Although I typically write about Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern stuff on this blog, I want to take a moment to reflect on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. To be completely honest, I loved the film. While I have many reasons rolling through my mind, I don’t have the time to write and explain each one. Instead, this blog post will focus on one broad pattern which I enjoyed about Star Wars: The Last Jedi (henceforth TLJ).
Before talking about the film itself, though, I need to layout my methodology for understanding the film. In simpler terms, I want to discuss how I approached the film. In approaching the movie, I sought a balance between two extremes. On the one hand, rather than approach it with any expectations in terms of thematic elements, characters, etc., I attempted to approach Star Wars as neutral as possible. In other words, I was fully prepared for things not to be done the way I expected. Having seen the movie twice, this was easier to do the 2nd time around. On the other hand, I knew that the film would draw from themes, lines, cinematography, and other elements from the previous films, particularly Episodes IV, V, and VI.
The best way to summarize my approach, then, is that I interpreted/watched/understood TLJ in terms of what is called ‘intertexuality.’ Simply put, me approaching TLJ intertextually meant that I understood TLJ as being shaped and defined by the previous Star Wars films. In Biblical Studies, this is often called “Innerbiblical exegesis.” So, here, I will call it “Inner-StarWars Exegesis.” With this method, for example, I paid close attention to things such as Luke’s time on the island with Rey. For, it obviously draws from the imagery and themes of Yoda’s time on Dagobah with Luke. Importantly, though TLJ did not simply copy themes and idea from other movies; rather, it re-interpreted the themes. So, although Luke’s time as the island was framed in context of Yoda’s time on Dagobah, the characters and stories played out in very different ways, albeit similar at moments.
By watching TLJ through inner-Star-Wars exegesis, I noticed how many things depended on the framing of IV, V, and VI. Even so, they did something very different with the same frame, motifs, and themes. One placed of inner-Star-Wars exegesis was the plot line of Finn and Rose. In the following, I list a few common criticisms of their plot line:
- They didn’t actually contribute to the story
- I will respond to this in what follows.
- Their chemistry was strange.
- Their plot line was simply boring.
- This point is quite subjective.
- “The “evil people who hurt animals and make money off war” plot line is as cliche as it gets.”
- I see why this may be understood as “cliche.” The reality, though, is that it is not cliche within the Star Wars films. It is only this film in which this sort of thing really begins to be fleshed out. It sort of presents a “third-side” to everything. So often in Star Wars films, we are presented the bad guys and and the good guys, the dark side and the light side, the X-Wing and the TIE Fighter, etc. What this film is trying to do as a whole is shift that traditional, Star Wars understanding. This will be more fleshed out in the example below.
Now, I agree with most that their chemistry was strange. The love ‘thing,’ or what ever it was, between Finn and Rose was not entirely necessary. In light of inner-Star-Wars exegesis, though, I argue that the role of their plot line within the broader narrative was not to simply save the day; rather, the role of their plot line was to make a poignant comment on the idea of what it means to be a hero. In order to demonstrate this, I will focus on one particular narrative sequence, namely when the slicer gets Finn and Rose onto the First Order ship.
For anybody who knows the Star Wars films, they know that Luke and his party ‘sneak’ onto the Death Star with codes. Similarly, Finn, Rose, and the slicer ‘sneak’ onto the First Order ship. And whereas Luke and his party are successful to a certain extent, in regard to taking down the shields, Finn and Rose are successful by no means.
It is this lack of success which I want to focus on. Throughout TLJ, clear reference is made to previous Star Wars films in terms of how the material is framed. So, Yoda + Dagobah // Luke + Island; Hoth + Walkers // Crait + Walkers; Rey + Snoke // Luke + Sidious; etc. Among the many things framed to be parallel, though, TLJ worked with it in such a way that they were often (1) successful in a different manner or (2) not successful at all. And this 2nd point, not being successful at all, seems to be a consistent texture throughout the film. It is a texture best exemplified by Rose and Finn, who go on a dangerous journey and never really “win” or help the Resistance. In re-interpreting previous frames and themes in Star Wars, though, TLJ provides an entirely distinct texture from the previous films. Whereas the previous films had clear distinctions between bad/good, jedi/sith, Empire/Rebellion, etc., TLJ plays with this structuralist divisions. In the case of Finn and Rose, it draws from a traditional framework of Hero/Win and Evil/Lose. Within TLJ, though, such a sharp contrast between black and white no longer works. It reveals that there is also grey, and many other shades. One can be a ‘hero,’ and go on adventure; yet, there is never a promise of success. In fact, you probably won’t succeed.
This is the texture which I see in TLJ. It takes the expectations an illustrates how people aren’t perfect. People don’t always succeed in their missions. Some people make really stupid decisions, such as Poe. In other words, through recognizing the use of inner-Star-Wars exegesis, TLJ seems to comment on the previous films, wherein a clear distinction between good and evil, black and white, was much more apparent. TLJ seems to say, “No. That is not always the case.” In doing so, it avoid common expectations held up for the Star Wars film tradition and other film traditions. This is what gives TLJ such a unique texture. This is also what sets TLJ apart from other Star Wars films, letting it stand on its own feet, with a unique film texture.
Finally, though this is more conjectural, I suspect that the problematizing of the structuralist story telling of I-VI is actually trying to do something within the broader Star Wars galaxy. I think it is trying to get away from the centralization of good/evil, Sith/Jedi, etc., in order to focus more on the grey area between the two. In other words, it will allow the franchise to move beyond black and white and into the infinite grey that is real life.