How The Last Jedi Killed Star Wars And Why That's A Good Thing
i: the founder's abdication
If you mention the eighth Star Wars film The Last Jedi anywhere online, even five years after its release, people will be mad about it. All conversations about Star Wars veer towards it, cannot escape it. Before The Last Jedi (2017), Disney was holding the four-billion-dollar keys to a new arsenal, the Star Wars world, which had previously belonged exclusively to its creator, who loved it but did some weird things with it ten years prior. Disney had the Marvel franchise, a more niche IP that they turned into an unstoppable mainstream culture behemoth to use as a blueprint for how to do the same for Star Wars. To open their control of Star Wars, they released the safe but solid The Force Awakens (2015), which did well and didn’t make anyone too mad. They released Rogue One (2016), a spinoff film that was also safe and it did well. And then The Last Jedi happened.
Since The Last Jedi, Disney Star Wars has floundered. The Last Jedi was subject to relentless hate and vitriol. Immediate followup spinoff film Solo did poorly at the box office due to residual hate for The Last Jedi. The trilogy-ending The Rise of Skywalker was an apology letter for The Last Jedi and an intentional crash landing to get out of having to make these movies anymore. After Rise of Skywalker, Disney fled to streaming and abandoned all movie plans. Star Wars is now again in hiding. They’re still making money, cashing in on the superfans with their TV shows, but it's nowhere near the same cultural dominance that Marvel reached. People do watch more TV now, but the Disney+ Star Wars TV shows are led by the same people who did the original Star Wars cartoons for babies that aired on Cartoon Network, with similar levels of depth.
What went wrong? How did The Last Jedi nosedive one of the most successful media properties of all-time, while in the hands of competent people who wanted nothing more than their four billion dollar investment to pay off? Why can people still not stop talking about it? The goal of this piece is to explain as empathetically as possible what happened, to end the discourse for all time.
This will take a long time. We have to go back to the beginning, to 1977, to understand. The Last Jedi stood at the head of seven other movies and you must understand what The Last Jedi stood upon before you can understand The Last Jedi. We’ll tour what came before, in its order of release, and then we can talk about The Last Jedi.
THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY
Star Wars grew like a tumor. The first film is in my opinion the indisputable artistic best film, because it was the one that started the tumor. Star Wars (1977), later renamed to A New Hope and branded as Episode 4, is a simple story about a boy who wants to leave his hometown and be part of something bigger. Luke Skywalker, derived from the director’s name Lucas, leaves his boring home desert planet, saves the princess, and destroys the evil empire’s space planet-destroying space laser base with one lucky shot.
The characters made this movie loved by a wide audience. Luke was an idealistic and honorable boy who never did wrong, Han was a cynical wise-cracking smuggler who couldn’t help but do the right thing when it mattered, and Leia was a standard 20th century movie strong-spoken female lead. Comic relief side characters like Chewbacca and C-3PO were a nice change of pace, Luke’s mentor Obi-Wan is an intriguing space monk, and the Imperial officer villains are harsh and unlikeable.
While the story and characters were simple and universal, the world drew people into the Star Wars fantasy. This was George Lucas’s movie, his universe. He famously declined to receive much payment for this movie to retain the rights to the world that he was creating. The lived-in alien desert of Luke’s home planet Tatooine contrasts with the dark and clean Imperial Death Star where Princess Leia is held captive to form a fantasy galaxy that felt huge and inviting. Viewers were compelled by the famous Millenium Falcon, Han Solo’s spaceship that he loves like people in the 1970s loved their beat-up cars. The Rebels vs. Empire conflict that this film established was easy to understand and projected something larger. The shot of Luke in front of the double sunset on Tatooine captures the longing for a bigger life while also adding the creative science fiction idea of a planet that orbits two stars.
This first Star Wars is the most sci-fi of all the films, with concepts like moisture farms on Tatooine, and hyperspace, a sci-fi Star Wars technology that allows ships to travel faster than the speed of light invented by this movie. (The technology is called the hyperdrive, the place they travel is called hyperspace, and the speed at which they travel is called lightspeed, but I’m going to call them all hyperspace throughout this piece because there’s too many words.) The Death Star’s countdown to destroy the rebel base on Yavin IV at the end of the film is not a charging laser but the physical motion of the moon around a planet, coming into sight of the Death Star. Other Star Wars reuses this initial film’s sci-fi ideas, but this movie had a lot of innovative sci-fi.
The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, Episode 5, came out in 1980. It resumes the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire. While the first movie was about Luke wanting to leave his hometown, in the sequel, he becomes a knight. Guided by a vision of his mentor Obi-Wan, who was slain in the first film, Luke goes to swamp planet Dagobah to be trained in the arts of the near-forgotten space monk order from the first film, called the Jedi. He is trained by an old and silly man named Yoda. Yoda is also very wise. Yoda uses his silliness and wisdom to teach Luke there is more to being a warrior than simple combat. Luke learns how to use his laser sword gifted to him by Obi-Wan in the first film, called a lightsaber. This blue lightsaber once belonged to his father, like chivalric swords were passed down between generations. Luke also learns to use magic called “the Force”, which he practices by levitating rocks, and eventually pulls his crashed spaceship out of the water. He also learns how to trust himself and his friends.
While Luke trains, his friends in the Rebellion are still struggling against the evil Empire. His two main friends Han and Leia are falling in love despite the war. Through the magic of the Force, Luke senses that they are in trouble, and ends his training early to come to their aid. He arrives late; his friend Han is captured and encased in a sci-fi technology called carbonite. But he still has a cool lightsaber duel with soon-to-be legendary robot suit villain Darth Vader. Luke’s blue lightsaber clashes against Vader’s red one. Vader is so much stronger than him, toying with him in combat. Luke is defeated, gets his hand sliced off and loses his blue lightsaber. Then, Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father, turned to evil, which opens the oedipal themes of Star Wars. Vader wishes to turn Luke “to the dark side”, like he himself was turned to the dark side, which becomes a common theme and phrase in the Star Wars films. This sequel was completely different from the original, famous for its darker tone. When I rewatched it to write this piece I was surprised at how small it felt, how the entire film is a build-up to the climactic confrontation between Luke and Vader.
The final film of the original trilogy, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Episode 6, takes the familial oedipal arc started in The Empire Strikes Back to its conclusion. A few years after the prior film, Luke is now a very powerful Jedi. He returns to his home planet Tatooine to rescue Han, still encased in carbonite. Luke marches into his hometown and defeats its crime lord rulers with his new green lightsaber to save his friends. Luke then returns to train with Yoda, but Yoda tells Luke he is already a Jedi, if he can face Vader. He also reveals that Leia is Luke’s sister, deepening the familial dynamics.
While his friends fight in a physical war against the Empire that they are increasingly capable of winning, Luke takes part in the true important confrontation, a battle in the throne room against Darth Vader and his master Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine wants to seduce Luke to the dark side to replace Vader. Luke and Vader duel for Palpatine’s enjoyment, in a dramatic and characterized fight. Luke wins and refuses to turn to the dark side. Palpatine tortures him by shooting lightning out of his hands with the Force, and has Luke on the verge of death. In that moment, his father Vader in his last breaths returns to good and kills the Emperor, and then Vader too dies. With Vader and Palpatine dead, the Empire instantly falls and the good Rebellion has won. They do blow up a second Death Star, but the literal war had no value. It was purely this confrontation between father and son that resolved the narrative’s struggle of good vs. evil.
Return of the Jedi started to get a little hate, the seeds of what would come later. People said the Ewoks, alien bears who help Leia and Han and crew defeat the Empire on the forest moon Endor were silly and for babies, not the kind of thing that belonged in their serious laser sword film. It was immediately considered not as strong a conclusion as the prior two. But as a whole, the original trilogy was well-loved. It’s hard to believe that these films are the root of a billion dollar media franchise still living nearly 50 years after its inception, because these movies feel so small and so distinctively early 1980s. They’re totally the story of Luke. It’s a fantasy story about leaving home, about wanting to be a knight, about living up to your father, about trusting your friends, about sticking to your principles. The larger world that it projected was what made people so passionate about it.
THE PREQUEL TRILOGY
After Return of the Jedi, there was a fifteen year break without Star Wars films. George Lucas always spoke about his desire to make prequels about the man who became Darth Vader, but he wanted to wait for technology to advance to accomplish his vision. Eventually, it got there, and in 1999 Lucas released the first of three prequels. The original trilogy was George Lucas working alongside more traditional Hollywood writers, but in the prequels, Lucas went it alone. Lucas was left unrestrained to create the world he wanted, the world that the original trilogy only projected. The prequels use modern technology to go to exotic locations, show use of the Force and lightsabers far beyond what the originals offered. They also deepen Luke’s two father figures in the original trilogy, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, by fleshing out the background story the originals allude to. In the prequels, Lucas made the entire story into a prophecy.
The first prequel, The Phantom Menace, Episode 1, is the story of child Anakin Skywalker, the boy who will grow up to become the legendary Darth Vader of the original trilogy and father Luke. But Anakin doesn’t show up until about halfway through the movie. We start with young Obi-Wan, Luke’s mentor from the prequels, and his Jedi Master Qui-Gon, who are members of the Jedi order at its height. They are on a mission to resolve a trade dispute on a beautiful planet named Naboo, space Italy. Naboo is led by a woman named Padme Amidala. The two Jedi are powerful warriors, gifted with the Force and with their lightsabers. They cut through the wimpy robots that the bad guys in the trade dispute send as enforcers as if it’s nothing. The dispute escalates, so they take Padme and flee to a remote desert planet, the same desert planet on which Luke grew up in the original movie, and meet Anakin, Luke’s eventual father.
Anakin has no father, he was born of a virgin mother, like Jesus. He is taken from his home on Tatooine and brought before the Jedi Council. Here we see the Jedi order in their prime, a huge group of reserved and thoughtful powerful warriors. Due to his virgin birth, Qui-Gon believes that Anakin is the prophesied “chosen one”, who will bring balance to the force, a prophecy repeated throughout the prequels. Then they return to Naboo to resolve the trade dispute in a big battle. Qui-Gon dies at the end of the movie, killed in a lightsaber duel by the film’s bad guy with a laser sword Darth Maul. Darth Maul is killed by Obi-Wan in revenge. Obi-Wan will train Anakin, based on the dying words of his master Qui-Gon. This movie is pretty silly and targeted at a younger crowd. The main character is a kid, there’s a lengthy racing scene central to the plot, there’s a silly alien sidekick who steps in poop. So few of the characters from this movie reappear in future movies that it feels separate from the rest of the series.
The second film of the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones, Episode 2, came out in 2002, and is set a decade after The Phantom Menace. Anakin is played by a different actor, now a sulky teenager, in love with Padme from the first film, although love is forbidden to the Jedi. The plot of this movie is even more strange than the first. A mysterious group repeatedly attempts to assassinate Padme. For her safety Anakin takes Padme to her home on Naboo, and they fall in love rolling around in fields and hanging out in Italian villas. Meanwhile Obi-Wan uncovers the mystery of who tried to kill Padme. He follows the clues to a rainy planet, Kamino, where he finds a facility of biologically created human clone soldiers. He’s told that the clones were made for him, for the Jedi Order, despite never asking for them. At the cloning facility, he’s attacked by an armored man who turns out to be the human on which the clones are based. He survives the attack, and follows the man to a different desert planet, Geonosis, where he is kidnapped by the same group with the trade dispute and the robots from the first movie. Anakin and Padme come to his aid, but they’re also kidnapped. All three of them are then rescued by the Jedi Order, leading the clone army Obi-Wan saw earlier.
We get to see lots of Jedi holding lightsabers all at once, blue and green and a few other colors. The Jedi have a huge battle with the robots. A new villain, Count Dooku is introduced in the second half of this movie. Anakin gets his hand sliced off by Dooku in the same way Luke did in the second movie of the original trilogy. George Lucas in the commentary for these movies says of this sort resemblance that “it’s like poetry, it rhymes.” The movie ends with all-out war starting between the Jedi and the trade dispute robots, called “The Clone Wars” because in the very first Star Wars film Obi-Wan mentions that he fought in the clone wars. While the first film got the benefit of the doubt, when this film came out, people started to question the entirety of the prequels. This was so different from the originals, so out there, so deeply entrenched in its own fantasy.
The final film of the prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, Episode 3, came out in 2005. It was the “darkest”, the first Star Wars film to ever earn the PG-13 rating. The galaxy-wide Clone Wars from the last film are still raging, and it’s about that, but more centrally it’s the story of Anakin’s turn to evil. At the start of the movie Anakin decapitates with two lightsabers Count Dooku, the villain from last movie. There’s another new villain, an alien robot hybrid named General Grievous, who Obi-Wan kills in a lightsaber battle by shooting Grievous with a blaster which causes his lungs and eyes to burn with fire. The real villain, who is revealed to be the puppet master of the whole trilogy, is the same villain from the original trilogy: Emperor Palpatine. He seizes political power through the war that he orchestrated from the shadows on both sides, and seduces Anakin to the dark side to aid his plans. Palpatine has the massive Jedi Order slaughtered by their own clone army, which he secretly controls. Anakin slaughters Jedi children to ensure that good is gone forever.
The film’s climax is a duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan, two great friends torn apart by Anakin’s turn to evil. It’s intricately choreographed across a huge lava field on the planet Mustafar. They use the Force, their lightsabers, hand-to-hand combat, everything they have. Their blue lightsabers contrast against the red lava. Obi-Wan wins due to Anakin’s arrogance, and Anakin is brutally fried by lava and thus now needs the suit that turns him into Darth Vader. His love from the second film, Padme, bears his children, Luke and Leia, and dies of heartbreak. Paglia speaks incredibly fondly of the end of the movie in this clip, and I don’t know if I’d go that far, but she’s right about the passion George Lucas has for this conclusion. The Empire takes hold, the remaining Jedi Obi-Wan and Yoda go into hiding, setting up the events of the originals. While the ending is somber, due to its narrative place as the third piece in a six-part story that later ends in Luke’s triumph and Anakin’s redemption, the somberness comes with a sense of oneness. In the end, all will be okay and good will triumph. Revenge of the Sith was better received than the prior prequels, but it didn’t fix the earlier installments and still had a lot of detractors.
The prequels as a whole were heavily criticized. The actor who played young Anakin in the first movie was bullied out of his school, never acted again, did lots of drugs, because people thought he did a bad job acting as future Darth Vader as a preteen. Other actors didn't have quite as bad an experience, but no one’s career was helped by the prequels. The other Anakin actor, Hayden Christiansen, isn’t cast too often.
A rundown of the criticisms of the prequels as I understand them:
They overrelied on CGI. Especially in the second two movies, Lucas heavily used modern computer-generated technology to create alien worlds and characters. Many of the characters such as Yoda and General Grievous and the clones and the trade federation robots are entirely computer generated. Many of the planets are computer-generated so the human actors filmed scenes in empty blue-screened rooms. The computer-generated worlds and hordes of computer-generated characters were ambitious and unique, but they also often left the real actors little to work with. The result is that scenes often felt empty.
The dialog is bad. Compared to the beloved characters of the originals, the prequels have space monks who intentionally reject the concept of love. Some of this is the story George Lucas wanted to tell, but it’s also by choice. Yoda is silly in the originals, and he’s not silly in the prequels. The resulting dialog is often stilted and inhuman, which synergized poorly with the inhuman sets.
There’s too many characters. There’s a ton of Jedi, a ton of villains, and many minor characters. This makes the world rich for spin-off stories and rich for a child’s imagination, but for a normal viewer who just watches it once it’s overwhelming and weird. Why should I care if Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi who barely has a personality decapitates a weird armored guy that I can’t remember the name of?
The pacing and story structure was off. The story seems backfitted to give the moments George Lucas wanted to have, more than a narrative than makes literal sense.
It has weird political metaphors. The political scenes where Palpatine takes power are much less black-and-white than the simple Empire vs. Rebels of the originals. George Lucas is clearly attempting to say something about politics, since evil Anakin turning into Darth Vader quotes sitting president George W. Bush, but the specific political message is not very clear.
The movies over-relied on laser sword duels. While the original trilogy had three lightsaber fights, once per film, that each made sense as symbolic confrontations between characters, in the prequels there’s a lot of laser sword fighting for the sake of it, and the combat is flashy in a way that can seem silly if you take it literally. One element that was sometimes criticized was giving laser swords to Yoda and Palpatine. In the original trilogy Yoda stresses to Luke is beyond being a great warrior, and Palpatine speaks mockingly of Luke’s lightsaber as if it’s a toy. But in the prequels, Yoda is a great warrior with a green lightsaber, and Palpatine busts out a red lightsaber to kill some Jedi. While some people criticized this, there were also people who loved the lightsaber fights in the prequels. The prequels’ combat was stylized, like dances compared to the slow medieval combat in the originals. The prequel duels leaned into how much fans love to twirl around and swing lightsabers at each other.
Many elements of the prequels are like that, where what is criticized can also be seen as something for a different audience. The prequels have totally different goals than the original trilogy, which was a more accessible trilogy of films. George Lucas dove into the world of Star Wars and created something strangely austere, that allowed kids to imagine themselves as dignified Jedi, and reimagined the simple story of the original trilogy as the second half a prophetic central conflict between darkness and light. It’s the highest budget outsider art ever made, and it undoubtedly has problems as a result, but it has something special too.
Like Disney would later do, Lucasfilm retreated to television because of the hate the new Star Wars received. They made a show called The Clone Wars about Obi-Wan and Anakin and other Jedi’s adventures between Episode 2 and 3. It was targeted at kids and aired on Cartoon Network, leaning more into the Jedi fantasy world of the prequels. Lucas gradually remastered the original trilogy, with edits in 1997, 2004, and 2011, adding in the modern computer-generated graphics from the prequel trilogy. Those too were mocked because the CGI wasn’t always put in tastefully and fans so beloved the originals. Disillusioned with the hate he received, Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney in 2012. He was done with his fantasy franchise, but the world wasn’t, so he sold it to the one company big enough to afford it.
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