The Placeless Jedi
George Lee / January 28, 2018
The Last Jedi never developed rich places for us to engage with and this was a major factor in its the lack of character development. Without the screen time, editing, and writing to build places we can relate to, science fiction and fantasy epics fail to achieve greatness. A New Hope on the other hand, achieved place mastery. As a professional place nerd, let me compare 2017's The Last Jedi to 1977's A New Hope in terms of scales of place.
When we meet someone, a primary way we understand them is by locating where they originated from, and what places they inhabit or have inhabited. This is a gravity in human relationship building. As we meet the characters on screen, we cannot ask them questions, but good cinema will answer for us. The greatest place development, and corresponding character building, occurs when A New Hope, “lands,” on the desert planet Tatooine. At the beginning of A New Hope there's a space battle where they introduce Tatooine, an orange desert planet with moons, at a large planetary geologic scale. One could argue they are also creating a connection to space as a place, e.g. starships interiors and exteriors, but it is only a seed.
When characters develop simultaneously with place development, it is character-place development. Ironically, this starts with droids arguing in a desert. Leave it to Star Wars. R2D2 and C-3PO split up right away and this enables us to see the planet through both their eyes. Stormtroopers walk in red sand, the drones appear to be parched as they travel among a rich landscape of canyons slowly. Night falls, and they both get nabbed by Jawas and put in the freaky robot room within the Jawas’ tank city. That robot room is a mess, reminiscent of a household garage, and adds to our relationship with the Jawas, a wiley crew of desert gnome tinker traders. The imperfection is crucial, because deep down, we all know our garages can get messy. The droid exploration, and kidnapping by the Jawas introduces us to a local population, continuing our cinematic field anthropological research at a wilderness or nomadic scale. Layers of the planet sink in, and instead of giving answers, we only multiply our questions about Tatooine and the characters. Literally, when we lose cinematic sight of the droids, it is in the rumbling Jawa tank city, moving somewhere unknown across the planet surface. Our questions and relationships with these new characters moving along with it.
Next, we meet Luke and his uncle and aunt who work on the desert planet as middle class water farmers. They live in small, partially buried earth dwellings that would make sense on a desert planet, and they do tedious work to mine “moisture” with machinery that breaks. This is an everyday life viewers can relate to, reminiscent of farming. Contrast this with the scenes on the Death Star to feel how human and familiar these early scenes feel. They buy the droids, give them a refreshing oil bath, further reinforcing the dryness of the planet. There is the kitchen scene (which is replicated in Rogue One), where normal beverages are prepared by Luke's stepmom in what look like futuristic tupperware. We see the characters interact in the kitchen, even Luke’s uncle and aunt gossipping about Luke’s adolescence. Luke expresses his frustration with farm life, questing for space, “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” and his stepdad Owen responding, “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done.” The kitchen, arguably the most central place in the home, is where we really first see the tension in Luke’s storyline. These scenes at the homestead develop a regional scale, a domestic scale, and an individual scale for Tatooine, now locking in on Luke’s life within Tatooine as a place.
Character-Place development continues, quickly cashing in its earned chips. There are the sand people and their beasts, and the references to their anthropology by Obi One. We see Luke in the speeder that feels like a rusty red corvette a high schooler might fix up. But then, the movie starts cashing in hard. The stormtroopers incinerate Luke’s home and his family. The score song by John Williams, Binary Sunset, blares while Luke stares at a binary sunset with wind blowing in his hair, face closeup, as he processes the obliteration of his connection to his family, his home and Tatooine on all scales. Cinema is at its finest, building up the place and its characters just so it can be burned to the ground.
A New Hope actually spends about 50% of the entire movie on Tatooine with few cutaways. It introduces the planet immediately, at minute 9 the droids land and begin exploring the world, and the valiant crew jumps away for good to Alderon at minute 57. It’s good they leave, it is Star Wars afterall. But A New Hope immediately took focus, and maintained it on Tatooine and the characters that are there for specific, complex reasons. As a result, the strongest character development in the movie occurs with characters that spend the most time on screen within the most developed place, Tatooine, I.e. Luke, Han, Obi One, R2D2 and C-3PO. Darth Vader and Princess Leia are really symbols of good and evil in this movie, only beginning their character development.
Tatooine is cashed in on later in the movie from afar. Luke's final climactic torpedo run, symbolizing his mastery and belief in the force, he compares to shooting wombats in Beggar's Canyon back home on Tatooine. Han’s mercenary personality, a joy only to develop further in the films, begins in the drawn out, incredibly rich bar scene on Tatooine in Mos Eisley Spacestation, or as Obi One says in a succinct line, "Mos Eisley spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." But most importantly, we have a deep, indescribably emotional connection to these characters during the action in the second half. And this makes the action sequences achieve true intensity, transcending mere action, because we have tangible relationships built to these characters grown in the richness of Tatooine.
In comparison, The Last Jedi never fully committed to a place, and it paid the price in character development. In addition to providing rich character soil, Tatooine grounded A New Hope, forcing a relative focusing in on characters and places. The Last Jedi whipped back and forth throughout the Universe, never holding focus anywhere long enough to develop place connection, or its associated character development. Every scene appeared rushed, keeping us on our toes to the point of never feeling the soil beneath our feet.
It begins with the rebels leaving a place, D'Qar, we never got to know. Then it gets blown up. There's a fairly good space battle. Then we switch to Luke's island, Ahch-To. There are inklings right away we might get to sink into place here: Dry-laid stone huts, a rusty metal scrap door, breezy winds, ocean, and low grasses. All these elements appear to make place-sense, similar to conditions on Earth. But as soon as hopes are raised, there is the Luke shows off his island montage. Oh man, that was bad. Luke is a Jedi, a wise person in touch with the interconnection of the Universe. It would be interesting to see how such a person lives in hermitage off the grid. The milk from the alien walrus made sense, dairy is an effective food source on such a remote island. The use of the pole to cross a chasm made sense as well for an agile Jedi. But then the use of the pole to spear a monster fish that would take Luke months to eat was cartoonish. It killed the sense of place. You don’t spearfish for one person with a 70', likely 500 lb wooden pole. The chicken aliens were cool, but did not get enough screen time to be more than cartoons. Then add on the random, totally undeveloped lizard maids wearing bonnets to the toon list. The Jedi tree, and the evil seaweed hole helped, bringing some sense of place to Ahch-To, but it was too little too late. It all felt flat, not exploring the multiple rich scales at Tatooine, or even Hoth.
And this would be ok, but Ahch-To was the primary place in The Last Jedi. And they didn’t get it right, thus losing the richness of place layers we saw in planetary, geologic, wilderness, nomadic, regional, domestic and individual scales in the The Last Hope on Tatooine. Luke didn’t like the island, he wanted to burn down the tree, his domestic connection to the island felt like a cartoon from the montage, and there was no regional sense to the planet. Thus, when Rey and Luke have important scenes: Training, talking about the end of the Jedi religion, and Rey facing her darkness, the place is more a painted background than a living context the viewer can project on and connect to.
No other place in The Last Jedi rose above this painted background status. The Casino planet Cantonica was a rushed, cartoon planet of poorly edited sequences that felt like a carnival ride. Instead of showing us the ultra-rich enslavement planet, the movie told us in forced, emotional music filled drawn out dialogue as Rose and Finn zoom in from space. Wealth inequity has major potential to draw connection to viewers today, and they squandered it with rushed edits, constant cutaways, crappy CGI, and desperate attempts to build place quickly with magical horses and cute poor children getting whipped by monsters.
The final scene in Crait, the salt mine planet, tried its best, but never had the oxygen it needed to burn before the action sequences set in: A soldier noticing the salt on the ground, the red clay sand getting puffed up by the speeder anchors, the old base computers, and the ice animals. But it was all action, and Crait’s history was pretty shallow and absent. Also, the battle and Crait seemed remarkably similar to Hoth: Buried base, white landscape, soldiers in trenches, a superior empire force incoming. Crait needed the room to breath, even the quick breath, Hoth was given. Hoth was introduced slowly, with Luke and Han on everyday patrols, freezing their asses off riding local beasts of burden. Their clothing matched the landscape, and time passed in the movie for the cold winds and landscape to soak in and connect to our own memories. Luke gets mauled by a space polar bear and dragged into its ice cave full of bones. Han is worried, but night is falling and the temperature is falling, an amazingly normal problem. Han takes a risk and goes out into a cold night, “Braving the weather.” He finds Luke and they survive by sleeping inside a warm dead animal. It's smelly and gross, but that's life, and that's how anyone would survive on a cold hell hole. No fancy gadgets. The minutes pass, the relationship builds with Hoth and our characters within it, and by the time the Empire's forces arrive we feel we are defending a place with the Rebels that we care about.
The Last Jedi, without letting its places breath, suffocated. It reverted to keeping us on our toes constantly with cutaways across the universe, cool action sequences, and homages to the old movie characters. Perhaps to show its desperation for drama and intensity, there are multiple attempted or successful suicides throughout the movie. Without the rich soil of place, characters were anemic.
In closing, A New Hope is a true gem of character-place development in cinema while The Last Jedi is a troubling failure. Simultaneously developing characters in the context of multiple rich scales of place, A New Hope was better able to achieve true cinematic excellence.