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A Slightly Queer Take on "The Last Jedi"

This was originally published in Nathaniel's intermittent column at Towleroad.

There’s a bit of a macro and micro thing happening at the movies. I’m not talking about Disney’s new merchandising bonanza pairing those miniature “porgs” (think CGI puffins) with towering furry Chewbacca. No we speak of the wide release and limited release divide. Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been filling houses at over 4000 theaters and is obliterating the competition (already number #3 of the year in just 10 days) while a bunch of Oscar contenders are playing, not so quietly, in limited release gigs in their pursuit of golden statues. We’ll talk about more of those again soon but first [cue yellow text crawl over space] Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

We now return to The Resistance (aka the proudly defiant “Rebel Scum”) who are even easier to relate to know in December 2017 when it feels like the world will be ending any day with each new disastrous move from our own evil empire. (Sigh) If they can just harness the light side of the force, break through that one gerrymandered code, save that one cornered group of people, fetch Luke Skywalker, they might live to see another day...

The Star Wars franchise, born 40 years ago this past summer, has such an intergenerational hold on pop culture that people are now, literally, born into it. No wonder people feel they’re an actual part of that galaxy far far away which surely explains some of the calls for representation within it. The powers that be behind the billion dollar franchise have heard the pleas for diversity and we now have the first woman of color to get a prominent role (Kelly Marie Tran as Rose). But this galaxy will never be as diverse as the real world. 

Take for instance the recent petition to include LGBT people in that universe. That plea has garnered a lot of traction and interest despite the fact that Star Wars is a largely sexless franchise where love, romance, and companionship (beyond the ‘in the trenches’ soldier kind), are virtually the last thing on anyone’s mind. They’re all just trying to stay alive while escaping / fighting the fascist Empire (now rebranded as “The First Order”). We can safely blame Oscar Isaac’s lip bite while talking to John Boyega’s Finn for opening this queer pandora’s box.

But, lip-biting aside, Star Wars has never been about orientation, unless you’re talking about the light and dark sides of the Force.

Luke Skywalker has been alone on an island for decades and he only brought 8 books to read?

Even its single most iconic romantic moment (“I love you” / “I know”) is, if you stop to think about it, purposefully sparse and reflective (not to mention 37 years old) and thus yet another cavernous empty space for everyone to project their own everything into… just like, well, The Force itself. Which is to say that you can project queerness on to virtually any character you like. Have at it! Most of us have already done that with Poe Dameron. (We can all also agree that Mon Monthma is a lesbian, yes?)

The Last Jedi‘s writer/director Rian Johnson, thankful understands all this about identifying and projecting and the broad brush strokes of mythology. He moves us quickly beyond the superbly well-executed but ultimately easy nostalgia of The Force Awakens and into something more present and dangerous and diverse yet still totally amorphous (all the better for you to project on to, my dear).

He doesn’t try to explain The Force away like those awful prequels and their midichlorians but just makes it everything and nothing and quite mystical again complete with new tricks you probably won’t see coming (no spoilers). The focus this time is smartly on the new characters. There’s even dialogue about the need to move on from the past though screen siblings Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher’s Luke & Leia both bring the gravitas that gives that theme its resonance and texture; You can’t move on without leaving beloved things behind.

The film is correctly dedicated to our Princess, Carrie Fisher (RIP)

Despite the forward motion into Episodes we don’t know the outcome of (which was the chief narrative disaster of Rogue One and all of the prequel films), Johnson finds clever ways to keep things spare despite all the decorative setpieces. We’re not actually given many more details than we already had on our new charismatic heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe, and Finn and the boo-hiss villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Whenever a new Star Wars picture rolls around people lose their minds and overreact in both directions (no, it’s not the greatest movie of all time, calm down. No, it’s not ruining your childhood, calm down). I’m happy to report that this is, overall, a good one. Much of the film is delightful with characters juggled around and randomly pairing and colliding with all the zippy fun of playing with your own action figures as a child. The Last Jedi  lifts off into movie bliss a couple of times (albeit fleetingly), usually during the action sequences.

Kylo/Rey’s lightsaber fight is quite good and there’s a visually sensational climax on a salty planet that has the most potent single use of color in an action film since that parachuting sequence in Godzilla (though it’s still not a patch on Mad Max Fury Road‘s understanding of color for an entire running time) . But The Last Jedi is far from perfect. Let us never speak of a certain desperate visit to a Casino planet again. The film’s running time is 152 minutes and it would be a regular length movie without that visually messy plot-stalling detour.

As for the gays feeling represented… while there are still no (out) gay characters, all is not lost. I originally remembered the film wrong and thought we get a shot of Poe looking ambiguously at Finn with a female character but it was actually Rey looking at them I discovered the second time through. The queer community has had to project themselves into non queer films for a century-plus so perhaps that's not surprising. Besides, if watching queen Laura Dern’s purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo pull a swift impactful move in battle doesn’t recharge your inner rainbow, nothing in this particular galaxy ever will.


Grade: B
Previous Take: Lynn Lee found the latest episode a mixed bag but a charming one
Oscar Chances: The usual for Star Wars which means Visual Effects + Sound categories... though I doubt in this particular case that we'll see it in other slightly less-traditional Star Wars categories as we did to a small degree with The Force Awakens  which was also nominated in Editing and Score. Why not the latter? Well, it's possible but John Williams has another option for his fiercely loyal fanbase with The Post .

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Reader Comments (7)

Seeing Carrie Fisher and Laura Dern's fond, lovely interaction on screen, I just leaned over to my friend and said, "Leia's become a late-in-life lesbian."

December 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

Laura Dern on the AV Club was shipping Poe and Finn. How can we not root for that?

December 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Dern looks more like an extra in "Sex and the City in Outer Space" than a character in "Star Wars"

December 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

I really don't understand the complaints about the casino planet. Not only is it among the film's most visually lush environments (with wonderfully weird creatures galore), it is absolutely integral to establishing the socioeconomic inequality that exists in this universe, which gives much needed ballast to the Resistance's political cause.

December 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan, I think it's because the payoff doesn't come until the next movie (as strongly hinted by the last scene of the film).

December 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMcFrank

But then why complain? It's obviously important and even more so as an apparently essential part of the next (final) chapter.

December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

you call it visually lush, i got prequel horror flashbacks. and a good political message doesn't need an awful subplot as a vehicle.

December 28, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

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