On Star Wars, Sacrifice, and Darkness

So I saw The Last Jedi, and I liked it. I have to agree with Scalzi that it’s a good thing we got Rogue One before this: not because there’s a direct narrative connection between them, but because that film established precedent both for Star Wars movies that don’t quite have the Joseph Campbell feel, and for Star Wars movies that are dark without being grimdark.

The purpose of this post is to unpack that last bit. Which I’ll mostly do behind a cut-tag, to avoid spoiling those who haven’t seen the film yet (and also because dear lord, self, wordy much?), but out here I’ll say that what I mean by “dark without being grimdark” is that there’s never a sense of cynicism about the whole thing. Trust is not folly; honor is not a lie; it is possible to win and not always regret it afterwards. What The Last Jedi does is acknowledge that war has a cost, and you can’t have a Rebellion or a Resistance without risking, and often suffering, real loss.

Ah, you say, but didn’t The Empire Strikes Back establish precedent for dark Star Wars movies, long before Rogue One came along?

Yes and no. Let’s go behind the cut-tag.

Empire is unquestionably a darker movie than its predecessor, with betrayals and imprisonment and horrible revelations and so forth. But the original trilogy was, as we all know, very Campbellian in its feel, and that includes the parts where it goes to a darker place. It’s mythic, and deliberately so.

The Last Jedi is not mythic. And deliberately so.

The first Star Wars movie had characters dying all over the place. Obi-Wan dies fighting Vader; a whole bunch of Rebellion pilots die in the assault on the Death Star; storm troopers drop right, left, and center. But Obi-Wan’s death is literally bloodless — he doesn’t even leave a corpse — and it’s archetypal, the master struck down by his traitorous student, clearing the way for the young hero to come out from under that sheltering wing. (I’m not knocking this approach. I love archetypes as much as the next folklorically-trained author.) The Rebellion pilots are mostly non-entities, appearing on screen for a few seconds to yell about the TIE fighters on their tail before they vanish in a shower of sparks. Their purpose in the story is to heighten the odds by their deaths, winnowing the field until everything rests on Luke, until he’s the only one who can possibly save the day.

It’s very different in The Last Jedi. When Kylo and Rey team up in Snoke’s throne room, they leave behind bodies, and some of those bodies are in pieces. When Finn takes down Phasma, we see her eye through the gap in her broken helmet, reminding us that just as with Finn himself, there’s an actual person underneath the armor. Luke’s death is mythic — but before he goes, we see the exhaustion, the genuinely lethal strain he subjected himself to in order to save the others. And the Resistance pilots . . . that, more than anything else, is where I feel the difference.

And I felt it right from the start, with Rose’s sister Paige — not that we know her name at the time. Instead of keeping our focus on the hotshot Poe, the strike against the dreadnought shows us the painful process of the bombers being destroyed — first one at a time, and then, because they’re in a stupidly tight formation, falling like dominoes. We see Paige watching everyone around her going down in literal flames, realizing she’s the only one left . . . the only one, because the other guy on her bomber is dead and it’s all down to her. But this isn’t like the first film and it all being down to Luke. We have absolutely no certainty that she will succeed, because she isn’t the main character. And we stay with her as she tries, fails, tries again, and then succeeds at the last, pyrrhic second, giving her life so that the assault won’t be a complete and total debacle.

That alone would have gotten me right in the gut (and did). But then we follow up, with Paige’s sister Rose, whereupon Paige gets a name and a history and people who mourn her. The cause and effect matter here: Paige isn’t developed in the story because she was a special heroic snowflake. She’s heroic, and the script takes the time to develop her so you can see that. All of those people in those bombers and X-Wings had names and histories and people who mourn them; this is just the one we’re using as an example.

This movie is really determined to undercut the idea that you can and should solve everything with a hotshot assault on the Death Star where’s it’s all okay as long as that one person succeeds. Poe’s plan at the beginning of the film is a waste, once the evacuation is complete; the benefits of taking out a dreadnought are not remotely counterbalanced by what the Resistance lost along the way. No less a person than Leia herself stuns his reckless ass when Poe continues to fail to see that. (Should Holdo have told Poe the rest of the plan? Maybe. But given his track record, I can see why she didn’t.) And just in case you felt disappointed when Poe called off the run on the ram cannon, the script says, nope: Finn, you are not allowed to make a screaming suicide charge down its throat. Rose is going to save you. Because we’re not going to win by fighting what we hate; we’re going to win by saving what we love.

Dark, but not grimdark. Anti-grimdark, in fact.

I’m pretty sure all the events of the movie take place over the course of just a few days, and only a few days at most after Starkiller Base has been destroyed. In an eyeblink, the Resistance drops from hundreds of people down to a handful. There were multiple points in this movie where Writer Brain kicked in and went, shit, man — how are they going to survive this? It was a real question in a way it’s never been for me before in a Star Wars movie, because the main films never made me wonder, and Rogue One made it clear that the answer was, “they aren’t going to.” But here we still have Episode IX to go. My subconscious kept tallying the resources on the board and going, uh, it has to be one of these, but it is not super-obvious how that is going to work. And yet they do pull through: Finn doesn’t go out in a blaze of suicidal glory, Rose doesn’t die saving him, Leia survives BEING BLOWN INTO MOTHERFUCKING VACUUM AND FORCE-FLIES HER WAY OUT OF IT I DON’T CARE THAT IT’S RIDICULOUS I LOVE IT WITHOUT RESERVATION. And yet those survivals don’t feel facile to me, because all the other deaths have shown the cost, and the script has made me care about those other deaths; they’re not just a cheap way of Upping the Stakes.

This is only one of the things I want to say about The Last Jedi, but it’s enough for now (especially since this post is already 1200 words and counting). Expect more probably tomorrow, when I start talking about the Force and my hope that my headcanon is going to become canon.

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