28 Dec 2017

Narrative Economy in "The Last Jedi"

This post is not a review of the latest Star Wars movie. I may (or may not) do this in a future post, but for now, I will just point out that I liked it enough to want to watch it a second time. In this post, I just want to discuss one point about this film that, in my humble opinion, shows us what a good director Rian Johnson is. 

Supreme Leader Snoke

Now, there has been a lot of angst in geekdom over the early death of Supreme Leader Snoke, just over halfway through the second film of the intended trilogy. Too soon, scream the fanbois. Why introduce the character at all, if he is only to be extinguished without any backstory? 

The simple answer, of course, is that he simply does not fit into the story that Mr. Johnson was wanting to tell. But there is a deeper, more important point to his somewhat premature death than just wanting to make Kylo Ren the central villain of the trilogy, and this is a theme that is constantly returned to throughout the film.

This theme, of course, is that it is not just the great and the good who matter. History is made, not only by the emperors and the knights, but also by the little people. As Luke Skywalker, the man who is a legend in his own time, says to his prospective apprentice, it would be vanity to imagine that the Force belongs to the Jedi, or that for hope to be reborn, it is necessary for the Jedi Order to be re-established. “You don’t need me,” he growls, and he is right. As long as there are nobodies like Rey and the little stable boy on Canto Bight who looks to the stars at the end of the film to carry on the fight, there is no need for the Skywalkers and the Solos, because heroism and courage are not the exclusive property of a chosen few but belong to all of us.

So why kill Snoke?

Because his early death was the most efficient (and dramatically satisfying) way of making this point to the audience. 

There was a significant amount of discomfort in geekdom when The Force Awakens first came out, and it became apparent that the old Empire had never really gone away. What nonsense! screamed the pimple-scarred. We all know that our heroes killed the Emperor and destroyed the Empire, so why do we have a carbon-copy of it sailing around in the same Star Destroyers and flying the same TIE fighters? Is this the best that JJ Abrams could do, just recycle the past in a different package? Or rather, the same package, but just with slightly different lettering?

And the answer to that, of course, is that the Empire was never destroyed. All that we saw in Return of the Jedi was that the Emperor was killed, along with his right-hand man. We simply assumed that the Empire must have been destroyed because we were trapped in the ‘chosen few’ paradigm presented by the original trilogy. Destroy Palpatine and Vader, and balance will be restored to the galaxy, and everyone will live happily ever after.

This is the central complaint that many fanbois have about both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. That no such thing ever happened. Han and Leia did not get married and live happily ever after like a stereotypical fairy-tale couple. Luke did not mature into a wise and powerful Jedi master. And the Empire was never destroyed.

Unlike Sauron and his Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings, it did not just vanish into thin air because the central character of its trilogy had accomplished his quest. It simply picked up the pieces, regrouped its forces, and reinvented itself. As the Roman Republic did after the assassination of Julius Caesar, when it reinvented itself as the Principate. And as the Principate did later on, when it reinvented itself as the Dominate after the Crisis of the Third Century. In other words, our Empire (the Star Wars one) simply did what any empire worth its salt would have done.

This is where Mr. Johnson’s brilliance as a director shines through. He does not (as a lesser director might) use the clumsy device of a narrator to explain this to his audience. He does not tell us anything. He shows us. The demise of Snoke does not mean that the polity that he rules must end with him. Assuming that it would is where we were going wrong, until Mr. Johnson shows us otherwise. Just as we were wrong to assume that the Empire was destroyed because Palpatine was killed in Return of the Jedi, we were also wrong to imagine that if Luke Skywalker were to return to the fray and defeat Snoke, the First Order would also be destroyed.

No one man (or woman) can achieve this alone. No one being, whether human or alien, has the capacity to overcome evil by his or her (or its) efforts alone. 

When Snoke dies, his place is simply taken by his apprentice. Mr. Johnson takes great care not to make this happen immediately or automatically, so as not to give his audience the idea that this is simply a case of the chosen apprentice taking his rightful place at the helm. Instead, we are treated to that brief delicious moment of watching General Hux toy with the idea of seizing power for himself, only to back down when Kylo Ren begins to wake up. And we understand, almost immediately, and without having to be told. We understand what probably happened all over the galaxy when Palpatine and Vader were killed at the end of Return of the Jedi, and why the Empire was not destroyed but simply reinvented itself. But more importantly, we also understand why it is that Luke does not want to return to the fray.

Because in his wisdom, born perhaps of years of study and reflection, but almost certainly also from the pain of having to live with the knowledge of his own ultimate failure, he understands that the story of this struggle is not about him. Nor can it be about any one other chosen person, which is why he chooses to reject Rey. 

In contrast to the story of the original Star Wars trilogy, the story of this struggle is not about a Chosen One, or a chosen Few. This story, the story that Mr. Johnson has chosen to tell, and which I hope will continue to be told in Episode IX, is about the little people, the small folk. It is about the Biggses and the Porkinses, who get blown away after thirty-five seconds of screen time and two lines of dialogue. It is about the Rose Ticos who are in awe of the ‘heroes’ of the Resistance, and the Nien Nunbs whose utterings are incomprehensible to the audience. It is about the stable boys and stable girls of Canto Bight. And it has to be, because if it is not, then the First Order, like the Empire before it, will survive in another form. 

This then, is why Snoke has to die so early. Because the audience must be told, one way or the other, that this is not just a rehash of the original trilogy but a very different story. The brilliance and talent of Rian Johnson is that he tell us all this in the most effective way possible, which is not by actually saying it to us (either by the use of a narrator within the film, or in an interview without) but by showing it to us as part of the dramatic action of the film itself.

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