eight canon films. However, interestingly, The Last Jedi seems to pay more attention to the impact that the franchise has on us, its fans and viewers, in our own galaxy.
Picking up on debates about diversity and representation, I agree with everyone else here that film is not as progressive as many critics suggested. As Billy points out, it’s not feminist by any stretch of the imagination! I’d love for the film to foreground narratives about people of colour (particularly women) but the story arcs of Finn and Rose failed because they didn’t go far enough for me. I’d like to have seen them make a real difference to the plot, rather than embarking on a pointless quest that resulted in failure. I appreciate that failure was an underlying theme throughout the film, but having a black man and an Asian woman subvert that trend would have been refreshing. Instead, it’s Luke, the tried and tested white man, that saves the day by giving the Resistance time to escape. Even the white women are badly served. Leia is hospitalised throughout most of the film; Holdo gets limited screen time. And Rey, whose narrative is better served timewise, does not really develop as a character. She ostensibly finds Luke to have him train her as a Jedi. However, aside from a few cynical lines about his own failure to match her enthusiasm, he does very little to help her test her knowledge or skills. We see her training alone. She searches for answers to her questions alone. She finds that she already had everything she needed, alone. In fact, she must do all the work for both of them: while discovering her own strength, she also encourages him to reconnect with the Force and persuades him to fight for the Resistance. Without Rey, Luke would have remained a hermit on an isolated planet. No doubt this narrative will be familiar to many women. However, it hardly speaks of progression!
I also want to pick up on Will’s comment about the potential generational divide between fans. There are elements of The Last Jedi that appear to be aimed at a younger audience (including the use of Force projection, which makes scenes between Rey and Kylo analogous to Skyping or Snapchatting). However, youth has often been represented as detrimental to success throughout the Star Wars franchise. In the prequels, the elder Jedi warn against Anakin’s use of the Force, and his inexperience casts doubt on his suitability for joining the order. In the original trilogy, Luke undergoes training and takes advice from Yoda and Obi-Wan to guarantee his success. And in the sequels, Finn, Rey and Poe must learn from Leia, Holdo (‘I’ve dealt with plenty of trigger-happy fly-boys like you’), Luke and Han to ensure that they are equipped to continue the fight. As in the prequels and the original trilogy, the real menace that threatens the galaxy, more so than corruption or arms dealers, is untamed, youthful rage and a refusal to take advice from apparently wiser figures. Snoke tells Kylo: ‘You’re no Vader, you’re just a child in a mask.’ But thinking back to Anakin, that’s all Vader ever was, too; toxic masculinity wrapped in a cloak that barely contained the anger and entitlement of an adult who was always a teenage boy.
What’s fascinating about The Last Jedi, though, is that with the deaths of Snoke and Luke, the franchise has, I think for for the first time, pitted youth against youth in the fight to save the galaxy. It seems unlikely that Leia will appear in Episode IX. There will be no Chancellor, no Emperor, no Senator or General. So while Megen makes an excellent point about the film’s recognition of the past, I also think that Will is right, and I’d suggest the Disney-era films are on a trajectory that progressively centralises the younger generation. While Rogue One relied heavily on nostalgia for the original films, it featured a relatively young cast of inexperienced characters that defied their elders and successfully completed their self-appointed mission. The clunky, analogue tech and focus on a youthful Han in Solo looks set to do the same. And in The Last Jedi, Yoda tells Luke that the next generation will ‘grow beyond’ the previous one, acknowledging that perhaps it’s time to let go of the ‘sacred texts’ and step back because Rey has surpassed him. Thus, I think we can expect Episode IX—especially following the final cutaway in XIII to Broom Boy—to follow the same pattern. In terms of its characters and its audience, the franchise is ditching nostalgia and looking to the future.
The decreasing role of the droids in the film is also indicative of a generational shift. Typically, the droids are central to narrative development and feature as storytellers in all the canon films. Artoo mediates Leia’s message to Obi-Wan; Threepio recounts their adventures to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi; Kaytoo rescues Jyn and helps her find the Death Star plans in Rogue One; BB-8 stores and saves information about Luke’s whereabouts in The Force Awakens. However, while droids are still present in The Last Jedi, they are less significant to the narrative. Artoo is reduced to replaying Leia’s ‘You’re our only hope’ message for Luke, like an old VHS player kept for sentimental value to play home videos. Threepio merely panics in the background of the Resistance. And the much-hyped ‘evil’ droid BB-9E barely gets any screen time. BB-8, of course, does see more action. He helps steal a ship for Rose and Finn’s escape from Canto Bight, and later saves them again by commandeering a First Order walker. But he could have done so much more! In the prequels and original trilogy Artoo has competently hacked Imperial systems to aid the Rebellion, and BB-8 demonstrates the same ability with the ship and walker, so it’s a major oversight on the part of the Resistance to use a human, rather than a droid, when trying to access the hyperspace tracker. To those of us that know what Artoo is capable of, and recognise that BB-8 has the same ability, it’s yet another instance of failure in the film based on younger characters Poe, Rose and Finn (and the more peripheral Maz) not knowing how vital droids were to the Rebellion’s success. Again, returning to Megen’s argument, I feel that while the characters venerate the past and fetishize artefacts--Vader’s mask, Han’s dice, Leia’s message--they do not fully understand their own history.
Furthermore, the older droids are denied any emotional story arc. Similar to BB-8 being overjoyed at reuniting with Poe on Crait, in The Force Awakens Artoo emerged from a deep depression when he learned of Luke’s whereabouts. We got that sense that the droid processed feelings and underwent emotional transformation. Yet in The Last Jedi, he and Threepio are side-lined in the final moments of the film when Leia and Rey discuss Luke’s death (just like Chewie was in The Force Awakens following Han’s death – a decision that J J Abrams later claimed to regret https://io9.gizmodo.com/48-things-we-learned-from-j-j-abrams-director-commentar-1788597881). I couldn’t help but feel this was an oversight on Rian Johnson’s part. I’d suggest it demonstrates the increasingly liminal status of non-human characters from the original trilogy, and, in particular, the irrelevance of Artoo and Threepio to a generation that has newer tech and less of a connection to the past.
Professor Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, and author of Using the Force (20020 and the BFI volume on Star Wars (2009) among many other books.
Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé is a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media Practice with the University of Southampton. She holds a PhD in English Literature, and her research interests include popular culture, adaptation, and contemporary remix. Her article ‘Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism’, appeared in the 2017 collection Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (eds. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest). You can follow her (and her research) on Twitter: @MegenJM.
Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.
Dr Rebecca Harrison is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on media technologies and how gender, race and class affect people's experiences of visual culture. Her first book, From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (I B Tauris, 2018) is forthcoming, and she is currently working on her second book, The Star Wars Code, which is due for publication in 2021. In the meantime, you can find information and links to her various Star Wars-related projects, including research, teaching materials, articles - and an accidental controversy about Dr Organa - on Twitter: @beccaeharrison.
Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018).